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Poets...though liars by profession, always endeavour to give an air of truth to their fictions.
    -David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature


By now George W. Bush has befuddled his critics so frequently that it's difficult to pick a favorite moment, but surely one of his best was when he appointed Dana Gioia, a poet for cripessake, to head the National Endowment for the Arts. What a shock that this dunderheaded Texan could not only know of a poet but actually name him to an important post in his government. A poet who, though well-regarded in the profession, many of them had likely never heard of, no less read. The idiot savant in the White House had done it again!

Significantly a businessman who writes poetry, rather than just a professional poet, Mr. Gioia's best known writing is not even a poem but an essay he wrote for the Atlantic, the title piece of the book. In it he traces the seemingly contradictory explosion in the amount of poetry being written and of people making a living off of it which has occurred simultaneously with a sad decline of poetry as a public art form and its retreat into the ivory towers of academia. On the mechanics of this phenomenon and its ramifications, he is terrific. But, especially given that the issue has been addressed by several authors previously--C. P. Snow; Tom Wolfe; & Jamie James--it is rather surprising that he makes no effort to discover and explain how things came to such a sorry state.

Having spent some considerable space in those previous reviews discussing our theory of how it happened, we'll not rehearse the entire case again here. Boiled down to its essence, our argument is that the process by which all the arts, including but definitely not limited to poetry, became increasingly obscure and inaccessible to the general public was fueled by the desire of artists to pretend that they maintained a secret store of knowledge in the same way that scientific specialization, especially in the realm of physics, had placed the comprehension of certain advanced theories beyond the grasp of those without a background and training in the field. That they thereby betrayed the historic mission of art--the depiction of beauty and universal truth--mattered less to the artists than that they too, students of the humanities, could claim to be a part of an elite, like their peers in the sciences.

Of course, were Mr. Gioia to delve into these ideas the mystery at the heart of his essay would disappear:
American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. As a class poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible.

What makes the situation of contemporary poets particularly surprising is that it comes at a moment of unprecedented expansion for the art. There have never before been so many new books of poetry published, so many anthologies or literary magazines. Never has it been so easy to earn a living as a poet. There are now several thousand college-level jobs in teaching creative writing, and many more at the primary and secondary levels. Congress has even instituted the position of poet laureate, as have twenty-five states. One also finds a complex network of public subvention for poets, funded by federal, state, and local agencies, augmented by private support in the form of foundation fellowships, prizes, and subsidized retreats. There has also never before been so much published criticism about contemporary poetry; it fills dozens of literary newsletters and scholarly journals.

The proliferation of new poetry and poetry programs is astounding by any historical measure. Just under a thousand new collections of verse are published each year, in addition to a myriad of new poems printed in magazines both small and large. No one knows how many poetry readings take place each year, but surely the total must run into the tens of thousands. And there are now about 200 graduate creative-writing programs in the United States, and more than a thousand undergraduate ones. With an average of ten poetry students in each graduate section, these programs alone will produce about 20,000 accredited professional poets over the next decade. From such statistics an observer might easily conclude that we live in the golden age of American poetry.

But the poetry boom has been a distressingly confined phenomenon. Decades of public and private funding have created a large professional class for the production and reception of new poetry comprising legions of teachers, graduate students, editors, publishers, and administrators. Based mostly in universities, these groups have gradually become the primary audience for contemporary verse. Consequently, the energy of American poetry, which was once directed outward, is now increasingly focused inward. Reputations are made and rewards distributed within the poetry subculture. To adapt Russell Jacoby's definition of contemporary academic renown from The Last Intellectuals, a "famous" poet now means someone famous only to other poets. But there are enough poets to make that local fame relatively meaningful. Not long ago, "only poets read poetry" was meant as damning criticism. Now it is a proven marketing strategy.

