Friday, March 03, 2006

"CAN POETRY MATTER" debate Part 3 (of 4)

Of the dozen or so articles I found in response to Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter?, John Palattella’s 10 Years After, Poetry Still Matters, published in 2002 in the Higher Education Chronicle, is one of the three or four well worth reading in its entirety. Not to say there aren’t a number of things I found gratingly annoying therein. Although bios I have accessed on Palattella list him only as a “writer on poetry” for The Nation, London Review of Books and a number of other august publications, I can’t help but imagine him firmly ensconced in Higher Education himself, what with his thinly-veiled condescension towards the mere “executive who ... once managed the Jell-O account at General Foods”, who had the audacity to shake up the poetry world by publishing a book of essays on contemporary poetry. Aside from suggesting that Gioia’s argument in Can Poetry Matter? is couched primarily in unsubstantiated assertions and “bombastic” analogies, the most disingenuous aspect of Palattella's review is that he doesn’t clearly acknowledge that Gioia, whatever the limitations of his purview, went to considerable lengths in other writings to show how the growth of spoken word and the internet has changed the character of the poetry scene since the writing of his landmark essay. Palattella does, however, make a some interesting points along the way. I like this one:
In 1991, the year Gioia's argument appeared in the Atlantic, nearly 5,000 poets were listed in A Directory of American Poets and Fiction Writers. According to the Directory of American Poetry Books, which is maintained by Poets House, in New York City, nearly 7,000 volumes of poetry were published in the United States from 1990 to 2001. (That figure excludes poetry CD's, audiotapes and videotapes, and other multimedia recordings of poetry.)

The situation in the mid-20th century, which Gioia treats as a golden age of poetry-writing and poetry-reviewing, was considerably different. According to a bibliography published in the magazine Accent, there were 151 American poets in 1941; from 1931 to 1940, they published a total of 264 books of poetry (excluding doggerel and inspirational verse).

Commenting on those Accent figures in 1989, in an essay later collected in Outside Stories, 1987-1991, the essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger offered an explanation that remains sound today: American poetry "was once a village where neighbors chatted and feuded. Now American poetry is a little nation of citizens who are unknown to each other, a federation of cantons where the passes are snowed in and the wires are down."

...Not all of the wires have remained down, since the Internet has not only facilitated communication among cantons but also opened up territory for new cantons. But the poetry world is still a federation, not a republic, and whether its decentralization has fostered pluralism or balkanization remains an open question.
How about pluralistic balkanization – is that a possibility? Reading that last sentence, my own tongue feels balkanized. But I love the Weinburger quote. Palattella’s concluding remarks, mirror my own evolving view of the contemporary poetry world I as explore its permutations:
What's certain is that, given the changes in the country's demographics, the rise of mass university education, and the growth of poetry as a middle-class profession, that little mid-century village has vanished for good. Perhaps the term that best sums up the current state of affairs is motley -- a mix of dazzling, foolish, and banal work that cuts across styles, movements, and schools. The murky certainties of the title essay of Can Poetry Matter? have grown only murkier in 10 years' time, which is why wandering around a motley poetry world remains more appealing to me than the solicitude of Dana Gioia.
In my search, I found a couple of other essays worthy of consideration that I don't have time to go into now. Thanks, Simon, A.D.T., et al., for your comments on the previous posts in this series. (Now it is a series -- something I, for one, never expected!) Look forward to a concluding part 4.


Altavistagoogle said...

No. It's like hockey, it only matters if you are a fan. But even then it doesn't really matter. But if you decide that poetry does matter, then let's agree that it matters less than hockey.

Kober said...

Of course poetry can matter. It goes back to that old "if I I can have an effect on just one person" garbage. But it's not garbage. It's truth and beauty and poetry gives us a shot.

I like your stuff Campbell.

Word up,
Jim Kober

camera shy said...

needs desperately
to evolve

or it may die

but no one

Anonymous said...

Motly poetry is medicinal, we overcome solicitudes when taken with a wee glass of vino...

Brian Campbell said...

Jim: Welcome, and thanks for the word up. I agree on that "of course" -- all of it. When human society seems a sleeping giant in a sleep so deep that nothing will wake it up, well it seems garbage, but other times reveal that word of mouth can create a collective storm that can effect major changes -- at least make the giant turn in his sleep! But you put it better: truth, beauty, poetry, shot. (Bang! Down goes Dana, I'm afraid.)
Dallas: let's drown that solicitude with motly vino -- the stuff from "down under", very fine medicine indeed!

Anonymous said...

I am overwhelmed by your comment to my comment, come and visit any time, Australians have their own brand of poetry known as "bush poetry". I am no expert but I find bush poetry more "outdoorsy" than North American or European poetry. Bush poetry I have acquaintence with, are sad or comical rhymes of everyday events which blend with the country's lansdcape, no so much inspirational but always entertaining. For me it is the awarness that no matter how or where, we need to reach beyond Any Monday's Mundane Way to express impressions.
Your forum inspired me to search within and without myself.