One of the most frequent questions we’re asked concerns the value of an MFA in poetry. We asked Anthony McCann, one of our poetry professors, and the author of the forthcoming collection Thing Music (Wave Books), as well as three previous collections, to investigate…and what he finds is both tangible and philosophical.
What is the value of an MFA in poetry? As MFA programs proliferate and the world of the MFA becomes more and more naturalized, poets have increasingly come to see the degree as a necessity. At the same time, the more naturalized the need for an MFA becomes the more it is shadowed by questions regarding its true value. I think that in order to really get at the worth and meaning of an MFA education in poetry we need to disentangle some of the different values that get smeared together and sometimes forgotten in the casual use of the word. What do we mean when we say “value?”
These days when some folks talk about the value of an education they speak exclusively or almost exclusively in terms economic value, post-degree earning power, etc. And it’s true that the exigencies of debt and of finding a place in the ever more precarious, ever shifting edifice of our economy can make this kind of value seem like the only real value there is. The need to make a living is a need as shrill as hunger and, like hunger, it can make everything else, all other forms of value included, seem subordinate to it. There are many shrill voices out there right now ventriloquizing hunger and telling us that a dollar return is the only “real” way to measure the value of anything, an education included. These same voices entreat us to re-envision the warm and sustaining world of our personal relationships as nothing more than the job-seeker’s most essential instrument, the social network. I’d say that, while we all know that often the best jobs we find in our lives we find with the help of our friends, most of us (since we aren’t sociopaths) don’t view our friends as mere potential job-providing contacts, nodes in our matrix. I’d add that we do not look to education, especially education in an art like poetry, as exclusively or even primarily something we enter into in order to get a leg up on the competition. The way we value our friends and the way we value art and education point to understandings of value that are not readily convertible into dollars.
That said, I take it as obvious that the need to make a living is not something we can wish away. It has certainly been my experience that an MFA can have a great deal of short-term and long-term economic value. The degree can really open up doors in the world of work in life-transforming ways. All of the fulfilling work I have found post-MFA would have been impossible to get without the degree, and I’m not speaking only of teaching creative writing at the university level. In my case my MFA allowed me to teach English as a Foreign Language abroad at the university level in South Korea and Nicaragua, and to work for many years in the world of adult ESL in community based programs in New York City. I can’t imagine I would have been able to write my first two books without the intense experience of language and culture that those jobs gave me. The jobs also allowed me to live relatively comfortably in some fascinating cities. Still, I think we can all agree that it is plainly absurd to measure the value of an MFA in poetry exclusively or primarily in terms of a short term boost in earning power. While this might make sense for the graduate of an MBA program, or even a graduate of a law school, clearly there is also another kind of value we seek in an MFA education. I think this other kind of value is also what we look for in literature itself, in the writing of it and in the reading of it.
What is the value of reading? What do we get from the poems, novels, and works of non-fiction that we read? What do we get from them that makes us want to enter into their world again and again–not just as readers but as poets, as creators of literature? If we are poets we know with certainty that we are not drawn to the shared imaginary world of literature for all the cash we are going to make there. So what draws us there? I think it’s that literature in general and poems in particular, when they are successful, conjure the world in imagination with such palpable resonance that we feel, as the poet Robert Creeley put it once, that the world has finally come true. I think in reading and writing we experience the world coming true with a clarity and intensity that is not possible in so-called real life. Furthermore, I’d argue that the intensity of this sensation that Creeley described as the world coming true is inseparable from the peculiar sociality of literary experience. When we truly enter into a poem, whether it is one we are writing or one we are reading, we have entered into an imaginary social space—something we tend to overlook due to the often solitary nature of the practices of reading and writing. The ‘shared-ness’ of literary space and its paradoxical ‘solitary sociality’, I hold as key to understanding the value of poetry and the value of MFA level study in poetry.
