Two Views


Coleridge is...distinguishing between [the] personal need to see the strong, self-contained mind as the creator of its own values and the general modes of writing and reading great poetry-which requires a literate and thoughtful public and a poet who knows how to communicate with other minds and needs to do it....
-A.S. Byatt, Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time

"I'm teaching my students to publish in New York." -A teacher at New College of California

In the Winter 1999-2000 issue of the Hungry Mind Review (now the Ruminator Review) poet-critic Dana Gioia published an article, "FAllen Western Star," on the San Francisco Bay Area as a literary region. Bart Schneider, editor of The Hungry Mind Review, explained that he had asked Gioia "to write an essay about the literary life of his region, and he delivered so provocative and thorough a piece that I asked eight other writers from around the country to report on the literary doings in their regions."

Subtitled "The Decline of San Francisco as a Literary Region," Gioia's 9,000-word historical/theoretical article is not easy to characterize: its strength lies partly in the wide range of its insights. Yet the general argument is clear. "In 1899," writes Gioia, "San Francisco was a major literary center": it "represented a bohemian and democratic alternative to the East Coast's genteel and academic traditions. Its best writers not only added to American literature, they transformed it." Now, however, "San Francisco no longer ranks as an influential literary center," though "the demise of its cultural power does not result from a paucity of talent": "What San Francisco-and by extension all West Coast cities-lacks is a vital and complete literary milieu." In 1899 the city boasted "a diverse literary ecosystem of newspapers, magazines, publishers, and theaters that not only fostered but also promoted local talent." Today, he sighs, "the publishers have mostly moved to New York"; the "dynamic milieu" of a hundred years ago has been replaced by pockets of activity which may give the writer "privacy" but deprive him of "the considerable intellectual energy of social interaction": "As Bay Area intellectual life spread out and suburbanized, bohemia slowly broke up." At this point, Gioia argues-despite the many talented writers living in the area-San Francisco has become a "museum city," a place which remains "fixated in its last moment of natural literary glory-the Beat movement of the 1950s."

Gioia's article grew partially out of the introduction he had written to my book, O Powerful Western Star (Pantograph Press, 2000), which is, among other things, a celebration of the San Francisco literary region. The title of Gioia's article is a reference to the line in Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" which gave me my title, and his essay begins with an explicit reference to my book.

Flying in the face of the popular conception of San Francisco as a wonderful place for writers-a conception which this tourist-oriented city is eager to foster-Gioia's chAllenging piece immediately aroused interest. Like the author's earlier and equally chAllenging "Can Poetry Matter?" [The Atlantic Monthly, vol. 267, no. 5, May, 1991; reprinted in Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture (Graywolf Press, 1992)], "FAllen Western Star" had its passionate adherents. Kevin Berger, a lifelong Bay Area resident and senior editor of San Francisco Magazine-for which Gioia writes a regular column-requested a summary of the piece. BBC radio recorded a shortened version of the article for broadcast in Europe. I recorded Gioia reading the piece in its entirety for my KPFA radio show, Cover to Cover. Poet and anthologist David Mason; Jacqueline J. Marcus, editor of the online magazine, For Poetry; Michael Lind, Washington editor of Harper's; and Scott Timberg of the LA New Times all greeted the article as a breath of fresh air-a moment of refreshing honesty in the midst of a situation which had grown increasingly murky.

Controversy began almost at once. Howard Junker, editor of ZYZZYVA, sent a blistering letter to The Hungry Mind Review. Jonah Raskin, chair of the Communications Department at Sonoma State University, also responded to Gioia's article, though Raskin's tone was considerably milder than Junker's. Raskin's piece, "Local Literary Scene is Worth Celebrating," appeared in The Press Democrat on Wednesday, December 15, 1999.

