Thursday, November 05, 2009

"Can Poetry Matter -- 15 Years After" (Part 2)

(See Parts I, 3, 4)

Gioia’s “Can Poetry Matter?” was written at least partially to gainsay boosters like Hall. One of Gioia’s rhetorical devices is to lump Hall in with the thirty other nameless writers who felt moved to rebut Epstein’s polemic; only one, Henry Taylor, who went to the seemingly desperate length of writing two rebuttals, is named. It is beyond the scope of this article to deal point by point with Gioia’s “Can Poetry Matter.” To my view it is excellently written, most of its observations are quite astute, and the six recommendations that conclude the article would most certainly enhance the practice and presentation of poetry if put consistently into effect (one recommendation I’ve already taken to heart is to share, where time permits, at least one poem by another poet when I do readings). Don Hall's feisty essay, however, injects a positive note that makes necessary reading for anyone with vital interest in the issue. Personally, I wish I had read it back in ’89 when it appeared.

Looking over these articles, I wondered, has anyone convincingly raised the cudgels since? Or could these essays, dating from more than 15 years ago, be considered "the last words" in that debate? In many ways of course things remain very much the same in the poetry world: many of 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 almost seems a distinction not to have won one, and contemporary poetry continues to be all but ignored by major media. But it would be hard to believe that no one has made commentary on some major ground shifts, especially considering the onset of the internet and the continued popularity of spoken word. To satisfy my own curiosity I decided to simply type “Can Poetry Matter” into Google and see what came up. Sure enough, my search yielded about a dozen articles, of which at least three or four were well worth reading in their entirety.

In “Does Poetry Matter: The Culture of Poetry”, originally a talk given at a 1997 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 Gioia's 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 trying his best to update his perceptions. In “Notes Toward a New Bohemia”, Gioia concludes along these lines (quoting again from the Baxter article):

1. 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.

Poor Modernism! (As for myself, a writer for whom Post Modernism mostly occurs when he sends his work in the mail, I’m already beginning to lose my breath…)

(See Parts I, 3, 4)

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