CAN POETRY MATTER? 15 Years After
by Brian Campbell
(first published in Rock Salt Plum Review, Spring, 2006)
In 1991, poet and business executive Dana Gioia published an essay in The Atlantic Monthly called “Can Poetry Matter?” While it may seem to readers today a self-evident summary of a well-established state of affairs, it caused a storm of controversy (tempest in teapot? saké cup?) in the North American poetry world when it first appeared. Its opening, oft-quoted paragraph reads as follows:
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.Gioia goes on to describe what he aptly calls a “Zen riddle of cultural sociology”, wherein poetry publishing and programs proliferate on a historically unprecedented scale, while the art itself remains a “distressingly confined phenomenon” that has all but disappeared from public view – much of it, as always, of highly questionable worth, appreciated, if at all, by only a tiny coterie of other poets. Here he writes very much along the lines of Joseph Epstein’s mordant "Who Killed Poetry?", a polemic he references and which I remember both impressed and very much depressed me when it came out three years previously in Commentary. In it, 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.
Looking up the Epstein piece on the net for further parallels (it was not readily available), I came across this 1989 article by Donald Hall, “Death to the Death of Poetry”, one of a spate of about thirty articles written around that time intended to refute it. I daresay that I loved it. It convincingly nays the naysayers of contemporary poetry (excuse my neighing!), and gives a bang-on diagnosis of much of the so-called "problem" of poetry appreciation in our culture. Vis-a-vis an oft-lamented decline in quality of contemporary verse-writing, Hall describes how, because readers in general and particularly the media are slow to catch on to a poet’s significance (as compared to say a novelist’s), a paradox ensues that we could call “The Giant/Pigmy Syndrome”:
Time, which reported The Waste Land as a hoax in 1922, canonized T. S. Eliot in a 1950 cover story. Certainly Time's writers and editors altered over thirty years, but they also stayed the same: always the Giants grow old and die, leaving the Pygmies behind. After the age of Eliot, Frost, Stevens, Moore, and Williams, the wee survivors were Lowell, Berryman, Jarrell, and Bishop. When the survivors died, younger elegiac journalists revealed that the dead Pygmies had been Giants all along--and now the young poets were dwarfs. Doubtless obituaries lauding Allen Ginsberg are already written; does anyone remember Life on the Beat Generation, thirty years ago?
Hall argues with considerable force that there is a definite and growing audience for poetry, evidenced in the numbers of readings and sales of poetry books, that latter of which, at the time of the writing of his essay, had gone up at least tenfold over the previous thirty years. A dozen or more American poets, he reports, had recently sold books by the tens of thousands: Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Galway Kinnell, Robert Creeley, Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, Carolyn Forché, and certainly others. Galway Kinnell approached fifty thousand with Book of Nightmares, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Coney Island of the Mind, a trade paperback, sold more than a million copies. These sales figures, as always with poetry, are cumulative over years; this means of course that they consistently fall under the radar of best seller and yearly book sale lists.
The problem, Hall is ready to acknowledge, is one of cultural perception: Although there is more poetry today than ever, there is less poetry reviewing in national journals. Examples are plenty, and he mentions some of them: Harper's and The Atlantic had recently abandoned quarterly surveys of poetry, New York Times Book Review had diminished its attention, etc. Aside from any deliberate editorial policy on the part of these journals, one reason he pinpoints is purely socio-economic:
In the past, men and women like Conrad Aiken, Malcolm Cowley, and Louise Bogan practiced literary journalism to make a living. Their successors now meet classes MWF. People with tenure don't need to write book reviews.
(Tenure? It seems permanently provisional contracts are enough.) This dearth of course leaves poetry – and poetry readers – greatly disadvantaged:
… we need a cadre of reviewers to sift through the great volume of material. The weight of numbers discourages readers from trying to keep up. More poetry than ever: How do we discriminate? How do we find or identify beautiful new work? When there are sufficient reviewers, who occupy continual soap-boxes and promote developing standards, they provide sensors to report from the confusing plentitude of the field.
(See Parts 2, 3, 4)
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