The Writing Class

I wanted to share this article written by Jaswinder Bolina and published by The Poetry Foundation. It’s a bit long, but it’s well worth the read, especially in the context of the M.F.A. debate, academia, the culture of privilege, and labor issues.  Here are some passages that I think are especially striking and raise some of the various class issues regarding pursuing an M.F.A. and being a poet.

Jaswinder on his parents feelings towards poetry: “Poetry wasn’t a bad idea in the abstract to either of them. It might even be a noble pursuit, but it also seemed a thing better left to the children of the wealthy than to the son of working-class immigrants. ”

On class issues, education, and career decisions: “Where the working classes are regularly forced to take pragmatic action out of necessity, the privileged are allowed to act on desire. My parents’ money, modest as it was and still is, did more than pay for the things I needed. It allowed me to want things they couldn’t afford to want themselves. ”

I think the second point I posted is one to ponder, specifically the idea that graduate school is mostly limited to only a select group of people with at some privilege, namely decent economic circumstances.  Furthermore, even those that have access to graduate school don’t necessarily land a full-time, tenure track teaching job at a university after completing the degree, so why do so many people keep signing up for M.F.A. programs? Is it simply about career ambition, and how detrimental is that to the poetry at the national level if much of what is written and published is done so by M.F.A. and Ph.D. students and graduates? Beyond open mic nights, slams, and other community events, how does poetry break out of its insular culture of privilege?

5 thoughts on “The Writing Class

  1. John says:

    I think that you (and Bolina) make interesting points and ask an interesting question: how does poetry break out of the clutches of the privileged halls of academia? The question certainly isn’t new. Dana Gioia asked a similar question in the late 90s, and, if anything, poetry seems to have become more, rather than less, insular since.

    I’m not sure there is an easy answer to the question. I think, like many systemic problems, there are many causes and the solutions are not simple. However, I was listening to Tim Wise earlier, discussing race and racism, and he pointed out that the leader of the Empire isn’t going to do anything to change the Empire — he’s simply going to try to preserve things as they are, to best benefit the Empire. I would posit that the hallowed halls of academia are where the rulers of the Empire reside, and those within those hallowed halls are going to do little to change The Way Things Are, as change can result in a loss of power. Tim Wise mentioned that change has to come from the people, from the bottom up. Poetry, like most other things, does not benefit from the theory of ‘trickle down’. Change only comes from the bottom up, when enough people are tired of things As They Are.

    Unfortunately, the world of poetry is, at least at this particular point in time, not a revolutionary-minded place. Having recently been a student in a writing program, I would say that while there are a few free thinkers, most tend to present things guaranteed to please the instructor, rather than challenge the ‘norm.’ Or, the work is sincerely written but not great writing. Several students spent the term presenting pretty much the same poem over and over again: “I love you, why don’t you love me back?” or “I love you beyond reason, and I’m so glad you love me beyond reason also.” Love is certainly a profound emotion, and has inspired many great poems, but after all these centuries, avoiding cliche in love poems is not easy. My experience was that the teacher was more interested in her own work and opinions, and making sure she gave enough passing grades, than she was in challenging anyone to be more original or independent in their writing. She was part of the status quo seeking the status quo.

    Many of the major poetry markets rarely post anything by anyone outside of the academic world. A bad poem from John Doe who teaches writing at a small, unknown university is more likely to be printed than a brilliant poem from Jane Doe, who only graduated from high school and has to work two jobs to make ends meet. When was the last time you saw a bio blurb that said “Jane Doe works at Walmart.” If there’s not, at the least, a BA associated with the name, chances of publication in many of those major publications is slim to none.

    I have discontinued several subscriptions because I just couldn’t take the sameness of the poems. I felt like I was reading the same poems by the same poets over and over. I am, however, encouraged by the rise in quality publications — many which started as e-zines, and now are printing paper copies. And many of the smaller journals still offer opportunities for unknowns.

    Having drifted a bit off topic, I’d say that there is still a passion (if only it would be less homogenous) among poets. I don’t think one goes all the way through an MFA program without having a passion. Why else would you spend that kind of money knowing full well that the chances of ever earning that much money as a poet are rather slim. Perhaps it is that passion that will eventually ignite the spark that leads to the revolution with the outcome that a poet can once again earn a living producing great poems.

    Thanks for sharing the article … I’d seen it, but hadn’t read it. So, thanks for encouraging me to read it.

    • Brian Fanelli says:


      Thank you for reading my post and commenting on Bolina’s article. A lot of buzz and conversation has occurred following his article, and that’s a positive step forward.

