Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

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Saturday, July 1, 2017

Baudelaire’s “Painter of Modern Life”

Numbers in parentheses refer to the translation of Baudelaire’s essay readily available at http://www.writing.upenn.edu/library/Baudelaire_Painter-of-Modern-Life_1863.pdf. The French text may be read at https://www.uni-due.de/lyriktheorie/texte/1863_baudelaire.html among other sites. Numbers in brackets refer to endnotes.

In “The Painter of Modern Life” Baudelaire managed to define the character of the art of his own time with sufficient acumen and aptness that much of what he said remains useful today, a century and a half later. Indeed, to many literary historians Baudelaire is the first modern poet. In his own time, Verlaine declared that he represents “puissament et essentiellement l’homme modern” [1], and this opinion has since become a commonplace. [2] Baudelaire’s exemplary painter (called in the essay M.G. but since identified as Constantin Guys) is described as self-taught, transcending earlier aesthetic standards. The artist’s peculiarly modern excellence is a result of his radical rebellion and his absorption in the modern scene, his fascination with the tumult and confusion of mass life in the present urban-centered era, redefining what has become of “the work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction,” in Benjamin’s phrase. In many ways Baudelaire’s vision was prescient, extending the trajectory of artistic Bohemia beyond his own day and anticipating twentieth century concepts of hip, while in certain respects, in particular the willful facelessness of Monsieur M.G., Baudelaire’s judgement seems wide of the mark.

Going far beyond those who contributed to the Salon des Réfusés, Baudelaire chooses to champion a self-taught artist (2) who worked primarily as an illustrator and cartoonist. This choice implicitly overturns not merely the specific taste represented by the Académie des Beaux-Arts’ Salon de Paris, the most prestigious French exhibit since the middle of the eighteenth century, which Manet and the impressionists were challenging. Baudelaire’s more far-reaching critique questions fundamental aesthetic values, thus anticipating the rhetoric of the twentieth century Futurists, Dadaists, and Surrealists.

Indulging his taste for provocation, Baudelaire praises M.G. for not being an artist but rather a “man of the world” (“homme du monde”). He asserts that most artists are “very skilled brutes, mere manual laborers, village pub-talkers with the minds of country bumpkins.” This conventional type is “tied to his palette like a serf to the soil.” On the other hand with a bias toward the irrational that has been familiar since the Romantic era M.G.’s integrity is implied when he is said to paint like a barbarian, a child, a drunk, or a convalescent. (1,3) [3]

This posture echoes the poet’s rebellious impulse to overturn values. The very title of his principal work Les Fleurs du Mal arises from a perverse wish to celebrate what the world condemns. [4] Often he does not trouble to provide justification, relying instead on the strength of his vituperation to stimulate a corrective review of values rather than straightforwardly making a case for alternatives. Who, indeed, would actually celebrate evil? What Parisian would feel only “spleen” while strolling the streets of the capital? Baudelaire’s fascination with lesbianism likewise signals more an attempt, successful as it happened, to be outré than a fetish of his own. Just as much supposed diabolism (in outlaw biker and heavy metal imagery, for instance) is not so much devil-worship as baiting the pious, Baudelaire seeks a rhetorical, not a logical, effect in his selection of the outstanding modern artist.

The man of the world exemplified by his chosen artist is a “spiritual citizen of the universe” “who understands the world and the mysterious and legitimate reasons behind all its customs.” (2) How does he gain such hermetic wisdom? Baudelaire defines two types of privileged observers: the dandy and the flâneur.

Both represent observers who are at the same time detached and wholly absorbed in the urban scene. The dandy expresses in what would today be called lifestyle choice “the aristocratic superiority of his mind.” Never “a vulgar man,” he “comes close to spirituality and to stoicism.” His personal cultivation of beauty, a “form of Romanticism,” implicitly reproaches the bourgeoisie. (10) The pose of the aesthete, the apostle of beauty, of course, flourished with the aid of Pater in Wilde and Whistler and then in Saki and Ronald Firbank. The dandy remained recognizable in the crowds at San Francisco’s Fillmore, done up in beads and crystals and feathers, gowns and robes and unlikely thrift store ensembles. Whether or not Baudelaire was correct in claiming that “dandyism is the last flicker of heroism in decadent ages,” representing ‘what is best in human pride,” it is quite certain that it represents “opposition and revolt.” (11)

