First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
The Poet As Bureaucrat
A few weeks ago I went to a studio in the Old Post Office Building in Washington, DC, to record an interview. The outside of the building is nice, but has that generic institutional feel. It's only when you get past security and enter the atrium, especially looking down from a balcony, that you realize the sheer beauty of this old place.
But that was just gravy. I was there to talk about Ursula K. LeGuin's beautiful novel A Wizard of Earthsea, perhaps the finest work by one of the best American writers of our time, as part of NEA's "The Big Read."
The National Endowment for the Arts is assembling material to provide to cities that are engaging in "one city, one book" programs. Naturally, I'm slightly miffed that they've chosen books like Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury) and My Antonia (Cather) and somehow, incredibly, overlooking mine.
But the truth is they've selected a remarkable range of books, American, English, and foreign, and cities looking for such community literary projects have a splendid list to choose from.
Big cities with large budgets can do everything on their own. The Big Read is about the NEA doing its job -- providing support for artistic and cultural projects for cities and school districts that can't afford these things on their own.
I'm a complete skeptic about government support of the arts. I was as sickened as anybody by grant-supported museum displays of deliberately offensive work. I have written elsewhere of my contempt for artists who pose as revolutionaries by offending groups -- like Christians -- who, in our culture, are powerless to defend themselves and whose anger will have zero negative consequences on the writer's career.
You want to know what artistic bravery is? It's Mark Helprin, author of A Winter's Tale, who came out as a conservative -- even, potentially, a Republican -- and thereby made himself persona non grata in the politically correct world of literary fiction.
Nothing is safer and more conservative than a contemporary American artist declaring himself to be a left winger and causing offense to the moral values of the Right. Indeed, it's beyond safe, it's cowardly. It's the artistic equivalent of a gangland initiation -- go kill a helpless bystander in an artistic drive-by to win your bones.
It was in that climate that I demanded, in print, that NEA and its sister organization (with seemingly overlapping mandates), the National Endowment for the Humanities, cease giving any grants of any kind to individuals. And grants should also, I believed, be denied to museums or other institutions that use taxpayer money to promote "art" that attacks the core values of the traditional culture.
Of course, people accused me of calling for censorship -- which is absurd. I believe in complete freedom of artists and writers to create any drivel they want to, and offer it to anyone who cares for it.
But when they go to the government for a handout, they surrender their artistic freedom completely in that moment. When you accept patronage, the patron gets to tell you what to do. You want the Pope to pay you for painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling? Then you'd better paint what the Pope wants you to paint.
The taxpayers have a right to demand that their tax money only be used for art they approve of. And if that means that such art would be insipid, vanilla, offend-nobody middle-of-the-road nonsense, then my answer is: Why would that surprise you? You're the one begging for a handout. You're the one expecting the government to pay you for whatever miserable thing you decide to create.
If you are so convinced your art is great, then create it without any funding at all. Or raise funding from donors who believe in what you're trying to do.
In short: I was about as hostile to government organizations that hand out money to artists and writers as one can be.
But I always left in place the idea that these organizations should exist in order to help support genuine American culture in places and for audiences that might never get to experience them. That means supporting dance companies and opera companies and orchestras -- at least to the degree that talented performers can be found to perform the treasures of our culture.
So The Big Read did not violate my principles. It was selecting among books that have passed the test of time, books that are definitely part of American and Western civilization.
What I didn't understand was why I was being invited to take part. I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer, for pete's sake, or at least that's what I'm best known for. I might as well hang a bell around my neck and shout "unclean, unclean" when in the presence of Serious Literary People.
OK, it made sense for me to comment on Fahrenheit 451 -- it's sci-fi, after all. And A Wizard of Earthsea is a fantasy and is treated as a young adult novel (though LeGuin makes almost no concessions to young readers in this book). So I guess I was being safely contained within my genre boundaries.
What surprised me at this session in DC was that I was so graciously received by the NEA staff that happened to be present that day, and that my interviewer, Dan Stone, was so deeply well-informed about LeGuin and, for that matter, seemed even to be conversant with my writings.
How could somebody who actually knows fantastical literature be employed by a government agency?
Was it possible that the NEA was not, at least for the moment, a complete captive of the politically correct academic-literary establishment?
Then I went to lunch and discovered that at this moment, NEA is actually under the leadership of a real revolutionary artist, Dana Gioia.
