No Poet Left Behind

As Reviewed By: Joan Houlihan

In the dark age of poetry, the pre-MFA era, when poets were untethered to a clear identity, often unhinged, and wandering loose in a society inimical to their aims, they were forced to brood in out-of-the-way caf├ęs and corners, bringing forth from their painful rubbings against society’s strictures their secret image-pearls without benefit of community or support of other pearl-producers. In those days, poets were neither encouraged nor discouraged, but simply neglected. Those we now call “poets” labored in the workplace, in the classroom, at the hearth while hiding in the poetic closet and pursuing a darker, less respectable course. With no MFA programs, poets were the invisible people, the people under society’s stairs.

[private]Today, however, if they have the price of admission (and there are many, lower-cost, though less-than-prestigious programs available), no poet needs to be left behind to spend a lifetime in doubt or poverty, laboring secretly in their poetic closet, following a torturous path of introspection, reading, assimilating experience, writing and revising without benefit of certification. The occupation of poet is becoming established, not unlike that of firefighter, teacher, professional wrestler, bookkeeper, nurse and shipbuilder-and one can get the papers to prove it.

However, while validation seems like a good idea, this validation has evolved, in the singular case of poetry, into what appears to me an unsustainable proposition; that is, that every poet, every pre-poet, even every non-poet can have the benefit of a bona fide certification from an MFA program.

According to the informal survey I conducted for this article (see What’s Your MFA Program Like?), pre-poet and non-poet poets make up a sizeable population of any given MFA program. These “peers” as they are called, constitute a sizeable, though shadowy bulk at the MFA programs surveyed. Many are without poetic portfolio, and many don’t even like to read poetry-why read it, they seem to say, when you can just write it yourself? Isn’t that the point, after all? As well, the behavior of these “peers” seems to dispute the idea of analyzing and giving critiques of other students’ work-why focus on others’ work when you’re here for your own work? Other curious behaviors arise in the MFA courtyard; for example, the two most prestigious programs, Iowa and Columbia, have nearly identical comments about favoritism (“Jealousies and rumors circulated like a kind of toxic oxygen”, “competition…seethed beneath a thin patina of politeness”, “everyone vied for the attention of Jorie Graham”), and about lack of rigor (“The classes were not very difficult”, “Our writing was not so much evaluated as commented on”, “Academically speaking, MFA classes are a joke”, “one pretty much got all A’s”).

The contrast between the reputation of these programs and the insider’s view is notable. Also notable is the connection between lack of academic standards for evaluation and focus on catching the eye of perceived influential figures. It seems that lack of the former necessitates the latter: with no discernible measure of academic success or failure, students were left to chase after praise and/or promises of publication from perceived authorities, the only form of “grading” available.

Other program participants complained that the focus was on contemporary and American poetry (“It was as if for them the world of poetry had begun in 1950’s America”), or that their peers were less than talented or intellectual, bespeaking a tuition-hungry admissions process (“talented and sometimes accomplished writers in the company of lackluster tyros”, “a few real clunkers”, “a large contingent of talentless dolts”, “some people had never been in a workshop before”, “The poetry that came in was to pay the electric bill”), while some others noted the lack of connection between the program, poetic talent and the real world of teaching poetry (which may have been the goal of most students there). Another common observation among all survey participants was that there was very little intellectual rigor and many students were not challenged to read much, write much about what they read, or to provide workshop feedback more substantive than “I like it!” or “Can you change this word to something else?”

While providing differing views of their programs, all survey participants had one thing in common to report: the presence of non-poets in the program. These “other” poets, the ones who show all evidence of wanting to be poets but without the ability to write poetry, are certainly people the MFA programs are failing today in America. I propose, therefore, that the MFA become a two-track program: one, with a major in writing poetry (called Writer in Poetry), and one, with a major in reading poetry (called Reader in Poetry). Graduates in either track would qualify to teach in MFA programs. They might also minor in the other track (Writer in Poetry with a minor in Reading, for example), but only be expected to perform at a high level in their major. By so producing more focused graduates, we could solve two problems: the problem of non-poet poets needing certification that they are poets, and the problem of not enough capable readers of poetry.

Those with an MFA in Reading Poetry would teach, review, perhaps write critical essays and scholarly studies, all untainted with the fear of someone else reviewing or writing about their own poetry, and thus would serve the world of poetry as the real gatekeepers and critics, not the ones who do favors for one another. Helen Vendler is an example of this model. Meanwhile, a Writer in Poetry would be expected to produce and publish poems as well as teach other writers their knowledge of craft, publishing and aids to creativity. Such a system would certainly benefit the undecided poet (Am I mainly a Reader? Do I have talent as a Writer? Must I read a lot of poetry? Am I critical/analytical? Must I pretend to be?) by offering a choice of emphasis. Currently, every poet in an MFA program is by default a Writer type of poet, and yet, wouldn’t a Reader type of poet make as good a teacher-maybe better? And wouldn’t admissions be more rational, the classes focused more productively, and, best of all, wouldn’t we have more of the kind of poets we really need-the kind that don’t write? Like farmers paid not to plant a surplus crop, schools with MFA programs would be given money for enrolling non-writing poets. Meanwhile, the cross-pollination between the two tracks-Reader and Writer-might result in some one-of-a-kind, exciting hybrids: poets who produce outstanding poems and also write excellent critical studies of others’ poems.

Why not loosen the academic grip on the definition of poet? Why not make the MFA available to all? I propose that we ensure the future of our poetic heritage by leaving no poet behind.[/private]

About Joan Houlihan

Joan Houlihan is author of three collections, most recently, The Us (Tupelo Press, 2009). Her other two books are: Hand-Held Executions: Poems & Essays (2003) and The Mending Worm, winner of the 2005 Green Rose Award from New Issues Press. Her work has appeared in many journals, including Boston Review, Poetry, Harvard Review, Gettysburg Review, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Black Warrior Review, Gulf Coast and Pleiades, among others, and has been anthologized in The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries (University of Iowa Press, 2005) and The Book of Irish-American Poetry--Eighteenth Century to Present (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007). Her critical essays on contemporary poetry are archived online at and she is a contributing editor for the Contemporary Poetry Review. Houlihan is founder of the Concord Poetry Center in Concord, Massachusetts and of the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference. She teaches in Lesley University's Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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