Yet M.G.is not exactly a dandy. Though Baudelaire says he “would have a sheaf of good reasons for the word ‘dandy’ implies a quintessence of character and a subtle under-standing of all the moral mechanisms of this worlds,” he resists using the label. While “the dandy aspires to cold detachment,” his artist friend is a passionate lover of life with even an “excessive love of visible, tangible things.” (4)

"Thus the lover of universal life moves into the crowd as though into an enormous reservoir of electricity. He, the lover of life, may also be compared to a mirror as vast as this crowd: to a kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness, which with every one of its movements presents a pattern of life, in all its multiplicity, and the flowing grace of all the elements that go to compose life. It is an ego athirst for the non-ego, and reflecting it at every moment in energies more vivid than life itself, always inconstant and fleeting.” (4)

This characterization becomes very nearly a definition of art in general for surely the “multiplicity” and “flowing grace,” of lived experience, even its “inconstant and fleeting” nature are not unique to modernity.

The distinction between dandy and flâneur is elucidated by Baudelaire’s use of Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd.” The narrator who had been idly observing the scene in the street in just the sort of receptive mood Baudelaire had praised as typical of the man of the world, “in one of those happy moods which are so precisely the converse of ennui—moods of the keenest appetency, when the film from the mental vision departs.” Enjoying this heightened consciousness he observes various easily categorized and understood types when he notices an old man and is struck by “the absolute idiosyncrasy of its expression.” Motivated to pursue this enigmatic figure in an attempt to discover his secrets, he concludes after trailing him for an entire day and night, what he had suspected from the outset. He declares, without the slightest evidence, that the old man "is the type and the genius of deep crime.” Thus it is a mercy that he remains inscrutable: "es lasst sich nicht lesen.”

The story’s narrator, then, resembles M.G. in his fascinated attachment to the outside world, while the man he is shadowing remains like the dandy, altogether beyond reach, detached, unreadable. Only the former can provide us, the readers, with a story, but the latter is similarly extraordinary, the first distinguished from the masses by his perceptive sensibility and the latter by his entire involvement in a mysterious but demanding game of engagement. One feels the “man of the crowd” sees through the charades of social life and, rather than withdrawing in reaction, submerges himself entirely in a principled but pointless act of performance art.

The notion of the anonymity of the modern city in which everyone a “a man of the crowd” doubtless influenced Baudelaire in his most striking false prediction. He maintains that M.G. who is, after all, a journalist who typically does not own his work but sells it to a publisher who may or may not even credit him, embraces this obscurity. The reader is told that he “carries his originality to the point of modesty,” that he does not even sign his drawings. Baudelaire’s modern ideal is to “be at the very centre of the world, and yet to be unseen of the world.” (4) Absorbed in the crowd, wholly participating in the mass experience “the observer is a prince enjoying his incognito wherever he goes.” (4)

Many phenomena of art since his time vindicate elements of Baudelaire’s idea of the modern. Dadaists, Surrealists, and others have reinforced his displacement of earlier ideas of beauty. Modern works tend to pervasive fragmentation (evident, for instance, in collage and in such poetic epics as Paterson and the Cantos). The investment of moderns in ephemera, in conceptual and performance works is entirely consistent with Baudelaire’s definition of the modern as foregrounding “the transient, the fleeting, the contingent.” The absorption of the artist in mass culture is evident in Pop Art, street art, and the crossovers into advertising by such figures as Man Ray and Andy Warhol. Indeed, in modern American culture such commercial works as Breaking Bad are often accepted as art even by highly educated people.

If modern artists have more typically sought fame than emulating M. G.’s “modesty,” traces, perhaps of a contrary tendency may be seen in Pessoa’s concealment behind personae, Warhol’s dictum that “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes,” [6] some street and guerilla artists, the Diggers’ Communications Company and the Atelier Populaire in 1968 Paris.

With the end of the old system of patronage, artists were thrown into the marketplace, while, at the same time, their alienation and rebellion led them to resent the bourgeoisie which had become their likeliest customer base. The replacement of the old dichotomy of courtly and popular art was supplanted by a shrinking field of “fine art” and an expanding one of mass commodified art. Baudelaire’s response to the dilemma of the artist in the modern world defined trends which have remained influential to the present day.

1. Verlaine, Œuvres posthumes, p. 8.

2. Among the more influential statements of this idea are in Walter Benjamin’s essay “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” and Harold Rosenberg’s The Tradition of the New.

