The following essay was published in the New Criterion in February, 1993, and reflects a view of American poetry from at least the 1970s forward. It’s quite depressing to read this two decades later, since the status of poetry as a subculture can’t help but be worse than it was then, and worse in part because the technology noted as a distraction and competition to poetry, back in 1993, are now used by poets for self-promotion, in many cases making the only poets who receive much attention those who are good at selling themselves, not at writing poetry. If poetry was so dependent upon intellectual trends and fads back then, it’s astounding how far this has come these days, where the poetry itself is less important than its author’s identity in a handful of categories (racial, political, gender, sexual persuasion, religious, etc.).
While I can’t pretend that poetry hasn’t always had an uneasy relationship with the wider world, it’s clear that in the past poets tried for more, and were respected and even looked to more, than they are today. The moment of poetry’s relevance as a carrier of cultural history—the moment of Homer, Dante, Snorri Sturluson, Shakespeare and Milton, or even Elias Lönnrot—are beyond far gone, and most poets today are merely the curators of small gestures.
For me anyway it’s even more reason to hide away in a scriptorium and write poetry for some future audience, for a better cultural moment. To read an essay like this is only a reminder to put my head back down, ignore the rabble, and write for eternity.
Poetry & the Silencing of Art
by Hilton Kramer
Some claim the best stopped writing first. For the others, no one noted when or why. A few observers voiced their mild regret about another picturesque, unprofitable craft that progress had irrevocably doomed.
—Dana Gioia, in “The Silence of the Poets”
From time to time there appears a volume of criticism that, in the course of its attention to particular works of art, illuminates a good many more questions about our artistic and cultural affairs than are specifically addressed in its pages. Criticism tends to be at its best, of course, when it is most specific, when it derives its taste and standards from a particular artistic discipline and has something new and intelligent to say about the practice of the art from which it springs. Yet from Dr. Johnson’s Lives of the Poets to T. S. Eliot’s The Sacred Wood to Randall Jarrell’s Poetry and the Age, the most important criticism has always done something more than this. It has brought us up to date on the condition of art, on the place it now occupies in the world at large, and on the historical imperatives that may imperil its very existence. Criticism of this kind follows the course of art itself in making vital connections between art and life.
The volume of criticism that Dana Gioia has recently published under the title Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture is a book of this sort. While it has much to tell us about particular poets and about the condition of poetry at the present time, it also raises profound questions about the fate of art, which is to say high art, in a society now in turmoil over the definition of its cultural goals. To these questions Mr. Gioia brings the gifts and experience of a first-rate literary artist, the intellectual rigor of a tough-minded critic, and an outlook on the world that is the reverse of everything we associate with the word “academic.” He also brings a generosity of spirit that lives on easy terms with the obligation to make distinctions, including distinctions of quality. There was a time—a distant time, alas— when it might have been enough to say of Mr. Gioia that he approaches the critical task as an accomplished poet. But as he and his readers are keenly aware, in our society at the present time the figure of the poet as a cultural spokesman is much diminished, if in fact it can still be said to exist. This loss of public status and influence, together with its causes and consequences, is indeed one of the central concerns of this book, which in its very first paragraph describes the fate that has overtaken the career of poetry in our cultural life.
American poetry now belongs to a subculture [writes Mr. Gioia]. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. As a class, poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible.
This is the theme that serves as the foundation of every essay in this book. It informs Mr. Gioia’s analyses of individual poets, it underlies his discussion of language and form in poetry, and it sets the terms within which his more general observations on the condition of poetry and the lives of our poets are largely formulated.
About the poetry that derives from this peculiar cultural situation Mr. Gioia writes with uncommon critical penetration. No one is likely to write a better essay on the poetry of Robert Bly, for example, than Mr. Gioia’s. Here is a characteristic passage on Bly’s verse:
Is it possible for a stanza of poetry to be both unadorned and overwritten? Here [in Bly’s poem “A Meditation on Philosophy”] every phrase contains at least one heavy-handed hint to the author’s mood. (Excerpting these clues, one could easily compose a telegram version of the poem: “Restless gloom grieving leaves down dusk low abandons cold.”) But despite its crude overstatement, the language remains weirdly inert for a lyric poem. Characteristically, Bly simply asserts his emotions. His utilitarian language does little to re-create them in the reader. Instead, in the manner of the New Sentimentality, he tries to bully the reader into an instant epiphany of alienation and self-pity.
