Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Because Throwing Stones Is What We Do Best!

They'll stone you when you try to be so good. 

The old “MFA Programs = Bad” saw that keeps lulling so many with its siren wail continues to party away. This, from Joan Houlihan, sums up two of the most common complaints against MFA programs in general (yes, it’s from 2005, but I’m just now reading it):

“Like a Jules Verne novel, Dana Gioia’s famous essay ‘Can Poetry Matter’ got the future’s big picture right, but the particulars wrong. In 1991, when the essay was first published, Gioia thought that the newly burgeoning MFA programs were problematic because they prevented the poet from being the necessary outsider and because they encouraged the proliferation of poet-as-careerist in an academic setting, thus stifling the life experience necessary to refresh the art. As it turns out, the bigger problem is that in many programs the writing education itself is without standards of excellence or a basis in craft. How can you effectively evaluate writing without any standards? Furthermore, as the promise of so-called ‘language’ and ‘post-avant’ writing degenerates from a fresh approach into a redundant and prerequisite MFA house style, the evaluation of student work is dispensed with altogether. How can you evaluate what you can’t understand?”


I was thinking of the Gioia point, I’ll call it the Theory of No Experience, while I was reading an interview with Donald Hall, himself a famous MFA program critic. Specifically, what I was interested in was his thinking back in time to how he got his big break in The Paris Review, etc. While he was at Oxford, he “edited Oxford Poetry, worked on the Isis and as editor of New Poems, and then, on top of that, [he] became poetry editor for the Paris Review.” He became poetry editor of the Paris Review, because, while he was at “Harvard [he] had known George Plimpton a little…. So George over at Cambridge heard about [Hall] winning the Newdigate [a poetry prize at Oxford]. He [George P] came over to play tennis for his college against [Hall’s] college. He got hold of [Hall] and [they] went out for supper together after the tennis match.” And voila, it was done.

I don’t mean this as a slam against the upper-crust good old boy network of the 1950s (well, who knows, maybe I do), but rather, a nod to the way people are always thinking that before 1990 or so, poets somehow LIVED and that poets these days somehow DON’T. Hall and Plimpton, and many others, including many poets I like very much, started in college and went right from that to fullbrights and other non-yurt-carrying things that, for the most part, seem to me to be the very sorts of things they now complain about in the new generation. That was considered fine as LIVING then, as was whatever it was T.S. Eliot was doing a generation earlier, as he scuttled about finishing his PhD and then working in a bank (until he got “saved” from it and placed in Faber & Faber). All I mean by this is to say, I guess, that all living is living, and the way these poets lived in the 1950s (20s) doesn’t feel to me any more (or less) authentic than the way I see poets live these days.

They got a message from the action man.

But then there’s critique number two, the Theory of No Standards, that Houlihan offers. She’s serious enough about this as to blame it for pretty much all of what’s keeping poetry from being popular:

“In a time when there are no critical standards, only proliferation of more poems, each new poem can only matter less. Over a decade after his spookily predictive essay, ‘Can Poetry Matter?’ Dana Gioia’s question has a troubling answer: it can, but more and more, it doesn’t.”

And that is the difficulty I’m having with what she’s saying. Problem one: say for instance that she’s right. Is she right 100%? Is it true that every single MFA program in America has no standards? Every teacher is a bad teacher? Certainly she doesn’t mean herself, as she is part of a manuscript preparation conference. So obviously, she has standards. So if she has standards in her teaching and evaluation of manuscripts, doesn’t that kind of ruin her argument?

Here’s what she says we have instead:

“It is a well-known phenomenon that the creator of a work is not an objective evaluator of it. Every capable writer and poet knows that they need critical feedback on their work in order to improve it—even T. S.Eliot had Pound. But instead of such feedback, students report a lack of criticism, of having a ‘group hug’ type of atmosphere or an overly subjective, mystical or impressionistic response to a poem.”

