It wasn’t until 1996, when President Bill Clinton declared April to be National Poetry Month, that the eminent translator and poet Richard Howard truly grasped the significance of the opening words of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, “April is the cruelest month.” “At last we have succeeded in wreaking on poetry what the worst excesses of Progressive Education and the Palmer Method were helpless to effect: We have ghettoized a millennial human expression previously conceived as a pervasive part of conscious life,” Howard declared at a PEN awards ceremony that May. “If we are to save poetry,” he insisted, we must restore it “to that status of seclusion and even secrecy that characterizes only our authentic pleasures and identifies only our intimately valued actions.” Robert Pinsky, then the poet laureate of the United States, disagreed. “Poetry is part of our shared communal life, as surely as is the Internet,” Pinsky wrote in a defense of National Poetry Month published in the New York Times. Pinsky’s observation is true, although with the adjective “shared” he seemed to want to draw a veil over some pesky questions. If poetry is integral to communal life, why must we be reminded of that fact every April, with all the labored cheerleading and hectic marketing of a big church holiday? Is poetry meaningfully involved in cultural life only if it preoccupies us in the same way as the Internet? Pinsky’s genial tone of accommodation softened Howard’s abrasiveness, but not the force of Howard’s point.
Dana Gioia, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), has pitched his tent in Pinsky’s camp. In Disappearing Ink, Gioia laments that no American poet today has achieved the kind of fame and influence with a popular audience that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow enjoyed in the nineteenth century. The work of most contemporary poets is culturally marginal, and for Gioia marginality is an artistic dead end. But poets can return to public prominence and revitalize their art, Gioia claims in his book’s title essay, if they follow the lead of rappers, cowboy poets and poetry slammers. The emergence of electronic media like television and the Internet, he says, borrowing heavily from Marshall McLuhan’s theories about media, has “slightly readjust[ed] the contemporary sensibility in favor of sound and orality.” Rappers and slammers embody this readjusted sensibility because they compose for the ear and transmit their verse through performance. Roland Barthes reveled in the death of the author; Gioia rejoices in the death of the text. “American culture conditioned by electronic media and a celebrity culture based on personalities has given birth to a new kind of author,” he proclaims: “the amplified bard.”
In July the NEA released “Reading at Risk,” a report lamenting the precipitate decline of literary reading in the face of electronic media over the past two decades. Why, then, in Disappearing Ink would its chairman extol poets and audiences who forgo the book for the amp? Equally perplexing is Gioia’s claim that the popularity of poetry readings among “literary” poets who still compose for the page signals the emergence of a vibrant oral culture. There’s a more persuasive claim to be made about such literary readings: They are less an oral alternative to print culture than a commercial adjunct of it, a way for poets to promote new books in a marketplace where reviews and advertisements of poetry are rare. Nor is there a lock-and-key fit between the Internet and orality, as Gioia implies. For the past few years some poets have approached Google as a détournement machine, using the search function as a phrase generator and assembling the results into cut-up poems. (In some circles the method and poems go by the name of “flarf.”) As bewildering or irritating as spam, this work is defiantly typographic and can be downright impossible to read aloud, amplified or not.
But what do I know? I’m the kind of critic who Gioia complains is ill equipped to assess innovations in contemporary poetry because my tastes are based in part on the “antiquarian assumptions” of Modernism, which “reflect a culture without radio, talking films, television, videocassettes, computers, cell phones, satellite dishes, and the Internet.” If media harmony between a critic’s era and that of his subject is the basis of critical judgment, then Gioia’s enthusiasm in Disappearing Ink for Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop and Jack Spicer, all of whom made do with pens or typewriters, is peculiar indeed.