Rebel With a Cause 
An interview with Dana Gioia
By Bobby Maddex

From Gadfly March 1998


Dana Gioia is generally considered the leader of the New Formalist movement in poetry, but can his small band of revolutionaries make us care about their efforts? Gioia brings us news from the poetic front.

It seems as if all modes of expression, including religious expression, have run their cycle in the sense that they've evolved from the formal to the extremely casual back to the formal again. Before we get into the reasons behind New Formalist poetry, I wonder if a return to form—to discipline, to the liturgical—is a result of having run out of new options. Has art, in general, run its course?

DG: Anyone who's paying attention to the contemporary art world understands that it's in a state of serious crisis at the moment. Most American art has spiritually exhausted itself. To me, at least, much of the art seems vacuous, hollowly clever or so over‑intellectualized that it really doesn't touch on those things that are central to people's lives. When a high culture goes bankrupt, it's very natural for people to look for alternatives because their intellectual and spiritual needs never go away. One of the most interesting things that seems to be happening across the arts right now is a return to ritual as a sort of expressive form of human communication. You see this in music and literature, and you're even beginning to see it in art and architecture.

You've compared the reaction to this resurgence in poetic form and narrative to the conservative reaction in the 50s to rock and roll. Why is it, do you think, that artistic expression is such an inflammatory subject? Why do people care so deeply?

The cultural establishment is just another power structure. And every power structure hates to see its control challenged. The biggest obstacle to cultural revival in the United States is the older generation in charge of major institutions. Why should they want anything to change when they're in charge? The poetry movement called New Formalism fundamentally challenges the assumptions of academics who declare that rhyme, meter and narrative are dead. It's committed to the idea that poetry not only deserves, but needs an audience outside the English department. Once the audience of an art becomes too narrow, the art form atrophies. That is one of the fundamental problems in American culture today across all of the arts. They have become parochial and over‑specialized. There's no longer a meaningful give and take between artist and audience.

It's interesting to note, too, that in this case it's the supposedly liberal‑minded intellectuals who are balking at what they consider to be a conservative movement—a sort of reversal in roles. Are you saying that the leftist intellectual—for lack of a better term—has become the entrenched institution?

I no longer believe that "right" and "left" are meaningful concepts in American culture. I think it's a distorted simplification to divide culture into conservatives and liberals. There's a new consensus developing that borrows concepts from both "right" and "left." I think it's much more helpful to say that as the avant‑garde grew older and gained power, it simply became the new establishment. That, in itself, contradicts everything that the avant‑garde claimed to stand for. I think it makes much more sense to think of this in terms of generational politics and institutional power. The avant‑garde in the United States is not terribly different from a large government agency. It's true that the academic establishment which is overwhelmingly leftist has tried to dismiss New Formalism as a right‑wing, reactionary movement. This is pure, uninformed propaganda. What the establishment doesn't want to admit is that the impulse behind New Formalism and other similar movements crosses a wide range of political and social groups, all of whom are dissatisfied with the current state of American culture.

Several literary movements which started out in what you have called bohemia—beat poetry, feminist poetry, confessional poetry—were eventually adopted into the academy. In a society where the turn‑around rate from avant‑garde to mainstream is such a quick and inevitable process, how can you keep this from happening? And are you concerned that in, say, twenty years, academic institutions will teach form at the expense of all other modes of expression?

The artist in modern society needs to stand outside the institutions of power. That is the only way that his/her vision can stay honest. The great temptation for the contemporary artist—as it was in the 19th century—is to become an academician or a cultural bureaucrat. The most valuable thing that an artist can do for society is to give a candid, disinterested point of view on the world. In order to provide that the artist must, in a sense, maintain freedom from institutional control, even though that freedom will inevitably come at an economic cost.

As for your second question: I don't think that New Formalism is in immediate danger of becoming academically fashionable. I was personally attacked at great length twice this past month by two full professors of English who consider me the great Satan. The most talented poets who have been called New Formalists are writers of extraordinary gifts. They are not narrow‑minded ideologues. Many of them write in both free and formal measures. Some of them also write fiction, drama, essays and memoirs. I can't understand why any poet would want to give up the full range of literary possibilities for a narrow set of techniques. I write both prose and verse, and am currently writing the libretto for an opera. I want to enjoy a kind of 19th century career and be a complete man of letters, rather than a literary specialist.

I was thinking about how specialization is dividing up and narrowing our fields of expertise to the point where we as individuals are now limited to a single field of knowledge—a lawyer handles the law, a mechanic is the only person who can fix a car. In other words, that whole notion of the renaissance man is gone. Could you comment a little bit more on that?

