THE TWO ACADEMIES

The Academy, for poet/lawyer Seth Abramson, is unfairly attacked when it comes to poetry. The MFA Creative Writing model is healthy, he insists, a hybrid of association and guidance and leisure that allows a thousand flowers to bloom.

But there are two academies, and the older one is the one Seth Abramson ignores.

We mean the Academy in which to teach the student Greek, you teach the student Homer. We mean the Academy where the best way to teach a student Greek is to teach them Homer. In the First and oldest Academy, Homer is not a piece of ‘creative writing’ or a cinematic spectacle for an idle brain—Homer is the foundation of the language for that society, and the Academy of Homer is the nation of Homer: they are one and the same.

Any genuine critique of Abramson’s academy begins with an awareness of these two academies and the tremendous gulf between them: one is national; the other is local; one is the nation, the other is Joe’s Diner.

There is nothing wrong with Joe’s Diner. It serves very good food (so says reviewer Seth Abramson) and might turn a pretty profit, too.

But let us not fool ourselves that grown men and women writing experimental poems in 21st century America so they might earn a college degree is anything more than a transaction in some actual cafe that happens to exist up the street.

This is not a real academy—this one that sells Writing Degrees—this Academy is an illusory one, a fake one, at best a diner that sells pretty good food, in comparison to the First Academy in which the Greek language, the Greek nation, and Homer were all one.

We all know that new combinations of words can make a kind of odd sense that is novel and pleasing. Even random words can sometimes produce this effect, a default ability of language itself. Poets nudge linguistic frolic in the direction of a more pleasing and human result, even as the poet is under the sway of indifferent, random machinery. Such writing does not reflect reality; the poet attempting to consciously depict an object or incident in front of them cannot go far with this method, in which the playfulness of language makes caprice the rule.

We might kid ourselves in believing this sort of ephemeral writing has real worth beyond its pure novel effect—but in fact it does have real worth, even if it’s a sad one, pathetic in the sense that punning is pathetic, or sad; for, in fact,the impulse to pun is a sad one, and punning is a sign of misery in the speaker, and here we think of the “antic disposition” of pure sport, but in this case the punning is conscious and not random, as we mentioned above; we are now in a whole different universe, one of motive—and add emotion to the mix and we have punning where it is noble, as spoken by the sad and miserable Hamlet, for instance, and now we begin to see poetry fleshed out into heroic action, into drama, into a national literature which transcends ephemera even as it utilizes it, the literature of Homer or Shakespeare which itself defines the Academy and towers over “creative writing” thumb-sucking.

This is what Seth Abramson and defenders of the current MFA model must confront—nothing less than building a national literature which includes verse drama as T.S Eliot in his wisest and most selfless Criticism cried out for in his younger and less affected days, national dramatic poetry as opposed to the lolly-pop licking hermetic lyric; a literature worthy to teach language and culture with in order to elevate the literacy of a nation, that excitement  and that Academy and that literature and that language and that poetry all gloriously one and the same, in the most diverse sense imaginable.

The pluralists might object to all this talk of one language and one nation; by “one” we mean all that is required to hold together the necessary diversity—whatever that happens to be. Pluralists need to relax. Pluralism is only truly honored in the attempt to put it somewhere. The genius knows what we mean.

We also understand that the United States is not ancient Athens, but this impacts our argument not one bit. There will always be a Joe’s Diner and there will always be a Seth Abramson working for one. Our argument could not be more relevant.

We are also keen to the complexity of Plato’s critique of Homer and what that means to a nation, to a language, to poetry, and to an Academy.

It does pose a difficulty: how seriously should poets take Plato’s critique? We think the best response to Plato is to concede Plato’s critique is inevitable and enriching—certainly the MFA student could use the challenge to hone their critical thinking.

One cannot be a creative writer without being a critical writer, after all.

Just ask Shakespeare, a treasure for English-speakers, who is Homer plus Plato.

16 Comments

  1. powersjq said,

    July 5, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    One of the best posts you’ve ever penned. And I’ve read most of them. I’ve nothing against blogging, but I do wish the insights in this entry might reach a wider audience–an audience perhaps less inclined to agree and more in need of the stimulation of such disagreement. Say, the readership of Harper’s.

