My word count is limited, but unlike Phoebe Wang, whose Romantic defense of Creative Writing (and the Poetry Workshop) in response to my review of Matthew Tierney’s Probably Inevitable is tellingly lyrical in its self-enclosed privileging of itself as its own source text, I have no qualms about speaking in other voices. Had Wang looked beyond herself for information, she might have found this rather complete response to her concerns by Marjorie Perloff:
the sheer number of poets now plying their craft inevitably ensures moderation and safety. The national (or even transnational) demand for a certain kind of prize-winning, “well-crafted” poem—a poem that the New Yorker would see fit to print and that would help its author get one of the “good jobs” advertised by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs—has produced an extraordinary uniformity.
Matthew Tierney, it so happens, mentions Perloff in E Martin Nolan’s interview in The Puritan:
EMN: Well, a joke is a pattern, then a turn from the expected. So is it that language, or how we use it, is a pattern, and we [poets] are just turning it at certain points? If the turn is the poetic equivalent of the punch line.
MT: People have challenged this idea—certainly Perloff—of the formula for the poem that has the turn at the end. Once you become aware of that…you work against it. […]
As my review argued—not coincidentally making the same comparison as Nolan of the “small epiphany,” as Perloff calls it, to the punch line (which is a “pattern”: not Wang’s “magic” but a magic spell)—I think Tierney’s self-assessment here is off; his book does not succeed in “work[ing] against” this tendency, but rather fits Perloff’s above characterization pretty perfectly.
Yet, “[i]t’s difficult to imagine how a ‘writing-workshop perfect’ piece could exist,” Wang writes, “when each [Creative Writing] program is led by such distinct faculty,” etc. I agree; it is difficult to imagine, let alone realize; and yet we must, for this is the reality. This suggests that what’s actually “difficult to imagine” is that what writers like Wang and Tierney imagine to be imaginative probably isn’t very imaginative at all.
To give one simple but forcible illustration: poetry markets, contests especially—and even many MFA or Poetry Workshop portfolio submission requirements—typically place constraints on the number of “lines” or “pages” or font size (and, implicitly, “page” size). I understand the need for manuscript/formatting guidelines, but these musn’t be regarded as neutral: “submission guidelines,” they get called, but they’re “poetic constraints.”
In other words, built into the very guidelines of the mainstream venues in which Creative Writing programs promise to lead their trainees to publish (for this is the ultimate goal, of course) are the same typical characteristics that Perloff identifies for modern poetry. It’s as though concrete and conceptual poetry—and the Internet!—never happened. It’s as though this poetry has, like its lyrics, hermetically sealed itself off.
Kevin Kvas is a graduate student at Concordia University in Montreal.