The situation has become a paradox, a Zen riddle of cultural sociology. Over the past half century, as American poetry's specialist audience has steadily expanded, its general readership has declined. Moreover, the engines that have driven poetry's institutional success--the explosion of academic writing programs, the proliferation of subsidized magazines and presses, the emergence of a creative-writing career track, and the migration of American literary culture to the university--have unwittingly contributed to its disappearance from public view.
The paradox seems far less zen if our thesis is correct.

However, he presents chapter and verse on the decline itself and its strange coincidence with an increase in venues for poets:
Several dozen journals now exist that print only verse. They don't publish literary reviews, just page after page of freshly minted poems. The heart sinks to see so many poems crammed so tightly together, like downcast immigrants in steerage. One can easily miss a radiant poem amid the many lackluster ones. It takes tremendous effort to read these small magazines with openness and attention. Few people bother, generally not even the magazines' contributors. The indifference to poetry in the mass media has created a monster of the opposite kind--journals that love poetry not wisely but too well.

Until about thirty years ago most poetry appeared in magazines that addressed a nonspecialist audience on a range of subjects. Poetry vied for the reader's interest along with politics, humor, fiction, and reviews--a competition that proved healthy for all the genres. A poem that didn't command the reader's attention wasn't considered much of a poem. Editors chose verse that they felt would appeal to their particular audiences, and the diversity of magazines assured that a variety of poetry appeared. The early Kenyon Review published Robert Lowell's poems next to critical essays and literary reviews. The old New Yorker celebrated Ogden Nash between cartoons and short stories.

A few general-interest magazines, such as The New Republic and The New Yorker, still publish poetry in every issue, but, significantly, none except The Nation still reviews it regularly. Some poetry appears in the handful of small magazines and quarterlies that consistently discuss a broad cultural agenda with nonspecialist readers, such as The Threepenny Review, The New Criterion, and The Hudson Review. But most poetry is published in journals that address an insular audience of literary professionals, mainly teachers of creative writing and their students. A few of these, such as American Poetry Review and AWP Chronicle, have moderately large circulations. Many more have negligible readerships. But size is not the problem. The problem is their complacency or resignation about existing only in and for a subculture.
This triumph of quantity over quality has had a predictably adverse effect:
The proliferation of literary journals and presses over the past thirty years has been a response less to an increased appetite for poetry among the public than to the desperate need of writing teachers for professional validation. Like subsidized farming that grows food no one wants, a poetry industry has been created to serve the interests of the producers and not the consumers. And in the process the integrity of the art has been betrayed. Of course, no poet is allowed to admit this in public. The cultural credibility of the professional poetry establishment depends on maintaining a polite hypocrisy. Millions of dollars in public and private funding are at stake. Luckily, no one outside the subculture cares enough to press the point very far. No Woodward and Bernstein will ever investigate a cover-up by members of the Associated Writing Programs.

The new poet makes a living not by publishing literary work but by providing specialized educational services. Most likely he or she either works for or aspires to work for a large institution--usually a state-run enterprise, such as a school district, a college, or a university (or lately even a hospital or prison)--teaching others how to write poetry or, on the highest levels, how to teach others how to write poetry.

To look at the issue in strictly economic terms, most contemporary poets have been alienated from their original cultural function. As Marx maintained and few economists have disputed, changes in a class's economic function eventually transform its values and behavior. In poetry's case, the socioeconomic changes have led to a divided literary culture: the superabundance of poetry within a small class and the impoverishment outside it. One might even say that outside the classroom--where society demands that the two groups interact--poets and the common reader are no longer on speaking terms.

The divorce of poetry from the educated reader has had another, more pernicious result. Seeing so much mediocre verse not only published but praised, slogging through so many dull anthologies and small magazines, most readers--even sophisticated ones like Joseph Epstein--now assume that no significant new poetry is being written. This public skepticism represents the final isolation of verse as an art form in contemporary society.
Still, Mr. Gioia seeks to vindicate some of the folks who are still producing good stuff, to remind us of what things used to be like when the public adored poetry, and to suggest some ways that the dire situation might be rectified:
If I, like Marianne Moore, could have my wish, and I, like Solomon, could have the self-control not to wish for myself, I would wish that poetry could again become a part of American public culture. I don't think this is impossible. All it would require is that poets and poetry teachers take more responsibility for bringing their art to the public. I will close with six modest proposals for how this dream might come true.

