Poetry in the Rearview Mirror

Dana Gioia's comments on the problem — well, actually a problem — with poetry in academia are something I wish I'd heard years ago, when I was myself in an academic setting.

The conventional academic perspective views poetry as a series of texts placed in a historical or thematic framework or other printed texts. This traditional approach is invaluable in judging the past, but in assessing radical change, it is hopelessly fixated in what McLuhan called "rear-view mirror thinking." No driver can negotiate a sudden turn in the road by looking backward, and neither can a critic accurately see what is most innovative in contemporary poetry through the now-antiquarian assumptions of Modernism and the avant-garde. Those powerful ideas once produced great art, but now nearly a century old, they reflect a culture without radio, talking films, television, videocassettes, computers, cell phones, satellite dishes, and the Internet. Even as the academy attacks and rejects Modernism, it remains caught in its conceptual framework, at least in discussing poetry. That historical frame of reference is no longer relevant because the forces affecting contemporary poetry now mostly come from altogether outside that tradition.

  • Gioia, Dana. Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture. Saint Paul, Minn: Graywolf Press, 2004. Print. Page 100.