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Responding to Dana Gioia's, "Can Poetry Matter?"






Jake Berry  



(An earlier version of this essay first appeared at the now defunct website, Muse Apprentice Guild)



Since its publication over a decade ago Gioia’s essay has inspired many responses, pro and con. I can certainly understand this. Part of the intention of the article it seems to me is to provoke a response. Gioia is not only an excellent writer, but writes with an unusual clarity in a time when aesthetic discussion can often require some form of initiation into the vocabulary and context of a particular approach. So much the better for Gioia, and for all of us who read him.


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. It is easier to sell immediate gratuitous sensation than work that requires sensitive, focused intelligence. The culture has been consumed by an advertising culture that is by its very nature the art of deception. How does one hope to promote the appearance of the truth (however elusive and relative) when deception is the foundation upon which our assumptions are based? When the lie is so full of immediate gratification? What does it matter if the gratification is short lived? A new one will quickly arrive. Even one of the greatest tragedies in American history is quickly absorbed by corporations as a sales gimmick. Patriotism becomes something you buy or sell, not something you do. And if you criticize the mania you are deemed unpatriotic, un-American. So why be relevant in such a frenzy of narcissistic extravagance?


But I am an infidel, even to outsiders practicing an exiled art. Perhaps something has eluded me. Perhaps I have missed something by not participating in the academic subculture that Gioia speaks of in his essay, or by not seeking publication in the journals generated and authorized by that subculture. What I read in these journals is writing school product poetry. This does not mean that I have not read poems that I thought were excellent. As with almost any collection there are some wonderful poems among much mediocrity and a few horrible exercises. The problem is that it seems that the majority of these poems have been generated by the same mind, or at least the same mind-set. It seems diversity is limited to a few shifts of tone and subject matter, but the approach is almost always the same. An outsider gets the impression that this is what poetry is at this moment according to the academy, which wields the cultural stamp of approval. Does this poetry matter? To some people it matters very much, to the subculture it is by, for, and made of, but to few others. Gioia draws the same conclusion and shares a similar frustration. The vital point he makes is this:


By opening the poets trade to all applicants and by employing writers to do something other than writing, institutions have changed the social and economic identity of the poet from artist to educator […] Poetry suffers when literary standards are forced to conform to intellectual ones.


So this is, by and large, the condition which compels the question, "Can Poetry Matter?" One of the problems with a poet teaching at a university, especially teaching poetry, is that his or her hours are regular and filled with at least the shadow of the kind of thing that should be required primarily for new poems. The regularity of this same kind of mental activity day after day is essential to teaching and learning large amounts of information, but regular poetry instruction is most often as deadening to the art as the habit is to daily life.


Gioia seeks alternatives in the past, in how previous generations of poets managed to survive when their principle occupation could not sustain them. This is a valuable examination and it certainly bears consideration. And there are examples even today of poets surviving, and working, beyond the academic culture. Yet almost none of them are accepted as valid by that dominant culture. Hank Lazer made a strong argument in this regard in the two volumes of his Opposing Poetries. Those poetries being the academic, writing school poetry, which he calls "plainverse", and the, at that time, up and coming avant-garde which generally falls under the term 'language' poetry. Regarding this, it seems the academy has found a solution to revolt by taking a lesson from the markets of the 1970s. Rather than resist the burgeoning "revolution" against complacency and materialism it simply devoured it in the name of style and fashion and sold the trappings—the clothes, haircuts, and symbology—in a slightly refined form to the culture at large. The result was the decadence of the late 1970s and 1980s. Similarly, the academy has begun to absorb some of the language poets, often over the strenuous objection of the writing school poets, and has thereby transformed the avant-garde into a codified, institutionally verified avant-garde that can be taught (marketed) to a growing, though less popular, subculture. One can imagine a time (is that time already here?) when in order to be accepted as an avant-garde poet a young writer would be required to have a masters and possibly a doctorate in the avant-garde formula of the day. In such a condition anything genuinely avant-garde would be utterly dismissed, marginalized to the point of invisibility. Perhaps I am an infidel indeed because such institutionalization seems to me preposterous and antithetical to what poetry is in the first place. I dare say Gioia would agree.