  2. Irene said,

    October 27, 2013 at 8:42 pm

    Seth’s po-biz attitude doesn’t represent the vast majority of those MFA students I know who attended the better MFA programs. He certainly doesn’t speak for me (a fiction MFA grad). Unfortunately, his tendency to over-classify results in misleading oversimplification as he attempts to define and describe various poetic forms and the history of poetry.

    I don’t blame writers who bypassed the MFA route for being suspicious of MFA programs now. I believe that Seth is largely responsible for making the entire enterprise appear very insular or, even worse, like some sort of scam. At the same time, I know that most of the poets in my program worked hard to produce formalist poetry; few of them were content amusing themselves with pseudo-clever experiments.

    Oh, and we read books in my program. LOTS AND LOTS of books: novels and short story collections (a portion of which had been published before 1900) and books of poetry. Reading is one of the best educations a writer can find. One doesn’t need an MFA to acquire that education, but an MFA also offers good writers on the faculty (if the faculty actually consists of good writers) who will read your work and respond to it in detail. And if you get funding, this is, in the 21st century, a far cheaper alternative to living in Greenwich Village or Paris so you can meet other aspiring writers.

  3. thomasbrady said,

    October 28, 2013 at 7:56 pm

    Irene,

    It’s a given that a writer should read “LOTS” of books, but the issue is, what kind of books, and to what end?

    Should the student read a lot of ‘how to write’ books? A lot of contemporary books? A lot of old books? And why? What’s the agenda? The old English major was expected to read widely in all sorts of literature, and the graduate student could later specialize.

    In the 1930s, the New Critics took over Letters education in the US and the old English major was deemed ineffectual. Contemporary writers teaching students how to write has been the replacement. The whole tendency has been away from “studying Keats” to “studying the Self.” The Creative Writing industry was once outside the academy and now it occupies a high position there, and a quick glance, I think, will register the dangers: the flattery, the vanity, the questionable motives when contemporary writers use the academy as a way to get into the canon (what the academy teaches) using their students (readers) as fodder. Sure, it may just be an honest ‘guild’ process in most situations, but there’s no reason why the academy shouldn’t guard against this and assign “LOTS” of reading in a more objective manner.

    Tom

    • Irene said,

      October 28, 2013 at 8:28 pm

      I was intending “LOTS AND LOTS” in more lighthearted sense, though that obviously didn’t come through–at least not for some. In any case, the problem is that Seth doesn’t seem to think that studying literature is an important component of learning to write, which is probably why he seems rather condescending toward the “academic” (as opposed to the so-called studio) MFA programs.

      The other problem is that there is no way I would have wanted an undergraduate English degree from the vast majority of American universities in the past several years. I refuse to waste my tom learning post-structuralism or being required to write jargon-filled nonsense based on critical theory and expressed in verbose prose (and much of the contemporary lit-crit “scholarship” I’ve read is dreadfully written obscurantist nonsense). I thought I made clear in my post that I was referring to novels, short-story collections, and books of poetry (that’s how I described what we read in my program). We were never expected to read books about writing. And I thought I’d made clear that not all of the published work we read was produced in the 20th century or later.

      Donald Justice visited the program while I was there. He told someone else that although he still lived in Iowa City, he no longer had much contact with the Writers’ Workshop, where he’d taught (a co-founder of the program I attended studied under Justice); he thought it had gotten too “big”–too much like an “industry.” (I didn’t hear the comment, but I tend to trust the source.) Maybe the larger size just didn’t fit his personality style by then.

      I’ve seen plenty to criticize in some creative writing MFA programs, but I’ve also seen a lot of good and outstanding work come out of some o them–including Iowa.

      And just as Seth needs to stop bending over backwards to defend MFA programs as if those programs are going to save American literature from otherwise-inevitable decline, it would be more fair-minded of Scarriet poets–with whom I agree far more often than I agree with Seth Abramson–would avoid assuming that no work of value can come from those who attended any of these programs. If that’s not the blanket assumption being made by Scarriet’s poets and commenters, it would be illuminating to hear that.

      It seems to me that it must be hard for a group of writers to know whether MFA programs can be valuable in the development of a writer if no one (or almost no one) in that group attended one–though I’d be among the first to concede that great literature existed on this planet for many, many centuries before the arrival of the MFA program.

