In the May 1991 issue of the Atlantic poet and critic Dana Gioia asked “Can Poetry Matter?” Gioia, who has spent most of his working life outside of the academy, warns of a species in danger of extinction, the vanishing general audience for poetry that existed in this country only a few decades ago. He finds it paradoxical that poets “as individual artists . . . are almost invisible” in a time when, judging by the sheer numbers of publications, readings, and professional sinecures, the art and its practitioners would seem to be in the middle of an American quattrocento. Gioia does not slight the complexity of the cultural antecedents of a “boom [that] has been a distressingly confined phenomenon,” but his chief culprits are the wildly proliferating spawn of the creative writing programs, which have stratified into “a large professional class for the production and reception of new poetry, comprising legions of teachers, graduate students, editors, publishers, and administrators.” Indeed, the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) have become, in the space of only two decades, one of the most powerfully entrenched organizations in American academia.

The result of this increasingly inbred “poetry subculture” is that “the energy of American poetry, which was once directed outward, is now increasingly focused inward. Reputations are made and rewards distributed within the poetry subculture. . . . [A] ‘famous’ poet now means someone famous only to other poets. But there are enough poets to make that local fame relatively meaningful. Not long ago, ‘only poets read poetry’ was meant as damning criticism. Now it is a proven marketing strategy.” Gioia is not alone in these fears and is by no means the first to voice them. As early as 1957 Hugh Kenner remarked, “I cannot help thinking that a civilization is in very perilous condition when all its writers have been driven into the universities.” It is worth noting in this respect that when we refer to a matter as “academic” we are in fact dismissing it as unimportant.

Gioia offers a few suggestions by which “poets and poetry teachers [might] take more responsibility for bringing their art to the public,” among them, reading from other authors at their own readings and perhaps allowing performance of other art forms to be integrated with their own; more candor by poets in reviewing and greater rigor in editing, especially in the production of anthologies that “should not be used as pork barrels for the creative writing trade”; and an increased attention to the public performance of poetry, both in the classroom and over college and public-supported radio, a medium hitherto largely neglected. These are indeed modest proposals, more of a wish list than anything, but they and the article’s other remarks occasioned several hundred letters to the Atlantic. The editors were surprised by the breadth of the response, observing several months later that they had received as well many newspaper clippings from around the country that commented on the article.

Because Gioia dared to call America’s poetry establishment into question, he has probably managed to place himself permanently outside its circles of power; his new book has been only sparingly reviewed. Yet The Gods of Winter is as good a book as one is likely to see this year—varied, formally complex, ambitious in its two longer poems, and unusually free from the sort of adolescent self-indulgence that characterizes much contemporary American poetry, particularly that which comes from the writing workshops. In this second collection Gioia is writing for adults, not the captive college reading-circuit crowd, and it is clear that he respects his audience’s intelligence. Here, in “The Next Poem,” he presents an aesthetic description of the type of poetry that he rarely encounters yet still desires to write:

The music that of common speech

but slanted so that each detail

sounds unexpected as a sharp

inserted in a simple scale.

No jumble box of imagery

dumped glumly in the reader’s lap

or elegantly packaged junk

the unsuspecting must unwrap.

But words that could direct a friend

precisely to an unknown place,

those few unshakable details

that no confusion can erase.

Despite having produced a considerable amount of work in open forms, Gioia is often listed among a group of poets known as the New Formalists, who have tried, in various ways, to consolidate some aspects of modernism with others drawn from popular culture and traditional poetry. Yet, appealing as these witty turns are, one may prefer the more intimate voice that speaks in the loosely metered lines of “Planting a Sequoia,” one of several poems in the collection contrasting evanescence (in this case a son who died in infancy) and permanence:

We plant you in the corner of the

grove, bathed in western light,

A slender shoot against the sunset.

And when our family is no more,

all of his unborn brothers dead.

Every niece and nephew

scattered, the house torn down.

His mother’s beauty ashes in the air,

I want you to stand among

strangers, all young and

ephemeral to you.

Silently keeping the secret of your birth.

The most impressive single poem in the volume is “Counting the Children,” a realistic narrative of slightly over 150 lines. The persona, a Chinese-American accountant named Choi, has come to the home of an eccentric female intestate to take inventory. In one of the dead woman’s rooms he finds an astonishing collection:

I walked into a room of wooden shelves

Stretching from floor to ceiling, wall to wall.

With smaller shelves arranged along the center.

A crowd of faces looked up silently.

Shoulder to shoulder, standing all in rows.

Hundreds of dolls were lining every wall.

Not a collection anyone would want—

Just ordinary dolls salvaged from the trash

With dozens of each kind all set together.

Some battered, others missing arms and legs.

Shelf after shelf of the same dusty stare

As if despair could be assuaged by order.

He speculates about the whereabouts of “the children who promised them love . . . / The small, caressing hands, the lips which whispered / Secrets in the dark,” and later, in his own home, a nightmare wakes him to thoughts of his own daughter:

How delicate this vessel in our care,

This gentle soul we summoned to the world,

A life we treasured but could not protect.

Gioia took considerable risks in releasing this book hard on the heels of his critique of the contemporary scene, but he has indeed produced poetry that “can matter” to the intelligent common reader. The Gods of Winter was recently named a selection of the British Poetry Book Society, the first time in recent memory that a book by an American poet has been so honored.


[The Gods of Winter, by Dana Gioia (St. Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press) 62 pp., $22.95]