I recall exactly where I was when I read Dana Gioia’s Atlantic essay that would become the Graywolf classic, “Can Poetry Matter?” Early in the first edition he declared, “It is time to experiment, time to leave the well-ordered but stuffy classroom, time to restore a vulgar vitality to poetry and unleash the energy now trapped in the subculture.” He made it clear from preceding paragraphs that he meant the subculture of literary bureaucracy, and I was all in, as the saying goes.
I sent him a fan note and he replied. I misplaced his letter long ago, but some of it has stayed with me. He wrote of ‘’the powerful and intimate experience a great poem can give,’’ and this conviction has fueled his work ever since. Poetry as Enchantment is a case in point.
He gets off to a typically brisk start, announcing that “There is such an enormous amount of poetry criticism and poetic theory published at present that it seems impossible that any significant topic is neglected. As scholars and critics pursue the themes and theories of the moment, other subjects remain overlooked.” If this feels like a lecture, that’s how it began, delivered first in Beijing and later at the Library of Congress .
Gioia wants everyone to be as besotted as he is with poetry – the poetry he loves best, of course—and he chooses to “borrow an antiquarian term, enchantment. That very word should cause responsible readers to cringe. What comes next? A damsel with a dulcimer?” He’s responsible enough bring in reinforcement, gratefully quoting Greg Orr’s belief that “Poetry is the rapture of rhythmical language.”
The spaciousness of Gioia’s love is part of what makes it satisfying. He reminds us that poetry is the oldest form of literature, and then easily cruises to the modern and the present, first with a Robert Frost observation he rightly calls “usefully ponderable,” in which Frost called poetry “ a way of remembering.” Then he backtracks to Virgil, Milton and Yeats, and springs forward to note that Lady Gaga tattooed some Rilke on her arm. It is less dizzying than it sounds, and it makes sense for him to add that “What Plato noticed, in other words, was that poetry was a species of song. What he feared was its Dionysian enchantment,” much as some religious denominations, recognizing imaginative power, suppress some art forms . Most people who read the previous sentence should recognize the nod to Plato’s famous difficulty with poetry as practiced long ago.
In the second section of this short book, we get T. S. Eliot’s observation about Dante that “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” This can lead a novice astray unless that novice keeps listening to a line or poem until it’s absorbed, even if it isn’t fully grasped. Gioia enjoys this process, and Poetry as Enchantment is one of his ways of saying so.
He’s committed to the life of poetry for amateurs and pros alike, and scolds against pros who have “shut off parts of the consciousness to focus on only the appropriate elements in a literary text.” He’s hungry for appreciation that’s knowledgeable, but with freshness that has not been sucked out by the academy. Thus, it’s surprising that he doesn’t mention his early championing of Kay Ryan, who always enchants with impeccable technique, and has long supported poetry in less privileged settings.
Toward the end of his discussion he wonders if poetry has not been too well taught by the likes of Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks and others. The success of their “analytical rigor” had a “negative impact “ on poetry in part because it narrowed the way text was explained. He wants excitement and rigor to mix. This makes him a little apologetic and defensive at times, but its forgivable because his tone is that of a loving parent wishing better for his child. The child in this case is “generations of students.”
Gioia has always been open about his early life and its relation to poetry, and he mentions it again toward the close of his argument. He is a son of immigrants who surrounded themselves with fine poetry and he has never allowed his years of exposure to academic excesses to wound his enthusiasm.
By the end of this essay he slips into self-congratulation that would be unseemly without the backup he provides. As head of the National Endowment for the Arts, he initiated a successful program called “Poetry Out Loud,” which, though not well funded, soon had hundreds of thousands of students memorizing poetry, reading poetry out loud, and taking nourishing pleasure in their accomplishments. Papa Gioia can rest easy thanks to this, but he is unlikely to. Everyone connected to American letters should consider that a blessing.
The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking is an appalling book by James Matthew Wilson, a pained, angry man. I devote space to it because it’s a blazing example of how not to frame an argument, and how to display one’s woundedness by attempting to wound others. If you’re going to be critical of someone you obviously despise, do not be trite when you should be original. “The emperor has no clothes” is one arrow at Charles Bernstein. His third has more context but by then he’s incoherently detoured into admirable ancients. He snidely (as opposed to intelligently) dismisses language poets, and refers to Seamus Heaney, with no evidence, as a ‘’ bog-slobbering song weaver.’’ I almost gasped aloud at the way Wilson shows the late, gracious Nobel-winning poet-scholar less respect than that due a drunken busker. It’s inexcusable, but almost equally depressing is Wilson’s treatment of writers he approves of. He’s got many lists with thin explanation after long aside, as with Timothy Steele, whose formal poetry and erudite defense of the formal work of others, is a vital part of our literary landscape. Steele should receive better. So should everyone Wilson mentions in this screed.