Yes, MFA programs have multiplied like fruit flies over the past several decades. Yes, MFA programs can be cliquish, and can further the divisions between American poetries already standing: formal and experimental, page and spoken. Yes, they can be a way station for aimless dilettantes with a lust for fame but little investment in self-knowledge. Yes, they can produce poets who read only poetry by other poets like themselves, and do not reach outside their specialized fields. And yes, as Donald Hall writes in his famously anti-MFA program essay "Poetry and Ambition," MFA workshops can encourage the hurried public exposure of unripe, uninteresting verse.
As someone with a degree from an MFA program, who now teaches in one, I grapple with these potential drawbacks. Sometimes, when I see ads for new programs, I am ashamed, because I think some are doing poorly by their students: charging exorbitant tuitions without fellowships for a degree that guarantees no paycheck or career; providing second-rate or aesthetically homogenous faculty; lacking a curriculum that genuinely challenges and prepares students for an examined life; failing to realistically address the competition and obstacles their graduates will face. These are problems that need to be addressed in the academic community. Many of these problems have solutions, and for every problem there are counterbalancing advantages. I’ve outlined a few major defenses for MFA programs in poetry below:
1. MFA programs are where you find out what to read. Unless you know what you’re looking for, it can be hard to locate new poetry books and expand your reading horizons. Most Americans would be hard-pressed to name more than a few living, contemporary American poets. But in MFA programs, these names are part of the curriculum. As a graduate student, I heard for the first time of Jean Valentine, Jim Harrison, and C. D. Wright. I was given their names by faculty and friends, and reading them led to finding even more poets. I also gave other people the names of the few poets I had been lucky enough to find on my own—Heather McHugh, for example. Before attending my MFA program, I owned mostly books by dead twentieth century poets. By the time I left, three years later, I had a broad library, full of living American writers, as well as writers from the past and abroad, and an entirely new approach to my own poetry as a result.
2. MFA programs are where you find out how to read. The majority of American schools teach children that poems are elaborate insider jokes for which Cliff Notes are needed to determine the one true meaning. Ultimately, students begin to think that poems are extended metaphors waiting to be cracked like code, or they are all "open to interpretation," generic casks for simplistic truths, or that poems are places for rants and neat little stories. There is little sense that poems can be more than this—that poems can be read for entertainment and whimsy, introspection, the pleasure of wordplay, for sonic possibility, for innovation, or atmosphere or mystery. Even poems that do ask for a certain kind of canonical close reading are far more expansive and open-ended than we are led to believe in traditional secondary and college courses. MFA programs have the potential to give poems back to readers, to introduce a variety of ways to read. MFA students come together with distinct and diverse experiences and backgrounds that they bring to bear on their readings and share with others.
3. MFA programs can make workshop wonderful. While I do think the traditional workshop format has its limits, I am among a growing number of poets and academics interested in exploring new workshop models and modes of response. Such efforts often produce exactly the kind of invigorating, enlightening experiences one imagines about MFA programs. Of course, some traditional workshop leaders are exceedingly good at making those work, too. Most faculty I talk to agree with me: we have no interest in producing students whose work is a clone of our own. Every semester I tell my students that I succeed only when each one of them is more different, more possessed of their own voice when we end than when we began. I see it as my job to push students towards the strengths and obsessions they already have, and to ask them tough questions about themselves and their work, not to guide them toward some sort of unthinking, uniform middle. My own work was more my own, braver and less linear after completing my MFA program with poets whose work was more traditional than I’d ever been, and I take this growth as a sign of that program’s vitality.
4. MFA programs are where you find community. A stellar faculty should be part of any MFA education, but those of us with MFAs know that perhaps the bulk of our learning came from peers, the other ambitious, hard-working, talented writers in our classes. Some of us have gone on to start presses or collaborate on book projects with these peers; we help each other find jobs or readings, put each other up on couches, and support each other through rehab, divorce, or parenthood. Poets are not known as a particularly outgoing bunch—many of us are slow to trust, insular, and weird. For this reason, MFA programs can be like a stay at the infamous mental hospital McLean’s, but they can also be the places we meet our best friends, our most trusted readers, our lovers, our editors, and our mates. In his essay, Donald Hall notes that poets "need friends, critics, people to argue with." Of course, Hall was fortunate enough to attend undergraduate school with Frank O’Hara, Robert Bly, John Ashbery, and others. But that was a particular historic moment, informed by the GI Bill and without the current emphasis on pre-professional undergraduate degrees. These days, when I have a friend who feels lonely and misunderstood in their passions and interests, I often suggest graduate school. Where else in this culture will you be prodded and praised for talking excitedly about the ideas and literature you love most?
5. MFA programs are where you make connections. This is probably the least admired, and yet most often cited reason for attending MFA programs, and while it is far down on my list of defenses, I do think it’s worth mentioning. The truth is, most of the best poets in our country teach in MFA programs. Not all, but most. These poets are often busy with families, projects, meetings, and activism, so the best way to find them and get their attention is to attend the classes they teach. In the choppy seas of contemporary poetry, there is no better way to send up a flare than by getting to know a poet you admire face to face, over the course of several classes and years. With any luck, they will come to admire you, too, and help you along the way.
6. MFA programs are where you find yourself. This is perhaps my strongest and least empirical argument. Contrary to what Hall says about MFA programs avoiding "the real terrors of real art" and engaging only in "parlor games" and "the words of children," I spent my MFA years studying everything from film theory to feminist humor to Buddhist meditation. I started jogging, I learned to really cook, I became a better daughter and friend. I was tested for genetic disease and traveled to Europe. I took care of babies. I participated in pagan ritual. I considered communal living. I worked at minimum wage jobs with fascinating people I never would have met otherwise. In other words, I grew as a person. And while I’m sure this growth could have happened outside of an MFA program, the fact that I was forced to uproot my life, leave my day job and relationship, and resettle in a new place where I had only my future as an artist and human being to face, where I had no television and lived alone, where I had time for reflection and exploration and reading and was surrounded by others who had the same, made a huge difference.
The sad truth of the matter is that we are living in a culture where anti-intellectualism reigns. There are few places to turn in America for serious engagement with aesthetic, intellectual ideas (The Simpsons notwithstanding), and despite the encouraging growth of book clubs for literary fiction, there are few outlets where those interested in contemporary poetry can meet to discuss their passions. I’d be thrilled if we lived in a nation—like some others in the world—where people gathered in local cafes and plazas to recite great verse and breathe it in, but the truth is, in America, this happens primarily in the classrooms and reading series and conferences and living rooms of MFA students, alumni, and faculty—and for this we should be thankful.