My brother was here this weekend- it was my birthday- and we went to the Graduate Center Bar to have a few drinks and meet some of my classmates. As the evening wore on, I realized my brother was in fact having the better conversation with my friend Kate Schapira: “What’s the point in writing poetry? I mean, what good can it do?” I had been thinking about this issue for a while and so I listened intently.
My brother is a money man. He has been working in banks since he was in college and has been working at credit unions attempting to figure out strategies for their growth, etc. He is not without his creative outlets, however: he’s been writing music (mostly lyrics) since he was a teenager and he has written poems all of his adult life and before. So while I was a little shocked to hear his question, I suppose that was foolish: he is a full-throated Capitalist. If there is no profit to be made, what is the point of anything? Of course my brother would ask this question.
But that, in fact, was not his point. He was not worried about money or jobs, etc. at all. Ultimately, my brother told me, he believes that poetry ought to do something to add to social consciousness. Not necessarily social justice or activism, per se, but just that it can be something that makes some kind of difference in the world at large, versus the rather insulated poetry community.
It is hard to disagree with him: right now, poets are generally read only by other poets, a built-in marketplace where work is also written for that audience. I admit for myself that this is the case and that I am hopefully aware that my target audience is also the group of people whose work I read. As this is the case, are we enclosing ourselves from the world of those who exist beyond the walls of academia? Are we, in the long-term harming the readership of poetry and the effect of it if we keep ourselves so blocked off?
Obviously the answer is quite complex. I have no doubt that there are poets working beyond the Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.)/university system who are quite talented and for whatever reason, they do not see “writing” as a career and are content to work on their own and maybe work towards publication, be it through contests, open submissions, self-publication on blogs, websites such as Reddit, etc. I’m not sure what stop people from pursuing career as writers. Anyone can apply to an M.F.A. program and in fact, only a Bachelor’s degree is required. It is not like applying for a biology degree and never having studied biology as a student: you can be a writer in an M.F.A. program with a background in anything, biology included.
However, there are risks involved with getting an M.F.A. If you have been working, the change in pay is not one that will allow a person to continue with a standard of living as they had before, so either they have to take out loans or hope that they can lower their requirements. For many these things seem foolish, or more importantly, they may well be content in their jobs and to write on the side. Either way, there must be a population of people who write well, but keep it either to themselves, or promote their work in ways similar to anyone who has an M.F.A.
What has happened, I believe, is that we have created two tiers of writers. The advantage of the M.F.A. program is that your work comes under greater scrutiny than if you are simply sending off work for publication without another reader to give critique. This is in fact the strength of the creative writing class and what gives writers in those classes an advantage above others. The group critique process seems to lead to a better quality of work more geared towards publication. However, the question is whether or not publication is the most important thing.
The answer to that, I feel, is ultimately “yes”: without publication, there is ultimately no way to know what exists that is interesting. While someone may be working away at home on amazing poems, what difference does it ultimately make if those poems are never seen? Of course, we can point to Emily Dickinson as someone who worked for decades and saw less than a dozen pieces of her work published, and yet she is considered one of the greatest poets in America’s history. However, she never had to contend with the number of writers that exist in today’s market, coming out of the M.F.A. mill we’ve seen beginning in the last half of the 20th century. If Dickinson’s poems had not been found and initially edited by Thomas Higginson and Mabel Todd, we would likely have never heard of Dickinson. While later versions of Dickinson’s poems have appeared without the copious edits, ultimately it was this editing which led to the first acknowledgement of her as a major poet.
Of course, what is interesting to me is that she did indeed seem interested in getting published so of course she wasn’t just writing for herself. I would imagine that getting published, seeing your work being read by others is, if not the primary goal of writing, than certainly in the top five. I admit it sounds elitist of me to say that one of the primary goals of writing is to be published, but otherwise what would be the use of committing language to the page? While it might serve some kind of purpose in a diary as a confessional exercise, I cannot imagine taking the time to write and craft without any desire to ease those poems into the world.
