Can Poetry Matter? Nineteen Years after Dana Gioia Posed this Question, Are We Any Closer to an Answer?

“It is time to experiment, time to leave the well-ordered but stuffy classroom, time to restore a vulgar vitality to poetry and unleash the energy now trapped in the subculture. There is nothing to lose. Society has already told us that poetry is dead. Let’s build a funeral pyre out of the desiccated conventions piled around us and watch the ancient, spangle-feathered, unkillable phoenix rise from the ashes” (Gioia).

Dark Matter

What a call to action, right? Poetry was dying, and Dana Gioia ended his important essay about the place of poetry in our society by asking poets to leave the comfort of their self-congratulatory, poet-only communities to save it. Did they do it? I would say, no. We poets still mostly write for each other; very few of us ever make it into the mainstream, and those who do have their work pared down to a handful of poems that get anthologized while the rest is mostly forgotten. So if the solution is to experiment, what should the experiments look like or begin with? What experiment would equate to poetry “mattering” and who does it need to matter to in order to really matter? When I was a kid, my mother helped me memorize William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper.” She read Nikki Giovanni’s “Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day” to me. She hung Langston Hughes’ “Dream Deferred” on the wall in our hallway for me to pass day in and day out. She taught me to love poems because they meant more than words on a page. They were a reason to be close to my mother. So, there’s a radical idea. Let’s make poetry that brings us together, poetry that makes us more human and confirms our greatest hopes and fears. An experiment connotes breaking rules to make something new. That may be a good idea, too, but only if the experiment creates poetry that sustains us.


  • Sam Edmonds says:

    “Until people see poetry as springing from all of life, they will isolate it in a creativity corner and treat it like a mascot.”
    — Philip Lopate

  • Amanda Maule says:

    Does the phoenix come equipped with end rhyme? I’m half serious about this. For most outside of the intimate poetry world, poetry = rhyme, and that’s it. Roses are red, violets are blue, blah blah blah me, blah blah blah you. Did people start to think, I was on board with some Whitman and Frost but you lost me with that (post)postmodern craziness…I can’t trust you anymore.

    I have little faith that more experimentation will bring poetry into the mainstream. Some of what people are calling new seems to close doors rather than open them, to move further into some secret poet code, (limited fork poetics comes to mind) and this may be Dana’s point. “Hey poets, stop being so damn poety.” Is the experiment then to boldly go backward? How do poets bring the public up to speed, and is that even necessary?

    • JaimeRWood says:

      Great Lopate quote, Sam. I totally agree. And Amanda, you’ve got a point. When I asked my creative writing students what they think they know about poetry, rhyme was one of the first things to come up. I thought, really? But, it makes sense, I suppose. In the big-picture history of poetry, we’ve been rhyming longer than we’ve not. So I’ve been talking to them about ways they can use rhyme in an era when it’ not so fashionable: slant rhyme, embedded rhyme, alliteration, etc. I never thought I’d see us poets this way, but we’re a lot like Project Runway trying to figure out what style is going to be fashionable this season. I don’t think we have to be that way, though, which is kind of what I was trying to get at when I said we should be writing poetry that sustains us. I think something kind of amazing happens when you write a poem that kind of rips your own heart out, in a good way, a poem that excites you, the writer. To me, at that point, it stops being wordplay and starts being life.

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