Franz Got a Few Things Wright

November 27, 2012

I initially connected to Franz Wright’s Facebook post on the Prairie Schooner blog, and I’m sharing it because I think Wright made an interesting point (or two) about the state of the arts in America.  Wright contends that MFA programs have “lowered the bar so far down that anyone can trip over it and get a degree & consider themselves A MASTER OF THE ART OF POETRY at 24 (a feat previously achieved in English only by Keats, H. Crane).” He also eviscerates teachers of poetry for selling out to academia in exchange for the security of an upper middle class lifestyle.

There have been an amazing proliferation of programs where students earn advanced degrees in the creative arts, but I think we all could agree that there has NOT been an equally great proliferation of great art and music and writing, so Wright’s claims do ring a little true. MFAs do not annually churn out thousands of new “master” artists of anything. 

I think the proliferation of MFA programs is in part the result of the “participant trophy” generation who have spent so many years being given stellar praise for mediocre work they all think they’re gifted at something. And so the gifted artists apply to art school or to a creative writing program, and thanks to a lousy economy, a school that may have rejected them in the past now accepts them because they need the tuition. And since those newly minted MFA graduates need jobs, we need to establish more MFA programs, if only so all those poets and painters and musicians can have a haven and some health insurance, right? And rather than live the challenging and unpredictable life of an unaffiliated artist, these poets–according to Wright–sell their souls for health insurance and the “upper middle class lifestyle” of the academic. Perhaps this is true when looking through the most cynical of lenses, but I think we need to look at the bigger picture.

Let’s face it–artists, whether they’re great or mediocre or somewhere in-between–are ALWAYS looking for a haven, which is often what MFA programs provide. Earning an MFA and/or then teaching in academia doesn’t necessarily cause your soul to instantly crumble. Wright may have examples of poets who he thinks have lost their way after becoming professors, but how many more have lost their way because they are in far more deadening occupations?

And how many have lost their way because poetry, as an art, is so devalued? The saddest part of Wright’s argument is that he doesn’t actually address the fact that graduate writing programs might be one of the last places where large numbers of people are continually engaged in reading and discussing poetry–I wish that weren’t the case, but I suspect it may be. Franz Wright is one of my favorite poets, but if I hadn’t gone to graduate school and befriended poet Sandy Yannone who shared his work with me, if I hadn’t been handed his Rilke translations while working for my university’s literary magazine, I wouldn’t have any idea who he was. Or Rilke for that matter. And would Franz Wright have turned to poetry himself if his father James Wright hadn’t been a poet and translator? Who knows.

I don’t think anyone believes that every single graduate of an MFA program is destined to become a great artist or even a minor artist, and I would hesitate to recommend anyone attend an MFA program unless you have been offered a full scholarship or assistantship, because it’s a degree that will probably never pay for itself. I also have yet to meet an MFA graduate who considers the diploma a stamp of approval–most would agree they truly came into their own as writers much, much later, and I suspect none would say they were masters–but I would say there are plenty who see those programs as one of the last places where art continues to be studied and celebrated and there’s plenty of value in that.

I’ll leave you with a link to a poem.

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