3. Other maneuvers meant to evade the conscious mind have included chance operations and outsider art.

4. Baudelaire’s wish to épater la bourgeoisie succeeded so well that the book could not be printed in its entirety in France until 1949.

5. Trailing after people on the street has been packaged as a work of art by numerous artists. The best-known version is doubtless Vito Acconci’s Following Piece.

6. On the screen of a television set by Banksy is written "In the future, everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes,"

How I Came to Work at Scott, Foresman

Teaching Greek tragedy, I sometimes sought to explain fate neither as providence nor predestination, but simply as what one does not know until it unfolds in experience. I asked students to think of how their lives were dependent on chance, not merely their own paths, but even their existence. Had their parents not chanced to meet, through countless events, fortuitous in the sense of leading to their births, they would not be sitting in my classroom. Then I suggested they reflect on the same improbability extending back through grandparents and all the previous generations. In this light each individual’s substantial and indubitable existence was at the same time almost impossibly unlikely and altogether ordinary.

I recall one of John Cage's anecdotes about a woman – I cannot chase it down just now since my copies of Silence and A Year from Monday have vanished from my shelves – o every book less is regretted one day! Cage tells of a woman who had spent her entire adult life in a small New England town. When asked what had brought her there, she said that she had bought a bus ticket when young to the furthest destination she could afford. She never left. Itself implausible, the story is a charming fable of randomness in human life that makes sense to me. In my own life chance has pushed forward quite shamelessly.

During the late sixties, after my university graduation and marriage, the draft was still pursuing me. While the more level-headed among my contemporaries may have pursued professional credentials or begun saving for a down payment, I had dreams of poetry and travel. (Persistent for dreams, these have never left me.) Lacking altogether the career direction that seems to possess most of today’s youth, I realized with some regret that I had to find a job. My hostility to capitalism made most salaried positions distasteful. I would have felt a fraud in any corporate setting, regardless of my productivity. It is often inconvenient to possess values.

My antipathy toward “straight” jobs had, however, a corresponding benefit. Because of the fact that I greeted a host of options with a single reaction (can I carry off the imposture?), I found them all equally acceptable (and equally unacceptable), creating a wide range of choice.

Many of my former classmates stepped into positions open in those days to anyone with a liberal arts degree such as teaching in the Chicago schools or working for the welfare (as it was called). At that time a B.A. was also the ordinary qualification for executive trainee tracks in the business world, so it seemed as though, if Selective Service would just leave me alone, I could certainly find something.

Responding to the random prompts of classified advertisements, I applied all over the place in Chicago: an insurance company or two, a bank, even the Pinkerton agency. I was found to be unqualified as a night watchman by the last, but the bank gave me a job offer contingent only, they said, on my security background check. After a few days they must have heard something, because the offer was withdrawn.

Eventually I found my way to a little one-room employment agency, high in an old Loop office building, the kind with mail chutes next to the elevators in which one could occasionally see letters flash by on their speedy trip from higher floors. This one man operation specialized in placing applicants as writers and editors. The agent’s commission, though steep (more than a month of the worker’s salary) was, in those olden days, paid entirely by the hiring company. The proprietor of the agency sat at a capacious pre-computer desk heaped with papers, one of which occasionally fluttered to the floor as he chewed an unlit cigar and talked. It was the sort of enterprise, I realized, that survived solely on account of this single individual’s contacts and their faith in his judgement. After he had sized me up, he said, “Well, I think I’ve got two good spots for you, one at least, maybe two. Are you willing to write pornography?”

Thinking myself ready for most anything other than manual labor and thinking, perhaps, of Henry Miller and Anais Nin, I assented and, a day or two later, headed out to the west side for an interview at a small company that published three tabloid papers a few notches below the Enquirer and the Star as well as four or five skin magazines (as the pre-pornography genre was known). The production area for the tabloid was a single large room with long tables, more like a lunchroom than an editorial office, with a few glassed-in areas for the head editors. I learned at my interview that my language skills had impressed them. They thought I could scan the heap of equally lurid European tabloids to which they subscribed in search of articles to translate. They were unconcerned about obtaining rights. “Oh, they’re probably stealing from us. That’s the least of our concerns.” I would have the opportunity not only to translate, but to use my own creative powers as well. I got a short course in making stories up from nothing. “For instance, we might run a story with a headline, ‘President Nixon’s Wife Seeks Divorce’ and then quote some unnamed ‘experts’ about potential tell-tale signs. It’s simple to say very nearly anything you like without any problems. Then we could find pictures of each of them scowling and place them together so it looks like they are reacting to each other.”
I did a bit of writing as a sample and had lunch with the staff where I was not surprised to find some interesting people, a number of travelers, artists, poets, and at least one undergoing a novel. I figured I could live with this bunch. The next day I got an offer and asked for a few days to consider.

