Thursday, October 7, 2010


                                                          STEFAN GEORGE


On September 17, 2010, I was privileged to attend Adam Zagajewski’s “craft lecture” at Vermont Studio Center. “This is going to be an anti-craft lecture,” Zagajewski said. “I don’t think that the problem with American poetry is insufficient craft.” It should be mentioned here that until recently Zagajewski taught creative writing during the Spring Semester at Houston University. He did this for eighteen years. He now teaches at the University of Chicago as a member of Committee on Social Thought. He describes his students as “multidisciplinary.”

Zagajewski began by praising MFA programs for making universities "a little less academic," and for “beautifully defending the reading habits, which are threatened by the modern media.” However, a typical MFA curriculum is absurd, he believes. What students need most is not learning how to write villanelles, sonnets, or sestinas. Nor do they need to know the names of rhetorical figures. Those labels are important for critics, not poets.

The emphasis on craft as opposed to content can lead to aesthetic sterility: “a poem should not mean, but be.” (Oriana: I was thrilled that someone finally dared to kick that sacred cow, those words whipped into our psyches when we were young and forced to digest incoherent volumes that claimed to be “introduction to poetry.”)

“The founding fathers and mothers of MFA programs chose the path of neutrality in terms of a larger vision,” the speaker stated. Instead of a concern with content, they chose an emphasis on craft. He noted that students tend to imitate the style of their teacher, the big-name star of a particular MFA program. He even encountered a student who had studied with Geoffrey Hill, and afterwards produced poems in the style of Geoffrey Hill – quite a feat. (See the end of this report for two poems by Hill.)

The problem, as Zagajewski sees it, is this: “The larger intellectual content is missing.” MFA students who have a deep knowledge in another area, be it music, history, geology, or philosophy, are an exception. Writing students are not exposed to intellectual disciplines. Typically, they are not required to take any courses in the humanities.  

The MFA programs were started partly in reaction to the idea that the old-style way of going about a poet’s education was “shapeless.” Those were the “so-called Jean-Paul Sartre writing programs – students met with a professor in a café and discussed the meaning of life.” Now we don’t discuss whether or not life is worth living, Zagajewski continued. “If you are going to study craft, then obviously you are going to live.” But the problem is lack of exposure to other disciplines, particularly in the humanities.

“One of the great charms of poetry is that it is not totally defined,” Zagajewski observed. “Poetry is one of the oldest things in the world, but each generation defines it in a new way.”

“Poetry is an act of participation in the world through language,” he stated. These days, however, poets are not “public intellectuals.” Auden was “almost a public intellectual” – a generalist, not a specialist. Auden believed that a poet should study things other than poetry – botany, the songs of birds.

Yeats was brought up as a poet fully engaged in the issues of his time. Zagajewski also gave the example of Czeslaw Milosz, a poet who “quarreled with modernism.” Milosz was a religious poet who hated the religious right. A liberal mind, he expressed religious longing, but opposed fundamentalism.

Poets who were also public intellectuals, such as Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, tended to hate modernity and the modern world. Yeats defended the remnants of magic and mysticism against the progress of rationality. Elizabeth Bishop also defended “an older pattern of being human.” Seamus Heaney, on the other hand, defends moderation against political extremism. These are examples of poets whose concern extended beyond poetry as a purely esthetic realm.

Zagajewski devoted the rest of his lecture mainly to the charismatic pre-war German poet, Stefan George (1868-1933). “I don’t like his poems,” Zagajewski stated, “but I am fascinated by him as an influential cultural figure, a poet who was a charismatic leader.” George too was a critic of the modern world, and was attracted to the mystical notion of the “secret Germany,” based on aristocratic ideals.

It was the sociologist Max Weber who came up with the concept of a “charismatic leader.” He coined the term after meeting Stefan George.

While George’s circle has been called “proto-fascist,” it should be noted that the greatest hero of the German Resistance, Claus von Stauffenberg, was influenced by George’s views. (Oriana: According to an eyewitness of Stauffenberg’s execution, the condemned man’s last words were, “Long live secret Germany!”)   

Zagajewski considers George a “generalist who went too far” and became intoxicated with his vision.

“Why am I spending so much time on Stefan George? Because you don’t know about him, and I am fascinated by him,” Zagajewski said. As he sees it, poets learn mainly outside the classroom; they are self-taught through reading. (Oriana: after returning from Vermont, I ordered the book on George that Zagajewski mentioned. I likewise don’t like George’s poems, but for me the most fascinating part of the lecture was precisely the part about George and the “secret Germany.” Is there a “secret America”?)

Europe does not need to import American-style writing programs because European writers can meet more easily, for instance in cafés,” Zagajewski stated. “There are always people to talk to.” But in the United States, except for New York, Boston, and San Francisco, this is not true, and writers face loneliness.

Sundry points raised during the discussion included “science is surely but slowly replacing art.” (Oriana: In a recent essay, Milan Kundera remarked, “We have come to the era of post-art because the need for art, the sensitivity and love for it, is dying.”)

One participant brought up the interesting fact that during the Cold War the CIA financed certain literary magazines. The idea was to encourage the opposite of social realism in the arts, and use it for propaganda purposes as an example of American cultural freedom.

