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Changing a Culture (A Look at Cultural Modernism and Free Market Verse)

Changing a Culture
(A Look at Cultural Modernism and Free Market Verse)

In his essay Free Market Verse, Steve Evans looks at the ramifications of:  “…the largest single donation ever made to an institution devoted to poetry” (Parisi 1). That gift was the one Ruth Lilly announced on the 90th anniversary of the founding of Poetry Magazine, the beneficiary of the contribution valued at between $100 to $150 million dollars over thirty years. Ruth Lilly is Heiress to the Eli Lilly Pharmaceutical fortune.[1]
Evans’ aesthetics are clearly laid out on his website,, where he chronicles the poetry readings he’s attended and the books he’s read over the past few years, including names like Anne Waldman, Michael Palmer, Bernadette Mayer, and other post-modern writers. Evans would likely not appreciate the “funny, rhyming poetry” that Eli was said to have written (Meek).
In his series, Evans suggests there is a culture war at stake in the poetry world. The prime combatant on the side Evans opposes may be Bush Administration official Dana Gioia, the NEA Chairman who is the former Kraft Foods executive (who has been known to brag about increasing sales of jello). Another is John Barr, the former investment banker, college professor, and “published poet” who was named President of the organization that oversees the publication of “Poetry Magazine,” the Poetry Foundation, (formerly the Modern Poetry Association) after receiving the gift from Ms. Lilly. The last of the three is Ted Kooser, the U.S. poet Laureate, who is known to want to make poetry more accessible to average people.

Gioia suggests in “Can Poetry Matter,” his essay that somehow got him a great deal of attention, that poetry has become too elitist, due mainly to the false markets created by academy, and needs to make itself more relevant to the average person again, as it was in the time before television, when it appeared in newspapers around the country. This was a time, Evans suggests: “…when school children were force-fed poems for memorization and recitation, as Gioia wishes them again to do in national ‘recitation bees’ judged on the four criteria of accuracy, eye contact, volume, and understanding of the poem” (Evans).

Evans uses humor and a scathing sarcasm to make his point, including a summary of the kind of poems Kooser includes in his poetry column offered at no cost to newspapers around the country:

Here’s how a glum four months of Kooser’s column parses out: A speaker observes an alienated couple as they dourly squirt Windex at each other’s faces from opposite sides of a pane they’re cleaning. A speaker assists minimally in the burial of an acquaintance. A speaker recalls buying red shoes for a woman who hasn’t been seen since. A speaker feels remorse for having a crippled piglet put down. A speaker observes a neighbor hauling bales to his barn as autumn descends. A speaker employs end rhyme to convince himself to give up booze. Biting into a potato, a speaker recalls his impoverished childhood. A speaker is reminded by moonflowers of her recently deceased mother. A speaker contemplates an elderly veteran in a parade. A speaker celebrates the arrival of spring. A speaker observes as a male peacock’s ostentatious display fails to interest a female intent on food. A speaker named after his grandfather feels his forebear’s presence while filling out forms and at supper. A tamed speaker recalls his youthful virility on the eve of his fortieth birthday. A speaker likens an elderly neighbor in a housecoat to a sunset. A speaker contemplates the life of an obsessive collector of Noah’s Ark images and trinkets. A speaker likens love to salt (Evans).

Of the cabal cited here Evans concludes, correctly, that: “…it is doubtful that their curious amalgam of economic elitism, drowsy formalism, and right-wing populism will prove a match for the Whitmanic tradition of radical democracy, fearless formal investigation, and do-it-yourself ingenuity that has produced most of the country’s greatest poetry. While the Poetry Foundation prescribes its Prozac poems to reluctant readers, the wide-awake poetry of the present can be expected to be everywhere otherwise occupied” (Evans).

