The Place of Poetry in Twitterland

By Young, R. V. | Modern Age, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

The Place of Poetry in Twitterland


Young, R. V., Modern Age


Pity the Beautiful by Dana Gioia (Minneapolis: Gray Wolfe Press, 2012) Blue Norther and Other Poems by William Bedford Clark (Huntsville, TX: Texas Review Press, 2010)

IN THE TITLE ESSAY Of his 1992 collection of essays, Can Poetry Matter?, Dana Gioia observes, "American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group." The cultural irrelevance of poetry coincides with what appears to be a flourishing of all things poetical such as the world has never seen--at least in statistical terms. Nearly a thousand new volumes of poetry are published annually, in addition to the hundreds of poems appearing in various poetry journals. There are two-hundred-odd graduate creative-writing programs in the United States, and--my favorite number--they can be expected "to produce about 20,000 accredited professional poets over the next decade."

That was in 1992. The term nowadays would probably be credentialed, and there are, doubtless, even more such "professional poets." All this frenetic activity among the muses, however, is noticed almost exclusively by creative writing teachers and their students. Gioia, who once worked in the food industry, sums it up in a sly economic analogy: "Like subsidized farming that grows food no one wants, a poetry industry has been created to serve the interests of the producers and not the consumers." Things have hardly changed--they have certainly not improved--in the past twenty years.

This state of affairs Ought to be a source of alarm to anyone concerned about the intellectual health of our society. That almost none of the rapidly diminishing number of American readers--men and women who read serious works of fiction and nonfiction--also read verse is a symptom of cultural pathology. Skilled readers of verse are better readers of prose; better readers are better writers and better thinkers. They have a grasp of language that is both richer and more refined; their extended vocabulary, when it is derived from words in context, embedded in vibrant, imaginative poetry, opens up a more enlightened and concrete vision of reality. This amounts to knowledge of the world that enhances intelligence as well as moral and spiritual insight. It became clear to me how valuable reading and writing about poetry were to teaching composition only when universities stopped doing it in freshman English during the 1980s.

In view of the persisting state of affairs adumbrated by Dana Gioia twenty years ago, a review of two new books of verse, one by Gioia himself, may seem problematic. The thesis urged herein proposes a dilemma: the general neglect of these volumes and others like them is a sign of serious educational decline and cultural malaise; the appropriate answer to this deterioration in the intellectual and aesthetic tone of our society is, however, to read these books.

Put in these terms, reading poetry sounds like a duty or a chore. It might more profitably be compared to dancing: the waltz and the fox trot are far more delightful ways of keeping fit than exercise machines, but dancing must be learned, indeed, mastered. This is hardly a novel idea: "True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, / As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance." Pope may as well have said "reading" as "writing," since the quoted work is An Essay in Criticism rather than an Ars Poetica. Poetry keeps the mind agile precisely because it requires the reader to do something, to engage the text attentively--critically in the sense of exercising judgment--by attending scrupulously to every nuance of meaning in each word.

Consider, as an example, "The Seven Deadly Sins," from Dana Gioia's Pity the Beautiful:

Forget about the other six, says Pride.
They're only using you.
Admittedly, Lust is a looker,
but you can do better.

It may be helpful first to notice what this poem is not: there is no "confessional" revelation of the poet's long antagonism toward "Daddy" in the manner of Sylvia Plath, no brooding over his addictions as Robert Lowell so often does. …

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