In Defense of the McPoem
By: Alexandra Umlas
As I finish the final weeks of the MFA program at California State University, Long Beach, poet and professor Charles Harper Webb asks us to read Donald Hall’s thought-provoking essay “Poetry and Ambition” for his class, “Poetry and the Self.” One of the points Hall argues is that MFA programs have become a place where writing students attend workshops and write “McPoems.” What is a McPoem anyway? Hall introduces the term by first describing the United States’ propensity toward “quick-consumption,” and then states, “We write and publish the McPoem—ten billion served—which becomes our contribution to the history of literature…” (301). One of the statements Hall makes is that poets today “fail in part because we lack serious ambition,” but it seems very ambitious to me to think of poetry in terms of fast food, if, even metaphorically, “ten billion” are being served. Hall himself was a prolific writer. Rather than spend his life working on one masterpiece, he has instead tried a wide assortment of genres and styles. After Hall became Poet Laureate in 2006, poet Charles Simic had this to say about Hall’s work in the New York Review of Books: “The range of his published works is truly astonishing. There are fifteen books of poetry and twenty-two books of prose, including short stories, collections of literary essays, sports journalism, memoirs, children’s books, and plays, not counting dozens of textbooks and anthologies that he has edited over the years.” Hall’s own profusion of writing seems to be antithetical to his idea that churning out work at a fast pace will generate mediocrity. In fact, many of Hall’s own poems are personal, short, and could be considered McPoems themselves. Many poetry critics have complained about the fact that there is not enough poetry being written and/or read in the United States today. In Randall Jarrell’s “The Obscurity of the Poet,” Jarrell laments that poetry is not being consumed by the masses at the rate it once was, and also makes a case for the vital importance of art: “Art matters not merely because it is the most magnificent ornament and the most nearly unfailing occupation of our lives, but because it is life itself” (210). The McPoem can be looked at as the kind of poetry that does just this; it embodies our lives and the stuff of which our lives are made. Perhaps our American sensibilities no longer give us such a large appetite for “ornament.” Although I like to eat in a fancy restaurant on occasion, I often prefer the ease and everyday plainness of fast food, and likewise, want the majority of the poems I read to also be uncomplicated and unembellished. Jarrell reveals his own gratefulness for accessible art when he continues, “One of the oldest, deepest, and most nearly conclusive attractions of democracy is manifested in our feeling that through it not only material but also spiritual goods can be shared: that in a democracy bread and justice, education and art, will be accessible to everybody” (210). The McPoem is poetry made more accessible, poetry made more egalitarian, poetry made so that it embodies the very idea of democracy. Hall continues describing the McPoem: “Many of these poems are often readable, charming, funny, touching, sometimes even intelligent. But they are usually brief, they resemble each other, they are anecdotal, they do not extend themselves, they make no great claims, they connect small things to other small things.” (298) Here he describes a poetics that sounds enjoyable—a poetics that allows connections to be made, even if those connections are to “small things.” The poem does not have to be long to make an impact. In fact, in a world where we hurry from one thing to another, perhaps shorter poems will be read much more often than those that are longer. I know that when I post a link to a longer poem on Facebook, almost nobody clicks the link to read it. However, when a poem is short enough to include in the body of the post itself, people are more willing to take a moment, to read it, and to even comment on it. Ezra Pound’s most well-known work, “In a Station of the Metro,” is an extremely short poem; and I believe Pound himself would have appreciated many McPoems, especially ones that employ image. In “A Retrospect,” Pound writes, “An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” (63). Pound goes on to discuss the capability of the image to liberate and free the reader “from time limits and space limits” (64). All it takes for this liberation to happen is an “instant,” and so the quick delivery of a McPoem can possibly make more of a lasting impression, or can perhaps be more freeing, than a poem that is more difficult or strives to extend its ideas too far. Poet Robert Bly also makes a good case for short poems in “A Wrong Turning in American Poetry,” where he argues for a return to the subconscious in poetry: “A poem is something that penetrates for an instant into the unconscious. If it can penetrate in this way, freshly, several times, then it is a poem of several lines. But if it does not do this it is not a poem at all—no matter how long it is” (274). In my experience, a McPoem that can permeate and live in us, a poem that can make an impact, is much more powerful than a long, ornate poem that is difficult to relate to or to connect with. Hall also argues that the McPoem is readily available for consumption: “Pull in any time of day or night, park by the busload, and the McPoem waits on the steam shelf for us, wrapped and protected, indistinguishable, undistinguished, and reliable—the good old McPoem identical from coast to coast and in all the little towns between…” (302). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this were true? We rarely encounter poetry in our everyday lives. Perhaps we catch a line of it on the side of a bus once in a while, but what Hall describes as poems being “readily available” just isn’t happening in actuality. If the McPoem means poems will show up more places – on Billboards, in newspapers, read before additional important events, recited at all presidential inaugurations, then I am solidly for this “McPoem,” no matter how you wrap it. After Hall asserts that we should “Abolish the M.F.A.!” (303) he goes on to state, “To produce the McPoem, institutions must enforce patterns, institutions within institutions, all subject to the same glorious dominance of unconscious economic determinism, template and formula of consumerism” (302). Patterns and forms are prevalent in every part of our lives; they are the very ways we make sense of the world around us. If American institutions are in fact enforcing patterns, then the McPoem can be looked