Book Review: “Can Poetry Matter” by Dana Gioia

This is the fifth book review in the series “Poets on Poetry.” Reviews of books in this series can be found at “Poets on Poetry.”

Dana Gioia began his literary career as an outsider. Like two poets he admires – Wallace Steven and Ted Kooser – Gioia did not follow the usual route into poetry. He did not get an MFA. He did not get a university job teaching writing.  Rather got an MBA from business school and headed out into corporate America.

This different road-taken influences his poetry and his critical eye. It gives him ever the soul, ear, and eye of the literary outsider. It is his great strength as a critic and the place he stands in his poetry.

The advantages of the establishment poet are obvious – a network of friends and colleagues to promote your work, more direct avenues into publishing, an outwardly intellectual and literary milieu – and yet there is a sense by many of us that poetry has become increasingly a hollow thing without real substance. Gioia points to an alternative to the literary establishment, which like all establishments inevitably rots from the center outward. Poetry has become marginalized in our culture because it has largely been removed from our true public squares into the ivy-covered courtyards and sterile classrooms of universities where it is dissected and studied and taught… a lifeless, soulless body now in pieces on a slab.

According to my usual notes on the inside front cover, I first read Can Poetry Matter? in the spring of 1997. In 1997, I was still a young man in my mid 30s and still doing the at-home dad thing and freelancing. I still remember the joy of finding someone else thinking of poetry in the same way I was. Saying things that I was saying and writing. It was like finding a kindred soul

I open the volume and look at lines I highlighted and underlined almost 15 years ago :

“We have an odd situation: although more bad poetry is being published now than ever before in American history, most of the reviews are positive. Critics say, “I never attack what is bad, all that will take care of itself,”…but the country is full of young poets and readers who are confused by seeing mediocre poetry praised, or never attacked, and who end up doubting their own critical perceptions.” (cf. quote from Robert Bly from book introduction)

“The purpose of poetry is to contribute to man’s happiness.” (cf. quote from Wallace Stevens from book introduction)

“Poetry teachers, especially at the high-school and under-graduate levels, should spend less time on analysis and more on performance. Poetry needs to be liberated from literary criticism. Poems should be memorized, recited, and performed. The sheer joy of the art must be emphasized.” (cf. book introduction)

“Ultimately the mission of the university has little to do with the mission of the arts, and this long cohabitation has had an enervating effect on all the arts but especially on poetry and music.” (cf. essay “Notes on the New Formalism”)

“Jeffers wrote about ideas – not teasing epistemologies, learned allusions, or fictive paradoxes – but big, naked, howling ideas that no reader can miss.” (cf. essay “Strong Counsel”)

“[Weldon] Kee’s work demands a critic who shares his belief in the desperate importance of poetry, and most critics – both in and outside of the universities – don’t believe that poetry matters all that much to anyone’s life.” (cf. essay “The Loneliness of Weldon Kees)

“The challenge for a young poet is to reconcile the world with the imagination.” (cf. essay “The Loneliness of Weldon Kees)

“Paradoxically, the simpler poetry is, the more difficult it becomes for a critic to discuss intelligently.” (cf. essay on Ted Kooser called “The Anonymity of the Regional Poet”)

“A poet’s sense of his own direction might sharpen best if he is not forced to defend or discuss it every day in a classroom or café.” (cf. essay “Business and Poetry”)

“For some poets at least, long silences are an essential stage in their creative growth.” (cf. essay “Business and Poetry”)

“…working in nonliterary careers taught them [Stevens, Eliot, Kooser,…] a lesson too few American writers learn – that poetry is only one part of life, that there are some things more important than writing poetry.” (cf. essay “Business and Poetry”)

“There are only two ways in which a writer can become important… to write a great deal, and have his writing appear everywhere, or to write very little… I write very little.” (cf. Eliot quote from essay “Bourgeois in Bohemia”)

“Bly’s weaknesses as a translator underscore his central failings as a poet. He is simplistic, monotonous, insensitive to sound, enslaved by literary diction, and pompously sentimental.” (cf. essay “The Successful Career of Robert Bly”)

“In poetry sentimentality represents the failure of language to carry the emotional weight an author intends.” (cf. essay “The Successful Career of Robert Bly”)

“If one is prepared to approach [John Ashbery] uncritically, he is very entertaining, but his work must not be read so much as overheard – like an attractive voice talking at another table.” (cf. essay “Short Views”)

“[Jared Carter] who waited forty-two years to publish his first book must have often wondered if it was worthwhile to bide his time and perfect his craft. The answer in [his] case is an unqualified yes.”(cf. essay “Short Views”)

“…for most real poets above the age of thirty-five the strongest influence comes from their own previous work.” (cf. essay “The Difficult Case of Howard Moss”)

“A poet will be judged by his best poems because posterity will forget the others. Their power, range, freshness, and – there is no way of avoiding it – their word-for-word-perfection will determine the author’s reputation.” (cf. essay “The Difficult Case of Howard Moss”)

“‘True poetic history,’ Bloom has asserted, ‘is the story of how poets as poets have suffered from other poets.’” (cf. essay “Tradition and an Individual Talent”)

“Perhaps a poet can never know too much, but a poem can.” (cf. essay “Tradition and an Individual Talent”)

“Young writers not only need to learn their craft well. They must also shape their values and aspirations to resist the manifold temptations to write cheaply or dishonestly in the fashionable ways. They need to develop a character strong enough to withstand both failure and success.” (cf. essay “The Example of Elizabeth Bishop”)

“If poetry hoped to get at the heart of things, it needed more subtlety and precision, more openness to experience and less reliance on gross generalities…. This utilitarian aesthetic transformed poetry into a secular version of devotional verse.” (cf. essay “The Example of Elizabeth Bishop”)

“Ultimately Bishop reminded one of the poet’s duty to be true to his or her own sensibilty and experience, no matter how deeply at odds they might be with pervailing fashions.” (cf. essay “The Example of Elizabeth Bishop”)

Regular readers of MontanaWriter will recognize in these lines themes and ideas that I return to often. Looking back it is easy to see why this book resonated with me so much then… and why it still does.

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