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?

  1. That child’s poem doesn’t just beat Carson’s work, it beats much of the things I’ve read/written over the years (emphasis on what I’ve written). Just incredible.

    • Turner

      I think another problem for poetry these days is that it has become almost strictly lyric, that is, private and inward-looking. Poets like to write about their often quirkly little worlds, stressing their idiosyncracies, their separation from others.

      Maybe what we need is a more public poetic voice, one which speaks to our common experience rather than one which celebrates the merely private.

      Form isn’t all that important. Some of the best poets I know are formalists and some of the worst I know are free-formers. And vise-versa.

      By the way, back in the 70s, I worked in a free school in Santa Cruz. Could that have been the one you referred to?

      • lizard19

        I think it’s silly for any poet to “pick” one or the other. I like writing in different forms and free verse and see no reason to limit myself by aligning with any of the schools of thought. good poetry is good poetry.

  2. Big Swede

    Yes it matters.

    Especially to Carlos Machado, his 15 year old twin brother and father who died in a hail of bullets from Che’s firing squads in the field in which they farmed.

    • mr benson

      “He looked a lot like Che Guevara, drove a diesel van
      Kept his gun in quiet seclusion, such a humble man
      The only survivor of the National People’s Gang
      Panic in Detroit, I asked for an autograph
      He wanted to stay home, I wish someone would phone”

      One of my favorite Bowie lyrics. Not too introspective.

      “When you say “Dylan” he thinks you mean “Dylan Thomas” whoever he was…”

  3. Pronghorn

    Turner said: “Maybe what we need is a more public poetic voice, one which speaks to our common experience…”
    That would be Robert Frost, for one.

    Two young friends (in their 20s) were married 7 weeks ago and “The Master Speed” was read at their wedding. “The Gift Outright” at JFK’s inauguration. “The Road Not Taken” as a poem many Americans cite as their favorite.

    Nearly a decade ago in a professional development workshop for English teachers, an interpretation segment using “The Road Not Taken” was presented. I could hear a couple other teachers scoffing at the poem (and Frost) for the simplicity of it all–the rhyming, the meter, the subject matter–they likened it to a Walmart poem (readily accessible to the unwashed masses, I guess). They wanted to sound oh-so-sophisticated, but they were fools.

    I’ve used “Nothing Gold Can Stay” to teach an intro to poetry for 8th grade on up–simple meter and rhyme scheme and many poetic elements–great for teaching. But then I asked, “Is it true that nothing gold can stay?” and was blown away by the insightful answers I got from 8th graders. (S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders,” which 8th graders like a lot, contains a character who loves this poem.)

    I prefer Wordsworth, Yeats, Shakespeare, et al. (and Frost) to modern stuff I don’t get, that looks like prose broken up randomly into lines and called ‘poetry.’ But Frost–“Two Look at Two” and “A Minor Bird”–I’ve had these same experiences. And the imagery in “Bereft”–if you’ve even felt abandoned and utterly alone, read this poem and then tell me that Frost hasn’t captured something intensely personal and universal.

    • lizard19

      Ha! Frost is great, and dark, darker than he is given credit for. I don’t know where this notion that poetry has to be difficult comes from. a lot of contemporary poetry seems to try way too hard to be clever, obtuse, obscure, and unnecessarily referential. part of that comes from either insecurity, or having nothing of substance to say. some of it, though, I do like, even if I don’t “get it.” I will be writing, at some point, about surrealism, which I’m sure will illicit lots of “huhs.” more later.

  4. The Polish Wolf

    “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.”

    I think the same could be said about most modern scholarship, as well. Ever wonder why almost all of our artists, literary figures, and scholars are liberal, and yet our country remains conservative? It’s not because artists and scholars lean left by definition, far from, many of them were the first on the fascist bandwagon when that was cool. It’s because they are all talking to each other, and mostly to themselves, fostering resentment or at least frustration from the population at large. Paul Simon and Bob Dylan have not yet found their proper spiritual descendants in the world of poetry for all.

    • lizard19

      i think most artists who are worth anything have already moved beyond the political binary of liberal/conservative, and campuses are not as uniformly liberal as conservatives would like to think, like the rabid myth of a liberal-biased media.

      • The Polish Wolf

        The problem is that those who have moved outside the binary do so by disregarding society itself. Art references art theory, scholarship references scholarly theory, literature references literary theory, and not a one of them makes a serious effort to interact with society at large. To be fair, I have never bought in to art for arts sake, so I’m a bit biased, but over the last four years I read a lot of scholarship and a lot of literature, and no matter how brilliant, little of it seemed capable of really connecting with society as a whole, and much of it inspired frustration or straight up disgust from those not well-read in modern humanities theories. When almost everyone in the world has either a gun or a ballot, you can’t afford to rely on rhetoric that appeals only to the elites.

  5. Big Swede

    Free Verse? Is that what Yoko is doing?

    I’m thinking John shot himself.

    • there you go again bs. saving me a lot of work in my tireless effort to expose the far right as selfish, ignorant and evil.
      you do such a fine job of it, i can sit back,sip a 7&7 and pay out more rope….. thanks.

    • lizard19

      swede, allow me to select a poet who even you might be able to relate to. it comes from his book entitled Pieces of Intelligence compiled and edited by Hart Seely. can you figure out who it is?


      You saw what happened in Afghanistan:
      The people went out in the streets,
      And they were joyous
      And they had balloons
      And they played music
      And they welcomed the U.S.
      Because everyone knows
      The United States doesn’t want to occupy Iraq.

      well, that was unintentional poet and former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, and he composed that particular gem on December 4th, 2002, in an interview with Al Hayat LBC TV.

      check out his book, swede, it’s awesome.

      • mr benson

        There once was a lib from Missoula,
        Who said, “nobody’s as progressive as me!
        Obama’s not really,
        a lib like yours truly,
        And he went and he moved out to Cuba!’

        • lizard19

          thanks mr. b. i figured it was just a matter of time before you started writing me poetry. you’re making me blush. here, let me reciprocate.

          there once was a man from Montana
          who sang capitalist hosannas
          but the economy crashed
          and he lost half his ass
          and no longer thinks i’m bananas

  6. CFS

    I would hope that poetry has more of an impact than what we do.

    • lizard19

      it’s all about language, CFS, and how we value the linguistic currency we use to transmit our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of the world we live in. poetry, at its best, enriches language. at its worst it becomes jingles for tv ads.

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