The following day was the second interview the employment agent had lined up, this one with the textbook company Scott Foresman, famous then for its Dick, Jane, and Sally readers, though it published a wide range of other books, including college texts, and Thorndike-Barnhart dictionaries. This looked very much like a “straight” job. The offices were in a modern building with vast lawns in suburban Glenview, everyone wore suits, and I felt like I had to act a part to make the right impression. To be quite certain I could do that, I took some benzedrines before driving out for my interview. Here, too, my supposed language skills were the excuse for my being considered to work on a series of world literature books aimed at high school honors English classes. That head editor rapidly decided I wouldn’t fit their needs, but I had talked in such a scintillating manner that she referred me to a colleague who was directing the development of a four-year series of books aimed at “inner city” (meaning minority-dominated) schools.

I was to learn that Scott Foresman’s dedication to racial equality was influenced primarily by market forces. Mindful of the civil rights movement but also of Southern states, not a few of which had state-wide text adoption, the publisher had a number of versions of Dick, Jane, and Sally. One was immaculately white, another included darker faces in non-speaking roles, and a third had African-American characters who actually interacted with the angelic suburban stars. There did not seem to be an all-black edition, which must have been an oversight, as all-black schools certainly did (and do) exist. However, the burning cities of the mid-sixties summer riots had unnerved the powers that be enough to call for the War on Poverty and special funding for urban, under-performing, disadvantaged, education. So the corporations responded, and the project for which I was being considered was a result.

Little remains to tell. Perhaps because my recent experience as a VISTA volunteer attested to my suburbanite’s understanding of the underclass, I got an offer from Scott Foresman to be an editorial assistant. I considered. While I felt at home in the demi-mondaine atmosphere of the first option – it would have likely made a more entertaining story -- I possessed just enough prudence to realize that the second would look better on a resumé. So I accepted and spent a few years in a pleasant window office there (though more often hiding out in the carrel at the back of the library), living on very little on Chicago’s far North Side, amassing money to see the world. I learned that among the workers were no less a percentage of artistic, even hip, people than at the disreputable publisher: poets, artists, scholars, some real characters. I found that that to be a high school textbook editor was tantamount to being a high school textbook author. The concept for the series was attributed to a teacher but every word in the finished project, the selection of the readings, the teacher’s manual and other apparatus were all composed entirely in-house. I was told, “There has to be a working teacher as author. He can go and do publicity at professional meetings, but he doesn’t have time to actually write the thing.”

The pace was very comfortable. At least three hours out of four were my own. After a while I joined a simpatico car pool, most of the members of which went immediately to the subsidized cafeteria when we arrived to linger over coffee and pastries before even reporting to their areas. The director of another project hired a new editor, fresh from a spell at the Lama Commune where he had departed after the group failed to accept his suggestion that everyone act out the previous night’s dreams every morning. The fact was that his services were not really needed for six months. I came to understand this lassitude about our productivity when I saw a pie chart of the expenses of publication in which our work was almost unnoticeable among the costs of advertising, salesmen’s commissions, and the actual printing.

When I had to participate in large meetings with marketing staff or potential customers, my boss’s boss, vice-president of editorial services, sometimes made semi-embarrassed but good-humored references to my long hair or my Western boots, but I was never told to conform. I could perhaps have become too comfortable there.

As the time for my departure, known to me but not to them, approached, this v.p. began hinting that there was “something sweet” in store for me shortly. Realizing after sufficient clues that he meant a promotion I kept silent about leaving, thinking that to report a higher title would be advantageous in the future. I don‘t even recall if I made it to the position of “assistant editor,” but I am quite certain it would never have made any subsequent difference if I had.

Remarks on the Grassroots Poetry Scene

Dana Gioia’s celebrated essay “Can Poetry Matter?” hit the mark squarely. The problems he outlined for the form which had historically been considered the most prestigious of arts have only intensified in the quarter century since the essay appeared. [1] Now as then the greatest sign of poetry’s pathology is simply the ease with which people can ignore it altogether. Indeed the N.E.A.’s 2008 report found that the percentage of people who had read any poetry at all during the previous year had dropped to eight, less than half what it had been in 1992, shortly after Gioia’s essay. People who are not familiar with poetry are as a result incompetent to read poems even if they should make the attempt. So the malaise of the art is bad and getting worse.

