How did art become irrelevant? Michael J. Lewis’s answer to that question in Commentary magazine made the rounds of social media last week. It’s an exhaustive overview, and a political one, edged with fine anger, a reminder that the arts used to be merely elitist, not ruthlessly hermetic.
So I was startled to open the latest issue of the literary magazine The Dark Horse and find “Poetry as Enchantment,” an essay by former NEA chairman Dana Gioia that makes many of the same points Lewis makes, but solely about poetry, and with a far more subdued tone. Defending poetry as a universal human art with roots in music, charms, and incantations, Gioia recalls that not long ago, it was ubiquitous and widely enjoyed. I remember that too: my grandfather was a machinist with a grade-school education, but he could rattle off snippets of verse that I now know were the work of Longfellow, Joyce Kilmer, and the (utterly forgotten) Sam Walter Foss.
What happened? Gioia argues that poetry was too well taught. The New Critics imposed reason, objectivity, and coherence on it. “Learning” poetry was reduced to dissection and analysis, then demonstrating your fluency in each new school of critical theory:
For most students, writing a critical paper does not inspire the same lifelong affection for poetry that memorization and recitation foster. When analytical instruction replaces the physicality, subjectivity, and emotionality of performance, most students fail to make a meaningful connection with poetry. So abstracted and intellectualized, poetry becomes disembodied into poetics—a noble subject but never a popular one. As the audience for poetry continues to contract, there will come a tipping point—perhaps it has already arrived—when the majority of adult readers are academic professionals or graduate students training for those professions. What is the future of an art when the majority of its audience must be paid to participate?
No one intended the decimation of poetry’s audience or the alienation of the common reader. Like most environmental messes, those things happened as accidental by-products of an otherwise positive project.
Gioia literally marketed Kool-Aid as an executive at General Foods—who can ever forget his award-winning “fear in a handful of dust” campaign?—so when he became NEA chairman in 2003, he wanted measurable results:
We decided to start with a program that could be executed quickly on a large scale without a huge investment. What we conceived was a national poetry recitation contest for high school students that would begin at class level, and then move on to school, local, state, and national competitions. We successfully tested the idea in Chicago and Washington, D.C., but when the agency tried to expand it, the arts education officials in the 50 states initially refused to adopt it.
The state arts education experts had four major objections to the program. First, they believed that students hated poetry. (Am I wrong to suspect that this assumption suggests that the experts themselves disliked poetry?) Second, they maintained that memorization was repressive and stifled creativity. Some of them added that memorization victimized minority students since standard English was not spoken in their homes. Third, they unanimously felt that competition had no place in the arts. There should be no winners or losers. In arts education, everyone should win. Finally, there was a general feeling among the educators that poetry was too intellectual for the average student. It was not an accessible art.
Just how wrong were those “state arts education experts”? Gioia found that kids raised with hip-hop took to poetry when it became about hearing and reciting rather than reading and analyzing; they loved competing; “problem kids” turned out to be great at it; and immigrant kids have turned out to be around half of all winners each year.
Gioia is too gracious to gloat. About his detractors, he says only this: “The administrators and arts consultants were openly astonished by the program’s popularity.” I wonder why they doubted him: His longtime championing of old-fashioned formalism? His corporate background? His presumed political affiliation? It’s a dreary state of affairs when ignorance is the most charitable explanation.
Someone recently quipped on Facebook that it’s actually a great time to be a poet, because when an art has zero social cachet, the people who do it out of sheer love don’t have to wonder if others are into it for the wrong reasons. That may not be forever true: Gioia’s Poetry Out Loud program has already engaged 2.5 million high-school kids, and books like the Disney Channel poetry anthology are bracing their younger siblings. What if channeling rap fandom into national recitation contests actually entices the corpse of poetry to sprout and bloom some year? Relevance would uproot academia; it wouldn’t be kind; it would set poets slogging through swamps of conflict and commerce, not noticing how many more people had finally learned that they’re meant to talk about what Gioia calls “mysteries that lie beyond paraphrase,” their inheritance as human beings.