Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Poets Without Education

I don't know about anyone else, but I'm getting sick and tired of all the MFA and PhD talk about what school and which degree makes good poetry lately - as if nothing else mattered.

Just for the record, with a good memory and about 20 minutes worth of research, here's a few poets WITHOUT the all-important credentialing that goes on nowdays.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY - ambulance driver

ANNE SEXTON - advanced education consisted of attending Finishing School.

CARL SANDBURG - left school at 13, went back and re-tackled academia at a later date but left before completing a 4 year degree.

HART CRANE - dropped out of high school and took to the sea and the streets.

LANGSTON HUGHES - left college after two semesters and eventually ended up doing a myrid of things - two of which were washing dishes and writing.

PERCY BYSSHE SHELLY - expelled from Oxford

EMILY DICKINSON - returned home after one year at Mary Lyon's Mount Holyoke Female Seminary and seldom left home again.

DYLAN THOMAS - left school at 16 to become a reporter.

BOB DYLAN - left college after his first year.

EDGAR ALAN POE - gave up formal education in 1927 at the age of 18 after losing his tuition money due to a gambling problem.

WALT WHITMAN - His mother was barely literate and his father was a carpenter. In 1823 the family moved to Brooklyn, where for six years Whitman attended public schools. It was the only formal education he ever received.

CARL SANDBURG - joined the army during the Spanish American War, spent 2 weeks at West Point, left for another college in Galesburg and then left there without a degree.

ROBERT FROST - attended both Dartmouth and Harvard but never obtained a formal degree from either.

WILLIAM BLAKE - never attended school - was educated at home by his mother.

PABLO NERUDA - gave up his formal studies at the age of 20 to devote himself to writing.


ROBERT BROWNING - In 1828, at the age of 16, Browning enrolled at the University of London, but he soon left, anxious to read and learn at his own pace.

WILLIAM BLAKE - When he turned fourteen, he apprenticed with an engraver because art school proved too costly. In 1782, he married an illiterate woman named Catherine Boucher. Blake taught her to read and to write, and also instructed her in draftsmanship. Later, she helped him print the illuminated poetry for which he is remembered today.

LORD BYRON - once he inherited the title and property of his great-uncle in 1798, he went to Dulwich, Harrow, where he excelled in swimming, and Cambridge, where he piled up debts and aroused alarm with bisexual love affairs. It's unclear as to whether he actually got a degree in anything or not.

DANTE - studied at home, as was usual for the times.


"Educated poets" seems to be a late 20th century type thing. Maybe that explains why there are so few real poets left, hey what? Perhaps while the universities are busy turning out cookie-cutter-poets - with poet-teachers intent on recreating their poet-students in their own image, poetry is, in fact, dying. It sometimes seems as though no one who claims to be a contemporary poet knows (or wants to know) anything about a life composed of anything other than than the relative safety of academia and academic publishing. I mean, really, publish or perish might be the Sword of Damocles to some - but, trust me, it isn't the worst thing which can befall an individual, yanno?

Perhaps I'm just jealous, but I don't think so. I think I'm just pissed off at the current attitude which seems to imply that if you didn't go to school you have no business trying to write poetry - for that matter, if you didn't get at least a BA you might as well be declared functionally illiterate.

Not so, sayeth the drop-out.

The fact that I couldn't spell Damocles without help is immaterial. That's what the dictionary is for. Last I heard you didn't need a college degree to be capable of using one.


A. D. said...

Hmm . . . I predict the sentiment you're critiquing will slowly dissolve, as more and more of the functionally illiterate earn advanced degrees.

There might even be an anti-academy backlash. I mean, George Bush has a BA and an MBA from Yale and Harvard respectively. Maybe after his term he'll get an MFA at Iowa—then the circle would certainly be complete and the curtain drawn on the great and powerful Oz.


Anonymous said...

Although I agree with your premise, I must note that "myriad" has an "a" in it.

Not that I'm saying you're unlettered...

Lo said...

Hey, I never claimed to be "lettered."

(And here I was, so proud of spelling Damocles correctly - that's what happens when a good Catholic girl gets too big for her britches.)

Mea Culpa. Mea Culpa. Mea Maxima Culpa.

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

Excellent post.
Education is more than what is learned in school... it is what we learn in life, it is the lesson we take away from every experience.
What makes the poem precious is the reflection of what we know in our own lives found in that of another mind and heart.

It has nothing whatsoever to do with a degree or lack thereof. Paper does not define us.

Well done.

Scarlett & Viaggiatore

JforJames said...

I agree wholeheartedly. I'm reminded of this irony a few years ago: Naropa Institute, of all places, had a job posting for a Creative Writing Instructor floating around that stated the job required an MFA or other advanced degree. Methinks that sent a few of The Beats spinning in their graves.

una said...

I think the best uneducated poet in America is Aric Allen and I recommend his blog Emily Had An Afro. I think an actual education would have smoothed out the edges of his voice and left it as dull as the rest of the blogs about...

Caratacus said...

It's an interesting topic, discussed at length and depth on this thread at a poetry forum:


Lo said...

Thanks for linking to Dr. W's. I should have done so myself. You're right, it's an excellent discussion on the subject and it's actually what inspired this particular rant.

Another interesting "thing" I found in my research was that there apparently is (was) a proponderance of ambulance driver/writers during WW I.

I don't know what it means, but it's interesting as hell to me.


G. M. said...

T.S. Eliot: ABD in Philosophy from Harvard
William Carlos Williams: MD
Archibald MacLeish: JD
Ezra Pound, Sylvia Plath, and Randall Jarrell all had extensive educations, though I can't remember their terminal degrees.

Mostly it should be noted that quality of writing has exactly nothing to do with length of education.

G. M. said...

T.S. Eliot: ABD in Philosophy from Harvard
William Carlos Williams: MD
Archibald MacLeish: JD

Ezra Pound, Sylvia Plath, and Randall Jarrell all held teaching positions at universities, though I don't remember their terminal degrees.

What should be noted is that writing quality has exactly nothing to do with educational credentials.

RJ Walker said...

I'd like to mention Poetry Slam in response to this article. More and more people are persuing poetry without MFAs and finding great success in the avenue of Poetry Slam and spoken word. If you want to find these "Real Poets," I suggest checking out your local slam. If you want to get published, yes, the snoots will read your degree before they read your poetry. If you want to be spoken word artist, then present yourself, and may the better poet win.

Marta M. Adint-Weeks said...

thank you for posting the list on poets that did and do not have an mf, ph or whatnot, I was ready to go enroll in a university

Juli Cailin said...

My sentiments exactly. I think this is an older article, but I'm commenting anyway. Lo, you hit the nail on the head and said exactly what I've thought for so long.

I went to school for a while because I bought into this train of thought and was made to feel inferior. I've since dropped out, mainly because of personal and family obligations that overhauled my schedule, etc.

I'm still writing and may never "be anything," but it was good to read this and other people's sentiments on the subject. Yes, we all need "honing" and learning. There's always room for improvement. But degrees aren't necessary. They are just a prerequisite to entry into snob circles. That's pretty much it.


Thank you for the article....though my thanks is way late. :)

~ juli