Rant & Reflections on MA

This one’s rather self-explanatory…

I haven’t posted in a while because I’ve been juggling between the full-time course and the two part-time jobs. The juggling itself is fine – I seem to be managing with the heavy workload – but in the last couple of weeks I have found myself getting increasingly irritated at the organisation of the dissertation at the UEA. I’ll lay the dates down, just to give you an idea of how things are meant to pan out:

The dissertation period began on the 8th of May.
Our supervision ends around the 8th of June.
We have one meeting per week.
The dissertation itself is due on the 5th of Sept.

That means I have 4 weeks of supervision over a dissertation period of 4 months – not only that, but the supervision falls at the beginning of the dissertation period, which really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me; surely it would be better to have the supervision halfway or towards the end of the dissertation period so that there is more time for thoughts/ideas/words to develop. Instead, because the four weeks of supervision are the the beginning of our dissertation period I find myself forcing my words so that, come the next meeting, I’ll be able to get at least some critical/creative comments from my tutor.

Now for more numbers:

The finished dissertation should contain around 16 poems; if you write short poems then you should put a few more in, if you write longer poems then you should put less in.
Again, we have one meeting per week for four weeks.
That means an average of around four poems a week.

Four poems a week doesn’t sound too bad does it? No, it doesn’t sound too bad. I thought it would be alright; I’m quite a prolific writer of poetry anyway and I figured I could handle it. But I can’t. First I thought it was an issue of not having enough time (but now that I’ve dropped one day of work a week that should no longer be a problem), but I know it’s not that. I just can’t find any words. Picking up a pencil has become very similar to me picking up my guitar – I can play it pretty well/I can write something okay, but it all sounds the same. Same, is boring (to me). The poems I have managed to write for the past two meetings have been good. Some of them have been better than others (as is always the case), but overall I thought they were good semi-polished poems. Thing is, they don’t seem all that memorable. I’ve forgotten what most of them were about already. Maybe that’s just my dreadful memory, or maybe it’s because they don’t really say what I want them to say – they don’t feel enough, they don’t explore enough – which basically means that they’re not good enough.

These are somewhat polished poems as well. They’re not just me rambling on, I’ve actually thought my way back through them and added things, taken away things, but now it’s as if those poems don’t belong to me. I think, due to the stress of trying to get these poems out on a weekly basis in an acceptable state I’ve started to think about them too much. I’m not being true to myself. For example, the poems aren’t nearly as playful as those that have come before. I’ve stopped exploring the space of the page, I’ve neglected long words (although, yesterdays poem included ‘peregrination’), and generally I’m not having as much fun writing them. This is not how I should be writing.

Besides, shouldn’t this time at the beginning of the dissertation period be used for research? Shouldn’t I be reading now, to get some ideas, to begin to know what I want to do rather than rushing, somewhat blindly, into the actual writing? It all seems to have been arranged in a very backwards fashion. Truth be told – I’m almost tempted to throw in a ripped segment of towel (as opposed to the whole of it) and just write one a week, or none, and just read. I need good ideas before I write a poem – if I write poems without good ideas, or I force those ideas, then really it’s just shit-shining. Sure, that shit might just be someone else’s gold (working at a carboot/market has taught me that much), but I know it’s shit. I don’t want to write shit poems. Like Will Self comparing mainstream novels to table-making:

‘I get up in the morning, I’ll make another table – tables are great, we need tables, they are great to eat off, they are good to sit at, and I think I’ll make another one – and I never want to make another table, I want to make something new, I want to make something different, I want the form to feel elastic for me and dangerous, and that’s how I think art progresses, if art progresses at all.’

I don’t want to make tables, but at the moment I’m making them.

I’ve even gone so far as to wonder why I’m doing an MA in Poetry. That’s not to say that the course hasn’t  been eye-opening, or helpful, or interesting, I mean, one of the greatest things about the course itself is that it’s encouraged me to read more poetry, and has provided me with a long list of contemporary poets I can dig into, but this doesn’t disguise the fact that I have been rethinking my course. One of the bits I really loved about Creative Writing in Aberystwyth was the Critical Theory module, as well as Postmodern Fictions. Both of these modules contained aspects of philosophy; and they could be as philosophic as you pleased. In Postmodern Fictions, for example, you could have written an essay exploring how one of the texts we read is a postmodern text – you’d just have to take what you learnt in the seminar and apply it to the text you were reading, you’d be showing your understanding of what a postmodern text is, as well as exploring the difficulties in labelling a text postmodern. Alternatively, you could have taken a primary text: Lyotard’s ‘The Postmodern Condition’, or Baudrillard’s ‘Simulacra and Simulation’, and applied it to the text you were reading; this essay would naturally end up being more philosophic in nature.

