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Overtures of Beauty

Poetry-making and Policy-making (Part #1)


Part C of Poetry-making and Policy-making: Arranging a Marriage between Beauty and the Beast (1993)


From within the world of poetry there are those who occasionally express concern as to whether poetry matters to those outside it. But any criticism they voice is naturally greeted by a most vociferous defence on the part of the proponents of Beauty. An early example was Edmund Wilson's Is Verse a Dying Technique? (1934). The challenge was rearticulated in Joseph Epstein's Who Killed Poetry? (Commentary, 1988). Wilson blamed historical forces, whereas Epstein focused on poets themselves, the institutions they helped create, and notably the creative writing programs. Both have been vigorously attacked by poets themselves.

Much more recently, it has been the former marketing executive Dana Gioia who has aroused considerable controversy, notably through a book entitled Can Poetry Matter? (1993). As an author of widely praised books of poems, he speaks with authority -- but from outside the academic institutional culture in which poetry currently thrives in America.

1. Challenge to the subculture

Gioia accuses poets in America of having developed into an isolated subculture content to communicate with each other. Thus: "the energy of American poetry, which was once directed outward, is now increasingly focused inward. Reputations are made and rewards distributed within the poetry subculture" (p. 2). And: "Over the past half century, as American poetry's specialist audience has steadily expanded, its general readership has declined" (p. 2)

He is often brutal in his assessment: "Like subsidized farming that grows food that no one wants, a poetry industry has been created to serve the interests of the producers and not the consumers. And in the process the integrity of the art has been betrayed. Of course, no poet is allowed to admit this in public. The cultural credibility of the professional poetry establishment depends on maintaining this hypocrisy" (p. 10). And again: "Most editors run poems and poetry reviews the way a prosperous Montana ranches might keep a few buffalo around -- not to eat the endangered creatures but to display them for tradition's sake" (p. 4)

endangered creatures but to display them for tradition's sake" (p. 4)