Later, one of the poets remarked that MFA programs attract the first generation to go to college – those among them who are trying to make sense of their lives. I couldn't help thinking:  Yes, those who ventured far from their childhood, and now find themselves in a strange land, exiled without return. Maybe that’s why poets sometimes say to me, “We understand you better than you think; we are all immigrants.”


John Guzlowski sent us this example of a poem by Geoffrey Hill:

born 19.6.32 - deported 24.9.42

Undesirable you may have been, untouchable
you were not. Not forgotten
or passed over at the proper time.

As estimated, you died. Things marched,
sufficient, to that end.
Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented
terror, so many routine cries.

(I have made
an elegy for myself it
is true)

September fattens on vines. Roses
flake from the wall. The smoke
of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.

This is plenty. This is more than enough.


Geoffrey Hill famously said that “the poem is a struggle between truth and meter.”

Here is another poem by Geoffrey Hill, revealing both his knowledge of history and the clotted density of his style (which I personally abhor – I love transparency and easy flow):


For whom the possessed sea littered, on both shores,   
Ruinous arms; being fired, and for good,
To sound the constitution of just wars,
Men, in their eloquent fashion, understood.

Relieved of soul, the dropping-back of dust,   
Their usage, pride, admitted within doors;
At home, under caved chantries, set in trust,   
With well-dressed alabaster and proved spurs   
They lie; they lie; secure in the decay
Of blood, blood-marks, crowns hacked and coveted,   
Before the scouring fires of trial-day
Alight on men; before sleeked groin, gored head,   
Budge through the clay and gravel, and the sea   
Across daubed rock evacuates its dead.


Pondering this “anti-craft craft lecture,” I felt grateful both for my early educational foundation (oppressive as the Polish school system felt at the time), and for my enforced grounding in Catholicism, likewise oppressive in some ways. Some of what I learned has entered my poems. Interestingly, this has led to a feeling that I am “from a different planet,” surrounded by peers who write nothing but family poems, and an occasional nature poem. I hasten to say that some of those family poems are excellent.


Steve Kowit:

Zagajewski's longing for a poetry in which craft is employed in the service of content is absolutely on the money. What counts, as a character in Joyce's Ulysses observes, is from how deep a source the work springs. But I suppose it's far more difficult to teach insight, spirit, a profound sense of life and reality, than it is to teach craft... so of course we need to teach craft. But we should always be alerting our students to the fact that poetry is about vision.

Political poetry is largely eschewed in the US but that's probably because we're the landlords and it's more likely that the tenants write out of social & political passion--Black poetry, Hispanic poetry, feminist poetry... the landlords don't have that passion generally. That our journals are not filled with poems about the murdered Iraqis & Afghanis & the demeaned & dispossessed Palestinians is a sign of the paucity of the spirit of the privileged!

The poetry that is merely "about" language, or pure craft is of a lesser order than a poetry reflecting a luminous sense of life. & the putative "subject" could be family or the description of a tattoo on someone's arm (i.e., that wonderful Ted Kooser poem). Goeffrey Hill's Holocaust poem is the first poem of his I've ever half understood. I'll take Jeffers and Whitman & Mary Oliver & Ginsberg!!...

Here is Kooser’s poem:


What once was meant to be a statement –
a dripping dagger held in the fist
of a shuddering heart – is now just a bruise
on a bony old shoulder, the spot
where vanity once punched him hard
and the ache lingered on. He looks like
someone you had to reckon with,
strong as a stallion, fast and ornery,
but on this chilly morning, as he walks
between the tables at a yard sale
with the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt
rolled up to show us who he was,
he is only another old man, picking up
broken tools and putting them back,
his heart gone soft and blue with stories.


Zagajewski wonderfully defined poems as “short tragedies.” This is precisely a “short tragedy.” It’s also what I call a “narrow slice.” There is wonderful focus and specificity. Craft? Yes. Content? Yes – universal. I see no need here for the "knowledge of humanities." What matters is the knowledge of life. 

It seems to me that AZ stands midway between the American "poetry of personality" and what, for lack of a better term, I’d call the less personal, broader perspective. Some might call this broader perspective philosophical statements; those more hostile to this kind of poetry might accuse AZ of trying to play the sage. His best poems are a good mix of the personal and the general.

I also agree with the statement that if you go into the personal deeply enough, some very broad things can emerge. In my observation this is more likely to happen if the personal narrative is a “narrow slice.” Pick a single incident and go deeply into it – that is part of craft, and it can be taught. Compression can be taught. Interesting line breaks can be taught, effective beginnings and endings.

Ultimately, however, I agree that a writer either has a rich mentality or s/he doesn't. It's fairly easy to imitate Kafka's style, but impossible to "teach" the kind of eccentric mentality that Kafka had. Or Emily Dickinson, for that matter. It takes a special kind of development, including immense solitude. Engagement with the world? Yes, but immense solitude is probably a more primary requirement.

Steve says, “The landlords don’t have that passion, generally.” This makes me think of the blossoming of Polish poetry after WWII; there is no doubt that tragic history had much to do with it – “passion” in the sense of suffering, as well as intensity. At the same time, those poets had the wider cultural foundation that American poets are often deprived of, due to inadequate education (regardless of having college degrees). 