And here is an assessment of two of the many translations Bly has attempted, in this case of poems by Mallarmé and Rilke:
As an impromptu translation in a French II oral exam, the Mallarmé might eke out a passing grade, but as poetry in English it fails the most rudimentary test. Not only does it not seem like the verse of an accomplished poet, it doesn’t even sound like the language of a native speaker. Nor does the Rilke exhibit the virtues of a smooth literal translation. It transforms the tight, musical German into loose, pretentious doggerel….
By propagating this minimal kind of translation Bly has done immense damage to American poetry. Translating quickly and superficially, he not only misrepresented the work of many great poets, he also distorted some of the basic standards of poetic excellence… . In promoting his new poetics (based on his specially chosen foreign models), he set standards so low that he helped to create a school of mediocrities largely ignorant of the premodern poetry in English and familiar with foreign poetry only through oversimplified translations.
It should be pointed out, in this connection, that Mr. Gioia is himself a superb translator of poetry; see, for example, his version of Eugenio Montale’s Mottetti.
He is equally good on the very different problem of John Ashbery’s poetry.
Ashbery is a discursive poet without a subject. Although he deals indirectly with several recurrent themes, themes that have become increasingly dark and personal as he has grown older, the poems are mainly the surface play of words and images. One never remembers ideas from an Ashbery poem, one recalls the tones and textures. If ideas are dealt with at all, they are present only as faint echoes heard remotely in some turn of phrase. Ideas in Ashbery are like the melodies in some jazz improvisation where the musicians have left out the original tune to avoid paying royalties. They are wild variations on a missing theme with only the original chord changes as a clue. This sort of music can be fun as long as someone doesn’t try to analyze it like a Beethoven symphony.
Some of Mr. Gioia’s subjects are surprising—Robinson Jeffers, for instance, whose poetry he praises with such conviction that he almost persuades me to have another look at it, something I wouldn’t have thought possible. One of the most appealing qualities of Mr. Gioia’s criticism is, indeed, that it is neither sectarian nor ideological in its tastes and interests. And his critical method, if it can be called that, is anything but narrow. It ranges from excellent close readings, where poems seem to require that kind of focus because of their complexity or unfamiliarity, to the kind of biographical or autobiographical approach that can sometimes afford a fresh perspective on poetry already well known to us. Thus, the critic who makes such a strong case for Jeffers also writes with great insight and feeling about Wallace Stevens—about Stevens’s limitations, too—while at the same time giving us the best overall introductions to the poetry of Donald Justice, Weldon Kees, and Howard Moss that I have read.
Mr. Gioia knows how to praise and illuminate what he most admires—a rarer thing in the contemporary criticism of poetry than you might imagine—and he brings to every subject a voice that is entirely his own, the voice of a poet who knows what he likes and dislikes and why. His account, in “The Example of Elizabeth Bishop,” of how he came to that wonderful poet’s work as a student and what it meant to him is a beautiful example of the way criticism, when intensely personal, can sometimes illuminate an important poetic achievement while also describing very accurately an entire literary period.
I noticed that most of my teachers—professors and graduate students alike—talked most comfortably about contemporary poetry when they could reduce it to ideology. The Beats espoused political, moral, and social revolution; hence they deserved attention. The feminists demanded a fundamental revision of traditional sexual identities; therefore their poetry became important. This utilitarian aesthetic transformed poetry into a secular version of devotional verse. The reading lists covering contemporary poetry rarely seemed to originate from genuine love or excitement about the work itself but rather from some dutiful sense of its value in illustrating some theoretically important trend. This dreary moral and aesthetic didacticism had little to do with the “lonely impulse of delight” that had brought me to poetry.
Likewise I found it hard to consider Ginsberg or Ferlinghetti revolutionary when I first encountered them as classroom texts in an elite private university. To me they represented the conventional values—most of which, incidentally, I accepted—of the establishment I had just entered. Moreover, its novel trappings aside, their work often appeared predictable, prolix, and sentimental. By contrast, Bishop seemed original without being ostentatious, conversational without becoming verbose, and emotional without seeming maudlin. Her childhood reminiscence “First Death in Nova Scotia” worked all the more powerfully by being restrained. Her short narrative poem “House Guest” explored the subtle psychology of class relations more convincingly by being so insistently personal. She explored moral dilemmas without having a predetermined destination. Despite its familiar feel, her poetry almost always surprised one.
