May 16, 2016
n 1991 Dana Gioia was a General Foods vice president living outside New York City, pursuing literarture in his spare time. He was quite good at his avocation, having published poetry and criticism in The Nation, New Yorker, Hudson Review, and other journals. Graywolf Press had published his first two books of poetry as well as his translation of Italian poet Eugenio Montale’s Mottetti.
That year Gioia enraged poetry’s postmodern establishment with his brash Atlantic Monthly essay, “Can Poetry Matter?”—a critique of poets who disdained mainstream culture and transformed poetry into “a specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group.” The essay became the manifesto of the “New Formalism,” and the opening piece in his book of criticism by that title.
Although Gioia had just turned 40 when he poked our literary elite, his essay crackled with the fervor of a young idealist. He lamented the abandonment of newspapers and popular magazines by poets, the proliferation of largely unread literary journals, and the increasing influence of creative writing programs on poetry. “[B]ureaucracies, by their very nature,” he argued, “have difficulty measuring something as intangible as literary quality.”
Even before “Can Poetry Matter?” ideologues such as Diane Wakoski and Ira Sadoff shrilly attacked Gioia, portraying New Formalism as an ignorant attack on modernism and a zombie-like extension of Reaganism. Given that the New Formalists reflected a wider range of backgrounds and ideologies than their critics, this counterattack failed miserably. It also made for particular awkwardness when used against Gioia, who grew up in a working-class family with Latino, Native American, and Italian roots—and unlike more traditional New Formalists such as Timothy Steele, Gioia embraced modernism and superbly translated modernist poets.
Though Gioia continued to publish poems, essays, reviews, and libretti, he came to devote more time to public service. He received broad praise, after some initial grumbling, for his tenure as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009. His Poetry Out Loud program, a poetry recitation competition for high school students, has become a blowout success, particularly among recent immigrants. He also initiated programs that promoted community discussions of poetry, brought Shakespeare to mainstream audiences, and helped returning veterans relate and cope with their war experiences.
Now 65, Gioia’s new collection of brief essays, Poetry As Enchantment, is a quieter and more reflective expansion of the themes in Can Poetry Matter? He defends poetry as a spiritual need, partially resistant to the tools of New Criticism and later schools of literary theory. His populist argument is rhetorically brilliant. Gioia undercuts a likely objection by including the songlike chants of Ezra Pound’s verse as evidence for his proposition, even though Pound was instrumental in transforming modern poetry into obscurities academics pored over and everyone else ignored. Enchantment also cites the work of Rainer Maria Rilke, William Blake, and the surrealists to bolster its point.
Though Gioia’s role as a cultural warrior and arts leader would be sufficient to make him a minor figure in American literary history, his time in public service damaged his literary productivity. Thankfully, he is back on a mission with 99 Poems, a “new and selected” collection likely to be a future candidate for inclusion in the canon.
That argument will be interesting. So many significant poets were born between 1920 and 1945 that the minor poets of that era outshine most of the major ones born after World War II. Of the poets writing in English, Kay Ryan—who came to public attention largely through Gioia’s advocacy—will probably still be read and discussed in 2045. Wendy Cope, Paul Muldoon, James Fenton, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and A.E. Stallings are good bets too, but it would be hard (or premature) to bet heavily on others. Thirty years from now, most of the literary establishment’s current darlings, such as Jorie Graham, Sharon Olds, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Christian Bök, will have disappeared into the literary limbo where Delmore Schwartz’s reputation dwells.
Gioia’s best poems are infused with his religious struggles, but 99 Poems also includes ample evidence of Gioia’s satirical skills, such as “The Archbishop,”—a deftly wicked skewering of academic pomposity dedicated to a “famous” unnamed critic (with perhaps a passing resemblance to Harold Bloom):
O do not disturb the Archbishop,
Asleep in his ivory chair,
You must send all the workers away,
Though the church is in need of repair.
His Reverence is tired from preaching
To the halt, and the lame, and the blind.
Their spiritual needs are unsubtle,
Their notions of God unrefined.
The Lord washed the feet of His servants.
“The first shall be last,” he advised.
The Archbishop’s edition of Matthew
Has that troublesome passage revised.
Lovers of poetry should also be grateful for “My Confessional Sestina,” which experts estimate has reduced sestinas produced in MFA programs by 86%.
