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Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and…

Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture

by Dana Gioia

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I just finished Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture (1992/2002) by Dana Gioia.

Anybody who reads contemporary poetry or even is thinking about reading contemporary poetry should read the title essay, conveniently available at this link [PDF].

Gioia starkly outlines an artistic field that has decayed. There are more schools, magazines, grants, and awards than ever for working on poetry in the USA, but American poets mainly write elliptical, egotistical lyric poems, and honest appraisals of poetry are almost impossible to come by.

Gioia lays out a solemn decree to write good poetry criticism, and makes good on it in the fourteen pieces that follow. He gives elegant readings of poems, particularly when it comes to favorites like Robinson Jeffers, Weldon Kees, Howard Moss, and Donald Justice. These are all really important discoveries for me. Donald Justice, for example, generates poems out of previous poetry, including nursery rhymes as in "Counting the Mad:"
This one was put in a jacket,
This one was sent home,
This one was given bread and meat
But would eat none,
And this one cried No No No No
All day long.

This one looked at the window
As though it were a wall,
This one saw things that were not there,
This one things that were,
And this one cried No No No No
All day long.

This one though himself a bird,
This one a dog,
And this one thought himself a man,
An ordinary man,
And cried and cried No No No No
All day long.
The explanation for this poem is quite basic, but it's still fun to hear Gioia say it: "The harmless market-day adventures of five childlike pigs become a nightmarish tour of an insane asylum."

Equally fun are the withering, but balanced, critiques of James Dickey's collection Puella, Margaret Atwood, and especially Robert Bly:
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. Morever, these are not accidental faults. They are consequences of his poetic method and they are exacerbated by his didactic impulse.
In other short pieces on the long poem, new formalism, business and poetry, Gioia strays too much from reading poems, revealing a tendency to repeat himself. Even still, Gioia's essays are as clear as SAT reading samples, each with an easy to grasp thesis.

I want to write like this, making clear, reasonable claims about the directions of art, with incisive readings of poems guiding my way.
1 vote phramok | Aug 25, 2006 |
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