Sunday, November 09, 2014

Dana Gioia and the State of Poetry

While researching poetry on the internet last night it was my good fortune to come across a fascinating essay that was published 23 years ago. A lot of water has flown into the sea since then, but "Can Poetry Matter?", written by eminent man-of-letters Dana Gioia, has a lot to say that we can still learn from today.

He discusses the erosion of poetry's influence over the last century, in American poetry specifically, but broadly applicable. His key observation is that poetry has receded from public life to an insular poetry subculture. In particular, this subculture has been fed by the influx of creative writing programs in academic institutions. At that time this had a number of consequences.

To begin with, quantity of poetic output had become more important than quality. For a career to progress it must be seen to have produced. The importance of being published in journals and of being cited by others takes precedence over actual quality. Gioia notes that the  

"proliferation of literary journals and presses over the past thirty years has been a response less to an increased appetite for poetry among the public than to the desperate need of writing teachers for professional validation."

These are the demands of the job.

A second consequence was that the majority of readers of new poetry were either poets themselves or the students of poets (in their capacity as creative writing teachers). In short most readers were from academic institutions. It goes without saying that the imagination and response of a reader from an academic institution is very different from the imagination of a social worker, a banker, a lawyer, a member of parliament, a doctor, a homeless bohemian. Yet in olden times, many layers of society took note of poetry. It was a natural vehicle for thought.

A third consequence was that, if most of the readers had become other poets from academic institutions, the concomitant reality was that most poets were those very same readers and teachers from academic institutions. As Gioia observes

"The problem is not that poets teach. The campus is not a bad place for a poet to work. It's just a bad place for all poets to work." (my emphasis)

If The Waste Land is the most important and influential poem of the 20th century, it is perhaps also a marker of the coming academification of poetry. Its complex cultural references shows poetry turning inward to a vast territory of intertextuality, and it takes a certain level of erudition to absorb, let alone imitate or take further in its implications. Has culture become so complex that an academic approach is inevitable, or have poets lost the appetite - and the confidence - to address topical matters in society?

Gioia's essay leaves the reader with much food for thought. Although his focus is on the academic environment of which he was a part, it can equally apply to the online and printed journals in circulation today. It just so happens that the internet has widened the gyre of poets and readers - a good thing - but it often still feels fairly insular.

When Gioia says that "the poetry subculture no longer assumes that all published poems will be read", I am less surprised at the reality, than at the implication that it was ever different. Yet there was a time when newspapers published new poetry and, even more importantly, discussed and critiqued what was published. New poetry now rarely appears outside the abovementioned insular subcultural journals and magazines, and its appeal to a wider audience is almost non-existent: "over the past half century, as American poetry's specialist audience has steadily expanded, its general readership has declined."

There is no doubt that a lot of energy is still being spent in the act of writing poetry, as well as in the corresponding editing and curation of journals, the hosting of competitions, and the creation of chapbooks and zines, but unfortunately the overall quality is very uneven. The damaging outcome is that even those who are interested in discovering good new poetry don't believe anything truly great is getting written. Lots of average, a fair amount of good, occasionally great, but nothing truly great. They simply don't know where to find it.

"The divorce of poetry from the educated reader has had another, more pernicious result. Seeing so much mediocre verse not only published but praised, slogging through so many dull anthologies and small magazines, most readers--even sophisticated ones like Joseph Epstein--now assume that no significant new poetry is being written. This public skepticism represents the final isolation of verse as an art form in contemporary society."

The problem is not that there is a lack of talent. Not at all. It's that talented poets' influence and - even more importantly - their potential influence is so limited that it dents their confidence to "speak up" and try to "make a difference" via their poetry. Some of the more successful poets of recent decades - Gioia mentions Adrienne Rich (feminism) and Robert Bly (anti-war) - used political agendas to inform their work and raise their profile.

Poetry seems to suffer, to some extent, from the same problem as philosophy, namely that practitioners have  been driven into the confining demands of professional academic activity. In poetry, however, the situation is worse. The low barrier to entry and the myriad of online publishing channels ensure that the subculture at large is highly fractured and drenched with mediocre poetry. Individuals themselves have to become the primary arbiters of taste, which is no bad thing in itself, but there are increasingly few benchmarks other than the acknowledged masterpieces of the past.

Then there is the disconnect between writers and the publications themselves. Do poets actually read the publications where their poem is going to get published? I confess that on many, many occasions have I taken the time to read through a competition or publication's submissions criteria, only to balk and abort at the proposed turnaround time for feedback (2 months, 4 months, etc.) and huge submission fees (anything from $5 to $50). I struggle to imagine how a bohemian poet could afford to submit and wait that long, but I digress. If, on occasion, my confidence is high enough not to stop here, it almost always drops at the final hurdle: "please look through our current issue to familiarise yourself with the kind of work we are looking for".

Bang! It's all backwards. Is there a struggling author who would spend $25 to read the most recent issue of a publication he or she wants to submit to, but would not read otherwise? What are the chances, therefore, of attracting an authentic poet from the fringes of society?

