WWJD was written as Anna Lewis’ Master’s thesis in Creative Writing. The following is the second part of the accompanying essay, which we will be reprinting in serialized form in the days leading up to our production of WWJD. You can read the first entry here.
“Poets arguing about modern poetry: jackals snarling over a dried-up well” (Connely 25).
Dana Gioia states that poetry, “no longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life…has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group.” This isolated group is academia. With the emergence of modernism, poetry lost its audience of educated people and only managed to hold on to the other poets and English faculty.
While poets and university professors (mostly merged into one) have managed to keep poetry alive, they have only been able to do so within their own circles. Rarely do poems escape into the general public. Where well-circulated journals used to contain poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, now most contain only the latter two. When I speak to brilliant students or professors from other disciplines, or even when I speak to other English students and it comes up that I write poetry, an uncomfortable expression passes over their faces and too often they say, “Poetry? You know, I never really get that stuff.”
Of course there are exceptions. Billy Collins defined his tenure as Poet Laureate by creating Poetry 180, a program designed to reintegrate poetry into the high school classroom and from there, hopefully, modern culture. In a 2001 interview Collins stated “I do find much contemporary poetry incomprehensible, and I don’t expect readers to flock to poems that they can’t understand.” Collins has put a great deal of effort into broadening the audience for poetry. He playfully condemns and mocks poems that are inaccessible to readers.
Dana Gioia, who may at first seem to be poetry’s harshest critic, echoes Collins’s call for a poetic revolution. In fact, Gioia’s sharp criticism of the state of poetry results from his great love or poetry and all art. Gioia is one of poetry’s greatest advocates. His books, essays and speeches are given not as an epitaph to poetry but rather as a rallying war cry. He tries to raise the alarm to get a response both from the poets and their estranged audiences. In a 2007 commencement speech at Stanford Gioia plead with America to reconcile itself to its cultural heritage in the arts telling the graduates that the difference between active and passive citizens “depends on whether or not they read for pleasure and participate in the arts” (Gioia to Graduates) . As the Chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia has spent much effort into trying to bridge the gap between audience and artist.
Gioia and Collins have had undeniable effects on the state of poetry. Collins’s humorous and accessible style has increased his own personal audience to movie-star status as far as poetry is concerned. He’s sold more than 250,000 copies of his books and his poetry readings invariably sell out (Geier 1). No one can say Billy Collins does not have an audience.
Gioia’s essays criticizing poetry’s decline have incensed and intrigued other poets and critics to the point that when his essay “Can Poetry Matter?” was published in theAtlantic Monthly the journal “received more responses on this essay than on any piece in recent history.” Intriguing and irritating poets and critics alike, his essays forces poets to reevaluate their relationship with their audiences. Gioia revived and refuses to let die the claim that poets are estranged from their audiences and both parties need to make amends.
There are great writers and critics today who are attempting change the state of poetry. They are altering it, but even the greatest proponents admit the move is slow. Last year Gioa stated:
In a time of social progress and economic prosperity, why have we experienced this colossal cultural and political decline? There are several reasons, but I must risk offending many friends and colleagues by saying that surely artists and intellectuals are partly to blame. Most American artists, intellectuals, and academics have lost their ability to converse with the rest of society. We have become wonderfully expert in talking to one another, but we have become almost invisible and inaudible in the general culture. (Gioia to Graduates)
There is a movement, not only limited to Gioia and Collins, intent on reviving poetry. However, it is still in process and may or may not succeed. Poetry today still lacks a general audience and is mostly read by academia, which to me and my social work background equates to having no audience at all. Professors, poets, students—these are colleagues. There is satisfaction in sharing your work with a colleague, but you don’t work for them.
How do you write a first sentence, a first word, a first letter without having a legitimate reader? Tennessee Williams says, “Personal lyricism is the outcry of prisoner to prisoner from the cell in solitary where each is confined for the duration of his life.” If Dana Gioia, Christopher Beach, Edmund Wilson, Joseph Epstein and all my peers are right, then I as a poet am expected to make that outcry knowing full well that there is no one within earshot. This sounds pointless.
Emmanuel Levinas, in his explication of our responsibility to the other, states, “the face orders and ordains me.” Here Levinas uses the famous metaphor of the face to claim that it is only because of the existence of another being that anyone has any direction or meaning at all. Martin Buber echoes this claim, stating, “The world as experience belongs to the basic world of I-It. The basic word I-You establishes the world of relation.” He claims that the very existence of others requires man to define himself, not through the nature of existence or the whys of the universe, but instead in the immediacy of the presence of the other. Knowledge is not found in contemplations of one’s nature but in interaction with the other. Levinas goes on to state that one’s interaction with the other includes responsibility: “If I am alone with the other, I owe him everything.” This is not required to be mutual: “I am responsible for the other without waiting for reciprocity.” Obviously, he was not speaking directly to poets about poetry or to social workers about social work, but he certainly does not exclude them.
If a social work degree did require one to read Levinas and Buber (and frankly I think it should), these two men would be instant heroes. The entire field of social work is a response to the other. Knowing this, and knowing that I had left the world of social work for academia, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of trying to answer for myself, WWLD? What would Levinas do?
To Be Continued…