Dana Gioia’s Defenders of the Modernist-Romantic Tradition

As Reviewed By: Sunil Iyengar

Can Poetry Matter? by Dana Gioia. 10th anniversary edition. Graywolf Press, 2003.


In an introductory note to his first poetry collection, The Rage for the Lost Penny (1940), Randall Jarrell declares: “‘Modern’ poetry is, essentially, an extension of romanticism; it is what romantic poetry wishes or finds it necessary to become.” Two years later, writing forThe Nation, Jarrell elaborates that “the change from romantic poetry was evolutionary, not revolutionary.”[private]

Modernist poetry-the poetry of Pound, Eliot, Crane, Tate, Stevens, Cummings, MacLeish, et cetera-appears to be and is generally considered to be a violent break with romanticism; it is actually, I believe, an extension of romanticism, an end product in which most of the tendencies of romanticism have been carried to their limits.

The essay is “The End of the Line” and it in turn anticipates Jarrell’s remarks in praise of Robert Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle (1947).

Mr. Lowell’s poetry is a unique fusion of modernist and traditional poetry,
and there exist side by side in it certain effects that one would have
thought mutually exclusive; but it is essentially a post- or anti-modernist poetry, and as such is certain to be influential.

In all these excerpts, Jarrell implies that modernist poetry has hit an impasse. Critic-poet James Longenbach’s Modern Poetry After Modernism (1997) traces the genealogy of the word “postmodern” in Jarrell and his peers, noting that “Jarrell is unsure here if the right word would be anti-modernist or post-modernist, unsure if those two words mean different things.” Longenbach quotes John Berryman writing a year later that “Randall Jarrell…has described Lowell’s poetry as ‘post-modernist’; and one certainly has a sense that some period is drawing to a close.”

For a short while, Jarrell believed that modernism’s natural successor was an aberration, W.H. Auden. (“His true ancestor wasn’t the Tradition, but the particular elements of it most like himself.”) Auden could be but a tentative heir-apparent, however, “because, very partially and uncertainly, and often very mechanically, he represents new tendencies, a departure from modernist romanticism.” Lowell, by contrast, was able to fuse the “semi-imagist modernist organization of poetry with formal tradition.” Consequently, he was judged by Jarrell to be more “properly postmodern” than Auden, Longenbach writes.

All this talk of modernist romanticism as a Tradition that went underground for a time to resurface with Robert Lowell- it rapidly becomes meaningless unless one draws parallels. “The End of the Line” charts 13 symptoms of romanticism and modernism, which, according to Jarrell, herald the culmination of both movements. Here are four of his examples:

1) A pronounced experimentalism: ‘originality’ is everyone’s aim, and novel techniques are as much prized as new scientific discoveries. Eliot states it with surprising naiveté: ‘It is exactly as wasteful for a poet to do what has been done already as for a biologist to rediscover Mendel’s discoveries.’ [Eliot’s line recalls, uncharacteristically, Philip Larkin’s view that “poetry is not like surgery, a technique that can be copied; every operation the poet performs is unique, and need never be done again.”]

2) External formlessness, integral disorganization: these are justified either as the disorganization necessary to express a disorganized age or as new and more complex forms of organization. Language is deliberately disorganized, meter becomes irregular or disappears; the rhythmical flow of verse is broken up into a jerky half-prose collage or montage.

3) A great emphasis on details-on parts, not wholes. Poetry is essentially lyric: the rare narrative or expository poem is a half-fortuitous collocation of lyric details. Poetry exploits particulars and avoids and condemns generalizations.

4) Modernist poets, though they may write about the ordinary life of their time, are removed from it, have highly specialized relations with it…. Contemporary life is condemned, patronized, or treated as a disgraceful aberration or special case, compared to the past….

