Poetry MFA graduates

The recent hubbub over the respectable poetry press which demanded their authors pay for the cost of producing their own book struck a real nerve.

Why?  Because an uncomfortable truth was brought into the open: U.S. poetry market inflation is so severe, a book of new poems not only has no value–it has a negative value.

In today’s marketplace, a new book of poems represents not growth, but a grave—new poetry not only does not add wealth, it takes wealth away from the world.

The truth will be argued away by some, convinced their poetry is worth something.

But this rationale fails, since the economic fact of this uncomfortable truth is no less true for being a general truth.

At least when a publisher asks you to pay for your book’s publication costs, it’s better than the contest system—where you pay for the publication of someone else’s book, and unethically so, in the crooked contest system judged or run by once respected poets such as Jorie Graham and Bin Ramke, who were exposed by Alan Cordle’s

The press which asked its own authors to pony up did so because it couldn’t stomach the contest system.  Ironies such as this will breed when a market collapses—and the market for new poems has collapsed big time.

Hence, it is no wonder that financial aid is the chief criterion in rating MFA programs.

What other criteria could there possibly be?  Earning an MFA degree in poetry is nothing more than an individual poet’s desperate gamble against inflation—even as MFA numbers add to that inflation.

The poets swim in the sea of their own doom, unable to be a poet unless they get wet.

A bunch of MFA profs and administrators have signed a letter of protest against the Poets & Writers rankings of MFA programs put together by Seth Abramson.

It’s unfair, say the protestors, who include relative titans such as Robert Pinsky and Tony Hougland, to weigh financial aid so heavily; there are other criteria, they protest, such as teaching methods.

Really?  What teaching methods?  Even the MFA programs themselves admit they don’t teach anyone to be a poet—the programs only give one time to make the attempt, with varying degrees of informal contact with peers.

Classical criteria, based on quantity and measurement, never did grace Poetry MFA curricula.  The aesthetics of Plato, Aristotle and Horace would seem horribly old-fashioned in today’s MFA.  Classical learning is not even included in a hybrid.  It is the enemy.  It is out. Byron is out, because he may have read a classical author once.  The exclusion of the old is total.  Intelligence is the only hallmark: intelligence left to swim on its own.  This is poetry education: We can’t teach you is what we will teach you.

Modernists outlawed quantity about 90 years ago, and these same gentlemen established the MFA programs 60 years ago.  The result?  Inflation as the world has never seen.

Scarriet’s MFA Poetry program criterion is simple.  Find one book of poems published by administration or faculty in the MFA program which has been purchased freely by a general reader. Then, check out the financial aid package.


  1. D said,

    September 15, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    I don’t know where this rumor started, that getting an MFA is about having “time to write” and a “community of peers,” but it’s nonsense. I have an MFA (in fiction), and the astute reading and forthright critiquing of my work by the fine writer-teachers I studied under was far and away the most valuable aspect of my experience there.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    September 15, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    Thanks, D, that’s interesting to know.

    “Time to write” and “community of peers” is batted about all the time.

    Was it micro-editing or macro-editing? Was it the kind of critiquing that could have been accomplished by correspondence, or did it require a face-to-face ‘school setting?’


    • D said,

      September 17, 2011 at 8:19 pm

      That’s a good and fair question, Tom. I think much of it could have been accomplished via correspondence. But what I loved especially about one writer/workshop teacher I had was how astute he was about others’ work. (He was also funny as hell, which made workshop interesting and entertaining. Given how exposed you can feel when it’s your story or poem that’s being discussed, the levity helped.) In other words, my appreciation for his aesthetic judgments about their work made it easier for me to trust what he was saying about my own.

      I’ll agree that there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between the quality of the writer and the quality of the writing teacher, but I’m surprised by how high the correspondence actually is, at least in my experience. I’ve had only one good writer as a teacher who wasn’t such a good teacher (that was back when I was an undergrad), and she wasn’t terrible, just mediocre. My guess is that if you don’t have a personality disorder and aren’t psychotic or drug-addled at the time or have some other serious problem that interferes with your ability to communicate clearly and reasonably, then your ability to read well will result in your being at least a decent teacher. (So, maybe you could say that being a perceptive reader is a necessary but insufficient condition for being a good writing teacher?)

      As for the community of MFA students: Each class is different. In fact, just yesterday I happened to talk to a faculty member at an MFA program near where I live now, and he mentioned how cut-throat some classes are and how sweet and supportive others turn out to be. Faculty can set an example to encourage more decent behavior by students to one another, but there’s only so much to that end the faculty can do. I saw and experienced more of the cut-throat behavior than I would have liked, but three years earlier or three years later, I might have had a different experience there. But the last thing I feel is regret about the teaching I got.

      By the way, though I was part of MFA land, I thought Foetry provided a long-overdue reality check.

  3. Fiona said,

    September 16, 2011 at 1:37 am

    I think there’s actually more than one objection in the open letter, and one of the biggest is the fact that the methodology created by Seth is so incredibly specious and misleading. Everyone thinks this is a debate about whether or not programs should be ranked, but it’s really about whether it’s responsible (even ethical) to keep publishing these rankings under the current methodology, which, again, is very, very flawed. For the smartest breakdown on how these rankings are methodologically specious, check out Stacey Harwood’s breakdown at the Best American Poetry blog: “Garbage In, Garbage Out,” or any of Stacey’s other past posts about the P&W rankings on that blog.


    • thomasbrady said,

      September 16, 2011 at 8:53 pm


      I agree with you the P&W rankings lack merit—and Harwood’s objections are spot on.

      Seth says his methodology is transparent and it’s the best possible under the circumstances.

      P&W is concerned with writing as a business. MFA programs are business models, so I can understand why P&W would want to get into the game and publish something like this. Seth is a strong advocate of the MFA model and has done as much research as can be done, apparently.

      I’m less interested in this controversy and more interested in the question: what is a Poetry MFA program?

      If English departments in HS, undergrad, and grad are doing their jobs, what more can an MFA program give? That’s the key question, I think.


      • D said,

        October 14, 2011 at 12:57 am

        Poets & Writers used to be at least partially concerned with the aesthetic components of writing, not simply the business end (I don’t read it regularly enough anymore to be able to make a fair judgment about that now). As someone who has an MFA, I never felt that my MFA program was a “business model”; believe it or not, the emphasis was on trying to create quality literature. I was also never promised, by any program I contacted, an academic job at the end of the MFA–though it happens that many people who graduated from my (and certain other) programs do get academic jobs (someone who came in a year behind me just started a tenure-track job in, coincidentally, my home state).

        On the other hand, law school graduates are increasingly having trouble finding work in their chosen profession:

        Seth Abramson seems to believe that if he says something is true, it magically becomes true. Unfortunately, that belief leads him to err in several of the conclusions he draws about the validity of his methods. Thus, I have to agree with what Fiona writes about his ranking system.

        • thomasbrady said,

          October 16, 2011 at 1:29 pm


          Is creating quality literature good for business?

          If one is enjoying eating a good meal in a nice restaurant, I suppose one doesn’t appreciate it as a ‘business model,’ even though that’s part of what it is.

          Our arguments divide over whether or not we like that word: business.


  4. September 16, 2011 at 4:40 am

    The problem with MFA’s:

    One can easily train a Morning Glory vine to climb up your trellis, but you can never teach it to be a Honeysuckle,

    • thomasbrady said,

      September 16, 2011 at 8:54 pm

      ahh, the poet speaks.

      Thank you, Gary.

  5. roger dow said,

    September 24, 2011 at 12:55 am

    But morning glory gets the last laugh. It’s an halucinogenic.

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