In the spirit of poet Dana Gioia's cry to the writers of our great nation, in his 1991 essay "Can Poetry Matter?," to "write prose about poetry more often ... in non-specialist publications ... to restore a vulgar vitality to poetry," I've decided to take a crack at it.
Because Mr. Gioia -- George W. Bush's nominee for chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts -- also stated that he felt critics should be honest, "candidly admitting what they don't like," adding that "professional courtesy has no place in literary journalism," I feel liberated knowing that I can now truly express my emotional feeling about his writing.
Once I took up Mr. Gioia's rally cry, I decided to abandon a compare-and-contrast column I'd written about the new Hummer H2 vs. my 1988 Honda Civic in off-road situations. Instead, I thought: Hey, it's about time someone put poetry up against the American auto industry. And thus I conceived: Dana Gioia (the Republican's greatest hope to divest public art from its last molecule of importance) vs. the H2 (GM's greatest hope to drain the world of its last molecule of oil). But first let me give a shout out to Don Crisp at Al Serra Chevrolet for letting me test crash the Hummer into a Yugo -- now you're famous. So here we go:
H2: Because the H2 weighs about 3 tons, placing it outside all categories of human comprehension, GM is not required by law to disclose any information about its fuel efficiency. By all accounts, however, it gets between 9 and 11 miles per gallon around town, and about 14 on the highway. That's roughly equivalent to a 1979 Chevy conversion van. Talk about progress, this thing's making George W. look like David Brower!
Gioia: While his many books -- Interrogations at Noon, Can Poetry Matter?, etc. -- weigh in at only around five pounds, and Mr. Gioia seems to have gotten incredible mileage out of them on his way to the head of the NEA, his sentimental, neo-formalist romanticization of all things dour and superficially "weighty" puts his books on par with the H2 with their dead tonnage that could only belong to a man of suburban luxury.
H2: A kind of George Bush Jr. to the George Sr. of military vehicles (ye olde Humvee), the H2 is moderately handsome, can be controlled by any idiot and has far more powers and capabilities than it should. Obviously spawned from a culture that has been physically and psychologically attacked by terrorism -- the new war with no fronts -- the H2 appeals to the average upper-middle-class person's desire to luxuriously militarize his or her private life while retaining that SUV look so symbolically indicative of America's worldwide cultural dominance. The inherent contradictions in owning a vehicle of military pedigree that will only up the U.S.'s intake of oil is ... let's just say: denial.
Gioia: Like the H2, Mr. Gioia's poetry is slick, conservative and born of an academic culture fond of projecting its fear of death and other inadequacies onto nature. While not in any way military, his poems are political in the way he is: Republican. In other words, they guard the values of a privileged culture and hearken back to the "good old times" -- of rhyme and old forms. Unlike another "formalist" rhyme lover like Eminem (who rhymed "boob job" with "Snoop Dogg" in the new film 8 Mile), Gioia contents himself with unimaginative choices like "done" and "run," "first" and "thirst," etc. (How about "Kool-Aid" and "drool trade"?) Mr. Gioia's insistence that no great poet has ever come out of his hometown of Los Angeles is... let's just say: denial. (Remember Charles Bukowski, L.A.'s poet laureate of the underclass?)
The Road Test
Without even having to put the H2 into one of its six four-wheel-drive modes (conveniently available at the touch of any of the six buttons on the dashboard), I was easily able to drive the H2 over and over all of Mr. Gioia's books. Quite to my astonishment, however, and with the exception of a few barely visible tread impressions, the books withstood a seemingly ruthless drubbing almost unscathed while I couldn't even discern a blip of a bump from my vantage in the cab.
All in all I guess I'd have to say that, given the imminent Republican control of the House, Congress and the White House and our overall cultural intention to go on living in the spirit of conservative values (excess and denial), I'd say the H2 and Mr. Gioia were made for each other.