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Ode to Gioia: Writing About Poetry Done Right

Last week Aaron Haspel launched off more than a few pointedly disapproving remarks in the direction of "visceral" critics:

Of all critics possibly the most irksome is the visceral. He won't tell you why something is great, he just knows when he sees it, or more precisely, when he feels it. Along these lines we have Emily Dickinson, better-known, of course, for poetry than criticism: 'If I feel physically as though the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.' Or most famously, A.E. Houseman: 'Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that my razor fails to act.' Experience has taught me never to use a phrase like 'shaving of a morning.'
The catalyst for this outpouring of scorn was this piece by Terry Teachout, in which he describes his personal responses to a repeat viewing of choreographer Mark Morris’ dance, V. The dance is a masterpiece in Teachout’s opinion -- to his credit, he links to fellow dance critic Toby Tobias' dissenting view -- and he knows it is because he feels it to be so with such intensity:
Instead of analyzing V, I read its quality off myself, the same way you can read the seismographic chart of an earthquake and know how strong it was. Or—to put it more simply—I knew how good V was because of the way it made me feel.
Now, I tend to think that the criticism leveled at this particular piece was a trifle unfair, because Teachout really wasn’t writing a review or critical article on the dance. Rather than offering his personal, visceral response as a reason why you, the reader, should agree with his high opinion of V, his apparent intent was to make that response in itself the subject of the post, with the dance simply providing a concrete example of a work that produces that sort of response in him. As criticism, the piece is very nearly as unhelpful as Haspel says it is -- as is the entire school of “visceral” reviewing, exemplified by the avalanche of film writing each summer that describes one costly strip of celluloid or another as “a thrill ride,” as though that were a term of praise -- but it didn’t set out to be criticism. It set out to be a commentary on a blog, making it almost by definition a personal rather than a critical essay.

All this is by way of introduction to a counter-example that I have been enjoying (there, now I’m doing it too) this past week, a critical writer who manages to both convey his strong personal approval or disapproval of an artist or work and to provide concrete examples and cogent descriptions of the basis for those opinions. The subject under discussion is poetry -- which is far easier than dance to reproduce on a page -- and the writer is Dana Gioia, poet, critic and current Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Gioia’s essay collection, Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture has been republished in a ‘tenth anniversary” edition and it has been my principal non-Web reading for the past few days. In addition to the title essay, famously printed in the Atlantic Monthly back in 1991 and still available online here, the book includes essays on individual poets (subjects include Robinson Jeffers, Great Plains regional poet Ted Kooser [of whom I knew nothing previously], Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop and no less than three takes on Wallace Stevens; Robert Bly comes in for a not-entirely favorable appraisal as well) and broader issues (such as the presence or absence [nearly always the latter] of references to business in the work of poets who make a living in business [Stevens again, among others]). The essays on individual poets are particularly good at offering clear descriptions and convincing examples of the reasons that Gioia intends to praise them, none moreso than Gioia’s long consideration of 40’s poet Weldon Kees, who may or may not have jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in 1955. (He may also have disappeared to live anonymously in Mexico, thus setting an example for the rumors attendant to musicians such as Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley.) The Kees essay passes at least one test for effectiveness: it has convinced me that I really want to track down and read as much of Kees’ poetry as I can manage. (The Kees essay itself is not available online, but another long appreciation, “The Cult of Weldon Kees” is available at Gioia’s wide-ranging Web site.)

In the title essay, Gioia contrasts the primarily academic writing about poetry today with the more public writing on poetry of fifty years ago:
The reviewers of fifty years ago knew that their primary loyalty must lie not with their fellow poets or publishers but with the reader. Consequently they reported their reactions with scrupulous honesty even when their opinions might lose them literary allies and writing assignments. In discussing new poetry they addressed a wide community of educated readers. Without talking down to their audience, they cultivated a public idiom. Prizing clarity and accessibility they avoided specialist jargon and pedantic displays of scholarship. They also tried, as serious intellectuals should but specialists often do not, to relate what was happening in poetry to social, political, and artistic trends. They charged modern poetry with cultural importance and made it the focal point of their intellectual discourse.
This is the standard to which Dana Gioia appears to have held himself, and it makes his book well worth the time of anyone who is interested, or would like to be interested, in poetry in our time.

Elsewhere: A review of Can Poetry Matter? by Sunil Iyengar, placing Gioia solidly in the main line of poets and poetic thinkers leading back through the Modernists to the Romantics, is also available at Contemporary Poetry Review. A view of contemporary poetry not inconsistent with Dana Gioia's, but couched in slightly more spicy and provocative terms, can be found in Thomas Disch's delicious essay collection from 1995, The Castle of Indolence: On Poetry, Poets and Poetasters. Disch takes particular pleasure in undercutting "workshop" poetry and poems that are actually just prose with odd line breaks. Definitely worth a look for that same audience I cited above.


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