MFA and the Poet

Awhile back, we decided a writer doesn’t absolutely NEED an MFA to succeed.  I think it is true even still but… I worry about poets.  It seems poets, if they are apt to get anywhere, do so because of the MFA program. 

I wonder how many poet laureates of the United States never received their Master’s.  I am sure I could find out somewhere but I am afraid I would be disheartened by the answers.  It isn’t like I am ever going to be seeing that position in my lifetime but I am still curious with a shot of dread.

I suppose contests could be a way of going about moving up as a poet, or even the “right” publications but a lot of contests are run by universities that just happen to have MFA programs or editors who are often still favoring their schools.  Am I saying these things are rigged?  No, I’m not.  There are a lot of places where only the work matters.  A lot of people with an MFA do win awards but that could be because they are better due to their learning and commitment.  Though I have had the privilege of seeing winning/losing entries in a few contests and I don’t nearly come up with the same winners as the judges do but people will just say it is subjective.

Professors and fellow students help with publication and job opportunities, that is true for any MFA.  It must be wonderful but, at the same time, it kind of smacks of favoritism.  Then again, what doesn’t these days?

Master’s holders say they are often looked at harder and longer when someone is deciding on their stuff because, after the degree, they are held to a higher standard.  It could be true.  I mean, editors sometimes peer down at me because I DON’T list a degree anywhere so the opposite has to be true.  I just wish I knew which one of us was at more of a disadvantage. 


  1. I don't think you have to have an MFA to succeed, but it doesn't hurt. I write poetry and other genres, and I do have an MA degree in English Lit. Indeed it was helpful to some extent, but my writing has all come from me and how much I have researched on my own. In university (and to some extent high school), they give you the tools and tell you where to go to look for information, but they don't give you everything. I think that even without a degree, anyone who really wants to improve can do it on their own. Abraham Lincoln taught himself to read. So, I recommend reading all the best poets (and famous ones, too) and seeing why people like them. Try to analyze and see what style they chose. There are so many different styles and ways to write a poem. Free-verse, rhyme, haiku, etc. Try to look for books on the subject. I have one but I haven't finished reading it yet (I kind of look to it as a reference if I need something but plan on reading it all one day) is called: The Poetry Dictionary by John Drury and can be found at Writer's Digest Store. It is really a comprehensive book. There are a lot of articles that you can find on the internet; just google whatever you are looking for. I think that self-learning is actually stronger sometimes because you really want to learn and will work hard from self-motivation. And about those contests, sometimes one never knows how it will go because judges are human. Even though they try to be objective, maybe a poem is good but not chosen just based on the fact the judge doesn't like the subject matter or maybe the judge felt ill and couldn't really concentrate. there are so many reasons why. And then there are a lot of entries in these competitions, so there tend to be so many to choose from. Part of it is skill and the other part is luck with a smidgen of talent. In the end, hard work is what will get you ahead. Just keep pushing forward and always learn and explore. I actually believe poetry is now moving out among the masses rather than just staying stuck in academia. It has always been with people who appreciate it, and really someone should be bold enough to take it to a new market and to write new styles and new things; we don't always have to do what the academics are doing, but at the same time there has to be standards of quality. Good luck!

    1. Research is something to be done whether or not you have an MFA. I think, perhaps, everyone just thinks the other side has it better/easier.