In Hill’s Holocaust poem, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the “deported one” is a child. I admire “patented / terror, so many routine cries” – but the lack of specifics means that this poem doesn’t touch my heart.

On the other hand, Kooser’s poem resonates with me. Good American poetry often employs the “narrow slice” to illuminate the human condition, and conforms well to AZ’s definition of a poem as a “short tragedy.” Mediocre European poetry often strikes a “from above” philosophical pose and speaks from a broad perspective, not providing the specifics that have emotional power.

In a different vein, while everyone deplores the failure of American education to provide the kind of foundation that later makes adult self-education a matter of course, we need to consider the harsh reality of how squeezed a typical American poet is for time, given that s/he works for a living and/or is raising children. That any real poems, good poems, get produced under these circumstances is amazing.  Mothers who get up at dawn so they can gain of hour of reading and writing time are heroic.


Ewa Parma, a Polish poet living near Katowice, Poland:

I absolutely agree, these are my own thoughts. Too much form, too little content. And: "The larger intellectual content is missing, students are not exposed to intellectual disciplines" - it's the same with people studying music or art, if they are not interested in anything else but their instrument or merely painting, they can be only craftsmen. And one more thing: if you don't have a deep sense of tragedy of life interwoven somehow with your mentality, you will never write a moving poem.


Thank you, Ewa! I am thrilled to have a comment from a Polish poet.

I was particularly struck by what you say about having a deep sense of tragedy. It reminded me of, “You can’t play great music unless your heart has been broken.” I no longer know who said it, but it sounds true.  At a more primal level than poetry, music is the language of feeling. It’s commonly believed that a pianist who has not had deep emotional experiences will sound mechanical. Hence the new saying, “You play like an Asian child” (no offense meant to Asian children). We are not interested in mere skill.

School can’t provide just the right degree of trauma, but life will, especially if you are a sensitive, introverted person – it’s only a matter of time. We don't have child prodigies in poetry, and not too many interesting poets under 40. It’s not only a matter of the kind of wisdom that comes with experience, but also of emotional intensity – and for that, you must have felt desperate at some point, even suicidal.  “Genius is the way you invent yourself out of desperation” – again I don’t know who said it, but again it sounds true. (See my post on “sufficient trauma” )

I also suspect that if you have little knowledge of suffering, you won't be able to express sublime joy either. 

As for the intellectual component of a richer mentality, I think everyone agrees that writing programs could do a lot more – even though ultimately writers are self-taught through lifelong self-education.

Dr. Joseph Glaser, professor of British Literature, Western Kentucky University:

I've heard the same argument concerning studio art – all vessel, no content. Years ago we had a painting teacher here, Rama Rau, an Indian, whose students hated him and drove him off for requiring them to read the NY Times. You couldn't be a good painter, he thought, without knowing what was going on in the world. 

I’m not sure I buy that proposition when it comes to painting. It's an easier connection to make in terms of writing, but I wonder about it even there. If you could drill down rigorously into yourself as a generally unstuffed bag of urges and potential, couldn't you find enough content for writing? And mightn’t the act itself be a sort of ideological assertion? Or, say your intentions were purely decorative or formal – if that's possible – why wouldn't your work be as valuable as anyone else’s?

If nothing else, I’d be hesitant about any theory of art that used Eliot and Pound for poster boys. Seems to me they succeeded in spite of many of their views, not because of them.


How wonderful to see someone take a bold stand against what AZ advises. It seems to me that much recent American poetry has in fact excelled in taking the psychological perspective, exploring the personal in a deep way.

At the same time, having grown up in Poland myself, I can empathize with Zagajewski's shock at his U of Houston students' ignorance of history, literature, myth, philosophy, and so on. Every European intellectual who comes to the U.S. goes through that shock. On the other hand, too much erudition is probably a greater danger to a poet than too little. Taking too broad a perspective can ruin a poem, while a "narrow slice" can paradoxically yield something immense.

I also find your point about Eliot and Pound to be quite perceptive. I am not sure that Pound even succeeded; I find most of his Cantos unreadable, incoherent fragments of erudition (with beautiful passages here and there). As for Zagajewski's current fascination with Stefan George, yes, George was a fascinating figure, but we definitely wouldn't want him to serve as a role model. As a proto-Fascist, he makes Pound seem innocuous.

Another issue is that America never had a poet who was the kind of charismatic leader that Yeats was in Ireland or George in Germany. Nor is one likely to emerge, now that movies and the Internet have become both the reflection of the nation’s spirit and its shapers. Even novels gain mass audience only when they are made into movies. So no matter how well-educated a poet becomes, and how engaged with the world, his or her influence on anyone other than fellow poets is bound to be miniscule.


I prefer my poetry to be linear and unadorned 
and so Geoffrey Hill's poems
tied my bowels in screeching knots 
and made my brain ache for a nice tree to lean against.
Geoffrey Hill is the darling of Harold Bloom, who prophesied that Hill’s poems will be among those that survive. The Norton Anthology describes his work as “ultimately comprehensible.” Alas, his convoluted poems deal with subjects such as the War of the Roses, and I am yet to meet anyone who enjoys this poet. 
Jill Moses:

It reminds me of what one of my writing teachers once said: "If all you do is sit around and write poetry all day, your poems will be self-referential. And you will write about writing poetry. If you go horseback riding, then maybe you'll write about that."