The correlations between modernist and romantic poetry may not be so striking now as when Jarrell’s essay appeared in 1942-Longenbach points out that critical works such as Frank Kermode’s Romantic Image (1957) would later “popularize the argument.” Nevertheless, the relevance of Jarrell’s list is borne by several essays in Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter?, the 10th anniversary edition of which appeared in 2002.


The publication of his title essay in the April 1991 issue of the Atlantic Monthly“generated more mail than any article the Atlantic had published in decades,” Gioia fairly boasts in the 2002 edition. “What was unusual was that they were overwhelmingly positive.” The author notes that two other essays in the collection “had previously attracted widespread notice-‘Notes on the New Formalism’ and ‘Business and Poetry.'”

Gioia is, to quote his Wall Street characterization of Edmund Wilson, “a capable analyst of literary trends.” It is unsurprising, therefore, that Gioia should have caused a stir with those earlier essays lamenting poetry’s marginalization by academics, unimaginative publishers and-blasphemy of blasphemies-the poets themselves. Less obvious at the time was Gioia’s endorsement of a select cadre who carried forward the modernist-romanticism banner in a way that would have appeased Jarrell himself.

To Gioia, the case of Weldon Kees represents both the problem of contemporary poetry and its solution. There is rebuke in Gioia’s essay, “The Loneliness of Weldon Kees,” which concludes: “He is the poet our age deserves-whether we want him or not.” Discussing the posthumous fate of this “poet’s poet,” who disappeared in 1955, leaving behind an oeuvre that would later be assembled by Donald Justice, Gioia is elegiac, but unapologetic.

Perhaps fame in the old sense is now meaningless when discussing literature. Poetry has its own audience, which, though small, is also enduring, miraculously managing to renew itself each generation. While poets lack the wide-reaching fame that the mass media can bestow, they can win, however slowly, a lasting place within a smaller, more discerning circle. The fame or obscurity of a contemporary poet can therefore be judged only in relation to this specialized audience.

If Kees’ fate is obscurity, Gioia observes, that is despite the poet’s attempts to integrate popular culture and conversational idiom into his verse. The virtues Gioia ascribes to the poet, his “speed and grace,” his “straightforwardness” and “novelist’s eye for his subject”-all those traits may be said to have eluded most of Kees’ modernist forebears.

At the same time, Gioia makes clear that Kees’ compelling expressions of contemporary angst would be impossible without those illustrious antecedents. “The style he had inherited from Eliot, Auden, Joyce, and Baudelaire was adequate for the nasty business he had to perform.” What distinguishes Kees from a mere imitator, however, is his acceptance of the “alienation and vacuity” of contemporary life. Unlike Eliot, for example, Kees “did not transcend the problems of his century with a religious or political faith. He did not elude the vulgarization of public culture by immigrating to an aesthetic realm.” In this vein, Kees offers an antidote to one of the 13 symptoms Jarrell diagnosed in modern poetry, where “contemporary life is condemned, patronized, or treated as a disgraceful aberration or special case, compared to the past.”


Kees might be considered to exemplify the traits of his chief enthusiast Donald Justice, whom Gioia celebrates in “Tradition and An Individual Talent.” Justice, according to Gioia, “has shown that Modernism remains a living tradition for artists strong enough to approach it with imagination and independence.” Certainly, one of Justice’s most enduring faculties is his ability to appropriate texts and verse forms and create art that is allusive, yet entirely self-sufficient. Gioia identifies these qualities more with classicism than with romanticism, but wherever they arise, they perform “an important critical function in evaluating the heritage of Modernism…. His achievement has been to synthesize the diverse strands of Modernism into a powerful, new classical style.”

Justice’s accessibility, like his textual appropriations, would seem to run counter to modernist expectations. “Originality is, after all, America’s one strict tradition.” By dignifying himself with rhyme, meter and narrative content, however, Justice is offering a way out of another impasse Jarrell met in modernism: “A pronounced experimentalism [where] ‘originality’ is everyone’s aim, and novel techniques are as much prized as new scientific discoveries.”