  4. Irene said,

    October 28, 2013 at 8:30 pm

    P.S. By the way, I don’t know what assigning books in a “more objective manner” means. “Objective” according to whom and what standards?

  5. thomasbrady said,

    October 29, 2013 at 1:49 am

    Irene,

    Thanks for your thoughtful remarks. The study of literature vs. the study of writing. The former contains the latter; the latter distracts from the former; why do we need the MFA then? I would teach classic criticism, too: Plato, Shelley, Poe. We haven’t had good Criticism since Eliot, and his was very dubious.

    Tom

  6. Irene said,

    October 29, 2013 at 3:33 am

    Hi, Tom. (I’ve read your comments for a long time, and I heartily agree with them far more often than not.) I don’t see anything magical about the MFA. I do, however, think that good writers often make very good readers, and astute reading is 80 percent of teaching how to write well (80 percent is a rough guess, at best!). It helps a writer to be read by someone, but good writing groups can be hard to find in smaller communities, including, ironically (or no?), in college towns. On the other hand, an MFA program that includes good faculty members generally provides good readers for students as the latter work away at short stories or poems or, sometimes, longer works. In exchange, the university gets inexpensive teaching for certain undergrad courses. Teaching writing made me have to think more carefully about writing (though I’d never been cavalier or haphazard about it), and I think that also didn’t hurt my writing any. But of course Chekhov, Jane Austin and Nabokov, and the Romantic poets, managed to do just fine without taking formal courses under anyone. The time you gain to focus on writing and reading is perhaps the greatest benefit an MFA program offers, but the formal study of writing is such a new phenomenon that literature can obviously survive without it. I especially object to the notion of a Generation M (MFA) as the ideal direction for American literature to take or as a method for creating an audience (or, rather, consumers?) for American authors. The more forcefully the MFA is advanced for those purposes, the shallower the entire enterprise sounds. In my experience, the MFA isn’t INHERENTLY such a crass or self-serving endeavor–though it certainly CAN be.

    While I’m thinking of it: When I was an undergraduate, I took a summer graduate workshop at Iowa under a writer whose work I already admired (admission to the summer workshop was competitive but not nearly as competitive as the regular program is). One novel excerpt that was being “workshopped” was full of fundamental problems. Finally, the writer teaching the class asked the student-writer why he chose a certain character for his protagonist. The response: “I thought making him the main character would make the story more marketable to an American audience.” The teacher, a soft-spoken man, was visibly irritated. He said, “That is the WORST reason to make a literary choice in your writing. The market changes every ten minutes. If you’re not thinking about how a decision affects the quality of the work, then you’re not thinking about it as a work of art.”

    That was a reply I appreciated hearing from a writing teacher.

    Thanks for your replies, by the way.

    • thomasbrady said,

      October 29, 2013 at 11:53 am

      Irene,

      Yes, think of Mary Shelley who wrote Frankenstein—stunning prose—at what? 18? Did she need a writing course? No, she obviously read a great deal. I must disagree with that teacher: there’s nothing wrong with writing to gain a wide audience. Poe, the genius, did it and recommended it. I met Justice at Iowa. And Paul Engle, too.

      • Irene said,

        October 29, 2013 at 5:24 pm

        Hi, Tom. I see nothing at all wrong with trying to reach a wider audience, but if the emphasis on that weakens one’s work as much as it weakened this mans’ novel excerpt, maybe one should focus more attention for a while on actually writing well. The teacher’s writing was, at it’s best, so good that it stayed with me many years later. On the other hand, the student’s excerpt stayed with me only in the sense that I still remember some of the worst sentences and passages in it.

        It seems to me that the writing should be the first consideration, long before marketing or sales enter the writer’s imagination.

        Speaking of the Shelleys: Compared to some of the New Sincerity I’ve seen (though not all of it is bad), I’ll take the Romantics any day!

        I like this response to a NYT essay published around a year ago:

        http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/11/weve-been-arguing-about-irony-vs-sincerity-for-millennia/265601/

        The Times piece:

        http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/17/how-to-live-without-irony/?_r=0

        • thomasbrady said,

          November 2, 2013 at 6:21 pm

          I still think it’s OK to aspire to be popular. Obviously a bad writer will be a bad writer no matter what. The point is that a good writer should aspire to be popular and aspiring to be popular will not make you a worse writer—quite the opposite. Remember we are not talking about science for specialists—we’re talking about storytelling.

