Friday, January 19, 2007

The Poetry Department of America


What are you reading?

Me? I'm reading Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee, which I'll be writing about here very soon. I'll just say, It's, no--he, is fantastic.

How to be a Poet--

I'm also starting the Anne Sexton biography next week along with her complete poems. I've never really *read* Anne Sexton. I mean I've read the poems you need to read to be an English major, but not much else. Recently, I've had two poets try to steer me away from her. Read Plath, said one.

There are some people, some professors, who do not believe she is a "real" poet. I've heard "she's just a housewife who used poetry as therapy." Do you know who that statement kills the blood flow of my inner housewife? Do you know Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson did not have a MFA and yet, they had the nerve to write poetry? I know I'm a grad student in an MFA program, but I honestly believe an MFA is NOT needed to be a poet. If you *want* to be a poet, a good, strong, wonderful poet, you can be--without the MFA.

Anyway, off soapbox now. Just nothing makes my blood boil more than someone believing that you need to go to college to be a poet. No, you need to read poetry. You need to read everything. You need to write. Write everything. You need to read and read and live and live. Read, write, and revise. That's what makes a poet. Not a piece of paper.


  1. Dave Lee, possibly the man who has taught me more about the writing of poetry than anyone else, has never taken a single creative writing class. Yes, he has his Ph. D., specializing in Milton, but he has since written 15 books of poetry, been shortlisted for the Pulitzer and Poet Laureate for the U.S. (when Ted Kooser was selected) and taught too many workshops t count.

    You are correct. It's not the degree which makes the poet, but the poems.

  2. Even as I'm getting ready to finish the degree as well, I'm in agreement with you wholeheartedly.

    I dearly love both Plath and Sexton, Sylvia for a measured controlled sort of poetry, and Sexton for just letting it all out and making a some ways being gutsier stylistically and content-wise. Neighsayers also tend to forget that Sexton was very much self-taught and in communique with a host of poets--sending her work to them for critique--probably the first and orginal model of educating yourself as a poet before the MFA system. Of course the housewife criticism is ridiculous and sexist...

    I've also found it weird that people seem to think they are somehow interchangeable, or that one is a better representative of confessionalism than the the other, and they are really rather different...

  3. hi justin,

    I hadn't realzed that about David Lee. interesting Thanks for mentioning that.

    Yes, I thought the idea that Plath and Sexton are interchangeable was bizarre.

    oh course the housewife criticism is ridiculous and sexist...

    What's interesting is that comment was made by a woman.

    thanks for your note.

  4. Between Plath and Sexton, I somewhat prefer Sexton overall, though have certainly read both. I can't say either of them are among my favorites. I tend to prefer Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde, to name two off the top of my head, to either Sexton or Plath.

    Sexton and Plath seem to me to have written from an essentially conservative aesthetic that often results in a choking off of what the poems are trying to say. (I find the same thing in other poets sometimes associated with them, for example Lowell and Berryman.) Even then, many of the poems of both Sexton and Plath convey a smoldering rage, which occasionally breaks through to the surface the way magma in the earth will from time to time erupt.

    The "just a housewife" notion is clearly ridiculous. By that reasoning, Chaucer was just a civil servant who wrote in his off-hours, John Donne was just a clergyman with a hobby, and Dante was a jailbird with a prison diary.


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