Tyler Cowern interviews Dana Gioia, once upon a time California Poet Laureate, head of the NEA, and an executive at General Foods. About a quarter of the way in:
COWEN: Is rap music, simply the new poetry? It’s very popular. It is poetic in some broader notion of the term.
GIOIA: Rap, hip hop without any question is poetry. It is rhythmically structured words moving through time. You have in the invention of rap — Rap is interesting because, once again, if I go back to 1975 when I was leaving Harvard, I was told by the world experts in poetry that rhyme and meter were dead, narrative was dead in poetry. Poetry would become ever more complex, which meant that it could only appeal to an elite audience, and finally, that the African American voice in poetry rejected these European things and would take this experimental form. What the intellectuals in the United States did was we took poetry away from common people.
We took rhyme away, we took narrative away, we took the ballad away, and the common people reinvented it. The greatest one of these was Kool Herc in the South Bronx, who invented what we now think of as rap and hip hop. Within about ten years, it went from non-existent to being the most widely purchased form of popular music. We saw in our own lifetime something akin to Homer, the reinvention of popular oral poetry. There were parallels in the revival of slam poetry, cowboy poetry, and new formalism, so at every little social group, people from the ground up reinvented poetry because the intellectuals had taken it away from them.
COWEN: Why is Elizabeth Bishop a more radical poet than Ginsberg or Ferlinghetti?
GIOIA: She’s radical in that she went back to the roots of poetry and she kept rhythm, she usually kept rhyme, and she understood that poetry wasn’t simply a formal structure, it was a form of wisdom literature. When I review books of poetry, I ask myself three questions. What is the writer doing? What’s the writer trying to do? Secondly, how well does the writer do this? Then, there’s the third question, and this is where Elizabeth Bishop really wins. How worthwhile was the thing that they wanted to do and they did? Sometimes you see people do marvelous jobs of something that’s not really worth the effort. What Bishop tried to do was to explain in her poetry, this is what great poets do, what it is like to live in a particular life, in a particular moment, and make you feel the pain, the joy, the illumination, the doubt with the absolute intensity as if it were happening to you.
COWEN: As you must know in the main Bishop biography, it suggested she was not such a popular professor at Harvard, yet you loved studying with her. What accounts for that difference in perspective?
GIOIA: I think actually, it was my memoir that really brought this to light because nobody wanted to take her classes. She was not popular, she was not prestigious and Harvard students are absolute barometers of prestige. They can feel it and they gravitate towards it. I liked her, she was a bad teacher, there’s no question about that, she was a bad teacher, but you were in a room with a great poet who had no pretensions at all. She says, “I am a bad teacher,” and you would just talk about poems. She would look at them, you’d feel material, and there is no substitute for a young artist to the experience of being in the presence of a master.
My brother Ted, who’s a famous historian jazz critic, he played piano with Stan Getz. Stan was a very difficult guy but he was one of the great jazz geniuses in the last half-century, and just seeing how Getz worked, how Getz performed, how Getz conceived of things was like a university degree. The same thing for me was Bishop and Robert Fitzgerald. I was with two of the greatest Craftsman poets of their generation sometimes twice a week. It was transformative to me much better than an organized lecturer.
There’s much more at the link, some of it quite interesting, though what you find interesting may not be what I find interesting.
As for Kool Herc and hip-hop, he didn’t invent it out of nothing. There’s a tradition of toasts in African American culture that goes back, we don’t know how far, but certainly awhile. I learned about them at SUNY Buffalo, from Bruce Jackson. Many toasts are on standard subjects, Dolomite, Signifying Monkey, and (the sinking of the) Titanic. Here’s a version of Titanic.
Oh, and there's this about opera librettos:
When I write lyrics for an opera libretto, it has to work as a poem, it has to work as something that the composer can set to music, which means it has to be tight enough to have a form but not so tight that the composer can’t get into it. There’s a third thing that I had never considered. The singer has to become your words for the duration of the performance. When the soprano walks on, she has to know who she is, who she was, what she wants, she has to inhabit your words. That’s what I think I got to be very good at, creating beautiful language that a singer could inhabit in the way that they can inhabit a great pop song.
On being chairman of the NEA:
When I was appointed to this job people said, “Go there and fight the good fight.” Everybody just told me, “Just to go there and fight. Don’t give up.” I knew instinctively that fighting was the wrong metaphor, that my job was to reconcile.
They went, “How can you deal with so-and-so, he’s such an awful, evil person?” I said that, “I believe everyone in Congress is the valid elected official. They are the person that their people have sent to represent them in a democratic republic. Therefore, they deserve the respect that the system itself deserves.”
I met with everybody. In fact, I took meetings with people who only took the meetings so they could yell and scream at me. I had the people that supported me, the people that wanted to support me and the people that I would convince to support me. Within a year, because I traveled every week with people back to their districts, to their states, I had created a bipartisan, bicameral majority.
It was because I also changed the NEA so that we were representing, for the first time in the history of the agency, all of America. We were reaching every community, every population, versus an institution that was largely serving the artistic elite. The arts world was very angry about that, but that is the best thing that I did in my chairmanship, was to make this institution, which reflected America.