Last year marked the thirtieth anniversary of Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter?, a follow-up to his famous 1991 article in The Atlantic. The article and book caused quite a stir. Gioia observed that poetry was no longer a part of intellectual life in America. It was not published in national newspapers or magazines. It was not memorized in school. It was not discussed at dinner parties or bars, and it never appeared in national discourse. Poetry had “become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group” who made almost no impact on the culture at large.
What made these observations so odd is that 1991 coincided with “a moment of unprecedented expansion for the art” of poetry. There were three graduate programs in creative writing in 1950. By 1990, there were nearly two hundred. A “proliferation of literary journals and presses” followed those programs—not because people couldn’t get enough poetry, Gioia argued, but because writing teachers desperately needed “professional validation.” Poetry was written to be published, not read, and publication had become a currency exchangeable for a job teaching creative writing.
The result, Gioia wrote, was that “the integrity of the art” had been “betrayed.” Anthologies abandoned selectiveness and became something like “a comprehensive directory of creative-writing teachers.” New volumes of verse almost always received positive reviews (when they were reviewed at all), since an honest review might undermine the “cultural credibility of the professional poetry establishment.” The ensuing proliferation of mediocre work had led Joseph Epstein to declare in 1988 that poetry in America was dead. The “sheer mass of mediocrity,” Gioia wrote, “frightened away most readers.” Meanwhile, poets of genuine accomplishment struggled to rise above the mire.
Gioia concluded his essay with six “modest proposals” that might allow poetry to reconnect to the general reader and “again become a part of American public culture.” Poets should read the work of others in addition to their own, and they should study other arts, such as music. Teachers should spend more time on poetry memorization and performance, and editors should include only poems “they genuinely admire” in anthologies. Gioia’s two most insightful recommendations were that poets writing about poetry should do so “more candidly” and that poets “should use radio to expand the art’s audience.”
What is the situation today? Have any of Gioia’s proposals been attempted and, if so, what affect have they had on poetry’s standing? Are we still awash in mediocre verse? Is poetry any more present in American public life than it was some thirty years ago? Does poetry matter now?
When Gioia published Can Poetry Matter?, a few national magazines published poetry, but the works tended to be either the elliptical verse favored at many MFA programs—that is, poetry composed of fragments sprinkled with allusions to Daffy Duck or Walter Benjamin—or straightforwardly political poems, with a few sentimental Billy Collins ditties on sex or death to keep readers loyal. Exceptions such as the Hudson Review and the New Criterion proved the rule.
Things have improved marginally since. First Things has carried original poetry in its pages from its inception in 1990. In July 2001, National Review began publishing a poem in each issue, something it had not done since the early days of the magazine. The excellent monthly 32 Poems was launched in 2002. Christian Wiman published poems of exceptional quality during his tenure at Poetry from 2003 to 2013. (The magazine has been in steady decline since he left—a decline that has accelerated since Black Lives Matters took over the national discourse.) The Contemporary Poetry Review was a source of witty and honest criticism from its founding in 1998 until its closure in 2015. The Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers launched Literary Matters in 2016, which contains a selection of excellent verse in each issue.
The New York Times and the Washington Post now regularly review new volumes of poetry, but the reviews tend to be pro forma rather than serious attempts to engage and evaluate a poet’s accomplishment. The only regular poetry column in a national newspaper was, until recently, Elizabeth Lund’s unflinchingly sunny one at the Washington Post, which recommended—indiscriminately—what she called “the best books of poetry” each month. They always happened to be the volumes publishers were hyping at the time.
There are critics, notably William Logan and Adam Kirsch, who have come into their own over the last thirty years, plus a handful of younger poet-critics, including Jason Guriel and Anthony Madrid, who give some hope for the future. But elegant, honest criticism is still difficult to find.
The return of poetry to the radio and the rise of the internet have marked the biggest shift in poetry’s fortunes since the appearance of Gioia’s argument. In 1993, Garrison Keillor’s short program The Writer’s Almanac brought poetry back to the airwaves. New York Public Radio broadcasted PoetryNow, which featured contemporary poets reading and discussing their work, from 2015 to 2019. The former Poet Laureate of the United States, Tracy K. Smith, started in 2018 a poetry podcast called The Slowdown, on which she read one poem a day. PBS’s Poetry in America, which was first broadcast in 2018, features guests reading and discussing modern and contemporary poems. The number of podcasts featuring poetry have become too numerous to count.
