Singular Voices vs. the MFA?

I’ve touched upon the “are MFAs evil” debate (In Defense of the MFA) but the issue has been on my mind lately, so here it goes again. (I have an MFA in poetry from the University of Florida).

A common critique of contemporary American poetry is that it is homogenous, safe, and boring because it is being subsidized by the university system: poets can write protected from “market forces” and thus there’s no real competition to produce the best poetry possible. The result is bland, mediocre poetry.

Let me begin by saying I wholeheartedly disagree there are no unique, daring, and interesting voices out there. I call b.s by pointing (off the top of my head and reflecting poets I am familiar with rather than the sum total of talent available) at the work of Sandra Beasley, Jennifer Chang, Tina Chang, Eduardo C. Corral, Karin Gottshall, Jennifer Grotz, Rebecca Hazelton, Ada Limon, Randall Mann, D.A. Powell, Michael Robbins, Brenda Shaughnessy, Sandra Simonds, A.E. Stallings, C. Dale Young, and Kevin Young (all born after 1960). The list could go on and on, and no doubt I’ve missed lots of talented poets. Perhaps that helps prove my point.

​Still, would poetry be better today (would there be MORE such interesting voices) without MFAs and university sponsorship of poet’s careers?

I am reminded of a thought experiment meant to illustrate Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle that goes something like this: imagine you are watching a baseball game on TV and your team loses by 2 runs; had you not been watching, would your team still have lost? Had you not been watching, would your team have won, or tied, or lost only by one run, or by a landslide?

Common sense tells us that the result would be the same whether you had been watching or not. But scientifically speaking, you can’t make that statement. Once the game is over, you can’t go back and un-watch it to see if your team would have won. The premise “the outcome would have been the same” can not be tested or negated, and therefore it is not scientific.

Without academia and MFAs, poetry today would likely be different. But would it be any better? With fewer poets writing, with the free market in control (supply and demand and all that), would we have better poetry today? As I said, answering that is impossible. You can say yes or you can say no, but that’s a statement of opinion, not fact. Without its ties to academia, today’s poetry may have turned out better. Or, just as likely, it may have turned out worse.

I can imagine an alternative universe where no MFAs exist and poetry has no connection to academia, a universe in which critics write damning essays on the sad state of poetry and the need for public funds to be made available to support the art. No system is perfect; there will always be room to improve. And every system has its dark side: in the absence of public (university) support for poetry, would essays such as Dana Gioia’s “Can Poetry Matter?” have been a lamentation of the cruelty of the for-profit market, a summary of its detrimental effects on poetry, and a call for academia to embrace poets and offer them support?


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