Saturday, March 12, 2016

'Words Charged with their Utmost Meaning'

I've been reading a book called "Can Poetry Matter?" by Dana Gioia, a poet who went on to become the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts under President George W. Bush. Gioia published this book in 1992, after its titular essay appeared in The Atlantic and caused a stir, by the standards of the literary world.

I remember hearing about the book when it came out. At the time I was living in Morocco and writing poetry of my own, so when I saw an article about Gioia and his book in the International Herald-Tribune, I paid attention. I actually cut it out and glued it into my journal. But I never had a chance to read the book until now.

Gioia argued that poetry was losing its popular audience and had become the domain of a self-conscious class of university-based writers and scholars. Poets were read almost exclusively by other poets and poetry teachers, who basically supported each other's careers by publishing each other in tiny journals and anthologies, tit for tat. He suggested ways to bring poetry back to the masses by emphasizing quality over favoritism, combining it with other arts presentations and urging poets to write more widely, for wider audiences.

I especially like what he says about the need for poetry:

"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." (And haven't we seen this, in the creep of jargon and pseudo-words like "impactful" into our language?)

He goes on to quote Ezra Pound: "Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear."

When I began working as a newspaper reporter in the late 1980s, our newspaper in Central Florida had a page where local poetry was published. (This became unthinkable just a few years later, as paper became more expensive and print space more valuable.) Much of it was risibly bad -- doggerel about grandmothers and kittens -- but it was democratic.

I suppose nowadays, with the rise of the Internet, we could argue that more poetry is published than ever before, though how much of it is being read is probably questionable.

Gioia doesn't mention rap music in his essay, perhaps his main failure. (Granted, when it was written, rap and hip-hop were not as mainstream as they are now.) Regardless of how we feel about rap, it qualifies as poetry, with its rhymes, rhythms and assonant and consonant language. In fact it's exactly the kind of poetry Gioia wants, freed from the halls of academe.

I haven't written my own poems in ages. (This might be the last one, from 13 years ago!) And I have to confess I rarely read it -- I do have books by some favorite poets that I get out now and then, but I almost always blow past the poems in The New Yorker. I'm not sure why -- I guess there's just so much to consume, and so little time. When I do come across a good poem, in a magazine or perhaps on Elizabeth's blog, it hits me with surprising force, reminding me of the poet's power.

(Photo: Starlings on our bird feeder, Tuesday morning.)


  1. I don't read poetry. in fact I stopped reading a few blogs because they stopped posting anything but their poetry. I did keep up with one blog poet who only posted once or twice a week but then she started posting every day. I still check in on her blog now and then because I did like her style. but poetry for the most part doesn't do a whole lot for me.

  2. Prose can go on and on and requires very little emotional connection generally, pretty much conversational or informative- Throw in some poetry or poetic writing and it is the full meal deal!

  3. Oh, I love this post. I take a bit of offense to the assertion that poetry is sort of a mutual masturbatory thing confined to the halls of academia -- I think a lot of people who have no interest in academia (like me) enjoy and read it, but it's just not connected to commerce like it once might have been? I will chew on this for a bit -- and thank you for the shout-out. I am glad to contribute in any small way to promoting poetry!

  4. P.S. Oh, and what a perfect small poem you wrote! I think you should start posting them again! That one is so cool!

  5. I love that phrase coined in the title of this post. Poetry is so subjective, a bit like a Rorschach. We have to bring ourselves.

  6. Only last night we were joking around in our local pub, suggesting how the upstairs function room might be used. "How about poetry readings?" I asked. Leeds Mick snarled, "I hate poetry!" I found this wryly amusing as I wrote my first poems at the age of seven and I am still writing them in my early sixties. I wouldn't wish to intellectualise my reasons for creating poems overmuch - it is just something I have always done. They tend to surface like fish... almost in spite of me.

  7. As I red your post I kept thinking are we going to hear about songs and rap. You finally got there. The writer has a very narrow definition of poetry. However, I don't read much poetry.

  8. I do not seek out poetry but some that I've stumbled on or been introduced to by bloggers takes my breath away with its beauty and/or truth. It's always nice to find a good one.

  9. I don't actively seek out poetry either but I love each and ever poem that Elizabeth posts.
    Oh. I remember those poetry pages in newspapers. Yes, they were terrible poems. But sweet. I think the Apalachicola Times may still publish a locally written poem now and then.

  10. Ooh very nice poem! I've lost my muse - haven't written anything decent in years. Sigh. I think one reason I quit is that I noticed that I wasn't much interested in reading other peoples' poetry, so why should I throw mine out there?

    P.S. ANOTHER man named Dana. What the heck. ;)

  11. When I was a kid, all the women's magazines carried poetry as filler, and you could find it tucked in a space here or there, all through the magazine you were reading. Most of our best poets, from Millay to Frost to Sandburg, appeared, at one time or another, in magazines. Then one by one these markets dried up, and little magazines took over. The only people who read them were other poets, and yes, Gioia is right, it's a closed circle now. Academe has won.

    I see that now if you pay a reader's fee they will read (and probably reject anyway) your poem, after maybe a two month wait. I'd say that's the death knell for accessible poetry, either published or read.

    The good poets are still out there, but less and less accessible. Kinda sad, isnt it since we had poetry as the written word long before we had prose...