By Abigail Zimmer

Why Pursue an MFA: The Truth About Poetry

Since I said my enthusiastic “Yes!” to graduate school (and paid the hefty deposit — point of no return), I’ve slowly begun letting people in on my plans: I’m leaving my job. I’m leaving my city. I’m going back to school.

I love this part of the telling. It’s so freeing. Internally, I’m bubbling over: “I’m done with cubicle-land! I’m going to be brilliant!” Fist pump.

Then they ask what I’m going back for, and my fist inevitably falls. I hesitantly mumble something that sounds like, “poetry,” but only if you have the low-decibel-catching ears of a ferret.

I don’t know why I feel so sheepish when I tell people this. I expect I’ll be pegged as a sentimental, doe-eyed, diary-toting girl like P.G. Wodehouse’s character Madeline Bassett, known for whispering things like, “The stars are God’s daisy chain,” on an unsuspecting evening.

I don’t want to be perceived either as that angsty, emo-teen (I look young enough as it is) who writes pages and pages about “the darkness within my soul” and uses weeping or raven-black in every other stanza.

I’m afraid of these responses in part because in the midst of my applying and moving, I wonder if there’s not some truth to my listener’s skepticism — that maybe studying poetry isn’t worthwhile. Why am I leaving a perfectly good job when it’s such a struggle to get one? Why am I investing so much time and money into a hard and possibly obscure career? Does anyone outside the program even read poetry? Is this practical?

The truth — what got me started on this path and what I forget when I see this skepticism in other people — is that poetry is powerful. William Blake’s poems about child suffering paved the way for child labor laws in the late 1700s. Anna Akhmatova’s poems which she read to packed auditoriums rallied Russians to war during WWII. Javier Sicilia’s last poem until Mexico finds peace speaks to the current violence of drug cartels and his son’s brutal murder.

There’s a reason why poets are often the first ones silenced under restrictive governments or why so many turn to poetry after collective griefs like 9/11 and personal griefs like the loss of a loved one. There’s a reason why poets needed to write the Psalms and why we still turn to them today. We are in need of words to name the unspeakable, to acknowledge moments we find unbearable, and to offer company in loneliness, resilience in conviction, and peace in meditation.

Poets are no saps.

And it’s because of what poetry can offer that it is indeed worth reading and studying, worth investing time and money in, worth joining a long tradition of oft obscure wordsmiths and truth-tellers. This is what I hope for myself and others who are entering MFA programs: to declare ourselves poets, to write.

About the Author

After spending several years as a writer with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Abigail Zimmer will begin working on her MFA in poetry at Columbia College Chicago. She likes Old English, the sassy blues of Janis Joplin, and futzing with cameras. She blogs on art and good people at offthefrontporch.wordpress.com.

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