In the world of American poetry, getting a call from Dana Gioia is like getting blessed by the Pope. This spring, I received that benediction when he invited me to West Chester, Pennsylvania, for the 9th Annual Conference on Exploring Form & Narrative in Poetry.
Gioia, himself a poet and critic (and now Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts), holds a rare eminence in what can only be called a cynically polite and overcrowded society. A decade ago, in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly, he blasted his fellow versifiers as upholders of a corrupt system that had made poetry irrelevant to American culture. That essay—“Can Poetry Matter?”—read like a bill of indictment that our poets have struggled to answer; it also confirmed Gioia as one of the most important critics of his generation. Like the Pope, he is not universally admired but there is no mistaking his views, and the somewhat ponderous name of his conference does not disguise its raison d’etre: form and narrative don’t just need to be explored, they need to be saved.
This belief, which was unorthodox a decade ago, is becoming more and more an article of faith among America’s poetry editors and publishers. Free verse—which might best be defined as poetry lacking rhyme or meter—has been the default style of the last few generations. Depressingly easy to write, it had become so prevalent in the late 1980’s that those who still cared about the traditions of the art joined together, and began calling themselves the New Formalists. This movement held that the public had abandoned poetry because the poets had stopped writing it; they would return when verse was verse again, and not “chopped-up prose.” With his essay in The Atlantic, Dana Gioia confirmed himself as their critical champion and standard-bearer.
Of course, that American poetry is in trouble is no longer an arguable point. For while the number of poets has increased dramatically in the last twenty years, the audience has not. In fact, the decline of poetry as a published genre, in the past half-century, has been so severe that almost every new collection must be subsidized, since a first printing rarely sells enough even to cover its production costs. This regularly occurs, despite the fact that publishers usually print a thousand copies, or less, in the first “run.” Demand, as the economists would say, has not kept up with supply.
This is not a problem that has befuddled the publishing industry as a whole—it manages to sell an unprecedented number of novels, memoirs, and self-help books every year. Bad sales are a pox peculiar to poetry, and more than one critic I know believes that most American poetry goes unread because it is unreadable. Rather than wallow in their obscurity, many New Formalists appear to yearn for the best-seller lists or, at least, what book publicists call “mid-list respectability.” It is this uncertain certainty that poetry should be more popular than it is, and shall be again, that inspires more than few to attend West Chester every year.
When I asked an old professor of mine what the purpose of the literary conference was, he retorted, “how else do poets get laid?” There is some truth to this. Such events have a reputation as groupie gatherings, where “students” pay for the privilege of having their heroes read their work. In these very short “workshop” classes, which last a few hours, writers don’t dispense honest advice so much as placate the overly earnest. They sign books, offer encouragement, and occasionally dangle the possibility of a written endorsement because no one, so the rules of protocol dictate, should pay good money to be criticized. This is not just pure diplomacy; it’s also good business. So long as the groupie goes home undiscouraged, chances are that he’ll return next year. The writers, for their part, have been all too willing to play this game. The sycophant, after all, is the only reader they have.
The West Chester Conference, by comparison, is run like a boot camp. When I received the schedule of events from the conference director, Michael Peich, I was startled to learn that the first panel began promptly at 8:15 every morning. Would anyone attend? Mr. Peich, who is also the chair of the University’s English department and one of the country’s best fine-press printers, assured me that they would. He gave me a nametag, and I wandered around. No groupies milled about. There was a minimum of fuss to be observed in the lobby.
Where were the students? I looked through the information sheets, and discovered that poets and scholars outnumbered workshop attendees. Later, when I asked Mr. Peich about this unusual statistic, he explained that, “The purpose of this conference is not to be a money-maker but, rather, a serious forum for poets and professors to discuss the art. We allow in just enough students each year to pay for the scholars’ rooms.” Throughout the weekend the poets remained well behaved, though perhaps this was to impress the august editors of The Hudson Review and The Sewanee Review with their sobriety. They all went to bed early, with the exception of a few transgressive souls who rang in midnight with beer and peanuts in the bar of the conference hotel. (One morning I saw Anthony Hecht, in slippers and robe, walking the corridors of the Holiday Inn, and was struck dumb through breakfast.)
One of the first poets that I ran into was Adam Kirsch, the precocious book editor of the New York Sun, and a former poetry reviewer for The New Republic. He, too, had been invited to attend by Dana Gioia. Kirsch, who is all of twenty-eight, resembles a less dapper T. S. Eliot with his plain black suits and his circular-rimmed spectacles. Part of the charm of such events is the dissonance between literary persona and personal appearance; you show up expecting the poet to look a certain way and you are, invariably, wrong. From a small exchange of letters, I had imagined Kirsch to be thin, blond, and slightly tan—a literate California kid. Instead, he was tall, broad, and owlish. We shook hands, talked about a panel discussion, and eagerly looked around like freshmen accidentally brought to the prom.
Quietly, guests filtered into Sykes Union Hall throughout that first day; for anyone familiar with American poetry, the lobby grew into grandeur from the afternoon well into evening. B. H. Fairchild and Rachel Hadas gathered at the coffee brewer, A. E. Stallings passed near Timothy Steele, Mary Jo Salter flitted by. William Jay Smith, an elegant man in his eighties, rested on a couch with cane in hand while Anthony Hecht, walking arm in arm with his wife, gathered brochures. Someone reported that Richard Wilbur was too sick to attend, and that J. D. McClatchy was arriving tomorrow. Everywhere, New Formalists chatted with their forebears, the generation born in the 1920’s, who had continued to write metrical verse throughout the last century.
Finally, Dana Gioia arrived as well. Dressed in khaki slacks and navy blue blazer, he checked in, trailing a small phalanx of NEA staff behind him. With a rich baritone voice, Gioia emanates literary authority almost automatically; this, allied to his air of preppy efficiency, has made him the natural leader of the New Formalists. Before he turned to writing full-time, he had enjoyed a successful career as a vice-president of General Foods and it shows—particularly in his organizational abilities. Those who prefer their poets to be Romantic stereotypes—like the drunk and awkward outcasts played by Dylan Thomas and Charles Bukowski—will probably turn cold at this new model: the poet as businessman and government official. Certainly there is nothing of the poete maudit about him. And yet it is Gioia’s abundant possession of sanity and competence that have made him such a formidable figure in American literature.
Late on Friday morning, with an audience of forty or so in attendance, Gioia handed out the Robert Fitzgerald Award to the seventy-seven year old scholar, George T. Wright. The award was designed by Gioia to honor significant contributors to the discussion of prosody—the theory and analysis of meter. He reminded the audience that no award of its kind had ever existed before. “Prosodists have largely been ignored in America, even by fellow academics, and scorned by poets. Just consider that, in the United States, there is no university that endows even a single chair for the metrical study of poetry.” Then he introduced Wright by saying, “Among other things, Mr. Wright was responsible for writing one of the finest books on Shakespeare’s meters that I have ever come across.”
Wright discussed his books, with grace and modesty, and then stood up politely when the audience applauded. He looked like a man who had spent too many years in the wilderness, and there was little doubt that he was moved by the award, and the attention. “It felt very good,” he told me later, with a chuckle. “At seventy-seven, it’s good to get any award, of course.” He had spent his career “in a corner of the profession that no one pays any attention to” but his book on Shakespeare was still in print. As for formal verse: “It’s coming back now.”
On Friday evening, a celebration had been planned for Anthony Hecht’s eightieth birthday. Hecht is one of our most respected poets, on both sides of the Atlantic, so a great deal of preparation was required for the occasion. A crowd of about two hundred filed into a nearby auditorium, and took to cramped seats. Several of Hecht’s poems had been set to music by a composer, specially commissioned for the purpose, and a baritone set about singing them, accompanied on piano. Then Gioia walked on stage and recited a poem that Richard Wilbur had written for the guest of honor. The first stanza of this birthday ballade went:
Who is the man whose poems dare
Describe man’s inhumanities,
And count our deadly sins, and bare
Such truths as cause the blood to freeze,
Yet in whose darkest verse one sees
How style and agile intellect
Can both instruct and greatly please?
I speak, of course, of Tony Hecht.
Next, J.D. McClatchy took to the podium to introduce Hecht. “The great Irish poet William Butler Yeats was known to rely on his wife’s opinion of other poets. She would read to him, and when he would ask what she thought of a particularly bad poem, she would say, ‘O Bill, that’s a lot of hot lobster.’” By that, I take it she meant something wet, tasteless, and overdone. Need it be said that nothing Anthony Hecht has ever written would strike Mrs. Yeats as hot lobster?” Then the guest of honor rose, shook hands with the younger poets seated around him, and walked on stage. He read a dozen poems, and bowed slightly before the applause. He, too, seemed genuinely moved.
As the audience walked out of the auditorium, Gioia and Peich stood at the doors while interns handed out copies of Richard Wilbur’s commemorative poem as a gift, each one printed by hand on an old letterpress. Just before leaving I asked Michael Peich how may guests he wanted at the conference next year. “This is just the right number,” he responded, “no bigger.”