John Palattella’s “10 Years After, Poetry Still Matters”*, published in 2002 in The Higher Education Chronicle, aims to take Gioia to task for a certain smugness and presumptuous excess. What he does manage to do is make himself gratingly annoying with some rather poorly aimed pot-shots at a man who has managed, with arguable success, to marry mammon and the muse. 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 later writings to show how the growth of spoken word has changed the character of the poetry scene since the publication of his landmark essay. Palattella does, however, make 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, despite my differences with him, 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.
*now only available by subscription