Culture

A poet who rhymes

Culture | President Bush nominates a "New Formalist" to head the National Endowment for the Arts | by Gene Edward Veith

Issue: "A warmer Chile," Nov. 9, 2002

Some of today's "cutting edge" art is impossible to parody. A brainstorming session of off-the-wall satirists--say, David Letterman, the writers for the Simpsons, P.J. O'Rourke, and David Barry--could hardly make up a comical exaggeration of what today passes for actual art. For example, an artist has been selling to museums throughout the world containers of his own excrement.

It is bad enough for the average American to feel condescended to, with the art world's cliches about how no one can truly define art and how great art always upsets people. When that average American then finds that the latest artistic travesty has been funded by his tax money, through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), he tends to go ballistic.

Subsidizing the arts, of course, is not one of the constitutionally enumerated functions of the federal government, and one of the major frustrations of conservatives is their failure, even while in power, to eliminate the NEA. With its powerful upper-class constituency, which includes Republican and Democratic political donors, the agency has proven impossible to kill, and it continues to wield a huge influence in America's cultural scene.

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President Bush now has the opportunity to make his mark on the arts. He has nominated Dana Gioia, one of America's finest poets, who is also an insightful critic of the academic elitism that has prevented the arts from making positive contributions to American culture.

Mr. Gioia is one of those rare nominations that would be very difficult for anyone to oppose. While his father is Italian, his mother is Mexican, with a strain of Native American blood, which gives him the ethnic credentials that play well in Washington. The 51-year-old Californian certainly has the artistic credentials, from an M.A. in literature from Harvard to an American Book Award.

He also has the administrative background to run a multimillion-dollar agency. Whereas the bohemian myth of the artist as wildman who exists far beyond the mundane values of society continues to prevail, artists and writers who are actually any good tend to be grounded in the real world. T. S. Eliot was a bank teller; Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive; and Dana Gioia received an M.B.A. from Stanford and worked his way up to become, of all things, a vice president of General Foods, until he stepped down in 1992 for full-time writing.

Mr. Gioia made his mark on contemporary American poetry as a "New Formalist." That is, he writes poetry that has a definite structure, replete with rhythm, rhyme, and continuity with the great tradition of English verse.

He is also not afraid to identify himself as a "Catholic writer." "The basic donnee of the Catholic writer," he writes in The Irish Review, "is to examine the consequences of living in a fallen world." Although his poetry is more about doubt and spiritual struggles than the certainties of faith, his poetry--especially in Interrogations at Noon, which won the 2002 American Book Award for poetry--is shot through with Christian imagery.

Mr. Gioia does not seem particularly political, but he struck a major blow in the culture wars with an article he wrote for The Atlantic Monthly in 1991 titled "Can Poetry Matter?"

The article makes the point that most poetry these days is written by and for an academic subculture that is all but cut off from the living mainstream of American culture. Writing for each other instead of the public allows poets to indulge in obscure experimentation that hardly anyone reads or can read or wants to read. "Like subsidized farming that grows food no one wants, a poetry industry has been created to serve the interests of the producers and not the consumers," he writes. "And in the process the integrity of the art has been betrayed."

His article sparked a huge--and beneficial--controversy in literary circles. His points, of course, hold true not just for poetry but for the other arts. "The most serious question for the future of American culture," he concludes, "is whether the arts will continue to exist in isolation and decline into subsidized academic specialties or whether some possibility of rapprochement with the educated public remains."

The best way for such a rapprochement to happen would be to kick away the supports of all subsidies--including the National Endowment for the Arts--which would force artists to connect with a paying public.

If that is not going to happen, the second best scenario is to have someone at the helm of the NEA who understands the problem and who, as a "New Formalist," is committed to the kind of art that constitutes a positive contribution to American culture.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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