1. When poets give public readings, they should spend part of every program reciting other people's work--preferably poems they admire by writers they do not know personally. Readings should be celebrations of poetry in general, not merely of the featured author's work.

2. When arts administrators plan public readings, they should avoid the standard subculture format of poetry only. Mix poetry with the other arts, especially music. Plan evenings honoring dead or foreign writers. Combine short critical lectures with poetry performances. Such combinations would attract an audience from beyond the poetry world without compromising quality.

3. Poets need to write prose about poetry more often, more candidly, and more effectively. Poets must recapture the attention of the broader intellectual community by writing for nonspecialist publications. They must also avoid the jargon of contemporary academic criticism and write in a public idiom. Finally, poets must regain the reader's trust by candidly admitting what they don't like as well as promoting what they like. Professional courtesy has no place in literary journalism.

4. Poets who compile anthologies--or even reading lists--should be scrupulously honest in including only poems they genuinely admire. Anthologies are poetry's gateway to the general culture. They should not be used as pork barrels for the creative-writing trade. An art expands its audience by presenting masterpieces, not mediocrity. Anthologies should be compiled to move, delight, and instruct readers, not to flatter the writing teachers who assign books. Poet-anthologists must never trade the Muse's property for professional favors.

5. Poetry teachers especially at the high school and undergraduate levels, should spend less time on analysis and more on performance. Poetry needs to be liberated from literary criticism. Poems should be memorized, recited, and performed. The sheer joy of the art must be emphasized. The pleasure of performance is what first attracts children to poetry, the sensual excitement of speaking and hearing the words of the poem. Performance was also the teaching technique that kept poetry vital for centuries. Maybe it also holds the key to poetry's future.

6. Finally poets and arts administrators should use radio to expand the art's audience. Poetry is an aural medium, and thus ideally suited to radio. A little imaginative programming at the hundreds of college and public-supported radio stations could bring poetry to millions of listeners. Some programming exists, but it is stuck mostly in the standard subculture format of living poets' reading their own work. Mixing poetry with music on classical and jazz stations or creating innovative talk-radio formats could re-establish a direct relationship between poetry and the general audience.
As you can see, these are mainly technical matters, all of which may be perfectly good means of reaching a wider audience, but do not really serve the end of restoring poetry to a central place in the culture. Presumably the main idea, to be found, though somewhat buried, in proposal #3 and at least implicated in #4 is that: Poetry, if it is to matter again, must return to expressing the universal in ways that appeal to all. Poets must eschew the intentional ugliness, excessive personalization, willful obfuscation, and absurdly theoretical motivation that characterizes far too much of their work now and recapture the wisdom of their better, John Keats, that: "Beauty is Truth; Truth, Beauty. That is all ye know on Earth and all ye need to know."


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B+)

  

Websites:

See also:

Literary Criticism
Dana Gioia Links:

