A review of Can Poetry Matter By Dana Gioia

The reader will not need to agree with Gioia to enjoy this book. It constitutes by the nature of its subject a wandering into both the unknown and the unknowable. But Gioia seldom goes so far into speculation that he has not something pertinent to offer.

Reviewed by Bob Williams
Can Poetry Matter?
by Dana Gioia
Graywolf Press
2002, ISBN 1-55597-370-1, $16.00, 231 pages
Dana Gioia has an ubiquitous position on the Web where his encyclopedic treatment of individual poets is often useful. He intends this book to be forthright and written in an accessible manner. For those who have the original 1992 edition, it is necessary to point out that this edition differs from it only by the addition of a five-page introduction and a few brief postscripts. The introduction measures the differences, mostly signs of what Gioia perceives as healthy progress, in the past decade.
Tacitly Gioia assumes a Golden Age from which we have sadly declined. Since all things change, it is questionable whether one can accurately assess the superiority of the past over the present. But, if the past is indeed better, it is not only poetry that has suffered. Poetry was the victim that was burned whole but the ability of distinguished prose to survive also has faltered. With that out of the way, it becomes possible to assess some of Gioia’s positions. Certainly there is something incestuous about poetry when only poets read it and they are most of them somehow tied to academic life. This is not an indication of boisterous vitality. But conversely it is not necessarily a sign of mortal sickness. It is tenable that academia occupies a more spacious area today and begins to constitute a voice with a wider constituency. It is also tenable that there have always been poetasters and the fact that today’s examples of the breed are academics is irrelevant.
Partial criticism based largely on the need not to offend colleagues is a different matter and the absence of reliable criticism -that is, critical work by writers capable of accurate description -is a serious matter. It becomes impossible to find new -or, for that matter, old -work of quality if critics will only criticize adversely when party lines are involved.
Gioia’s solutions to the feeble position of poetry involve liberation of poetry from the academic ghetto, fearless criticism and more imaginative use of available facilities such as public radio.
Why, he asks, are poets so limited in scope and form? He advances the somewhat sexist hypothesis of an eighteenth century gentleman revived to examine our poetry. Where would be the long narratives, the didactic works, satires or the epics? Where the diverse possibilities of form, meter and rhyme? It is curious in the context of epics that Gioia neither here nor in his introduction mentions Derek Walcott’s Omeros although he mentions Walcott in another relation.
The comments on the poets that Gioia describes as the pseudo-formalists are accurate and interesting. He finds their timid attempts obstacles to their often obvious talents and signs of their faulty education.
There is no tight structure in the book although the shortcomings of our culture may be regarded as a common theme. Certainly his account of the rise and fall of Robinson Jeffers makes the latter a dispiriting example of these shortcomings. And it functions as a good critic’s works should in that it makes one wish to reexamine the works of Jeffers.

