Here’s an outtake from my talk last Friday in New York introducing Dana Gioia, an old friend who has just resigned the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Arts with great relief to go and write poetry. He was receiving the annual Award for Excellence given each year by the Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center, which I am part of and which publishes the American Arts Quarterly. I was praising Dana’s reading initiative while he was chairman:
“The message was that the word is still the heart and meaning of the flesh, that our material culture draws its basic vital energies from our literary culture.
“We can communicate and create effectively only if there is a place where language can refine itself to say things with exactness while still preserving their richness and multivocality. As our present economic crisis shows, if our currency is replaced by dishonest derivatives, we will be ruined: true poetry is the hard currency of communication, a language that keeps its promises and honors its bonds.
“Since the invention of the typewriter poetry has become disproportionately a visual art. Its orphic and intuitive powers, however, come from its musical and aural character—it is memorable because it sings. New research has shown that the prosodic character of spoken language is essential to its meaning. This is obvious in a tonal language like Chinese, where the very meaning of a word depends on its tone. But English is no less tonal, except that we use tone and pitch not to establish our lexicon but to establish our syntax and logic. In English we cannot speak a sentence without instinctively giving it a melody—all songwriters understand this. It is a natural genius that we all possess, and that poets refine and amplify by the arts of meter and rhyme.
“The Greeks believed that the muses of the arts were the daughters of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. True poetry is poetry that is remembered, a meme that sticks in peoples’ heads to be recovered at great need in love, grief, triumph or despair.”
By the way, for anyone in the Dallas area who might be interested, I am premiering my new science-fiction dramatic poem Resurrection tonight (6:30 pm, Mon 2/23/09) at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture downtown on Routh Street.