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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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?
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.
we need a clear and general definition of poetry.
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.
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?
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.
is genius the absolute against which we can measure
the quality of a poem, or is there an absolute?
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.
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?
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.
I'm asking is whether the negative attitude that
has developed toward poetry can be partly blamed
on readers of poetry?
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.
you explain the nature of Marshall McLuhan's relationship
to New Formalist poetry?
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.
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.
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.
precisely what I was going to ask...
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.
know that when people see this interview they are
going to wonder who they should be reading to make
poetry essential to culture again.
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.
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
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.
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?
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