Archive for September 13th, 2010

Can Poetry Matter?

by lizard

Dana Gioia caused quite a stir in the poetry world with an essay that originally appeared in Atlantic Monthly in 1991 called “Can Poetry Matter?” The basic stripped down premise goes something like this:  despite over 1,000 books of poetry being published every year, poetry goes largely unnoticed by mainstream culture…why?

Before I continue, it might help if I attempt a sort of crash course for all you non lit-majors about 20th century American Poetry.  I promise to make it as painless as possible.

In our culture’s recent history, including the English tradition it emerged from, poetry has been a very formal craft, often written in iambic pentameter.  Well, at the beginning of the 20th century a bunch of Modernists came along and changed the game, and their impact holds a cherished spot as modern myth in the halls of academia.  T.S. Eliot (with a lot of help from Ezra Pound) made the biggest splash, with his poem “The Wasteland,” but poets like William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens made lasting impacts as well.

For those in the literary “know” this period of experimentation was like a blast of oxygen on smoldering embers.  What emerged was a conscious shift (especially among post WWII poets) from the confines of formalism toward the new liberated landscape of “Free Verse.”  For example, Allen Ginsberg found inspiration in Walt Whitman’s long lines, absorbed them, then helped to howl his poetic clique, the Beats, into broad cultural prominence.  Less prominent were groups like the Black Mountain poets, who traced their artistic lineage through poets like William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson.

What this shift from Formalism to Free Verse meant back then for poets probably doesn’t seem very radical to today’s audience.  Basically the idea of Free Verse is placing an emphasis on content over form, which means, in practice, allowing content to be the driving force shaping the poem.  I could go on, but I promised to make this painless, so back to Gioia’s essay.

The reason I wanted to provide a bit more context before continuing is to highlight a lingering tension in the poetry world between formalists and free versers (think conservatives vs. liberals) that may add a little twist to Gioia’s essay.  Or may not.  Anyway, here is a lengthy quote from Gioia about the problem he sees with how the institutions of poetry have developed over the last few decades:

“The proliferation of new poetry and poetry programs is astounding by any historical measure.  Just under a thousand new collections of verse are published each year, in addition to a myriad of new poems printed in magazines both small and large.  No one knows how many poetry readings take place each year, but surely the total must run into the tens of thousands.  And there are now about 200 graduate creative-writing programs in the United Staes, and more than 1,000 undergraduate ones.  With an average of 10 poetry students in each graduate section, these programs alone will produce about 20,000 accredited professional poets over the next decade.  From such statistics an observer might easily conclude that we live in the golden age of American Poetry.

But the poetry boom has been a distressingly confined phenomenon.  Decades of public and private funding have created a large professional class for the production and reception of new poetry, comprising legions of teachers, graduate students, editors, publishers, and administrators.  Based mostly in universities, these groups have gradually become the primary audience for contemporary verse.  Consequently, the energy of American poetry, which was once directed outward, is now increasingly directed inward (my emphasis).  Reputations are made and rewards distributed within the poetry subculture.  To adapt Russell Jacoby’s definition of contemporary academic renown from The Last Intellectuals, a “famous” poet now means someone famous only to other poets.  But there are enough poets to make that local fame relatively meaningful.  Not long ago, “only poets read poetry” was meant as damning criticism.  Now it is a proven market strategy.”

To exemplify the consequence of this phenomena, I will use one of my classmates as an example.  Carson Cistulli had his first book of poetry, Some Common Weaknesses, published in 2006 with a little literary outfit called Casagrande Press.  You can see him on his book cover ready to hit a little ball with his big paddle, and read all his quirky poems here, at google books.

Some may recognize him as the skinny, sardonic guy who once worked the counter of Crystal Video circa 2002.  I remember him as a skeleton-thin, pale-skinned smartass who wrote some of the strangest yet oddly compelling stuff in our workshop, so I wasn’t surprised when I saw his book for sale at Shakespeare&Co.

I was surprised, however, to find our professor, Joanna Klink, mentioned in a smarmy poem describing different poet’s audiences (because of publisher-specific reproduction restrictions, you will have to search out the poem on the google book link I provided).  The poem is called “Different Poets’ Audience.”

The beef I have with Carson’s poem is that it’s an inside joke.  The intended audience is “people in the know,” and therefore very exclusionary.  And the fact Carson attacks, in verse, his former professor, is pretty low.  It makes me reluctant to spend any time trying to figure out what the hell Carson is conveying with the little surreal worlds he creates with his poems.

