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Dana Gioia and the Role of the Poet-Critic

Posted By Garrick Davis On March 6, 2003 @ 5:02 pm In Interviews | No Comments

Interviewer’s Note: Born in Los Angeles in 1950, Dana Gioia attended Stanford University and did graduate work at Harvard where he studied with Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Fitzgerald. He left Harvard to attend Stanford Business School. For fifteen years he worked in New York for General Foods (eventually becoming a Vice President) while writing nights and weekends. In 1992 he became a full-time writer, and in 1996 returned to California. Gioia has published three books of poems, Daily Horoscope (1986), The Gods of Winter (1991), and Interrogations at Noon (2001), which won the American Book Award. He is also the author of Can Poetry Matter? (1992). He has edited a dozen anthologies of poetry and fiction. A prolific critic and reviewer, he is also a frequent commentator on American culture for BBC Radio. 

This interview was conducted in the fall of 2002 before Dana Gioia was nominated to be Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. At Mr. Gioia’s request, the Contemporary Poetry Review has delayed publication until his confirmation by the United States Senate. (On January 29, 2003, Mr. Gioia was unanimously confirmed to be the new Chairman of the NEA.)

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Garrick Davis: When did you begin writing criticism? 

Dana Gioia: I began writing criticism for my high school paper-reviewing music, books, and films. In college I wrote for The Stanford Daily, mostly about music, and I edited Sequoia, the campus literary magazine. Ironically, I only began publishing literary criticism regularly when I was in business school. For two years I wrote a long piece on poetry or fiction every two weeks in The Stanford Daily. The editor gave me complete freedom, so I was able to review what interested me most–an invaluable circumstance for a critic. Consequently, I wrote on serious writers like Vladimir Nabokov, Eugenio Montale, Ezra Pound, Constantine Cavafy, Anthony Burgess, and Seamus Heaney. Like many young writers, I educated myself in public.

GD: Did you see criticism as an inevitable task—an obligation—of your poetry?

DG: For me, it was inevitable. Criticism seemed the most natural activity imaginable. I loved books and enjoyed talking about them. Why not open up the conversation by bringing it into print? Criticism is not only a fascinating enterprise in its own terms. It also helps a young writer understand and refine his or her own sense of the art.

GD: What do you think the role of the poet-critic should be? 

DG: The poet-critic plays a crucial role in modern literary life, especially during times of artistic innovation or cultural stagnation. The critic creates the perspectives and standards by which new work can be understood and judged. “Poets are the antennae of the race,” Pound asserted–meaning that poets notice cultural change earlier than their fellow citizens. That ability explains the importance of poets writing criticism. They observe changes in the art, the audience, and the culture before non-artists do. They also write about their art with the passion of personal commitment.

GD: What modern critics or poet-critics do you consider exemplary in this regard?

DG: I have always been drawn to poets who were active and versatile men of letters. My exemplary poet-critics would include T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden, and Paul Valéry—each a great poet as well as a great critic. They are my intellectual patron saints. Other important poet-critics for me are Jorge Luis Borges, Randall Jarrell, Yvor Winters, Kathleen Raine, Donald Davie, and William Everson. There are also some poets like Robert Frost and Robinson Jeffers who wrote very little criticism but nonetheless left a few extraordinary essays. 

I must also mention the special case of Thomas Merton, a minor poet who became the most significant Catholic religious writer that America has produced. His books and essays on the contemplative life are also very much about the poetic imagination. Finally, I would add that several novelists are central to my canon of exemplary critics. George Orwell is the greatest of these. He has been an indispensable guide. I also owe debts to D. H. Lawrence and Anthony Burgess.

GD: Do you see your own criticism as that of a poet’s, partial and dogmatic, or an ideal reader’s? Is there a vital link between your own poetry and prose?

DG: I try never to be dogmatic or partisan in my criticism, though I cannot help being personal. If a critic tries to ignore his or her own personal reactions, all that is left is ideology. Emotion, imagination, and intuition can be useful tools in criticism as long as they don’t overwhelm intelligent observation and analysis. Art is about specifics, not abstract categories. Good critics respond to their subjects with the fullness of their humanity.

I divide my critical prose into two categories–literary journalism and serious essays. The journalism I try to make intelligent, interesting, and accurate. It is usually written to a set length–say 1000 or 1500 words–for a particular journal like The Washington Post or San Francisco Magazine. Journalism usually assumes a particular audience. I am writing in such cases according to someone else’s rules. 

