In response to several publications slandering the MFA and the “intellectual ghetto” it supposedly creates: What poor, bedraggled, gin-loving, stubble-sporting writer would not balk at the professionalization of their precious creative endeavor? You may read here, here, and here that MFAs are a big waste of time and money because teaching creative writing is “impossible,” or that confining any poetry-related activity to the academia suffocates its ability to reach mainstream culture. The MFA program, spun the right way, looks like another one of America’s ways of capitalizing on a cultural outlet, especially if a student is paying nearly $30000 a year to attend a program. The defense? Don’t attend a program that asks you to shell that much money out.
“The workshop schools us to produce the McPoem,” Donald Hall wrote in an article called Poetry and Ambition, and what an eloquent way to say that the MFA produces bland, “cookie-cutter” writers. But visual artists have been apprenticing or attending art schools to refine their habits and process for hundreds of years. Must not all artists learn the foundations of their craft before they can manipulate it? Reeking of the Kindle, writers have an intrinsic disgust for things new in concept. Dana Gioia’s thesis in “Can Poetry Matter?” is that the academia is turning poetry into a subculture that is only appreciated and produced for itself (“the intellectual ghetto”)–he believes that the role of the poet should not be educator but critic and insists that poets must find jobs outside of the academia in order to breathe poetry into the life of mainstream culture.
But the poetry academia, in many ways, can be a positive symbiotic organization. The student provides the teacher with a job and the teacher provides the student with as much knowledge about the process and routine of writing as he or she can, usually (and most beneficially) with enough financial support to hold the writer’s head above water. The academia, in many ways, is catalyst for good poetry, or at least good close readers. Without it, how many people would be desirous to sit down and read Eliot’s Wasteland or Pound’s Cantos? Is it even feasible that any linguistically complex poetry could be read for widespread entertainment? I doubt it, although I do like Gioia’s suggestion of coupling poetry with other artistic mediums, like visual art and music, in order to make it more accessible. For me, the problem with the MFA isn’t the idea that it might turn out writers that are clones of its teachers, or that it is a money pit, or that MFAs don’t actually teach students how to write. It is whether writers, above all artists and citizens, deserve to have fellowships and free graduate school handed to them so that they can sit on their flat butts and write.