Art School Math and Poetic Darwinism

If the statistics some people hold up to warn against doing an MFA are true, something like 30,000 Americans graduate from an MFA program each year. A quick look at the total US population and growth rate and the assumption that MFAs have grown since 1937 in a basically linear fashion gives us the following:

MFAs granted for70 years
Assumed avg. rate15 000 per year
Assumed total MFAs1 050 000
2005 U.S. pop.298 444 215
Literacy rate99%
Literate people295 459 773

The conclusion: currently, for every MFA graduate there are only 281 other people in the U.S. capable of appreciating their work.

Considering the current rate of growth seems to lead to an even more bleak conclusion:

U.S. Growth rate0.91%
New literate people per year2 688 683
MFA graduates per year30 000

The conclusion: for every MFA graduate each year, there are only 90 new other people in the U.S. capable of appreciating their work each year.

Considering that MFA graduates are only a small percentage of the total number of contemporary poets writing, the situation seems to get worse, the ratios smaller, the audience dwindling and the market saturated to the point that we should all put down our pens and find some other niche altogether.

Nonsense. The argument that there are more MFA graduates than teaching positions which require an MFA is undoubtedly an economic fact. Simply doing an MFA for financial reasons is like smoking for your health. Some smokers live to a ripe old age. But good luck. Artists have rarely been artists for career reasons, unless they were artisans. Ultimately, it seems to come down to artists having to make art to live a fulfilling life. And more people seem to be needing to do that. It’s tempting to worry this somehow saturates the market and dilutes art.

In fact, with each new writer in this world, we should rejoice.

Trying to extend this deeply flawed Darwinistic reasoning to the market for poetry in the above manner rests on the incorrect assumption that there are only producers and consumers of art in our society. The truth is that most artists are actually the most voracious consumers as well. For example, in my own MFA program, I will be reading over eighty books of poetry in the next two years, and rarely two books by the same poet. Assuming my fellow classmates in other MFAs around the country do the same, that’s up to 2.4 million more books of poetry being read thanks to MFA programs.

The notion that the market is saturated and therefore most poets won’t get recognition despite talent, that only an elite few can garner success–is deeply flawed. Reading and writing are the in and out breath of a life lived in poetry, and for this reason I encourage more writers in our world. Writers necessarily read. And true, many people read the same works by superstar poets. Poets themselves, however, are the most likely to branch out from the contemporary cannon and feed from the marketplace of more marginalized poets.

Therefore the proliferance of MFA programs in this country can only be seen as a sign of hope. More artists means an expanded, not contracted, marketplace for art. Those that despair of new, talented writers simply see glasses half empty. The rest of us stand open armed at a new stream of voices surging banks.