    -Dana Gioia Online
    -National Endowment for the Arts
    -BIO: Dana Gioia (NEA)
    -Dana Gioia - The Academy of American Poets
    -Dana Gioia (Lyric Recovery)
    -EXCERPT: Introduction to the Tenth Anniversary Edition of Can Poetry Matter? (Dana Gioia)
    -ESSAY: Can Poetry Matter?: Poetry has vanished as a cultural force in America. If poets venture outside their confined world, they can work to make it essential once more. (Dana Gioia, May 1991, The Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: Hearing from Poetry's Audience (Dana Gioia, Spring 1992, Poetry Review)
    -ESSAY: Moulin Rogue: Can film-maker Baz Luhrman really make La Boh�me sing for a Broadway audience? (Dana Gioia, October 2002, San Francisco Magazine)
    -ESSAY: Notes Toward a New Bohemia (Dana Gioia, November/ December 1993, Poetry Flash)
    -ESSAY: Accentual Verse (Dana Gioia)
    -POEMS: Dana Gioia (Poem Tree)
    -REVIEW: of The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. Edited by Sam Hamill and Bradford Morrow (Dana Gioia , LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of Perfect Hell by H. L. Hix (Dana Gioia, Ploughshares)
    -INTERVIEW: California at the Center of the Poet's Imagination: An Interview with Dana Gioia (Maggie Paul, July 15 and 22, 2001, Poetry Santa Cruz)
    -INTERVIEW: Paradigms Lost: An Interview With Poet and Critic Dana Gioia (Gloria G. Brame, Spring 1995, ELF: Eclectic Literary Forum)
    -PROFILE: On the Road with Dana Gioia: He has marketed Jell-O and written opera librettos. Now Dana Gioia brings all his talents to bear on marketing the National Endowment for the Arts in zip codes high and lowbrow. (Philip Kennicott, February 2004, Stanford Business)
    -PROFILE: Dana Gioia's Rhyme and Reasoning: Poet Meets Politician In the Arts Leader (Philip Kennicott, April 4, 2003, Washington Post)
    -ESSAY: George W. Bush and the Poet: Can Dana Gioia, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, convince the Bush Administration that the arts matter? (Frank Rich, 6/01/03, NY Times)
   -PROFILE: Who Is Dana Gioia?: He's a poet, a businessman, a Northern Californian and President Bush's choice to head the National Endowment for the Arts (Heidi Benson, February 16, 2003, SF Chronicle)
   -ARTICLE: Poet Dana Gioia Confirmed as Head Of Arts Endowment (Jacqueline Trescott, January 31, 2003, Washington Post)
    -ARTICLE: Poet Dana Gioia to Be Named NEA Chairman (Jacqueline Trescott, October 23, 2002, Washington Post)
    -ARTICLE: Poet a Contender to Run Federal Arts Agency (Robin Pogrebin, October 23, 2002, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Rhyme and Reason : An NEA nominee who's a perfect fit. (J. Bottum, October 24, 2002 Wall Street Journal)
    -ESSAY: Dana Gioia and the NEA (Jack Foley, Alsop Review)
    -ESSAY: Dana Gioia and the LA Times (Jack Foley, Alsop Review)
    -ESSAY: DANA GIOIA: POET OF A COMMON WORLD (Peter Abbs, Resurgence issue 204)
    -ESSAY: The Poetry Problem: •Can Poetry Matterê 10 Years On (Adam Kirsch, 9/18/02, NY Sun)
    -ESSAY: Responding to Dana Gioia's "Can Poetry Matter?" (Jake Berry, Muse Apprentice)
    -ESSAY: "Fallen Western Star" Revisited (Poetry Flash, September October 2000)
    -ARCHIVES: "dana gioia" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of Interrogations at Noon by Dana Gioia (Michael McIrvin, Rain Taxi)
    -REVIEW: of Nosferatu by Dana Gioia (Alan Sullivan, Islands of Order)
    -REVIEW: of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles, Edited by Scott Timberg and Dana Gioia (Jonathan Kirsch, LA Times)

Book-related and General Links:
POETRY ESSAYS:
    -Poetsforthewar.org
    Death to the Death of Poetry (Donald Hall, 1989, Harper's)
    ESSAY: Poetry and American Memory (Robert Pinsky, October 1999, Atlantic Monthly)
    REVIEW: of The Reaper: Essays by Mark Jarman and by Robert McDowell (Alec Solomita, BookWire)
    ARCHIVES: Online Essays about Poetry (David Graham)
    Vexing Verse: A self-absorbed "antiwar" poet ruins a White House symposium. (ROGER KIMBALL, February 5, 2003, Wall Street Journal)
    The Poets vs. The First Lady: The appalling manners and adolescent partisanship of our antiwar poets. (J. Bottum, 02/17/2003, Weekly Standard)
    -ESSAY: We live in an age where the poet has been cast out from the halls of power --- sob, sob (James Lileks, 2/13/03)

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