This single essay has more to tell us about the history of American poetry since the 1950s than most of the books that have been devoted to the subject.
The criticism in Can Poetry Matter? is also personal in other respects. It has a good deal to say, for example, about Mr. Gioia’s own aesthetic outlook as a poet who has been much involved in the revival of formal and narrative verse. The subject of writing—and not writing—poetry in traditional metrical forms inevitably comes up in some of the essays on individual poets, but it is discussed more directly, along with the related issue of narrative poetry, in two essays, “Notes on the New Formalism” and “The Dilemma of the Long Poem.” In the first of these essays, originally published in the 1980s, Mr. Gioia gives us the recent history of this declining interest in poetic form with his characteristic clarity:
Two generations now of younger writers have largely ignored rhyme and meter, and most of the older poets who worked originally in form (such as Louis Simpson and Adrienne Rich) have abandoned it entirely for more than a quarter of a century. Literary journalism has long declared it defunct, and most current anthologies present no work in traditional forms by Americans written after 1960. The British may have continued using rhyme and meter in their quaint, old-fashioned way and the Irish in their primitive, bardic manner, but for up-to-date Americans it became the province of the old, the eccentric, and the Anglophilic. It was a style that dared not speak its name, except in light verse… . By 1980 there had been such a decisive break with the literary past that in America for the first time in the history of modern English most published young poets could not write with minimal competence in traditional meters (not that this failing bothered anyone). Whether this was an unprecedented cultural catastrophe or a glorious revolution is immaterial to this discussion. What matters is that most of the craft of traditional English versification had been forgotten.
There then follows an unexpected and devastating account of what Mr. Gioia calls “the emergence of pseudo-formal verse” in the 1980s—a development that, in his view, is only another measure of our cultural loss. About these matters Mr. Gioia writes more in sorrow than in anger, and always with an admirable absence of dogmatism, and his principal interest is never argument for its own sake but the vitality of poetic art and its need for an audience beyond the academy. It is precisely because he sees in the revival of formal and narrative verse a means of achieving these goals that he writes about them with so much enthusiasm and intelligence.
All these revivals of traditional technique … both reject the specialization and intellectualization of the arts in the academy over the past forty years and affirm the need for a broader popular audience. The modern movement, which began this century in bohemia, is now ending it in the university, an institution dedicated at least as much to the specialization of knowledge as to its propagation. Ultimately the mission of the university has little to do with the mission of the arts, and this long cohabitation has had an enervating effect on all the arts but especially on poetry and music. With the best of intentions the university has intellectualized the arts to a point where they have been cut off from the vulgar vitality of popular traditions and, as a result, their public has shrunk to groups of academic specialists and a captive audience of students, both of which refer to everything beyond the university as “the real world.”
This “real world” beyond the university is, as it happens, one that the author of this passage knows well at first hand. Last year Mr. Gioia, who is now in his early forties, resigned a vice presidency at Kraft General Foods to become a full-time writer. He had worked as a business executive in New York for some fifteen years, during which time he also published his first two volumes of poetry—Daily Horoscope (1986) and The Gods of Winter (1991)—his translations of Montale and other poets, and the essays that have been collected in Can Poetry Matter? (He holds masters’ degrees in both business administration and comparative literature.) This experience has naturally kindled his interest in other American poets who chose careers in business rather than in the academy to sustain their literary endeavors, and about this phenomenon he has written a brilliant and unusual essay called “Business and Poetry.” This is one of the most interesting essays about the relation of art to life that any American poet has ever written.
It is astonishing, first of all, in the sheer number and quality of poets cited for discussion. We all know about Wallace Stevens in the insurance business and William Carlos Williams as a pediatrician, but Mr. Gioia’s roll call goes well beyond the famous cases. Richard Eberhart, L. E. Sissman, Archibald MacLeish, A. R. Ammons, James Dickey, Robert Phillips, Richard Hugo, Ted Kooser (about whose poetry Mr. Gioia writes a separate essay in this book), William Bronk, and a number of lesser-known names are more than enough to persuade us that this is a development in American cultural life that has remained largely invisible to the literary public. For Mr. Gioia, what is most striking about this group of poets is what he describes as “their aversion to using this part of their lives”—that is, their working life in the business world—as the raw material of their poetry. Whatever their involvement in business, they turn out to be no more likely than the poets in the academy to reach beyond the “subculture” of poetry in what they write or in the way they write.