I tended towards the more philosophic in my essays, and I can’t help but feel that that’s the MA I should have chosen. Philosophy and Literature, or just Philosophy. My main concern, however, was that when I looked over the BA module lists for Philosophy at various institutions, you had to study Plato, Descartes, Hume, Berkeley etc before you got anywhere near Sartre, Camus or Kierkegaard. I understand that it’s good to know the beginnings of philosophy, and to understand the different strands and where they lead off too because they are often referenced in later works, and the later works are very often a reply to those earlier works – but I already knew which area I wanted to concentrate on, and, as far as I’m concerned, you can still get a very good understanding of the philosophy within the text without having to understand it’s foundation, or even it’s context. I didn’t want to amble through truth tables and the issue of morality when the bit I was interested in pretty much denied the existence of truth and morals. I wasn’t interested in philosophy as something that can be right, more interested in philosophy as something that encourages thought, or open-mindedness.

I guess I should have looked up at my bookshelves a little more when deciding my MA. There’s more philosophy there than poetry. Numerous books on Sartre, books on Camus, Wittgenstein, introductions to Heidegger, anthologies of theorists and philosophers – Derrida, Kristeva, Hegel, Nietzsche, books on Nietzsche too, and only a handful of poetry books. Nevertheless, the two are very close to one another (again, in my opinion), my dissertation tutor just the other day was giving me some words of advice as to how to get into the poetic ‘mood’, and how to think about poetry. He said something like ‘poetry is like philosophy’ and went on to explain how it’s an understanding, an exploration, a way of feeling through something, and to try and achieve that which you are describing. To be as true to that which you are describing as you can be – for the poet to try and exist as that which he/she is trying to describe. I was reminded instantly of Keats:

‘The poetical Character has no self – it is everything and nothing – it has no character […] what shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion Poet. […] he is continually in for – and filling some other Body’.

And Woodhouse’s summarisation that, ‘the true poet can not only conceive this – but can assume any Character, Essence, idea or Substance at his pleasure. And he has this imaginative faculty not in a limited manner but in full universality’.

I’ll find my words eventually, I am sure of that, but I feel as if I am standing on the edge of a great cliff – that I have the option of jumping and maybe achieving something great, or staying put. I know, when I come to that, I’ll jump. Write dangerously. Destroy tables.

Quick shout to the legend that is poststructured

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3 thoughts on “Rant & Reflections on MA”

  1. I have had a lot of phases of thinking the similar things this year. Not so much with choosing the wrong MA, but wondering about the value of it in general, being temped to ‘throw [part of] the towel in’! I’m just bloody minded when it comes to it, I don’t like to admit I’m wrong or give up on something which only lasts a few months. Like you say though, poetry, philosophy (and many, many other things) feed into each other, So I don’t think you need to angst about which MA you should have chosen; you’ve been reading and your world’s been changing and that’s always a good thing

  2. Hey there, Hayden – sorry to hear that the MA has been irritating you lately! Personally, I wouldn’t worry about trying to cram all your initial drafts into the dissertation period. You’re entirely right: the four months’ writing time should provide plenty of scope for careful reading and reflection. However, I understand that supervision over the summer simply isn’t possible due to how the university semesters fall, and consequently everything our tutors see is at an early stage; I like to see it as them helping us build the structure of the ship before we finish it and sail it ourselves, so my personal target is to write five poems by the time the period is out. Maybe that would let you feel you have more room too!

    One gripe I have is that we can’t choose our dissertation tutor and they can’t choose us. Balancing our tuition between the three poets available is fine, but one has a firmer interest in and knowledge around my topic (football) than the other two, so it strikes me as detrimental that we couldn’t at least have outlined our first/second/third choices, even if they had to spread us out evenly to prevent overworking certain supervisors.
    For that reason, it’s been in my mind for the last few weeks to send our coursemates an email and organise a weekly workshop session to be held over the summer, in Norwich and occasionally in London. The democratic opinion of ten friends is arguably more valuable than the inescapably limited, if highly qualified, opinion of one.

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