Gioia laments this loss of poetry’s social role and the diminution of its readership. Folk song remained vigorous among the poor until the advent of mass media. Among bourgeois Victorian families the reading of poetry was a common domestic amusement, and into the twentieth century verse, albeit often patriotic, religious, or sentimental, appeared commonly in general circulation magazines, even in newspapers. The loss of a shared culture may be measured by the fact that a few generations ago Edmund Wilson could publish, in a non-academic journal, an excellent essay contrasting the virtues of Pope and Tennyson. Even in the 1950s remnants of this audience survived in the readers of journals such as the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and the Saturday Review. Gioia is quite right that these educated and curious non-specialist readers have all but disappeared. [2]

He describes poetry is an art without a following, “almost invisible,” in spite of the fact that new books, journals devoted to new poetry, readings, and – most dramatically, perhaps -- M.F.A. programs have proliferated. Doubtless due to his own vantage point at U.S.C., he emphasizes the university nexus as the mechanism that keeps poetry going on life support. His assertion that the home of poetry has moved “from Bohemia to bureaucracy” (by which he means university writing programs) overlooks the huge grassroots poetry scene based in coffee houses, bars, and churches. Yet many of his criticisms are equally valid for the non-academic poetry community which lacks only the sometimes decent salaries offered writers by educational institutions. Having spent my own life in part in academia and in part in the counter-culture, I can appreciate his comments on the creative writing industry, and I feel qualified to add as well some observations on the grassroots poetry scene.

I must, of course, as Gioia did, acknowledge the limitations of these strictures. A number of the poets I hear in my area are skillful, talented, and passionate. Many others at least avoid the gaucheries I here condemn. Like Gioia my concern is not the criticism of individuals but rather the diagnosis of the state of the field. I agree, as well, that those who love poetry can only applaud the proliferation of readings in recent decades. In my region there are events nearly every day – certainly a far more active scene than any other art enjoys, yet some aspects of these community readings trouble me.

I speak here of events in cafes, bars, and churches, not at universities or such major sanctioned cultural institutions as the 92nd Street Y, Poet’s House, or St. Mark’s. While it is certainly striking that so many people consider themselves practicing poets, one sometimes wishes that their number were fewer. For years critics have observed that more people write poetry than read it, and this fact leads to a great deal of half-baked word-stringing presented as poetry. Yet people in the scene are, for good reasons unrelated to art (and in stark contrast to the rivalries so evident in academic and big publishing circles), mutually supportive; one rarely hears a word of criticism. Even reviews of small press books and very often of those from major publishers as well, are generally written by friends wishing to do a favor for friends. I have been guilty of this myself more than once and on other occasions I have been cautioned by an editor to make no negative comment. In this way marketing has displaced criticism. As Gioia said, art requires standards.

The present audience for poetry, Gioia states accurately, “usually consists entirely of poets, would-be poets, and friends of the author.” In a college setting one might add those whose profession is not composing literature but rather literary criticism, but in local readings it is very nearly absolutely true. He notes that the few essays and reviews of new poetry are overwhelmingly positive. “If,” he continues, a literary journal “publishes an interview, the tone will be unabashedly reverent toward the author. For these journals critical prose exists not to provide a disinterested perspective on new books but to publicize them.” This willful critical blindness is even more endemic in the local scene. If even national reviews and professors at prestigious institutions have abandoned “the hard work of evaluation,” this is even more the case among the micro-coteries that support non-academic readings. The accepting and supportive atmosphere at community-based readings may sound big-hearted, but it leads to careless and ill-considered art.

The ritual ratification of the abdication of value judgment is the common polite applause following every poem. [3] Though a reading resembles in part a concert in which, it is true, convention requires applause after every piece, it is also like a talk or lecture at which reactions are deferred for the most part until the conclusion.

One revealing feature of grassroots readings is the consistent inclusion of an open reading following the featured poet. The natural reason for the open reading is to bolster attendance. People are so fond of their moments strutting on stage that they attend for that reason alone with little interest in others’ work. Too often one can observe audience members apparently considering what to read, shuffling thoughtfully through a sheaf of pages while someone else is at the podium. (Unaccountably, these same people often find they must do a good deal of page-shuffling even when their turn arrives to take the stage.) Beauty must be perceived to be realized; the more people focus on themselves alone, the less art has a chance.

