In 1991, Dana Gioia published his celebrated essay “Does Poetry Matter?” in which he argued that poetry had become irrelevant to mainstream American culture. It no longer had a readership among the educated public but was confined to a small subculture located entirely in universities. Poets no longer wrote for a general audience, he said, but for other poets, which is to say other professors of English and creative writing, graduate students, and a small coterie of editors, publishers, and administrators. In “Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture,” the title piece in this collection of literary essays, Gioia revisits the same topic more than a decade later. He finds that poetry does still matter, in part because new, popular forms of poetry have sprung up to revitalize the art. These, in turn, are having an influence on the insular world of academic poetry.
Gioia begins by describing the immense cultural shift currently under way in which print no longer holds the prime position it has occupied for hundreds of years. People read much less than they used to. Gioia refers to a study which found that the average American spends only twenty-four minutes per day reading, compared to more than four hours watching television and more than three hours listening to the radio. This trend toward the oral and the visual over the written word is even more pronounced among the young.
However, what Gioia calls the end of print culture has led not to the demise of poetry but to a resurgence of popular poetry in a variety of forms: rap, cowboy poetry, poetry slams, and performance poetry. These have all become significant forces in American culture, especially rap, and they have risen without any support from academic institutions. Gioia argues that these new forms and their success “demonstrate the abiding human need for poetry,” although he does not argue that any of these forms are producing poetry of great quality. What is important is their vitality and popular appeal.
Gioia isolates four fundamental ways in which the new poetry differs from traditional literary poetry. First, it is predominantly oral and is often recited from memory. Some of it is never written down and so avoids print culture altogether. For Gioia, this shows how electronic media like television, radio, and recordings have changed the forms of literature. Readers are being turned into listeners and approach poetry in ways that are conditioned by television and radio.
Second, these new forms emerged from outside the established literary culture and were developed by those marginalized by intellectual society. Rap, according to Gioia, was the creation of young African American males in the 1970's and has since become an international form. Cowboy poetry represents the revival of the verse that Western cattle drivers performed to entertain themselves. Poetry slams, in which poets perform in a competition and are judged by the audience, were invented in 1985 at a bar in Chicago.
The third characteristic of the new poetry is its overwhelmingly formal nature. It unashamedly uses rhyme and meter, the traditional tools of the poet that modern academic poets tend to reject as old-fashioned. Here Gioia does what few academics would care to do: He takes rap seriously enough to discuss it in terms of its formal patterns. He acknowledges that rap uses a variety of metrical forms, but the commonest one is rhymed couplets that mix full rhyme with assonance. Rap uses the same four-stress accentual line that for hundreds of years was the most common meter for spoken popular poetry in English.
Cowboy poetry uses the same meter but in the form of a variation in the traditional ballad stanza. Rap and cowboy poets revel in their skill with formal elements because they know that this is how they connect with their listening audience—something that academic poets, used to silent reading of their poems, neglect.
Gioia's final point about the new wave of popular poetry is that it is exactly that—popular. It attracts a huge paying public. It thrives in the marketplace. Rap can be called the only literary form that is popular among American youth of all races. Even cowboy poetry, which is a regional rather than national phenomenon, plays to capacity audiences across the West, and poetry slams fill bars and cafés throughout the United States.
Having identified these four aspects of the new poetry, Gioia then argues that literary poetry is undergoing similar changes, also spurred by technological and...
(The entire section is 1846 words.)