Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Saturday, July 1, 2017

Remarks on the Grassroots Poetry Scene

Dana Gioia’s celebrated essay “Can Poetry Matter?” hit the mark squarely. The problems he outlined for the form which had historically been considered the most prestigious of arts have only intensified in the quarter century since the essay appeared. [1] Now as then the greatest sign of poetry’s pathology is simply the ease with which people can ignore it altogether. Indeed the N.E.A.’s 2008 report found that the percentage of people who had read any poetry at all during the previous year had dropped to eight, less than half what it had been in 1992, shortly after Gioia’s essay. People who are not familiar with poetry are as a result incompetent to read poems even if they should make the attempt. So the malaise of the art is bad and getting worse.

Gioia laments this loss of poetry’s social role and the diminution of its readership. Folk song remained vigorous among the poor until the advent of mass media. Among bourgeois Victorian families the reading of poetry was a common domestic amusement, and into the twentieth century verse, albeit often patriotic, religious, or sentimental, appeared commonly in general circulation magazines, even in newspapers. The loss of a shared culture may be measured by the fact that a few generations ago Edmund Wilson could publish, in a non-academic journal, an excellent essay contrasting the virtues of Pope and Tennyson. Even in the 1950s remnants of this audience survived in the readers of journals such as the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and the Saturday Review. Gioia is quite right that these educated and curious non-specialist readers have all but disappeared. [2]

He describes poetry is an art without a following, “almost invisible,” in spite of the fact that new books, journals devoted to new poetry, readings, and – most dramatically, perhaps -- M.F.A. programs have proliferated. Doubtless due to his own vantage point at U.S.C., he emphasizes the university nexus as the mechanism that keeps poetry going on life support. His assertion that the home of poetry has moved “from Bohemia to bureaucracy” (by which he means university writing programs) overlooks the huge grassroots poetry scene based in coffee houses, bars, and churches. Yet many of his criticisms are equally valid for the non-academic poetry community which lacks only the sometimes decent salaries offered writers by educational institutions. Having spent my own life in part in academia and in part in the counter-culture, I can appreciate his comments on the creative writing industry, and I feel qualified to add as well some observations on the grassroots poetry scene.

I must, of course, as Gioia did, acknowledge the limitations of these strictures. A number of the poets I hear in my area are skillful, talented, and passionate. Many others at least avoid the gaucheries I here condemn. Like Gioia my concern is not the criticism of individuals but rather the diagnosis of the state of the field. I agree, as well, that those who love poetry can only applaud the proliferation of readings in recent decades. In my region there are events nearly every day – certainly a far more active scene than any other art enjoys, yet some aspects of these community readings trouble me.

I speak here of events in cafes, bars, and churches, not at universities or such major sanctioned cultural institutions as the 92nd Street Y, Poet’s House, or St. Mark’s. While it is certainly striking that so many people consider themselves practicing poets, one sometimes wishes that their number were fewer. For years critics have observed that more people write poetry than read it, and this fact leads to a great deal of half-baked word-stringing presented as poetry. Yet people in the scene are, for good reasons unrelated to art (and in stark contrast to the rivalries so evident in academic and big publishing circles), mutually supportive; one rarely hears a word of criticism. Even reviews of small press books and very often of those from major publishers as well, are generally written by friends wishing to do a favor for friends. I have been guilty of this myself more than once and on other occasions I have been cautioned by an editor to make no negative comment. In this way marketing has displaced criticism. As Gioia said, art requires standards.

The present audience for poetry, Gioia states accurately, “usually consists entirely of poets, would-be poets, and friends of the author.” In a college setting one might add those whose profession is not composing literature but rather literary criticism, but in local readings it is very nearly absolutely true. He notes that the few essays and reviews of new poetry are overwhelmingly positive. “If,” he continues, a literary journal “publishes an interview, the tone will be unabashedly reverent toward the author. For these journals critical prose exists not to provide a disinterested perspective on new books but to publicize them.” This willful critical blindness is even more endemic in the local scene. If even national reviews and professors at prestigious institutions have abandoned “the hard work of evaluation,” this is even more the case among the micro-coteries that support non-academic readings. The accepting and supportive atmosphere at community-based readings may sound big-hearted, but it leads to careless and ill-considered art.

The ritual ratification of the abdication of value judgment is the common polite applause following every poem. [3] Though a reading resembles in part a concert in which, it is true, convention requires applause after every piece, it is also like a talk or lecture at which reactions are deferred for the most part until the conclusion.

