January 24, 2017

1. Dana Gioia

A. Introduction

Somehow I never heard of Dana Gioia until recently. Now 66, Gioia (pronounced JOY-uh) is a leading poet and poetry-critic, and he served for six years as the head of the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts).

His writing (both his poetry and his prose) is neither obscure nor jargon-filled. “My life changed for the better,” Gioia writes, “by falling in love with poetry. It made me a better student, made me a more alert human being. And I’d like to try to bring the gifts of poetry to the broadest audience possible.” Gioia’s writing has that touch of naivete/innocence that all good literature has. And it’s that touch of naivete, that enthusiastic tone, that sets him apart from the ironic, sophisticated writers at the New York Times, etc. So the Times writers criticize Gioia’s prose, and also criticize his work at the NEA. For most readers, though, Gioia’s work is a breath of fresh air, full of interesting ideas, and a good way to approach poetry.

Gioia grew up in California. His father was Italian, his mother Mexican. He attended Stanford, earned a Master’s in Comparative Literature from Harvard, then returned to Stanford for an MBA. Like Wallace Stevens, Gioia went into business rather than academia. For fifteen years, he worked for General Foods (marketing Jello, etc.), while writing poetry at night.

Gioia’s early poems, published in magazines like The New Yorker, were well-received. His first volume of poetry was Daily Horoscope (1986). Gioia is sometimes called a member of the New Formalist movement, which uses traditional techniques such as rhyme and meter.

D. H. Lawrence called his native Nottinghamshire “the country of my heart.” Gioia might say the same about California. Gioia’s poem “California Hills in August” describes the difference between a native’s love of a landscape and a non-native’s reaction to the same landscape. “California Hills in August” has a Zennish appreciation of a particular place in a particular season. Gioia’s poem “Planting A Sequoia” deals with sorrow and loss in an understated way. His poem “The Lost Garden” has a moral/philosophical theme: accepting the past, “wanting nothing more than what has been.”

Gioia was trained in music, collaborates with musicians, and wrote three opera libretti. In addition to poems, Gioia writes songs that have broad appeal, such as “Pity the Beautiful” (reading here):

Pity the beautiful,
the dolls, and the dishes,
the babes with big daddies
granting their wishes.

Pity the pretty boys,
the hunks, and Apollos,
the golden lads whom
success always follows.

The hotties, the knock-outs,
the tens out of ten,
the drop-dead gorgeous,
the great leading men.

Pity the faded,
the bloated, the blowsy,
the paunchy Adonis
whose luck’s gone lousy.

Pity the gods,
no longer divine.
Pity the night
the stars lose their shine.

Gioia won a National Book Award for a poetry-collection called Interrogations at Noon (2001). His latest book of poetry is 99 Poems: New & Selected (2016). Gioia has also edited anthologies, put together textbooks, made translations, and delivered a TedTalk. His 2007 commencement speech at Stanford has been called one of the best commencement speeches ever. Gioia currently teaches at USC.

Gioia wrote a short essay about how he discovered reading. He says,

No one — neither a relative nor a teacher — ever encouraged my reading or intellectual pursuits.... Toward the end of fourth grade I had one of my decisive experiences as a reader — my first great literary love affair. I came across a copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s At the Earth’s Core.... It was, I joyfully discovered, the perfect novel — brilliantly plotted and full of action. Over the next few years I read everything I could find by Burroughs.... I can’t think of better ways to learn than through pleasure and curiosity.... By the time I arrived in college, I had already developed a deep suspicion of all theories of art that did not originate in pleasure.1

Gioia reads widely, and his writing is liberally sprinkled with quotations. He quotes Wallace Stevens: “Poetry is a pheasant disappearing in the brush.” Stevens deserves immortality based on this line alone. His remark could be applied to the appreciation of nature: we often see something interesting that takes us by surprise, and vanishes in a moment. If we want to take a picture of something that intrigues us, it often disappears before we get our camera ready — it disappears in the brush. Nietzsche compared philosophical ideas to birds that flew away before he could jot them down. So while Stevens’ remark may apply to poetry, it also applies more widely, it applies to life in general.

