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Originally printed in Poetry Review (U.K.), Spring 1992.

Hearing from Poetry's Audience

by Dana Gioia

NO ONE EXPECTED the huge response that "Can Poetry Matter?" generated, especially not its author. I wrote the essay to address -- as directly and candidly as possible -- the increasing cultural isolation of American poetry. Although I did not set out to provoke controversy, I knew my criticism of the institutions which dominate the poetry subculture would prove unpopular in some literary circles. Institutions -- be they military, medical, corporate or cultural -- do not welcome outside criticism. The editors of The Atlantic Monthly had warned me to expect angry letters from interested parties. When the hate mail arrived, typed on letterheads of various university writing programs, no one was surprised.

What did surprise both the Atlantic editors and me, however, was the enormously positive reaction the article created. As soon as "Can Poetry Matter?" was published, the responses began. Letters poured into The Atlantic, copies of which they shipped to me in thick bundles. Other mail came to me directly or through my publishers. Reporters phoned at the office for interviews. Newspaper and magazine articles appeared. Radio producers asked me to discuss the article on the air. Friends phoned with anecdotes about the article's impact. Strangers called to ask advice. And for months the mail continued. Eventually I received over 400 letters from Atlantic readers. They were overwhelmingly favorable. Many of them felt I had not gone far enough in criticizing the inbred nature of the poetry world.

I experienced my 15 minutes of fame with mixed emotions. I was flattered by the magnitude of response. I had hoped my article would initiate fresh discussion about the problems facing American poetry. The newspaper clippings, which friends sent me, indicated that writers and readers across the country were heatedly debating the issues I had raised. Although some academic poets dismissed my analysis categorically, it was clear that the rest of the literary community took the article seriously, even if they disagreed with particular points in my argument. What better response could an author want?

Yet, as each new bundle of responses arrived, I grew more depressed. The letters came in three familiar varieties -- favorable, unfavorable, and incoherent -- but, though they differed in tone and intent, together they formed an alarming map of American literary culture. Reading through them each night after work, I realized that the poetry world was even more divided than I thought. Virtually all of the unfavorable mail came from Creative Writing professionals. Composed in the key of outraged virtue, these letters made three assertions: first, American poetry had never been healthier than today; second, poetry was thriving in the university, and, third, except for poets themselves, few people in America had ever cared much for poetry. I had expected the first two assertions. Examining the self-serving assumption behind those comforting clichés had been the point of my article. The third assertion, which appeared in dozens of letters, however, astonished me. Several letters mentioned Emily Dickinson as an example of the poet's position in America before university writing programs began. Her example is inspiring, but it hardly typifies poetry's historical position in American society. How had the assumption that poetry never mattered originated, especially among academics who should know some literary history? Had they never read about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's international fame? The Courtship of Miles Standish sold 15,000 copies on its first day of publication. Did they not know how John Greenleaf Whittier had helped inspire the Abolitionist movement? His poems were not only memorized but set to music as hymns. He even had a town named after him. Had they never heard that James Whitcomb Riley was so popular that his birthday became a state holiday in Indiana? During Riley's final illness, President Wilson sent anxious inquiries about his condition. President Theodore Roosevelt not only reviewed E. A. Robinson's poetry; he also obtained him civil service sinecure in the Wall Street Customs House. Robinson's later books attained the best-seller list. After publishing Fatal Interview in 1931, Edna St. Vincent Millay developed such a large audience that she was hired to deliver a series of poetry readings on commercial network radio. Carl Sandburg was asked to address a joint session of Congress. Robert Frost spoke at a Presidential inauguration. One could cite dozens of other examples.

Only the amnesiac can claim poetry was never popular in America. From the days of Bryant and Emerson, it played an important role in American intellectual life -- until recently. Surely it was critical for contemporary poets to understand how its position had become marginal. To rationalize away poetry's current isolation by pretending it had always been ignored revealed a depressing brand of intellectual complacency.

Reading the many supportive letters and articles did not especially cheer me up, but they did teach me a great deal about the remaining non-academic audience for poetry. Isolated and disenfranchised, poetry's common readers still exist. I heard from hundreds of these refugees -- teachers, retirees, librarians, lawyers, housewives, business executives, ranchers, and reporters, all of whom care passionately for poetry. The emotion in their letters took me by surprise. They feel alienated from what they see as a self-enclosed poetry world, and they are angry at the university for sequestering poetry. I was also astonished to discover how many readers -- and journalists -- still resent modernism (which they also associate with the university) for killing the traditional kinds of poetry they enjoy. Naïvely, I had thought the battle for modernism had been fought and finished fifty years ago. What affected me most was the tone of hopeless resignation in many letters. Americans had stopped reading poetry, they confided, and little could be done to remedy the situation. A particularly memorable letter came from a woman in Oregon. She wrote about how important the poems she knew by heart were to her daily sanity. She could not understand why her son cared so little for poetry. She knew he was typical of his generation and worried that something spiritually important was being lost in our society. I wrote her an inadequate reply and mused at how, in different ways, hundreds of other letters echoed her concern. The image of these people sticks with me. They represent a large audience which is slowly dying from neglect. Some experts claim this audience no longer exists. Soon perhaps it won't.

I feel that one reason "Can Poetry Matter?" had such a strong impact was that I wrote the article not as a poet or critic but as a reader of poetry. Jorge Luis Borges once confessed that he thought of himself first as a reader and only then as a poet or writer of fiction. A writer's loyalties must lie with literature, not merely his or her own ambitions. I conceived of "Can Poetry Matter?" as a non-partisan analysis of poetry's current dilemma. I tried as much as possible to suppress my personal poetic agenda and discuss my frustrations and aspirations as a reader of poetry and poetry criticism. Of course, my detractors will claim otherwise, and they may indeed notice biases to which I myself am blind. Dana Gioia the reader cohabits the same skull as Dana Gioia the writer. But I take it as a good sign that several poets with whom I am often grouped by critics became angry with me because they felt the piece did not put forth a particular agenda. One long-time friend denounced me to my face because the essay did not offer New Formalism as the cure to the ills of American poetry. A few weeks later a bitter enemy wrote me a long fan letter. Disinterested criticism, I discovered, makes strange bedfellows.

I learned one other thing from the reception of my article. When a piece of writing gains enough notoriety to create controversy, the responses it generates often have little to do with the original text. The author has struck a nerve, usually by examining an issue others have ignored or distorted. When all the repressed energy is suddenly released, it takes its own shape. For most respondents the text itself is merely a point of departure. Reading the various articles and editorials inspired by "Can Poetry Matter?", I was interested to see how often I was invoked to support an idea I disliked or to condemn a notion I endorsed. This can be either amusing or annoying. The important thing is to step aside and let the ideas pursue their own dialectic. The culture is now at work, and the author has become only one of the spectators.

Dana Gioia's essays and criticism have appeared in many periodicals, including The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, and The New Yorker. He is a translator and anthologist of Italian poetry, including the Mottetti of Eugenio Montale (Graywolf, 1990). Mr. Gioia is also the author of two books of poetry, Daily Horoscope (Graywolf, 1986) and The Gods of Winter (Graywolf, 1991). His May 1991 article in The Atlantic Monthly became the title essay of his book Can Poetry Matter? (Graywolf, 1992).

Copyright © 1992 by Dana Gioia. All rights reserved.
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