On Poetry And The Academy

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I’m going to start by saying that I don’t read a lot of theory when it comes to poetry–I tend to get annoyed with the holier-than-thou tone of a lot of critical writing, essays that end up so far removed from the original subject matter that ultimately what is said could be in reference to any situation or details disdained.  But I recently had a birthday, and my grandma gave me a collection of critical essays entitled Can Poetry Matter?  The collection is built on its title essay, which has a lot of points I generally agree with.  Dana Gioia makes plenty of convincing arguments therein that I fully agree with, most of them about how poetry’s shift from the artistic community to the academic community has institutionalized the art.  In my favorite moment, he diagnoses why this shift is dangerous:

Today poetry is a modestly upwardly mobile, middle-class profession—not as lucrative as waste management or dermatology but several big steps above the squalor of bohemia… The campus is not a bad place for a poet to work. It’s just a bad place for all poets to work. Society suffers by losing the imagination and vitality that poets brought to public culture. Poetry suffers when literary standards are forced to conform with institutional ones.

Unfortunately, he contradicts himself in a later essay, “Notes On The New Formalism,” claiming that the dearth of formal training evident in contemporary poetry has caused a generation of poets unaware of how their work sounds aloud, and wholly ignorant of how ugly their verse is.  His argument attempts to impose the institutional view of poetry–poems as rigidly organized syllabic structures instead of intuitive art objects–on a world where free verse reigns supreme, and has since the modernists he so lauds.

When Gioia speaks about free verse as the death of attention to sound in poetry, I get uncomfortable.  Not just because it seems hopelessly reductive, but because free verse, by its very nature, is the most democratic of poetic forms.  One need not have any kind of formalized poetic education in order to write a successful free verse poem.  There is no rhyme scheme to memorize, no feet to count out, no binding metrical pattern to organize the writing.  Because of this fluidity, free verse can be used by any person to enter the world of poetry.  It is how I fell in love with the medium.  It is the bridge poetry has into the layperson’s world, the one Gioia so craves in Can Poetry Matter?, where the academic guardianship of poetics acts as an affront to all things holy about being a poet.

In the same way that Gioia abhors the idea that poets must teach to eek out a living, I abhor the idea that a poem must be written in recognizable metrical pattern or formal structure for it to be well-crafted.  Full disclosure: this difference of opinion is likely owed to the fact that I cut my teeth in the spoken word community.  This happenstance is what inspires my biggest issue with Gioia’s reasoning; “Notes On The New Formalism” claims that poets have lost track of the importance of the sounds of words in their work.  He assumes no one reads their work out loud.  He could not be more wrong.  The proliferation of poetry readings in every major city I’ve ever visited makes him a liar.  The rampant popularity of slam poetry among young poets makes him a liar.

It is fully possible that a lot has changed in the poetry world since Gioia first penned his essays.  But what is more likely to be the case is that the poetry community exists in deeply divided factions.  Poetry’s most visible home has become college campuses, without a doubt.  Poets, more now than ever, make their living teaching.  Despite this change in the way poetry fits into our culture, it can still be found outside of the academy’s sphere of influence, and thus, outside the rules the academy has for what makes a poem.

I was in New Jersey this past weekend and ended up in a dive bar for drinks with a few close members of my family.  After the atrocious cover band finished up their last set, the bartender put on a hip-hop mix that was mostly Lil Wayne songs.  My uncle said, “You hear patterns in this, don’t you?” and we got into a discussion about the literary devices at play in contemporary hip hop.  I thought of a poet I know who structures poetry workshops for kids in juvenile detention around Lil Wayne songs.  That’s definitely not what Gioia was thinking of when he begged for form to be taught to budding poets, but I think it speaks to all of the roads we can take and still end up with a poem.