Nate Meyvis


Dana Gioia and unasked questions

Last week’s EconTalk featured Dana Gioia. He discussed what I have long considered one of the largest and most important trends in American life, although basically nobody ever talks about it: What has happened to poetry? My friends are pretty bookish, and they approximately never read poetry (or, at least, I take that to be the best explanation for why they never talk about poetry and tend to change the subject quickly when I raise it). The New York Times best-sellers Web site includes, as I write this, zero books of or about poetry (however poetry fits into the taxonomy of those lists, none of it shows up there).

I think that the question is much broader: what has happened to the musical aspect of language? It’s striking enough that when I graduated high school 20 years ago, it was very common for students to know a Robert Frost poem or two by heart (or, at least, to have once been assigned to learn it by heart). But think more broadly: would the OJ trial, conducted today, so prominently feature a jingle (“if the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit”)? Are your parents and grandparents more enthusiastic about wordplay than you and the next generation? Can you imagine presidential campaigns being built around rhyming slogans and even songs, the way they used to be?

Stress, accent, and meter used to be central parts of an education in prose. What seems to be the standard conception of language now, so severely stripped of its musical / poetic aspect, was not even in the taxonomy of kinds of writing, as I learned it 20 to 35 years ago.

I don’t know what has happened. Some conjectures:

  1. The Internet makes writing more abundant. Having so much available disincentivizes study of the poetic aspects of language, perhaps because it’s a relatively bad way to get a modest amount out of each of many units of writing (but a good way to get a lot out of each of fewer units of writing).
  2. The Internet makes writing more abundant in a form that (for some other reason) works less well for the poetic experience of language.
  3. People are getting lazier.
  4. Poetry got institutionalized (academically) and thereby lost its vitality. (A Gioia conjecture that he argues for remarkably persuasively, but I don’t think it can explain the broader phenomenon.)
  5. We are more alienated from our inner lives than ever. Rhythm and poetry get at our inner lives, and more prosaic stuff at our “outer” lives, so the alienation leads to a more prosaic culture. (Another Gioia riff, but I’m not sure which way the causal arrow would go.)
  6. Things evolve and sometimes there are only partial and incomplete explanations for them (why did basketball get more popular than boxing?). This is one of those.
  7. Poetry and musicality somehow depend on focal experiences, be they popular poets or TV catchphrases, more than prosaic language. As things get more fragmented, poetry doesn’t survive as well.
  8. Poetry is (more) about memory, and we don’t (need to) use our memories for words as much as we used to. (A more optimistic cousin of (5).)

What am I missing?