Here's the absurd thing. I didn't recognize Gioia's name. It was only after lunch that I realized he was the author of a brilliant essay called "Can Poetry Matter?" that appeared in Atlantic Monthly more than fifteen years ago.
This essay was a clarion call for those of us who are sick at heart about the death of American poetry as a public literary medium. In his essay, Gioia urged us to tap back into the roots of formalism, of narrative poetry, of discursive and satiric and political verse.
All the tools that poets once had at their command -- but that now have been abandoned as our poetry teachers and "creative writing" programs demand a numbing sameness in contemporary poetry: No forms, no ideas outside the poet's "feelings" or observations of nature. Endless repetitions of the experiments of dead Modernists.
And then, looking up Gioia's poetry, I realized that this is one of the great poets of our generation. Instead of following the standard, soul-killing pattern of poets getting sinecures as creative-writing teachers in universities, Gioia worked in the business world -- you know, the place where you actually have to sell things people want to buy, with no government handout to bail you out.
For years, Gioia was a successful businessman, writing poetry in his free time, poetry that addressed real issues in the real world. Unsheltered by the walls of academe, he was writing in traditional forms (a brave act these days) along with exquisitely controlled free verse.
And the result, when you read his verse, is an astonishing level of artistic achievement.
Of course, because he really is a brave artist, he has faced endless sniping and sneering from people who demand that all poets conform to a particular norm. Ironically, these are the people who claim to represent "open-mindedness" and "free expression" even as they try to shut down anyone who has ideas or uses techniques different from those they approve of!
And somehow this man, this great poet, this understander of the real world, this taker of artistic risks, became head of the National Endowment for the Arts, and for the past half-decade has helped steer it toward a revival of American interest in public arts, including poetry.
Instead of trying to offend mainstream America, he has tried to awaken us to the great heritage of Western civilization, particularly the poetic heritage bequeathed to us by writers from Chaucer and Shakespeare, Pope and Dryden, to Frost, Eliot, Auden, and other masters of real poetry.
In that lunch (at a terrific Michel Richard restaurant called, simply, Central, across the street from the Old Post Office Building), I could only learn a small part of what NEA is doing under Gioia's direction.
And I'm slowly working my way through the works of the poets of a movement called, by some, "New Formalism," though Gioia himself prefers the term "Expansive Poetry." So far, I'm finding poets who are using the old forms accurately enough, and with nice moments -- i.e., poets rather like me -- but none who holds a candle to Gioia himself.
Do you realize what it means when someone who has achieved greatness in an artistic field sets his own work aside for several years in order to be an administrator?
I hear rumors that Gioia had been lobbied to take the job before, and refused even to be considered. Why should he? He had been a businessman, but finally got to a position where he could live from his writing. Why go back into management? How would that help his art?
But then came 9/11, and as younger people, desiring to serve their country, joined the armed services, the story is that Gioia wanted also to serve. He could not be a soldier, but he could help protect American culture in other ways. And that's why, for these years, his writing has been confined to only a few weeks of vacation each year (though it's not suffering in quality for being so confined in time).
So moribund was poetry in America when Gioia took on this challenge that I'm betting most people reading this column are thinking, So what? How can poetry matter?
Well, all I can say is that the only reason you don't know why it matters is because it has been so badly done for half a century. Robert Frost was not the last good poet in America, but he was the last one to get wide public acclaim for writing poetry that used forms and spoke to ordinary people.
There are poets who speak to ordinary people now, of course -- but they do it without any poetic rigor. They gush, they spew, and now and then they capture an important idea in memorable words. But it's almost an accident when they do.
And in our schools, our children grow up without ever experiencing the feel of great poetry in their mouths. Or even quotidian work. I still have in my head scraps of poems I memorized and recited in my youth. I know how poetry is supposed to feel. I know how fun it is.
Fun even when the subject is dark. For instance, a poem by Dana Gioia called "The Gods of California," in which he sees the freeway system as "the gods who rule the golden state."
"The pathways of a god are empty, flat and hard....
We crave the dangerous power of their presence.
And they demand blood sacrifice, so we mount
Our daily holocaust on the blackened ground."
Asphalt as "blackened ground," driving the freeways as worship -- I wish I could publish the whole poem here, but there's this copyright thing with limits to how much you can quote as "fair use." All I can say is that every stanza of this poem is vibrant, almost scriptural in its tone. And when you've read the whole thing, you cannot see the freeways as you did before.
