By Way of Introduction: W. H. Auden vs. the MFA
“Of course, one knew other poets when one was at university,” W. H. Auden told our Columbia University MFA workshop during the fall of 1972. “But one would never expect to meet them in such a curious thing as a Creative Writing class.”
I recall that he had appeared wearing blue jeans, a plaid shirt and a pair of bedroom slippers--a typical costume. (For some reason, I also imagine him sipping a Martini, but that was probably not the case.) He had announced that we would not be writing anything other than poetry in traditional forms in this class. "Go away and write a sestina!" he forcefully enjoined one student. "At your age what matters is not what you say in your writing but how you say it. Have you ever tried writing a cywydd? It’s the classical Welsh medieval meter.…"
Sometime earlier, when he was to begin teaching at the University of Michigan, he had rejected the suggestion that he teach either ‘creative writing’ or modem poetry. He believed that poets who taught for their living should keep as far as possible from their own field of work; he also held that modern literature did not require the assistance of a lecturer to introduce it to undergraduates. [i]
Even so, Auden couldn't resist dreaming up his own "Bardic College" with a specific curriculum:
· In addition to English, at least one ancient language, probably Greek or Hebrew, and two modern languages.
· Thousands of lines of poetry in these languages to be learnt by heart.
· Instruction in prosody, rhetoric and comparative philology.
· The only critical exercise would be the writing of pastiche and parody. All critical writing, other than historical or textual, would be banned from the college library.
· Courses in mathematics, natural history, geology, meteorology, archaeology, mythology, liturgies and cooking.
· Every student would be expected to take personal charge of a domestic animal and a garden plot.
Auden's contrary impulses--that poetry and the creation of literature were not properly academic pursuits, but, on the other hand, well..., they might just be--were appropriate to his time, which began, at the beginning of the 20th century with the founding of the English Department at Harvard (whose purpose was solely to teach composition, it being assumed that the sons of educated families already had a grounding in classical and modern literature[ii]), and the start of MFA programs in Creative Writing, which not only built on the emerging idea that literature should be studied in undergraduate and graduate schools, but that its creation in those schools should be fostered.
Since my own tenure in the Columbia program, many thousands of writers have received their degrees and hundreds of MFA programs have flourished. As much as universities sponsoring degree programs have mostly prospered (there is apparently lots of money to be made running them), critics have faulted their existence. A seminal critique that caused a sensation at its release, Dana Goia's 1991 essay, "Can Poetry Matter?" pointed out the literary consequences of such programs:
Decades of public and private funding have created a large professional class for the production and reception of new poetry comprising legions of teachers, graduate students, editors, publishers, and administrators. Based mostly in universities, these groups have gradually become the primary audience for contemporary verse. Consequently, the energy of American poetry, which was once directed outward, is now increasingly focused inward. Reputations are made and rewards distributed within the poetry subculture.[iii]
While Goia's critique might be answered by demanding "So what?" or observing that, "It was ever so, MFA programs notwithstanding," Auden saw a more practical consequence:
It is probably unwise for a poet to read English, this is not because he will learn nothing thereby which will be of profit to him as a poet. He may very well learn a great deal. It is because the only ways of earning his living for which it will qualify him are teaching or literary journalism.
This may be true, but I doubt that MFA candidates, on Graduation morning, surmise in horror that, though they soon will be declared Officially Qualified Professional Poets, the street value of that degree is about as potentially profitable as the profession of itinerant philosopher. Unless we spend our two years in the consummate thrall that Romantic poets experienced while meditating upon a rose, we'll probably have known just exactly what we were getting into and, if we were then practical and smart, planned our futures accordingly.
For many of us, the choice of whether or not to continue to write is not really an option. As Mary Biggs put it in the title of her book (perhaps melodramatically), the call to write is "a gift that cannot be refused." [iv]
Even so, if my sixty credit sojourn at Columbia had been my only learning experience as a young writer, I doubt I would have pursued writing with the persistence that I have.
For six years prior to beginning Columbia, I was subsumed in an intense, if informal, teaching and learning relationship with several accomplished writers, poets, painters and others. Principal among these were the poet David Ignatow, poet/ playwright/ translator/ novelist H. R. Hays, the novelist and performance poet Charles Matz, and the painter and filmmaker Ilya Bolotowsky. At times, I studied with them in classrooms, but mostly I spent time with them and their families. I even lived with them for short periods when I couldn't afford to live anywhere else. They critiqued my writing, they encouraged me to continue. In exchange for their generosity, I ran errands, sometimes cooked their dinners, mowed their lawns, tried to settle their arguments, kept their secrets, endured being the butt of their jokes, and got myself into trouble from which they sometimes were able to extricate me. This period amounted to an apprenticeship with mentors who shared their professional and private lives, and thereby let me see what the life of a professional writer could amount to--not only how it is to write, but how it is to live as a writer in one's time and place.
For those writers whose learning has centered solely around the university, this memoir of unstructured, raucous apprenticeship with writers and artists of the Hamptons may offer an educational alternative.
[i] Carpenter, Humphrey (2011-10-20). W. H. Auden: A Biography. Faber. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Berlin, James A. Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900 - 1985 (Studies in Writing & Rhetoric)
[iii] Goia, Dana, "Can Poetry Matter?" The Atlantic, May 1991
[iv] Biggs, Mary, A Gift That Cannot Be Refused: The Writing and Publishing of Contemporary American Poetry (Contributions to the Study of World Literature)
A Poem by Sandy McIntosh
We lower my brother’s coffin
beneath his monument.
Abruptly, mother hisses: “Look!”
Not twenty feet away,
the grave of my brother’s nanny.
“She wanted him for her own,” mother whispers.
“Now she’s got him.”
A decade passes.
The game of Cemetery Chess progresses slowly.
Mother dies; her monument
erected midway between brother and nanny.
As we lower my mother down
I whisper to the nanny:
Sandy McIntosh was born in Rockville Centre, New York, and received a BA from Southampton College in 1970, an MFA from Columbia University in 1972, and a PhD. from the Union Graduate School in 1979. After working with children for eight years as a writer in the schools he completed a study of writers who taught in the program and how their work with children affected their own writing. The study, The Poets in the Poets-in-the Schools was published by the Minnesota Center for Social Research, University of Minnesota. He alternated teaching creative writing at Southampton College, New York Institute of Technology, and Hofstra University with publishing nonfiction works, such as Firing Back (John Wiley 1997), and computer software, such as Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing! (Electronic Arts, 1986). For several years he contributed journalism, poetry, and opinion columns to The New York Times, Newsday, The Nation, The Wall Street Journal, American Book Review, and elsewhere. He was also editor and publisher of Wok Talk, a Chinese cooking bi-monthly and the author and editor of several Chinese cook books.
His first collection of poetry, Earth Works, was published by Southampton College the year he graduated. He has since published seven more collections. Cemetery Chess: Selected and New Poems is coming out in Fall 2012 and contains poems selected from books and chapbooks published since 1970; the title poem of this collection was published in The New York Times’ web edition. His original poetry in a screenplay has shared the Silver Medal in the Film Festival of the Americas. And an excerpt of his collaboration with Denise Duhamel, 237 More Reasons To Have Sex. has appeared on The Best American Poetry blog.