by Dana Gioia
From the 20th anniversary issue of The Dark Horse, Summer 2015
There is such an enormous amount of poetry criticism and poetic theory published at present that it seems impossible that any significant topic is neglected. Yet there are inevitably blind spots. As scholars and critics pursue the themes and theories of the moment, other subjects remain overlooked. Some topics have been neglected so long that they now seem not merely unfashionable but quaint, eccentric, even disreputable. This essay explores one of those disreputable subjects, one that I’m quaint enough to consider important, perhaps essential, to the art of poetry. It is a topic so remote from contemporary literary studies that there is no respectable critical term for it. Lacking a more stylish appellation, I’ll borrow an antiquarian term, enchantment. That very word should cause responsible readers to cringe. What comes next? A damsel with a dulcimer? The horns of Elfland faintly blowing?
There often seems something crude or naive about essentialist views of poetry. Anyone with an advanced degree in literary studies knows there is no professional future in trying to connect the art of poetry with its putative human purposes. There are too few hard facts and too many value judgments involved to make this a safe area of academic inquiry. That is probably why the poet-critics who have made the most persuasive claims on the primal aspects of verse have mostly been outsiders, such as Ezra Pound, Robert Graves, Edwin Muir, Kathleen Raine, William Everson, Robert Bly, Les Murray, Wendell Berry, and—to name one non-poet—Camille Paglia. To put it mildly, these poets have not written in the language of academic discourse. They relied mostly on experiential argument, mythic allusion, historical analogy, and personal narrative, often peppered with amateur anthropology or psychology. At their worst moments, as in Graves’s The White Goddess or Bly’s Iron John, they have claimed visionary authority. Private inspiration may be the stuff of poetry, but it is toxic to criticism. Nonetheless there is something interesting going on in the speculative work of these outsiders besides prophetic delusion or bard-envy. They share a conviction that poetry—both its creation and reception—has great human importance that needs to be not merely understood but periodically renewed as a spiritual capacity. They also view poetry as a foundational element of education. Often reckless by scholarly standards, their criticism attempts to open new conversations rather than annotate and negotiate old ones. A little recklessness goes a long way, but sometimes literary culture needs to go a long way, too.