One revealing feature of grassroots readings is the consistent inclusion of an open reading following the featured poet. The natural reason for the open reading is to bolster attendance. People are so fond of their moments strutting on stage that they attend for that reason alone with little interest in others’ work. Too often one can observe audience members apparently considering what to read, shuffling thoughtfully through a sheaf of pages while someone else is at the podium. (Unaccountably, these same people often find they must do a good deal of page-shuffling even when their turn arrives to take the stage.) Beauty must be perceived to be realized; the more people focus on themselves alone, the less art has a chance.

Producers, I fear, have a similar motive in scheduling two, three, or even more readers at once. With multiple featured readers each of whom brings friends, the audience swells. To my mind a reading is at best an opportunity to define the work of an individual through hearing a broad enough sample to see what is going on in that person’s work and to form a reasonable judgement. (Of course, there are exceptions such as collaborative work or themed readings.) One does not ordinarily go to hear three different musicians each perform briefly, or to see a triple feature of films.

Whatever one may think of “academic” poetry, and I have been a lifelong heir to the anti-academic tradition descending from Pound through Rexroth to Bly and Blackburn, it provided some peer-reviewed standards. With digital printing technology easily available to all, anyone may print books and journals at will whether they have an audience or not. The old, admittedly unfair system of prestige based on publications has been supplanted by no system at all.

I suppose I here violate, however mildly, he unspoken social code to say nothing negative. The fact is that the relations among poets are ephemeral and of little real interest to others. What matters is the work. And to me today’s poetry at the grassroots shows symptoms of malaise.

The most obvious one to me is the utter lack of melody in much of what is called poetry today. From the origins of the art, poets have created beautiful pattern of sound, using many devices including rhyme, syllable-counting, stress accent, pitch, alliteration, assonance, and the like, yet today there is often little in sound to distinguish “poetry” from prose. I still have poetry notebooks from my middle and high school years. While they may not be worthy of anyone’s perusal today, they are not filled with Angst or callow rebellion or self-dramatization or other faults typical of many people’s teen-aged years. The most common element is experimentation with form: passages in iambs, trochees, anapests, dactyls and imitations of set forms of the past. (The second noticeable element is single words I found intriguing.) The best free verse is always cadenced and rhythmic, though often in unpredictable irregular ways.

Further, the poetry of amateurs, apart from those few who identify with the historic avant-garde, is built largely of self-expression. As Gioia notes, the one-time range of poetry “which had previously been a popular medium for narrative, satire, drama, even history and scientific speculation--retreated into lyric.” Since the Romantic era, lyric means primarily the expression of solipsistic emotion. Though one’s own experiences and obsessions form inevitably an element of one’s writing, all art requires a recognition of the distancing that must occur when the actions of one’s flashing neurons is set down in black and white on a page or in ringing syllables stirring the air. The creation of something beautiful may happen rapidly for a master who has long apprenticed, but the psychic material never succeeds if unprocessed. Whenever I hear someone say that he began writing after a grave illness or the loss of a lover, I expect the worst and I am unfortunately rarely wrong. Self-expression, of course, plays a role, but it is most effective when balanced with considerations of the aesthetic values embodied in the objet d’art itself as well as calculated considerations of the work’s effect on the reader.

Were I to devise circles of hell for would-be poets, I would place among the most egregious offenders writers who expect volume to compensate for slipshod writing. There is a place for declamatory rhetoric, but when a reader announces that he will present a “rant,” I regret having left my ear-plugs at home.

I will here graciously pass over the lesser sins such as lengthy shuffling of papers at the podium or supposedly jocular self-denigration typified by those who say such things as, “I will only torture you with two more . . . no, three.” Another sin, venial if not carried to extreme, is going on too long. No reading, even by a celebrated writer, should, I think, last longer than about forty-five minutes. The acutely open ears required for appreciating live poetry become fatigued by that time. In my own practice, I would much prefer to leave people wishing for one more piece rather than reacting to sensibility overload from one too many.

I feel oddly disarmed at the close of this exposition by the fact that, unlike the more optimistic Gioia, I have no proposals to remedy the situation. While first-rate poetry might be composed at any time, to thrive the art requires a competent readership. At the present all signs seem to point in the opposite direction.

1. The essay, later the first piece in a book of the same title, was first published in The Atlantic, May 1991 and is available at http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/poetry/gioia/gioia.htm. I say nothing here of Gioia’s own work or of his larger social roles first as a marketer of Jello and later of the NEA.

2. American higher education has played a pernicious role in this decline by replacing the ideals of a liberal arts education with vocational training. Though the proper role of universities is the production of new knowledge and, incidentally, the transmission of culture and the general intellectual training of the young, these goals have virtually vanished, overrun by our culture’s principal value, making money.

3. A similar phenomenon in community classical music concerts is the practice, in my area at least, of concluding every performance with a standing ovation. What, then, can the listener do to express an extraordinary reaction?

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