I took a couple days off to check my humor levels. When one speaks of MFA World one must make sure one's humor levels are up. Most people, teachers or students, are pretty solemn about their position in MFA World; and the teachers especially don't like to have someone poke fun at their livelihoods, the source of their paychecks and ease, travel funds and professional develop-ment expenses.
I was musing the other day about what a poet's learning curve was like maybe fifty years ago, in the 60s; I remembered the notion (actually, I remembered Robert Mezey telling me about it) of the poet's education, his or her "Grand Tour," that was prevalent then. You lived in New York for a couple of years, soaking up the Village literary life especially, perhaps taking a master's at Columbia, as Larry Ferlinghetti and John Ashbery did, among others. Then you spent a couple of years in the heart of the country, in Iowa City, taking an MFA there from the Writers' Workshop. And then you completed your poetic education by spending another couple of years in Palo Alto and San Francisco, preferably on a Stegner fellowship, and studying with Yvor Winters (Thom Gunn famously did this). As a working class kid, I found this leisure impossible to conceive of personally, but it did seem like a wonderful idea. And not only were there fewer people vying for spots at these places, but there was also the sense (especially following WW II) that a writer existed prior to a writing program--that the writer came from somewhere else in society, already formed in a basic way, if needful of feedback and technical advice.
Nowadays, maybe the biggest change from the old days is linked to the exponential growth of writing programs: writers are produced by the system. They are born in undergrad creative writing classes taught by an older product of the system; they graduate with majors or minors in creative writing; they go immediately into graduate writing programs, then into jobs teaching creative writing; their writing lives are then lived in the maturity of networks, conferences, trips to friends' campuses for readings, management of their university resources in order to be able to invite the friends back to their own campuses, sabbaticals and leaves of absence funded by their universities, expenditure of travel and research funds, editing of journals and anthologies that include their friends within the system (and to show integrity, sometimes their enemies), service on panels and awards committees that give money and prizes to writers, almost all of whom reside inside the system, and service on search committees to hire other younger writers the system has produced.
In his excellent book, The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880, David Myers quotes Don Justice, arguably the preeminent and most beloved teacher of poets, calling in 1984 the growth of writing programs a "pyramid scheme"--a Ponzi game, like Bernie Madoff's house of cards. Myers lists 25 programs started by Iowa grads; these include: Skidmore, Eastern Washington, Colorado State, Western Michigan, Arkansas, Oregon, Montana, Massachusetts, Bowling Green, Penn State, Alabama, University of Chicago, Vanderbilt, and others. I could add: Indiana, Arizona, Utah, and Florida, where Iowa grads either started the program or were instrumental at the beginning; and of course there's venerable old Stanford, whose program was started by Wallace Stegner (an Iowa native) after his sojourn in the Workshop in the early 1940s. (This last sentence is my own doing; any error in fact is mine, not Myers, though I think I'm in the ballpark.)
Myers also points out that the rise of writing programs parallels the availability of money. State legislatures were willing to fund these new programs (the growth period I'm talking about is mainly late-60s through early 80s). Why? Partly, I'm sure, because the country still supported higher education somewhat back then, but mostly because their customers--potential students--were willing to pay for such a course of study. So Iowa grads were seminal in the proliferation of writing programs, and they were motivated to do this because they wanted cushy jobs like the ones Marvin and Don had--believe me, I know, I was there: "cushy" was an oft-used adjective. To feed these positions--like Audrey, the plant in The Little Shop of Horrors--we need students, whom we grow, or "enable," within the system, from their birth at 18 or 19 through a graduate program, each one a ten- or fifteen-year harvesting. And what we're "teaching" them first and foremost is not to be writers, but to be academics (shudder)--bureaucratic careerists.
So you assume I think this is all terrible; not so. I'm just saying it's a system, and we're all gaming it--teachers, students, administrators, legislators. When we lose sight of that fact--for example, when we claim for ourselves the sanctity of positing literature as a higher calling--we depress the inclination to be aware of our manipulations, as well as our abilities for gaming. We are all products of a saved vs. damned culture built on a schizoid faultline. Our ancestors claimed piety and chosenness, as well as the right to operate a slave trade, install the institution of slavery, and commit genocide on the Indians. It's practically in our genes to tend toward extremism, toward absolutism; four hundred years of our existence tells us it's in our best interests to lie to ourselves. Now the poet down the block isn't just a Language poet or a New Formalist, he's a devil; our own position has to be defended in an extreme way. Obviously, this decreases chances for a reasoned criticism of his work. The poetry economy is almost entirely an artificial one; poetry generates almost no economic interest in the country outside the ten or twenty thousand people in the general poetic community. There's enough money in the system to attract gamers, but the money isn't generated by poetry itself: it's artificially pumped into the system via universities, arts foundations, gifts (the Lilly gift to Poetry is a recent notorious example), etc. This lends an aura of unreality to the poetry side of MFA World.
I kid the Language Poets on occasion (I know they can take it; they're good sports), but on one level theirs was an entreprenurial agenda meant to match well-educated middle- and upper-middle class white kids with academic jobs. They hooked up with some theorists--Marjorie Perloff among the most prominent--who were pushing their own theory-driven agendas in academia during the 80s and 90s; and the theorists helped the poets establish academic creds and an academic audience. More power to them; and this didn't prevent a number of really good writers to emerge from the Language chrysallis: I'm thinking of Lynn Hejinian, Bob Perelman, and Michael Davidson, in particular, as far as ones I myself admire. The problem with any powerful movement, though, is what is spawns. Like the ten percent of interesting theorists who spawned the ninety percent of forlorn academics wandering through their dark night of the soul, while they teach Derrida at Lake Oswego State at Onomatopoeia, the Language group spawned a middlebrow "movement" in our MFA programs. These students call themselves "experimental" writers--as if all language-use isn't experiment--and they seem to offer watered-down versions of Language poetry. A friend of mine calls it "language display" poetry; another calls a subset of it "the narcissism of filigree." They lack the rigor and vision of their predecessors, but have settled on their metier, I think, because it's perfect for gaming the current version of the system.
Now here's the wonderful irony: the "current version of the system" is, of course, ourselves. Our desire for the cushy has come full circle. I think we all assumed the best and the brightest would inherit our mantles. When one system battles another, real energy is unleashed: think of the late 50s, the Battle of the Anthologies, the Raw versus the Cooked. What we've got now is just one system; there is no rival system. The battle to supplant us is tepid, and from the inside: hothouse ideologues we've grown ourselves. From the Cooked to the Raw to the Half-Baked. Again, I aspire only to be the messenger here; I've opted out, which makes me a loser. I no longer teach writing classes. I don't want to know these people anymore; and from where I sit, they don't want to know me. But I could be completely wrong; maybe what I think I'm witnessing from outside is really a "movement," an effort to cleanse the system from the inside, a peristalsis. Now there's a thought.