Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Addressing Dana's Address

As chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia has been an active advocate encouraging education and accessibility of the arts. Gioia’s ability to persuasively promote all aspects of art and the artists who produce new works probably arises partially from his background as an advertising writer and partially from his poetic sensibility. Indeed, when Gioia addresses general audiences about art he usually does so in a plainspoken yet eloquent manner, with his demeanor appearing to be both energetic and enthusiastic.

Despite misgivings I’ve seen expressed by some in art circles, probably due to perceived differences in political or aesthetic positions, I’ve considered Gioia’s tenure as NEA chair both compelling and constructive, even (or especially) when he takes to task individuals in the arts or academia. I have attended presentations by Gioia at the annual Associated Writing Programs conference, where his skill at communication appeared impressive, but I’ve also witnessed the polarization his comments can create among fellow poets.

Nevertheless, I believe Gioia’s personality makes him an effective representative for awakening a greater awareness of the fine arts among Americans and for initiating further conversations about art. In fact, some of the same characteristics that have contributed to Gioia’s becoming a somewhat controversial figure among many poets over the years most likely have helped him as an administrator who hopes to generate thoughtful discussions about the proper place of art and the prestige of artists in today’s society.

Although I never agreed completely with Gioia’s assessments on the state of contemporary poetry, I greatly enjoyed the issues and questions raised in his essays. Similarly, I find myself generally admiring Dana Gioia’s latest commentaries on American culture and art, even while I disagree with some of the reasoning or evidence he offers, as well as a few of the conclusions he draws.

In recent weeks one of Gioia’s opinion pieces, “The Impoverishment of American Culture (and the need for better art education),” appeared on the editorial page (7/19) of The Wall Street Journal and initiated a number of responses. As the article notes, this presentation represents a slightly abbreviated version of Gioia’s June 17 commencement address at his alma mater, Stanford University. [The full speech remains available at Gioia’s personal web page.] The thrust of Gioia’s position appears reasonable, the easy access and vast influence of various entertainments in popular culture can overwhelm potential attention to the fine arts, especially among younger members of society, and a renewed emphasis on arts education in our public schools seems necessary as a counteraction.

Still, Gioia’s argument seems flawed from the beginning when he uses anecdotal evidence and tries to contrast today’s cultural environment with that existing when he was growing up. Gioia suggests “a cross-section of Americans” today may be knowledgeable about athletes and American Idol finalists, but would be hard pressed to name living American artists in any number of fields, from poetry to painting to classical music, and would even be unable to identify “living American scientists or social thinkers.” Gioia claims the results would be much different if such a survey were conducted fifty years ago. He proposes that American culture was “smarter then.”

Gioia’s premise develops from his memories of watching Ed Sullivan as a boy, when the Sunday night fare would include classical musicians, opera singers, and jazz greats among the guests. In addition, he recalls encountering literary figures “on general-interest TV shows.” In contrast, he writes: “Today no working-class kid would encounter that range of arts and ideas in popular culture. Almost everything in our national culture, even the news, has been reduced to entertainment, or altogether eliminated.”

Despite the admirable intent in much of Gioia’s presentation, possible flaws in his argument may weaken its impact. I am only a year younger than Gioia, and I remember watching the Ed Sullivan show every Sunday evening as well. However, I remember the selectivity with which many viewed the show. Not everyone, working class or from another economic level of society, paid equal attention to each segment of the show. Many tuned out when the comedians, jugglers, or singers left the stage. Indeed, especially among younger viewers, the common practice would be to watch the first five minutes and the last ten minutes of the program because Sullivan often led with a song by a hot rock group, then promised they would return at the end of the “really big show,” sometimes for two additional numbers. In between those segments of the program, my friends and I rarely paid attention if we even remained in the living room.

