October 26, 2002
THE GENERAL THEORY OF POETRY'S RELATIVITY:Can Poetry Matter?: Poetry has vanished as a cultural force in America. If poets venture outside their confined world, they can work to make it essential once more. (Dana Gioia, May 1991, The Atlantic Monthly)
In art, of course, everyone agrees that quality and not quantity matters. Some authors survive on the basis of a single unforgettable poem--Edmund Waller's "Go, Lovely Rose," for example, or Edwin Markham's "The Man With the Hoe," which was made famous by being reprinted in hundreds of newspapers--an unthinkable occurrence today. But bureaucracies, by their very nature, have difficulty measuring something as intangible as literary quality. When institutions evaluate creative artists for employment or promotion, they still must find some seemingly objective means to do so. As the critic Bruce Bawer has observed,
"A poem is, after all, a fragile thing, and its intrinsic worth or lack thereof, is a frighteningly subjective consideration; but fellowship grants, degrees, appointments, and publications are objective facts. They are quantifiable; they can be listed on a resume."
Poets serious about making careers in institutions understand that the criteria for success are primarily quantitative. They must publish as much as possible as quickly as possible. The slow maturation of genuine creativity looks like laziness to a committee. Wallace Stevens was forty-three when his first book appeared. Robert Frost was thirty-nine. Today these sluggards would be unemployable.
The proliferation of literary journals and presses over the past thirty years has been a response less to an increased appetite for poetry among the public than to the desperate need of writing teachers for professional validation. Like subsidized farming that grows food no one wants, a poetry industry has been created to serve the interests of the producers and not the consumers. And in the process the integrity of the art has been betrayed. Of course, no poet is allowed to admit this in public. The cultural credibility of the professional poetry establishment depends on maintaining a polite hypocrisy. Millions of dollars in public and private funding are at stake. Luckily, no one outside the subculture cares enough to press the point very far. No Woodward and Bernstein will ever investigate a cover-up by members of the Associated Writing Programs.
The new poet makes a living not by publishing literary work but by providing specialized educational services. Most likely he or she either works for or aspires to work for a large institution--usually a state-run enterprise, such as a school district, a college, or a university (or lately even a hospital or prison)--teaching others how to write poetry or, on the highest levels, how to teach others how to write poetry.
To look at the issue in strictly economic terms, most contemporary poets have been alienated from their original cultural function. As Marx maintained and few economists have disputed, changes in a class's economic function eventually transform its values and behavior. In poetry's case, the socioeconomic changes have led to a divided literary culture: the superabundance of poetry within a small class and the impoverishment outside it. One might even say that outside the classroom--where society demands that the two groups interact--poets and the common reader are no longer on speaking terms.
We mentioned earlier in the week that Mr. Gioia was being nominated for chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. He's best known for this essay which is terrific.
Posted by Orrin Judd at October 26, 2002 11:45 AM