And that's his point. Though the poem ends with the statement, "These are the gods of California. Worship them," Gioia is being ironic. He's saying the opposite. Let's stop worshiping them. They're killing us! Yet he also understands the need that drives us onto the roads in our cars, risking our lives because without our cars we're so powerless.
And poetry can have a sense of humor, as in Gioia's deliberately funny "Shopping."
"Redeem me, gods of the mall and marketplace.
Mercury, protector of cell phones and fax machines,
Venus, patroness of bath and bedroom chains,
Tantalus, guardian of the food court."
This is marvelous stuff; if I could read it aloud to you, you'd stop the poem again and again with laughter. It will take you back into the mall with new eyes. It will give words to feelings that you've had.
As when I read Gioia's "Planting a Sequoia." Read the whole thing yourself at http://www.danagioia.net/poems/sequoia.htm. Right here I'll simply say that this poem, about a nonce ritual created in response to the death of a beloved child, struck a deep chord in me. I hardly need a poem to remind me of losses in my own life; what Gioia's brilliant vision does is to create a satisfying hymn sung to the lost child. As I read it, I kept saying, Yes, he knows, he understands, this is the truth.
You don't get that from undisciplined gushes of "self-expression" or from greeting cards or any of the other substitutes we indulge in, in the absence of great poetry in our lives.
But the great poetry is there, and if we would only teach our children to treasure the poem that can be understood without a professor to decode it, if we could only wake up ourselves, as adults, to the power and value of poetry, we could revive in America something we almost deliberately threw away by expunging genuine poetry from our educational system.
Haikus are nice, but they're not American, they're not of the English language; they're what teachers do instead of teaching poetry to children. Self-expression is also a good thing, but poetry should be disciplined self-expression; we should teach our children to appreciate the well-made line, rather than settling for the untamed gush.
We should teach children to appreciate, and attempt to create, skillful poetry to exactly the degree we teach them to appreciate the well-thrown and well-caught football, the skillful alley-oop pass, or the well-pitched curveball.
No one would waste a moment playing baseball as self-expression (though hockey seems to get used that way). And that's for a game that's over in a few hours. Verse, when it's good enough, can last for centuries. Why, then, has our society in recent generations decided to treat it with contempt, as a game without spectators or artful practitioners?
Poetry should be part of our lives, as should all the arts. We should be part of the conversation that these arts represent, instead of leaving it all to ivory-tower professors with their thumpingly dull ideas of what art should be (first dogma: If it doesn't need a tenured professor to explain it, then it can't be good art).
And right now, for this fleeting moment, because of who is President of the United States, the National Endowment for the Arts is actually in the hands of a great artist whose labor has been, and is now, to bring art back to life in the hearts, the minds, the daily experience of millions of Americans who yearn for it, without knowing that they have suffered for lack of it.
And Now, For Something Completely Different
As a practicing nongreat poet myself, let me show you something that I wrote in response to my conversation with Gioia. He had talked about the lack of poetry as part of our public conversation. Where are the political poems? he asked.
Naturally, I wrote one -- though of course it reflects my politics, not Gioia's. As head of the NEA, he has no politics at the moment. It's one of the sacrifices you make when you take a job like that.
Ode on the 2008 Primaries
by Orson Scott Card
I won't bother to
or brain McCain:
It's not their fault
that our primary system is
sick and slack,
They must be clever,
they must be wise,
and say whatever
might raise the money
for media buys.
That's why Huckabee sucks.
That's why Hillary cries.
They and McCain
and Barack Hussein
each week must come up
with a million bucks
in their begging cup
or the campaign dies.
(Unless they're fantastically rich like that lucky git
Great poetry? Most definitely not! But is it funny? More importantly, is it more funny because it's in verse, because it rhymes? And does that make the underlying truth -- that our primary system is corrupted by the need for candidates to raise vast amounts of money -- more visible, or at least more entertaining?
There are those who think that for verse to be "poetry" it should have a serious literary purpose. But this is an absurd distinction. My political purpose is serious; my means is humorous and light; but in order to achieve both seriousness and lightness, I still need to know my craft well enough to make sure the poem is brief, scans well, rhymes aptly, and is instantly readable.
That, folks, is poetry. It's just not the same kind of poetry that literary magazines deem worthy of publication. So what? You just read it in a different kind of publication.
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