Sunday, December 02, 2007

Ambulance Chaser

The Director of the National Endowment for the Arts appears to be a necrophiliac. Indeed, Dana Gioia is a man in love with death. For those who don't know the name, Gioia played a central role in the "death of poetry" debates of the eighties and nineties and is now ringing the death knell for reading itself. Like the blood-sucker for whom he has recently written an operatic libretto, Nosferatu, Gioia's artistic vision is one of darkness and mortality.

In a 2004 report "Reading at Risk," Gioia places blame for the demise of reading squarely on "our society’s massive shift toward electronic media for entertainment and information" and claims that "interactive electronic media, such as video games and the Internet, foster shorter attention spans and accelerated gratification." The agency's newer but equally grim report of November 2007, "To Read or Not to Read," names the same culprit for the decline of literacy: "Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media, they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading."

New media critic Siva Vaidhyanathan has drawn attention to several counterarguments to the assumptions buried in Gioia's mournful dirge. For example, one of my favorite writers on online reading, Nancy Kaplan, has looked at the way the chartjunk in the NEA report obscures alternative interpretations of the data. In "Reading Responsibly" on the website for the Institute for the Future of the Book, Kaplan points out that "a careful and responsible reading of the complete data provided by the NAEP and the NAAL undermine[s] the conclusions the NEA draws." Mathew Kirschenbaum also debates the contentions of the report in "How Reading is Being Reimagined" in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The authors of the report tend to homogenize "the computer" without acknowledging the diversity of activity — and the diversity of reading — that takes place on its screen. Our screens are spaces where new forms like blogs and e-mail and chats commingle with remediations of older forms, like newspapers and magazines — or even poems, stories, and novels . . . The report also fails to acknowledge the extent to which reading and writing have become commingled in electronic venues. The staccato rhythms of a real-time chat session are emblematic in this regard: Reading and writing all but collapse into a single unified activity. But there is a spectrum of writing online, just as there is a spectrum of reading, and more and more applications blur the line between the two.

Years ago, when writing my dissertation, I took issue with Gioia's positions in Can Poetry Matter? that only stern remedies of technical discipline and financial independence from the university would save poetry from itself. I had received a Regent's Fellowship in creative writing as an MFA student, but because I had written a book of sonnets as my master's thesis, many mistook me for a cultural conservative like Gioia. Back then, here was my take on Gioia's death fixation about poetry, in which I point out that he's an incredibly sloppy close reader.

Dana Gioa’s essay, “Notes on the New Formalism” carefully distinguishes between formal verse and “pseudo-formal” verse. According to Gioia, the latter verse assumes the visual characteristics of poetic form, but achieves no aural formal identity. In other words, these “pseudo-formal” poems lack metrical consistency, the abstract stress-grid on which language plays in a properly formalist poem.

However, there are at least two significant problems with Gioia’s reading. First, one begins to doubt his ear when he insists that William Carlos Williams was writing “two rather undistinguished lines of blank verse” when he composed “The Red Wheelbarrow.” It is certainly possible to read the poem as rough iambic pentameter, but Gioia’s particular reading demands a semantic impossibility, that no stress be placed on the syllable “wheel.” Second, his argument leads to an extremely limited notion of poetic form which values metrical regularity over all other features of verse.

This kind of new dogmatism can be seen in the introduction to Richman’s The Direction of Poetry, which not only disallows “quantitative syllabic poetry,” but also rails against forms like the sestina and the pantoum as structures contaminated by the experimentation of John Ashbery and others. He claims that they adopt “the pretense of traditional form … without employing any of its technical attributes.” Of course, to be so literal-minded as to be unable to see patterned word repetition as a kind of rhyme is almost unimaginable, but Richman and those like him promulgate a radical orthodoxy in which young poets are to write exclusively in a limited repertoire of metered and rhymed forms and evince an unquestioned faith in the reality of traditional foot metrics.

Gioia had been an executive for General Foods, where he presided over cultural institutions like "Jello Jigglers," and believed that poetry should not be a state-supported profession. He argued that the great Modernist writers all had "real" professions as doctors, insurance executives, and editors and therefore were able to produce great verse because they essentially did it as a hobby. This particular ideology about government support and the arts is obviously part of the reason that Gioia was appointed to his current post by the Bush administration, where he has aggressively sought corporate sponsorship and frustrated arts organizations that had previously assumed that the NEA was a supporter not a competitor for funding of the arts.

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Blogger Barbara said...

So writing is only good if it's something you do after your real work, and reading is only meaningful if you do it "voluntarily" - after your real work. That fits.

Like social programs, something voluntary readers do as Good Deeds in their spare time. You wouldn't want to spare any tax dollars on it or anything.

Thanks for the background. That explains a lot.

2:54 PM  

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