at as a distinctively American way of writing, something that poet William Carlos Williams insisted was lacking and needed in American poetry. In “The Poem as a Field of Action,” Williams states, “It is there, in the mouths of the living, that the language is changing and giving new means for expanded possibilities in literary expression and, I add, basic structure—the most important of all” (57). If the McPoem is an enforced patterned way of writing American, perhaps we are closer to realizing Williams’ goals than ever before. Perhaps we can look back at this incredible outpouring of American poetry as the moment when we had a collective poetic voice—a moment where poetry is growing and new possibilities for poetry are beginning to emerge. In Charles Olson’s essay “Projective Verse,” Olson discusses the choices we make when creating in more open forms, including the idea that “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT,” an idea he borrows from Robert Creely (175). Olson’s statement here claims that the energy of the poem, and how we build it, comes from the materials with which we are constructing the poem. If we are constructing our poems from our American lives, then the McPoem might be the perfect form for our poetry to take. Hall goes on to criticize the workshop and the university that runs the workshop when he writes, “The McPoem is the product of the workshops of Hamburger University” (302). As someone who has attended and who has thrived at Hamburger University, I am willing to strip away the negative connotations of this statement and think of the concept of “Hamburger University” in a more positive way. If the McPoem is actually an enjoyable entity, then Hamburger University is doing its job. In “How to Read,” Ezra Pound ends with a warning against listening too carefully to professors who have “spent a lot of time on some perfectly dead period” and states, “There is no use in following them into the shadows” (81). The Hamburger University workshop, however, does not spend too much time on any “perfectly dead period,” but instead focuses on the now. It asks writers not to dwell on their work, but to keep creating, to keep other’s opinions in mind, to have a clear voice, to work together, and to thrive. It does not matter if we, as Hall claims, have “never added a sauce to the world’s palate,” especially if we take Robert Pinsky’s words to heart in “Responsibilities of the Poet,” where he says, “By practicing an art learned partly from the dead, one keeps it alive for the unborn” (358). If the act of writing itself keeps writing alive, then the more writing and reading is practiced, the more alive it can become. If our poems from Hamburger University seem to lack a unique spice or flavor, also keep in mind Pinsky’s statement that “Even while seeming not to taste each new poetic, the world swallows it” (359). If the poetics of the McPoem are too bland for some, it will not matter. Writing tastes vary, and there will always be a variety of sauces from which to choose. The acts of writing that take place in Hamburger University will change and shift the poetic landscape by virtue of the new writing’s existence. Timothy Steele also speaks to the benefits of the action of writing (even poorly) in “Tradition and Revolution,” when he says, “As true as it is that meter alone will never produce a fine poem, even a weak poet who writes in meter keeps its traditions alive” (430). In 1992, poet Dana Gioia wrote “Can Poetry Matter?” which ends with this beautiful sentiment: “There is nothing to lose. Society has already told us that poetry is dead. Let’s build a funeral pyre out of the desiccated conventions piled around us and watch the ancient, spangle-feathered, unkillable phoenix rise from the ashes” (452). The McPoem might be the next form of that “unkillable phoenix” Gioia was summoning. If poems (even great ones) are “inadequate,” as Hall states at the end of his essay, that does not mean we should not relish their creation and their consumption. In my opinion, the McPoem is alive, well, and making poetry more accessible, more fun, and more prevalent. The McPoem might be the most American voice and style poetry has seen so far. I’ll end with an excerpt from “The McPoem,” a poem about the McPoem by Ronald Wallace in The Blue Ridge Journal: “I must confess that I, too, like it: the poem that’s fried up flat and fast with condiments on a sesame seed bun. Steamy, grease-spattered, and juicy, fluent with salt, piping hot from the grill, glazed with bubbling oil.” Sounds delicious to me.
Alexandra Umlas lives in Huntington Beach, CA and is a recent graduate of the MFA Poetry program at California State University, Long Beach. You can find her work in Rattle, Mothers Always Write, and Cultural Weekly, among others, or at www.alexandraumlas.com
Works Cited Bly, Robert. “A Wrong Turning in American Poetry.” Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry, edited by Dana Gioia, et al., McGraw-Hill, 2004, pp. 261-275. Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry, edited by Dana Gioia, et al., McGraw-Hill, 2004, pp. 111-116. Gioia, Dana. “Can Poetry Matter?” Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry, edited by Dana Gioia, et al., McGraw-Hill, 2004, pp. 438-452. Hall, Donald. “Poetry and Ambition.” Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry, edited by Dana Gioia, et al., McGraw-Hill, 2004, pp. 298-309. Jarrell, Randall. “The Obscurity of the Poet.” Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry, edited by Dana Gioia, et al., McGraw-Hill, 2004, pp. 201-212. Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse.” Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry, edited by Dana Gioia, et al., McGraw-Hill, 2004, pp. 174-181. Pinsky, Robert. “Responsibilities of the Poet.” Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry, edited by Dana Gioia, et al., McGraw-Hill, 2004, pp. 356-366. Pound, Ezra. “A Retrospect.” Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry, edited by Dana Gioia, et al., McGraw-Hill, 2004, pp. 63-71. Simic, Charles. “The Elegist.” New York Review of Books, 30 November 2006, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2006/11/30/the-elegist/. Steele, Timothy. “Tradition and Revolution: The Modern Movement and Free Verse.” Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry, edited by Dana Gioia, et al., McGraw-Hill, 2004, pp. 415-431. Wallace, Ronald. “The McPoem.” The Blue Ridge Journal, http://www.blueridgejournal.com/poems/rw-mcpoem.htm. Williams, William Carlos. “The Poem as a Field of Action.” Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry, edited by Dana Gioia, et al., McGraw-Hill, 2004, pp. 51-57.