One might detect a sense of nostalgia in Gioia’s statements that somehow taints memory or clouds the facts a bit. Perhaps Gioia did first encounter literary figures like “Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, Lillian Hellman, and James Baldwin on general-interest TV shows,” though he doesn’t elaborate which ones. However, wouldn’t he have learned about these individuals in his classroom? What was the state of his arts education back then? Although he doesn’t paint a Norman Rockwell picture of his classroom, Gioia boasts: “I am old enough to remember a time when every public high school in this country had a music program with choir and band, usually a jazz band, too, sometimes even an orchestra. And every high school offered a drama program, sometimes with dance instruction. And there were writing opportunities in the school paper and literary magazine, as well as studio art training.”

Also, Gioia notes the absence of arts figures from shows like “David Letterman or Jay Leno.” However, Gioia’s claim that such exposure to literary figures has been eliminated in our national culture doesn’t match the facts at a time when Oprah Winfrey introduces her large audience to new novels every month, and she airs interviews with the authors, even the reluctant Cormac McCarthy, or engages in controversial literary topics, such as the use of fictional elements in memoirs. Elsewhere, Charlie Rose regularly includes conversations with authors on his PBS program, just to name another example.

In addition, although Gioia has dismissed the continuing influence of the Harry Potter phenomenon in popular culture, citing an unreleased report by the NEA, I wonder how even an engaging class could engender any more lasting interest and enthusiasm for reading than a decade of Potter books, hundreds of millions sold, could create. Indeed, just as Gioia’s article appeared in the newspapers, other newspaper articles reported record sales of the latest Potter novel. The number of Harry Potter books now in print tops 350 million copies. If one contends the influence of the Potter books on reading habits may only be negligible, I don’t believe any arts or literature class would work to greater effect.

A July 11 New York Times article quoting Gioia also attempts to dampen the expectations for reading due to Harry Potter by claiming the percent of young people who “read for fun” drops from 43 percent in fourth grade to 19 percent in eighth grade. However, eighth graders may be reading more books—including novels, plays, and poetry—for classes, but those do not count as “read for fun.” In fact, another survey cited in the article seems to contradict the gloomy statistics, reporting “51 percent of kids aged 5 to 17 polled said they did not read books for fun before they started reading the series. A little over three-quarters of them said Harry Potter had made them interested in reading other books.”

At the same time, Gioia’s reference to 1956 television raises other questions. When Ed Sullivan included various forms of entertainment on his program, only three or four networks competed for the American audience, and the selective exposure on his show represented just about all the arts that families could receive in their homes. Gioia reports that classical musicians or opera singers on Ed Sullivan would “captivate an audience of millions with their art”; however, what Sullivan enjoyed was more like a captive audience with little alternative avenues for entertainment or enrichment. In addition, one must remember many rural areas of the United States were unable at all to receive transmission of the television shows.

Today, cable or satellite television in the majority of American homes allows viewers the opportunity to access hundreds of television stations, with many devoted to specialty programming, including the fine arts and other aspects of culture: at any time I can turn to A&E, The Discovery Channel, the History Channel, the Science Channel, National Geographics, as well as the four PBS stations in my region, which include shows involving arts, literature, and classical music. C-SPAN devotes much of its weekend programming to books and authors that frequently stray beyond political content, such as when readings by National Book Awards nominees in fiction and poetry are broadcast.

In addition, the high speed Internet permits all to search information about the arts at anytime from their own homes or local libraries. If one wants to view a classic painting displayed in a museum anywhere around the world, its image arrives in seconds. The poems of Robert Frost or Walt Whitman are obtained just as easily. Rather than arts being eliminated from popular culture, we witness today a historically unprecedented availability of the arts and art commentary. In fact, Gioia’s original presentation addressed Stanford University’s graduating class, who presumably had all the educational advantages Gioia recommends, and the following article appeared on the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal, most likely consisting of a particular highly educated readership. One might suggest only in the popular culture medium of the Internet has his piece received widespread distribution to a potentially larger and more diverse audience.

Eventually, Gioia shifts his focus to his fellow “artists and intellectuals,” as he charges: “Most American artists, intellectuals and academics have lost their ability to converse with the rest of society.” I wonder when it was that most American artists, intellectuals, and academics did converse with everyday people. Limiting myself momentarily to poetry, the field Gioia and I know best, I’m curious whether the poets of the past were more engaged with ordinary middle-class citizens outside the arts or academia. Gioia asks artists to “reopen the conversation between our best minds and the broader public.” Which American poets about fifty years ago would he suggest to serve as models—Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Lowell, Bishop, Plath? Even the poet Gioia quotes, Robert Frost, often seemingly presented only a genial and entertaining façade to the general public.

