Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture

Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture

by Gioia

The Celebrated poet and author of Can Poetry Matter?offers another bold, insightful collection of essays on literature's changing place in contemporary culture

Poetry is an art that preceded writing, and it will survive television and video games . . . The problem won't be finding an audience. The challenge will be writing well enough to deserve one.


The Celebrated poet and author of Can Poetry Matter?offers another bold, insightful collection of essays on literature's changing place in contemporary culture

Poetry is an art that preceded writing, and it will survive television and video games . . . The problem won't be finding an audience. The challenge will be writing well enough to deserve one.

In Disappearing Ink, Dana Gioia stakes the claim for poetry's place amid American popular culture, where poetry in its latest oral forms -rap, slam, performance-is transforming the traditional literary culture of the printed page. But, as the seminal title essay asks, "What is a conscientious critic supposed to do with an Eminem or Jay-Z?" In a brilliant array of essays that test the pulse of traditional and contemporary poetry, Gioia ponders the future of the written word and how it might find its most relevant incarnation.

With the clarity, wit, and feisty intelligence that made Can Poetry Matter? one of the most important and controversial books about literature and contemporary American society, Gioia again demonstrates his unique abilities of observation and uncanny prognostication to examine our complicated everyday relationship to art.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Can Poetry Matter? is an important book, and anyone who professes to care about the state of American poetry will have to take it into account.” —World Literature Today

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Graywolf Press
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6.08(w) x 9.08(h) x 0.81(d)

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Disappearing Ink

By Dana Gioia

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2004 Dana Gioia
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-55597-410-4

Chapter One

The End of Print Culture

Since all media are fragments of ourselves extended into the public domain, the action upon us of any one medium tends to bring the other sense into a new relation.-Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

We are currently living in the midst of a massive culture revolution. For the first time since the development of movable type in the late fifteenth century, print has lost its primacy in communication. The proliferation of electronic technology has gone far beyond providing a new means for the communication, storage, and retrieval of information: the new media have gradually changed not only the way we perceive language and ideas but also the world and ourselves. The shift in the modes of communication has had an extraordinary impact on every aspect of contemporary life, but literature, an imaginative enterprise created entirely from words, has been profoundly affected in ways that we are still in the process of comprehending.

How does one describe this cultural change? A few gross statistics may help to characterize the general environment. According to one recent study, the average American now spends about twenty-four minutes a day reading, not just books but anything-newspapers, magazines, diet tips, and TV Guide. This small investment of time compares with over four hours daily of television and over three hours of radio. Less than half of U.S. households now read daily newspapers, and many of the newspapers they do follow, such as USA Today, increasing model their short-attention-span formats after television. Younger adults (ages eighteen to thirty) read significantly less than older groups. Children now grow up in a world where reading has been overwhelmed by other options for information and entertainment. According to a 1999 survey, at that time the average American child lived in a household that owned two television sets, three tape recorders, three radios, two videocassette recorders, two compact disc players, one videogame player, and a computer. The survey neglected to mention if the home had any books, but it did note that the child spent five hours and forty-eight minutes each day with electronic media versus forty-four minutes with print. It should be noted that the time the child spent with print includes that compulsory activity called homework.

Many experts also feel that illiteracy is on the rise in America. According to a 1986 United State Bureau of Census study, 13 percent of Americans over the age of twenty are illiterate. That statistic means that in the United States, which that same year officially measured its literacy rate at 99 percent, somewhere around nineteen million adults cannot read with minimal competency. Significantly, subsequent measures of illiteracy have become controversial because experts no longer agree on what constitutes literary, which has become a diverse ideological issue in education. It was simpler in the bad, old days when the Census Bureau automatically bestowed literacy on anyone who had completed fourth grade. I particularly enjoy that measure because, by sheer coincidence, both my grandfathers stopped school after fourth grade. My paternal grandfather was educated in Sicily, so his example is not especially relevant, but my maternal grandfather, half Mexican and half Native American, learned enough in his four years of New Mexican Indian-reservation schooling to become an avid lifelong reader. Today, however, when school-age children spend considerably more time watching television than in the classroom, educational level is no longer an accurate predictor of literacy.

