Interviews December 2004

Poetry's Chairman

Dana Gioia, who famously pronounced poetry moribund in 1991, now heralds its surprising comeback
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book cover

Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Dana Gioia
Graywolf Press
304 pages, $16.00

Thirteen years ago Dana Gioia wrote in The Atlantic Monthly that poetry had ceased to be a part of the public conversation. All the hopeful signs—the popularity of graduate creative-writing programs, the proliferation of small literary magazines, the public and private funding available for poets—were only evidence, Gioia said, that poetry had turned in on itself. Written by a select, academic group, it was being read mainly by that same group and supported by the philanthropy of cultural institutions. Never had poetry meant so little to ordinary people, and never had there been so much of it. In "Can Poetry Matter?" (May 1991) Gioia wrote,

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. And in the process the integrity of the art has been betrayed. Of course, no poet is allowed to admit this in public. The cultural credibility of the professional poetry establishment depends on maintaining a polite hypocrisy.

In other words, when poets left bohemian squalor for the comforts of the university they compromised their artistic goals and became mere wage earners.

For all Gioia's praise of bohemia, however, he has never been a true bohemian. In the mid-1970s, after earning a master's degree in comparative literature at Harvard, he dropped out of the doctoral program to pursue another master's degree in business at Stanford. Taking Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot as his models, Gioia decided he could best support his poetry and maintain his intellectual independence as a businessman, and for fifteen years he worked as an executive at General Foods, writing in the evenings and on weekends and keeping his second career a secret from his colleagues.

After publishing many essays and two collections of poetry, in 1992 Gioia was able to leave business to write full-time. In 2003 he made what for a poet was another unusual professional choice: he accepted President Bush's nomination for the chairmanship of the National Endowment of the Arts. Last summer, under his leadership, the agency published Reading at Risk, a stark report on the decline of literary reading in the United States.

But in a new collection of essays, titled Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture, Gioia describes a poetic resurgence. New popular forms of poetry (rap, poetry slams, cowboy poetry) have sprung up organically outside the university and throughout the country. Literary bookstores with cafés and reading series have given writers and readers communal spaces to compete with the English-department lounge. And the overabundance of credentialed creative writers has begun to trickle out into the general public, invigorating independent literary culture. If Gioia's book does not make it entirely clear how all these innovations interrelate and what they foretell, perhaps this is because it is too soon to know.

Dana Gioia is the author of three books of poetry, Daily Horoscope (1986), The Gods of Winter (1991), and Interrogations at Noon (2001), the last of which won the American Book Award. His 1991 Atlantic essay "Can Poetry Matter?" elicited more than 400 letters from readers and was included as the title work in Gioia's first collection of essays, published in 1992.

I spoke with Gioia by telephone on October 6.

Joshua J. Friedman


Author photo
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Dana Gioia

 

Your office tells me that as a federal appointee you're not permitted to promote your new book, Disappearing Ink, in this interview.

That's correct. Disappearing Ink is the last of the books whose manuscripts I submitted before I took office.

Has becoming a political figure meant giving up a certain amount of personal freedom?

Without any question. I hesitated to take the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Arts for several reasons. First and foremost, I knew that I would not have time to write seriously while I was in office. I also knew that I would not be able to engage as actively in literary life as I wanted to, not only in terms of publishing and promoting my own books but also in commenting freely on the literary scene. I now have to be very conscious that any personal opinion I might offer could easily be construed as an official position of the National Endowment for the Arts.

An opinion on a poet, say?

On any subject regarding the arts. In Dante's Inferno, sinners are punished symbolically according to their vices, and I think that it is a particularly Dantescan punishment for a critic as outspoken as myself to be under a gag rule, more or less, during my chairmanship. But I also think it's the right thing.

You've argued in more than one of your essays that poetry criticism today is suffering as much as poetry itself—that poets need to recommit themselves to writing honest criticism if the culture of poetry is to be revitalized.

No art exists in isolation from the rest of the culture. I think it's a mistake to see poetry as an art based solely on the creative imagination of individuals. Poets exist in a culture, and their talent is nurtured, promoted, and preserved by editors, critics, scholars, and teachers. Walt Whitman once said that to have great poets we need great audiences, too. I think that is absolutely true. So I feel that the health of American poetry depends not only on poets, but on readers, critics, editors, publishers, and teachers. We can't foster creativity in isolation, so at the Endowment I'm trying to nourish the entire ecosystem of culture.

Through Operation Homecoming, for example?

Operation Homecoming is an unprecedented literary enterprise. We've put together a distinguished cross-section of American writers—novelists, poets, historians, biographers, and journalists—and they're conducting writing workshops for the troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. These writing workshops are also available to the spouses of the troops. (And remember, this is probably the first American war in which a great many enlisted women have served.)

This program is important in several ways. First of all, it provides opportunities for these servicemen and -women to gain some clarity at very crucial points in their lives. So in human terms, I think it has an enormous benefit. In historical terms, we are creating a written archive of the war—not as it is represented by politicians or journalists, but as it is recorded by the individuals who experience it firsthand. And in literary terms, I think we'll discover some excellent new writers who might not otherwise have the chance to develop their talent.

Moreover, I believe the program has a broader cultural significance in that it creates a conversation between writers and troops that would not take place otherwise. This is one way of breaking down the many divisions that exist in our culture. I don't mean only political divisions but also the professional, cultural, and class barriers that still exist in the United States. So I hope that in some ways the program will be as important for the participating writers as for the troops.