Or something like that. But that stuck with me. So off I go to live life and do errands! No wonder so many of us write about the small, tedious moments in life.  Because that is what we are experiencing!!  : )  


I’ve always abhorred poems about writing poems, and songs about songs. It’s interesting that beginners are always producing scores of poems about poems! I’m tempted to say that the less a person knows about writing, the more s/he is likely to write about it and the imaginary romance with the Muse (perhaps for lack of a real romance in the author’s life).

When the writer’s mentality is rich enough, even “small moments” can give rise to interesting poems. I agree with Zagajewski that the MFA programs should be concerned with enriching the student’s mentality, rather than exercises on how to write a villanelle. On the other hand, to me “craft” does not mean being able to write a villanelle. That’s definitely not what defines a great poet. To me craft is about essential artistic matters such as imagery and “narrow slice” and effective openings and endings. It’s about a wise selection of details, rather than piling up tiresome long lists. And a poet who has a rich mentality but lacks craft in the true sense of the word needs to learn craft. This comes mainly through reading, but good workshops (or a private email exchange among peers) can be a shortcut.



We are all best at writing what we know. So family and events we have observed are relatively easy to write about. But we should all ask ourselves “What else do we know?”

Many great advances and breakthroughs have occurred because one discipline was applied to another (for example, the artificial heart resulted from applying engineering to medicine). We should use poetry to express new thoughts and feelings in whatever areas we’re familiar with: teaching, learning, physics, psychology, sociology, humanities, philosophy, history, politics, religion, etc., or better yet to show similarities, connections, and other relationships between two or more disciplines.

In the past, poets have always helped explain the current world and predict and shape the future. Today, with the world changing so quickly, that's more important than ever.

And, by the way, creativity will become more and more important in the future because the last thing machines will be able to do is have new ideas.


I agree that we might profit by asking ourselves, “What else do we know?” Nor should we be content with the first answer that comes to mind, but seek further. Poets should be lifelong learners and explorers.  College programs, no matter how well-designed, are always only a beginning.



I wish I could have heard AZ. I admire his work. He seems to be seeking the same things in poetry as I am, and I think he's correct in saying that intellectual content is lacking. The schools are not pushing the humanities enough.  And not everyone can travel so they have to learn vicariously from books on a wide variety of subjects. I struggle myself to get outside of strictly poetry. As for craft, I think it can be learned, but a poet has to have an ear to the universe to write and something I call heart.


I think you are absolutely right about the ear and the heart (I love your “ear to the universe” -- also note the ear in heart; there is an ear in the heart of heart!).  Intellectual content is certainly not enough. In fact it may be less important than the intensity of feeling.  

On the other hand, I remember showing a literary magazine to my mother; she asked, “How come there are no ideas in these poems?” There is, I suppose, a balance, so that the poems should not appear to be devoid of mind, of insight that governs the details.


Bill Mohr:

If I had been there, I would have asked AZ to quote (or very, very closely paraphrase) at least six lines of poetry by Brecht. I doubt he would have been able to. My poetics are with Brecht, who loathed George. Of course, AZ is exactly the kind of person whose knowledge of American poetry I find laughable. He frames the MFA programs as the cynosure of post-World War II American poetry. What an ignorant lout.


Thanks for a provocative response!!

AZ dislikes George's poetry too. It's possible that he'd be able to quote something by Brecht, since he studied in Germany and seems acquainted with German literature. His knowledge of contemporary American poetry, however, has indeed been questioned by some reviewers.

Twentieth-century American poetry has shown a lot of variety and richness. However, many have expressed some anxiety about the newest trends -- and these may be more influenced by MFA programs than poetry that came into being before the MFA industry exploded.

But at this point let me remind the reader that Zagajewski credits the MFA programs with "beautifully defending the reading habits, which are threatened by the modern media.” He doesn't want to get rid of these programs, only suggests that their typical curriculum is absurd, and the sole emphasis on craft bespeaks a certain intellectual impoverishment and lack of a larger vision.

Bill Mohr:

Yeah, but my point is that he thinks he’s providing some extraordinarily perspicacious insight. The small press movement has regarded the typical MFA curriculum as absurd from the moment that these programs began to flourish in the early 1980s. What a pompous intellectual. When my book on the history of Los Angeles poetry comes out in a year or so, he should be locked in a room and forced to stay there until he reads the whole thing.


The contemporary American poetry scene strikes me as astonishing. The sheer number of poets is staggering, and I don't mean those college students who will stop writing as soon as they graduate (sometimes with an MFA degree), or those senior citizens who take it up as a hobby and it might as well be quilting or genealogy. I mean the top ten percent of those who have been writing for many years: fine poets with a lifetime of experience to draw on. Their cultural range may be limited, but their accomplishment can’t be dismissed either.

