Reach For The Sky

To: The Reanimated Membership and Interested Parties
From: Chinee, The Grand Poohbah
Subject: Picking Up Where We Left Off 

 Sometimes it is best to leave well enough alone.  Why wade into a controversy that is old news, has dropped from the radar, is barely relevant at this point, and can only make enemies and alienate people (poets, in this case)?  Although The New Black Bart Poetry Society proposes to be more sensitive to issues of common courtesy, it might be instructive to dig (archeologically speaking) into this particular affray and have a closer look.  The membership will no doubt remember that among the suggested topics for discussion listed in the Provisional Mission Statement was one entitled Professional Poet, Harbinger or Oxymoron What follows touches (gingerly) on the heat generated by the perceived professionalization of the art of poetry.   


Unless one is in the habit of surfing HuffPo, an item last November comparing a Pulitzer Prize winning poet to Rush Limbaugh might have escaped notice – Google “Rush Limbaugh of Poetry” if you are among the pathologically curious.  It is an onerous comparison, but certainly not one beyond contemplation.  If the poet had been Charles Bukowski, perhaps, but The Buk, although the best selling poet in the world if you believe the sales figures, did not win the Pulitzer Prize.  It might have been Ferdinand Celine, but he doesn’t qualify, and besides he is also way past worm repast.  No, this Limbaugh-ish poet is none other than Franz Wright.  Ok, take some times to riffle through your poet rolodex.  That Franz Wright!  Son of James Wright, also a Pulitzer winning writer.  And what did Wright fils do to earn that sobriquet?  He spoke nasty on Facebook* about MFA** writing programs.  Imagine! 

            As evidenced by some of the commentary to the post by David Biespiel at The Rumpus, what Wright said regarding academic writing programs had already been addressed in other forums so they felt justified ignoring the rhino in the classroom and proceeded, instead, to concentrate on the poor man’s mental health.  The temperature of their concern was tepid at best.  Was Wright’s mental health at the root of this outburst, not the prize winning poet’s very real issue with MFA writing programs turning the participants’ minds to mush?  Or perhaps, more properly, misleading the mush?

            Biespeil’s screen shot of a Facebook reply by Franz Wright to a request to ‘like’ an MFA Writing program was a cheap shot befitting the snark arena, and typical of the low blows of that self-aggrandizing, self-devouring, attention seeking milieu.  No one really speaks to the issue of Biespiel’s violating someone’s private space.  Self proclaimed lords of the internet know no shame and from their relative anonymity goad their mindless and equally anonymous followers to continual platitudes.  Bullies and sociopaths have found a new playground.

            Is it such a stretch to guess why an innocuous request would set Wright off?   Aside from the mental health issue everyone seems so intent on pointing out, and which, of course, for poets is somewhat de rigueur and will always be a part of the persona – really, does anyone in their right mind choose to be a poet?***  Granted, to be asked to ‘like’ something in the endless polling that passes for opinion on social media can be irritating.  No reply is the common recourse.  After all, no one is under any obligation to respond to unsolicited requests for approval.  In this instance, perhaps it is the sheer banality of the request that broke the poet’s patience.  Since the link to the Rush Limbaugh of Poetry is easily searched there is no need to re-post the screen shot.  Salient extracts should suffice. 

            “MFA programs have turned poetry into an occupation, and a joke. . .have weakened American poetry, have desecrated into an artifact instead of the result of the soul’s progress in solitary devotion. . .a real writer has always sought solitude, not group therapy. . .writing programs have lowered the bar so far down anyone can trip over it and get a degree & consider themselves A MASTER OF THE ART OF POETRY. . .real talent means nothing now – a business sense and niceness is all [that is required]. . .we now have more writers than readers of poetry – we have ACADEMIC POETS as THE GREAT ASPIRATION OF 21 YEAR OLD KNOW-NOTHINGS, the very enslavement real writers have been fleeing forever. . . .”  

            In the great scheme of things regarding the pros and cons of the relevance of MFA writing programs, Wright’s outburst (more of a snarl) is piffle.  The private is made public. But that’s what the poet does, isn’t it?  Cassandra-like, perhaps, a warning.  More disturbing however is commentary to the post, a chorus of mealy mouthed self-justifications, the droning self-assurance of those who have imbibed the kool-aid of the MFA party line.  Hardly anyone in the initial seventy two hours worth of commentary addressed Wright’s contention of the evils of MFA programs, and when they did,  dismissed them as old news.  To Franz Wright it is not old news, and it is a cause for concern.

            Imagine if Antonin Artaud had been asked to ‘like’ someone’s writing program. The response would probably read something like this: “All writing programs are pig wallow.  People who come out of the workshops trying to put into words what passes for poetry are pigs.  The whole writing program scene is a pigsty, especially (name program here.) And so on.

            As Wright contends, it is impossible to encounter within the frame of a graduate degree what it takes a poet a lifetime to learn.  Writing programs encourage the cult of undigested regurgitated curriculum, a prime example of the adage that a little knowledge is dangerous.   Those who become poets are self-nominated and spend the rest of their lives proving it to themselves.   To paraphrase something Ted Berrigan once said, writing workshops are a good place to meet people who also dislike writing workshops.  An MFA will serve no purpose unless the poet candidate has PIE: personality, intelligence (inspiration, imagination), experience.  If poets have PIE they don’t need no stinking MFA.   

Submitted to the Membership,
Chinee, Grand Poohbah,


*Facebook is the ultimate bourgeois tool, a social registry that offers a clear stratification of class, originally designed for the wannabe educrat.
**MFA stands for “Middle-class Fashion Accessory”
***True poets have always been wild men and women, autodidactic outlaws.  