If the desire to publish is one reason to write, certainly poets must be interested in having more readers. So then, why are we insulating ourselves into a world of poets, by poets, for poets? In a way, I believe that we have accepted that only other poets will read our work, and therefore, only focus on them as readers. However, this has come at a cost: poetry is seen as difficult and thus has alienated large groups of people outside of literary circles. What is read and purchased by the masses is what they were left with after having taken English classes in high school: the Romantic poets. This is assuming they don’t hate poetry all together.
Overall, this is not a bad thing and I do not want it to sound as though I am against the creative writing system or think that poetry is overly hard or abstract, but let’s face it: the general public does not read contemporary poetry. The ultimate view of poetry is lyric or confessional- that somehow if one does not express their emotions in poetry, then it is not poetry. While I disagree with this view, I do not think that dismissing readers for they want from their poetry is the way to win them back. The best way to move forward is to show them that poetry can be all things and is not an elitist endeavor. Poetry is not above using what Wordsworth calls “the language of men” and does not necessarily have to be about rising above ideas that can be accessed by nearly anyone. It is like going to a chili cook-off: everyone attempts to make chili as spicy as possible, forcing many to avoid their booth. However chili does not have to be spicy, it can very simply taste good and that is something nearly everyone can enjoy.
How can poetry do this? One idea is to create work that engages with the world at large. Poets should embrace living in a world beyond art and that their work can take on the issues that afflict us all. To an extent, this was previously the goal of lyric poetry, but I believe that the lyric is no longer necessary. Look at Mark Nowak’s work, which is blatantly anti-lyrical, and yet is some of the most socially engaged work being produced today. While Nowak is generally considered in the lineage of the objectivist poets, his work is decidedly activist and thus subjective in nature. Upon hearing my talk on Nowak at the Louisville Conference in 2009, my brother asked “Why aren’t more poets activists?” Some poets are activists, I told him, but how would you know it? Poets’ books are not advertized on television and they do not appear on Oprah. Poetry generally is not seen as a socially conscious art form. Perhaps the issue at present is that language has ceased to shock us and when it does shock, it is from more culturally relevant sources like television and music. Poetry, overall, is not relevant.
When Eliot Weinberger was here, I was amazed to hear that in European and Asian countries, poets are “public intellectuals” that appear on television discussing the issues of the day. Why doesn’t this happen in the United States? Are American poets not on the whole interesting and varied enough with a general interest in issues to be on television or write op-ed pieces in the New York Times? The issue is not just that people are unaware of what poets are capable of but there is a general stigma in this country against intelligent people and in the last few years, we have begun to glorify those that are purposely ignorant such as Sarah Palin. So why would anyone be interested in the opinion of a writer who is intelligent in a non-authoritative way? The sad fact is that general public is not: they are only interested in having their viewpoints confirmed or in oppositional opinions they can demonize and as academics are generally demonized already in the media, there is simply no need from them.
So it is a two way problem: on one hand the general public could not care less about modern poets and their poems and on the other, modern poets could not care less about attracting an audience beyond pre-determined circles. For poets, this has led to the proliferation of M.F.A. programs, which function much like a Major League Baseball farm team in that they are a testing ground for up and coming talent (but that does not mean there is not an ace pitcher outside of the system). These programs are not only grooming future writers, but also future critics, audience members and book purchasers.
Ron Silliman and Seth Abramson had a discussion on Silliman’s blog about the number of poets currently writing. Abramson claimed that Silliman greatly underestimated the number though made no judgment on Silliman for reducing the population. To me, the discussion of numbers signals a shift in readership away from casual readers and towards a group made up of poets. If there are going to be more people writing poetry, there necessarily have to be more people reading it, but if the general public has stopped, the only population available is other poets.
None of these things are not necessarily problematic: as universities have come to be run in a more business-like manner, talent and intelligence are not enough and for writers, and books are now a quantifiable measure of success. As a result, applicants for writing positions are required to have a few books published in order to be qualified for tenure- and non-tenure track jobs. How would it have been if Keith Waldrop had been turned down for a job at Brown due to a lack of publications? Obviously Professor Waldrop was hired for reasons beyond publication, but at this time, with the market tighter than it was even a decade ago; books have become the marker by which previously qualified candidates are now separated. What better than having an audience that is necessarily interested in purchasing your book and promoting someone they like? And they are necessarily interested because, of course, they are poets too and they want to be on your good side because YOU have a published book and they have a manuscript, of course.
