Dana Gioia is a poet, essayist, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts – and a former vice president of marketing for General Foods (now part of Kraft). In 1991, while he was still helping sell Jell-O (a brand he is largely credited with reviving), he wrote an article for The Atlantic entitled “Can Poetry Matter?” which caused something of an uproar in the poetry world.
Gioia argued that poetry had been captured by academia and had become disconnected from its reading public. Poetry was in danger of becoming irrelevant to anyone except poets who were increasingly the people who taught poetry.
Yes, he was a published poet, but he was also a business executive. Worse, he was a business executive who could write a well-argued essay about literary culture. And his analysis was largely correct, which might explain some of the outrage that followed.
The outrage came from academia. But something quite different came from the reading public, and especially the serious reading public – the people who read poetry, serious fiction, criticism and essays and live and work outside universities. They agreed with Gioia, and they, too, said poetry was no longer important to either American culture or American literary culture.
Gioia’s argument was not new; in “Can Poetry Matter?” he pointed out that Edmund Wilson had expressed similar sentiments in the 1930s and Joseph Epstein in the 1980s. What was new was a rather direct frontal attack on the poetry establishment, an attack that spilled over into the public consciousness. And he pointed to the proliferation of poetry journals, readings and events that were happening outside of “established” poetry.
Ten years later, in a revised collection of essays, he reiterated the point he made in 1991 and pointed to the internet as an additional phenomenon underscoring the divide between the academy and the reading public, who was taking poetry online. (In the decade since, the rise of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other social media have done even more to make poetry “public.”)
Gioia didn’t simply complain about the state of poetry; he suggested six actions poets could take to move poetry out of academic circles and into the minds of the reading public – the audience that had been largely abandoned.
1. At public readings, poets should read other poets’ work in addition to their own.
2. Poetry readings should mix poetry with the other arts, like music.
3. Poets should write prose about poetry more often, and more candidly.
4. Poets assembling anthologies should include only the poems they admire, not the poems of teachers who might require the text in the classroom.
5. Poetry teachers should spend less time on analysis and more on performance.
6. Radio should be used to expand the reach of poetry.
We haven’t talked much about this here at Tweetspeak Poetry, but our site is about more than poetry. Poetry is at the center of what we do, yes, but it’s poetry in the context of articles, features, photography, fiction, and reviews.
This approach doesn’t minimize poetry. As Gioia recognized, placing poetry in this broader context actually strengths the art, forcing it to compete in a cauldron of literary, social, and even spiritual ideas.
Tweetspeak is one small effort, although we have dreams and plans. But in its own way, it is helping to strengthen poetry by placing it in the context of literary life, and, more broadly, in the context of life.
Next week: Dana Gioia on poetry and business.
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