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Mike Chasar

State of the Art:
Dana Gioia, the National Endowment for the Arts,
and the Politics of American Poetry


I. In the News

On January 29, 2003, the United States Senate unanimously confirmed the appointment of Dana Gioia (pronounced JOY-a) as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. As with many decisions related to the NEA, this one was carefully scrutinized, but talk around the water cooler this time didn't concern the NEA's legitimacy as a federal institution, nor whether the agency should define and support "controversial" works of art. Rather, talk focused on Bush's decision to nominate a poet to the visible government post--the first "professional poet" (as the NEA Office of Communications described him to me) to hold the position since the NEA was established in 1965. The appointment makes Gioia one of the most visible poets in the United States and, next to outgoing poet laureate Billy Collins, a second prominent voice speaking on behalf of poetry in Washington.

Gioia's appointment also comes at the end of a string of unusual poetry-related events that have made poetry--and conversations about the appropriate roles poetry should play in the United States--part of the national headlines. When Ruth Lilly, arts patron and heir to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, announced her intention to bequest $150 million to the Chicago-based Modern Poetry Association in late 2002, for example, she placed the publisher of Poetry (America's oldest continually-operating poetry journal) at the center of a heated discussion: does one slim monthly magazine deserve to become one of the most highly-endowed cultural institutions in the United States? And if so, then just how, exactly, should the magazine go about using that $150 million? Around the same general time, newspapers were also reporting the story of Amiri Baraka and his struggle with the New Jersey state legislature. A highly political and controversial African-American poet who was part of the Harlem-based Black Arts Movement in the 1960s, Baraka had been appointed the first poet laureate of New Jersey when the state had decided, a few years back, that such a position was desirable. When Baraka subsequently penned a couple of lines about 9/11 that some people perceived to be Anti-Semitic, however, the same legislature balked and tried to strip Baraka of the post as a punishment--only to discover that, in creating the position, the state hadn't reserved for itself the right to fire the poet laureate as well. Months later, New Jersey has asked, and has tried to force, Baraka to leave, but the poet has yet to budge. In response, the state has decided to do away with the position completely rather than risk any such to-dos in the future. (Incidentally, in a show of support for one of its longtime champions, the largely African-American school system in which Baraka lives has subsequently created, and appointed Baraka to, its own poet laureate post.)

And then, of course, came the cancellation of "Poetry and the American Voice," Laura Bush's proposed poetry symposium scheduled to take place in Washington this past February--shortly after, but unrelated to, Gioia's confirmation. When Bush--who had invited a large number of well-known American poets and poetry scholars to the White House to discuss Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes--got wind that her invitees were organizing to use the event to protest against military action in Iraq, she terminated the event in its entirety. Her press agents stated, in the way of an explanation, that while Mrs. Bush "respects the right of all Americans to express their opinions," she "believes it would be inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum." Coming from a former librarian who has elsewhere claimed "There is nothing political about American literature," Laura Bush's remarks aren't so much unpredictable as they are almost laughably ironic; one would be hard pressed to find two American poets more politically motivated than the subjects she selected for her symposium. Hughes, for one, was a leading crusader for African-American civil rights, a one-time communist who later appeared on McCarthy's list, and a poet who, in the radical 1930s, even penned "One More 'S' in the U.S.A." which begins:

Put one more s in the U.S.A.
To make it Soviet.
One more s in the U.S.A.
Oh, we'll live to see it yet.
When the land belongs to the farmers
And the factories to the working men--
The U.S.A. when we take control
Will be the U.S.S.A. then.

For his part, Whitman was a voice of radical democracy as well as a journalist who lambasted politicians in the scathing newspaper rhetoric of his time. "The President," Whitman seethed in "The Eighteenth Presidency" for example, "eats dirt and excrement for his daily meals, likes it, and tries to force it on the States. . .Never were publicly displayed more deformed, mediocre, sniveling, unreliable, false-hearted men!" American literature unpolitical? What could Laura Bush have been thinking?