          As for all this talk about sincerity v. irony, I think too much is made of it in the sense that the great majority of people are both ironic or sincere by turns. Both modes work. However, those who believe sincerity is impossible are too cynical for me, though I suppose if they are sincere in this belief, then that’s okay.

          • Laura Runyan said,

            November 2, 2013 at 8:06 pm

            Yes, I agree, Tom: most people are both, by turns. But a lot of bad stuff is popular. So is a lot of pseudo-good stuff. I was pleased to discover that Jonathan Franzen did NOT get an MFA. I’m no fan of “The Corrections,” though I really wanted to like it, which is why I forced myself to finish the thing. I have to be suspicious, though, of any book that leads someone who scored in the 99th percentile of the verbal GRE to write down a couple hundred vocabulary words from the book so she could look them up later without interrupting her reading at the time.

            I’m no snob, but do we really need any more Danielle Steeles? I’d like to see fewer of those kinds of writers dominate the market.

          • Laura Runyan said,

            November 3, 2013 at 5:06 am

            An interview with John McNally. Anis Shivani, who’s doing to interview, is very anti-MFA, though McNally never takes the bait on that one. McNally’s comments are worth reading. His novel “After the Workshop” is very funny, by the way.

            http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anis-shivani/iowa-writers-workshop-gra_b_578258.html

            • thomasbrady said,

              November 3, 2013 at 2:00 pm

              Laura you link huffpost and before I know it I’m reading lame celebrity gossip on Entertainment Weekly…which is relevant because McNally did say the internet distracts him from reading fiction. I read very little fiction. I did work as an escort for Paul and Hualing Engle’s International Writing Program when I was getting my MA at Iowa. Best job I ever had.

              As far as one’s writing getting better in a workshop because teachers point out what you are doing wrong…yea I’m sure that happens but “wrong” is sometimes on the way to something uniquely good so it would have been better if no one told you it was “wrong.” And all good writers are self-editing anyway. One’s writing improves as one matures and reads more just as a matter of course. Teaching writing is overrated. Luck, personal inspiration, and hard work are 99% of it.

              • Laura Runyan said,

                November 3, 2013 at 5:28 pm

                That sounds like a great job, Tom!

                It was helpful to me to have a teacher point out something that I usually suspected was a bad writing habit but one I didn’t change until I heard someone I respected comment on it. They teach acting, dance, painting, music in the academy, and I guess I just don’t see writing as significantly differing from the other arts in that regard. Formal study isn’t required for one to write, but I don’t see it as harmful, either–unless, that is, one has a really bad teacher. At it’s best, teaching can speed up a writer’s development–not through teaching tricks or gimmicks but through serious scrutiny of a student’s work (and my own thesis director placed heavy emphasis on character development). In my very first undergrad workshop, I was struck by how much agreement I saw among the better students regarding the difference between great and awful literature. Personal taste will always be a factor, with some readers loving John Irving and others finding him odd. But I generally found myself agreeing with the teacher’s sensibilities, and because it was my first workshop, I couldn’t have been brainwashed by then about any “workshop aesthetic” that was supposedly floating through the university system.

                Obviously, though, some are quite skeptical of the idea that writing can be taught. On the other hand, Seth’s idea that the writer just steps aside and allows the students to teach one another is, in my experience, absurd. What my classmates WERE able to do for me is this: Tell me whether all or most of my classmates had the same problem with my story or whether a particular complaint was an outlier. You can’t please everyone, after all. In fact, you shouldn’t even try.

  7. thomasbrady said,

    November 2, 2013 at 9:56 pm

    Popularity will always be a worthy goal, despite the fact that bad things are temporarily popular. Will Steele be popular 100 years from now? Poe will. There’s popular and then there’s popular. The popular will is neither good nor bad. It’s a wave we ride.

  8. Laura Runyan said,

    November 3, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    About the writer “[stepping] aside,” above: I should have said, instead, the writing TEACHER. In any case, my point was that I don’t see the writing teacher as necessarily irrelevant to the process of learning to write.


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