When I was at Ohio University, scuttling around, working on my PhD, one thing I most assuredly didn’t get from students or teachers, was a “group hug.” Us students, for the most part, were close readers. We were more than a little competitive. While there, I studied most closely with Wayne Dodd, who was very encouraging, but also could be quite formidable. But I also studied under Mark Halliday (who really disliked everything I wrote and was very clear about how they violated his standards), Sharon Bryan, Mary Ruefle, among others. And prior to that, in Texas, I studied mostly with Miles Wilson and Kathleen Peirce, who were both close, exacting readers and teachers.

So, my research on this topic shows that 100% of my association with creative writing programs directly contradict both The Theory of No Experience (as I was broke both places and had to take odd jobs to make ends meet, thereby getting a LOT of life experiences) and The Theory of No Standards arguments. How about you? Do you find MFA programs to be “Group Hugs” without standards, or are they muddy Woo Woo places, or are they High Standards (in the Houlihan sense) places? Or are they all sorts of things? My guess is that they are all sorts of things. Therefore, if they are all sorts of things, they can not, as is argued, be the reason Dana Gioia’s interested readers aren’t reading poetry.

Hush-a-bye, don't you cry,
Go to sleepy little baby.
When you wake, you shall have
All the pretty little horses.

Last week I was part of a reading in Santa Fe. Cormac McCarthy walked in, took a look at what was going on, and scurried back out to the range. On the other hand, a man wandered in who has a son in California who has taken some creative writing courses, so he was interested in what was going on. He stayed, and he even bought a book. This supports my counter thesis to Houlihan and Gioia. What is keeping poetry from being read is simply marketing.

PS. You have to love Houlihan tossing in the bit about “the promise of so-called ‘language’ and ‘post-avant’ writing” that she sees degenerating into a “redundant and prerequisite MFA house style.” And look how I didn’t take the bait! See how “water off the duck’s back” I’m becoming? Hakuna matata, y’all.


At 5/10/2011 11:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My reaction to that Donald Hall interview you mention can be summed up by one of the questions the interviewer asked:

"What were the Paris Review parties like?"

Because, you know, our poems are just dying to know.

At 5/10/2011 12:25 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I don't have an MFA, so maybe I'm full of shit, but I don't understand these indictments of creative writing programs. Or maybe I do. These people want poetry to be exciting and read and are looking for a reason why it isn't.

At 5/10/2011 12:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joan H teaches in the writing program at Emerson College--ha har ha har ha. Ha. Where I study. Ugh.

At 5/10/2011 12:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course, one of Houlihan's responses to this "crisis" was to go teach in an MFA program. I'm sure she's busy reforming the institution from within.


At 5/10/2011 12:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"As it turns out, the bigger problem is that in many programs the writing education itself is without standards of excellence or a basis in craft. How can you effectively evaluate writing without any standards? "

Wow. Standards? Thank-you Chairman Joan. And of course, as cowardly as ever--"many" schools. Joan is an able careerist--don't offend someone who might invite you to their school to criticize other schools. You know what's really weird about Houlihan?--her own poetry doesn't suck. It's actually strange and charming. I think Rebecca Wolff mentioned this, once, after being attacked by Houlihan--you don't read her work and think--yeah, conservative attack-dog. A self-hating post-modernist. She teaches at Emerson? Wow--that school has changed. Wasn't that Bill Knott and a lot of cool customers? What happened?--Ted

At 5/10/2011 1:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've read some of her poetry and it's not terrible, but then I read The Us. Worst. Book. Ever. Written.

At 5/10/2011 1:43 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Fuzz, that’s a humane way to look at it. The problem, as I see it, is that from Gioia to the present (and before, as well: this has been going on a LONG TIME), people have used the situation, a threat-economy, to advance their personal agendas.

If we look at the real issue, the way forward would be too large. It’s easier to cleanse our small room of people we don’t care for, than to begin a campaign for cultural change. Such a project would take all of us.

So, as an example, Houlihan blames MFA programs, which is convenient, when what we need to do is to persuade Education Programs (and, therefore English Lit programs where Ed majors study their content area) to change their curriculum and testing agencies and congress to change their arbitrary and reductive ideas of “standards.” That’s the standards argument to have.

It’s a category problem (or, if you will, a genre problem), not an aesthetic problem.

