In May 1991, poet Dana Gioia published a provocative essay as a cover in The Atlantic: “Can Poetry Matter?” The opening salvo: “American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic life, it has become part of a specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of that frenetic activity ever reaches outside that closed group.”
At the time, Gioia’s essay sparked so much controversy and outrage in the poetry world (which consisted almost entirely of MFA programs, nonprofit magazines, university publications and poets who were tenured) that many of the little magazines that published the work of this “specialized occupation” felt the need to respond. One magazine for MFA programs dedicated almost an entire issue to those responses. But looking back now, the most amazing thing is that in 1991 any essay on poetry could command a cover story in The Atlantic. Poetry to most was at that point already just a college course or some high-school English-class material.
Quick test: Can you name a single living poet? After the death of Allen Ginsberg in 1997, that became a question even most Americans interested in the arts would have a hard time answering. Most major publishers no longer even bother with newly written poetry, and if they do it is likely by poets now well into their senior years, such as John Ashbery (born in 1927), who remains on a Harper-Collins imprint, and Philip Levine (born in 1928), whose new book was just published by Knopf.
As for the very few younger poets who manage to get books out on a major trade press, the numbers are abysmal. One poet under 50 who won a major poetry prize a few years ago with her third book was thrilled to sell about 20,000 copies of that collection. While this number may seem insignificant, it represented a massive sales increase over her previous books. Those two sold about 5,000 copies each. And they were successes. As for 20,000 copies, in the poetry world of 2009, this is a runaway best seller.
At this point, the insular world of poetry does not even bother much with trying to reach new readers anymore. The editor of Poetry magazine did not even respond to repeated requests for an interview for this story. Poetry is protected from the real world since receiving a $100 million donation from philanthropist Ruth Lilly in 2002. But it was the same at The New Yorker.
The New Yorker is among the tiny handful of magazines to publish poetry regularly for those who like to be well-read in a general way without actually being academic specialists. Whereas most magazines in this economy would love to bring attention to their publications, Paul Muldoon, the poetry editor of The New Yorker, responded to three questions from Weekly with the sublimely indifferent, “My apologies for not being able to help with this.”
One would think that nearly 20 years after his provocative essay, Gioia would be offering all his critics a big “I told you so.” But, in fact, Gioia has become “cautiously optimistic” about the state of American poetry.
Yes, he sees the insular academic world of poetry going as he predicted. But during the eight years Gioia spent traveling the country as the head of the National Endowment for the Arts during the Bush administration, he found a sense of a revitalized grassroots revival in poetry coming from unexpected places. “There are two audiences—the academic and the generalist. Helen Vendler [a professor at Harvard and onetime poetry critic for The New Yorker] is an example of the first type of tastemaker, Garrison Keillor an example of the other,” Gioia says now. “The academic audience continues to shrink. The general audience seems to be growing—not by leaps and bounds but measurably.”
Gioia also discovered that there is a new generation receptive to poetry: “There continues to be a hunger for poetry among a small but substantial part of the public. I would guess it represents about 10-15 percent. If you don’t believe me, then why has the NEA’s Poetry Out Loud become a national phenomenon? With limited funding, the program had over 400,000 teenagers participate by memorizing and reciting poems in competition last year. That is not a small number for a limited age group.”
To Gioia, poetry has in recent years been freed of the academic chains that were holding back the art a couple of decades ago. While not seeing a renaissance in American poetry, Gioia cautions those who proclaim poetry dead: “I think it is a mixed picture for poetry. Selling individual trade volumes of poetry is hardly the best way to judge. The primary way in which living poets communicate their work is by performing (i.e., reading) their poems in public. There is a great demand for poets to appear and read their work. It has never been easier to make a living as a poet in this regard. Don’t focus on trade book sales. They reflect a broken system of distribution. In the 19th century poetry was universally popular, but books sold even more poorly than today. It was published and read mostly in newspapers. Now it is ‘published and distributed’ mostly in readings and on radio. Keillor reaches millions of people each day.”
Of course, poetry is written on the page in stanzas with line breaks. But this is where Gioia also notes the Internet functions for poetry now much as newspapers once did, bringing poems to many more people than will ever see Poetry magazine.
“The Poetry Daily [a popular website] sorts of websites also cumulatively reach millions. Most people don’t want a book of poems. They want one terrific and moving poem. Poetry matters less than it did in the 19th century because there are more competing media, and there has been a split between the poets and the general populace because the academic tastemakers look for different qualities than the common reader. Great language and metaphors can still break through the media clutter.”
Poetry still has a problem in terms of holding an audience in the Internet age, a problem that so many other forms of communication are also having, but with a difference—no one ever expected to make money on poetry, so there is no financial crisis to go with the identity crisis that other media are facing.
Of course, what American poetry really needs to matter are some great poets. Only time will tell if the young and talented will choose to learn, practice and enjoy one of the most ancient of the arts in this new age of Internet. But the man who once declared poetry at the end, Dana Gioia, now sees possibility where once there was nothing.