Saturday, February 25, 2006

DEATH TO THE DEATH OF POETRY

I may be reporting old news on old men again, but looking over my post on Joseph Epstein below, I realized I had forgotten to mention he was the author of a much-talked and written-about article, "Who Killed Poetry?" -- which I remember both impressed and very much depressed me when I read it in Commentary back in the late 80's. In it, as I recall, Epstein argues that poetry is "flourishing in a vacuum", that an overwhelming production of essentially insipid work is being artificially stimulated by the grants and MFA system, which has helped to choke off poetry appreciation in the culture. Viz. Dana Gioia's Can Poetry Matter?, a thesis written along the same lines only two years later. Looking up the Epstein piece, I came across this 1989 article by Donald Hall, Death to the Death of Poetry, which is intended to refute it. I daresay I loved it. It convincingly nays the naysayers of contemporary poetry (excuse my neighing!), and gives a bang-on diagnosis of the so-called "problem" of poetry appreciation in our culture. Wish I had read it back in '89 when it first appeared.
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Well... "Bang-on" may have been facile. Actually, looking over Can Poetry Matter? again, I see Gioia takes many of Don Hall's arguments into account, and that his article is meant to gainsay boosters like Hall. A kind of synthesis of the two antitheses, in other words. A number of Gioia's observations I feel are quite astute, particularly vis-a-vis the self-imposed limitations of a great many poetry readings (poetry only readings, authors reading their only own work -- those limitations still largely hold today). However, I'd say Don Hall's feisty essay injects a positive note that makes it necessary reading for anyone with vital interest in the issue.

I wonder, has anyone convincingly raised the cudgels since? Or could these essays, dating from more than 15 years ago, be considered "the last words" in that debate?

6 comments:

Thomas Basbøll said...

Interesting. Perhaps the only thing I liked about Gioia's essay was that "authors reading their only own work" observation. Compare: violinists playing only their own compositions. (Consider: the Glenn Gould of poetry.) Okay, I like the idea of dressing like a corporation man and writing poems too. (Though I'd probably not sling the jacket over my shoulder like that.) My sense is that it's silly to talk about what sorts of poems should be written given how few poems are being read.

Brian Campbell said...

I think Gioia's more concerned about a marginalization of poetry appreciation than the proliferation of bad poetry per se. Of his 6 "modest proposals" at the end of his essay, I would generally agree with them all -- particularly 6,5,4, and 1 (well that's practically them all, so I might as well throw in 2 & 3!). Tough though it is at a reading, if you have ten minutes being presided over by a moderator with a psychological eggtimer, to give a reasonably well-rounded presentation of your own work AND a reading of someone else's. As for the get-up, I don't think he's playing dress-up... he *is* a corporation man. But given the informality of the times, would you want him to look like Wallace Stevens or Raymond Souster? And that yellow tie -- isn't it cute?

What poetry today is really missing are prominent, authoritative critics in prominent media -- on that I couldn't agree more with Don Hall.

Della said...

Thanks for introducing the writings of Dana Gioia, Donald Hall and Joseph Epstein, for which I will allow plenty of time to explore.
However good or bad, poetry will not die, the modern "nobody poet" for one, will write. read or listing to poetry, to survive, to escape the Superstore-syndrome if you will. Though I would rather mine be murdered than classified as per Randall Jarell's description: "poetry written on a typewriter by a typewriter". I often think enough is enough of T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, or Edna St. Vincent Millay, lets get to some new stuff, intellectual or not! But then I confess to a certain liking for Ovid and Robert Service...

Brian Campbell said...

How about poetry written on a computer by a computer for other computers?

Hilton Hightower said...

The most interesting thing here is the correlation between poetry and a computer virus. It's about time someone noticed that poetry is a plague on humanity.

Ha! Ha! Ha!

Brian Campbell said...

...look what the cat dragged in!...