The cancellation of "Poetry and the American Voice" resulted in a speedy response from poets who perceived an anti-democratic silencing of dissenting voices on the part of the Bush Administration; large online outcry (at quickly resulted in the book publication of Poets Against the War (Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2003, $12.95), an anthology culled from more than nine thousand poems and featuring over 250 poets. As the excerpt from Whitman suggests, Poets Against the War isn't by any means an isolated response to Washington in the history of American poetry. As Robert Lowell's celebrated refusal to attend the Johnson White House in protest of the Vietnam War further illustrates, American poets have long had strained relationships with Washington. And the suspicion is certainly mutual. In the mid twentieth century, many of America's leading poets--including Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, W.H. Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Countee Cullen, and Theodore Roethke--joined Hughes as official targets of F.B.I. investigation.

With the Bush Administration still trying to explain the U.S. military's failure to protect Iraqi museums, Gioia's appointment to the NEA--and the cultural allegiances that appointment signifies--have seemed to take on even greater significance. Ultimately, that appointment reveals itself to be a shrewd political maneuver entirely in keeping with Bush's policies and what the Administration feels is the proper role for poetry (and, by extension, the arts) to play in the United States. Despite its claims to the contrary, that role is not in any way an unpolitical one, nor has it ever been an unpolitical one, nor will it ever be an unpolitical one; it's only made to seem so by a critical narrative of literary history that protests "political" poetry, that claims politics is not the stuff real poetry is made from, and that, as a result, deemphasizes poetry's role in an American democracy. This agenda is made to seem natural by a focus on other literary values such as aesthetic form, the "timelessness" and "universality" of "classic literary masterpieces," and the cultivation of a specific, appreciative audience in the hands of whom art does not typically become a political weapon--values that, in other words, tend to abstract poetry from its specific historical context and import. Whether she intends to or not, Laura Bush is playing a very political game when she denies that there is anything political about American literature. As evidenced by Gioia's appointment to the NEA, she and the rest of the Bush Administration are clearly operating from the viewpoint that poetry is indeed political: it's politics as usual.


II. New Critical Redux

At 52, Gioia styles himself as a poetry "outsider" reading and writing on the side of non-academic readers who have supposedly become disenchanted with, and estranged from, an American poetry languishing in the halls of academe and M.F.A. writing programs across the country. Admittedly, Gioia has unusual credentials among U.S. poets. He received an M.B.A. from Stanford and an M.A. in Comparative Literature from Harvard (where he studied with poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Fitzgerald) before going on to work for General Foods in New York, where he eventually became Vice President of Marketing. In addition to publishing a small but respected body of poetry--three books, including The Gods of Winter (Graywolf Press, 1991, $12.00) and Interrogations at Noon (Graywolf Press, 2001, $14.00)--Gioia has also translated, edited, and graciously introduced the work of lesser-known or younger poets to larger audiences. He is, by most accounts, an affable, intelligent and passionate individual. He also--and this is a first-hand report from an embedded literary journalist--can cut a mean rug on the ballroom dance floor.

It is, however, Gioia's title essay from Can Poetry Matter: Essays on Poetry and American Culture (Tenth Anniversary Edition, Graywolf Press, 2002, $16.00) that has defined his place and voice in American arts and letters during the past decade. That essay, which first appeared in the April 1991 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, elicited more reader response than any other article that had appeared in the magazine's pages in decades or even--depending on which publicist you listen to--the magazine's entire history. In "Can Poetry Matter?" Gioia claimed that the institutionalization of poetry-writing programs at universities across the U.S. has almost single-handedly brought American poetry to the verge of obsolescence. "American poetry now belongs to a subculture," Gioia began. "No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group." Where poetry was once integrated into general interest magazines and newspapers oriented toward what Gioia calls the "literary intelligentsia" or "educated reader," it is now the province of specialized teachers and their students--poets who write for "professional validation" and to meet criteria for promotion and tenure, who publish in venues which only other poets read, and whose nepotism and careering result in back-scratching reviews and meaningless catch-all anthologies. As a result, Gioia argued, "poets and the common reader are no longer on speaking terms," and American culture stands only to lose in the process. As American readers don't imagine poetry outside of the academy, they assume that "no significant new poetry is being written." Poetry thus loses its place in other discourses, surrendering its role in "keeping the nation's language clear and honest" (whatever that means) and hailing a more general "fragmentation of American high culture" and the arts.