B. The Decline of Poetry

In 1991, Gioia’s Atlantic essay “Can Poetry Matter?” received international attention, and Gioia decided to leave the business world and focus on writing. Gioia expanded his essay into a book, Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture. Hilton Kramer of The New Criterion wrote an excellent review of Gioia’s book.

Kramer says that Gioia has “an outlook on the world that is the reverse of everything we associate with the word ‘academic.’” (This sentence alone sufficed to make me a Gioia fan.) One of the “central concerns” of Gioia’s book, Kramer says, is poetry’s “loss of public status and influence.”

Few people read contemporary poetry. Longfellow was read by millions, today’s poets are read by hundreds. Longfellow’s poetry was read for pleasure, contemporary poetry is read mostly by people who are paid to read it, or by students who are required to read it.2

American poetry now belongs to a subculture [Gioia writes]. 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.

Most Americans haven’t heard of John Ashbery, a leading contemporary poet. Fewer still have read him, and fewer still have enjoyed his poetry. According to Gioia, “Ashbery is a discursive poet without a subject.... 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.” The average reader gets little pleasure from a poet like Ashbery; Ashbery doesn’t strike a chord with the general public.

Gioia criticizes Robert Bly, another prominent contemporary poet (both Bly and Ashbery are now about 90 years old). Bly rebelled against the impersonal art of Eliot, Pound, etc. According to Gioia,

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.

One might say that Ashbery’s poetry is obscure, incomprehensible, that he himself doesn’t know what it means, and that if you threw words together randomly, you could create such poetry. Two Australians tested this hypothesis by spending an afternoon throwing words together. They submitted their “poems” to an Australian literary journal, Angry Penguins. The journal not only published these poems, it devoted an issue to them, and now they’ve been anthologized in Modern Australian Poetry. Ashbery himself said, “I like the poems very much — they reminded me of my own first tortured experiments in surrealism, but they were much better.” If a hoax can be seen as modern poetry, is modern poetry a hoax?

Gioia notes that poetry has declined in popularity despite all sorts of funding, “despite huge, ongoing investments from governmental, academic, and philanthropic institutions to support the creation, teaching, publishing, discussion, promotion, and preservation of poetry.”

Like other forms of art, poetry has become politicized in our time. Gioia laments the politicization of poetry:

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.

Gioia also laments the specialization of poetry, and of art in general. He says that academia is “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.”

The public seeks pleasure from art, but academia ignores pleasure:

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.

Gioia says that,

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.

Gioia is concerned about the decline of culture in general: “We have a generation of Americans growing up who have never been to the theater, the symphony, opera, dance, who have never heard live jazz, and who increasingly don’t read.” As Kramer says, “the entire realm of high culture” is dying.

Kramer says that Gioia overlooks the importance of pop culture:

In Mr. Gioia’s discussion of these problems [Kramer writes], 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 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.

In my view, Kramer overlooks the importance of philosophy/religion. If an artist is fired up about a worldview, that may stimulate his creativity, and it may help him to focus on life rather than on technique. Conversely, if an artist lacks a worldview, that may stifle his creativity, and prompt him to focus on technique.

C. What Poetry Once Was

Gioia says,

Poetry originated as a form of vocal music. It began as a performative and auditory medium, linked to music and dance and associated with civic ceremony, religious ritual, and magic. (The earliest poetry almost certainly served a shamanistic function.) Most aboriginal cultures did not distinguish poetry from song.... Nor did the classical Greek or Chinese cultures two or three millennia ago differentiate poetry from song.3

If we look at pop music, we might conclude that poetry is still song, poetry is still intertwined with music. Bob Dylan recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Gioia quotes Ezra Pound: “Poetry withers and dies out when it leaves music, or at least imagined music.” Perhaps Dylan would ask, “Why must poetry leave music?” Gioia doesn’t attempt to distinguish “pure poetry” from “pop-music poetry.” Gioia asks, “Why is poetry so unpopular?” (as written by poets like Ashbery). But if we view pop musicians like Dylan as poets, then we might ask, “Has poetry ever been more popular?”