I see the value manifest in literature as being something like what the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy has called “absolute value.” This absolute value can be seen as the value we find in the sharing of existence, in the sharing of being and in the making of a world with others. This sharing, Nancy insists, is what we mean when we say meaning. It seems to me that the practice of literature is precisely the playful and urgent creation of meaning and world, of meaningful world as imaginary literary space, in language. The space that literature creates is, I believe, especially valuable because of the peculiar mix of intimacy and distance it involves, because of its solitary sociality or sociable solitude. The impersonal intimacy of reading and writing allows us to leave behind our everyday selves and our immediate fears, desires, and pettier hungers, and enter into another dimension, the space-time of literature. There we may find a greater capacity for deep communication and for sharing our problematic existences with an openness that is rarely available in face to face socializing, due to the intrusions of those same fears, needs, and desires. This capacity for impersonal intimacy gives the imaginary space of literature a value that can simply not be measured in the differently impersonal terms of economic value; it cannot be made equivalent to any other experience through the leveling, transubstantiating magic of money. Literature has a value—a special form of the simple, absolute value of being together—that is outside economic value.
Our economic system is constantly touching at and trying to absorb this other sphere of value but it simply cannot. A great illustration of this is the ever morphing slogan of the long-running series of master-card ads. The structure of the slogan goes: ‘Blah Blah Blah, priceless, for X there is Mastercard.’ In these ads the Blah Blah Blah is always an image of some kind of social being, of being together and sharing existence joyously–taking your kids to the ball game etc. This is priceless, but Mastercard is there for the parking and the hot dogs, and the tickets and big foam “We’re Number One” finger. Of course the ad is trying to insinuate, precisely by saying the opposite, that its product, credit, is what makes this sharing of being possible. In its images it also attempts to sell us a pre-packaged version of social joy, but in the end it cannot absorb, cannot monetize pure social experience, it can only encroach upon it. Facebook is another attempt to encroach, even further, on the absolute value of social existence, but I would maintain that even Facebook cannot hand you the joy of sharing the strangeness, the pleasure and terror of being alive in the world with others.
In the MFA program we dedicate ourselves intensely to the social practice of literature, to the creation of this other kind of value I have been describing. These imaginary spaces of “absolute value” we enter as readers and writers are mirrored by the on-line and “real world” classroom spaces we make as students and teachers in an MFA program. In an MFA program we meet again and again, in imaginary and physical rooms given over to the work of making the world come true. What seems especially valuable about that experience is what I want to call, despite the negative associations the word sometimes calls up, its impersonality. In the MFA classroom we are gathered together as writers, not as family members, not as friends. Certainly MFA programs breed true life-long supportive friendships amongst their students and faculty, but while we are in the program together we are gathered solely by our desire to seriously write and read with others. It seems very important to me that the teachers and colleagues you will work with in an MFA program are people from outside the circle of your friends and family. While friends and family might be very supportive of our writing (though truthfully often they are simply bewildered by it) they are primarily interested, bless them, in us. It is we, thankfully, that they, for whatever reason, find lovable. They are inclined to find our work lovable as an emanation of ourselves. The problem here is obvious. As writers we need people in our lives who are primarily interested in our writing, who find us interesting because of what we have written, not the other way around. The MFA program allows us to share existence through texts we read and write, to meet in a way that is simultaneously more distanced and impersonal than everyday life, and deeper and more intense than what is possible in much of our daily lives. When we describe, in a class or in an on-line post, our reaction to another classmate’s poem, we are sharing our embodied experience of the world in a focused, distilled, concentrated way that is simply not possible without the distancing, the impersonality, created by the mediating presence of the poem. When I talk to you about your poem I am not talking about you. It is due to this distancing, this impersonality, that I can learn so much more about how you experience the world around you in your reaction to a phrase in a poem than I can in a casual polite conversation. It is this level of sharing, this kind of access to different experiences of existence that we as poets seek in poems. The writing workshop is like an antechamber that opens onto that imaginary literary space. In short an MFA program, at its best, produces in its spaces and in social and pedagogical relationships a variant of the imaginary social space we produce when we read and write, in a way that bridges the gap that can otherwise be felt between one’s social life and one’s life in literature. To me this of immeasurable, incommensurable value.
As a faculty member at UCR’s Palm Desert Low Residency MFA I have found the combination of our intensive residencies (where students and faculty live and work in close, if very comfortable, quarters for 20 days a year) with our year-long work on-line especially effective in generating the kind of sharing of experience I have been describing. Our on-line work requires us to write regularly about our reading and writing; this distancing demands a careful and thoughtful communication of our reading and writing experiences that is sometimes missing from MFA programs where all student and student-faculty interaction goes on face-to-face. At the same time our intensive residencies ensure that we really do connect with each other, working together with a real communal zeal the likes of which I have not encountered elsewhere.
Are you looking to bridge the creative and social? Applications for our fall class are due August 1st.