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The singular Mr. Gioia: A poet helms the NEA

By Robert Bové
web posted November 10, 2003

Unless they are snubbing an invitation to a Laura Bush White House discussion on poetry or rushing lemming-like to post their work on anti-war poetry websites, poets don't much make news -- unless you include rappers as poets, which, like it or not, they are. It is true that, as Pound famously said, poets serious about the art are in the business of composing news that stays news. That kind of news is rarely topical and never banal. But when so much of the culture now embraces the topical and banal, that so much money is behind producing more of same, one might be excused for despairing that there is no way to avoid the bitter nihilism and indifference to craft worn so proudly by so many. The irony inherent in such institutionalized "rebelliousness" is hardly comforting.

But maybe, just maybe there is room for a modicum of hope on the cultural scene now that Dana Gioia has assumed his post as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, after having been unanimously confirmed by the Senate, a rarity for a Bush appointee. Remarkably, Gioia (pronounced JOY-ah), a former vice president for marketing at General Foods, is also a very fine poet.

Dana Gioia

I have been a fan of Gioia's prose for some time now, beginning with his groundbreaking May 1991 essay in the Atlantic Monthly, "Can Poetry Matter," and right on up to his latest big essay: "Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture," in the Spring 2003 number of the Hudson Review. Gioia's poetry tends to somber yet exquisite lyricism, but his prose is positively prophetic. Without appearing confrontational, Gioia always manages to confront in lively and lucid prose the issues facing practitioners of our civilization's oldest literary art. He takes a metahistorical approach to his subject -- an approach disdained by academia and entirely beyond today's proudly ahistorical poets -- and seems to be on the same wavelength as metahistorian Christopher Dawson, who critiqued the secularization of the sacred, a trend that manifests itself in culture as "religious emotion divorced from religious belief." What this divorce has produced in the general culture is, of course, tolerance elevated to a cardinal virtue, where the spiritual posture du jour is distinctly vague. The only thing specific allowed is of a decidedly sexual nature, the lower body as mind.

So, when I heard Mr. Gioia was giving a lecture in town, I treated my sister to a quick dinner at the Oyster Bar and walked with her to a packed ballroom at the venerable Union League Club in mid-town Manhattan. Entitled "The Christian Writer Today," Gioia's presentation was this year's installment of the Erasmus Lecture, sponsored by The Institute of Religion and Public Life, the folks who publish the estimable journal First Things. (A transcript of the lecture will be published in a forthcoming issue.) Mr. Gioia's thesis is that self-identified Christian writers in general and Catholic writers in particular are no longer participate in popular culture. The why of it, he explained, would take six lectures.

Mr. Gioia was superb, not only because of the content of his lecture but because he seemed so at home in the Union League's environs and in front of a very sharp, religiously diverse audience (including Jewish intellectual Midge Decter, author of a new book on Donald Rumsfeld). I felt he was speaking directly to me -- and I'm sure many felt he was speaking directly to them -- a skill the poet no doubt honed during his years pitching proposals in big business.

Gioia sensibly narrowed his focus to American Catholic poets and fiction writers. Hence, he discussed the past more than the present, surveying notable Catholic writers from roughly 1945-1965 and contrasting their very public Catholicism (think Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy) with the dearth of self-identified Catholic creative writers on the contemporary scene. Ex-Catholics in the arts are plentiful, he noted -- and outspoken. 

One doesn't have to be a Christian or a Catholic to see the problem. True, some Print Age poets still pursue the sacred, but, in their flight from the Judeo-Christian worldview, they too often produce cartoon-like mythologies of the New Age variety. One poet finds his niche in the Old Stone Age; another in the New Stone Age. Everybody hates Dead White Males; even the living white males pander to the current academic infatuation with diversity in everything but ideas.