And Gioia doesn’t attempt to distinguish poetry from prose. He quotes Kafka: “poetry is ‘the axe to break the frozen sea within us.’” But as Gioia points out, Kafka was speaking about literature in general, not about poetry. Is it possible to distinguish poetry from prose? Isn’t it possible to write a prose poem? And isn’t it possible to write poetic prose? Isn’t all good prose poetic? Didn’t Schopenhauer say that the clearest sign of a great prose writer is his use of metaphor?

Gioia says, “There are many truths about existence that we can only express authentically as a song or a story.” But these stories may be told in prose. So it isn’t easy to distinguish poetry from prose, just as it isn’t easy to distinguish poetry from pop music. Perhaps Gioia is wise not to attempt such distinctions, wise to steer clear of semantics.

Poetry overlaps with prose, and with pop music. There are so many different kinds of poetry that it’s difficult to make any generalization about poetry; it would be like making a generalization about the weather in the United States.

Some of the best poets also wrote prose fiction — Hardy, for example, and Poe and Yeats. How would they distinguish poetry from prose? Didn’t they strive, as prose writers, for some of the same effects that they achieved in their poetry? It may even be difficult to distinguish poetry from philosophy. Nietzsche wrote some poetry, Emerson wrote more. The De Rerum Natura of Lucretius is a philosophical work in poetic form.

If we view poetry as sound, as song, as music, then perhaps we shouldn’t look for a meaning in it; perhaps it has a feeling rather than a meaning. As T. S. Eliot said, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”4 If you’re in the habit of looking for a meaning in language, it may be difficult to enjoy poetry as sound. Darwin said that poetry nauseated him, and he regretted losing the capacity to appreciate it. If we view poetry as sound, then it would seem impossible to translate; we can understand why Robert Frost said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”

Gioia reminds us that, before about 1930,

poetry permeated the culture at all levels. It was read and recited by people of all classes. They may not have admired the same texts as Ezra Pound did, and they didn’t discuss verse in the manner of T. S. Eliot, but poetry played a part in their personal formation and continued to shape their imagination....

[Poetry] was used to teach grammar, elocution, and rhetoric. It was employed to convey history, both secular and sacred, often to instill patriotic sentiment and religious morality.... It was recited by children at public events and family gatherings. Being able to write verse was considered a social grace in both domestic and public life. Going to school meant becoming well versed....

Even in the late nineteenth century, poets such as Longfellow, Byron, Tennyson, and Kipling were international figures who outsold their prose competitors.... A poet could become internationally famous through the publication of a single poem, as in the case of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” Edwin Markham’s poem “The Man with the Hoe,” which dramatized the oppression of labor, was quickly reprinted in 10,000 newspapers and magazines. Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen” gave solace to millions of mourners for the dead of World War I. Critics may denigrate these poems, but the magnitude of their reception is indisputable.

The Raven
The Man with the Hoe
For the Fallen

Around 1930, a new approach to poetry developed. Critics, attempting to analyze poems by Eliot, Pound, etc.,

developed interpretive methods as subtle as the texts they analyzed. They also disliked certain aspects of their own education in poetry, especially the sentimentality and moralizing of their Victorian-era instructors. These critics strived to create a more objective, rational, and coherent way to understand and teach poetry.5

These were the “New Critics” — Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, etc. Their rigorous methods turned the reading of poetry from a pastime to a profession, from a pleasure to a job.

Classroom instruction gradually narrowed to a few types of textual analysis.... Coursework focused on critical dissection [and] became more remote from the actual holistic, intuitive experience of poetry.... Students mastered complex strategies for analyzing an art in which they had little direct experience and less appetite.

The old approach of memorizing and reciting was abandoned.

By the time I entered high school in 1965 [Gioia writes], California teenagers were taught poetry mostly as close reading of a visual text on a printed page. We were never asked to memorize a poem. Indeed, we rarely even read complete poems aloud in class.

Gioia says that, when he taught a graduate seminar, he asked the students to memorize one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He found that none of the students “had ever been required, at any point in their education, to memorize a poem.” One student said “she had never thought of poetry as something to be spoken aloud, only something to be read silently on the page.”

