Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Institutional Role of Creative Writing Programs

Jaswinder Bolina has a great discussion about the institutional role of graduate creative writing programs at The Poetry Foundation. If we consider the fact that the creation of poetry is part of a literary spontaneous order (which necessarily includes readers and writers of literature), then institutions within that order are going to have an effect on the content produced by that order. Certainly graduate creative writing programs are having and will have an effect on the content of that order.

I'm certainly a product of this particular institution. I have a M.A. in English, with a focus on fiction writing, from the University of Southern Mississippi, and I have a Ph.D. in the Humanities, with a focus on Aesthetic Studies, from the University of Texas at Dallas (I originally went there to study fiction writing, but ended up doing a scholarly dissertation and being influenced by Frederick Turner to write primarily formalist poetry). In the best cases, I saw people in these programs greatly improve their writing from the feedback of their peers and professors (I think I was one of those, particularly when it came to fiction writing), but in the worst cases I saw a push toward conformity and the erasure of stylistic differences that were quite often quite interesting. Which may be one of the reasons postmodern writers all sound the same, when Modernist writers all sounded so different from each other.

Bolina notes that this institutionalization of creative writing creates gentrification. This, of course, affects content. We end up with poems by elitists, for elitists, which can only be appreciated if you have the right kind of education. One often needs an hour lecture introducing the work before one reads it, so one can come to understand the references, social context, etc. involved in its creation. One shouldn't need a professor of literature to accompany you every time you pick up a poem.

Now, this isn't to say that literature shouldn't have various references, social contexts, etc. involved in its creation. Quite the contrary. It should. But the greatest literature has always been written such that one could read and enjoy it without knowing much at all going in, while also being open to even greater understanding if one were to do the scholarly work. But with the gentrification of literature into postmodernism, we see less and less of this, and more and more requirements one have a Ph.D. in literature to understand what the work is about.

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