The inability of these businessmen-poets to write about their professional worlds is symptomatic of a larger failure in American verse —namely its difficulty in discussing most public concerns. If business is nonexistent as a poetic subject, there is also a surprising paucity of serious verse on political and social themes. Not only has our poetry been unable to create a meaningful public idiom, but it even lacks most of the elements out of which such an idiom might be formed.
In the end, Mr. Gioia writes of the businessman-poet that “his job, like the academic’s, has sheltered him from the economic consequences of writing without an audience. It even tutored him in surviving alienation.” His poetry, too, belongs “to the private world that is the poet’s mind.” If, all the same, these businessmen-poets enjoyed a certain advantage, it was the advantage of remaining outsiders in the professional literary world.
By refusing to simplify themselves into the conventional image of a poet, they affirmed their own spiritual individuality, and the daily friction of their jobs toughened the resolve. Ultimately the decisions they made forced them to choose between abandoning poetry and practicing it without illusions. Anyone who studies the lives and works of the men who combined careers in business and poetry finds this hard-won sense of maturity and realism at the center. Their lives may not always provide other poets with overtly inspiring examples, but their careers offer pragmatic and important lessons in spiritual survival. In a society that destroys or distracts most artists, they found a paradoxical means to prosper— both as men and writers. In American literature that is not a small accomplishment.
No one, I think, has written with greater clarity or greater poignancy—or with a greater sense of urgency, either—about the “subculture” in which the art of poetry is still confined and about its need to find what Mr. Gioia calls a “rapprochement with the educated public.” Yet I have to say that as I turned the pages of this very good book, I often felt the same sense of melancholy and despair that I felt in reading the last lines of Mr. Gioia’s poem “The Silence of the Poets,” in The Gods of Winter.
And what was lost? No one now can judge.
But we still have music, art, and film,
diversions enough for a busy people.
And even poetry for those who want it.
The old books, those the young have not
are still kept somewhere,
stacked in their dusty rows.
And a few old men may visit from time
to run their hands across the spines
but no one ever comes to read
or would know how.
This poem is, in a sense, about “the educated public” that Mr. Gioia has in mind for the poetry of the future, and he knows as well as the rest of us what has happened to it. He speaks in the title essay of his book about “the decline of literacy, the proliferation of other media, the crisis in humanities education, the collapse of critical standards, and the sheer weight of past failures,” and even this melancholy inventory of our cultural woes does not tell the whole story. Poetry was once the exception in its lack of an “educated public,” but that condition of loss and isolation is now becoming the norm for the entire realm of high culture. “The Silence of the Poets” now speaks for the silencing of art in many fields. This, too, is a subject of great concern in Can Poetry Matter? As Mr. Gioia writes in his title essay:
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… . 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… . 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 upperclass support, have largely escaped the decline in public attention.
I am not at all sure myself that the “financial glamour” that surrounds the visual arts hasn’t done them more harm than good, for public attention of this sort has a price, too; but otherwise Mr. Gioia’s account of the way the other arts are rapidly being consigned to the status of subcultures is perfectly correct. I do not therefore see what hope there is in expanding the audience for serious poetry at the very moment when the audience for classical music, for example, is diminishing at so rapid a rate that the whole profession is in crisis.
In Mr. Gioia’s discussion of these problems, something very important has been left out—the subject of popular culture. For as the silencing of high art proceeds at a rapid rate in our society, what is taking its place on a scale never seen before is the noise of the most noxious and degraded varieties of pop culture. High culture cannot compete with its lethal effects on the minds and bodies of the young—and not only the young, of course—and neither can serious education, not as it is now conducted, anyway. And as long as the juggernaut of pop culture continues to swamp everything in its path, not only will poetry remain confined “to the private world that is the poet’s mind” but so will all of high art—whatever remains of it —be confined to the private world of its subculture. And what was lost? No one can judge will be a line applicable to many things we now cherish. Can Poetry Matter? is an important book, but it does not yet have an answer to the question posed in its title.