Right here in San Diego County we have at least a dozen fine poets, and they aren't done with their development either. No matter how solid their achievement and their regional reputation, they aren't nationally famous and will never be, because the downside of such numbers is that wider recognition becomes extremely difficult.

I am not at all surprised when I hear, about this or that conference, "A number of participants were as good or better than the instructors." Any instructor with a hierarchical set of mind will have trouble teaching a workshop composed mainly of advanced poets.

AZ asked me, with some surprise in his voice, "Why don’t you publish a book? You are ready." He doesn't begin to grasp the dilemma of numbers, i.e., nationwide there are hundreds, possibly even thousands, of poets who are just as ready. Most of them will eventually resign themselves to self-publication. This used to be my Plan B, but at this point it's my Plan A. And I know it won’t “get me anywhere” in terms of fame. That’s just tough luck.

Bill Mohr:

I, too, have “resigned” myself to self-publication during the upcoming decade. The contests are a farce. I put “resigned” in quotation marks, though, because poets need to realize that the university presses that run the hierarchical shell game of poetic fame and fortune have about as much to do with the actual quality of poetry being written right now as any theoretical alignment of record companies with the quality of contemporary popular music. Any post-punk/hip-hop band with an ounce of common sense knows that the model is to produce your own records. Poets really and truly ought to get hip. Self-publication is the only meaningful measure of one’s value as a poet.


One of the most fascinating workshops I ever attended was Jeffrey Levine’s “getting published” workshop at the Ruskin Club in Los Angeles, in April of 2007.  Levine, chief editor of Tupelo Press, said, “Your work is being read by fifteen-year-olds” (meaning the preliminary readers on whose taste your fate depends). His final words were, “I hope you all self-publish.” And now, with e-publishing, it is a whole new game.


John Guzlowski:

I'm not sure if I agree with AZ entirely about creative writing students not having a larger "intellectual context."  In my experience, some do and some don't.  I've had creative students who were expert in philosophy, geology, physics, medicine, warfare, history and literature, and could talk about and use their knowledge and understanding within their poems.  One of the best student poems I've ever seen was about Soranus, the founder of gynecology.  The poem talked of love, sorrow, and what it means to suffer.  I couldn't ask for a more intellectually exciting poem.  

I'm sure that AZ has had such students too. Both here and in Poland.

They are the good ones.  There aren't many of them but they are there, and they become the real poets, the ones we want to read.  

The others?  They're just voices disappearing into the wind.

About the conflict between the classroom and the cafe?

I bet it's no different in Poland.  The cafes are probably in the big cities--Warsaw, Krakow, Lublin, AZ's own Lvov.  I wonder if he'd find the cafes he seeks in Jasna Gora or Palewy.

Good piece, Oriana.  I enjoyed reading it and look forward to more of your thoughts about AZ and VSC.


Thanks, John, for an excellent response.

Of course it's similar in Poland if you have the bad luck to be stuck, for any reason, in the village of Mokronosy (“wet noses” – a real name). True, you should walk half a day in a blizzard, if need be, to Poznan's cafés, but we know reality.

The only real difference is that European public education is better, so some advantage comes from this early intellectual grounding. But one could argue that it's also a disadvantage – to know about Plato but to look down on people from Mokronosy.



My own gripe with much of the poetry I read lately has to do with its being terribly clever (i.e., excelling in craft) but being void emotionally.  Often this poetry seems to be about nothing very important.  The deep human element is missing, and thus the poems flex their muscles but don't lift any weight.


It’s interesting that you bring up the “emotional void.” I think good American poetry excels at portraying feeling-charged human situations. Its strength is specifics. And this is where knowing Virgil might not necessarily be an advantage. On the other hand, imagine if Dante did not know Virgil. Dante needed to stand on the shoulders of giants; many American poets are pioneers in exploring intimate, complex human situations. I think Sharon Olds, for instance, is fine within her narrow parameters; she does not need to bring myth or history or religion into her poems. When she tries, she fails. Szymborska, with her philosophical mind, can write a good poem about baby Hitler; Olds is at her best when she writes about her own children, parents, siblings. 

And that’s fine; that teaches us a lot about what it’s like to be human. One strength of good American poetry is its psychological explorations. And if the essential task of poetry is to comment on life, on human experience, then having  had the right kind of life experiences is more important than erudition. The same goes for psychological insight. (I'm thinking of one poet I met at VSC, Curtis Bauer: his poems continue to haunt me. I admire and enjoy Zagajewski's poems, but I have to confess that they don't haunt me.)

Another strength of American poetry  is being very specific and imagistic – an in-depth exploration of an image or a “narrow slice” of a narrative. To me, craft is not about villanelles. Real craft has a lot more to do with mastering the language of images, of writing “cinematically” rather than conceptually. And that’s where MFA programs have not altogether failed, even if “show, don’t tell” sounds so simple. It sounds simple, but doing it well is actually quite difficult.


Regarding this piece on Zagajewski's anti-craft manifesto--I love it!!!!!  I think you convey his thoughts clearly and with rigor and enthusiasm and I also agree totally with his points.  I've never been able to state it so persuasively, but this is exactly what I find lacking, not only within MFA programs but also within the American poetry world in general.  