There is, said Gioia, abundant irony in the current situation, given that the Roman Catholic Church is now the largest single religious group in the U.S. -- and is the fastest growing -- but that Catholics simultaneously have abandoned the plastic and literary arts to secular culture. His prescription, ultimately, is for Catholic poets in particular to gather their courage and announce their beliefs -- though he did add that such an announcement might be followed promptly by martyrdom. Still, coming from Mr. Bush's NEA chairman, this call was more than a little encouraging. In the lively, generally friendly Q&A following his lecture, Gioia was asked if the NEA would continue to ignore Catholic writers, and he smoothly replied that as chairman of a Federal agency he was under oath to represent all Americans, including Catholics. Gioia ended his lecture with the apt "Unsaid" from his 2002 American Book Award winner for poetry, Interrogations at Noon.

In his Hudson Review essay, Gioia asks, "What will be the poet's place in a society that has increasingly little use for books, little time for serious culture, little knowledge of the past, little consensus on literary value and -- even among intellectuals -- little faith in poetry itself?" Among his points is the observation that, "the orthodox views of contemporary poetry no longer are either useful or accurate in portraying the rapidly changing shape of the art," and that "the forces most affecting contemporary poetry now mostly come from altogether outside the tradition."

As a poet who has his feet both inside and outside academia I concur when Gioia notes, "Without a doubt the most surprising and significant development in recent American poetry has been the wide-scale and unexpected reemergence of popular poetry -- namely rap, cowboy poetry, poetry slams, and certain overtly accessible types of what was once a defiantly avant-garde genre, performance poetry." And, he adds, "all these new poetic forms have thrived without the support of the university or the literary establishment." Each expressed in live performance, these new forms hold in their very nature defy traditional study as one would study, say, Eliot's Four Quartets. Professors limited in their knowledge to print culture might recall, as Hugh Kenner once wrote (via Pound again, I believe) "The classroom is in the world; the world isn't in the classroom." 

Gioia's purpose here is not to judge the quality of popular poetry -- or the quality of MFA product -- but to place it all in context. It helps to remember that most of the poems out there in any given era are pretty awful, no matter the context. Ditto for the rest of the arts. The difference now, sad to say, is that teaching the good works?or even that good exists?no longer seems to interest either English departments or MFA programs, an undeniable symptom, an indicator that decadence, if not divine, has at least proved to be a successful virus. 

I have no doubt that Mr. Gioia is expediting the trend at the NEA to devote more time and money getting the best in our culture to places that may not ever have the opportunity to mount, for example, world-class Shakespeare productions. If the current NEA Shakespeare in American Communities project is any indication, Mr. Gioia is carrying forward the program. The NEA is not a big agency by Federal standards -- and it shouldn't be, given the proven potential for abuse it has shown in the past -- but every little bit helps, I suppose. Remember, at one time the NEA was infamous for promoting art beneath the sensibilities of Americans in flyover country. Given what the best in our culture is up against, though, one can't help but wonder if anything can stop the onslaught, a mirror-image evangelism proudly spreading the "good news" of self-worship.

Able to enjoy an angry, raunchy Villon or Bukowski poem, I am nevertheless in awe of the mechanized, digitalized nihilism that the music industry pipes into sound systems macro and micro in every nook and cranny of America, whether it is blaring from home theater systems in Dakota farmhouses or Walkmans glued to subway riders. Rudimentary nursery-rhyme rhythms and a lexicon limited to words that rhyme with "itch," "muck," and "dough"?porn with a back beat?for now seem to have carried the day. Encouraged to witness to their faith in their work, Christian writers see in contrast to that benighted industry a paucity of outlets for their writing. It is almost enough to cause despair that American cultural decline into an uncivil and indecent bar-bar age is permanent.

Almost enough -- but, I have forgotten the Internet, the venue for which I am writing this piece, a venue Mr. Gioia doesn't really touch on in his Hudson Review essay. It is here, I believe, that print culture has gone, and the Internet will remain a good host for the foreseeable future. And, presuming they survive the lifestyle, when today's fans of rap and its ilk grow tired of the pounding, they might just find respite in this thriving enterprise. Provided, of course, that they haven't found our onanistic neighbors on the Web first.

© 2003 by Robert Bové. Robert Bové's latest book of poetry is The UFOs of October (2003, iUniverse). An adjunct assistant professor in English at Pace University in Manhattan, he is a widely published writer and editor and his web site can be found at http://RobertBove.net.

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