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Poetry's New Century

Dana Gioia's Disappearing Ink

As you might expect from a writer who has served as a top marketer for a giant food corporation and is now chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, Sonoma County poet Dana Gioia examines his craft and the role of poetry not as rarified literature but as a dynamic part of the American cultural conversation.

In his new collection of essays, Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture, Gioia explores and surveys everything from rap music to Longfellow's place after Modernism, West Coast literary luminaries, the sainthood of Elizabeth Bishop and the origins of book signings.

A California native, Gioia writes passionately about the current movements in poetry during this burgeoning digital era, with an unapologetic bias for formal and narrative verse and a pronounced suspicion of "a literary culture that serves critics to the detriment of readers."

The most controversial part of the collection is an essay, "Fallen Western Star: The Decline of San Francisco as a Literary Region," that when originally published a few years ago in the Hungry Mind Review sparked not just indignation but also enough debate to collect in a subsequent book, The "Fallen Western Star" Wars.

A champion of West Coast voices, Gioia offers a pointed challenge, backed up with historical evidence, that asks San Franciscans if are we doing all we can to provide "the cultural circumstances, attitudes, and institutions to develop and perfect" the "raw artistic talent" abundant here.

"There are no longer enough non-technical journals to create the critical mass necessary for a thriving world of freelance writers. To have a literary career, young Bay Area writers must enter the academy, survive on non-literary jobs, or, like Rolling Stone, move to New York."

Gioia says that San Francisco still produces literature but no longer exports literary opinion, that Californian literary life is solitary, not immersed in a cultural milieu, and that San Francisco is to literature what New Orleans is to jazz: a great tourist attraction but not a thriving cultural engine.

It's easy to get huffy over these assertions. Indeed, counter-arguments practically flood the mind, and anyone who was at the jam-packed Youth Speaks Friendraiser earlier this month knows the passion and energy that San Franciscans give to the future of our younger poets.

But the essay raises valuable questions about regional literature, and whether it can maintain a meaningful identity beyond local color and superficial accent in the face of the global standardization of electronic media and the centralization of national literary opinion in New York.

Those questions apply well beyond our 49 square miles, and he ponders them elsewhere in the collection as he highlights poets of the West and ruminates about poetry's role in contemporary culture.

What unites the essays of Disappearing Ink is an advocacy for poetry that illuminates the complexities of experience without defining them and speaks to a universal reader in unique and startling ways. He is a critic suspicious of trends, fads, and elitism, especially of literary circles that espouse theory-du-jour interpretations or advocate "experimental" poetry, "a name given to an interesting artistic mess, the critical equivalent of an 'A' for effort." He would like to see more artists working to "redeem everyday life with all its imperfections, annoyances, and epiphanies for the imagination."

Gioia believes we all have an urgent need for quality verse that is communal, striking and precise, no matter what its form. Given his traditionalism and seeming nostalgia for a bygone San Francisco, it's a bit surprising that he celebrates the rise of electronic media, poetry slams, rap music, spoken word, as potentially democratizing agents to revitalize poetry in America.

But when he offers his guidelines to what makes a good poem, they apply just as much to a sonnet as they do to a freestyle rap. Gioia values "clarity, grace and overt musicality. A good poem, he says, "shows language in the process of discovering itself" and "acts like a piece of absolute music creating an effect on the listener that is precise but ineffable." Finally, "a lyric poem need not present a balanced view of experience; it must only be true to the moment's insight." Those are good words to write, read or rap by.

In the end, Disappearing Ink is less lamentation for days gone by when poems filled paper volumes, and more an acknowledgement of new, exciting forms of democratized poetry echoing down streets, in cafes, and across the Internet. Print may be on the wane, but poetry isn't, and Gioia's essays will help us ask ourselves where it goes from here.

Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture
by Dana Gioia
Graywolf Press; ISBN 1555974104
Paperback: 304 pages (October 2004)

Article written by Allison DeLauer