My only suggestion--if you were to expand this--would be to include more of yourself, your experience, and your reactions--how for instance, that Catholic education and growing up at least in the shadow of the Sartrean cafe world has shaped your sense of writing.  (This is not to suggest that I think the café world in Warsaw or Krakow or Gdansk would be any less serious and profound that Paris or Zurich or Berlin.)

I wonder how his audience responded, because in a sense, he was indicting Americans and American art. 


The audience ate it up. No one spoke in defense of MFA’s.  The programs were seen as good money-makers for universities, and that’s why they proliferated – not because they produce good poets.  There has been endless criticism of the MFA industry in this country, though not quite from the point of view of lack of intellectual content.

It’s only now that I see some points in favor of such programs, or creative writing classes in general. No, they don’t generally educate you in terms of expanding and enriching your mentality – but they can be helpful in terms of mastering the language of images. A preachy tone is discouraged, along with vague generalizing.

I think the closest I came to being influenced by Polish poetry was through my translations.  And immediately I had a longing for combining the best of American poetry with the wider vision of the best of European poetry. Seeing that AZ’s poems, especially the recent ones, have been influenced by the contemporary American tradition of the lyrical personal narrative, shows me that an intermingling of influences would be best.

Just what exactly poets should study in order to enrich their mentalities would probably call for an individualized curriculum, custom-tailored both to each student’s interests and also areas where s/he might need to catch up on general knowledge. Again, though, that would just be a start of lifelong learning.


Your blog on the AZ lecture is superb!  Thank you so much for posting it, and for bringing the lecture back from VT to share with your community here. There is so much stimulation in the blog, all the back and forth, etc..  I am so inspired by Stefan George's hair....and that amazing profile!


I love it that you comment on George's hair! I've noticed that charismatic male leaders tend to have lots of hair, or at least good hair with "body." I suspect that sex appeal is part of charisma – in general. But there can be also something else, maybe those traits of appearance that we call “distinctive” and “commanding.” In photographs taken toward the end of his life, George looks gaunt, thin-lipped, and sneering. I couldn't help thinking that he’d make the perfect Dracula. Ernst Bertram, one of the poets who knew George, revealed that his first thought on meeting him was, “A werewolf!”

Here is Bertram’s revealing poem.


The eyes – narrow and only when they rule, wide –
Were illuminated from behind as if by candles.
The pain of some old cruelty
Etched in his cheeks.

His face fell steeply down from his dark hair
As if in princely terraces
Down to his chin, which only concealed
And was full of violence – that was deadly in hate.

Around the immobile lips there was the trace
Of conquered temptation,
And gravely his brow carried
The noble curse like a chosen jewel.

   ~ Ernst Betram, translated by Robert E. Norton

As for that "old cruelty," perhaps it was insufficient mothering. George's mother was a devout  Catholic, possibly a frustrated nun at heart. She was emotionally distant. The children were not allowed to kiss her. None of the three children got married. 

George was gay, though he seems to have abstained from obvious affairs, and in fact praised celibacy. He was appalled when the Nazis seized on the hero-worship aspect of his "secret Germany," and moved to Switzerland. It's fascinating that this man, regarded by some critics as a "proto-fascist," with his praise of individual nobility and excellence, indirectly inspired anti-Nazi resistance. 

For me the personal significance of "secret Germany" is only the inspiration to think of the "secret America." The term electrifies me. I used to think of the "other America," or even "my America" -- but that doesn't carry the delight of "secret." It's all those subcultural aspects of America that I can love -- people who are non-consumerist, spiritual but non-religious, serious about important values, eager for knowledge and all things of the mind. Not a coherent, organized cultural group, to be sure, but a way for me to be able to think of some aspect of this undefinable entity, America, with affection.

As for George's fame, maybe eventually he will be remembered mainly as a fine translator, particularly of Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil. His own work shows the influence of Baudelaire -- hence some similarity to Rilke's New Poems. 


Lenny Lianne:

AZ's criticism about teaching craft rather than poetry students knowing another subject (history, science, etc.) is the same criticism as levelled against those getting education degrees rather than degrees in a subject they'll teach.  While I agree with the criticism of education degrees, esp. for middle-school teachers and beyond, I'm not so harsh on teaching the craft of poetry (esp. when it is so different from speech and prose).  I do think that poets who write about subjects other than themselves are more interesting in general.  I also wish more poets had a working knowledge of Greek mythology.  BUT I believe in research ( and it's easy with the Internet).  One has to want to expand one's grasp beyond the personal.  (For me, I love doing research -- sometimes more than the actual writing -- but that's me.  Ah, the thrill of finding the fascinating factoid!)


I went through a period of writing a lot of myth poems and persona poems, and I too loved the research part best. Now I am actually more drawn to insightful personal narratives, e.g. Stephen Dunn. For myth and biography, I prefer to google and/or read good non-fiction.

When it comes to what should be taught in MFA programs, I think an in-depth examination of a great poet's body of work -- let's say Rilke or Wallace Stevens – would make sense. Maybe a class on mythology . . .  but does it really matter that much? As you point out, research into any subject has become much easier now. Real poets will keep educating themselves throughout their lives. 