So what are we outsiders, so brazen as to assert ourselves as poets, to do? If poetry is intellectually commodified by the universities how are we to resist the temptation to seek a decent living inside that system when there are no alternatives, or certainly fewer alternatives than in previous generations? The poets I know survive in any number of ways. Some of them work in universities, but not as poets. Some manage to work in other professions and still find time and energy to be poets. As before the poet as educator phenomenon you find them in virtually every profession, but they do not have the outlets for publication that existed before. What has happened in poetry, as in much the rest of the culture, is a great homogenization. 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.


Does this matter? Should this raise public concern? Should poets be dismayed by this state of affairs? Should these poets move to the mountains (however metaphorically) like the Zen and Taoist hermits in China, write their poems on "rock-and-bark" and vanish entirely? Does it matter what they do? Yes, absolutely, and probably not. We cannot expect culture as we now have it, and have had it for a while, to suddenly perform an about face and hunger en masse for all kinds of poetry.  Poetry has not mattered and will not matter to them. Yet, the effects of poetry, or the absence of it, will matter because the aesthetic that sustains poets and their audience is part of the fabric of culture; once that strand is removed, or marginalized, everything to which it is connected is effected. Still, there will be a few who will manage as Gioia says, quoting Robert Frost, "to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of." The culture's attitude toward poetry is evidenced in Frost’s sarcasm, which seems less sarcastic today.  


As he comes toward his conclusion Gioia says some things that I would like to address in particular:


To regain poetry's readership one must begin by meeting Williams's challenge to find what "concerns many men," not simply what concerns poets.


Perhaps, but this is a double dilemma. "The first," as Gioia says,


involves the role of language in a free society […] A society whose intellectual leaders lose the skill to shape, appreciate, and understand the power of language will become slaves to those who retain it.


Certainly true. But what if that skill is lost generally, at all levels? Even though "politicians, preachers, copywriters, [and] newscaster" do manipulate the public with a better command of the language, they too are victims of a downward spiral. The language itself seems to be suffering a series of diminishing returns with the exception of small groups of intellectuals and a few similar areas. Intelligent conversation, let alone, an intelligent populace seems increasingly remote. Again perhaps this is because I am removed from the great centers of learning, but when college courses include studies of sitcoms, and their "cultural value", we may be quickly arriving at a place where our intellectuals are even less informed than the general public which may have no taste for serious information at all. The culture has gone from one obsessed with being entertained to one obsessed with advertisement, with the next consumable item and/or experience. We are wealthy enough to have that luxury, but when excess becomes the essential what is actually essential is forgotten. As Gioia says:


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 citizen improving the health of its language while abandoning poetry.


When "what concerns many men" has become in effect rootless it may fall not to the high arts, but to "low" art to speak to the many. Perhaps the poets have been usurped by folk based artists who speak more directly to the experience of this rootlessness. Popular artists like Bruce Springsteen, Ani Defranco, Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill are in fact much closer in language and concern to the general population. Is what they write poetry? Many would say so, I among them. Is it poetry in the same sense as William Carlos Williams? No. But does that make it any less valid? Indeed, if relevance is the issue, the popular artists are by far more valid to the general public than any poet living or dead. Must we draw a line and broadly divide the two poetries, one for the masses, one for the intelligentsia? What happens when the intelligentsia is so enthralled by the poetry of the masses that they begin to disregard the more challenging forms that they alone can sustain? Does it matter what happens? Gioia:


The most serious question for the future of the 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.


This may indeed be the most serious question, but before we can answer it we may have to redefine what "the educated public" is, and whether or not it is formal poetry or popular song that will be valid to them. 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. Does it matter? I believe that it does, but that we should not divide the poetries against one another. That is, there are probably a substantial number of "serious" poets who also enjoy the poetry of popular performers. This does not mean that they will abandon poetry in the formal sense to become rock stars (though some no doubt wish they could), nor does it mean that they will stop looking for ways to make formal poetry more available. However, they should not retreat from their obsession, however obscure it may leave them. We should not abandon the extremes any more than we can abandon the center. If western culture—or the culture that is generated from what remains of western culture—is to have anything meaningful to offer the world we must promote all the poetries and not grant exclusive preference to any of them.

