I was reading “The Franz Wright Critique of the MFA Generations” on John Gallaher’s blog where Seth Abramson and Curtis Faville went toe to toe and Franz Wright threatened John Gallaher with a lawsuit, and I saw pro-MFA and anti-MFA sides agreeing that the 1920’s was the best decade of American poetry. Not only does Abramson, for all his current creative writing program expertise, seem ignorant of the program era’s history, but everybody, even avant MFA advocates, are certain the 1920’s was the best decade for poetry.
Just a brief side note: MFA-defender Seth Abramson said something great on Gallaher’s blog: Ambramson mocked the non-MFA poet as someone who writes “Coleridge knock-offs on napkins to get laid.” This speaks volumes. Note the Romantic reference, (Coleridge) the bane of T.S. Eliot, the Modernists, and the New Critics. Note the professional’s disdain for love (getting laid). Note the academic’s contempt for bread and butter (napkin). Note the ivory tower sneer at mixing art and life (writing poetry on a napkin). Abramson is absolutely a New Critical animal.
As for the 1920’s, love of the 1920’s might seem a little odd, but think about it: who was the architect of the creative writing era?
Who were Engle’s professional associates and influences?
The Fugitives (a member of the Fugitives chose Engle’s college thesis for the Yale Younger in 1932) and the Rhodes Scholar-Fugitive’s friends, the Modernists, Eliot, Pound, Williams, Tate, Ransom, Burke, Warren and Brooks.
What’s important to remember is that Tate, Ransom and Warren were not just poets who got jobs as university professors, they were the first poets to ever get university jobs because they were poets.
Frost was a famous poet and became a college teacher because he was Robert Frost, and that did help start the ball rolling.
Longfellow was a professor at Harvard, but he was hired because he knew lots of languages, not because he was a poet.
In the middle of the 19th century, less than 50 years before Ransom was born, the Professor of Poetry at Oxford delivered his lectures in Latin.
Ransom, Engle, Tate and Warren created the system, the very conditions in which poets became alternatives to scholars of history or languages to teach English in the universities.
The heresy of amateur poets, with little or no history or language credentials, teaching their amateur poet pals as core English in major universities was sold to the deans, presidents, chairs and trustees as a necessity due to their pals’ poetry’s modern relevance.
The Modernists’ modernism was the pre-condition to themselves teaching and being taught at the university.
That no one can agree what modernism in poetry even is, much less why it’s important to English degrees is a fact uttered too late.
The camel has long occupied the tent, the New Critics, championing the Modernists, have long since occupied not only the English departments but made out of one revolution another, the university Creative Writing program, the two revolutions, in actuality one, since poets teaching their friends at university in the name of modern relevance—languages and history pushed aside in the great ‘relevance’ stampede—naturally flowered into ‘creative writing teaching,’ because what else could Paul Engle, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren and their ever-increasing band of friends teach, anyway?
They couldn’t teach languages and they couldn’t teach history. They couldn’t teach classical poets because languages had that covered, and they couldn’t teach Romantic poets because the English professors had that covered, so their credentials for teaching were: their friends! They were experts at that. They were experts on poets who were riding a “modernist revolution” in little magazines read by six or seven people.
T.S. Eliot, it turned out, was the godfather of both Modernism and New Criticism. He found fame in the 1920’s. Modernism and New Criticism was the coin that paid for and built the Creative Writing Program era which, in 2010, is humming along on the aspirations of thousands of would-be poets.
This is why po-biz today is still in thrall to the 1920’s.
So Scarriet has decided to decide this thing here and now: What was the best decade for American poetry?