At 5/10/2011 3:53 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...


Houlihan = hammer

MFA programs = nail

On the head!

But don't take it from me,
take it from you.
Just read the poetry
and see if it's true.

At 5/10/2011 3:57 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Joan Houlihan commented on facebook to this post:

"My guess is that they are all sorts of things." I agree, John. My research then was based on hearsay and the small informal survey I did that goes with that essay

At 5/10/2011 4:09 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

From Facebook:

"Well, I don't think any "things" help, but it's always nice to have as much accurate information as possible before starting an opinion thread, yes? Here's what I posted about Harriet suddenly posting link to this old article as news:"

-Joan Houlihan

At 5/10/2011 4:10 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

From Facebook:

"The Harriet blog has posted a link to my 2004 article on the MFA industry ("news that stays news" apparently). Since 2004 the ground has been very well-covered by Seth Abramson and others. The consensus, which I agree with: an MFA is not meaningless but not necessary for one's poetic development." That about says it from my POV. Not meaningless, and not necessary. As for "helping things"--if those things include a glut on the market of terrible poetry, welll...some things are beyond help, right? ;-)"

-Joan Houlihan

At 5/10/2011 4:11 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

From Facebook:

"Correction: I don't think any "things" need help. Sorry--comment box plus Enter=too fast a conclusion."

-Joan Houlihan

At 5/10/2011 4:16 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Joan Houlihan wasn't aware of the conversation here on the blog, so her comments about "things" will seem out of context. What happened is that when she first wrote a comment I told her I was going to post it here and that posting it here might help things. I think she misunderstood what I meant by "things."

At 5/10/2011 4:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, there is a general thingification going on?

Has someone informed Kent Johnson? Kent, are you there?


At 5/11/2011 3:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

An MFA is not necessary... she says--does she say that to her MFA students at Lesley and Columbia?
I hope so. Apparently, what is necessary is paying Joan big bucks to critique manuscript:


Yeah, she's a real hammer. A true disbeliever. I guess her opinion changed about the time she got a gig.

She & Gioia & Hall & Wright and all the other MFA deniers have made so much cash off MFA programs-teaching, readings, text-books-it's hilarious. They're the birthers of poetry. --Gian

At 5/12/2011 4:33 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

An MFA program can be a profoundly altering experience, a farcical waste of time, a mad tea party--lots of things. It depends on the people in it. Most of my workshopmates were ignorant of poetry, and some of them were about as huggable as porcupines. One of my teachers thought that his job was a sinecure for preppie poets, and that we were too stupid to perceive his cutting ironies. It was a good experience in some ways, but it could have been a lot better. How about Robert Lowell's workshops with Anne Sexton, George Starbuck, and Sylvia Plath? I'd love to sit in on those. And I've always been curious about James Tate's association with Donald Justice. I bet it'd be great to go back and join that workshop.

At 5/12/2011 5:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My favorite experience at Naropa was sitting in the Writing and Poetics office with Maureen Owen and Reed Bye singing William Blake songs.

-Fuzz Against Junk

At 5/12/2011 8:58 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

John, you cheerleader!

I guess my first question would be for someone to point me toward an account of the standards for poetry, and how they happened to fall into neglect.

At 5/12/2011 10:43 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

They don't call me Johnny Rah Rah for nothing, you know.

I shudder to think of what they would point you toward. It would not be pretty.

At 5/12/2011 11:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I shudder to think of what they would point you toward. It would not be pretty.

It's the can(n)on, duh. Aimed at your heart.

Bring it on, I say.


At 5/12/2011 11:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pretty can(n)on. Oh pretty pretty can(n)on.

At 5/12/2011 11:53 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Which can(n)on is this though? Seriously, isn't Gertrude Stein in the can(n)on? Boom-boom and all that brings?

I'm back with Jordan. What possible list of standards could one come up with from Yeats + Stein, say? And, well, isn't Ashbery by now in that can(n)on too? So then what's the question again?

At 5/12/2011 12:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So then what's the question again?

That's the question, exactly. It's only your soul in the balance.


At 5/12/2011 12:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cool. So long as it's nothing serious.


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