At the end of his essay Gioia lists six proposals for promoting poetry. All of them are excellent suggestions, but there are three that I think would have the most lasting impact. The first is,


When poets give public readings, they should spend part of every program reciting other people's work.


Yes, and among the suggestions for which other poetry to read I would add poets that are well known among poets, or perhaps poets of a particular style, but not broadly known. Another of Gioia's proposals is,


When arts administrators plan public readings, they should avoid the standard subculture of poetry only.


Or include the other arts as part of the performance of the poetry. Which leads to the other proposal I want to mention:


Poetry teachers, especially at high schools and under-graduate levels, should spend less time on analysis and more on performance.


As he continues, "The sheer joy of the art must be emphasized." Poetry, after all, begins in the epic poem, or at least this is where we first read it, and it is the written document of poetry that was performed, usually with music. Poetry is certainly many times a very private art, but once the poem has appeared the poem should, if possible, be made public, and not just in the sense that it is published in a book. It should be given the sound that was in the ear of the poet as he or she wrote it. People should be able to hear the voice, and even see the physical form, of the poet connected to the poem. The voice and body of the poet is one form of the poem's physicality, and whether in live performance or recordings, the poet's physical aspects in body and sound extend the poem into the public arena.


All these suggestions should work to make poetry matter. Will they make poetry matter the way a dollar matters, the way a pop song matters because it sticks in the brain, the way the allure of advertising to the consuming instinct matters? No, but why should poetry want to matter in that way? And ultimately, if poetry falls into complete obscurity, it will either be rediscovered in the future, or reborn under another name out of human necessity, or forgotten altogether if the species develops along a course that has no use for it. Either way, poetry is with us, and it is a poet's work to do as long as there are poets to do it.


Ultimately, I agree with Gioia about the condition in which we find poetry (and there has been little significant change since the essay was written). He is to be commended for seeking out and providing a series of solutions when it would have been easier perhaps to articulate an eloquent complaint. Still, I do not share his optimism, though I wish I could. This may be the result, again, of my distance from the heart of the matter, but I cannot help but feel that if poetry matters in the future it may do so in strange and unexpected ways.



copyright © Jake Berry




Jake Berry is a poet, musician and visual artist. The author of Brambu Drezi, Species of Abandoned Light, Drafts of the Sorcery, and numerous other books. He has been an active member of the global arts and literary community for more than 25 years. His poems, fiction, essays, reviews and other writings have been published widely in both print and electronic mediums. In 2010, Lavender Ink released a collaborative book, Cyclones In High Northern Latitudes, with poet Jeffrey Side and drawings by Rich Curtis; and Outside Voices: An Email  Correspondence (with Jeffrey Side) was released by Otoliths also in that year.

Berry's solo musical albums include, Liminal Blue, Strange Parlors, Naked as Rain and the Animal Beneath, Shadow Resolve and many others. With Bare Knuckles he has recorded four albums, Trouble In Your House, Alabama Dust, Doppelganger Blues and Root Bound. With the ambient experimental group Ascension Brothers he has recorded numerous albums including All Souls Banquet, The Wedding Ball and Pillar of Fire (which served as soundtrack for a series of plays by Ray Bradbury) and most recently Transfigurations Blues.

Ongoing projects include book four of Brambu Drezi (which will include a video for each section - the opening sections are available now at YouTube and, a collection of short poems, an online and print biography of the poet and critic Jack Foley, an album of experimental ambient music with Chris Mansel under the name Impermanence, an album of acoustic songs in collaboration with Jeff Berry and Van Eaton under the name The Cahoots, and an album of alternative rock songs in collaboration with Jeff Berry, Ben Tanner, Max and Kirk Russell.