It is difficult to blame the competition hosts or magazine editors. These demands are necessary to limit time-wasting and cover overheads and perhaps provide a minor compensation. Poetry circulation has dwindled and fractured, and so has its remaining readership. If it is so hard for me to even get to know the publication in question, what are the chances that a general reader - who I hope will be the reader of my poem - will ever read my poem? The answer, I believe, hovers just above zero.

Yet there is no clear alternative for exposure and prestige. This goes back to poetry's loss of the general reader, those people  "who support the arts--who buy classical and jazz records; who attend foreign films and serious theater, opera, symphony, and dance; who read quality fiction and biographies; who listen to public radio and subscribe to the best journals."

In my role as editor and founder of Poetry WTF?!, I've had the privilege of corresponding with a variety of poets, many of whom do not fit Gioia's description of the academic poet. But Poetry WTF?! does not publish typical poetry, and therefore does not attract the typical poet. That is by design. There are other publications in the field, too, like Found Poetry Review who appeal to more adventurous poets who are less tied to tradition.

On the other hand, my experience so far is still that the readership is mainly other poets and a few observers of the avant-garde rather than the informed general reader Gioia wants to attract.

Poetry needs to continue to reinvent itself to reach that wider audience, and to put the fun and excitement back into creation as well as reading. The internet has made it possible to share and enjoy poetry on a scale that would make Alexander Pope's eyes pop. We can't return to the past, but we can reclaim our future.

There is certainly more cause for optimism now than back in 1991. Austin Kleon's blackout poetry is a versatile technique with the time boxed appeal of a crossword puzzle: try a new one every day. It now has a large following on the internet. Purists may object that blackout poetry's barrier to entry is too low and that it is limited to fairly short pieces of work, but it has certainly broadened the appeal while staying true to the spirit of poetry.

A more intellectual approach is exemplified by Christian Bök's Oulipo-inspired Eunoia, which sold well in many countries, and listed in The Times top 10 in 2002. Constraints poetry in general seems to be coming into its own in the internet era.

Attempts to frame search engine results, popular comments, and tweets into poetic structures, for instance Darren Wershler and Bill Kennedy's Apostrophe Engine and Andrei Gheorge's The Longest Poem in the World are more conceptual but do make for amusing reading. Purists could object that theirs is no longer a craft of the text, but of the rules and processes that create the text. But a counter-argument runs that the poet's toolbox needs expanding, and that there is every reason to leverage the insights that data processing science affords the craftsperson.

Between these poles a website like The Poetry Foundation strikes a balance between wide coverage , intellectual stimulation and popular poetry. It publishes the works of past masters as well as contemporary pieces on topics and issues that we recognise. It provides discussion and translations into English from a variety of languages, recognising the universal language of poetry across borders. The translation of a poem by Liu Xia and corresponding background notes is typical. With nearly  a hundred thousand Twitter followers it appeals to the general reader that Gioia envisaged. 

In conclusion, Dana Gioia suggests six ways in which the influence of poetry can be expanded, and I want to mention two. The first is,

"When poets give public readings, they should spend part of every program reciting other people's work--preferably poems they admire by writers they do not know personally. Readings should be celebrations of poetry in general, not merely of the featured author's work."

We need to be reminded of the highest exemplars, even on a night of new poetry. There is no doubt that self-promotion is necessary, but we all stand on the shoulders of giants. A bit of humility and homage is in order. If the poet's work is good, it will hopefully compare not unfavourably with the work of other poets whom he or she admires. Either way, there will be more for the audience to enjoy, and they'll be more likely to come again.

The second take-away is that "poets who compile anthologies--or even reading lists--should be scrupulously honest in including only poems they genuinely admire. Anthologies are poetry's gateway to the general culture. They should not be used as pork barrels for the creative-writing trade."

I would like to extend this appeal to the editors of zines, online journals and websites. There is nothing more disheartening than discovering a new website of poetry, only to find that it lacks any standards. Another symptom, even more corrosive, is the conscious decision to praise or include poetry because of personal or professional ties rather than merit: whether it be that of a colleague, a friend or someone who could procure a favour. The temptation is totally understandable, but it should be remembered that in government or business such behaviour would be labelled favouritism, or worse, cronyism or corruption. Readers lose faith and poetry as a whole suffers.

Conversely, there can never be enough closely knit groups to help new types of poetry to gain a foothold and flourish. Every artistic industry relies on talented communities and friends who set trends where others follow. They attract, focus, and direct energy. Even the great romantics, individualists par excellence, are famed for the sets in which they moved: Wordsworth and Coleridge, the Shelleys and Byron, Goethe and Schiller.

In the final instance it is worth remembering that, as with wine, the best exemplars take time. When we try to turn poetry writing into a profession or a conveyer belt for consumption, we deprive it of the conditions it needs to be truly great. Gioia observes how "Wallace Stevens was forty-three when his first book appeared. Robert Frost was thirty-nine. Today these sluggards would be unemployable." To imagine a careful craftsman like Leonard Cohen working in a modern office environment is to imagine a tragedy.

I always liked it slow:
I never liked it fast
With you it's got to go:
With me it's got to last

- Slow, by Leonard Cohen
& Patrick Leonard

I'm always interested in hearing about people's ideas for the future of literature and poetry. So please ping me on @thundercomb or leave a comment. I look forward to hearing from you.