A year or two ago, I chatted with a friend of my mother’s, a woman about 90 years old. Though her memory was declining, she could recite poetry, and enjoyed doing so; if I quoted the first line of a Yeats poem, she would finish the poem from memory. Clearly, this was a person for whom poetry was still a living art, a source of pleasure. I often find that people over 70 are strikingly literate, while younger people are strikingly illiterate. Mention a writer as important as Ibsen to a person of 40 or 50, and they often haven’t read any of his works — indeed, they haven’t heard of him.

Will poetry survive in a digital age, an age of e-books? Perhaps it will not only survive but thrive, as Youtube and other media make it easier to listen to poetry recitations, and easier for people to record their own recitations. When poetry is recited, and combined with visual images, it can make a powerful impression. Modern media can bring poetry off the printed page. Poetry flourished before the development of writing; perhaps modern media can bring poetry back to its oral roots.

D. On Bukowski

Two California poets that I’ve praised in this e-zine are Robinson Jeffers and Charles Bukowski. Gioia shares my admiration for Jeffers. As for Bukowski, I sent Gioia an e-mail, asking for his view of Bukowski. Gioia responded thus:

My reaction to Bukowski is simple, though it has a complicated genesis.

I grew up in Los Angeles where Bukowski had a great presence in the underground newspaper and zine world of the time. He struck me then as a sort of countercultural clown — a writer who acts a certain role in public. His popularity struck me then as an example of people wanting simple, stylish texts that do one thing clearly — the Buk’s style being down, out, and outrageous. His poetry appeared everywhere, and it was quick, journalistic, and shallow. A one-note Johnny as they used to say in jazz.

In my forties I happened to read his novel Post Office.... It struck me as very good, better than the latest Updike or Bellow — not as nuanced or complex but with more life and real energy. I then read Factotum, which was equally good. They showed a great comic talent in the picaresque mode. Ham on Rye seemed less good.... I believe the novels became less good as their author became more famous.

That brings us to the poetry. I have read through nearly all of the poetry published in his lifetime — a huge pile. It is generally no better than my original estimate, but I gradually did find a few poems that have the energy and bravado of the prose. I appreciate that he is a poet not at all interested in language, symbol, music or metaphor — the lifeblood of the art. And that neglect undermines nearly all of the poetry he wrote. Bukowski is interested in situation, story, and attitude, mostly prose considerations. In a handful of poems, however, he brings these qualities across so well that the poems, naked and shivering, survive to remind us that poetry can be born in unexpected ways.

I began including Bukowski in my anthologies about 12 years ago. The poems I reprint are generally these:

the tragedy of the leaves
my old man
eulogy for a hell of a dame

None of these are an “Ode to a Nightingale,” but they are fresh and funny and true in their way. Students like them because you don’t need much preparation in poetry to read them.

Bukowski poems read aloud

E. At the NEA

Gioia had many accomplishments during his stint as NEA chairman:

2. Ten Poetry Readings (Youtube)

Edgar Allan PoeAnnabel Lee2:18
Lewis CarrollJabberwocky
(read by Benedict Cumberbatch)
A. E. HousmanTo An Athlete Dying Young1:31
William Butler YeatsWho Goes With Fergus?0:35
Rudyard KiplingIf1:52
Robert Frost*The Road Not Taken1:04
E. E. CummingsI Carry Your Heart1:38
Elizabeth BishopOne Art
(read by James Merrill)
Dylan Thomas*Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night1:41
Charles Bukowski*Bluebird1:15

 * = read by author 

3. Ruskin

I recently came across a Ruskin quote: “Taste [is] the only morality. Tell me what you like, and I’ll tell you what you are.”8 This quote is strikingly similar to a passage in Nietzsche:

How can man know himself? Let the youthful soul look back on life with the question: what have you truly loved up to now, what has elevated your soul, what has mastered it and at the same time delighted it?9

There’s a deep kinship between Ruskin and Nietzsche; Ruskin and Nietzsche lived at about the same time, had similar personalities/lifestyles, and similar philosophic genius.

Ruskin goes on to say, “Good taste is essentially a moral quality.” Education is the forming of character — in other words, the forming of taste, the shaping of likes and dislikes.