“What use is poetry that cannot speak to its contemporary audience without the support of intermediary prose?” Gioia exclaims at the end of an essay ironically titled “The Successful Career of Robert Bly.” At the heart of this appeal for accessibility is the sanity and commonsense of a journeyman critic and former Kraft VP, one who is capable of acknowledging: “Poetry is only one part of life…. There are some things more important than writing poetry.”

Embedded in this statement is a morally charged assumption. It aligns with 17th-century humanism, with Dr. Johnson and Alexander Pope, and thus is as far removed from the fractured consciousness of romantic or modernist theory as one can get. Even the full-time writers Gioia lauds are those who engage in “personal development,” or with social and political issues, using the tools of modernist romanticism, rather than relying on lyrical prowess alone. Gioia’s admiration enfolds such diverse figures as Robinson Jeffers, Howard Moss, Vietnam-era Robert Bly, and Elizabeth Bishop. Yet his unreserved praise goes to writers whose lifestyles recognize the subsidiary role of art, and who are as loth to compromise on their principles as on their poetry. “Everyone enjoys stories of double lives and secret identities,” Gioia notes. “Children have Superman; intellectuals have [poet-insurer] Wallace Stevens.” Elsewhere, Gioia salutes poet-banker T.S. Eliot, “that rarely successful creature, a bourgeois artist determined to lead a responsible life….”

“There are some things more important than writing poetry.” Once poets accept this proposition, they are willing to take risks. Rather than aim for perfection in the lyric or epic, they can pursue narrative verse of “middle length,” Gioia suggests, reminding us of The Canterbury Tales and Robert Browning’s monologues. “American literature needs a more modest aesthetic of the long poem,” he writes, speculating that such efforts eventually can stray into subgenres-science fiction, adventure, or a good old-fashioned detective story. Gioia’s advice offers a corrective to yet another shortcoming Jarrell saw in modernist romanticism: “Poetry is essentially lyric: the rare narrative or expository poem is a half-fortuitous collocation of lyric details.”


Agenda-setting falls squarely within the modernist romantic tradition-think of Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads or Ezra Pound’s Imagist manifesto. Gioia closes his essay ‘Can Poetry Matter?’ with six “modest proposals”:

1) When poets give public readings, they should spend part of every program reciting other people’s work.
2) When arts administrators plan public readings, they should avoid the standard subculture format of poetry only.
3) Poets need to write prose about poetry more often, more candidly, and more effectively.
4) Poets who compile anthologies-or even reading lists-should be scrupulously honest in including only poems they genuinely admire.
5) Poetry teachers, especially at the high-school and undergraduate levels, should spend less time on analysis and more on performance.
6) Finally, poetry and arts administrators should use radio to expand the art’s audience.

Ten years on from Gioia’s original publication, where are we? Number Six is gratified by Garrison Keillor and “The Writer’s Almanac.” Progress on One through Five is less certain, particularly the stipulation that poets read works of other poets at public venues. Virtually absent from Gioia’s essays are poetry websites, public campaigns such as poetry on the subways and in the Yellow Pages, refrigerator magnet poetry, and geopolitical events after Sept. 11, 2001. The asymmetry of that last sentence-yoking populist movements with acts of terrorism-betrays the vulnerability of literary criticism that seeks too earnestly to salvage theories for poetry from the rubble of pop cultural phenomena. Those connections are tenuous at best, and it is a virtue of Can Poetry Matter? that Gioia clings to the poems themselves. His modernist-romantic poets provide a durable etiquette-a continuum of autonomous art that is nonetheless attuned to social responsibility. Can Poetry Matter? answers its own question with some of the best examples contemporary poetry has to offer, and Gioia, current chairman of the National Endowment of Arts, can be expected to further their inclusion in our collective canon.[/private]

About Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar, a poet, writer and editor in Washington, D.C., is a board member of the American Poetry & Literacy Project. His essays and reviews have appeared in Verse, The American Scholar, New York Times, Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle.
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