My initial response to the question, before I read the essay –– to think, "Can Poetry Matter?" was "I hope not!" Why would I respond in this way? I am a poet and should have much at risk, I should want to see poetry matter as much as possible. The problem lies in what matters culturally and who decides what matters. Despite the fact that more books are sold now than ever before, that more books are purchased and presumably read, we seem somehow less erudite, less intellectual than we were even thirty years ago. And the cultural artifacts, the phenomena that matter, even to the intelligentsia often seem so insignificant when compared to art, past or present, that in order to matter one would have to sacrifice the very art one hoped to foster in the first place. So is it better to be irrelevant than relevant in a vapid culture? Am I cynical? Of course I am. What was once known as pop culture seems now almost universally accepted as the only culture.etc. Actually, Jake Berry's attitude to pop culture turns out to be far more open and nuanced than this opening paragraph would suggest; and although he claims that in many ways poetry is just fine on the margins, he shares an abiding concern about poetry's social role at least as intense as Gioia's. His though is the perspective of a profoundly alienated outsider, particularly from academia, of which he is not a part. He (citing Frank Lazer's two-volume OPPOSING POETRIES), sees the academe, dominated by "plainverse" writing school poetry, absorbing the opposing "language poetry movement", much in the way that free market capitalism devoured the burgeoning '60's "revolution" in the name of style and fashion and sold the trappings -- clothes, haircuts, symbology -- in slightly refined form to the culture at large. The result he describes as a "great homogenization." I am not at all convinced of this -- in 2006, this seems a blinkered perspective -- but doesn't the following scenario have an all-too-familiar ring?
One can practice the accepted forms or resign oneself to obscurity, and many, most, of the poets outside the academy have done exactly that. They pass poems to one another and publish in the handful of publications that accept outsiders. Primarily they work and either self-publish or publish one another in small inexpensive editions that the general public would not even recognize as a book. Most of the poetry I read that might "matter" has almost no exposure at all to an audience beyond a few interconnected renegade cabals in what remains of the literary underground.Close to the end of the essay, Berry asks a series of questions that I'm sure all practicing poets have asked of themselves at one time or another:
Should we as poets be prepared to accept, even embrace, obscurity in order to practice an art that is important to the deeper, more complex, conditions of our species? For what reason? Does reason have anything to do with it? Do we not practice this art out of some obsession that forever seems to remain just beyond our ability to describe and name? Or do we practice it to keep the poetic faculties alive regardless of who or how many may subscribe to that experience? It is certain that our culture contains a great many people that are broadly intelligent enough to appreciate and generate poetry that is populist in its scope, and to recognize and call it an art. Do they constitute an "educated public"? Probably not, for the most part, in the sense that Gioia means it. Does that kind of public still exist? Yes, but most likely in a diminished percentage.
We do as we must, simple as that. Like Simon in the post below, I've come to conclude that from the point of view of creation, publication, even audience for live readings, poetry is just fine, considering how non-commercial and non-marketable an artform it inherently is. With the internet, a vast spectrum of diversity is literally at our fingertips. Blogs, for one, are making a difference. What interests me in particular are is the emergence of publishing venues that are not under the auspices of academe, that are also not caught up in their own tiresome version of "being cool" (Fence, Shampoo and Exquisite Corpse come to mind), but that in an independent, understated way highlight, on a consistent basis, excellent work. These include the net magazines Dusie, Nth Position, and No Tell Motel, to name a few. Among high-circulation reviews that reach a broad public and yet are open to poetry on their pages, fresh arrivals include Addbusters and Maisonneuve (also irksome in their efforts at "cool", but I like their broad audience). Weird top-down initiatives that are certain to bring seismic shifts in the poetry landscape include the Griffin Prize here in Canada (of prizes there's a plethora, but this one is the biggest yet for a single book of poetry) and the recent Ruth Lilly donation of $175 million to Poetry Magazine. To read more about upcoming initiatives related to the latter, see here.
All that is really lacking in this present Poetry Age are prominent critics in prominent places to perform that crucial function of finding the diamonds among the mounds of broken glass, and of pointing out with passion and critical intelligence, the differences. As far back as 1978 Robert Bly published an essay called, "Where Have All the Critics Gone?" ; there he pretty well outlined the malaise: widespread critical nepotism, praise of mediocrity, etc. Unless I'm blind as I describe the elephant, the situation hasn't substantially changed.* I won't make the space here to go into the nuances of Bly's essay, but its final gruff lines are
In our situation we need poets and writers who are willing to do the hard work around literature, that is, to separate the weak from the strong, photography from art. In brief, we need people with joy in their own intellect and judgement.Echoed 13 years later by Gioia with, "By abandoning the hard work of evaluation, the poetry subculture demeans its own art."
Think though -- with a few shifts in the cultural climate, we could have what Latin Americans have enjoyed for decades in the Mexican Excesior or the Nicaraguan La Prensa Literaria, a whole section of a widely circulating newspaper dedicated not just to reviews but exerpts of fiction and poetry by established as well as emerging writers. Wouldn't that be something! (Dream on.)
To borrow a page from pop culture, before the media spotlight turned on the likes of Ashley MacIssac, Nathalie McMaster and Kenneth Flatley's River Dance, celtic dancers and violinists played in kitchens and the occasional festival -- and the probably will go back to that again (if they haven't already). Poetry is in such a kitchen state. (Actually, I prefer Hart Crane's line: "In this town, poetry is a bedroom occupation.") In the present circumstances, my suggestion for most poets out there is: find a lover who enjoys your work. Who knows what'll become of it; it may go no farther than that.
*voices like Joan Houlihan, Ron Silliman and Canada's Carmine Starnino -- do they have the wide sweep and depth of a Wilson, Bloom or Sontag? Are they and others like them enough to make that substantial difference? Rather doubt it, as yet...
A few of other links of interest:
Mark Pietrzykowski writes a critique of privatization and manages to relate that to the sociology of poetry and the Gioia essay. Densely written (this poet writes like an economist, if not economically), this is nevertheless a cogent read and includes a few wildfire suggestions on how to loosen the stifling grip of monopolies that be. Among them: send your poetry to mainstream magazines, newspapers, etc. Of course your work will be rejected out of hand, but maybe, just maybe, you'll jog those iron-clad assumptions a touch!
Joan Houlihan weighs in with a survey of graduates of MFA programs, and confirms my hunch that my money has been better spent on wine and books. (Not to mention women and song -- serious sources of expenditure over the last decade or so!)
Finally, a 1995 interview with Dana Gioia, where he counters some of the criticism levied against "Can Poetry Matter?" Whatever one thinks of his poetry, this too is a very engaging read.