In his review of Matthew Tierney’s Probably Inevitable, Kevin Kvas attacks Tierney’s assertion that “there’s no breaking down the parts” of a poem. For Kvas, this verifies the futility of Creative Writing MFA and MA programs:
It’s magic? Is this what the Creative Writing M.(F.)A. teaches? Is this how we safeguard, preserve, and sanctify poetry’s “deepness”: refusing to understand how/that it works? Is this how the poet keeps his title?
There’s a very dissectible “machine” here. Each sentence reads writing-workshop perfect; every word reads like it’s been tortured into submission in service of the textbook poetic image by a team of workshop critics. Each sentence is like a PR byte for Lyric Poetry.
But Kvas overlooks something. Poets since Aristotle have considered what makes a good poem: instead of a single, scientifically precise specimen of a “good” poem, , they’ve found a rich plurality of answers. Tierney’s open-ended acknowledgement that there is no single secret to writing a poem is not a “refusal to understand how/that it works” or a tactic to guard poetry’s preciousness. Rather, it’s an admission that there are many ways of writing a moving poem.
Even after tearing apart the constituent elements of, say, Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” (a poem I attempted for several years to grasp), it’d still be far-fetched to try to measure or remake the poem’s spirit and music. But this point is so rudimentary that I suspect Kvas is really driving at his argument about the “dissectible ‘machine’” of Tierney’s writing.
There are many fallacies in Kvas’ review, but the accusation that somehow our widely divergent Creative Writing graduate programs are producing overly clever, quip-prone and overwrought lyrics written by postmodern poets who become the darlings of Canadian editors and publishers is particularly pernicious. It’s a generalization that discounts how much of our lives we’ve spent writing—before entering graduate programs, and long after we’ve left them.
And it’s a particularly odd assertion to make in Canada, where such programs are too few, and are far too geographically divergent to be summed up in Kvas’s neat little box. Ranging from Victoria, BC to Fredericton, NB, they are nurtured by unique cultural and literary communities. It’s difficult to imagine how a “writing-workshop perfect” piece could exist, when each program is led by such distinct faculty, with contrasting approaches to writing and craft.
The same principle can apply within a workshop itself. During my two-year MA in the Creative Writing program at the University of Toronto, it would have been difficult for the seven members of my workshop to agree on the time of day. Graduates of this program vary widely in age, ethnicity, family backgrounds, and city of origin. This “team of workshop critics” was committed, but with marked contrasts in their ethos and approaches.
In such an environment, the process of “flailing into submission” does not, and cannot, take place because each poet must stick to his or her own vision and intention. In fact, poets want to steer away from the “textbook poetic image,” and if their peers have not rid the work of banal images, publishers, editors and grant juries function as a harsher filter of clichéd and weak writing.
The fallacy of the “workshop poem,” or workshop poetry in general, masks a wider misconception, one of modern poetry as continually marketing itself. If poetry published today echoes the soundbite-riddled, ad-saturated language, of the PR machine, it is not calling attention to itself, but to our language: particularly its ability to absorb and spit up our social and cultural values.
Poetry is not an end in itself. It is a product of the poet’s observing and engaging with the world. It is an odd habit, a walk through the senses, and the whole point of it is to give us respite, to clear our heads from the perfect machines of modern life.