By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
But so what? If these are not poetic times, a growing number of people will turn to poetry for precisely that reason. Poets in the second category may have a point: More poetry is being published than ever before, and according to certain critics who are paid to read it, the best of it is as good as anything in our literature. It may even be that we are living through a golden age of poetry and just don't appreciate it. As Randall Jarrell observed, in a golden age people complain that everything looks yellow. (Of course, he hadn't seen the ABC ads.)
"What's remarkable is the terrific poetry being written at every level," I was told by David St. John, arguably the city's most lauded poet. (He is also one of the few to have a major publisher -- HarperCollins.) We were sitting in a café near his home in Venice, and St. John, a smart, friendly, articulate man with a true Californian's ease of manner, was warming to his theme. "You can go often to a reading by a group of people you've never heard of and be stunned by how well-written and gorgeous the poems are. I've been surprised in this city by the levels of the writing. The audience for poetry in L.A. is tremendously sophisticated, probably more sophisticated than anywhere in the country except New York. The audience in L.A. happily engages itself with poets from Charles Bernstein to Charles Wright. They're happy to hear these poets of radically differing aesthetics, and to appreciate them with equal fervor."
"I see what you're talking about with regard to readings," I told St. John, "but what I don't see is people talking about poetry in everyday conversation, and I never see anyone reading poetry. Poets just don't seem to come up."
"It's the culture," St. John answered sadly. "Anyone who's lived in Europe knows the place of poetry in the culture. I've lived in Rome and I've lived in Paris. You open up a daily newspaper in Italy, and there's an article by Moravia, or Eco, on a movie, or a local arts show. You have distinguished writers talking about the culture in newspapers!"
"Whereas here we farm all that out to specialists."
"Absolutely. And it seems to generate a kind of isolation of the arts -- poetry, music, ballet, opera. They have their audiences, very strong audiences, but they remain circumscribed. And I think it's because the figures who are important to those arts aren't brought into the larger cultural conversation."
"When people talk about there being a revival, are they talking about poetry in terms of performance?"
"No. I think the audience is there not only for the readings, but for the books. And I'll tell you why I think it is. I think it's because the official language of the culture, the language of the nightly news, the language of newspapers, the language that surrounds people in their daily lives, becomes so self-evidently empty to everyone that, instinctively, people have gone looking for language being used with any kind of integrity whatsoever. They knowthat language can connect to ideas and human emotions, but it's not around them, they don't see it anywhere."
Not everyone has as sanguine a view as St. John. Dana Gioia is a poet who grew up in Hawthorne. His essay, "Can Poetry Matter?," which was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1991, got people talking about poetry in greater numbers than anyone could have imagined possible. (The Atlanticreceived an enormous amount of reader response for the article. This suggests that although people may not read poetry very much anymore, they are aware of the fact and want to know why.) "There is a huge renaissance of poetry activity in L.A.," Gioia told me over the phone from his home in Northern California, "but there are no governing standards. You can't have great literature without great standards, and no one wants to hear this, especially in L.A. There's a real mistaken impression that more art is better art, whereas in fact lots of bad poetry will deaden the appetite for good poetry."
"Are there any good poets in L.A. I probably wouldn't have heard about?" I asked.
Gioia thought for a moment and then said: "As a matter of fact, there's a woman named Leslie Monsour. Do you know her?"
"Hold on a second," Gioia said, putting down the phone. A minute later he was back. "She sent me a little chapbook of poems, and it's ã really good. She seems emblematic of the situation in L.A. A person of genuine talent, and more importantly of that dogged self-critical capability that is so important to a poet, but which in L.A. has had no soil to take root in. Her work is compressed, formal, with an ironic turn to it. There's a poem of hers called 'Parking Lot,' which you might like."
Gioia then proceeded to read the poem to me over the phone. He read the lines slowly, clearly, to make them easier to follow.
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