Notice: Meetings will now be held in the anonymous ambiguity of cyberspace where many of the rules of classical physics, polite society and poetry don’t always apply hence a blog named Parole being one of those wonderful linguistic occasions known as a paronym in which a word functions in two or more languages without a change in lexical characteristics though there may be considerable semantic drift.  To participate in the virtual meetings see the menu item Conditions Of Parole.

Recent poetry additions to the Society bookshelves:
Maureen Owen, Edges Of Water, Chax Press, Tucson, AZ
Lucille Friesen, The Grass Is Greener, Coracle Press, Montreal, PQ
Lucille Friesen, Primavera Patagonica, Ideal Café Editions, Sebastopol, CA
Andrei Codrescu, So Recently Rent A World, Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, MN
Norman Schaefer, Fool’s Gold, La Alameda Press, Albuquerque, NM


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7 Responses to Reach For The Sky

  1. selchie_us says:

    “like” Facebook.. “unlike” MFA’s….

    ackshully, “like” & “unlike” might be a whole new poetic/critical form:

    autumn poem

    slanted light        like

    neighbors chat on porch        like

    must shift laundry        unlike

    best miss kitty

    Sent from Samsung tabletThe New Black Bart Poetry Society wrote:

  2. selchie_us says:

    ooops missed conditions ooops

    Sent from Samsung tabletThe New Black Bart Poetry Society wrote:

  3. ann says:

    like facebook
    unlike MFA

  4. theparoleofficer says:

    The Parole Officer is reposting a comment made by gaucho earlier meant to accompany this post.

    May I draw a parallel to a trend which has taken over not just poetry but other art forms. Jazz, our American music, has undergone a similar institutionalization. There are more jazz schools and jazz programs in schools, colleges and universities than you can shake a drumstick at. LIkewise art programs for the visiual arts. All of this is part of “we can all be (insert poet, musician, painter …) It used to be that one could indeed practice any or all of these arts in one’s leisure, but it was unlikely that one would then go around saying “I’m a poet or a painter or a jazz musician.” What our society has done is enable people who fall in this category to label themselves as a (insert category) by taking a course or two, my enrolling in an MFA program, winning a book prize in a contest where the winner is awarded a title and perhaps a portion of the total of entry fees the contest runners have amassed. Amidst all of this there is the idea which permeates our society of making people feel of value, important, as good as, and leaving no would- be artist behind. I will not go so far as to say that all people who participate in these programs are useless wannabes, as usual there is gold amidst all the gravel. A young person may well be on their way to becoming a poet despite registration in an MFA program but only a very long hard time will tell whether they are dedicated to their art or just trying to find a spot at a Junior College where they too can teach creative writing.
    Perhaps the most annoying is to go to small local poetry readings and have someone introduced trailing all kinds of pseudo credentials as if that were the reason one would want to read or listen to their poetry. I’ve always been an advocate of letting the poems speak for themselves. Most of the awards listed are unknown prizes except perhaps if you are in that circuit, ever growing, of writers looking for a poetry contest to enter. It used to be you submitted poems to small press literary magazines here and there and eventyally had a first book or not.
    Writing is solitary not group therapy, one is lucky if one finds two or three people in one’s life who are willing to read and critique and who are knowledgeable enough to do it. It is usually
    a small circle indeed.
    The ultimate question is why does anyone write poetry. Why would it be one’s primary activity? In this case I think of lonely philosophers pondering the meaning of the universe, people engaged in the seasons, people estranged from the mainstream, people who are trying to balance their own souls, but above all else people who love words, who love languages and see it as a means of expressing their deepest doubts and occasional insights. There is always a struggle between form and content. No one gives a poet a word to write from. The source for poems is the poet themselves and the way they see and experience the world around them. One can write on command, most writers who have practised their art can do this willy nilly, but it is what one experiences as dawn tops the tress, a child dies, a love is found, a shoe scrapes the pavement and a gaggle of feelings becomes words and one tries them out this way and that, in whatever form seems most amenable.
    It is probably easiest for any practising poet to pretend MFA’s in creative writing don’t exist and go back to her or his cave and write.

  5. Hi Pat, vigor and oomph are yours. But it’s much ado about money: schools make money off the young. Old story: the young are used for profit. They should sue. I’d like to see you take on esthetics with names attached, like Vlack Bart 1 did — that would give poesy a new sense of importance. Bracing.

    • theparoleofficer says:

      Esthetics will surely play a role (rather a pa-role) in future blogs. However there is no going back to the inky days of mimeo. Black Bart (Vlad Bart if you’re from the Balkans) as conditions of his parole has promised not to rob any more stages or write any more poetry. However this will not keep the Society through his medium from voicing its opinion on the state of poetry. All aspects of la vie poisie are fair game. Members (honorary & dues paying) have the option of using an alias (go-by in old West parlance) to sign their submissions or commentaries. Disclosure of the ‘real’ names will not be made public as long as yearly dues are paid up in full. Lapsed or disgruntled (same thing) members have no guarantee that their go-bys will remain confidential. Per Chinee, Grand Poobah

  6. robert feuer says:

    i thought MFA meant Mother Fucking Asshole, something that is not teachable. (please advise if this language is inadvisable.)

    But, really –
    I found two classes at Santa Rosa JC to be very valuable – Creative Writing and Journalism. And, it’s quite easy to win a writing award when your competition is decades younger than you.

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