Now, I do not want anyone thinking I have any issues with this- it is a necessary system for the most part and, as I mentioned before, I believe that work that has been through the workshop process has a quality advantage above non-workshop material. I also do not want any readers of this piece to think that I am somehow above these tactics: I certainly like meeting poets who come to town and in fact my classmates tease me because I “know everyone!” However, the M.F.A., I believe, is a networking degree and it is necessary for moving forward in the poetry world. It seems very likely too that poets who have M.F.A.’s may well be more likely to be published in book form or in publications.
With all these things in mind, we will go back to the initial issues at the beginning of this piece: what all can poets and poetry do? What is the point in writing a poem at this point in history, beyond having something for your classmates to read and sending out for publication? While Adorno famously said that there was no way to write poetry after the horrors of Auschwitz, poetry marched on and does still, but what role can poetry have at this moment of time?
(On a side note: I wonder now how many philosophers are writing about poetry. Many of the 20th century’s most famous philosophers have written about poetry and society, but now I feel like most writing about poetry comes either from other poets or Ph.D. students who are also poets. Perhaps this is a future research project!)
The reason I write poems is because I believe language is such an ingrained process that only poetry has the ability to break it down and restructure it. Poetry beyond all other forms of art has the ability to streamline the issues humans face each day. Poetry has the ability to work within and beyond the limits of language in order to accentuate it.
Please note well that I said ability. Poets have to be willing to try and make poetry something beyond a counter-public gathering mechanism. Poets, not unlike journalists, have to b willing to step in and fill the voids that are exploited in modern society. While many complained about reporters while the Bush administration got away with its activities, I would like to know where the poets were. The Bush administration was able to do what they wished because of their advanced usage of language and therefore poets should have jumped into the fray and challenged the Bush administration beyond blog posts and the complaints that many other Americans were already lodging. Poets could have critiqued the Bush administration for the same things that they critique each other for: their use of language to almost literally pull the wool over the eyes of the American people. This is the most definite example I can come up with: imagine if there had been a group speaking out against Bush & Co. early on but not based in politics, but rather with a mastery of rhetoric. While it seems clear now that the Bush administration would have gone on with their plans regardless, I believe that at least the oppositional movement would have found some kind of center beyond pacifism and angst.
The last decade has been the perfect time for contemporary poetry to find its way back into the American consciousness, again because poets could have been the rhetorical check on the political situation. However, I do feel that poets may have missed a willing window by insulating themselves and reinforcing the mentality that poetry is difficult and obscure. I am not advocating that poetry should be easy or that it should be lowered to meet a falling standard- quite the opposite, in fact: poets should have taken the opportunity to reinvigorate the general populace about what poetry can do by showing them what poetry is already doing. This would have been the time to prove that poetry is indeed relevant to the modern world and that there is place of the kind of critique that only literature can create.
Now, I understand full well that in this piece I am biting the hand that feeds me. Not only am I happy to be in an M.F.A. writing program, I have also benefited greatly from the networking and name-recognition that being in a top program has brought me. This essay is not meant to press an end for M.F.A. programs or even substantive changes, just that there is a culture that led to it and a culture that has come out of it now.
I will not venture a guess on the future of poetry, but I imagine the power of the M.F.A. will wane and that there will eventually be a movement away from academia, only because the insularity of current poetry will create a rift. Unfortunately, I feel that poetry has been an always will be read by those whose lives are generally made easier by economic status, though poetry too has the ability to blur those lines. Before it was because only a select group of people could read, but now it will be because only a few can find the time or have the desire to read. While desire may not be a class issue, the ability to give poetry a space to show what it can do might well be entirely related to class. Hopefully this is not the case, but only time will show us how the choices we make will affect the future of poetics.
 Heidegger, Adorno, Benjamin just to name a few.