about Nathaniel Tarn, from Red Slider
Reply to Professor Tarn on his article "Fragment of a Talk . . ."
you can read Nathaniel Tarn's article in Jacket # 9
Sure, there are probably more than a few of us who'd like to climb a little higher in the bleachers, from time to time, and yell down from our aeries of passionate vacancy at the spectacle of a few MFA's being shook like rag dolls in the jaws of the lions of poetry. Undoubtedly, a few MFA's would be happy to join us, particularly if a some of their own professors were on the afternoon's menu.
But, with all respect to Professor Tarn, his "Fragment of a Talk on Octavio Paz" will hardly sell a ticket to the circus of doubt. It is simply far too thin in credible argument and far too long on faint and empty slogan to raise much interest ('short-time' caveat notwithstanding). His employment of anthropological argot to prepare the task is littered with malapropisms that would hardly qualify as pollywogs, let along appropriately drawn analogs. The best one could actually extract from them would be a rather loose indictment of the whole of the university system and its ongoing capitulation of method and mission to capitalist repackaging. But that would be another topic much more suited to discussion of the entire transformation of the public and quasi-public institution into revenue centers being laid out for the general plunder of the public trust.
Professor Tarn's article makes no analysis of the method or mission in the poetry specialties of literature or creative writing MFA programs that would even distinguish them from, say, the paradigmatic training and grooming of candidates in neighboring anthropology classes, let alone support an indictment for the murder of one androgynous subject: 'Writing'.
Undoubtedly the current MFA programs could use a dose of fresh air, and I am reminded by one instructor that, at a minimum, the "wpa model" used in a large number of university programs might be a good candidate for a firing squad, or at least demotion in rank and forfeiture of pay and privileges. But the internal analysis of canonical practice is just what is missing from Professor Tarn's indictment. In any event, one can hardly think the death of writing is at hand under the reign of the godfathers of the MFA. While the RICO statute predicts that no one will be left standing after we clean house, I'd still put my money on Kuhn. Sooner or latter, the mavericks will show up, solve problems better and more elegantly than their predecessors, and we'll be off and running in a new direction.
Most damaging to the sere threads of thesis that remain in his article is that very few, I think, especially among those of us who practice the art outside the writing-strewn walls of campus life, for a moment consider the mission of the MFA/poetry enclave is to turn out poets. A few may emerge from that process, perhaps. But, by and large, its mission appears to be directed towards the description, analysis and preservation of its subject. Again, not much different from its anthropology cousin except in the difference of subject. The writings in both, I dare say, equally resemble the desire of candidates everywhere to successfully mimic their teachers.
No doubt we all share, along with Professor Tarn, concern about the plight of the poet as a highly vulnerable and violently exploited public laborer. But that is hardly the result of the inadequacies or complicity of MFA programs. In fact, it is not even the historically recent phenomena professor Tarn suggests it is. Indeed, it very likely companions the history of speech and writing, itself, from the earliest performances of campfire storytelling. There simply aren't enough remaining bone-fragments of the poets who didn't find patronage or win the award or publish the book or work in the poetry-friendly insurance office, to reassemble into a complete skull.
But when you get right down to it, the bottom line is that we all know what is on that list Professor Tarn asked us about on how one plans to survive as a writer while aging:
"odd jobs while I live with the people in the Boston projects to get
"writing grant proposals"
"selling a book" (submitted by 1st year student)
"finding a patron so I can work with the poor and describe their plight"
"playing the stock mkt. on dot.com" (submitted by a graduating student)
"winning a Nobel" (eventually went to work as croupier at Harvey's)
"driving a fork-lift"
"playing in a rock-band"
"teaching," "teaching," "teaching.,"
The only thing that makes the list interesting is the fact that we cannot recall, and no textual clue tells us, whether it came from students in an MFA program, or from the MA candidates in anthropology next door.
As for the Admissions Dept., they're already being paid bonuses for waiving through Engineering dept. applicants willing to minor in technical writing. Who says art is dead? It's just gone Bauhaus for awhile:
in mesh-knit stocking
must be DO NOT REMOVE THIS TAG
OSHA TYPE I or TYPE II,
or please remove panty hose
altogether if working at home
where we periodically inspect
your email for you. thank you. see you
next house call, and all.
Red Slider, 13 January, 1999
| top of page |