The most detailed response to Dana Gioia's article was written by Richard Silberg, respected critic and Associate Editor of Poetry Flash. It was titled, "On 'FAllen Western Star': Dana Gioia Stirs it Up in the Hungry Mind Review" and it was published in Poetry Flash, Number 285, May-June 2000. Silberg makes a number of valuable points. My response to his piece, "The Black Hole of Criticism: Richard Silberg on Dana Gioia's 'FAllen Western Star,'" appeared in the following issue, Number 286, September-October 2000, along with Silberg's response to what I had written. Jacqueline Marcus, David Mason and Scott Timberg also produced pieces dealing with "Fallen Western Star." I was interviewed about the subject on Dancing Bear's Poetry Program, KKUP, Cupertino in September, 2000, and a transcription of the broadcast appeared in my column, "Foley's Books," in The Alsop Review (http://www.alsopreview.com). All these pieces-including Gioia's original essay-appear in this book. Though Gioia's essay deals with literature in general-prose as well as poetry-the debate has tended to center on poetry.

Is the controversy over "Fallen Western Star" a tempest in a tea-pot-Californians arguing over regional trivialities-or are larger issues involved? Gioia, like Scott Timberg a native Californian, asks,

Is urban culture still a viable reality for American cities outside the Northeast corridor? Or is some new social means of concentrating human talent needed? Is the delocalized and disembodied cyberspace of the Internet the American writer's only alternative to New York? These questions are especially pressing in the West where huge distances separate urban areas and the major cities often lack identifiable centers. Does the concept of Western literature still have meaning as a collective entity, or does it exist only as a remote abstraction in the work of isolated individual writers?

These are not abstract issues to California writers. Any serious literary artist in California, at least one writing in English, feels the competing claims of language and experience...Our seasons, climate, landscape, wildlife, and history are alien to the world views of both England and New England. The world looks and feels different in California from the way it does in either York or New York-not only the natural landscape but also the urban one...The deepest European roots are Latin and Catholic, not Anglo-Saxon and Puritan. Asia and Latin America are omnipresent influences. There is no use listening for a nightingale among the scrub oaks and chaparral. Our challenge is not only to find the right words to describe our new and complex experience but also to discover the right images, myths, concepts, and characters. For us, this is an essential task, and one impossible to have done elsewhere. We must describe a reality that has never been fully captured in English.

"Human existence," Gioia's article reminds us, "is local." Whatever the marvelous possibilities of the Internet-and they are many-the air we breathe, the climate we take in (intellectual as well as physical) is always right here, right now. What effect does that have upon us? What does it mean to say, as so many poets have, that poetry comes from the "body"? How does a "disembodied" medium like the Internet-like print, for that matter-serve poetry? Beyond this, what California poets are "important"? Which poets will "live"?

Richard Silberg's or Howard Junker's list of "important" California poets would be very different from Dana Gioia's. As all these writers know, the question is not merely a matter of taste but of history. Richard Silberg takes the position that the Bay Area is indeed "a vital, influential poetry scene": i.e., it's doing just fine. Similarly, Howard Junker writes, "A lot of things suck in the Bay Area-the Warriors, the 49ers, the theater, the layout of the new Main Library, the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, bagels...but the literary scene does not." Gioia's criticisms are taken by both men to be an insult to the honor of the region, and they are quick to defend the Bay Area from such ungallant, upstart opinions.

Gioia's criticism of the Bay Area's poetry scene in turn arises partly out of his thrust towards "a reality that has never been fully captured in English": it is a deliberate movement towards a possible future. But a new future means a redefinition of the past, a new naming of predecessors. Interestingly, three distinguished California writers who are extremely important to Dana Gioia-Weldon Kees, Yvor Winters, and Janet Lewis-are nowhere to be found in James D. Hart's supposedly "comprehensive" A Companion to California (Oxford University Press, 1978).

The reader will have to decide who is right in all this. The evidence is here. Focusing on issues such as the relationship of the body to communications media, localism versus cyberspace, the possibilities of a resurgence of regional writing, the question of what constitutes a literary community, the question of what makes for great poetry, the debate enunciated here is surely a defining moment not only of California literature but of contemporary American literature-of writing itself. Like Coleridge, Gioia recognizes "the strong, self-contained mind as the creator of its own values." California literature is filled with such rugged individualists. But, like Coleridge, Gioia also insists upon "the general modes of writing and reading great poetry-which requires a literate and thoughtful public and a poet who knows how to communicate with other minds and needs to do it."

These are the questions. The answers are not, finally, in our power to give. "FAllen Western Star" takes us into the fray.