      You mentioned Dana Gioia’s thoughts that stem from his essay “Can Poetry Matter?,” and in answering some of the questions you raised in your post, I will go back to his essay for a moment. Some of the suggestions in it are still relevant today when one questions how to make poetry have a broader audience outside of the academy. One suggestion he proposes is to combine poetry with other arts forms. I will note that last night, I read at an event that featured live music and a drawing social. It had a great turnout, and I will mention that most of the people there have never been to a poetry reading before, but they were there for the music and drawing social. Yet, they told me afterwards that they enjoyed the poetry element, too. So by combining it with different art forms, it reached a bigger audience. This was also a community event, so, as you noted, there has to be grassroots action, people from various communities willing to find ways to make poetry more relevant. Combining it with different art forms is certainly one way.

      Regarding the other problems you mentioned, well, that’s more complicated. Like everything else in America, poetry has suffered from capitalism and careerism. The M.F.A. programs and the academy have made poetry much, much more insular. You have the same few people judging the same contests and editing the big magazines. They won’t speak out about the system because they are too afraid of losing the sweet teaching positions that they have. There are alternatives to this, however. As you noted, people can start their own magazines, zines, and community readings. Again, it has to come from the bottom up and grassroots action. Those voices will not the loudest, but at least they provide an alternative!

      In addition, poetry in general has to be more relevant again. A few months ago, The Atlantic published a story asking if American poetry is important at all anymore and if it even occupies a public space the way it once did. The article looked at the work of some bigger names, including Ashbery, Merwin, and Rae Armantrout, and asked why their work, and the work of the big poetry names in general, are not addressing the issues of our time more or at least speaking out on such matters. The article mentioned how Robert Lowell marched against the Vietnam war. It mentioned how William Carlos Williams wanted to use the language of America’s working-class in his poems, and it listed other examples of past poets. I think the article raised an important point. Who will pay attention to poetry if its big names are too afraid to address the issues of our time, especially with all of the social and political unrest going on?

      Poetry has to make itself relevant again, but to do so, its bigger names need to take risks, including the willingness to speak out about the very institutions they are a part of that has made it so insular in the first place. The other solution is for people to continue hosting readings in their community and launching indie presses and magazines. One doesn’t need an M.F.A. to do so.

  2. John says:

    I think you make a good point, about poetry being relevant again — though, as a whole, it has been a very long time since poetry has had the relevance you mention. Since Vietnam? Since the poem of Owen and Sassoon?

    Of course, there have been poems in response to major events: 9/11, for example. And “Rattle” magazine has their weekly poem about current events — there have been some rather good poems. But, as a whole, poetry is, as you (and Bolina) say: poets talking among poets. There seems to be more emphasis on style than on subject. And, I agree: we don’t hear Ashbery speaking out about injustice, or Oliver on equality.

    But, again — relevance? How long has it been since poetry has been relevant? There are voices, pockets, enclaves; but none seem to reach big audiences. None of the magazines with the largest subscriber base publish poetry, which makes it tough to reach bigger audiences. Even the big poetry magazine “Poetry” publishes about 50,000 copies per issue. That’s a tiny, tiny audience. That’s pretty much one for every Creative Writing teacher. Poetry and art evenings can be enjoyable, but, again, tiny audience. If our national exposure to poetry is the every-four-year Inaugural poem, that’s not going to help.

    I think that part of the issue is that we offer very poor poetry introduction to our children. Schools don’t teach poetry well (if at all). Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton — fine writers, but certainly of limited appeal to a teenager. I’ve said on my own poetry blog that we should teach poetry like we teach math. In mathematics, we start with one plus one, two plus two; then we move to subtraction, multiplication, division — there is a simple beginning, and each step builds on the previous one. To teach poetry, handing someone a book of John Berryman poems, or Shakespearean sonnets can be overwhelming, even a turn-off. To understand the more complex poems, one needs an understanding of how to read the more accessible poems (and, yes, I know: some people find the word ‘accessible’ to be a horrible word when it comes to poetry). I’m a student who, later in life, has returned to school to get the writing degree I wanted to get back when I was 20 and everyone told me not to get. A few months ago, I took a poetry workshop class — taught by someone who strongly, firmly, adamantly believed that a poem “should *not* have meaning.” She believed that poems that tried to have meaning were “showing off.” How can you make something without meaning relevant? How can you attract a larger audience to something that means nothing?

    Like many of today’s issues the problems are systemic in nature. Changing the system is never easy. Not impossible. But certainly not easy. It’s an interesting problem.

    Thanks for your reply.

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