That is a major point in Gioia’s essay; that poets are only writing for an audience of poets, and that their inward obsession and need for institutional validation, reinforced with carrots like grants and career track university positions, has driven away a general readership.

Early in my post-graduate writing I decided I wanted to be understood.  I have nothing against surrealism (the poet James Tate comes to mind), and enjoy experimenting when the spirit moves me, but if I can make a poem clearer, I will.

For an entire year I facilitated a writing class of sorts at a bookstore near campus; an effort loosely tied with the Missoula Free School kids who wanted to model their free school after what was going on in Santa Cruz.  The only two people who attended the class consistently was a guy in his early 50’s who drove a delivery truck, and a guy is his late 30’s who wrote short horror stories, and decided he was going to write short horror poems for our class.

Every week we would go around and read our poems, then provide feedback.  It was great for me, because I got to develop my teaching skills, pointing out what I thought was working, and what wasn’t in their poems.  I also got to hear feedback on my work, and after every class I almost always revised my poems based on the suggestions, or points of confusion my poems created.  While I was reading my poems in this setting, these two men (and the occasional straggler who checked out the group, then never showed up again) were my audience, and their receptivity to my verse is something I took seriously.

What Gioia lays out for aspiring poets like me is a compelling argument to avoid the insular feedback loop of the American poetry industry.  What makes me a hypocrite is that I am a consumer of the very industry I am now suspicious of, and have seriously considered going back for more.

What keeps my focus outward, away from academia, is the notion that everyone has at least one good poem in them, and this is part of my spiel when I’m on my soapbox about the power of language (remember, cynics are often closet romantics).

And when I’m on my soapbox I often recite a three line poem by an eighth grade girl by the name of Aimee Rosen, which I found in a book put out in 1978 called The Poetry Connection; An Anthology of Contemporary Poems with Ideas to Stimulate Children.  In my opinion, this poem kicks the crap out of anything Carson has written in his budding literary career.


My Father was never allowed to get dirty.
Underneath he wasn’t ever a little boy.
Dad, when will you be born?

By @CarFreeStpdty

In a recent post of mine a frequent commenter and I went back and forth for a awhile about the legitimacy that cyclists have to the public’s roadways. His argument, a fairly common one, was that cyclists have no “moral standing” in wanting additional facilities because they are “freeloaders” sucking at the teet of motorists. Essentially what the commenter was expressing was ownership and entitlement… motorists pay for the majority of road infrastructure through gas taxes so they have more of a right than anyone else to use said infrastructure and freeloaders should be marginalized or required to pay for use.

Freeloaders really irritate him

So in trying to comprehend the idea of exterminating freeloaders I was just wondering how far such a philosophy should be taken using some of the below extremes examples.

WARNING: Very blunt and poorly chosen satire follows… not to be consumed by the literal minded.

  1. All handicapped persons should be made to pay directly for the installation of ADA approved facilities
  2. All renters should be banned from using 911, rather they can call the new pay-per-minute 800 number service if there is an emergency, you know… since they don’t pay property taxes that goes towards our local police force.
  3. All renters should have to buy a yearly pass from the city/county for the use of our area parks since they don’t contribute through property taxes.
  4. Homeowners assessed a tax bill to install sidewalks in front of their house will be allowed to put up a toll booth to recoup the costs and prevent freeloading pedestrians using something they didn’t pay for.
  5. Get rid of free or subsidized school lunches for the impoverished… make those kids earn their lunch, they can skip an hour of class and work in the kitchen… like they need to learn how to read anyway.
  6. All those freeloaders in jail living off the largesses of the government should be set free… let the free market decide what to do with them… posse, mount up!
  7. Fires occurring at unassessed properties will no longer be responded to

Can you, good reader, think of anywhere else we should be looking to eliminate freeloaders?

By Duganz

I have a thing for wine. It’s not that I have good taste, because I cannot tell you the difference in grape by region or picking; I cannot describe wine by its “subtle hints of mint and apple.” No.  The thing I have for wine is that it gets me drunk.

Thus I found myself in Liquid Planet on an otherwise normal Sunday morning – before the rush – buying several bottles of wine––among them a plaintive white that upon finishing this evening I threw from my deck. When I sober up I will of course seek the remnants of the label and tell you its name, because I think it tasted okay, and it went down rather well. Continue Reading »

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