Theses Doctoral

Beyond McPoetry: Contemporary American Poetry in the Institutionalized Creative Writing Program Era

Porter, Julie LaRue

This dissertation examines the rise of the creative writing program in American higher education and considers its influence on contemporary American poetry. I investigate how the patronage of the university has impacted American poetry and reconfigured the contemporary literary landscape. Using Mark McGurl's (2009) groundbreaking research on post-World War II fiction and the rise of the creative writing program as a launching point, I consider the following questions: (1) How might contemporary American poetry be understood in relation to the rise of mass higher education and the creative writing program? (2) How and why has the creative writing program reorganized U.S. poetry production in the postwar period?, and (3) How can the rise of the creative writing program be brought to bear on a reading of contemporary poetry itself? Investigating beyond the well-worn claim that institutionalized creative writing programs produce McPoetry, this humanities-based research examines the ascents of three of America's most celebrated living poets. First, I investigate Kay Ryan's rise as an "outsider" poet happily unaffiliated with creative writing programs. Through close readings, I consider how the most dominant and idiosyncratic craft elements in her writing are a partial result of her avoidance of the homogenizing forces of the creative writing workshop. I then examine Jorie Graham's influence as a former faculty member at Iowa Writers Workshop, the most prestigious and indisputably powerful M.F.A. program in the nation, and as a current professor at Harvard University. I examine distinguishing features of Graham's work and trace threads of connection in the poetry of other Elliptical poets who have been heavily influenced by her. I consider how Graham's work necessitates literary scholarship and how those granted power by their institution in turn bolster Graham's body of work. In particular, I examine Helen Vendler's role, as our nation's most powerful poetry critic, in promoting Graham's poetry and popularizing a set of aesthetic values modeled largely after Graham's. Next, I consider Billy Collins' aggressive courting of the general reader of poetry as an antidote to academe's exclusion of non-specialist readers. I argue that Collins' impressive popularity and subversive tendencies serve as a counterweight to the literary authority of "official verse" culture. The examination of Billy Collins, Jorie Graham, and Kay Ryan aims to illuminate higher education's role in bestowing cultural authority on particular poets and kinds of poetry.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English Education
Thesis Advisors
Miller, Janet
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 30, 2012