In summary: I think Zagajewski has a point in saying that American poets are not sufficiently grounded in the intellectual tradition or any specific area of knowledge. Where I defend the teaching of craft is not exercises in how to write sonnet, the sestina, and so on. Nor is it a tragedy if a student confuses metonymy with synecdoche, or grows blank when asked about the meaning of “litotes.” I agree that this kind of teaching of “craft” is pretty meaningless.

Having said this, I think there is a place for the teaching of craft, by which I mean how to write specifically and imagistically.  Images have a significant emotional power, especially if threaded on even a wisp of a narrative. Much as I hate a typical fault-finding critique workshop, the pressure to be more imagistic has generally been a good thing. Another benefit I have derived is seeing the advantage of taking a “narrow slice,” and exploring it in depth. I apologize for repeating myself, but I think that Zagajewski never really defined “craft,” and that craft in the true sense is immensely deep and also takes lifelong learning.

A new factor, not yet explored, is the way poets are beginning to connect via the Internet. Living in New York or Boston is still an advantage, but a poet in Wyoming is no longer doomed to isolation – nor does s/he have to enroll in an MFA program. 

The crucial process is development. This means both intellectual and artistic development, but also development as a human being. I think that as writers we are participating in a great personal as well as collective adventure.

And, as it often happens, the surprise benefit: learning about the “secret Germany,” which made me wonder about “secret America” (non-consumerist, interested in the life of the mind), and even “secret poetry” (non-academic, intimate, psychological, connected with both nature and everyday life).


Added later, from my more personal notes:

After being introduced, he began by saying, “My name is Adam Zagajewski. That’s ZagaYEVski, not ZagaJEWski.” His tone was not jocular. He never smiled once, and there was a stiffness even about his voice with its harsh r’s as he proceeded to state that this is going to be an “anti-craft lecture.” His message was already familiar to me from his essays and interviews in which he voiced the same complaint: young American poets did not seem acquainted with philosophy, history, and so forth. They tended to write about the members of their immediate family, not about what might be called the larger world. 

As I mentioned, for me the interesting part started when AZ began to speak about Stefan George. The idea of “Secret Germany” immediately fascinated me. It was only later, back home, when I started reading a biography of George that I discovered a fascist in full bloom -- not in the rather foolish style of Ezra Pound, but, to my horror, a powerful literary figure who extolled the values later adopted by the Nazis. George rejected the Nazis, but for a peculiar reason: he saw the German National Socialism as a “plebeian movement,” while he was interested in aristocracy.

Was AZ aware of George’s views on racial purity and the like? Since he stated he was reading George’s biography, I assume he must have been. AZ presented him as a charismatic, politically influential poet, rather than as an utterly distasteful figure, and not a very good poet at that. AZ did say, twice, that he did not like George’s poems. But he did not mention George’s statements (quoted in the book) such as, “Jews are the best conductors. They are good at spreading and implementing values. To be sure, they do not experience life as deeply as we do.” While this is a more sophisticated kind of anti-Semitism, it strikes me as more pernicious.

During the lecture I got the impression that George was being presented as a role model of an “engaged” poet. Once I learned more about George, I began to wonder about AZ’s choice, and AZ’s saying, “I am going to speak about George because you know nothing about him, and because I happen to be reading his biography.” There was a capriciousness to that statement that could be read as disdain for the audience. (By the way, I am not implying any degree of anti-Semitism on the part of AZ; in fact in one of his essays he unequivocally condemns it. I am merely puzzled by the choice of George, a proto-Nazi, for this lecture.)

Now I see yet another reason why AZ might feel attracted to a figure like Stefan George: George's aloofness. It would not surprise me if George had Asperger's Syndrome. 

It could be argued that the lecture as a whole implied that American poets are an ignorant lot, and what they learn in MFA programs is how to write villanelles and sestinas. During the discussion, no one protested, no one disagreed. In fact, the listeners enthusiastically agreed. I said only, “In this country, and at this point in the culture, it’s not possible for anyone to be like Yeats.” I should have explained that only poets read poetry, and the possibility of a larger cultural dialogue is feeble at best. But surely AZ already knew that, after 18 years of teaching at the University of Houston and no doubt talking to many American poets.

Actually I was hoping for a real craft lecture, so I ended up disappointed. The more I ponder the matter, the more I want writing classes to teach craft, but craft as I understand it: for instance, the use of imaginative rather than discursive language, taking a “narrow slice” when writing a narrative, clinging to the concrete rather than the abstract, or knowing how to begin in medias res.

As for the problem of content and greater cultural range, there might indeed be some point in requiring classes in the humanities: comparative religion, say, or world literature or music. The program would probably be different depending on each student’s interests and also areas of the most profound ignorance (for a lot of students, that area would be world history). 

Later, a Polish-American poet and translator with whom I had an email exchange about AZ was wondering if anyone asked AZ if he followed the principles he was promoting in his own poetic practice. Alas, no one did. Poets and writers, including me, seemed to regard him with awe. He was the star. No one questioned anything he said. 


