- The Retreat from Poetic Modernism
Three recent books of criticism by American poets—Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter?, Mary Kinzie’s The Cure of Poetry, and Charles Bernstein’s A New Poetic—confirm the discourse-hugging, antimodernist temper of the times. Each contains engrossing material; but each stands as a small thing in the shadow of modernism itself.
The limitations of Gioia’s book, Can Poetry Matter?, begin with its Nielsen-ratings approach to importance. Gioia wants contemporary poetry to reach a general audience, as if by an air drop of food to a herd of arctic elk. He wants the elks’ appreciation and laudation. But these elk are lying back and watching a television program on the elk. It isn’t that contemporary poetry can’t be bothered with them, but the other way around. The truth is that even if only one person in the world wrote or read poetry (think of Thoreau as the optimum example), poetry would still matter, for it matters intrinsically, the way the philosophical “subject” does. It is self-constituted as an irreducible activity, that of the presencing of the mystery of language to itself. [End Page 221]
If Gioia doesn’t address his assumption that poetry should reach as many people as possible, the reason may be a conservative’s nostalgia for a world of (mythical) agreement, imagined to lie somewhere in the past. Thus his idea of innovation is to resuscitate old, faded metrical practices. He should not be mistaken for a populist; his constant theme is not the people but the marketing of poetry, like a manufacturer worried that more of his product is not getting sold and used. For purposes of folk wisdom or shared popular sentiment, modernism (surprisingly successful though it was—and, after all, more people know of T. S. Eliot than of such Gioia favorites as Welden Kees and Ted Kooser) is, of course, not direct and conversational enough. Hence Gioia’s praise of, for instance, Donald Justice for his “exemplary...clarity and accessibility” (232). This supposed “post-modern classicist” is free of any “illusions of perpetuating the superannuated avant-garde aesthetic. Yet he somehow synthesizes “the diverse strands of Modernism into a powerful, new classical style” (233). For illustration, Gioia quotes “The Grandfathers,” which begins:
Why will they never sleep, The old ones, the grandfathers? Always you find them sitting On ruined porches, deep In the back country, at dusk, Hawking and spitting. They might have sat there forever, Tapping their sticks, Peevish, discredited gods.(234)
See, Gioia urges, that the actual grandfathers are a “metaphor” for gods. We see. The poem is all too obvious. A worked-up vignette, frothing out a spittled frisson, it packages safe doses of fright and pathos. Gioia favors stinger-free hornets of poems; but such hornets are short-lived. The poem is effectively, if not effectually, premodernist. It lacks the modernist creative panic—the tragically joyous perception that representation is the last remaining, semitransparent shield of film between the mind and death (philosophy, as Yeats said, having its birth in the void). It sits in front of this panic like a wooden Indian.
Gioia’s conception of poetry is pharisaical. It consists in the notion that poetry “heightens” subject matter, and in the process makes “the exact words definitive” (197). But “definitive” is almost as misleading as “heighten.” In fact, Gioia, whose sharpened critical positions seek to be provocative, provokes me into asserting the opposite: poetry depresses subject matter in the interest of releasing—with, yes, the right words—the oxygen of the indefinite. (I mean not antiseptically pure air but, instead, the dark oxygen of the drives, whose dominant wave is destructive. To something within us, nothing is so suffocating as a...