Dana Gioia is a youthful looking middle-aged poet who
despite his cherubic countenance stirs up controversy everywhere
he goes. That should not come as a surprise to anyone who
knows Gioia's background. He finished high school as the
class valedictorian and editor of the school paper but was
thrice expelled for misbehaving. Gioia's essay "Can Poetry
Matter?" for the Atlantic Monthly a decade ago produced
the most extraordinary response in the magazine's history,
which surprised me, as I didn't think poetry mattered to
that many people any more.
Gioia's thesis was that poetry once written for popular
consumption has been co-opted by the Academy, and that poets
have sold their souls to university administrations for
junior professorships with limited potential for tenure
teaching creative writing, deemed vocational training by
the tenured faculty of the English department.
Gioia also pointed out that literary criticism had devolved
into a back scratching contest. In Ambrose Bierce's day
a critic was hard to please because nobody tried to please
him, or "her" in the case of you know who.
We'll probably never seen another David Lezensky, the
poor man who hung himself when Ambrose Bierce accused him
of plagiarizing Mrs. Plunkett's "Ode to a Dead Cow." Perhaps
that's just as well
Bierce was extraordinarily prescient when he predicted
with amazing precision what literary criticism would become
in the twentieth century. He saw the critic "at work upon
a book, and so read out of it / The qualities that he had
first read in to it."
For fifty years I've complained that literary criticism
was simply an exercise of the critic, usually a junior professor
of sophomore English literature, engrafting onto a work
of art something the artist had no intention of creating.
Literary criticism today is like painting whiskers on the
The genius of Gioia's piece was to articulate so beautifully
the thoughts that all of us - well, most of us - were thinking
but couldn't find the words to express. And to do it with
elevated language -- unlike mine -- worthy of a master prose
Gioia laid out a formula for the resuscitation of the
art form, but we're still waiting for the faculty committee
appointed to implement the proposals to meet much less act
Now that Gioia has relocated to a hilltop aerie in Sonoma
County, in California, he has loosed his fateful lightning
with another thunderbolt that has the Luddites stirred to
action once again. The status quo seems to be a matter of
Gioia disingenuously maintains that he is only posing
questions to stimulate his readers' intellectual curiosity.
Yet, every trial lawyer - I used be one - can tell you that
the best way to ask a question in court is to include the
answer within the interrogatory. That frequently leaves
the witness satisfied with his answer, while unknowingly
having not only dug his own grave but also pulled the sod
This time Gioia questioned whether the San Francisco Bay
Area is any longer a literary region. "No" he said, "it's
not." Then he proceeded for another 8997 words to explain
why it's not.
The reaction to the essay reminded me of the time Anton
Roman, publisher of the venerable Overland Monthly, asked
Bret Harte to edit an anthology of California poetry. In
characteristic fashion, Harte sampled the candidates very
selectively and chose only forty-one poems for inclusion
in the anthology. Only nineteen contributors were represented.
The reaction of the merchants and miners in the mining
camps, who had been sending their ditties to the San Francisco
newspapers and seeing them published without comment in
the yellow journals, were furious at being excluded from
Harte's anthology. They descended on the city and gathered
as an unruly mob around Roman's mansion with pitchforks
and torches demanding his neck for stretching.
The lynch mob this time is led by Howard Junker, the editor
of a literary magazine with an unpronounceable name who
to prove the positive set forth a list of names of alleged
San Francisco writers and poets who, except for Michael
Cardinal McClure and Kevin "not Kenneth" Starr, and one
or two others I, for one, never heard of.
The shot was a blank, in any event. Junker missed Gioia's
point entirely. It isn't that the artists aren't there;
it's that they don't interact with each other on a regular
and ongoing basis, which is how a literary region operates.
Other responses were more temperate and principled, and
the scales seemed weighted equally on both sides, although
I had the nagging suspicion that Gioia's attackers really
didn't have a good idea of what the Bay Area was like when
it was a real literary region. And certainly there was no
evidence they were aware of the bohemian fantasyland that
existed in the Bay Area during George Strerling's time.
The historical perspective so essential to Gioia's thesis
seemed lacking in their assaults. I don't think the words
Golden Era, Hutching's California Magazine, The Argonaut,
The Overland Monthly, The Lark, The Blue Mule, or the Purple
Cow meant anything to these folks; and if I mentioned people
like Prentice Mulford, John "Yellow Bird" Ridge, Eliot Gould
Buffum, Bayard Taylor, Alonzo "Old Block" Delano, George
Horatio Derby, J. Ross Browne, George Henry, Josiah Royce,
Ina Coolbrith, Gertrude Atherton, Mary Austin, Jimmy Hopper,
Gelett Burgess, Harry Leon Wilson, Charles Warren Stoddard,
and a host of others I don't know if there'd be much name
recognition on their part.