The barriers you speak of are ones that exist not only among writers, but also among their audiences.

Exactly. At the beginning of the twenty-first century we live in the most highly specialized society in human history. People know enormous amounts about a single subject but have very little commerce with the culture at large. Certainly one of the powers of art is to give people of different backgrounds, professions, and life experiences a common meeting ground. That's why audience development and accessibility are important aspects of keeping the arts healthy.

This idea of accessibility ties back into the title essay of Disappearing Ink, in which you describe the emergence of oral forms of contemporary poetry that are finding popularity in America. Can you tell me about this change?

If you look at American poetry over the last quarter century, the most important trend, without any question, is the reemergence of popular poetry. I think it's noteworthy that this is a trend that contradicts the predictions of academics and that has flourished virtually without commentary by our most established critics.

Why is this?

The emergence of the new popular poetry has happened entirely outside of established literary culture. It happened among inner-city African-Americans in the case of rap, among Western agricultural workers in the case of cowboy poetry, among the inebriated of all races and classes in the case of poetry slams, and among academic outcasts in the case of New Formalism. So you have the emergence of a sort of poetry that is written not for the page but for the ear. And it's pervasive.

From the archives:

"Poetry Out Loud" (March 2002)
One of the biggest changes in modern poetry is its escape from the page to the performance. By Peter Davison

What happened was very simple. Everyone noticed fifty years ago that poetry was leaving popular culture. Twenty-five years ago it was an axiom that poetry would never be popular again. That's the premise—often unspoken—of countless books and articles. What happened, however, was quite instructive. When the people lost poetry and grew apart from literary culture, they reinvented poetry for themselves. And I think that's a wonderfully inspiring and chastening development for intellectuals to consider.

What I'm most interested in doing is starting up the myriad conversations that need to take place between different parts of our society. Our writers need to be more engaged in the general culture. As I said in "Can Poetry Matter?," we live in a culture in which most intellectuals are no longer able to communicate effectively in the public idiom. American culture needs the intellectual and artistic energy of its intellectuals and artists; our culture is impoverished by the lack of it.

In Disappearing Ink you use the new popular poetry to frame your discussion of the development of contemporary poetry in general. Its existence is meant to encourage us, but you go out of your way to say that while you admire the energy of the revival, most of the actual poetry is "undistinguished or worse."

I do not believe Snoop Dogg is the new Wallace Stevens. But if you had seen the movies made in the first twenty years of cinema, you would never have predicted La Dolce Vita, The Seven Samurai, or The Godfather.

Does this mean you'd rather not make predictions of your own about poetry's future?

No. What we're seeing is the invention of new poetic forms—you might even say new poetic media. I imagine their greatest uses are still in the future. But I do believe we are seeing an enormous amount of cultural energy flowing out of these forms. Rap is the best-selling category of recorded sound in the United States, and it is, for better or worse, a fundamentally language-driven form that uses poetic technique.

This development in popular culture is leading inexorably to a change in literary culture. Young poets today look on their work rather differently from the way they did twenty-five years ago. Spoken word and the auditory shape of the poem are now central. The largest poetry conference in the United States is the West Chester Conference in Pennsylvania, which focuses entirely on poetic form. The popularity of this conference shows that there has been a change in literary culture.

What happens to books and magazines when literary culture becomes focused on the spoken word?

I've tried to make it clear in Disappearing Ink that what is happening in our culture is not a situation of either-or. Reading is not disappearing. The spoken word has not entirely replaced print. What's happening is rather more complicated. Print no longer enjoys the monopoly on information that it once had—it has now become one of several competing media. I see each of these media continuing to flourish and doing what each does best. When television appeared, the experts predicted radio would disappear. But Americans now listen to more radio than they did during the so-called Golden Age of Radio. What's happened is that radio has become specialized; it deals with music and talk because it does that better than television. Similarly, I expect print to continue doing what it does better than other media.

What concerns me, though, is the decline of active, engaged literacy in our society, which I think has nothing to do with the viability of the print medium but represents a great dumbing-down of our society. I'm not someone who would look passively at the decline of reading as a cultural inevitability. The decline of literacy in our society is a function of compounded failures in education, the media, and literary culture itself.

Is it within your power as the chairman of the NEA to do something about all this?

My power as chairman of the NEA is a tiny thing in a society as large and complex as America. What I can do is try to create an informed concern about the decline of reading, and I hope that the NEA can create a few model programs that will demonstrate how these alarming trends can be arrested or reversed. If we manage a few effective programs of broad reach, I hope that other individuals and organizations will follow suit. The most important thing right now is not to accept the decline of literacy as an inevitable cultural trend and to recognize why active, engaged literacy is fundamental to a democratic society. We need to create the society in which we want to live. Anything less is unworthy of this country.

You were a businessman for fifteen years, and you've written that the poet in business is misunderstood by his peers in both professions—"doubly dismissed." Now that you're in Washington, how are people treating you? Do they know what to make of you?

I'm not your typical chairman of a federal agency. I suspect most people in Washington look on me as an anomaly. I hope they consider me a benevolent rather than an alarming anomaly.

Joshua J. Friedman is the managing editor of Boston Review. He is a former staff editor of The Atlantic Monthly.
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