I love reading poetry, but I also love essays that attack and question it, that demand it should be better.
In 1991, the critic and poet Dana Gioia began his polemical essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” with this claim: “American poetry now belongs to a subculture… 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.”
The essay questioning the health of poetry is a popular form. Many such polemical essays, of varying quality, have appeared over the years. More recently, these pieces seem to focus their critique on the content of contemporary poetry: that it is too narrowly personal, too flip and distant, or too baroquely complex. But that’s not Gioia’s focus here. He’s more interested in how poetry is published and curated–how it is presented to the wider public.
One sees evidence of poetry’s diminished stature even within the thriving subculture. The established rituals of the poetry world–the readings, small magazines, workshops, and conferences–exhibit a surprising number of self-imposed limitations. Why, for example, does poetry mix so seldom with music, dance, or theater? At most readings the program consists of verse only–and usually only verse by that night’s author. Forty years ago, when Dylan Thomas read, he spent half the program reciting other poets’ work. Hardly a self-effacing man, he was nevertheless humble before his art. Today most readings are celebrations less of poetry than of the author’s ego. No wonder the audience for such events usually consists entirely of poets, would-be poets, and friends of the author.
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.
Ouch! One comment: as the example of Dylan Thomas suggests, when Gioia complains about “the author’s ego,” I don’t think he means “the author’s ambition.” Ego and ambition can be opposing forces, the first being a self-protective impulse, the second a generative, exploratory one. I actually wish there were more ambition on display in many of the readings I attend.
The whole essay is worth reading. It’s really good, particularly in its historical discussion of the mid-century American poetry scene.
In the essay’s conclusion, Gioia lays out how he thinks the situation can be rescued. In other words, he doesn’t just have a complaint: he also has a solution. I’d love to hear what you think about his six-step plan. The sixth step, I’m sure, will make you laugh: 1991 will suddenly seem a long way away. But first five are very interesting, and I don’t think the arrival of the Internet disproves them.
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.
What do you think about these? For instance, is “professional courtesy” simply an inevitable part of being a creative writer these days?