The Heart of the Matter

Can Poetry Matter? by Dana Gioia Graywolf Press, $12.00

Two years ago, when Dana Gioia published the title essay to his collection Can Poetry Matter? in the Atlantic Monthly, he caused nothing short of a literary scandal. The Atlantic received more mail than it had in years. Publications as far flung as the Times Literary Supplement and USA Today printed spin-off discussions. Even international radio stations picked up the story. All this over an evaluation of contemporary verse.

What could possibly be so scandalous about poetry? Few popular magazines print it. The New York Times rarely reviews it. And only a handful of Americans outside the academy read it. Indeed, it has become something of a cliche that literate Americans buy novels, not poetry books.

But this is precisely Gioia's point. Poetry hasn't always lived on the fringes of American culture. Its current status marks a radical departure from literary tradition. Fifty years ago, anthologies made best seller lists. People memorized verse. Fifty years ago, "poetry mattered outside the classroom."

So what accounts for the change? Why do so few Americans bother with poetry?

Gioia points to the widespread incorporation of creative writing into the academy as a key source of public indifference. Where poets once scraped by in bohemia, brooding over coffee in French cafes, today many teach writing at the secondary or post-secondary school level. Where celebrated poets like Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams earned livings as corporate insurance lawyer, banker and physician, respectively, today "the poet...has reluctantly become an educational specialist."

As an academic, the poet must publish or perish. This helps account for the explosion of small presses and journals "like subsidized farming that grows food no one wants." Gioia sees little quality control, little honest reviewing and thus great reason for the general reader to be turned off. Can Poetry Matter? reads as an expose of the literary scene. Gioia accuses poets of maintaining a virtual conspiracy of silence, of refusing to publish negative reviews. At one point, he even invokes the names of Woodward and Bernstein, the celebrated journalists that uncovered Watergate.

Gioia presents the academy as a comfortable, clubby home to poets, and poetry as a "modestly upwardly mobile, middle class profession--not as lucrative as waste management or dermatology, but several big steps above the squalor of bohemia." With lines like these, is it any wonder the title essay caused such a stir?

Part of Gioia's mission, it seems, is to break the polite silence, to tell it like it is. His prose is irreverent and refreshing. How many professional writers would dare claim that "the editorial principle governing selection [for an important anthology] seems to have been the fear of leaving out some influential colleague?" Or that "one suspects that [this anthology] was never truly meant to be read, only assigned." Whether you agree or disagree with Gioia's particulars, you can't help but admire his candor.

One suspects that Gioia writes freely about the academy because he worked outside of it for most of his career. For 15 years, he earned a living as a businessman. He rose to Vice President of General Foods before leaving in 1992 to write full time.

Like Stevens, Eliot and Williams, Gioia wrote without institutional support. He published translations of Italian verse, as well as two collections of original poetry, Daily Horoscope (1986) and The Gods of Winter (1991). Gioia claims that a job in business "allowed me to write about whatever interested me most--however odd or unfasionable."

And Can Poetry Matter? certainly scoffs at literary fashion. Although the title easy caused perhaps the greatest controversy, the 22 other essays in this collection show the same no-nonsense approach. Gioia takes on topics as wide-ranging as "Business and Poetry" and "The Poet in an Age of Prose." He reassesses the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Weldon Kees, Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery and Margaret Atwood. He extols the character of Elizabeth Bishop and savages Robert Bly.

Gioia never lets you forget just how unaccountable to the poetry establishment he feels. "As an impromptu translation in a French II oral exam," he writes, Robert Bly's translation of Mallarme "might eke out a passing grade, but as poetry in English, it fails the most rudimentary test...it doesn't even sound like the language of a native speaker." Throughout these essays, Dana Gioia names names. Much of his observation is as perceptive as his criticism is scathing. He recognizes that "American poetry now belongs to a subculture." And to escape that status, poetry writers must somehow appeal to prose readers.

Right now, "poets and the common reader are no longer on speaking terms." Contemporary poets must find ways to reestablish a rapport with the public. Gioia suggests that poets work in narrative forms. He praises the exploration of traditional meter and form, the use of imagery culled from popular culture and "the restoration of direct unironic emotion"--all qualities of the New Formalist movement in poetry. Gioia characterises New Formalism as "the latest in ...[a] series of rebellions against poetry's cultural marginality." As a member of the New Formalist vanguard, Gioia himself rebels not only in poetry, but also in prose about poetry.

His essays court a broad readership. They offer insight into the literary scene and the relationship of poetry and popular culture. Regardless of your political bent, you will find Can Poetry Matter? accessible and appealingly frank--a well-lit tour through American poetry, and one which aims to catapult the genre from its subcultural obscurity.