Producers, I fear, have a similar motive in scheduling two, three, or even more readers at once. With multiple featured readers each of whom brings friends, the audience swells. To my mind a reading is at best an opportunity to define the work of an individual through hearing a broad enough sample to see what is going on in that person’s work and to form a reasonable judgement. (Of course, there are exceptions such as collaborative work or themed readings.) One does not ordinarily go to hear three different musicians each perform briefly, or to see a triple feature of films.

Whatever one may think of “academic” poetry, and I have been a lifelong heir to the anti-academic tradition descending from Pound through Rexroth to Bly and Blackburn, it provided some peer-reviewed standards. With digital printing technology easily available to all, anyone may print books and journals at will whether they have an audience or not. The old, admittedly unfair system of prestige based on publications has been supplanted by no system at all.

I suppose I here violate, however mildly, he unspoken social code to say nothing negative. The fact is that the relations among poets are ephemeral and of little real interest to others. What matters is the work. And to me today’s poetry at the grassroots shows symptoms of malaise.

The most obvious one to me is the utter lack of melody in much of what is called poetry today. From the origins of the art, poets have created beautiful pattern of sound, using many devices including rhyme, syllable-counting, stress accent, pitch, alliteration, assonance, and the like, yet today there is often little in sound to distinguish “poetry” from prose. I still have poetry notebooks from my middle and high school years. While they may not be worthy of anyone’s perusal today, they are not filled with Angst or callow rebellion or self-dramatization or other faults typical of many people’s teen-aged years. The most common element is experimentation with form: passages in iambs, trochees, anapests, dactyls and imitations of set forms of the past. (The second noticeable element is single words I found intriguing.) The best free verse is always cadenced and rhythmic, though often in unpredictable irregular ways.

Further, the poetry of amateurs, apart from those few who identify with the historic avant-garde, is built largely of self-expression. As Gioia notes, the one-time range of poetry “which had previously been a popular medium for narrative, satire, drama, even history and scientific speculation--retreated into lyric.” Since the Romantic era, lyric means primarily the expression of solipsistic emotion. Though one’s own experiences and obsessions form inevitably an element of one’s writing, all art requires a recognition of the distancing that must occur when the actions of one’s flashing neurons is set down in black and white on a page or in ringing syllables stirring the air. The creation of something beautiful may happen rapidly for a master who has long apprenticed, but the psychic material never succeeds if unprocessed. Whenever I hear someone say that he began writing after a grave illness or the loss of a lover, I expect the worst and I am unfortunately rarely wrong. Self-expression, of course, plays a role, but it is most effective when balanced with considerations of the aesthetic values embodied in the objet d’art itself as well as calculated considerations of the work’s effect on the reader.

Were I to devise circles of hell for would-be poets, I would place among the most egregious offenders writers who expect volume to compensate for slipshod writing. There is a place for declamatory rhetoric, but when a reader announces that he will present a “rant,” I regret having left my ear-plugs at home.

I will here graciously pass over the lesser sins such as lengthy shuffling of papers at the podium or supposedly jocular self-denigration typified by those who say such things as, “I will only torture you with two more . . . no, three.” Another sin, venial if not carried to extreme, is going on too long. No reading, even by a celebrated writer, should, I think, last longer than about forty-five minutes. The acutely open ears required for appreciating live poetry become fatigued by that time. In my own practice, I would much prefer to leave people wishing for one more piece rather than reacting to sensibility overload from one too many.

I feel oddly disarmed at the close of this exposition by the fact that, unlike the more optimistic Gioia, I have no proposals to remedy the situation. While first-rate poetry might be composed at any time, to thrive the art requires a competent readership. At the present all signs seem to point in the opposite direction.

1. The essay, later the first piece in a book of the same title, was first published in The Atlantic, May 1991 and is available at http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/poetry/gioia/gioia.htm. I say nothing here of Gioia’s own work or of his larger social roles first as a marketer of Jello and later of the NEA.

2. American higher education has played a pernicious role in this decline by replacing the ideals of a liberal arts education with vocational training. Though the proper role of universities is the production of new knowledge and, incidentally, the transmission of culture and the general intellectual training of the young, these goals have virtually vanished, overrun by our culture’s principal value, making money.

3. A similar phenomenon in community classical music concerts is the practice, in my area at least, of concluding every performance with a standing ovation. What, then, can the listener do to express an extraordinary reaction?