Seeking to return poetry to its rightful readership, Gioia harkens back to the apparently all-male mid-century of Randall Jarrell, Weldon Kees, Archibald MacLeish, Delmore Schwartz, R.P. Blackmur and Edmund Wilson in search of an active public discussion about poetry led by serious writers outside the university system. "Ill paid, overworked, and under appreciated, this argumentative group of 'practical' critics, all of them poets, accomplished remarkable things," Gioia writes. "They defined the canon of Modernist poetry, established methods to analyze verse of extraordinary difficulty, and identified the new mid-century generation of American poets. . .that still dominates our literary consciousness." To help recapture some of this spirit, Gioia concluded "Can Poetry Matter?" with a list of ways that poetry could seek to re-insinuate itself into the lives of the "educated public" and "again become a part of American public culture." Poets giving their own poetry readings should read the work of other poets as well, he advised. Arts administrators should mix poetry with other art forms, expand programming to the radio, and "plan evenings honoring dead or foreign writers." And while calling for a more serious public criticism of poetry in the media and stricter adherence to aesthetic standards by which that criticism proceeds, he also emphasized that "the sheer joy of the art" should not be lost in the process.

These are views that have shaped both Gioia's writing and the so-called "New Formalist" movement of the 1990s which Gioia was part of and which sought to resurrect the use of traditional poetic forms, particularly aiming to inject those forms with a contemporary idiom. Much of Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture reveals Gioia's dedication to this formalist vantage point. When he decries "the conspicuous lack of diversity" in current American poetry, for example, more often than not he sees that lack of diversity as a general and harmful homogeneity of form in the "new poetry" section of your library or bookstore. He especially singles out the short, first-person lyric poem for criticism and wonders where all the odes, long poems, epics, satires and parodies of former days have gone. In "Notes on the New Formalism," "The Dilemma of the Long Poem," "The Anonymity of the Regional Poet," and "The Poet in an Age of Prose," we understand that Gioia believes that changes in sensibility accompany changes in form and that a tradition of rhyme and meter is the glue holding the narrative of English poetry in place and distinguishing one poem from another. Unlike Cary Nelson, for example--a critic who prefers to read poetry for its traditions of struggle for social justice--Gioia would claim that form is the most important characteristic that poetry has going for it and that, whatever the ideas of the respective authors and whatever roles such poems played in their historic time periods, "unrhymed, unmetered, and unshaped, Petrarch and Rilke [would] sound misleadingly alike." Elsewhere Gioia worries, "What matters is that most of the craft of traditional English versification has been forgotten." If this last claim sounds alarmist, there are good reasons why it is indeed problematic. As Alice Fulton has observed (in "A Poetry of Inconvenient Knowledge" from Feeling As a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry), "The formalist debate has had American poetry in its grip since the early eighties. It's as if our aggregate imagination has been buttonholed by an obsessive, cocktail-party bore for fourteen years. . .Why has poetry allowed itself to be so monopolized? Can we talk about something else?" Secondly, when compared to other aspects of poetry's history-poems by women, poems by people of color, poems by the American left and working class (that is, aspects of poetry's history that really have been forgotten)--it hardly seems likely that the craft of versification, from Chaucer and Wyatt to Richard Wilbur, will be struck from The Norton Anthology of Poetry anytime soon. (Indeed, my Shorter Edition from 1983--8 years before Gioia's essay--contains only one appendix of 20 pages, and that focuses exclusively on the subject of "Versification.") In such remarks, however, we can see clearly what anxieties move Gioia to write as a critic and where he's likely to first locate value or quality in a piece of art.

Despite his desire to be perceived as an outsider saving poetry from the clutches of academe, Gioia's approach to poetry actually springs straight from the critical movement that first established and then maintained poetry's place in the academy--that school of "New Criticism" which, for most of the second half of the twentieth century, dominated how poetry was discussed in public and taught in schools. Indeed, at times, the vocabularies and aesthetic values that Gioia and the New Critics share are so similar that it's difficult to say whether there's any real difference between them at all.

Brandishing now-familiar terms such as "close reading" and the "ideal reader," the New Critics came most prominently to the American literature scene after World War II, as colleges and universities across the U.S. were being flooded by young men taking advantage of the G.I. Bill to further their educations. Seeking to legitimize the study of poetry as a field on a par with the sciences--as a skill that could be demonstrated, measured, and learned--men such as Cleanth Brooks, T.S. Eliot, William Empson, I.A. Richards, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren shifted the critical framework for reading away from an author's biography and intentions to what one could find in "the work itself." Privileging this "unity" of a piece of literature, they used an arsenal of critical terms which many of us remember from high school--symbol, irony, metaphor, paradox--to analyze poems for their "universal truths." These "close readings," which were (and are) especially useful activities in classrooms full of students seeking discussion instead of lectures, imagined the "meaning" of a poem as some sort of definitive, reachable, and explainable thing separate from historical, social, or material concerns of any sort. As they read, they did so from the point of view of a hypothetical "ideal reader" who knew to avoid what came to be known as the "intentional fallacy" and who understood that form is integral to content. As critical approaches to literature began to change, however, and as scholars sought to reposition literary works back in conversation with their historical time periods, histories of reception, and so on, New Criticism experienced a fall from academic grace. Before this fall, however, the study of poetry was firmly established as something done to "classic" or "canonical" works of literature, particularly to poetry, particularly in school, with a specialized or technical language aiming to uncover "universal meanings," and kept as separate as possible from the rest of worldly concerns. This approach is still visible in English Departments in high schools, colleges and universities across the country.

It's also, oddly enough, very much the critical apparatus of Can Poetry Matter: Essays on Poetry and American Culture, in which Gioia attempts to save poetry from its life-emprisonment in colleges and universities by using the same critical approach largely responsible for putting it there in the first place. In the book's final essay, "The Poet in An Age of Prose," Gioia acknowledges this link to New Criticism but claims that his "New Formalist" approaches go beyond New Criticism primarily by dealing with a larger range of formal elements and poetic forms. Unfortunately, this slight shift of focus does very little about disassembling the problematic critical lenses he inherits along the way. This is visible in many ways. Most obvious, perhaps, is the unshakable confidence he places in the notion of the "ideal reader" whom he invokes in many ways: the "general readership," the "educated reader," "our cultural intelligentsia," the "educated public," the "average American," and so on. Despite Gioia's attempts to cast his project as a populist one, he is vastly more concerned with the "fragmentation of American high culture" and "our cultural intelligentsia" than he is with a "mass audience." He explains of his own critical writing, for example: "I tried to find a style that satisfied the demands of my fellow writers and critics but was also accessible to the common reader. By the common reader, however, I did not imagine an uninformed or unreflective individual. Nor did I assume the incurious mass audience of the popular media." Later in the Preface to the book, however, he stumbles on the problems with imagining who, exactly, this ideal reader is. "Perhaps when I claimed to have written these pieces for a mixed audience of writers, critics, and readers," he reflects, "I meant I wrote them largely for myself." While he accuses contemporary poets in the university system of forming exclusive clubs that "imprison poetry in an intellectual ghetto," Gioia seems guilty of something similar--writing to an audience populated primarily by projections of himself.

The cultural role that Gioia imagines poems can play is something he shares with the New Critics as well. When he writes about the New Critical poets, and the group of New Formalist poets to which he belongs, in "The Poet in an Age of Prose," he says as much: "Both believe that poetry is an essentially intertextual art. They maintain, in other words, that poetry refers to life only through the intricately self-referential prism of language and that the individual poem discloses its full meaning only in relation to its broader literary context." One wonders, if poetry is supposed to disclose its full meaning (whatever that is) only in relation to other literary works--not to people, to history, to politics, to social issues, to culture, etc.--how it can claim to fit into its public's lives in any other meaningful way. "Occasionally a writer links up rewardingly to a social or political movement," he grants. "But," he continues, "it is a difficult task to marry the Muse happily to politics." Gioia's implications are clear: a poet has a lot better chance of writing good poetry if he or she stays as far away from the political fray as possible. As with Laura Bush, the "Muse," is apparently looking for other qualities from a poetic mate. A case in point is the example Gioia presents of Wallace Stevens. "Witness how steadfastly Stevens followed his independent imaginative course during the frenetically political thirties," Gioia writes. "Would he have been able to maintain his quirky integrity had he not been working in a Hartford insurance office?" No one's going to dispute Stevens' place among the great and innovative writers of American history; rather, the point is that, for Gioia, the poet's work would most certainly have been corrupted had it sought to more actively engage the larger culture he was living in. It would have been, as Gioia writes elsewhere--continuing the marital trope, and implying that a commitment to social justice and political action can only be a grim, uncreative, self-swallowing endeavor--"divorced from pleasure and bound to ideology."

In claiming for himself (and literature) this sort of ideological transcendence, Gioia is erecting very particular literary standards and enforcing a view of American literary history that leaves out the rich and innovative cultural heritage we find in working and labor class poems of the 1920s and 30s, Beat and Black Mountain poetry of the 50s and 60s, poetry by black and African-American individuals during the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, protest poems of the Vietnam War, and an overwhelming history of work by poets aligned with struggles for women's equality in the United States. A good many of these poems sought what Gioia might call their "full meaning" not primarily in relation to other literary works, but in relation to social and material contexts, and not solely among those readers--those "intelligent, educated, and sophisticated individuals who. . .enjoyed serious novels, film, drama, jazz, dance, classical music, painting, and the other modern arts"--whom Gioia imagines poetry is most for. Indeed, Gioia invokes this tradition of "activist" or "political" American poetry only when he tries, quite unconvincingly, to position New Formalism in its progressive footsteps as "the latest in this series of rebellions."

There are many ways to talk about what poetry can do beyond its capacity to mean in "political" or "activist" ways. Poetry constructs and expresses friendship as well as membership in larger communities. It makes us laugh. It asks how we love, asks what that means, and tries to articulate what that is like. It mediates our relationship to the divine, to a history of ideas, and to death. Gioia's rarely concerned with any of these subjects, however, and his critical position shows us what's left when you disregard poetry's subject matter: there's not much more to talk about than poetry's form. While a discussion of form can be tied very rewardingly to larger cultural issues, Gioia's interest primarily stops--as it does with the New Critics--with form as it's achieved in the poem itself. And despite his desire to trim the "specialist's" language from his criticism, these essays certainly have their fair share of New Critical terms which conjure up nightmares of English classes in high school and college: blank verse, "iambic movement," "metrical base," iambic pentameter, poetic feet, "rhythmic direction," "awkward trochees," "pure syllabics," "fixed and open forms," etc. Gioia is thus concerned with narrow notions of "perfect poems" and occupies himself with "presenting masterpieces" rather than with imagining criteria for how poems might be effective, pleasurable, social, or inspirational in other ways as well.

If one can extrapolate a model of citizenship from a poetics, it's not difficult to see how and why the Bush Administration has turned to Gioia to be the new public face of the N.E.A. As with the targets of Bush's tax cuts, for example, the people who would benefit most from Gioia's poetry plan--his "ideal readers"--are the American upper classes, his "intelligentsia." He writes at one point, "No one knows the size of this community, but even if one accepts the conservative estimate that it accounts for only 2 percent of the U.S. population, it still represents a potential audience of almost five million readers." One wonders what sort of "liberal estimate" Gioia might have in mind as an alternative figure; if a "liberal" figure is ten times the conservative estimate, Gioia is still only imagining 20 percent of Americans and leaving the other 80 percent in the conservative dust--hardly an NEA of, by, and for the people. Those segments of the population not included in Gioia's target audience are further discouraged from taking part in larger cultural and national conversations; not only are their concerns irrelevant to the functioning of art (and by extension government), but, in this view, those classes are probably best left to their "unreflective" and "incurious" selves, on the sofa and planted in front of the TV, where they can do as little harm as possible. And amazingly, this project of discouraging participation in American arts and democracy is somehow being marketed as a new, risky, rebellious and populist endeavor when, really, it's just business as usual.


III. The Business of "Business and Poetry"

Perhaps the most offensive piece in Can Poetry Matter?, however, is the book's long central essay, "Business and Poetry," which claims to ask a variety of heretofore unasked questions about the relationship of American poetry to business. Fewer writers have responded to this piece than to the book's more well-known title essay, but in many ways "Business and Poetry" best reveals why we should receive Gioia's leadership at the NEA--not to mention the Bush Administration's guiding poetic and economic aesthetics--with a good deal of skepticism if not outright protest.

In "Business and Poetry," Gioia identifies a significant number of dual-career businessmen/poets in twentieth century American literary history--T.S. Eliot (banker), Wallace Stevens (insurance), A.R. Ammons (sales), William Carlos Williams (doctor), James Dickey (advertising), etc.--and then wonders why these poets have exercised a "voluntary censorship" regarding all things business in their poems. Gioia looks for, but doesn't find, material addressing "office life, investments, interest rates, corporate politics, quarterly profits." Despite being in a poetic tradition that professes an "ability to deal with the full range of modern life," American poetry, Gioia argues, has not only retreated from speaking about the world of business, but it hasn't even "been able to look inside the walls of a corporate office and see with the same intensity what forty million Americans do during the working week." If there's any doubt as to what he is claiming, Gioia states outright: "Business does not exist in the world of poetry."

In the remainder of the essay, Gioia speculates on how a second career in business might have challenged, aided, or otherwise shaped how these and similar poets did their writing, how they related to other writers, how they met the demands of "the profession," so on and so forth. As Gioia explains that "Business turned these poets into outsiders in the literary world," one feels as if this article is informed by autobiography as much as by reasoned argument and historical support. He explains that while "the strain of managing two careers" probably frustrated Eliot, Dickey, Ammons, & Co., it also protected them from reading or writing too much. It probably sheltered them as well, he claims, from expectations normally placed on professional poets, giving them leisure to write apart from issues of promotion. In working apart from other poets and with what Gioia calls "common people," Dr. William Carlos Williams found a vital resource for his writing as patients "filled his ears with the contemporary American speech he would use so distinctively in his poems." For other dual-career poets, Gioia suggests, "the steady rhythm of office life provided a sense of security and relief" that writing ostensibly could not. It gave the poet "attainable goals--raises, promotions, pensions--in contrast to the seemingly unattainable goals of his artistic life." Finally, Gioia writes, careers in business gave these writers "security and satisfaction" since "a job is more tangible than talent. It can't vanish suddenly the way that inspiration often seems to."

It's clear from these descriptions of the working life, however, that just as Gioia's conception of the ideal reader refers to the top ten percent of an American readership, his sense of American workers is limited to management and a sector of the white-collar job world that most workers never get to see. The sense of upper-class privilege oozes almost sickeningly from the writing as Gioia talks of job security and satisfaction, job goals and, of course, jobs that don't vanish as suddenly as poetic inspiration does; the Muse, he seems to be arguing, is a much more fickle taskmaster than any echelon of management could ever be. As the United States unemployment rate approaches its highest point in 20 years--8 million Americans out of work, 2 million jobs lost since March of 2001--Gioia's sense of what it means to be an employee in the U.S. seems fantastic, almost willfully ignorant. Jobs don't vanish quickly? Pensions and promotions are attainable goals? Security and satisfaction at work? Where, one wonders, has Gioia been living? For those making clothing, working on assembly lines, cutting lawns, cleaning hotel rooms, working careers in low-paying retail positions, staffing restaurants, doing migrant work--for those (still) struggling for equal pay and workplace accommodations--for those in all of the invisible and underpaid positions in the U.S. and abroad, in inner cities, rural communities, and in suburbs--the material strain of a job and the struggle to make ends meet is certainly more tangible than the demands of poetic talent Gioia refers to. I wonder, though, how many people wouldn't trade that job for the education, vocational training, and ability that Gioia seems to take for granted? These are also some of the many people whom Gioia doesn't imagine taking part in arts programming; they--and generations of workers before--simply don't fall into the right literary tax bracket. As Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress sneakily try to eliminate child tax credits for the poorest Americans, as they attempt to eliminate overtime pay for millions more, and as Americans--including many of the salaried individuals on Gioia's radar screen--are working more hours for less pay and getting less time off, it's not surprising that the Bush Administration should be so gung-ho to appoint Gioia to the nation's top arts administration position. It's easier to justify, develop, and support programs for the richest tenth of America when the remaining 90 percent never enter the picture in the first place.

In addition to these problems with how Gioia imagines American business, there are also serious shortcomings with his notion that "Business does not exist in the world of poetry." It may be difficult to find the office cubicles, interest rates, and quarterly profits that Gioia so desires, but American poetry is, and always has been, rich with discussion about American business and American workers--oftentimes written by workers themselves, men and women. Beginning with Whitman, a printer by trade, this discussion finds itself in twentieth century poems such as those by Carl Sandburg. The famous opening lines of "Chicago," for example, offer us the city as quintessentially defined by business and commerce: "Hog Butcher for the World, / Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, / Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler. . ." Poems like Sandburg's "Muckers" give us workers laying gas mains and dramatize the complicated relationship between those who have work and those who don't. And "Child of the Romans" offers us "The dago shovelman" who pauses for lunch only to go "back to the second half of a ten-hour day's work" as a train full of people eating "strawberries and cream, eclairs and coffee" rumbles by. These poems are part of a tradition in our American poetry that critics like Gioia try to ignore but which collections like Cary Nelson's Anthology of Modern American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2000) are trying to restore in the wake of a half century of New Critical neglect.

In a sonnet written twenty years after Sandburg's free verse, African-American poet Claude McKay critiques the workings of business on a more systemic and global level: "Europe and Africa and Asia wait / The touted New Deal of the New World's hand! / New systems will be built on race and hate, / The Eagle and the Dollar will command." Genevieve Taggard complicates business and production with issues of gender and reproduction: "Clearly it is best, mill-mother, / Not to rebel or ask clear silly questions, / Saying womb is sick of its work with death, / Your body drugged with work." And Tillie Lerner Olsen uses the title "I Want You Women Up North to Know" to open her poem: ". . .how those dainty children's dresses you buy / at macy's, wanamakers, gimbels, marshall fields, / are dyed in blood, are stitched in wasting flesh, / down in San Antonio. . ." Employing one of the most traditional of poetic forms, she continues with a catalog of workers, effectively using the imagery, metaphor, alliteration, irony and paradox that a New Critical reader might be looking for:

Maria Vasquez, spinster,
            for fifteen cents a dozen stitches garments for children she has never had,
Catalina Torres, mother of four,
            to keep the starved body starving, embroiders from dawn to night.
Mother of four, what does she think of,
            as the needle pocked fingers shift over the silk-
            of the stubble-coarse rags that stretch on her own brood,
            and jut with the bony ridge that marks hunger's landscape
            of fat little prairie-roll bodies that will bulge in the
            silk she needles?

From Olsen to Langston Hughes and Muriel Rukeyser, to Philip Levine, Gwendolyn Brooks, Allen Ginsburg, Michael Harper, Robert Pinsky and many more, a significant amount of American poetry has been about--and continues to be about--the business of business. It's just hasn't been about the side that Gioia and the Bush Administration want to support.



The Poets Against the War anthology that I referred to earlier seems to have caught a lot of people by surprise, and it's making those people--other writers included--rethink what American poetry is, and can be, doing with itself. An article in a recent (July/August 2003) American Book Review, for example, claims that "Since September 11, 2001, many poets have returned to writing about public if not political life." Statements like these, however, give the impression that poets somewhere along the line stopped writing about public and political life. It's a critical slight to large segments of American poetry, as well as the causes they stand for, to so openly overlook the work that's been done consistently over the past century. These sorts of oversights help only to strengthen the Laura Bush narrative of American literature which insists, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, on seeing poetry as generally unpolitical and which no doubt imagines the current surge of public or political writing as an aberration that will eventually--pun intended--work itself out.

With Dana Gioia's appointment to the head of the NEA, Washington is not only playing the role of nation-builder these days, but it's also playing the role of literary critic. Gioia's appointment may at first, because of a longstanding mutual suspicion between poets and politicians, seem like an unexpectedly enlightened cultural move on the part of the Bush Administration. In the end, however, that appointment reveals itself to be entirely consistent with the policies of an administration committed to a very narrow segment of the population of the United States. In appointing a presumably unpolitical poet like Gioia, Bush and company have revealed just how political poetry is.







Mike Chasar is completing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa where he is writing about American poetry and popular culture. His reviews and essays have appeared in American Book Review, The Cresset, Dayton Daily News, Glimmer Train, Kansas City Star, Miami Herald, Rain Taxi, St. Petersburg Times, and The Writer's Chronicle.



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