What Evans does not get is that, for Gioia, Barr, Kooser, et al., the modernist paradigm has been successful. They have learned and perfected the ability to succeed financially in a modernist world. It is the only thing they know and everything they choose to read reinforces it. It’s interesting to see how the Poetry Foundation, after getting the Lilly dollars, changed its name from the Modern Poetry Association, and yet it is Modernist Culture that Barr represents and seeks to perpetuate. A culture that, according to Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson, has a stand-pat stance toward reality (Ray, Anderson 82). We’re basically on the right track, these cultural modernists believe. We just need to spend more money, or work harder and free-market capitalism will triumph.

Let’s examine this same stance toward wellness. A modernist medical perspective may have an unofficial motto of Find the bad part and kill it. Look at how modern medicine deals with cancer. It attempts to use early detection to find the cancerous cells, isolate them, and kill them off with drugs, surgery or radiation. It’s not subtle and there are cells and organs that suffer collateral damage through chemotherapy and side effects of very powerful medicines. This kind of medicine is heroic and does not value the refined consciousness of kinesthetic intelligence, nor the early warning system of a more holistic approach like acupuncture, which detects Qi blockages long before a disease state manifests. Of course The Lilly Foundation was created by this Drugs, Surgery and Radiation mentality, so it was good for them. After all doesn’t EVERYONE want to be rich?

Dana Gioia shows his true colors when he seeks to recreate competitive “recitation bees,” so that it is not the imagination that is valued, but the ability to Sit, Git and Spit, or take in facts and information and regurgitate them, not unlike a mother bird feeds chicks. Even the Poetry Slam movement, itself an aesthetic regression that allows so-called poetry to manipulate the guilt of beer-drinking judges to gain higher scores and cash prizes, is a better method than Gioia’s idea. And the Slam is increasingly used in high schools and youth programs around the country, to some success. Maybe it’s like Jazz, where I started with Jeff Beck’s version of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat as a teenager, but soon learned to savor the greasiness of the original version by Charles Mingus. Maybe the watered down version leads to the more potent brew as the organism evolves. Either way, Diane di Prima was on to something when she said: “The only war that matters is the war against/ the imagination./ All other wars are subsumed in it” (di Prima 160).

It stands to reason that people in favor of the culturally modernist modality would favor a verse that is logical and linear, over the Charles Olson method of Projective Verse, or a use of speech at its “least careless and least logical” (Olson 241). Yet it is in that projective act that we may experience something deeper than cultural wars. It is in that “ontic immediacy,” as David Saffo puts it, in which we may feel the inherent interconnection that a modernist viewpoint does not, can not, or will not recognize (Saffo 1). Yes, there are other modes of experiencing this, meditation being the oldest and most common. But we live in a society that does not value poetry because society has marginalized itself through television, consumerism and a stance toward reality that perpetuates the urge toward separation, control and domination. Evans knows the power of the tradition started on this continent by Whitman and fostered by invention and lately the huge tool of democratization known as the Internet. And as people begin to seek experience deeper than what the Gioias, Barrs, and Koosers of the world seek them to urp back, poets working at a deeper level of consciousness, like the ones Evans cites, will be as available as the click of a mouse.

Paul Nelson
Auburn, WA 11A – 2.1.06

Works Cited:

Evans, Steve.   Part IV: Poetics of the Backlash.

Parisi, Joe, as reported in the Chicago Tribune and cited at:

Meek, Heather.   Eli Lilly Biographical Highlights.

Olson, Charles.   Collected Prose  Berkeley:  California Press,   1997.
Ray, Paul and Anderson, Sherry.   The Cultural Creatives.   Harmony:   New York,   2000.
di Prima, Diane.   Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems.   City Lights:   San Francisco,  1993.
Saffo, David.   Charles Olson, Martin Heidegger, and Ontic Immediacy: a
Phenomenological Interpretation of poem-in-the-world.   Hangman #4

[1] Evans previewed his essay on the site in January and February 2006 in advance of its Summer 2006 publication in The Baffler 17.