But it is social media that have had the biggest impact on poetry’s visibility. A survey by the National Endowment for the Arts published in 2018 found that the percentage of adults who reported reading poetry had nearly doubled in the five years from 2012 to 2017. In 2012, 6.7 percent of adults reported reading at least some poetry. In 2017, 11.7 percent did. That was the first increase in reading poetry the NEA had ever recorded. The biggest gain was among young people, ages eighteen to twenty-four: A whopping 17.5 percent reported reading poetry in 2017 compared to 8.2 percent in 2012. The percentage of women reading poetry increased from 8 to 14.5 percent. The percentage of men reading poetry increased from 5.2 to 8.7 percent. Although the NEA’s excellent Poetry Out Loud program, which helps teachers bring poetry into the classroom in an engaging way and sponsors an annual reading competition, has likely helped introduce young people to poetry, these increases have been driven primarily by social media. Platforms such as Twitter and Instagram are particularly suited for sharing poems.
But what kind of poetry issues from social-media platforms? Rupi Kaur, who began sharing her poetry on Instagram as a teenager, published her first print book in 2014 at the age of twenty-two. It sold more than three million copies. She currently has 4.5 million followers on Instagram. One of her more popular poems is “Not Your Hobby.” She writes:
walk in and out of me
like a revolving door
i have too many miracles
happening inside me
to be your convenient option
Another popular one is “Women of Color”:
no books have
the spine to
Rupi Kaur’s other poems are much the same. Her two modes are writing about teenage romance with a seriousness that would make Taylor Swift blush and making the au courant political statement.
Other “Instapoets,” as they are called, have followings that have likewise proven surprisingly lucrative. The pseudonymous poet Atticus prints his or her “poetry” on wine bottles, T-shirts, hats, and jewelry. You can buy an Atticus black crewneck sweater for $65 with the phrase “She was just my kind of crazy” on it. Or you can buy a T-shirt for $35 with “I’ll love you but just this twice” printed on the back. These aren’t poems, obviously. They are marketing copy written to move product.
Amanda Gorman, who rose to fame after she read her work at Joe Biden’s inauguration, is not an “Instapoet,” but her work is similar in that it is written to capitalize on ready-made feelings. Take her poem “Fury and Faith,” which appears in her first full-length book, Call Us What We Carry, published at the end of last year. In one stanza, she writes:
Black lives matter.
No matter what.
Black lives are worth living.
Worth every struggle.
We owe it to the fallen to fight,
But we owe it to ourselves to never stay kneeling
When the day calls us to stand.
I appreciate Gorman’s rejection of perpetual victimhood in the final two lines of this stanza, but the poem is otherwise a string of slogans that rely on the reader’s experience of the mediated world of Twitter and Instagram. This is perhaps why her poems work so well on Super Bowl halftime shows and advertisements. Gorman’s poems don’t tell a story. They don’t create a scene with concrete imagery. They are not discursive. They are pat immediacy. They recycle ready-made language and rely on performative gimmicks (such as printing poems on black paper in white type) to give them an air of originality.
So where are we today, thirty years after Can Poetry Matter? We are still awash in mediocre verse. The only difference is that now people are reading it. Poets still write flat, fragmented verse to demonstrate they’ve learned the rules of the game and can now teach others those rules. Gioia rightly observed that this is poetry-as-a-means-to-an-end. But the ready-made and sloganeering work of the Instapoets is also poetry-as-a-means-to-an-end, though sometimes a more lucrative one. Political poems always run the risk of turning into propaganda, but the political language of Gorman’s poetry, for example, lacks the earnestness of even the worst kind of political poem. She doesn’t hope to change minds, only to profit from minds that are already changed.
