Do MFA Programs Hurt Poetry?

Question: In this age of digital media and short attention spans, what is the future of poetry for young people?

Edward Hirsch:    The attention deficit disorder of the culture is very distressing in America now and I think it puts a lot of things at risk, not just poetry.  There's never been a culture without poetry in the history of the world.  In every culture, in every language there is expressive play, expressive word play, there's language use to different purposes that we would call poetry.  So, I think poetry will survive and I don’t think it will be the end of poetry.  Our tremendous onslaught of mass media all the time that we’re suffering and we don’t really know how to think about, I think that puts certain things at risk.  I don’t think poetry will die, but I think that poetry does demand a certain kind of attention to language.  It does demand a certain space in order to read it and I think that space is somewhat threatened by the lack of attention that people have and the amount of time that they give to things. 

So, I just think that limits the kinds of experiences that people can have with poetry.  But, poetry will survive; I don’t worry about that.  But, I do think that it may save fewer souls if people can’t pay attention. 

Question: Do MFA programs help or hurt poetry?

Edward Hirsch:  I think they can do both things depending on the poet.  I think that the dark side of MFA programs is that they're generating more poets than the culture can absorb and there are more people writing poetry than possibly read it or can certainly earn a living around it and so that’s a stress on the system and I think a painful thing for many young poets who are looking to find a life in poetry that they're not going to be able to find.

The very good thing about MFA programs is their democratizing.  They bring a lot of different people to the table.  It’s not - I mean, in the history of poetry there have been a lot poetries where you have to inherit the position of poet from your ancestors and I think that if you just leave anyone to become a poet based on an aristocratic society, then a lot of people are left out who might have something to offer.  And I think the MFA program is a way of bringing a lot of different people to the table and inviting them in.  So I think that’s very good. 

I would be happier if people who went through MFA programs also were already, by then, deeply committed readers of poetry because we need readers of poetry as much as writers of poetry.  And I think in terms of educating a group of readers, MFA programs are very good.  I just think the model of MFA programs in which a young poet goes through the program, publishes a series of books, gets teaching jobs, that’s a bit at risk.  I think the culture can absorb so many people writing poetry and trying to earn their living in poetry. 

Question: What is your advice for an aspiring young poet?

Edward Hirsch:  First of all I think that poetry is very noble and I always have with me the sense of the nobility of poetry.  And when you are entering into poetry, whatever stage you're at, you are participating in something with a very long and noble tradition.  And so, I would keep in mind to a young poet that you are entering into something that is very important, that has always been important in terms of human concerns. 

The way to become a poet is to read poetry and to imitate what you read and to read passionately and widely and in as involved a way as you can.  It’s not important - it’s not necessary that you read everything.  What is necessary is that you care about things that you read and that you find something that really matters to you and you try and make something like that.  And I think that as long as you have other poets before you and that you can learn from them, then it’s always open ended for you.  There's always some place to go.  You don’t need workshops, you don’t need friends necessarily, you can be befriended by literature itself.  Emily Dickinson calls previous poets her kinsmen of the shelf.  You can always be consoled by your kinsmen of the shelf and you can participate in poetry by going to them and by trying to make something worthy of them.  Gertrude Stein said, “I write for myself and strangers.”  I would say I write for myself, strangers and the great dead.

Recorded on February 4, 2010

Culture can’t absorb that many people trying to earn their living in poetry.

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