Introduction to the Tenth Anniversary Edition of Can Poetry Matter?

By: Dana Gioia

[Editor’s Note: The Tenth Anniversary Edition of Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture will be published in August 2002 by Graywolf Press. For more information concerning Dana Gioia, please click here.]

No one expected the huge response that “Can Poetry Matter?” generated, especially not its author. Although no one believes me, I did not set out to create a controversy. I was simply trying to address–as directly and candidly as possible–the increasing isolation of American poetry in our culture. On occasion I had the sense that I might be expressing an arguable proposition, but ironically those passages have been the ones to escape scrutiny. What stirred debate and even denunciation in some circles were assumptions that seemed to me utterly beyond argument–especially the notions that poetry had once been popular in the United States, that a larger and more diverse audience might be good for the art, and that contemporary poetry might occupy a meaningful place outside the university. I thought those propositions self-evident. Not everyone agreed.

[private]When the original essay appeared in the April 1991 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, the editors warned me to expect angry letters from interested parties. When the hate mail arrived typed on the letterheads of university writing programs, no one was surprised. What astonished the Atlantic editors, however, was the sheer size and intensity of the response. “Can Poetry Matter?” eventually generated more mail than any article the Atlantic had published in decades.
The letters arrived in three familiar varieties–favorable, unfavorable, and incomprehensible. What was unusual was that they were overwhelmingly positive. Hundreds of people wrote–often at great length–to express their agreement, frequently adding that the article had not gone far enough in criticizing certain trends in contemporary poetry. The responses came from a great cross-section of readers–teachers, soldiers, lawyers, librarians, nuns, diplomats, housewives, business executives, ranchers, and reporters–mostly people who were not then normally heard in the poetry world. As their testimonies demonstrated, they cared passionately for the art but felt isolated and disenfranchised from the official academic culture of poetry. An outsider myself, who worked in an office during the day and wrote at night, I felt a deep kinship with their situation. I probably learned more from those readers than they learned from me. Their comments provided clear and candid insight on the place poetry still occupied in the lives of many Americans.

For me the real response to “Can Poetry Matter?” will always reside in those individual letters, which have never entirely stopped coming. But meanwhile a larger and noisier public reaction began. Newspapers and magazines ran articles on the essay. Reporters phoned for interviews. Radio and television producers scheduled shows. The essay was reprinted, recorded, excerpted, and translated. Academic conferences offered panels to debate the essay’s assertions. Nobody wrote a song, but there was a poetry slam parody in Boston.

When the book appeared in 1992, the controversy had not yet died down, at least in literary circles, and a small battalion of critics decided to fire a few shots in this new skirmish of the Culture Wars. By then I felt quite detached from the spectacle, which I realized often had little to do with the book itself. There was even a certain pleasure in having so many distinguished antagonists. Unpopularity is an acquired taste, but it can be a practical addition to an author’s diet. “I would rather be attacked than unnoticed,” said Samuel Johnson quite sensibly. “For the worst thing you can do to an author is to be silent as to his works.”

Silence was not the fate of Can Poetry Matter? The book received an extraordinary number of both loudly negative and boisterously positive reviews–some of them longer than the title essay itself. Two other essays in the book had previously attracted widespread notice–“Notes on the New Formalism” and “Business and Poetry.” Their republication was greeted with special horror by certain critics who lamented the recent revival of formal verse and questioned the possibility that serious poets might not only survive but somehow thrive outside the academy. As the next decade would demonstrate, those two trends, however at odds with conventional literary opinion, would become indisputable facts of literary history.

When a writer publishes something that becomes famous, the only sensible reaction is gratitude. I still marvel at my sheer good luck in gaining the attention of the intellectual community. The notoriety gave me the opportunity to quit my job and become a full-time writer. But I was also grateful when my fifteen minutes of fame came to an end. By then I understood the wisdom in the reclusive Philip Larkin’s remark, “I don’t want to go around pretending to be me.” Not only is it hard work, but one constantly wishes for a better role.

Literary influence is a sloppy phenomenon. 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 work has somehow struck a nerve, usually by examining an issue others have obscured or ignored. 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. The author needs to step aside and let the public debate pursue its own dialectic. The culture is now at work, and the author has become only one of the spectators.

