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« Riding the Elevator to the Sky (by Anne Sexton, 1975) | Main | Shakespeare's # 83 »

September 11, 2009


Jim -
I've rarely read anything so simultaneously damning and perfectly-argued. Brilliant - I can't tell you how many times I said "Wow" while I was reading it. You're quite a writer, and your honesty is admirable...

Very honest and very right on!! Bravo. ..The games... I am no entrepreneur, not comfortable with self promotion, not competitive, not a social butterfly, not a network hound... I guess I am a "loser" also... But I have written poetry and fiction/non fiction and created art since I was a little girl and I will never stop... I may never be able to make a career out of it, but I have come to be okay with that; I know who I am. I do try to network and promote my work because it seems that that is what must be done if I want my work to be read/seen at all by anyone, especially now in this internet-based world, but it definitely does not feel natural to me, and the whole world of it reeks of subtle insincerity.

Great article. It has become a system. That is why I love Gilbert- definitely not a career poet.

Thank you all for these comments. I was beat after I finished, and was kind of down because I thought it maybe sounded defeatist; and I don't feel that way at all, in life or art. Your responses picked me up; Alex, a nice little espresso. I assume you mean Jack Gilbert, Erika? He's always been a bit of a hero to me, too, since I read his Yale book long ago: fiercely honest (by his lights, which is all we can do) outsider. And Jillian: it took me longer than you to actually feel what you're saying here, though I "knew" it, of course, before. But you're right: it's the writing that counts; that's the freedom.

Marvelous post, Jim. Question: What made Don Justice so special? As an Iowa alum yourself, perhaps you can say what combination of traits so endeared him to students across the range of tastes and styles?

What a great essay. Brings back great and lousy memories from the MFA mire at USC. I remember being in fiction writing workshop with Hubert Selby. First day of class, a girl says "I wanted to be a writer until I came here." She was a terrific writer, a semester away from graduating, and just disappeared. Selby, a gentle guy, kept asking after her. In poetry class, James Ragan ran a great workshop. We kids piped down and listened. He had us read all the greats, to show us how far we had to go. His advice on learning to write well: Live. Wreck your life a few times, rebuild it, and travel. The comedian Shelley Berman, who still teaches at USC, was in the poetry workshop as a student. He was eighty at the time, renewing his acting career on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and wrote poems with humility and great awe for the art. He wrote with so much care, listened more than talked, and read poems aloud with so much emotion. We always spent the last hour of class at the bar, Shelley and his scotch presiding, cracking us all up until we were sober enough to drive the long stretches of LA freeway home. . .sorry to go on here. You just brought it all back.

Really really enjoyed reading this and agreed with much. I found it descriptive rather than defeatist. Thanks for writing it!

But I do think it's an overgeneralization to say that "what we're "teaching" them first and foremost is not to be writers, but to be academics (shudder)--bureaucratic careerists."

That orientation will vary from program to program, certainly. It wasn't my MFA student experience anyway. My program promoted a vehement almost anti-intellectual stance against the theorists you describe, which is a whole different situation. I'd argue that the 10% / 90% split probably happens with my MFA scenario as well, with a handful of writers doing the thing well and a heap not-so-well.

On a related note: Eavan Boland had an essay in Poetry mag a few issues back about the fact that a poet in the contemporary scene must have skills, particularly administrative and social skills, in order to promote the work effectively. She contrasts this with a generation or two back and claims these skills weren't required for national or international recognition as a poet.

Thank you, Karen and Heidi, for great posts; the idea of hanging with Shelley Berman is too great. You're talking about one of the first people I thought were really funny: ask him sometime if he remembers Myron Cohen. As for overgeneralizing: oh sure, I admit it. But the good always seems more rare to me than the ones who would suck its blood. For the record, I meant the programs are preparing students to take up academic jobs; c.f. Emerson's "Divinity School Address."

Thank you, Jim! You have well articulated what we all dread/fear about ourselves and our gaming.

This is brilliant, Jim. Many thanks for it!

Thanks, David. I appreciate it!

From: [email protected] [mailto:[email protected]]
Sent: Friday, September 18, 2009 12:56 PM
To: Cummins, James (cumminjv)
Subject: [The Best American Poetry] David Yezzi submitted a comment to 'I'm Not Clowning, I'm Raving [by Jim Cummins]'.

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Hi Jim-- I'm late to the conversation but fascinated: I love the post. I wonder, though: Myers in _The Elephants Teach_ and also Perloff in an online riposte to something on EBJ ( ) both bring up the idea of creative writers (systematically produced or otherwise, as in Myers’ first chapter) being particularly good, effective, & even necessary teachers: if so, are they "gaming" the system or working hard at jobs they believe in, jobs which include teaching lit, lit history, & basic writing in addition to (and lately moreso than) leading "pure" replicas of the Iowa et al workshop model (& actually I doubt that these days any “hothouse replica” wd actually get a job: he or she better rather know how to teach what a sentence is & why such a thing can be useful…)? Is there really no there there (here)? Well I’m going to quote from the Perloff I mention above:
“[T]he situation [ie. that CW programs are “soft and trivial”] has drastically changed in recent years… [The creative writing program] now fills a need that English simply refuses to satisfy. I am talking about literary study, increasingly neglected as beside the point by the so-called Englit department in deference to the heady new world of Cultural Studies. Indeed, most assistant professors hired at even the top institutions like my own no longer have the slightest idea what literary analysis might entail. They've heard of an old-hat technique called "close-reading" -- a technique they know they don't want to use even though they have no idea what it might accomplish….”

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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