My essays, however, are written according to the dictates of my own imagination–in my own way and to my own length. Here I try to use all of my resources as a writer. Nabokov asserted that there was no essential difference between poetry and “artistic prose.” I tend to agree. There is little meaningful difference between my best discursive prose and poetry. In my essays I worry about sound, tone, mood, imagery, and rhythm just as I do in my poetry.

GD: What do you think of the present situation of poetry? Of its current health as an art? 

DG: The art of poetry is reasonably healthy at present. Unfortunately, most of the machinery of literary culture–criticism, scholarship, anthologies, journals, prize committees, and the like–has broken down. As a result, the best new poetry no longer necessarily gets identified and brought to a wider audience. It gets lost in the clutter of Po-Biz. Art is an affair of individual genius and a passionate dedication to the highest standards. It is not an affair of institutions and ideologies.

GD: What do you think of the present situation of poetry criticism?

DG: Poetry criticism is currently in dreadful shape. Most of it is dull, timid, and unoriginal–badly argued and indifferently written. No wonder few journals publish it, and so few readers pay it any attention. The situation makes it difficult for critics, especially young critics. There are now very few places where someone can write seriously about poetry for the general intellectual public.

GD: If one compares the poetry criticism written in the first half of the 20th century to that written in the second half, there has been a marked deterioration. What caused this decline? 

DG: There has been an indisputable decline in the quality and importance of American poetry criticism over the past century. There are probably several reasons. First, the clustering of poets in the academy created a narrow professionalism. Too many critics feel it is proper to write only for one another. That may be an adequate aim for scholarship but not criticism. Second, the general press has largely abandoned the coverage of poetry. This retrenchment meant that it was no longer easy for non-academic critics to play an active role in the art. It also hampered the necessary conversation–and debate–between academic and public criticism. Third, I suspect that there is also an obvious practical reason no one wants to admit–the lack of major talent. Why would any first-rate literary talent continue writing poetry criticism? The audience is tiny, divided, and unappreciative. The venues are few and unremunerative. When someone first-rate comes along like Clive James, Paul Fussell, or John Simon, they often gravitate toward popular culture-areas that will provide a living and some notoriety.

GD: Is there some way to account for the fact that the majority of American poet-critics have been, and continue to be, politically conservative? From the New Critics to the New Formalists many of the important poet-critics have been denounced for their political allegiances as much as their aesthetic ideas. 

DG: Critical excellence has less to do with political ideology than intellectual independence. The best criticism tends to come from dissenters–poets who reject the prevailing opinions. Since the intellectual mainstream of the twentieth century was progressive, indeed often revolutionary in its worldview, it is not surprising that the most provocative critical writing would challenge those assumptions. Archibald MacLeish, for example, perfectly reflected the progressive liberal establishment of his day, and his criticism is invincibly dull and intellectually complacent. By contrast, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Allen Tate, and Marianne Moore (not to mention the extreme example of Ezra Pound) were political reactionaries, and their criticism remains profoundly vital–even to readers who do not share their politics. 

Not all of intellectual dissent, however, came from the right. The anarchistic left produced some important poet-critics like Kenneth Rexroth and William Everson. Delmore Schwartz was an independent-minded Trotskyite. (Free inquiry and disinterested literary judgment didn’t thrive among Stalinists.) It is also important to remember that some culturally conservative critics like Yvor Winters were political leftists. What matters is not political allegiance but a stubborn determination to get at the truth rather than merely acquiesce to the currently popular platitudes.

GD: What do you think of the yoking of politics to poetry, which is such a fixture of recent American poetry?

DG: To judge poetry as political speech is to misunderstand the art on the most basic level. Poetry is not primarily conceptual or ideological communication. It is a different way of knowing–experiential, holistic, and physical–that is largely intuitive and irrational. To treat poetry as political statement reduces a complex and dynamic art to a few predetermined categories. No wonder the urge to politicize art proves irresistible to the ignorant, the lazy, and the small-minded of all persuasions.

GD: Much has been made in recent years of the proliferation of creative writing programs in the United States. Do you think this academicization has had a beneficial or baleful effect on poetry?