Can Poetry Matter? opened up the public conversation about American poetry to a large number of readers and writers who had previously felt excluded. For many, the book’s impact was as much emotional as intellectual. It gave them the strength of their own convictions–which were often utterly unlike the author’s. Literary culture is essentially a conversation. When a substantial number of new people enter the exchange–especially from segments of society not previously represented–they raise new questions that change the course of events. By critiquing the role of academic institutions in fostering poetry and insisting that contemporary poetry had a constituency outside the university, Can Poetry Matter? invited a number of new participants from all walks of life and of every literary opinion to join the conversation. Once they started talking, there has been no shutting them up. Their arrival has made the poetry scene less orderly and well-mannered–occasionally even anarchic–but it has also made it more democratic, diverse, and vital.

This line of reasoning, however, has an uncomfortable but inevitable implication. If the book’s importance was to help enlarge and enliven the public conversation about American poetry, then the vehement rejection it generated in some circles was as important and helpful as the approval it found elsewhere. Meaningful differences of opinion made the discussion more energetic and substantial. Ultimately, for the culture at large, the specific issues being debated mattered less than the unexpected fact that poetry had suddenly proved worth arguing about.

In the decade since Can Poetry Matter? was first published, the state of American poetry has changed radically. Although the university writing programs critiqued in the book remain largely the same, they have lost their monopoly on contemporary poetry because the literary culture around them has experienced a vast renewal by reconnecting poetry with a broader audience. There are now countless poetry festivals, book fairs, reading series, discussion groups, and conferences–based in the community rather than the academy. Although the state of poetry criticism and reviewing remains deplorable, it has been augmented by increased coverage in the general press. Many newspapers have begun printing poems and poetry columns. There are also numerous on-line columns and reviews. A network of local and syndicated poetry radio shows have also appeared as well as poetry segments on national shows like “Writers’ Almanac.” There is now a Poetry Book Club, and it is not unusual to find a poetry volume or anthology on the best-seller list. Audio books of poetry, which until recently were considered specialized items, are now commonly found in large chain bookstores.

Non-academic institutions now also play a larger role in the poetry world. The bookstore and public library have reemerged as centers for literary activity, especially readings and lectures. Meanwhile, older poetry organizations have developed ambitious new programs to serve a broader public. The Poetry Society of America’s “Poetry in Motion” has placed poems on buses, trains, and subways in major cities from New York to Los Angeles. The Academy of American Poets’ National Poetry Month campaign has successfully promoted events in schools, libraries, bookstores, and the media. The U. S. Poet Laureateship has gradually changed from an honorific office into an active position for promoting the art among the American population, and many states and cities have instituted or renovated laureates of their own. Meanwhile the Internet has fostered an immense amount of activity–from mainstream sites like Poetry Daily to more specialized on-line journals, literary homepages, and chat rooms. Collectively, these innumerable sites have created a new, decentralized, electronic bohemia.

Not all of these trends are entirely new, but their rapid growth and public acceptance over the past ten years has been astonishing. The sort of urban literary activity that previously existed only in exceptional places like Manhattan or Berkeley is now found in hundreds of cities across the country. It is impossible to say what role Can Poetry Matter? played in this populist renascence. Whether the book served as one of the catalysts or was merely an early manifestation of a Zeitgeist already in the making is less important than the cultural events that followed.

The main effect of this new activity has been to revitalize, democratize, and decentralize the presentation and discussion of American poetry. A skeptical critic might justifiably claim that never has so much bad poetry been presented to so many people, but that observation misses the bigger and more important fact. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a broad and diverse coalition of Americans has created a public space for poetry. This huge populist revival happened almost entirely outside the university. For the first time in half a century the academic poetry world is balanced by an equally large amount of activity in the general culture. The quality of these new enterprises is very uneven, but that is also true of most academic activity, and one can reasonably hope that competition between the two spheres will eventually make both stronger. The new populist revival is now transforming literary culture with such speed and reach that one wonders what the future will bring. It is a time of enthusiasm and experiment. No one today would dare claim that poetry is dead. The ancient unkillable phoenix has risen from the ashes and magnificently taken flight.[/private]

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