- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 25, 2004

Even before Dana Gioia points out the similarities between rap and Rudyard Kipling in the title essay of “Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture,” one senses that heresy is afoot. In his preface to this vibrant collection, Mr. Gioia, who is the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, hints with appealing modesty that his approach to gauging the state of poetry today will be different from what we have come to expect from critical or scholarly surveys of this kind.

“Writers tend to apologize when collecting their essays and reviews into books,” Mr. Gioia avers in the prelude to this collection. However, he is not one of them. The esteemed poet and essayist starts with a jaunty explanation of how poetry and essays are similar, citing “their common commitment to compression, expressive intensity and personal style.” He notes that while “changes in technology affected ways in which poetry was created, published and preserved … the conventional explanations seemed reductive and quite inadequate to explain the trends … in different corners of the culture.”

And that culture, however varied it may be, is linked by the transforming existence (intrusion?) of technology today. Mr. Gioia writes that “the average American spends about twenty-four minutes a day reading, not just books but anything — newspapers, magazines, diet tips and TV Guide. This small investment of time compares with over four hours daily of television and over three hours of radio.”

He also writes that “the decline of poetry as our culture’s primary means of codifying, presenting, and preserving information isn’t merely a methodological change; it is an epistemological transformation… Print to TV changes public discourse.”

But it doesn’t mean the end of poetry.

In these pages, Mr. Gioia describes with enthusiasm what he sees as the re-emergence of popular poetry. “Rap especially has become ubiquitous … and new poetic forms have thrived without the support of the university or the literary establishment.”

For Mr. Gioia, one’s standing as a literary luminary does not guarantee a free pass here. He writes, “Roland Barthes, a creature of print culture, saw the world as a text and announced ‘the death of the author.’ Anyone attentive to the new popular poetry sees the antithesis — the death of the text.”

From this spirited wind-up Mr. Gioia offers his coup de grace, the evidence that untraditional poetry such as rap has its roots in earlier, traditional poetic forms. And he notes that just like the poetry of the past, in rap we find a resurgence of an earlier tradition, oral poetry.

Although Mr. Gioia clearly catches and enjoys the rhythms and pulse of rap, he does not write wholly uncritically about it. “As many rappers never cease to remind their audiences, they are ‘gangstas’ who coexist with the criminal class. As the obituaries of murdered rappers like Tupac Shakur, the Notorious B.I.G., Scott La Rock and Jam Master Jay confirm, this is no empty boast. ”

Nevertheless, Mr. Gioia makes a good case that poetry and our appreciation of it may be undergoing a significant shift — and that is all for the better. More to the point, he argues that it has an identifiable precedent. “Rap is not written in the standard accentual-syllabic meters of English literary verse, but its basic measure does come out of the English tradition. Rap characteristically uses the four-stress, accented line that has been the most common meter for spoken popular poetry in English from Anglo-Saxon verse and the border ballads to Robert Service and Rudyard Kipling.”

And so he compares

I said by the way baby

what’s your name

said I go by the name lois

lane

and you can be my

boyfriend you surely can

just let me quit my

boyfriend called superman

(from “Rappers Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang)

with

What is a woman that you

forsake her,

And the hearth-fire and the

home-acre

To go with the old gray

Widow-maker?

(from the “Harp Song of the Dane Women” by Rudyard Kipling). He notes that while rap now uses a variety of metrical forms, the initial formula with its traditional rhymed couplets still stands.

Because of its immediacy and relevance, it may be that the title essay of this collection is the one that readers will remember most. However, the nuggets of exuberance and deep appreciation of poetry and literature and culture are evident throughout. “Longfellow in the Aftermath” is a particularly affecting essay, offering as it does a defense of the poet who “will surely emerge as a larger, more complex figure than he has recently seemed.”

The essay “Fallen Western Star,” in which Mr. Gioia argues that the once vigorous literary output of the West is in decline, still carries its trenchant sting. Reading it, one is not surprised that it set off a firestorm of debate when it first appeared in 2000, causing some to rename the piece “Fallen Star Wars.”

Overall, what one takes away from these fine exercises in “compression” is a deep appreciation of Mr. Gioia’s sympathetic and generous approach to the most personal of art forms. In a section in which he considers more familiar names in 20th-century poetry — Robinson Jeffries, Elizabeth Bishop, Weldon Kees, to name just a few — here is how he describes Jack Spicer, a San Francisco poet who found some measure of fame in the 1950s and ‘60s:

“Spicer is not by any standard a major poet. He is too conspicuously slight and improvisatory, too mischievous and easily distracted. He is not even a conventional minor poet producing elegant and polished poetry on a narrow range of moods or subjects … Why then read Spicer’s work? Because it is amusing, humane, quietly original, and consistently thought-provoking … Spicer is more interested in exploring some notion than in perfecting it, but he is determined to take the reader along. His excursions are often odd and his routes circuitous, but in such congenial company, why not come along.”

Of this thoughtful, spirited collection one could well say the same.

DISAPPEARING INK: POETRY AT THE END OF PRINT CULTURE

By Dana Gioia

Graywolf Press, $16, 271 pages

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