It's dangerous to live in a culture in which people know a great deal only about one subject and nothing about everything else. First of all, I think that most intelligent people have the capacity to master a range of subjects, and I also think a society is healthier which has ongoing discussions across areas of knowledge. I'm most interested in intellectuals who, while rooted deeply in at least one discipline, have the ability to speak to a mixed audience. I also maintain that it's actually more difficult and challenging to write to a mixed audience than to one of specialists. While academics purport that they are writing more profoundly while in the jargon of a particular discipline, I suspect that it really creates a kind of intellectual complacency and parochialism.

Perhaps we need a clear and general definition of poetry.

That's a terrific point. In fact, I believe if you asked many professors of English to define poetry they would be unable to clearly explain it. They have become so specialized, even within their own subject of study, that although they intuitively understand what poetry is, they've lost their ability to define it to an outsider. Poetry is a special kind of speech that invites and rewards a special kind of listening. It's a type of language that has been stylized in a particular way to make it more concise, memorable and expressive. Poetry is holistic language that simultaneously speaks to our intellect, emotions, intuition, imagination and, last but not least, our physical bodies. Robert Frost once defined poetry as a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget. And I think this is also at the heart of poetry. If you follow me, I'm not defining poetry as a kind of subject matter or a kind of style. It's a way of using language that goes all the way back to the beginnings of human culture. Poetry is not merely a sophisticated art, it's a primal, ancient art. And that's why it will never go away. As long as people use language to describe their lives and situations, the need for poetry will remain. Other arts may answer other needs, but poetry reflects the fact that humanity is a linguistic species.

Continuing on this idea of poetry as an ancient art, you've said that the proper place for poetry is at the center of a dialogue between the past and the present. And a little earlier you stated that poetry shouldn't be limited to form but should branch out into free verse when it fits a poem's content. Where should the balance be struck between a responsibility to tradition and a responsibility to the work?

An individual poem comes out of the meeting of three different forces: the life experience of the poet, the living language at the moment of composition and the entire history of language. When a poet uses a word, image or symbol in a poem, the proper use of that element reflects every way in which it has been used before. There's no correct ratio between those three aspects. It will differ from poet to poet, from poem to poem. The important thing is for the writer to be aware that he/she has a responsibility to all three forces. A writer who tries to write a poem in complete ignorance of the history of language and literature is on a fool's errand. And a writer who believes that he/she can create a poem that doesn't touch the living language of the moment is an antiquarian. The challenge of art is that there's never a set formula for creation. Every work and, indeed, every line of every poem requires a qualitative judgment to balance all of the conflicting aims of the work. That is why writing great poetry requires genius. What we call artistic genius is a kind of integrating intelligence that reconciles all of these different aspects.

So is genius the absolute against which we can measure the quality of a poem, or is there an absolute?

Untalented people will never write great poems except by accident. Great poetry requires great talent. Indeed, it usually requires genius. One of the reasons I think New Formalism has become such an influential movement in American poetry is the number of extraordinarily talented writers who have chosen to experiment with rhyme, meter and narrative. The most talented artists in any era will either intuitively or consciously choose certain styles because those are the avenues of expression that offer the most opportunities. I think that it's pretty obvious to any poet of real talent in America right now that the avant‑garde is dead. So the avant‑garde tends to attract unadventurous writers. When experimentalism becomes the established style, it attracts people who are consensus‑seekers, rather than revolutionaries. I think it's very important for young artists to work not only in a certain style they like, but reject styles they think are exhausted. I think most people who are New Formalists got there through intuition. It's a movement that's trying to reconcile high art and popular art, to take the kind of energy and immediacy that you find in film, rock music and other forms of popular art and to match it with the rigor, intensity and empowering use of tradition that you find in high art. Whenever serious art grows too remote from popular art, I think it begins to decay. One of the best ways of revitalizing high art is to look at the best popular art of one's time, as well as to go back and look at the best serious art of another era to gain perspective on your own situation.

With the New Formalists trying so hard to make poetry accessible again to the culture at large, what do readers need to bring to the table? Do they need to be held accountable to the same tradition that the writers of poetry do?

Poetry that's hard to write need not necessarily be hard to read. The ideal reader of New Formalism has some knowledge of poetry but is not a specialist. What he/she brings is the fullness of human nature—a brain, heart, soul and body—and a willingness to be surprised, delighted or consoled.

What I'm asking is whether the negative attitude that has developed toward poetry can be partly blamed on readers of poetry?

Too many intelligent readers have been frightened away from contemporary poetry. Who has frightened them away? The leading critics, editors, anthologists and, in many cases, established writers. No one should feel too bad about being wary of contemporary poetry. Most published poetry is mediocre or worse. No one in the poetry establishment is allowed to admit this otherwise universally recognized truth.

Could you explain the nature of Marshall McLuhan's relationship to New Formalist poetry?

Our literary culture is currently undergoing a vast transformation from the printed word to the spoken word. New electronic media, like radio, television, CDs, tape recorders and even long‑distance phones, are shifting our responsibility not entirely, but meaningfully away from the visual culture of typography to the aural culture of the spoken word. In fact, it's returning literature to the balance that it has had during most of the last 2,000 years. Shakespeare wrote his plays to be spoken and heard, not read. Dante wrote The Divine Comedy to be read aloud.

Out of this cultural change we've seen a whole variety of poetic forms emerge, the most widespread of which is rap music: a spoken, performance‑oriented, quasi‑improvised poetry. There's also in the American West a huge movement called Cowboy poetry. These are spoken, narrative poems written in ballad stanza. When you're writing poems to be heard, you naturally return to those formal features like rhyme, meter and story‑telling that characterize oral poetry everywhere in the world. I think this is a cultural change that's so broad it has been missed by the specialists. But it was exactly the sort of thing that Marshall McLuhan began to notice in the 50s and 60s.

Today, the change has gone far beyond anything in McLuhan's time, but almost exactly the way he predicted. McLuhan has maintained that as you add new media they change the balance of senses and sensory information in the human mind. If you invent lots of media that are about heard language vs. seen language then it's going to change your whole relationship to language in very fundamental ways. Now I'm not saying that people are all illiterate. I'm not saying that visual language is entirely dead. I'm just saying that if you change the balance a tiny bit, the most natural thing in the world is for artists to begin to write differently. And that's exactly what's happening. The New Formalists are, ironically, the new avant‑garde, even though they borrow many techniques from the past. They are the poets who most clearly express the technological and cultural changes of the larger society. Having said that, however, we have to recognize that all poetry is not good poetry.

That's precisely what I was going to ask...

People don't understand this. Just because I say something reflects cultural change doesn't mean that I'm saying it's good art. I think rap is, in some ways, the kind of contemporary poetry that most closely reflects the new technology around us, but I don't think that it's very good by artistic standards. An artist who recognizes his/her audience's real relationship to language and literature, however, is going to have a higher likelihood of creating good work. I'm infamous in the tiny world of American poetry because I'm willing to give poets bad reviews. As I said earlier, most poetry published today is mediocre and, in fact, most New Formalist poetry is mediocre. However, the best New Formalist poetry is, I believe, among the best poetry being written today in the English language. But again, no style will make a mediocrity into a good poet. However, the wrong style can cripple a talented writer.

I know that when people see this interview they are going to wonder who they should be reading to make poetry essential to culture again.

First of all, I would encourage every reader to look at both old poets and new ones. If someone has not read Robert Frost, W.H. Auden or Emily Dickinson, look no further. If you want to read contemporary poetry, however, I think that you'll find no better introduction to the younger poets than Rebel Angels. The book contains twenty‑five young writers who are, for the most part, very different in their themes and approaches, even though all of them do write in form.

In the case of a young person who does have talent and aspirations of becoming a poet, would they do best to avoid creative writing programs and live life instead?

Any young person who wants to be a poet must take primary responsibility for their own artistic development. No writing program is going to turn anyone into a great poet. If you enter a writing program at the right time and find the right teacher, it might help you. But poets today still learn to write poetry the way they did a thousand years ago: by reading the great poetry of the past, mastering the technique of poetry and dedicating their lives to the refinement of their craft. It also helps to suffer a little bit. I believe that a writing program can easily damage a writer, as much as help him/her. If a young writer chooses to enter a graduate program, he/she needs to protect that fragile core of talent inside their imagination. One can learn a great deal from writing programs, but they can also turn the young writer into a generic artist.

You wrote an extremely controversial essay for the Atlantic in 1991 titled "Can Poetry Matter?" To close this discussion, why does it matter? What would be the result if we didn't have poetry?

We need poetry because we use language to describe our lives not only to one another but to ourselves. Poetry remains the most concise, expressive, moving and memorable way we use language with one another. When a society loses its capacity for poetry, it loses its ability to use language in its most intense form.