One can only feel grateful for Seth Abramson’s “myth-busting” posts at The Huffington Post (see here and here). They constitute a reply to Donald Hall and his statements about “the McPoem,” set forth in his influential essay “Poetry and Ambition” (1983). “The workshop schools us to produce the McPoem,” Hall wrote, “which is ‘a mold in plaster, / Made with no loss of time,’ with no waste of effort, with no strenuous questioning as to merit.” This is false, according to my own experience, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Hall was giving voice to a common complaint, which Abramson vanquishes with a strong dose of statistics. It’s when he massages his “myths” in a way that makes them simply absurd, or when he fails to offer genuine evidence, that his myth-busting falls apart.
Examine, for example, Myth #3 in is first article: “MFA programs promise applicants a job and a book deal upon graduation.” I would be astonished if he could point to even one printed example such a ridiculous assertion. Or take his Myth #4: “To be a successful poet or writer, you must attend an MFA program.” This I have heard from a number of people over the years, and it deserves an answer—but Abramson merely punts, declaring the myth a “rhetorical bogeyman … by MFA critics” who suffer from “paranoia about not being degreed.” Nice cant, but lousy logic. Where is his evidence? Perhaps he could provide a list of “successful” (by which I assume he means widely-published or prize-winning or both) poets or writers (a distinction that annoys the hell out of me anyway) who have not thumped down like Williams-esque plums from the MFA tree. Of course, those who promulgate this particular myth owe some due diligence, too. Identify a three-year period, let’s say, establish by some rational means the number of “successful” poets and writers published in that period, and tally the MFA’d vs. the non-MFA’d. It’s the kind of exercise Abramson enjoys, so maybe he’ll take it up in order to actually prove his point.
These are essentially quibbles, though. I think Abramson has successfully busted most of the myths he cites, and they deserve to be busted. A broader question, though, is begged in all this: the question of whether or not the MFA phenomenon has produced better writers. I suspect that it has—but the question is unanswerable. And maybe it is the wrong question. Maybe the MFA is most useful as a program of self-realization rather than a manufacturing system for literary products. Or maybe, as Abramson suggests, “the MFA is fast becoming the largest patronage system for artists in the history of the United States.” If so, there may be no good reason to complain.