Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Reflecting On Can Poetry Matter?

In 1992, Dana Gioia wrote the essay Can Poetry Matter? I re-read it often, but for me, the interesting take-away was always the very end, with six suggestions to improve readings and the presence of poetry in modern culture.

They boiled down to:
1. When poets give public readings, they should spend part of every program reciting other people's work—preferably poems they admire by writers they do not know personally.

2. When arts administrators plan public readings, they should avoid the standard subculture format of poetry only.

3. Poets need to write prose about poetry more often, more candidly, and more effectively.

4. Poets who compile anthologies—or even reading lists—should be scrupulously honest in including only poems they genuinely admire.

5. Poetry teachers especially at the high school and undergraduate levels, should spend less time on analysis and more on performance.

6. Finally poets and arts administrators should use radio to expand the art's audience.
As I look back on my last ten years, I applied a great number of these principles with my peers. There were moments of effectiveness, and moments when I groan and roll my eyes from the recall. Among things I would add?

We ought to use not only radio but the internet, to expand the art, using video, multimedia and whatever methods are at our disposal. I encourage documenting multiple readings of particular poems to show the variety of ways a work can be read and how it changes within time and physical contexts.

A great deal was discussed on less criticism and more performance. This was, and should be the most controversial of Gioia's suggestions. I definitely feel all poets should hear how poems sound aloud in performance and to work on effective, masterful delivery of both their own and others works. But I also feel the present climate is lacking in poets who can effectively evaluate and critique their own work or the work of others. Effort should be made to resolve this dilemma without venture into extreme.

I know I've benefitted greatly as an artist by integrating the other arts and senses into my readings. I'll always recommend that.

Ultimately, I find myself instead citing Orwell's quip, "A poetry reading can be a grisly thing," and still hope that by a vibrant and engaging performance, poets will instead leave an audience energized and as enthusiastic about literature as we are when we create. I don't believe a poetry reading needs to be cirque du soleil, but neither does it have to be some somber sepulchre of wounded verbs, some corpse of nouns.

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