The entire object of true education [Ruskin writes] is to make people not merely do the right things, but enjoy the right things — not merely industrious, but to love industry — not merely learned, but to love knowledge — not merely pure, but to love purity — not merely just, but to hunger and thirst after justice.... What we like determines what we are, and is the sign of what we are; and to teach taste is inevitably to form character.

Art, in Ruskin’s view, should not only give pleasure to the receiver, it should also show the pleasure of the artist; only what is created with love can be beautiful. Thus, Ruskin’s aesthetic theory is closely related to his moral theory and his educational theory.

Ruskin seems completely unaware of Asian culture, but his ideas about art are similar to Chinese ideas. The Chinese viewed art as a manifestation of the artist; Chinese critics “did not confine their attention to the art object itself, but focused it also on the painter as a man, and on the painting as a revelation of the man.”10 The Chinese respected art that was plain, bland, un-spiced, un-skillful.11 Tranquil art, the reflection of a tranquil mind.

The Chinese would say that only a good man can write good prose, or paint a good painting. Ruskin would add, “And only a good man can appreciate good prose and good paintings.”

A writer who deals with literature, film, etc. is educating, is forming taste, is shaping character. Literature and film (and other arts) should be seen as part of philosophy. Ruskin writes about art, and should be seen as a philosopher.

If Ruskin could see our society’s art, what would he say? Is anything more characteristic of our society than a corruption of taste?

© L. James Hammond 2017
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1. Burroughs wrote a series of novels featuring a character named Tarzan. Gioia takes a dim view of the later novels in this series. back
2. This is true of other branches of culture, too. For example, who reads analytic philosophy except those who are paid to do so?

Gioia quotes Robert Frost: “Why poetry is in school more than it seems to be outside in the world, the children haven’t been told. They must wonder.” Frost is an excellent wordsmith, very quotable, and Gioia quotes him two other times in “Poetry As Enchantment”:

  • “Poetry is a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget.”
  • Poetry is “a clarification of life... a momentary stay against confusion.”
3. When Yeats gave public readings, he sang his poetry. back
4. Quoted in Gioia, “Poetry As Enchantment” back
5. As this new approach was influenced by Eliot and Pound, so Eliot and Pound were influenced by the Symbolist movement of the late 1800s. According to Wikipedia, “the most important moment of Eliot’s undergraduate career was in 1908 when he discovered Arthur Symons’s The Symbolist Movement in Literature. This introduced him to Jules Laforgue, Arthur Rimbaud, and Paul Verlaine.” What Gioia says of Surrealism is probably true of Symbolism also — namely, that it relied more on imagery than on “recurring patterns of sound.” back
6. Wikipedia back
7. “Poetry Out Loud,” Gioia writes, “was a huge and immediate success.... Students actually liked poetry once they took it off the page.... Sound and performance was the right entry point into the art. The competitive format also added a special energy to the recitals. At these competitions, the students not only performed their poems, they also heard the poems recited by others. The performers and the audience were saturated in poetry sometimes for hours. The administrators and arts consultants were openly astonished by the program’s popularity.... Moreover teachers noted that the energy of the competition spilled over into the rest of the course work, as students developed an increased comfort and command of literary language.” back
8. This quote is from Ruskin’s essay “Traffic.” I read this essay years ago, made a note of this quote, but forgot it. I recently came across it on the WeeklyStandard website. back
9. “Schopenhauer as Educator,” #1 back
10. James Cahill, Chinese Painting, Preface. “Poetry and music, and later calligraphy, had long been treated in Confucian writings as vehicles for embodying one’s personal thought and feeling, for conveying to others something of one’s very nature.... The quality of a painting, said the literati writers, reflects the personal quality of the artist.” back
11. “An outward ‘plainness,’ both in subject and style, they regarded as a virtue, and their aim was to produce within this plainness something moving, subtly exciting, personal — ‘flavor within blandness,’ as Wu Chen puts it. No painter achieves this better than Huang Kung-wang. Cool and reserved, his paintings represent for the Chinese the perfect expression of an ideal scholarly temperament.” (Cahill, Ch. 10) back