What Literature Wants (to get in your kishkes)
By Amy Willis
Does poetry matter less than it once did? Poet and author Dana Gioia says America is living a cultural paradox: “There has never been a country in the history of the world that has paid more people to profess poetry.” Yet, it seems we’ve missed the mark.
In this episode, EconTalk host Russ Roberts welcomes Gioia to talk about poetry, his new book, his professional trajectory (which includes an abandoning a graduate writing program for an MBA), and what matters in life and literature.
Perhaps as evidence of Gioia’s point, many listeners reacted unfavorably to this episode- I think without having listened. Why an EconTalk about poetry, they asked? What good is that? Give it a listen. Trust me, I’m one of you- someone who thinks they just don’t “get” poetry. This episode will change your mind. Gioia describes beautifully what good poetry is and isn’t. The purpose of poetry is not necessarily to understand it, but to experience it, says Gioia. And you don’t want to miss Gioia recite some of his own poems. It works, and I am now the proud owner of- I admit- my first book of poetry, Gioia’s 99 Poems. It’s lovely.
1- Gioia reminds us that poetry was once very much a part of mainstream American culture. What made America lose its mass audience for poetry?
2- Gioia says, “People who are successful in life, they know it’s their own talents and everything else, but they also know that there were people who awakened those talents, refined them, gave them the little push, gave them the advice.” Who was the teacher who most impacted YOU, and how?
3- Why do Roberts and Gioia think you should read books like the Iliad and the Odyssey? What is the difference for Gioia between “disposable books” and literature- like “getting in your kishkes? To what extent do you agree with Gioia that prior to the pandemic, there were too many books, movies, concerts, etc.?
4- Gioia notes that poetry is the fastest growing art in the US among people aged 18-25. Poetry, he says, is “performative, democratic, accessible.” What does that mean? How does Amanda Gorman fit into this story?
5- How might a poem be considered a kind of emergent order? How does the language of poetry and economics compare?