Poetry That Matters

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...

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