DG: In principle, there is no reason that writing programs should be bad for American poetry. The proliferation of music programs in the U.S. has helped raise the standard of orchestral playing and broadened the access to classical music. But, for a variety of reasons, the growth of graduate writing programs has had some unfortunate effects on both American poetry and poetry criticism.

GD: What do you think of the vast subsidized system of grants, prizes, and awards that poets currently compete for? 

DG: I worry that many poets care too much about external validation–prizes, grants, fellowships, competitions, and other forms of institutional recognition. However pleasant to receive, official honors have nothing to do with the real work of an artist. Once poets start thinking about their activities in terms of institutional approval, their art suffers. 

A poet needs enough faith in his or her own vocation to work endlessly at perfecting it–despite indifference or even hostility. Think of Osip Mandelstam or Anna Akhmatova. Or, in a less dramatic way, consider Wallace Stevens or Lorine Niedecker, who toiled for decades without grants, prizes, readings, or much public recognition. Stevens was fifty-seven when he published his second book. By today’s Po-Biz standards, he was a complete failure.

GD: Which contemporary poets do you read with pleasure? 

DG: The older generation of American poets has some dazzling writers, especially Richard Wilbur, Donald Justice, Anthony Hecht, Louis Simpson, Anne Stevenson, and Adrienne Rich. I also love comic poets and children’s poets like X. J. Kennedy, William Jay Smith, Nancy Willard, and Tom Disch. (To me, it says everything about academic critics and anthologists that they usually exclude comic poetry from their canons.) There are also some lesser-known writers like Ted Kooser and Kay Ryan whom I consider important.

There are also some superb British poets who are little read in the U.S.—Charles Causley, James Fenton, Tony Harrison, Dick Davis, and Wendy Cope, just for starters.

GD: Which contemporary critics?

DG: I read many critics with profit and enjoyment. I particularly admire how the British still manage to practice serious criticism in a public idiom. I was a great fan of Ian Hamilton and was heartbroken to hear of his death. He was a brave, smart, lively critic with a wicked sense of humor. I still miss Anthony Burgess–as a critic, novelist, and poet. (His 1995 novel-in-verse, Byrne, is enormously enjoyable.) The generosity, range, and energy of Burgess’s criticism was astonishing. I wish Clive James would return to poetry criticism. Why does he waste his time becoming rich and famous on TV when he could be reviewing slim books of modern verse for tiny magazines? Among the other Brit-crits I also like James Fenton, William Oxley, and Kathleen Raine.

GD: What about American critics?

DG: Among living Americans I especially admire Donald Hall, Anne Stevenson, Louis Simpson, John Haines, and Daniel Hoffman–a rather elderly crew, I’m afraid. I wish Richard Wilbur and Donald Justice had written more criticism. The work they have published is astute and original. I enjoy Richard Kostelanetz on the avant-garde. He writes well, thinks clearly, and is enormously well informed. Jack Foley’s theoretical essays on speech and writing have influenced me deeply. 

Among non-poets I would single out Leslie Fiedler, William Pritchard, Hugh Kenner, Paul Fussell, Joseph Epstein, and Guy Davenport. These critics are skilled and inventive writers. I admire excellent writing. I find it hard to trust the critical judgments of people who can’t compose a memorable sentence.

 Not many poets of my generation have taken criticism seriously as a medium. If they have written criticism at all, they have rarely put their full artistic intelligence and energy—not to mention moral courage—into the enterprise. The deep dedication to the art itself that one saw so frequently in Pound and Eliot’s generation or Jarrell and Berryman’s seems to have largely vanished. Recently, I have been heartened to see the emergence of a few strong young critics like Christian Wiman and Adam Kirsch.

GD: Are there any books of poetry published in the last few years that you would particularly recommend to readers?

DG: I read a great many new books of poetry, but there are so many published that I have no confidence that I or anyone else really knows the best new work. If we had better critics, we might collectively clarify the situation. But we have very little informed and demanding evaluation of new work–mostly just bland patter that is hardly distinguishable from the blurbs.

Some of the old masters of American poetry are still writing well—Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, Anne Stevenson, and X. J. Kennedy. Their recent volumes are among their finest work. Such creative longevity is actually quite rare. In American letters it is quite common for writers to decline precipitously in the second half of their careers. Just look at the later work of James Dickey and Anne Sexton–or more recently Adrienne Rich and Robert Bly. Some poets, like Allen Ginsberg, had only a few good years before they fell into pretentious banality.

