This Old Poem #80:
Dana Gioia’s Money
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/17/04
Daddy’ Gioia has a website: http://www.danagioia.net/.
DG is also the head of America’s NEA (National Endowment for the Arts). He’s
also a crass, materialistic Republican who supports wasting tax dollars on the
arts. Something’s wrong here. Let me start again….
Dana Gioia is a bad poet. Dana Gioia is a mediocre (at best) critic. [I can feel it comin’ back to me!] Dana Gioia has somehow parlayed this weird assortment of mediocre qualifications into a phat job heading 1 of the most worthless bureaucracies on the planet- remember the Soviet Institute For Parapsychology is dead! Let’s peruse through his website’s own declamations- & occasionally retort:
Poet, critic, and best-selling anthologist, Dana Gioia is one of America’s leading contemporary men of letters. Winner of the American Book Award, Gioia is internationally recognized for his role in reviving rhyme, meter, and narrative in contemporary poetry. An influential critic, he has combined populist ideals and high standards to bring poetry to a broader audience. (You can let out that snicker now)
Gioia (pronounced JOY-A) (How many English speakers were stumped with
that pronunciation?) was born of Italian and Mexican descent in Los Angeles
in 1950. The first member of his family to attend college, he received a B.A.
from Stanford University. Before returning to Stanford to earn an M.B.A., he
completed an M.A. in Comparative Literature at Harvard University where he
studied with the poets Robert Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Bishop.
In 1977 he moved to New York to begin a career in business. For fifteen years Gioia worked as a business executive, eventually becoming a Vice President of General Foods. Writing at night and on weekends, he also established a major literary reputation. In 1992 he left business to become a full-time writer. (Note the ease with which that transition occurred- would that the real heavyweights of world literature had it as easy!)
Gioia's poems, translations, essays, and reviews have appeared in many
magazines including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The
Washington Post Book World, The New York Times Book Review, Slate,
and The Hudson Review. He is also a long time commentator on American
culture and literature for BBC Radio. In
1996 Gioia returned to his native California. He currently lives in Sonoma
County with his wife and two sons.
Gioia has published three full-length books of poetry. Although widely noted for his use of traditional forms, Gioia also writes in free verse—insisting that a poet should be able to use whatever style the work suggests. Widely anthologized and translated, he has been the subject of several critical books and monographs.
You need know no more of
his dull scribblings- on to the thing that gives DG his biggest boner- even a
Best known to many as a critic, Gioia has been an active and outspoken literary commentator for over a quarter century. His essay, “Can Poetry Matter?”, which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1991, ignited an international debate on the role of poetry in contemporary intellectual life. The Atlantic received more responses on this essay than on any piece in recent history. Debated and discussed in newspapers and magazines and on radio and television here and abroad, “Can Poetry Matter?” stands as one of the most influential literary essays of the past quarter century.
Gioia's critical collection, Can Poetry Matter? (1992), was chosen
by Publishers Weekly as one of the "Best Books of 1992." This volume
also became a finalist for the 1992 National Book Critics Award in Criticism. A
special tenth anniversary edition was published in 2002.
Gioia currently co-edits with X. J. Kennedy four popular anthologies, including Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, the nation’s best-selling college literature textbook—as well as numerous other literary collections.
Actually, DG’s overblown essay was very much in the vein of the more
recent assault on novelry, not uncoincidentally published by the same magazine- Atlantic
Monthly, by Molotov cocktailist BR Myers- just poseur crap
intended to stir things up, with nothing of depth- but, hey, it worked for both
of them. DG parlayed the mediocre essay into a sinecure at the NEA!
Before we look at DG’s
mediocrity as a versifier let’s look at his mediocrity as a critic by taking
on some snippets from the overblown essay that landed DG his sinecure. Can
Poetry Matter? 1st appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in May
Poetry has vanished as a cultural force in America. If poets venture
outside their confined world, they can work to make it essential once more.
