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September 07, 2009

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I don't see any problem with lots of people reading poetry, learning about poetry, writing. And so what if not everyone is good at it? I remember that old saying, "How quiet the forest would be if only the best birds sang!" Claiming poetry for only the special few is elitist and contrary to its spirit. Expanding the experience of art can only be a good thing.

The problem comes when someone goes into an MFA program expecting to come out with a tenured teaching position. Those days are over - ain't gonna happen, folks. You will be degreed and employable (at least, in a normal economy), but it isn't going to be as a professor of poetry. You have to get creative about it and seek out a job that feeds you, both physically and spiritually, and gives you space to write.

This is nothing new, by the way. Wallace Stevens was an insurance salesman. William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician. Wendell Berry is a farmer. Thomas Lynch is a funeral director. Who said the only job a poet is fit for is teaching?

Thanks, Laura; but I think what you say only applies to a small part of it all, and that we're talking about two different things. I'm trying to look at various phenomena, not claim one is better than another (or rather, not claim that my prejudices are better than someone else's). "Expanding the experience of art can only be a good thing" would be a good thing, if that's what was happening; but I don't think it is; exactly the opposite. And nobody is saying teaching is the only job for a poet, but these programs prepare you for that (you could go to law or medical school, if you want).

I wonder if you could expand on this, then, because I don't think I'm following you re: what you mean specifically by "various phenomena". Also, why do think the experience of art is being diminished, rather than expanded?

Re: MFA programs - I suppose it depends on the program you are enrolled in. Certainly, the one I attended (Bennington) made no claims that tenured positions would be dropping like figs from the tree after graduation. The explicit intent was to help the student become a participant in the larger life of letters, whatever his or her employment. While it is true that it is possible to do this without an MFA, for myself, the program opened doors, both figurative and literal, and, at the risk of sounding cliched, changed my life.

I would agree that any MFA program that promises students that teaching positions await is being disingenuous at best and at the worst deceitful. It took me eight years of adjunct teaching to get to the (contractual) full-time position I hold now, and I teach composition, not poetry. Not complaining - I like teaching comp. - but that was the reality.

Will do, Laura; coming right up (I hope).

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