The rise of formally accomplished poets capable of writing sardonic and sensitive verse, rejecting both the sloppy solipsism of the confessional mode and the studied nonsense of elliptical verse, has been a bright spot in the past thirty years. One thinks of Amit Majmudar, Christian Wiman, Tracy K. Smith, Ryan Wilson, and many others. These poets are only rarely published in prestigious publications (or, at least, publications with a prestigious legacy), and the group that should be the biggest supporter of these poets—conservatives—has tended to ignore poetry and the arts. When conservatives do write about poetry or literature, they do so almost always in terms of its moral content. Conservatives used to write books on ambiguity and form with titles such as The Well Wrought Urn and The Verbal Icon. Now, if political or religious conservatives write about poetry at all, they emphasize how it shapes the moral imagination and teaches us how to live. (A parallel approach is the psychological instrumentalization of poetry one finds in books such as Jill Bialosky’s Poetry Will Save Your Life. In one passage, Bialosky writes: “When I’m slightly down or feeling overlooked, I think of Emily Dickinson’s ‘I’m Nobody’ and smile at my lapse into self-pity.”)
This is to espouse a view of poetry that, though more noble than that of the Instapoets, is not different in kind. To value poetry primarily for how it teaches humility and kindness, for how it teaches us to be good friends and citizens, to act justly, or to love well is likewise to view poetry as a means to an end. To value it primarily for what it says rather than how it says it is to undermine its integrity. This leads sooner or later to the subjugation of poetry to politics or theology (or psychology), which, in turn, renders it useless to society as poetry. Poetry is an essential part of society—but only as itself and not as a vehicle for something else.
In his essay “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” Michael Oakeshott maintains that the intellectual life of a society is best understood as a conversation rather than a shared “inquiry, or debate among inquirers, about ourselves and the world we inhabit.” The problem with understanding public discourse as an inquiry, Oakeshott argues, is that it acknowledges only one “voice”—that of “argumentative discourse” or the language of “practical activity,” which Oakeshott associates principally with politics.
The two most common voices in society aside from politics are science and poetry. These voices have properties that are distinct from the language of practical activity, Oakeshott argues, and one characteristic of a healthy society is the real presence of all three in conversation with one another:
As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves. Of course there is argument and inquiry and information, but where they are profitable, they are to be recognized as passages in this conversation, and perhaps they are not the most captivating of the passages. It is the ability to participate in this conversation, and not the ability to reason cogently, to make discoveries about the world, or to contrive a better world, which distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilized man from the barbarian.
Defining society in terms of one voice is a kind of barbarism because of its violence and bad taste. It demands that other voices either keep silent or speak only in the tenor of the single voice. At a time like ours, which values the practical voice above all, science, for example, may be allowed to speak—but only if it offers solutions to practical problems. Poetry may speak, too, but only if it advocates revolution or right living. This stricture leads to a discourse that is dogmatic and dull, certainly not “an unrehearsed intellectual adventure.” Each voice, Oakeshott writes, “is prone to superbia, that is, an exclusive concern with its own utterance, which may result in its identifying the conversation with itself and its speaking as if it were speaking only to itself.”
Education, which used to be understood as an induction into the conversation that is civilization, now understands itself primarily as a problem-solving and knowledge-acquiring enterprise. It trains students in the use of a single voice. Such an education is barbaric, no matter how developed it may be. An increasingly monopolized discourse, Oakeshott writes, “will not only make it difficult for another voice to be heard, but it will also make it seem proper that it should not be heard.”
For Oakeshott, regaining the voice of poetry as poetry is a step toward reviving civilization. What are the characteristics of the voice of poetry? For Oakeshott, the poetic voice is distinguished by the beauty of its language and images, which produce a contemplative delight. Poetic language is not mimetic, but generative: It “begins and ends as language.”
How does poetry, as a “contemplative delight” that “begins and ends as language,” contribute to the great conversation? Some argue, Oakeshott writes, that poetry contributes by providing rest from useful tasks, after which speakers can return with renewed vigor to practical problems. Others argue that poetry performs “a variety of useful” tasks itself, such as disseminating “moral values” or helping us to see things “as they really are.” Both of these accounts of poetry’s contribution are misguided, according to Oakeshott, since both admit poetry to the conversation on terms established by the practical voice alone. Poetry needs to be admitted on equal terms.
