The Lighter Side: Happy Anniversary, AWP!

(Here’s a salute to Creative Writing programs from our poets and critics, past and present, culled from various interviews and essays.)

“Abolish the M.F.A.! What a ringing slogan for a new Cato: Iowa delenda est!” – Donald Hall

“We are now at the point where writing programs are poisoning, and in turn we are being poisoned by, departments and institutions on which we have fastened them…” – R. V. Cassill (the founder of AWP, in his address to the convention at its 15th anniversary)

“The Creative Writing experiment is now a generation old. It has been thoroughly tested and explored in every conceivable way and has proved, in my opinion, a colossal failure. Commons sense dictates that it should be abandoned.” – Karl Shapiro

“. . . the academically certified Creative Writer goes out to teach Creative Writing, and produces other Creative Writers who are not writers, but who produce still other Creative Writers who are not writers.” – Allen Tate

“A few good poets will be able to use them [creative writing programs] to gain time and leisure to write, but one must assume that they would have found some other way to write if necessary. For the rest, the effect is to enlist a poor or moderately talented writer into a fashionable style, and encourage the production of mediocre, inauthentic work. To the extent that this becomes a flood and sweeps away the genuine, the MFA system is actively destructive to poetry as an art.”– Adam Kirsch

“In principle, there is no reason that writing programs should be bad for American poetry. The proliferation of music programs in the U.S. has helped raise the standard of orchestral playing and broadened the access to classical music. But, for a variety of reasons, the growth of graduate writing programs has had some unfortunate effects on both American poetry and poetry criticism.” – Dana Gioia

“. . . the exponential expansion of creative writing programs in recent decades—and the introduction of creative writing in some schools as an undergraduate major—has been terrible for literature and education. The only beneficiaries now are the deans and provosts who get promotions for developing these programs and the not-always-distinguished writers who administer and teach in them. Unlike musicians, writers do not usually mature early. To write richly and well, they need to know something about the world and about ideas. And while students may profit from taking a creative writing class among their other courses, they need to learn about subjects like history, political science, and astronomy. They need to read great writers of the past and present. And it is counter-productive to encourage them to take multiple workshops in which their own apprentice exercises are the principal texts they study.” – Timothy Steele

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  1. MFA holders are a little like rabbis in that regard — the only thing a rabbi can do that other members of his congregation can’t do is make another rabbi.

  2. I misread this as “rabbits”–but that works too!

  3. Outside of academe, there is a flood now of Creative Writing Workshops, some expensive, some not. Some encourage poetry. What I notice is that writers, often older women and some men, generate a kind of zest when they try to write poems, or, for that matter, prompted prose. The process of sharing their work offsets the usual alienation from inner center and from other people. The facilitator is a kind of midwife, like Socrates, for the imagination and liveliness of people.

  4. Fascinating.

  5. Joseph Salemi in Pennsylvania Review addressed something of this topic in his February column, though not for the first time.

    It seems he largely sides with what you have quoted by Adam Kirsch. I don’t want to twist his words, but the persons whom one encounters in these venues “are the intellectual equivalent of Lucrezia Borgia, and they will poison anything you do.”

    I have never been in a creative writing program, and suppose Kirsch’s suggestion that they tend to “encourage the production of mediocre, inauthentic work” probably more or less describes the general effect. But I have attended–early on in my writing career–a few “poetry writing” classes and found them helpful.

    My teacher was Paul Carroll, and I did not copy his style, yet the influence of his instruction was palpable, as it was for so many other of his students in the Chicago of his day. He introduced me to poets and poems that I had never heard of. Granted, I would have come around to finding out about Dylan Thomas eventually, but I’m happy that it happened earlier under his tutelage.

    Salemi’s question, “Why in God’s name would you subject yourself to the advice and criticism of commentators whose credentials you don’t even know?” never came up. We weren’t concerned about credentials. Anyhow, the genuine response of any anonymous person will do to let you know if you are communicating poorly, and one need not have an MFA to offer a helpful suggestion.

    More than anything else, it was probably the conversations with my peers that went on to have a lasting impact not just on my writing style but on my life as well. What’s so wrong with that? I didn’t find them to be such incompetents.

    As to the “even greater threat to one’s independence [which] comes from the envious,” I never found that either.

  6. I don’t agree with this. Creative writing programs do not poison writers or encourage mediocrity — rather, to paraphrase a memorable line from the latest episode of Mad Men, there are simply too many with the artistic temperament who are, unfortunately, not artists. In other words, the mediocre product is a result of mediocre raw materials — a dirth of geniuses.

    There have been many who have benefited from creative writing programs — David Foster Wallace comes immediately to mind — and the idea behind writing programs is nothing new. Hemingway, who famously said that “writers should write,” learned at the feet of Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein. The only complaint one can toss at MFA programs is that they allow bad writers to improve to the level of mediocre writers, and give them a degree to wave around and put on cover letters. It’s not as if their talents have somehow been poisoned with bad ideas — they were never good writers to begin with.

    Now, if you want to talk about whether or not creative writing programs are worth the financial investment, that is another story altogether.

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