"It's the culture, stupid."
This isn't quite the call to arms that Bill Clinton's rallying cry for the economy was in '92, but it reflects a strong craving in America to bring back respect for the humanities and the arts, to create a greater understanding for the way cultural forms inform how we think about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It's powerful politics.
This craving has accelerated since Laura the librarian moved into the White House. Her emphasis on the necessity for children to grow up reading - and her exhortations to parents to read aloud to their children - is not academic. It's a necessity. We live in a world bombarded with visual imagery on tube and computer, relying heavily on colorful shortcuts to the imagination through the sound and fury of sensational images. There's no turning back the technology.
But we've got to be careful that an appreciation for language is not limited to the quick-fix(ated) jargon of the keyboard, screen, camera or blogger. Our great English language deserves better than the relentless abuse it routinely suffers.
During the holidays, a reader of the New York Times, writing on the op-ed page under the headline "A Lost Eloquence," told how she grew up listening to her mother recite poetry from memory. Her mother, age 85, grew up on the plains of North Dakota, and was required to memorize whole poems and famous addresses. That tradition lived on in most of our public schools through the 1950s. Is there anyone of a certain age who doesn't remember having to stand in front of the class to recite "O Captain, My Captain," "The Gettysburg Address" or even the 23rd Psalm (a taboo today)?
Such rote learning was dropped from the curriculum in the following decades, criticized by whole generations of teachers - and those training them - as empty and stilted exercises emphasizing process over substance. The notion that such language, when it was internalized, helped a child hear rhythms and cadences that can only be felt when spoken out loud, was abandoned.
We dumped the process and with it much of the substance. Children today memorize rock and rap lyrics instead of the rich cadences of Whitman, of Lincoln and of the King James Version of the Bible. Idiosyncratic idioms of a vulgar pop culture triumph over the eloquence of yesterday.
That's too bad, since young people will always have access to the pop culture, but it's ever more difficult to teach them to revere the roots of their native tongue. Most contemporary poetry feels inaccessible to most readers today.
There's hope, though slim, that things can change. George Bush intends to nominate Dana Gioia, a poet, to be the new chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts. The nomination is currently tied up in the bureaucratic paper-shuffling at the White House, and has been for months.
Gioia gained a national reputation for an essay he wrote in the Atlantic magazine in April 1991 asking the question, "Does Poetry Matter?" The essay generated more letters to the magazine than anything it had published in decades. The letter-writers included teachers, soldiers, lawyers, librarians, nuns, diplomats, housewives, business executives, ranchers and even newspaper reporters, mostly, Gioia observed in the preface of the book his expanded essay became, "people who were not then normally heard in the poetry world."
Gioia's essay is comprehensive, illuminating two sides of a complex argument: 1) why contemporary poets are "famous" only to other poets, and 2) why the common reader and poets are no longer on speaking terms. He scolds both groups.
Poets increasingly narrow their focus and isolate themselves in academic covens on campuses remote from the concerns of the rest of us. The universities have locked themselves in a stifling etiquette that destroys rather than enhances art. An alienated audience ignores poetry rather than demanding something better than stale, sterile, remote and exhausted conventions. "To have great poets," said Walt Whitman, "there must be great audiences, too."
This is a chicken-and-egg argument, but it need not be a futile one. The author offers many remedies too numerous to discuss here, but my favorite is that poems should be memorized, recited and performed for the sheer pleasure they provide. That's what attracts children to poetry in the first place, from nursery rhymes and schoolyard doggerel to William Blake's "Tiger, tiger burning bright." It's not difficult to determine what's good, but this requires fresh inspiration from readers as well as writers.
"Let's build a funeral pyre out of desiccated conventions piled around and watch the ancient, spangle-feathered, unkillable phoenix rise from the ashes," writes Dana Gioia. When he takes over as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts - and the White House should get cracking on this nomination - we should hold him to it.