But I shouldn't complain. After all, I was just as dumbfounded
when Richard Silberg read out the roster of the Berkeley
regiment of the Avant Guard in his in his excessively long
reply to Gioia's thesis. Please don't get me started on
The point is, you can't talk about San Francisco as a
literary region today without knowing what is was like yesterday.
Richard Silberg, associate editor of Poetry Flash, issued
a papal bull spelling out in excruciating detail his objections
to Gioia's dialectic. Silberg's rejoinder was in turn answered
by Jack Foley and Silberg then rejoined Foley's rejoinder,
and the two critics somehow got lost in an argument over
the merits of Ed Markham's "The Man with a Hoe," not to
be confused with Chris Rock's "Young Man with a Ho."
I know Richard. I took his poetry workshop at Cal Berkeley
in the early eighties. I turned in a sheaf of poems I had
assiduously written for the workshop at the first meeting.
I got them back a few weeks later. There wasn't a mark on
them except for a note scrawled at the top of the first
page: "I've never written in forms, so I can't help you
with these. Sorry!"
I about fell off the chair. "What?" I cried, "how can
a free verse poet not interpret something as accessible
as 'Casey at the Bat'?" There was no joy in Berkeley that
night, I can tell you.
I soon gave up writing poetry again as I had in the sixties.
I got tired of feeling like a well-fed Christian in an arena
full of lions.
I should have known better, for on the first evening,
Richard announced The Paramount Principle of Modern Poetry:
"Whatever works, works!" Right! And any poet can be a pro
playing tennis without a net.
I'll let readers of the book decided for themselves the
merit or lack thereof, as we old trial lawyers like to say,
of Silberg's arguments. I only want to point out that he
seems to think a literary region lives on poetry alone.
I'll give him everything he says about poetry and still
challenge him to prove that the San Francisco Bay Area is
a literary region. And I would tell him that shmoozhing
at a poetry reading is not a particularly interactive activity.
I have in mind crashing in the same pad and sharing girlfriends.
Jack Foley has just edited and published a collection
of the responses to Gioia's Western Star piece brought out
by Scarlet Tanager Books this year called, perhaps a little
grandly, The "Fallen Western Star" Wars. The book puts the
dispute into a clear perspective, making very interesting
reading; but the book would be worth the price of admission
if it only included the text of Gioia's essay, which is
placed in the leadoff position. Those who do not have ready
access to such literary zeitungs as the Ruminator Review
can read Gioia's articulate piece in Jack's anthology.
The book also contains Gioia's short piece for the San
Francisco Magazine (January 2000) that spelled out for those
who hadn't read the writing on the stalls that the decline
of San Francisco as a literary region was a matter of over
population and real estate values.
What we're talking about is traditional bohemianism. George
Sterling defined bohemianism as devotion to one of the seven
arts - and poverty. Sterling should have known that his
definition was incomplete. Bohemianism needs two other elements:
the first is conviviality, from which the second follows,
namely, a sense of place. I know because I was there.
I was there in fifties when the beatniks were rousted
out of North Beach by a sudden influx of tits and ass. I
was there in the sixties when the Zebra killer and his associates
invaded the Haight Asbury and slimed the neighborhood relentlessly.
When the bastards were through, they went across the bay
and slimed Telegraph Avenue.
I was also there in the eighties when what was left of
the bohemian culture was little more than gay coterie hold
up in the Mission District amongst a population of mostly
I left the city in 1992 and the only thing I've heard
since then is that real estate values in the Mission have
driven all the poor folk completely out of the city, which,
by Sterling's definition, means the writers and poets too.
Café Trieste still serves coffee to residents and visitors
alike, and you can still get a drink as Vesuvios or buy
a book at City Lights. But you won't find a Weldon Kees
sitting at the bar in Vesuvios arguing with a Jack Kerouac
over who was the reigning jazz star, the local Turk Murphy
or Jelly Roll Morton from "back east." The El Matador is
gone and so is Cal Tjader, and you can't hear the Jefferson
Airplane playing at Basin Street West or listen to Pearl
at the Matrix. And you won't find Don Carpenter and Richard
Braugtigan sitting at a table in a sidewalk café on Broadway
making fun of the local burghers.
Those who weren't even born then will never know what
a real literary region was like.
If you go looking for the I and Thou Coffeehouse on Haight
Street, you'll find a pizza parlor; and if you want to take
in an Akira Kurosawa flic at the old Wave Theater at the
end of Irving Street, you'll find there a Chinese Restaurant.
If you check out Café Picaro in the Mission District on
16th Street, you might see some bohemian looking fellows
at the tables but you won't see any of them reaching for
the books on the shelves.
This is what I mean about a sense of place. Every bohemian
culture has to have its Co-Existence Bagel Shop or its Original
Coppa's Restaurant. And a literary region is not a literary
region without a bohemian culture. I don't care how many
of Madison Avenue's precious darlings live in the Bay Area,
Bohemia is dead.