Dana Gioia: Can Poetry Matter?

Posted by Kendall Harmon

There are at least two reasons why the situation of poetry matters to the entire intellectual community. The first involves the role of language in a free society. Poetry is the art of using words charged with their utmost meaning. A society whose intellectual leaders lose the skill to shape, appreciate, and understand the power of language will become the slaves of those who retain it--be they politicians, preachers, copywriters, or newscasters. The public responsibility of poetry has been pointed out repeatedly by modern writers. Even the archsymbolist Stephane Mallarme praised the poet's central mission to "purify the words of the tribe." And Ezra Pound warned that

Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clean. It doesn't matter whether a good writer wants to be useful, or whether the bad writer wants to do harm. . . .
If a nation's literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays.


Or, as George Orwell wrote after the Second World War, "One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language. . . ." Poetry is not the entire solution to keeping the nation's language clear and honest, but one is hard pressed to imagine a country's citizens improving the health of its language while abandoning poetry.
The second reason why the situation of poetry matters to all intellectuals is that poetry is not alone among the arts in its marginal position. If the audience for poetry has declined into a subculture of specialists, so too have the audiences for most contemporary art forms, from serious drama to jazz. The unprecedented fragmentation of American high culture during the past half century has left most arts in isolation from one another as well as from the general audience. Contemporary classical music scarcely exists as a living art outside university departments and conservatories. Jazz, which once commanded a broad popular audience, has become the semi-private domain of aficionados and musicians. (Today even influential jazz innovators cannot find places to perform in many metropolitan centers--and for an improvisatory art the inability to perform is a crippling liability.) Much serious drama is now confined to the margins of American theater, where it is seen only by actors, aspiring actors, playwrights, and a few diehard fans. Only the visual arts, perhaps because of their financial glamour and upper-class support, have largely escaped the decline in public attention.

THE most serious question for the future of American culture is whether the arts will continue to exist in isolation and decline into subsidized academic specialties or whether some possibility of rapprochement with the educated public remains.

Read it all.


Filed under: * Culture-WatchPoetry & Literature

10 Comments
Posted April 26, 2008 at 4:06 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. Alice Linsley wrote:

Terrific reading!  Thanks.  I am reminded of these related postings:
http://teachgoodwriting.blogspot.com/2008/03/wendell-berry-writers-obligation.html

http://teachgoodwriting.blogspot.com/2008/04/poetry-experiment.html

April 26, 7:50 pm | [comment link]
2. Robert A. wrote:

I seem to recall reading this in the Atlantic when it first came out and enjoying it then.

I think I would add a seventh proposal to his list of ways to promote poetry: A more honest agreement about what is poetry and what is prose.

It is simply not enough to say that writing prose with funny formatting automatically turns it into poetry.  Consider the last three quotations in the article:

My heart rouses thinking to bring you news of something that concerns you and concerns many men. Look at what passes for the new. You will not find it there but in despised poems. It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack   of what is found there.  Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clean. It doesn’t matter whether a good writer wants to be useful, or whether the bad writer wants to do harm. If a nation’s literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays. If I, like Solomon, could have my wish, my wish: O to be a dragon, a symbol of the power of Heaven, of silkworm size or immense; at times invisible. Felicitous phenomenon!

How much of this is really poetry as opposed to prose?  I would say (and clearly many will disagree with me) that even though he may be a fine poet, what Williams wrote here (with the possible exception of the first sentence) is basically prose - very good prose - but nonetheless still prose.  However, (for me), what Moore wrote is poetry.

Clearly this is a major challenge when one abandons the well established rules of rhyme and scansion.  Creative writing has a tendency to become just that: Very creative, very experiential and self-indulgent (and devoid of universal truth).

This would appear to parallel what has been happening in our seminaries.

April 27, 2:04 am | [comment link]
3. NWOhio Anglican wrote:

Robert A hit the nail on the head, and in fact said what I wanted to say.

There is good poetry out there, but as Mr. Gioia points out, bad poetry is driving out the good. Perhaps it would be good for us to point out poems we love, for the benefit of each other. Two of my favorites are Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Der Panther” and Robert Penn Warren’s epic poem,  Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce.