Gioia bases his conclusions upon data from a report to be released in October by the National Endowment for the Arts. However, in my examination of the NEA’s previous 2004 report, “Reading at Risk” (available on the Internet), I discovered the material there not to be as alarming as Gioia would lead me to believe. In his elegant preface to that study, Gioia described it as a “bleak assessment of the decline of reading’s role in the nation’s culture.” He further categorized the situation as “dire” and “a vast cultural impoverishment,” heightened language similar to that in his recent address. He seemed to place blame on the electronic media: “most electronic media such as television, recordings, and radio make fewer demands on their audience, and indeed require no more than passive participation. Even interactive electronic media, such as video games and the Internet, foster shorter attention spans and accelerated gratification.”

However, that report’s own summary suggests Gioia may be taking liberties that could cause misleading moments in his description, perhaps using his poetic license, and there actually may be little or no real impact of electronic media on reading: “Literary readers watch slightly less TV each day than non-readers, and frequent readers watch only slightly less TV per day than infrequent readers.” The report also quotes a Gallup survey showing “that regular computer users spent 1.5 hours per day using the Internet and 1.1 hours reading books. However, those who did not regularly use a computer also spent 1.1 hours per day reading a book.” Indeed, another position could propose popular culture and the electronic media at times really feed contemporary art and literature with new material or novel allusions.

The survey further indicates reading literature “is clearly an important component of Americans’ leisure activities,” comparing favorably to a number of other options: “the proportion of people reading literature is higher than participation in most cultural, sports, and leisure activities . . . only TV watching, moviegoing, and exercising attract significantly more people than reading literary works.” The 2004 report notes: “the book industry published 122,000 new titles and sold a total of 2.5 billion books, a number that has tripled over the past 25 years.” (According to The Writer’s Chronicle, Bowker’s Books in Print reported 292,000 new titles and editions in 2006, and there were nearly 5,500 poetry titles published in the last year.) Approximately “25 million adults” read poetry, a respectable number when compared to numbers for other alternatives in leisure enjoyment. Without trivializing the importance of reading literature, I find all of this sounds much more positive than portrayed by Gioia.

Moreover, and perhaps most significantly, the 2004 NEA report acknowledged its data, collected for a year beginning in August 2001, may be deeply flawed because the time period coincides with the 9/11 attack and its aftermath, a time during which most Americans were preoccupied by the historic events playing out on their television screens (with additional information in newspapers or magazines, and nonfiction books, none of which qualifies as “literary reading” in the survey): “post September-11 developments and the war in Afghanistan may have hindered literary reading during the survey year.”

Perhaps the new NEA report this fall will include more convincing information to support Gioia’s description of dire circumstances in reading. I look forward to reading it. Certainly, I also welcome and encourage an ongoing discussion of this issue, and I thank Dana Gioia for initiating such conversation. However, early definitions I have seen of the forthcoming survey indicate it will compile results from government agencies, presumably including references to the data from the flawed 2004 survey, and according to the director of the research, Sunil Lyengar, it will include similar questionable measurements as previously cited, where the fuzzy standard is set at “reading for fun” among kids of different age groups.

In any case, despite my continuing admiration for Gioia’s advocacy attempts to highlight reading of literature, particularly through the many NEA Big Read grants that have allowed a multitude of communities to participate constructively in city-wide book programs involving classic novels, and his endorsement of greater public arts education (although I place higher emphasis on an optimal home environment for reading and the wise guidance by parents), I’d still like to see a little less finger pointing at cultural entertainment and an end to making a scapegoat of the electronic media. I believe an eloquent argument that nevertheless seems somewhat misleading and possibly incomplete in its formation of facts, or simply contends the obvious—high art sometimes loses when in competition with popular culture—will not be persuasive enough for me to believe the dark and alarmist interpretations offered, no matter how poetic their presentation.

No comments: