Wednesday, March 01, 2006

CAN POETRY MATTER? debate Part 2

A couple of posts down I wondered if anyone had made a substantial contribution to the “Can Poetry Matter” debate since Gioia. I appreciate the comments I did receive, but no one has yet responded to the question. That’s hardly surprising: apart from the advent of the internet, which has lead to an explosion of writing by poets about poetry (in blogs such as this one, for one) some interesting new outlets of publication, not to mention intriguing (to some) Google-based techniques and poetries – i.e. flarf -- the climate of poetry, particularly print-based poetry, continues pretty much the same and the trends unabated, so not much more need be said: the same institutions dominate, as do the same writing programs and journals; MFA poets keep being churned out by the thousands, prizes have proliferated to the point where it practically seems a distinction not to have won one, and contemporary poetry continues to be all but ignored in major media. A poetry world that could once be described as balkanized is now atomized; now we're going into poetry's sub-atomic age, I suppose.

Nevertheless, to satisfy my own curiosity I decided answer my question myself, by simply typing “Can Poetry Matter” into Google and seeing what came up.

In a 1997 article entitled Does Poetry Matter: The Culture of Poetry, originally a talk at a Raven Chronicles poetry forum, poet Bart Baxter starts off in an amusing fashion:

Before I begin my prepared remarks, let me ask for a show of hands in the audience, a scrupulously honest show of hands. How many of you here tonight are poets? [Half the audience raised hands.] How many of you would like to be a poet, have maybe written some verse, are looking for a publisher? [1/4 raised hands.] And how many here are friends of the moderator or someone on the panel? [1/4 raised hands.] Now, everyone in the audience who did not fall into any one of those three categories, who did not raise your hands before, please raise your hands now. [One hand was raised.]

I think if Dana Gioia were here tonight, he would simply say: I rest my case.

In this short article, Baxter gives a good synopsis of Gioia’s main points in Can Poetry Matter, and describes also how his opinion has since changed since writing that article:

Dana Gioia wrote "Can Poetry Matter?" long before he realized what was going on in the urban centers across the country, in the night clubs and cabarets, at the Greenmill Tavern in Chicago and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York, at the open readings and poetry slams. In a lecture he presented at Poets House in New York on October 26 [1995], which became an essay published in Poetry Flash, "Notes Toward a New Bohemia," his greatest fears about the future of poetry seem to be assuaged.

Everyone likes to sound authoritative in his opinions, but it’s getting harder and harder these days to say anything authoritative about anything. We have to give Gioia an E (Excellent) for Effort. In Bohemia, Gioia concludes along these lines (quoting again from the Baxter article):

The primary means of publication of new poetry is now oral. This applies to older established poets as well as new unknowns.

2. This represents an enormous paradigm shift away from print culture, in that:
a. The government is neither involved with subsidizing events nor appointing particular poets.
b. The physical audience listening to poetry greatly outnumbers the people who read poetry in books. (Do we need one more professor to tell us that the important thing is whether the poem will translate from the "stage to the page"?).

3. This is a populist revolution, a distinct move from print to oral tradition, largely among groups long alien to the traditional, dominant, literary, academic culture:
a. e.g., rap lyrics, in music and poetry.
b. Cowboy poetry.
c. Poetry slams.

4. Surprisingly, most of this new populist poetry is formal:
a. e.g., the four-stress lines in rap.
b. The English ballad form in cowboy poetry.
c. The merger of poetry and experimental theater in performance poetry at poetry slams often uses elaborate rhyme schemes.

5. As for the University, an institution better equipped to preserve old culture than foster the creation of new art, it will probably hold on dearly to Modernism, and will continue to do so until Post-modern poetry's last gasp.
Anyway, I have more to report, particularly from the side that finds the whole debate tedious as hell, that says poetry is just fine on the margins. Attitudes I also appreciate, in my way. But I’m running out of steam here, and this post is has gotten rather long. Stay tuned.


Walter said...

To answer the question does poetry matter, first you must clarify: matter for what? In what context? Lovers continue to court with poetry spun from the depths of their heart. Youth continue to cope with growing through words tangled in the angst of verse. Poetry matters to the poets, and to those who know them. Spreading that circle, what publishing should be, but has failed so miserably in doing, is often best done through more local media. Be that poetry slams or municipal newspapers, book clubs and don't forget blogs. If one reader, if one hearer is better or worse for the poetry they encounter, than poetry has mattered.

Brian Campbell said...

I appreciate your comment, Walter.

