The central paradox Dana Gioia addresses in the title essay of his stimulating collection CAN POETRY MATTER? is that poetry has created a thriving subculture in which the number of devoted readers and writers of poetry has expanded, while the art has faded to insignificance in the lives of most Americans. A primary culprit, he believes, is the creative writing classroom in American colleges and universities, which took the great debates about poetry out of the public journals and put them into the seminar rooms. This has created a situation in which poets address other poets who have all been schooled in similar poetic sensibilities. From the outside, however, poetry appears homogenized and flat. To engage more readers, Gioia suggests that poetry readings deviate more frequently from the common single author format, and become multiauthor, multimedia celebrations of poetry, and that poets should work harder to educate the public, through prose, about poetry.
Other essays in this collection urge his fellow poets to consider returning to the poetic forms that American poetry largely abandoned in the early part of the twentieth century, and to remember the possibilities the longer poem provides which the short lyric simply does not.
Many of the essays are evaluations of individual poets, from Robinson Jeffers, a poet Gioia believes has been unfairly neglected, to Robert Bly, a poet Gioia evaluates rather coolly as an occasionally remarkable poet who has vastly oversold himself as a poet, shaman, and showman. Most such essays are recycled book reviews, which, though interesting, do not sustain the depth of thought and consideration the title essay brings to the book.
Dana Gioia’s opinions are sometimes idiosyncratic, but are well reasoned and insightful. Those outside the poetry subculture will find in his book plenty of reasons to give poetry another look. Those who read Gioia’s work from inside this subculture will appreciate a writer who both loves and challenges the poetry he sees around him.