Oakeshott argues that poetry is an escape from the other two discourses, and not an escape that is in the service of those discourses. It is an escape for the sake of an escape. The voice of poetry is valuable for its difference alone. The voice of practical language is likewise an escape from poetry and science. The voice of science is an escape from practical language and poetry. To refer to escapism with a “note of deprecation,” Oakeshott writes, “merely advertises an imperfect understanding of the conversation.”
Like Aristotle, Oakeshott views balance as inherently good. The conversation of mankind is good to the degree that each voice speaks in its own idiom in the right proportion regardless of the direction of the conversation. Oakeshott espouses an art-for-art’s-sake view of poetry. He would likely agree with W. H. Auden’s famous line in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”: “poetry makes nothing happen.” (What Auden means by “nothing” is another question.)
There is one problem with Oakeshott’s theory of voices, however: His definition of each is too strict. According to Oakeshott, the practical voice is concerned only with solving problems. For him, all utterances in this idiom are directed exclusively at this. But, of course, that is not true. One can write a book or an essay that focuses primarily on a practical matter but that also seeks to please—that shows a concern for how something is said as well as what is said. Science may be marked primarily by uninhibited curiosity, but it may also seek to solve problems. Poetry may be concerned primarily with creating images that delight us with their economy and elegance, but the moral significance of those images is not negligible. Oakeshott admits as much when he writes that “some of the things said in this manner”—that is, regarding how poetry contributes to our moral education—“may not be ill-observed or untrue.” Poetry is mimetic. It does help us to see things “as they really are,” especially immaterial things such as love and justice, by re-presenting them in images. But poetry’s value is not found exclusively in what it expresses.
What Oakeshott gets right is that if poetry is admitted to “the conversation of mankind” only to the degree that it contributes to moral education—to the degree that it offers solutions to practical problems defined by the practical voice—then that is a violence against poetry. It is to admit poetry merely as a means to an end. The form of poetry is valuable in its own right. It is inherently pleasing. If poetry is to regain its integrity in American intellectual life, we must take seriously not only what it says but how it says it.
But poetry also has a secondary benefit: It shows us that an ordered life is a beautiful life. Robert Penn Warren argues in Democracy and Poetry that poetry as poetry can be a model of a rightly “organized self.” Christopher Lasch believed that one might learn any number of virtues from literature—courage, self-discipline, charity. Warren believed the same, but says that the form of poetry expresses something even more profound: “The form of a work represents, not only a manipulation of the world, but an adventure in selfhood. It embodies the experience of a self vis-à-vis the world, not merely as a subject matter, but as translated into the experience of form.”
Style and form are not merely examples and guides in what Warren calls “the adventure of selfhood.” They also teach us that it is good to entertain, to be a good conversationalist. Focusing exclusively on the moral content of poetry may—and it’s a big may—teach kids to be good, but it also teaches them to be bores. Reading poetry as poetry develops an appreciation for restraint, whether or not it teaches us to practice it. It develops an appreciation for wit, for understatement, for the pleasure of finding just the right word, for the beauty of harmony and variation. It teaches us that a life occupied exclusively with practical concerns isn’t a full one.
There is no immediate lesson to be learned, for example, in the parade of vowels and alveolar consonants in the first stanza of Amit Majmudar’s wonderful poem “Metamorphoses”:
A turkey, turnkey, turncoat, dovecote, dove
waddles and wavers and wings her way above,
crossing horizons, orisons, seasons, seas . . .
A turkey is mistaken for a dove or—more likely, becomes one through a trick of the imagination—which is replicated in a trick of language in the slight changes in phonemes in the first line. One thing becomes another through comparison. But the movement and flight of both birds—different and strangely similar—become more wholly their own through comparison, too. The exhilaration of discovering unexpected similarities or the surprise of seeing a sudden change (a dove breaking into flight) is the same in art and nature, Majmudar writes in the second stanza, and both art and nature think “nothing of it.” “A pageant in a grove” is the same as “a page in Ovid.”
The lesson, if there is one, is that moments like these—seeing a turkey or a dove waddle into flight or reading phantasmagorical Ovid at night—are the stuff of life. They need no rationale, no grand theory, no secondary benefit without which they would be somehow lesser. Take them or leave them: They are their own things, and it is right to treat them as such.
Micah Mattix is poetry editor of First Things.
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