Of M.F.A. Degrees and Poetry-Writing Workshops - Blog

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Of M.F.A. Degrees and Poetry-Writing Workshops

Yesterday’s Sunday New York Times included an Education Life Section which, in turn, included an article titled:  “The Degree They Love To Hate” – a reference to the proliferation and power of M.F.A. degrees in creative writing.  Among the viewpoints presented in the article is that of literary critic Anis Shivani, author of the 2011 book “Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies.”  Shivani warns that without the degree writers may be able to publish in small presses but are more likely to be condemned to obscurity, particularly if you write literary fiction and poetry.  (Emphasis added.)

The article points out that “At the core of every program is the writing workshop, the so-called Iowa model because it originated there.  In its strictest form, it works like this.  Classmates evaluate and write detailed comments about students’ work, then sit around a table and ‘workshop’ the piece.  The writer sits silently while classmates comment first on what is working, then go back around to comment on what is not.  The instructor weighs in.  Only then can the author respond.”

Shivani is of the view that writing can by this process get “workshopped to death,” pointing out that criticism is coming primarily from peers who are people who don’t know anything about writing, which is why they are in the program.

In my years studying poetry and poetics with José Garcia Villa, only his third workshop bore a resemblance to the workshop model described above.  Villa’s first workshop was a lecture workshop, primarily to disabuse students of preconceived notions about what makes for poetry as high art, and then to lay a foundation as to what poetry as high art is. The second workshop, also in lecture format, provided a step-by-step analysis of the specific problems encountered in the composition of a poem.  In both workshops, Villa discouraged students from presenting their poems for discussion.  Villa’s reason for putting off discussions of student poems to the third workshop (which was only open to students who had completed the first two workshops) was precisely the same concern as that of Shivani.  Villa explained that his experience with poetry workshops taught by others was that there exists no background of shared knowledge so that people can converse with and understand one another.  There was no consensus of definition, no common frame of reference, no shared resources, only divisions of interpretation.

Thus, when my book is published later this year, the reader will find that Chapters One through Fourteen incorporate the lessons of Villa’s first workshop, and that Chapters Fifteen through Twenty-Five incorporate the material taught in the second Villa workshop.  What of Villa’s third workshop?  No chapter is specifically devoted to this workshop, although Chapter Twenty-Three on “The Craft of Versification” was a large part of what was taught in that third workshop. 

You see, Villa did not claim to be able to make each student a poet.  He was quite explicit in stating that:  “Poetry writing cannot be taught but one can be taught in the sense of guided in the concept of poetry—that much can be taught.”  He was insistent that the lyric spirit, which is the very identity of poetry, cannot be taught, because if the lyric spirit is not in the student all that s/he will produce is verse, which can be taught.  

Villa, you must realize, had this unique idea that one must learn the principles that justify the poem as high art before that person writes poems and presents them for scrutiny.  Something less is demanded of the typical M.F.A. degree candidate.


Vocation: Wall Street Trial Lawyer (Retired)
Avocation: Poetry and Poetics
Studied poetry with Jose Garcia Villa 1970-1997
Writer and Publisher of Poetry


  • Guest
    JN Thursday, 16 April 2015

    Very interesting piece! Fully agreed with the point-lyric spirit is not to be taught. I think it's perhaps only in the US that poetry workshops prevail so much. Here in China we see very few colleges or universities that recruit would-be poets. There are programs for the accomplished writers to sit in the classroom for advancement of literary theory and there are poets as residents that stay at a college for a year for creation. So poetry workshop is product found only in the states.

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  • Bob King
    Bob King Thursday, 11 February 2016

    "Poetry is," the book, Is now available on this website - only $13.00 plus shipping and handling. Compare that cost to the cost of the MFA degree, and if you choose the latter, you may find yourself D.O.A

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