  1. Years ago, in a translation workshop, I made this translation of a Stefan George poem. It's interestingly strange:

    Don't dwell on things that can't be known,
    Meaningless signs, unsettling symbols.
    The wild swan you shot then nursed--
    Its mangled wing reminded you,
    You claimed, of something far and linked
    To you, destroyed. Thankless for
    Your care, languishing without
    A grudge. But when it had to die
    Its burnished eye rebuked the one
    Who drove it to another realm of being.

  2. Wow, thank you! Finally a George poem that I like! If I didn't know, I would have guessed Rilke. The translation works beautifully. What a gift.

    And how odd that AZ remarked, "Why am I saying so much about George? Because you know nothing about him, and I am fascinated by him." It turned out to be the part of the lecture that mesmerized me.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing this, Oriana. I completely agree with Adam about the importance of having a broad scope and writing with genuine feeling about larger, deeper issues and not just clever accounts of whatever happened that day or the insulated "poetic" life. I personally have numerous gripes about MFA programs and the contemporary poetry scene and think that honesty and real sentiment is seriously lacking in alot of work that's published these days and often highly praised. But as I mentioned in the discussion, I don't think a poet can ignore craft. I disagree with Adam that American MFA programs teach craft--I don't think students are really learning craft on the whole--the majority of students do not study the masters and learn the forms with any degree of rigor and aren't expected to adhere to any real discipline in terms of developing their craft as poets (in addition to expanding their intellectual horizons). I think that poets need an understanding of both areas and don't think it's a coincidence that most of the poets Adam mentioned are formal masters as well as poets with strong, broad visions of the world. How can anyone separate Yeats or Auden from their craft? I don't think that everyone needs to write in form or meter but to abandon craft entirely is to ignore a vital aspect of poetry in my opinion. Otherwise, we'd be writing prose.

  4. ps poets in New York, Boston and San Francisco also face loneliness even when there are lots of people to talk to! (I'm a New Yorker and can attest to it). I think all poets face loneliness in one way or another, no matter where they live.

  5. Rachel, thank you. I couldn't agree more: MFA programs don't seem to teach the masters! I had a disastrous, lazy program in which no reading was assigned, but when I look at lists from other programs, I see lots of minor work, the kind that will be forgotten just a few years from now . . . Craft shouldn't be limited to form; there are deeper issues by far . . . opening, closure, velocity, the crafting of a poetic sequence . . . and those are not touched upon when instead of great poems, students are required to read (and produce) what might be called "fashion statements."

    And my other point, now that I have had more time to think about the lecture, is that studying great poets/poems would also acquaint students with great issues and model a larger vision.

  6. It would be great if Zagajewski learned some craft himself and finished his poems.

    When has he ever written in metre and rhyme?
    I doubt he is capable of doing so.

    What does he know about craft? Name-dropping philosophers and great artists is not craft, nor is writing the same Miloszeque poem over and over craft

    Polish poetry was much stronger before the war. Staff, Lesmian, Tuwim, Broniewski, etc were real poets.

  7. There was lyricism in pre-war Polish poetry that I sometimes miss in the minimalist post-war style. It's not even the verbal music so much as the rendering of the Polish landscape, the countryside, the roadside willows . . . At the same time, I am very impressed by the best of Zbigniew Herbert, for instance.

    It's interesting that you describe AZ's poems as "Miloszesque." I've been reading Milosz a lot lately, and I think you have a point there. In his most recent poems, however, AZ seems to have turned to the personal narrative -- e.g. the new poems about his mother and father -- possibly an influence of contemporary American poetry. Personally, I like those poems -- they are both touching and honest.

    To me the word "craft" covers a much wider area than meter and rhyme. For instance, AZ's craft fails in those poems that don't have an effective opening and/or ending, or where the details are too general, too much in the form of a list. On the whole, however, I find a lot of lines that I like and admire. This has also been the experience of the members of my San Diego Poetry Salon: on repeated readings, they found themselves liking more and more lines. They also liked the personal poems better than, say, the Nietzsche or Schubert poems.

  8. If you'd like to read a book by another poet/critic who advocates a return to content over craft, look for _The Fate of American Poetry_ by Jonathan Holden. It's a little old (from the early 90's), but it's good.

  9. Thanks for recommending Jonathan Holden. He was the poetry editor of the Kansas Review way back, and his praise of my poems was something I repeated like a mantra during the worst years -- when, after an absence from the poetry scene I tried to "return," only to discover that my kind of meaning-focused lyrical narrative was regarded as old-fashioned. The poems that Holden accepted had what might be called a "wide cultural range." Judging from the tone of correspondence, his younger editorial assistant was appalled by Holden's choices. Well, now the junior assistants have moved up, and incoherent prose poems lead the parade.

  10. Thinking about it later: Zagajewski's call for a greater cultural range in American poetry is doomed to fall on deaf ears since it all starts with education, with the richness of the poet's mind. The problem with American poetry is the problem with American education, which mostly fails to expand a person's "cultural range." I've met poets who know nothing of history or mythology or the great classics of world literature. They read only contemporary American poets, if that. This is where some MFA programs have begun to take action, assigning more diversified reading, or encouraging the poet to learn in depth about a discipline other than poetry. But that really needs to start long before college, that laying down of an intellectual and experiential foundation.