For years many intellectuals and academics have observed these trends with a mixture of disappointment and detachment. While lamenting the sorry state of literacy among the public, the remained confident in the power of a print culture among educated Americans. That confidence now seems misplaced. Books, magazines, and newspapers are not disappearing, but their position in the culture has changed significantly over the past few decades, even among the educated. We are now seeing the first generation of young intellectuals who are not willing to immerse themselves in the world of books. They are not against reading, but they see it as only one of the many options for information. As the poet-critic jack Foley has said, "At the current moment writing is beginning to seem 'old-fashioned.'"

For intellectuals, the implications of the shift from print culture to electronic media are vast, complex, and often troubling. The situation touches on every aspect of cultural life, and many intellectual debates have already been waged over the issue at stake. There is probably no more important argument in our culture because this issue focuses on the means by which our society uses language, images, and ideas to represent reality. The decline of print as our culture's primary means of codifying, presenting, and preserving information isn't merely a methodological change; it is an epistemological transformation. As Neil Postman has observed, the shift from print to television "has dramatically and irreversibly shifted the content and meaning of public discourse, since two media so vastly different cannot accommodate the same ideas." The technology used to present information is never neutral. The ways in which a medium works dictate the kinds of content it communicates, or to revise Marshall McLuhan's famous formula, the medium predetermines the message.

II. Verse is No Longer a Dying Technique

The end of print culture raises many troubling questions about the position of poetry amid these immense cultural and technological changes. What will be the poet's place in a society that has increasingly little use for books, little time for serious culture, little knowledge of the past, little consensus on literary value, and-even among intellectuals-little faith in poetry itself? These questions are all the more pressing in American academic life where the art of poetry is often put on the margins of scholarly inquiry in favor of literary theory and cultural studies.

Any serious attempt to assess poetry's current position will need to proceed in unorthodox ways-not out of intellectual perversity but from sheer necessity-because the orthodox views of contemporary poetry no longer are either useful or accurate in portraying the rapidly changing shape of the art. The conventional academic perspective views poetry as a series of texts placed in a historical or thematic framework of 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.

When the conventional methods no longer seem adequate to comprehend new developments, it is time to ask different questions. This essay therefore will look at contemporary poetry from an unfamiliar vantage point. This unusual perspective may initially annoy some readers and confuse others, but as the argument unfolds, it will become obvious that it allows one to discern certain significant, even perhaps essential, changes in American poetry not otherwise easily visible.

Consider the following question: What has been the most influential and unexpected event in American poetry during the past twenty years? Language Poetry? New Formalism? Critical Theory? Multiculturalism? New Narrative? Identity Poetics? These have all been significant trends, but none have been confined largely to the academic subculture. Oddly, the most important new trend won't be found in what Language Poet Charles Bernstein calls "official verse culture"-the small but respectable literary network of books, journals, conferences, and university writing programs. Instead, it will be discovered in the general culture in poetic works widely covered in the mass media.

Without a doubt the most surprising and significant development in recent American poetry has been the wide-scale and unexpected reemergence of popular poetry-namely rap, cowboy poetry, poetry slams, and certain overtly accessible types of what was once a defiantly avant-garde genre, performance poetry. These new forms of popular verse have seemingly come out of nowhere to become significant forces in American culture. Rap especially has become ubiquitous in our society-not only filling the concert halls and radio programming but also heard and seen in films, television, and live theater. Although far less commercial, the other forms have also shown enormous vitality. And all these new poetic forms have thrived without the support of the university or the literary establishment.

In a literary culture that during most of the twentieth century declared verse a dying technique, no one would have predicted this vastly popular revival. In ways that Edmund Wilson could never have foreseen, verse has changed into a growth industry, though its rehabilitation has happened mostly off the printed page. Whatever one thinks of the artistic quality of these new poetic forms, one must concede that at the very least they reassuringly demonstrate the abiding human need for poetry. Please note that while admiring the energy of the revival, I do not maintain that these new forms of popular verse represent the best of the period. Individually considered as works of literary art, most of this verse is undistinguished or worse, though some of it is smart and lively. Collectively, however, the work has enormous implications on the future of poetry. Not only does it call into question many contemporary assumptions about the current state of poetry, but the new popular poetry also reflects the broad cultural forces that are now reshaping all the literary arts.


Excerpted from Disappearing Ink by Dana Gioia Copyright © 2004 by Dana Gioia. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Dana Gioia is the author of three collections of poetry: Daily Horoscope, The Gods of Winter, and Interrogations at Noon, which won the American Book Award. He is the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

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