But you are probably more interested in less-established poets. In this regard among the best new books I’ve seen in the past decade are Kay Ryan’s Say Uncle, David Mason’s The Country I Remember, and H. L. Hix’s Perfect Hell. Each of them is radically different from the other, but each seems destined to last. It interests me how little critical attention these writers have received. I was the first person ever to write an essay on Ryan, who had by then published four books. She seems to me as good as anyone in her generation. Mason and Hix have also been shamefully neglected.

GD: Can poets regain the common readers they once had? Will poetry ever exert itself again in American culture as it did a century ago? Does criticism have a role to play in this?

DG: I doubt that poetry can ever regain the role it once had in American society. There are now too many competing forms of art and entertainment. But surely poetry could and should play a much larger role in our culture than it has in the past half century. To win back the intelligent common reader is the obvious task for the poet, the critic, and the teacher. Criticism’s role in this revival is self-evident. It must create the public conversation about poetry that will renew the reader’s curiosity and interest in the art.

GD: Do you think your criticism has hurt the reception of your poetry? 

DG: I have been the victim of my own success as a critic. I maintained a balanced reputation between my criticism and poetry until the publication of “Can Poetry Matter?” The international controversy caused by that essay—and later the book—quickly changed my public image. I went from being known as a poet who wrote criticism to a public intellectual. That situation was reinforced by my slowness in finishing my third book of poems. Interrogations at Noon (2001) did not appear until ten years after The Gods of Winter (1991). I risked a great deal by refusing to publish a new book of poems until I was sure of the work. Luckily, the book won a major prize–the American Book Award—but I am still in the process of reasserting my identity as a poet.

GD: Have your reviews cost you anything?

DG: The candor of my criticism has cost me a great deal. A number of influential poets have made no secret of their anger at particular reviews, and they have been assiduous in their attempts at revenge. No poet in my generation has been attacked in print as often or so ferociously as I have. I reconciled myself to this situation years ago. I knew that unless I gave up reviewing, I would win no major prizes, no fellowships, no residencies, no swank invitations from the establishment. So I stopped worrying about such things. I took myself out of the running for external rewards. I apply for nothing and expect nothing. I make my living as a writer and seek no institutional support whatsoever. It is a small price to pay for the freedom to write honestly.

GD: The title essay of Can Poetry Matter? received the most attention, but there are other pieces in the book which have had a lasting influence, since they significantly altered the critical opinion on their subjects. Your essays on Weldon Kees and Robinson Jeffers have helped to revive interest in these underappreciated poets, while your retrospective on Robert Bly seems to have initiated the decline in his reputation.

DG: I have tried to write essays that have something new to say—pieces that might make a difference. So much literary criticism merely repeats the current consensus. I am particularly proud of having written the first full-length essay on Weldon Kees (as well as the first essay ever on Kay Ryan). I have probably helped change critical–though not yet academic–opinion on Kees and Jeffers. I’ve also helped build the reputations of Ted Kooser and Kay Ryan. At the very least I have helped increase their readership, or so people tell me. 

I fear my essay on Bly did help turn literary opinion against him. It articulated criticisms and reservations that many other readers seem to have shared but had not yet voiced. Ever since my piece appeared, his poetic reputation has been in steady decline. Bly may be a sanctimonious goof—half shaman and half Shriner—but his heart is in the right place. He knows that literature has an essential connection to spirituality and emotional development. At the height of deconstructionism and post-modernism, he championed the ancient human purposes of myth and poetry. He also wrote one brilliant and original book of poems, The Light Around the Body. These are not small accomplishments—despite his other failings.

GD: The Preface to the Tenth Anniversary Edition of Can Poetry Matter? sounds an optimistic note on the vitality of the art, which seems at variance with the pessimism you expressed in the original introduction. How would you explain that shift in your opinion?

DG: I don’t consider “Can Poetry Matter?” pessimistic. I may have described a bad situation, but I wrote without bitterness or despair. I even outlined some measures that might correct the situation. I had an unswerving faith in poetry itself. Ten years later, it is reassuring to see that substantial progress has been made in broadening the audience of American poetry. There are still plenty of problems, but surely we can all gloat a bit at present about poetry’s renewed popularity. Isn’t it nice to have something to celebrate?


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