A poetry conference that aims for balance

Posted: June 12, 2001

In the apt acoustical setting of West Chester University's Asplundh Concert Hall, Richard Wilbur, 80, former poet laureate and versifier extraordinaire, is topping off Thursday evening's "Richard Wilbur Celebration" by reading a few of his short "Disappearing Alphabet" poems:

If there were no such thing as C,

Whole symphonies would be off key,

Squeals, chuckles, giggles, odd noises at a poetry reading, rise from the audience of more than 200 poets, critics and scholars.

What if there were no letter O?

You couldn't COME, you couldn't GO.

Which literary critic quipped, "Every contemporary poetry reading is too long"? Not here - these folks (some wearing "I Think, Therefore Iamb" T-shirts) would have listened all night.

"You have to be taught not to like rhyme," observes poet and critic Dana Gioia, lunching on Saturday in the student-center cafeteria, already deep into the final stretch of "Exploring Form and Narrative," the seventh annual West Chester University Poetry Conference. "You have to be taught not to like stories. It requires a great deal of education not to like meter."

Those sharp, iconoclastic views inform much of the conference he cofounded at this handsome 388-acre campus 25 miles west of Philadelphia, four days of intensive workshops and critical seminars that make the event the nation's most intellectually rigorous conference for poets.

The idea was born in the mid-'80s, when Gioia and Michael Peich, then chairman of West Chester's English department (and now both a professor in the department and head of Aralia Press, a printer of fine books), found themselves talking about the poetry scene over a bottle of pinot noir. The two friends agreed, Gioia recalls, that "nobody had ever put together a poetry conference that taught the portion of the art that is actually teachable, which is technique."

Peich, 57, wolfing down lunch on Gioia's left - he handles the conference's local administrative details - also liked the idea of "inviting both critics and scholars to make presentations." Both thought they might create what Gioia calls a "conversation about the art of poetry that's in a public idiom." Both wanted a democratic atmosphere free of hierarchy. In Gioia, it's clear, they had a lightning rod to catch and spread the electricity.

By 1995, the Los Angeles native, now 50, already enjoyed a reputation as a maverick. He had followed a B.A. at Stanford and an M.A. at Harvard (where he studied under Robert Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Bishop) with a nervy move into the business world, becoming a vice president at General Foods.

In 1991, Gioia published a controversial essay in the Atlantic Monthly, "Can Poetry Matter?," which sparked hundreds of letters to the magazine. Gioia argued, he says, "that American poetry found itself in a paradoxical situation, because never in the history of the United States had so much poetry been published by so many poets . . . and yet never had poetry mattered less to the general culture." One cause he cited for the "decline of the poet as a public artist" was the failure of academic poets to address general readers.

Loyal to form

In a subsequent book, Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and Culture (1992), Gioia linked those views with an appreciation for the "New Formalism" and "New Narrative" or "Expansive" poetry. Some older American poets, such as Wilbur, had stayed loyal to form and narrative throughout the mid-20th-century stampede to free verse. Then in the mid-'80s, three formally inclined books by younger poets - Brad Leithauser's Hundreds of Fireflies (1982), Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate (1986), and Gioia's own Daily Horoscope - drew widespread reviews and denunciations.

The Associated Writing Programs Newsletter published an article in 1985 called "The Yuppie Poet" that compared the "New Formalism" to "renewed interest in country clubs." A 1990 article in the American Poetry Review sent a message with its title: "Neo-Formalism: A Dangerous Nostalgia." It didn't help, Gioia believes, that he, Leithauser (a lawyer), and Seth (then at Stanford's Food Institute) were all outsiders to the creative-writing establishment. "They took Vikram Seth's Golden Gate," Gioia complains, "which is a pro-gay, anti-Catholic, anti-nuclear sex farce, and said that it followed a right-wing agenda."

Despite the attacks, Gioia increasingly believed that a return to form and narrative might help poetry "regain some of the ground lost to fiction."

"A poet should be free to use all the techniques of poetry as they seem advantageous in the creation of a poem," Gioia says now. "I was trying to get rid of a culture of preconception where, for 30 years, form had been out of style."

So the West Chester Poetry Conference started in 1995 with six classes and 78 students over three days. Peich remembers that many formalists who came had "felt isolated." This year, it ran for four days, offered 16 classes, and attracted 230 participants, including such elder giants as Wilbur and Anthony Hecht.

All welcome

Virtually all student applicants are accepted, according to Peich, and participants needn't arrive fluent in the nomenclature of poetic form. That, after all, is what many come to learn. Fees range up to $550 for full room, board and workshop participation, but shorter stays and plans are possible.

Both Gioia and Peich eagerly reject cliches of what the conference stands for. They stress that no official ideology holds free verse or confessional poetry in contempt. They simply want to compensate for the excess of those approaches in recent American poetry by emphasizing technique, form and "expansive" narrative.

"Anyone who reads my poetry sees that I write in free verse," Gioia notes. "For me, it's not a matter of either/or. It's a question of both and how."

The pair also ridicule the charge that any poet fond of meter or form must be a "Reaganite."

"Bertolt Brecht wrote in rhyme, and Ezra Pound wrote in free verse," Gioia says, offering classic counterexamples to the stereotypes. "The formal assumptions that a poet brings have nothing whatsoever to do with his or her politics."

As the return to form and narrative gains ground - supported by publications such as Sewanee Review, the Hudson Review, and Scotland's Dark Horse, as well as Story Line Press in Ashland, Ore., the leading publisher of "New Formalist" work - Gioia sounds ecumenical in regard to whether such pillars of the free-verse establishment as Philadelphia's American Poetry Review should pay attention or not.

"What confuses people about this conference," Gioia concludes, "is that most academic conferences have a single ideology. What I want at West Chester are arguments - the arguments that the poetry culture needs to have at this time."

Carlin Romano's e-mail address is cromano@phillynews.com.

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