This was the piece’s epigraph. You can tell the intellectually-challenged task ahead by the very use of the term ‘essential’- i.e.- poetry is a ‘need’. The rest of the essay touches upon many of the most obvious points of poetry’s decline, yet DG steadfastly declines to name bad poets, editors, publications, & presses, even as he challenges the cowardice of others. Here’s a snippet that shows how out of touch DG is/was:
Why, for example, does poetry mix so seldom with music, dance, or theater? At most readings the program consists of verse only—and usually only verse by that night's author. Forty years ago, when Dylan Thomas read, he spent half the program reciting other poets' work. Hardly a self-effacing man, he was nevertheless humble before his art.
Even before the 1990s renaissance in spoken word, DG’s question was ridiculous- obviously made by someone who attended few, if any, poetry readings in his life.
Several dozen journals now exist that print only verse. They don't publish literary reviews, just page after page of freshly minted poems. The heart sinks to see so many poems crammed so tightly together, like downcast immigrants in steerage. One can easily miss a radiant poem amid the many lackluster ones.
A good point- but onward he muses:
But the general press has largely abandoned this task, and the specialized press has grown so overprotective of poetry that it is reluctant to make harsh judgments. In his new book, American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity, Robert Bly has accurately described the corrosive effect of this critical boosterism:
We have an odd situation: although more bad poetry is being published now than ever before in American history, most of the reviews are positive. Critics say, "I never attack what is bad, all that will take care of itself," . . . but the country is full of young poets and readers who are confused by seeing mediocre poetry praised, or never attacked, and who end up doubting their own critical perceptions.
Yet, both Bly & DG are bad poets & barely better critics, &
DG perpetuates exactly what he decries by his own banal crits of poets.
A clubby feeling also typifies most recent anthologies of contemporary
poetry….The 1985 Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, for
example, is not so much a selective literary collection as a comprehensive
directory of creative-writing teachers (it even offers a photo of each author).
Running nearly 800 pages, the volume presents no fewer than 104 important young
poets, virtually all of whom teach creative writing.
Another good but obvious point. But, then DG gets delusional:
The sheer mass of mediocrity may have frightened away most readers, but
it has not yet driven talented writers from the field. Anyone patient enough to
weed through the tangle of contemporary work finds an impressive and diverse
range of new poetry. Adrienne Rich, for example, despite her often overbearing
polemics, is a major poet by any standard. The best work of Donald Justice,
Anthony Hecht, Donald Hall, James Merrill, Louis Simpson, William Stafford, and
Richard Wilbur—to mention only writers of the older generation—can hold its
own against anything in the national literature. One might also add Sylvia Plath
and James Wright, two strong poets of the same generation who died early.
America is also a country rich in émigré poetry, as major writers like Czeslaw
Milosz, Nina Cassian, Derek Walcott, Joseph Brodsky, and Thom Gunn demonstrate.
Perhaps Milosz will survive a century- if only for his being a ‘witness’ poet. Plath is a lock, & perhaps James Wright. The rest are a joke. DG shoots himself in the foot on this posit.
Poetry suffers when literary standards are forced to conform with
Another good point- and another:
Reviewers fifty years ago were by today's standards extraordinarily
tough. They said exactly what they thought, even about their most influential
contemporaries. Listen, for example, to Randall Jarrell's description of a book
by the famous anthologist Oscar Williams: it "gave the impression of having
been written on a typewriter by a typewriter." That remark kept Jarrell out
of subsequent Williams anthologies, but he did not hesitate to publish it. Or
consider Jarrell's assessment of Archibald MacLeish's public poem America Was
Promises: it "might have been devised by a YMCA secretary at a home for
the mentally deficient." Or read Weldon Kees's one-sentence review of
Muriel Rukeyser's Wake Island—"There's one thing you can say about
Muriel: she's not lazy." But these same reviewers could write generously
about poets they admired, as Jarrell did about Elizabeth Bishop, and Kees about
Wallace Stevens. Their praise mattered, because readers knew it did not come
Yet, how does DG follow this up? Of course, by never naming the bad
poets, etc. in this or other essays. Not to mention contributing to the false
mythology that Randall Jarrell was a good critic. See my essay on him
for the debunking of that fallacy. So, as usual- a good point is followed by a
bad point, or a fallacy. He continues with some more nice observations:
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.