Granted, we all agree as to the intrinsic worth of poetic expression. I think the context is made crystal clear in the first words of Gioia's essay, where he basically reformulates what Epstein said earlier in his 1988 article in Commentary:

"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."

To many of us this is old hat, and we simply go on writing because, like Beckett's Malone, we must go on; but the current state of affairs nevertheless has a direct bearing on our motivation as poets, the kind of poetry we write, etc. To appreciate the context I'm discussing here, I suggest you read Gioia's essay and Hall's essay, hyperlinked a couple of posts back. Lots of reading here, but all of it engaging for those who care about poetry and who enjoy good writing.

~A4O~ said...

Poetry holds the same weight as gravity in this world.hmmm It matters greatly to those who write it and not so much to a reader, but that goes for anything. I'd rather be a writer than a reader..

gina said...

I appreciate this post, Brian.

Brian Campbell said...

Thanks, Gina.

A. D. said...

The poem / is complex and the place made / in our lives / for the poem. / Silence can be complex too, / but you do not get far / with silence.
. . .
My heart rouses / thinking to bring you news / of something / that concerns you / and concerns many men. Look at / what passes for the new. / You will not find it there but in / despised poems. / It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there. / Hear me out / for I too am concerned / and every man / who wants to die at peace in his bed / besides.

Brian Campbell said...

Simon: I think by doing this exploration I'm paying homage to a former poetic preoccupation of mine, which has been much alleviated by both improved personal circumstances and this new interconnectedness provided by the internet. Basically, by reading other points of view out there, I want to shake off the old cloud for good. As for your view of Gioia's work -- well, so far I haven't read enough to form a definitive opinion, but from what I've seen so far, I admire his time-management skills far more than his poetry.
A.D.: Thanks for the quote of WCW. I frankly didn't know it was WCW until I looked it up on Google, but now you've motivated me to take his Selected off my bookshelf and read it FROM COVER TO COVER. (Before that, I knew his plums, his wheelbarrow, yachts, and little else.)

Thomas said...


That's my view of it exactly. I can identify a bunch of stuff written over the last five years that "matters" in the only relevant sense; and I don't know what Gioia (and people like Collins) want "the poets" to give to "the public" that "whoever wants it" ain't already "getting" if they'll only (as I did in early 2003) go "look for it".

My basic sense of this kind of discussion is that it proceeds on the assumption that "everyone" is "paying attention" to "poets" (I don't know what I'm doing with those scare-quotes now) and that the poets therefore have a responsible to keep everyone happy.


Hilton Hightower said...

No poetry does not matter. It is a complete waste of time and energy. It's all part of this intricately contrived social structure wherein people can pretend to be all the things they want to be. It's all really pathetic.

Brian Campbell said...

...highhorse, more like it.

Hilton Hightower said...

Excellent return, Mr. Campbell. I will spend quite some time licking that wound.

Poetry could only matter if people really wrote it for the right reasons. Poetry has become a beauty pageant and a popularity contest for people who think they're smarter and "deeper" than they really are.

People may say they care, but you can see in their words that they don't.

I don't know why I would bother trying to explain to you, Mr. Brian Campbell. You're obviously going to defend the honor of poetry at any cost.

Brian Campbell said...

I don't defend crap, and at least 90% of so-called poetry is crap. What is good, vital and relevant is being systemically ignored -- on the page of the culture, poetry is practically off the margin -- & that is sad. But as a friend of mine put it, you should concern yourself primarily with the poet as seer rather than the poet as scene.

Hilton Hightower said...

Mr. Brian Campbell-

Who is ignoring the good poetry? Not poets themselves, certainly. There are far too many "poets" bumping around out in the world for the good stuff to be missed by them. Then who?

You illustrate your point with a page/margin metaphor. You mention the page as representative of culture. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you're stating that the larger majority of culture (mainstream culture, perhaps) is ignoring poetry, especially the "good" stuff. And you say that this is sad.

Well, I guess my question is, why do you care? Why is it sad? Why do you feel the need to impose your poetry, or rather poetry in general on the masses? What's good for the goose, isn't always good for the gander. There are plenty of things encompassed by culture at large that you don't participate in, and there aren't fanatics out there trying to sweep you into the fold.

Poetry has, for most of its recent history, consisted of an art form on the fringes of mainstream and authors who bemoan the fact that their "art" isn't appreciated at the same time that they revel in it, waving it like a flag of intellectual superiority over the masses who either "don't get it" or "don't care."

Why should they try to get it, if they don't want to get it? Why should they care if they don't?

p.s. Something that is ignored rather wholesale by humanity cannot by its very definition be vital and relevant.