Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

Do What Now?

So I’m hunting around for links for my weekly Poetic Lives Online post over at The Rumpus, when I come across this gem of a post from the London Review blog. I couldn’t give it the full attention I thought it deserved in that column, so I’m putting it here instead. The blog post begins this way:

A properly sceptical article by Anthony Gardner on the creative writing industry, in the latest Royal Society of Literature mag, quotes one teacher explaining that ‘creative writing schools in the US teach that a poem needs to have what they call “redemption”: something at the end which lifts the reader up.’

What do you do with such an obviously ludicrous statement? What’s worse is that the blogger, Jenny Diski, rolls with it as though it’s so obviously true that it’s not worth challenging. Seriously, that’s the kind of claim I’d smack down one of my first-year students for putting it into the introduction of an argumentative essay.

Let me use my own experience as an example here. Got a minor in Creative Writing as an undergrad at Southeastern Louisiana University, and my poetry teacher there, Jack Bedell, never once suggested that a poem needed to have a redemptive close. Got my MFA at Arkansas, which is a pretty traditional school, and none of my teachers there–Miller Williams, Michael Heffernan, Enid Shomer and Davis McCombs–suggested that a poem needed to have redemption in it. I can’t remember if Miller had redemption or something similar in his long list of closing moves that he gave us in Form and Theory class, but if he did, it was one on a very long list. And Michael might have punched me in the throat if I’d tried that. (Not really–he was a great guy.)

Move forward to Stanford–Ken Fields, Eavan Boland and W. S. DiPiero. Never a peep about a redemption requirement in poems. And none, I might add, from any of the people I was ever in a workshop with, many of whom are teaching in universities across the countries. And while I’m not on the MFA faculty here at FAU, and I’ve never sat in on any of the graduate workshops, I’d bet money that Mark Scroggins doesn’t tell his students to put a moment of redemption or uplift into their poems, and I’d be surprised if Susan Mitchell does either.

Neither do I, and I teach undergraduate poetry workshop nearly every semester. In fact, I find myself very often telling my undergrads to be a bit more daring in their closings, because they tend toward that moment of uplift on their own, when they’re not going for out-and-out explanation of what they were trying to say all along.

Look, it’s obvious that Gardner and Diski have their doubts about the university creative writing industry that’s springing up in Britain, and the one we have here certainly has its flaws (though I don’t think they’re as dire as most detractors seem to suggest), but be a little skeptical for crying out loud. All you have to do is access a poetry journal, even one as mainstream as Poetry, and you’ll find poems written by poets who’ve gone through that system which disprove that thesis. Just don’t look in The New Yorker.


February 20, 2010 - Posted by | Anthony Gardner, Jenny Diski, redemption


  1. Have to agree with you here. Bennington College, Florida State, University of Utah–no redemption lessons here.

    Comment by V. Wetlaufer | February 20, 2010 | Reply

  2. It seems to me the only harm MFA programs could possibly do would be if they were to promise their students comfortable lives of ease and fortune — as a result of simply getting the degree. That would be cruel and ridiculous. Other than that, I mean come on: they're places where people who love to write can get better at it. What could be wrong with that? And even if some people are teaching silly things, a lot of us spent grad school questioning and rebelling against the wisdom we received, not accepting it as gospel. This vision of a national corps of scrivening sheep is pretty offensive, but more importantly, it's just plain wrong.

    Comment by Amy | February 21, 2010 | Reply

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