Monday, December 07, 2009


(See Parts I, 2, 3)

Jake Berry in "Responding to Dana Gioia's "Can Poetry Matter?" (Muse Apprentice Guild, Oct. 2002), is one of a number of writers who complain that the whole debate is tedious as hell, bores them to tears, let’s just go on writing the best we can, come what may. His essay begins thus:

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 a profound indifference to the matter of “mattering”, his concern about poetry's social role reveals itself to be at least as abiding and intense as Gioia's. His though is the perspective of a profoundly alienated outsider, from the capitalist economy (in this respect he does not resemble Gioia) and more particularly, from academia (in this, he very much does). Employing terms borrowed from Frank Lazer's two-volume Opposing Poetries, Berry sees 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 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. Reconsidering these various points of view, I've come to conclude that from the point of view of creation, publication, even audience for live readings, poetry is doing really quite fine, considering how non-commercial and non-marketable an art form it inherently is. (As Simon DeDeo, one of my blog interlocutors, put it so well, does theoretical science matter to anyone? Not really, except for the practitioners, the aficionados, and the students. Similarly for poetry. As theoretical science is not in a bad way, neither is poetry.) With the internet, a vast spectrum of diversity is literally at our fingertips. Through blogs, poetry boards and other internet publications, spontaneous communities of poets, information sharing and literary discussion are constantly evolving. Poet-bloggers such as myself have acquired a greater sense of interconnectedness and possibility than ever before; our site meters, however inflated they may be by irrelevant visits, tell us we reach a world-wide audience of hundreds, if not thousands. Through other blogs and internet reviews I have encountered fabulous poetry by such up-and-coming writers as Ilya Kaminsky, GC Waldrep, Victoria Chang, and Eduardo Corral, all of it fresh, none of it clubby or derivative.

What interests me in particular 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" (Shampoo and Exquisite Corpse come quickly to mind), but that in an independent, understated way highlight, on a consistent basis, excellent work. These include the net magazines Octopus, Dusie, Nth Position, Three Candles Review, No Tell Motel, and can we get our ball back?, to name a few. Among high-circulation print reviews that reach a broad public and yet are open to poetry on their pages, fresh arrivals include the Canadian Adbusters and Maisonneuve (also irksome in their efforts at "cool", but I like their sizeable and sophisticated 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, as has been noted, 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, as both Hall and Gioia go to lengths to point out, 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?" (later published in his book of essays, American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity). There he pretty well outlined the malaise: widespread critical nepotism, vapid praise, 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 judgment.

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 Excelsior or the Nicaraguan La Prensa Literaria, a whole section of a widely circulating newspaper dedicated not just to reviews but excerpts of fiction and poetry by established as well as emerging writers. Wouldn't that be something! (Now I hear a loud chorus of, “Dream on!”)

To borrow a page from pop culture, before the media spotlight turned on to the likes of Kenneth Flatley's River Dance, Nathalie McMaster and Ashley MacIsaac, Celtic dancers and violinists played in kitchens and the occasional festival -- and they probably will go back to that again (if they haven't already). Poetry is in such a kitchen state. (Actually, perhaps more appropriate would be Hart Crane's line: "…in this town, poetry’s a bedroom occupation.") In the present circumstances, my suggestion, for what it’s worth, to fellow poets is: plug away, hone your craft, flood the mails, keep publishing. And if you can, find a lover who enjoys your work. Who knows what'll become of it; in the present poetry climate, it may yet 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...

Other links of interest:

Marc 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 the communication 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!

Simon De Deo and I discuss the merits of Gioia’s poetry here on my blog.

Joan Houlihan weighs in with a survey of graduates of MFA programs, and confirms my own hunch that my money has been far better spent on wine and books (not to mention song, etc.)

Finally, a 1995 interview with Dana Gioia, where he counters some of the criticism levied against "Can Poetry Matter?" This too is a very engaging read.

* This article was adapted from a four-part post called "The 'Can Poetry Matter?' Debate" that first appeared in Out of the Woodwork, Feb. 25 - Mar. 6, 2006.

(See Parts I, 2, 3)

1 comment:

JT said...

But it doesn't seem that you or those you quote have resolved Gioia's question anymore today than in 1991. Yes, there is definitely a thriving subculture of poetry but it has little more impact than the thriving subcultures of tai chi or scrapbooking.

I'm college-educated, literate and interested in the arts. I read novels, watch movies, look at photographs and paintings, and listen to music regularly. I live in a cultural center, San Francisco, and most of my friends have similar interests. In fact several of us wrote poetry with some seriousness and participated in the poetry scene when we were younger. But none of us write poetry anymore, nor do we read it aside from very occasionally picking an old love off the bookshelf.

Poetry should not be compared to theoretical science, though that is a clue to what has gone wrong with poetry since the advent of Modernism. Poetry is one of the primal, universal arts like singing and dancing that until recently had been available to all people, but today has become a specialization of the few - like theoretical science.

"Can poetry matter?" I think it could, but manifestly it does not. Yes, there is a whole lot of writing going on, but not nearly so much reading, and almost none by ordinary people.