Of course, Lewis Carroll’s narrative poems are masterpieces. His satires aren’t bad either; see Hiawatha’s Photographing. Longfellow was a pretentious sort of guy.

April 27, 9:38 am | [comment link]
4. NWOhio Anglican wrote:

By the way, the Google translation of “Der Panther” is absolutely horrid. Don’t rely on it!

April 27, 9:43 am | [comment link]
5. Alice Linsley wrote:

As a writing teacher I tolerate less than good poems. We can’t expect beginners to write like Wendell Berry, Robert Penn Warren or Rilke.  They probably produced some inferior work when they were beginning.  We have to take language seriously as a powerful force and we should expect others to take it seriously also.  I found the fact that Wendell Berry would take the time to compose (on a typewriter) such a thoughtful letter to my writing students to be greatly encouraging. I can tell you that it left a great impression on them!  I wish more great writers would look less condescendingly on beginners and instead encourage them.

April 27, 12:58 pm | [comment link]
6. NWOhio Anglican wrote:

Alice, Robert and I are talking about professionals, not students. I tolerate less than perfect prose from my students, too. But it burns my buns when someone who should know better thinks that any old thing will do, or tries to let lazy writing pass for profundity, or (by far the most common offense) uses the right word’s second cousin.

April 27, 1:03 pm | [comment link]
7. Alice Linsley wrote:

I recognize that you have professionals in mind.  It speaks volumes about America when a hard working student produces something superior to the lack luster work of a “professional” but can’t get the piece published.  That’s why I started Students Publish Here! This provides a venue for first publications and helps writing students build their confidence and their portfolios.  My students range for age 6 to 70.  Lots of fun!

April 27, 1:15 pm | [comment link]
8. NWOhio Anglican wrote:

My reading of Gioia’s critique of modern professional poets fits with things I have seen in modern classical music (though not so much any more) and in so-called serious drama: the triumph of self-indulgence and in-group self-congratulation, with concomitant contempt for the more general audience.

I hope no one thinks that self-indulgent, poorly-thought-out BS is only the province of seminaries. Decently educated people (like me, who am—as CS Lewis said of himself—“educated, but not in your specialty”) are perfectly capable of telling decent work from crap. But the professionals will often, when I dare to criticize, condescend quite shockingly.

The fact that not every Ph.D. is decently educated any more is another thing—there are serious gaps in my own education, but I’m a polymath compared to some of the overspecialized folk I’ve known.

April 27, 6:44 pm | [comment link]
9. NWOhio Anglican wrote:

On another tack,

Poems should be memorized, recited, and performed. The sheer joy of the art must be emphasized. The pleasure of performance is what first attracts children to poetry, the sensual excitement of speaking and hearing the words of the poem.

Which is why I dearly love Rilke’s “Der Panther.”

April 27, 6:50 pm | [comment link]
10. Larry Morse wrote:

Goia missed the essential point - or I missed his making it -  that poetry has become incomprehensible, and often deliberately. Wallace Stevens commenting on poetry’s increasing happiness is hilarious to anyone who has had to his happiness increased by reading The Emperor of Ice Cream or a Very High Toned Old Christian Women. And who has fought his way pleasurably through Pound’s Cantos? Or thoroughly Dylan Thomas’ Alterwise by Owllight. Or had heart palpitations over Howl?  And, mind you, this was just the beginning of the Dis-the-reader system pof writing. Increasingly, poets find it necessary for their credentials to be as disjointed, bizarre, obscure, tangential as possible.

  But this is not an isolated artistic problem. Contemporary serious music is as absurd as it is painful and ridiculous. Remember Of Time and The River? Or John Cage and the “prepared” piano? You know these missles aimed at listeners are in the thousands. When we hear,
“composed specifically for the Twinkletoes Symphony,”  we know its time to go out for a cup of coffee. ()When I heard the inanities of Time and the River, I burst out laughing and was ejected for such insensitivity. But it is still a howl.

  What we need now is a large number of readers who say to the art world, “Don’t you think we can see the emperor has no clothes?” and then we need to laugh long and loud. Been in MOMA lately?
  Larry

April 27, 11:06 pm | [comment link]
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