From a poet fallen from popularity Gioia turns to a poet that was never popular. This is Weldon Kees. Gioia’s treatment of Kees is a model of intelligent resurrectionism. He describes Kee’s bleak view of life and his flawless command of language, a masterful vernacular in a spare and resonant form. He analyses two representative poems. In a postscript he describes the revival of interest in Kees and the failure of the academic world to take notice. (I cannot resist an irrelevant comment. Much activity of value outside the academic world now takes place and much of it is on or is facilitated by the Web.)
A poet once popular, a poet only popular posthumously does not cover all the possibilities. Ted Kooser, Gioia’s next subject, is a popular poet in the sense that his poems are direct and accessible. But he is not only a regional poet, he is a poet from a region -the Midwest -uncanonized by academic recognition, unlike the South. Gioia brilliantly presents Kooser’s ability, a freshness of perception and a celerity of presentation that engages the reader irresistibly.
“Business and Poetry” takes up a number of fascinating questions. Why, for example, in a country dominated by business, does business not provide a theme? Gioia goes on to consider the poets that were businessmen and to speculate on the differences that exist between them and poets placed within more specifically literary or (that word again!) academic situations. This essay, interesting in itself, provides a splendid introduction to the two essays that follow, both of them considerations of Wallace Stevens who was the outstanding example of the businessman that wrote poetry.
The first consideration on Stevens is a review of Peter Brazeau’s Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered. This book consisted of recollections of those who knew Stevens. It is thus an oral biography -like Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. Like it too in the unfulfilled need for a firmer editorial hand. Some of the details are startling -Stevens deathbed conversion to Catholicism, for example. The book is a major contribution on Stevens and a book necessary to anyone interested in him.
Perhaps less successful but almost as indispensable is the second book on Stevens. This is Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self by Milton J. Bates. This biography supplies the editorial need vacated by Peter Brazeau in his book and adds useful summaries of critical commentary on Stevens. Once more, the reticence of the subject prevents a full disclosure of his life, not -as Gioia points out -altogether a bad thing.
It is a natural step from Stevens to T.S. Eliot, that other major poet that was a businessman, whose published letters Gioia next reviews. Eliot is not a sympathetic figure and, although the letters spell out the course before him and the decisions that he made, he remains cold and distant, not with the reticence of Stevens but with a kind of haughty reserve.
So far the essays have followed each other with admirable logic but “The Successful Career of Robert Bly” has no special reason for being where it is except that in terms of the book’s title the author cares enough about poetry to write a lovely piece of critical invective. It is wicked fun, which is, of course, the best kind. The pleasure with which Gioia dismantles the pretentious Bly has not found its equal since the days of Dryden and Pope.
Gioia gives the reader more of his reviews. These are selections from the omnibus reviews -articles that cover a number of poets. There are eight of them in this selection. Gioia says of such reviews: “They pay miserably. And they usually attract little attention. They are, in short, the very model of poetry criticism.” In these short reviews he polishes concision to a meaningful point. I resist the urge to quote many of his sharp observations, some of them funny and some of them startlingly unexpected. John Ashbery is a good minor poet. Margaret Atwood is rich in ideas but poor in language. Jared Carter knows what he wants to say and how to say it. James Dickey’s Puella is an unqualified disaster. Tom Disch writes with verve and class. The poetry of Maxine Kumin is moving without being memorable. Radcliffe Squires’ Gardens of the World is a stunning and original collection. Theodore Weiss is a learned man who does not hesitate to display erudition. In every review, like a model critic, Gioia lets you know what the work is like.
Three longer essays study the poetry of Howard Moss, Donald Justice and Elizabeth Bishop. Although all are illuminating, they -like the review of Robert Bly -are only tenuously attached to the theme as established by the title. The subtitle, however, (Essays on Poetry and Modern Culture) becomes an umbrella broad enough to cover a great diversity of topics. I missed extended commentary on Ezra Pound. Gioia often refers to him but never undertakes a comprehensive examination.
The final essay, “The Poet in an Age of Prose,” provides a fitting close. Its title may not be altogether apt. Although our age is prosy enough in at least one meaning of that word, Gioia sees that the encroachment of electronic sources of information and entertainment has imperiled literacy itself. He notes -without perceiving the political parallel -the assimilation of dissidents into the orthodoxy of academia. The newest movement, the New Formalism, attempts to bypass the lack of traditional knowledge on the part of the selected audience, intelligent readers who have not been much taken with poetry but have no insurmountable objections to it. While impossible to dismiss the virtue of a new approach of this type, it may also be seen less favorably as a part of the “dumbing down” so prominent in our culture and time.
The reader will not need to agree with Gioia to enjoy this book. It constitutes by the nature of its subject a wandering into both the unknown and the unknowable. But Gioia seldom goes so far into speculation that he has not something pertinent to offer. Perhaps he is even better at the impertinent for he is a very amusing and often acidic author. In addition to these virtues he is also informative on a topic of great interest. This is an essential book for any reader.

For more information, visit: 
Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and…

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: