Dana Gioia's DISAPPEARING INK: Poetry at the End of the Print Culture
Dana Gioia is an interesting face in the social structure of poetry in America. He is currently the head of the National Endowment for the Arts and has long been one of the most controversial voices in contemporary poetry. He is both a proponent of breaking the bounds of academic poetry that keeps published, paying poetry in the hands of the few, and a believer in keeping the “high” literary standards of poetry that seem to have placed poetry in those hands.
Love him or hate him, Gioia keeps a lively discussion of the nature, future, and fate of American poetry going strong. His first book of essays, Can Poetry Matter?, generated, or some might say provoked hundreds of answering essays, articles and just plain old arguments over dinner between poets, scholars and critics across the nation. His new book, Disappearing Ink is no different. It discusses the changing face of not only poetry, but also society, in the face of the digital age, when most people get all of their information in auditory forms like TV, radio, and live performance rather than written form.
Before a review of the book can be started a brief overview of Gioia’s chosen discussion form, the essay, should be given. An essay, for those who have blocked memories of high school or college from their brains, is a short literary composition focusing on a single subject in which the author presents his or her personal view. According to the dictionary it is also a format that is a “testing or trial of the value of a nature of a thing” which relates to another word in English usage, assay, as in, "to perform a qualitative or quantitative analysis of a substance...to determine its components." Gioia’s essays are a combination of personal opinion and an attempt to weigh the value of the changing landscape of what he calls “print culture.” His discussion begins with the theory that slam, cowboy, performance and rap poetry have done something that no academy or ivy league school has managed to do: re-popularize poetry for the average citizen.
“We are now seeing a generation of young intellectuals who are not willing to immerse themselves in the world of books.” This statement reflects what may be the best recommendation for reading what Gioia has to say about poetry: he never laments the decline of the printed word or the fact that the process that has brought poetry back to the forefront of American entertainment is not a resurgence of the academic. Instead, he states the facts, as a scientist would, neither afraid nor judgmental, but rather in awe of the interesting turn that the experiment has taken. He states, “There is probably no more important argument in our culture because this issue focuses on the means by which our society uses language, images, and ideas to represent reality.” In short, he notes, where the message was the medium, it is now the medium that creates the message, and something that influential needs a closer inspection.
Gioia’s discussion of oral poetry is also interesting in that he is, above all, a literary scholar and brings all of his knowledge of past forms of poetry to his discussion of the current popular forms like slam and rap the way only your freshman English teacher could with one exception: he is using his essays as a way to encourage discussion. In other words, rather than telling you what the state of poetry is, he is encouraging you to think about what the state of poetry is and respond. The great thing about essays is that they encourage response.
In keeping with a discussion of the current state of poetry and his academic life, Gioia’s dissection and comparison of rap lyrics to Mother Goose rhymes is both amusing and informative. And while given Gioia’s background in academia, he could fall into the tone of lecturing the new poets, his discussion is not only a reaching out to the performance poets, he is also waving his arms at his fellow academics much as someone would a boat heading into a shallow part of ocean filled with rocks. He tells both sides: “Any serious attempt to assess poetry’s current position will need to proceed in unorthodox ways—not out of intellectual perversity but from sheer necessity—because the orthodox views of contemporary poetry no longer are either useful or accurate in portraying the rapidly changing shape of the art.” In this case the unorthodox would be for academic and performance sides of poetry to begin a discourse.
Gioia’s essays are broken into three focuses. The first group is titled “Disappearing Ink” and it covers Gioia’s views on the shift in culture and poetry from the written word to the oral word. The second section, “West Coast Elegies” is perhaps the most interesting for Los Angeles and Northern California poets with its discussions of “The Decline of San Francisco as a Literary Region,” and “On Being a California Poet.” The last section is the author’s most personal and hopeful section entitled, “All I Have is a Voice,” in which he focuses on specific poets who have both cemented the academic view of poetry (even though they may have been rebels in their own day), and the writers who challenged the status quo including Elizabeth Bishop, Barbara Howes, Philip Levine, and Donald Justice.
Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in a discussion of the craft of poetry, as well as those who believe that they know all they need to know about poetry. In the end, everyone can benefit by a discussion of a subject they have a vested interest in whether they agree on the specifics or not. Any discussion of poetry that generates more discussion, or argument in the Greek sense rather than the “Chicago Way” as Sean Connery puts it in The Untouchables, is good, but for discussion to continue, both sides of the argument must be represented. If one side refuses to project their voice into the discussion then the one- sided opinions that result are the fault of those who remain silent on the subject.
I am a big proponent of the idea that poetry is a craft and to that end believe that a clinical discussion of poetry and its place in both the literary world and the world at large can only benefit the craft and the people who love it. While I do not always side with Gioia’s views on poetry, I am grateful that there is a voice crying out in the wilderness that longs for poetry to rise to its former status as a literary force in the U.S. that exists in the life of every man, woman and child.
DISAPPEARING INK: Poetry at the End of the Print Culture, Dana Gioia , Greywolf Press, $16.00