Only to give some spurious remedies. [My remarks are ***interpolated.]:
1. When poets give public readings, they should spend part of every
program reciting other people's work—preferably poems they admire by
writers they do not know personally.
***This is not why poetry has declined. This is like
stating that the way to fix what ails contemporary painting is to have more
2. When arts administrators plan public readings, they should avoid
the standard subculture format of poetry only. Mix poetry with the other
arts, especially music. Plan evenings honoring dead or foreign writers. Combine
short critical lectures with poetry performances. Such combinations would
attract an audience from beyond the poetry world without compromising quality.
being done well before DG’s essay, only further showing how out of touch DG
was when he wrote this- an almost perfect illustration of how the NEA operates.
3. Poets need to write prose about poetry more often, more candidly,
and more effectively.
advice never followed by DG, himself.
4. Poets who compile anthologies—or even reading lists—should be
scrupulously honest in including only poems they genuinely admire.
***Another good point- but how to prove it if, as the PC Elitists chime, art is always subjective?
5. Poetry teachers especially at the high school and undergraduate
levels, should spend less time on analysis and more on performance. Poetry
needs to be liberated from literary criticism. Poems should be memorized,
recited, and performed.
point. 1) They’ve done this for the last few decades & 2) it’s the wrong
approach. Poetry needs much more stringent adherence to literary standards:
mnemonics, music, & duplicity of image, meaning, & interpretation.
6. Finally poets and arts administrators should use radio to expand the art's audience. Poetry is an aural medium, and thus ideally suited to radio. A little imaginative programming at the hundreds of college and public-supported radio stations could bring poetry to millions of listeners.
***Asinine point #2: NPR is a taxpayer sieve & the poor choice of NPR-sponsored poetasters has only increased the art’s irrelevance.
So, we’ve seen DG is a critic with no vision & a scattershot approach to the art. Let’s see some of his poetry:
So much of what we live goes on
The diaries of grief, the tongue-tied aches
Of unacknowledged love are no less real
For having passed unsaid. What we conceal
Is always more than what we dare confide.
Think of the letters that we write our dead.
Need I even point out the manifest clichés, & bathetic nature of this trite little ‘poem’. Let’s try another- perhaps this is not typical of DG- a ‘descendant’ of Wallace Stevens. I’ll help you this time by underlining the clichés:
Now you hear what the house has to
Pipes clanking, water running in the dark,
the mortgaged walls shifting in discomfort,
and voices mounting in an endless drone
of small complaints like the sounds of a family
that year by year you've learned how to ignore.
But now you must listen to the
things you own,
all that you've worked for these past years,
the murmur of property, of things in disrepair,
the moving parts about to come undone,
and twisting in the sheets remember all
the faces you could not bring yourself to love.
How many voices have escaped you
the venting furnace, the floorboards underfoot,
the steady accusations of the clock
numbering the minutes no one will mark.
The terrible clarity this moment brings,
the useless insight, the unbroken dark.
To say that the poem tropes downward is an understatement. On to the poem you’ve read this far for- & look who he quotes from for the epigraph:
Money is a kind of poetry.
– Wallace Stevens
Money, the long green,
cash, stash, rhino, jack
or just plain dough.
Chock it up, fork it over,
shell it out. Watch it
burn holes through pockets.
To be made of it! To have
to burn! Greenbacks, double eagles,
megabucks and Ginnie Maes.
It greases the palm, feathers
holds heads above water,
makes both ends meet.
Money breeds money.
Gathering interest, compounding daily.
Always in circulation.
Money. You don't know where it's
but you put it where your mouth is.
And it talks.
DG believes humor is to be found by a recitation of clichés. It’s not. The rewrite:
Money breeds money.
This the shortest rewrite in TOP history. No. I can do better. We don’t need to recapitulate the title with the 1st word. Scratch that rewrite & go with this:
Sorry, but there literally is nothing I can do to make this non-poem a poem. Now, many will ask- or state: ‘But, you’re picking on the worst poems these poets write.’ But, they put them out there- even in their Selecteds & Collecteds. Why put crap out at all? & this is who is in charge of re-energizing America’s arts scene? God wot!
Final Score: (1-100):
Dana Gioia’s Money:
TOP’s Money: 25
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