Gioia’s wit shines in poems such as “A Short History of Tobacco,” “Shopping,” and “The Seven Deadly Sins.” Like Jonathan Swift and Horace, he lampoons the most important subject of any satirist—himself—in a new piece called “Index to My Next Book of Poems,” which includes fictional titles such as “Chief Holidays of Hell,” “Life as a Limited Time Offer” and “Pantoum of Intimate Body Tattoos.”
Classical eclogues have influenced Gioia and provoked many poems about his native California, where he recently became Poet Laureate. Sometimes the tone is joyously sentimental, as in “Cruising with the Beach Boys,” and sometimes it is grittily elegiac, as in “In Chandler Country”:
California night. The Devil’s wind,
the Santa Ana blows in from the east,
raging through the canyon like a drunk
screaming in a bar.
The companion “country” poem, “In Cheever Country,” captures Gioia’s ambivalence toward his time in New York: a sense of alienation diluted by scenes in which even a commuter rail platform can “turn strangely luminous/in the light streaming from the palisades across the river.”
Gioia has championed the narrative poem, and stands with Andrew Hudgins and B.H. Fairchild as one of the leading practitioners of that barely surviving form of poetry. He skillfully revives the ghost story for “Haunted” and explores the macabre lurking beneath the mundane in “Counting the Children.”
Gioia seems happiest in the songlike poems he defends in Poetry as Enchantment. This powerful lyric, “Nosferatu’s Serenade,” is part of his libretto for Alva Henderson’s sadly neglected opera Nosferatu:
I am the image that darkens your glass,
The shadow that falls wherever you pass.
I am the dream you cannot forget,
The face you remember without having met.
I am the truth that must not be spoken,
The midnight vow that cannot be broken.
I am the bell that tolls out the hours.
I am the fire that warms and devours.
I am the hunger that you have denied,
The ache of desire piercing your side.
I am the sin you have never confessed,
The forbidden hand caressing your breast.
You’ve heard me inside you speak in your dreams,
Sigh in the ocean, whisper in his streams.
I am the future you crave and you fear.
You know what I bring. Now I am here.
The triolet is a highly musical form often used in light verse, but Gioia harnesses its refrains’ power for a somber double triolet, “The Country Wife.” He also uses one of the most out-of-favor received forms, the ballad, in poems such as “Summer Storm.” Many of his songlike poems also display a satirical sensibility, such as “Mad Song,” “Alley Cat Love Song” and “Marketing Department Trio.”
Gioia’s poetry is most essential when he is unhappiest. His namesake oldest son died four months after being born, and a number of Gioia poems struggle with the issue of how a just God allows such a loss. The clearest of these is the moving “Planting a Sequoia,” written in 1991. Two decades later he was still meditating on sorrow in “Majority.”
Grief, rage, and reconciliation led (with all due respect to Christian Wiman) to the finest religious poem of our era, one that I have seen overwhelm an audience. “Prayer” adopts the rhythms of Christian prayer and the subtle changes within the repetitions of a litany. It begins with a series of descriptions of the manifestations of an indescribable God:
Echo of the clocktower, footstep
in the alleyway, sweep
of the wind sifting the leaves.
Jeweller of the spiderweb, connoisseur
of autumn’s opulence, blade of lightning
harvesting the sky.
Keeper of the small gate, choreographer
of entrances and exits, midnight
whisper traveling the wires.
Note how Gioia moves away from the security of iambic meters—and the Latinity of his own Roman Catholic tradition—in favor of the more primal Anglo-Saxon techniques of two-beat phrases, alliteration and assonance.
The poem then takes a “turn” at approximately the same place as the volta in a traditional sonnet:
Seducer, healer, deity or thief,
I will see you soon enough—
Gioia continues the litany in the same rhythm, but the effort to identify God turns bitter, particularly with the closing epithet of “thief.” Without telling us directly, as he does in “Planting a Sequoia,” Gioia opens up the turbulence of his internal struggle.
After that burst of rebellion, the poem’s tone softens again with two lyrical images that radically qualify the seeming petulance of “I will see you soon enough”:
in the shadow of the rainfall,
in the brief violet darkening a sunset—
He closes with a chillingly powerful statement of faith that accepts the failure of that faith to eliminate his continuing heartache:
but until then I pray watch over him
as a mountain guards its covert ore
and the harsh falcon its flightless young.
Poems such as “Prayer” make Gioia’s work a necessary part of the conversation about which poets from the post-1945 generation merit canonical status.
As is the case with most “new and selected” volumes, one can quibble about the inclusion or exclusion of a few poems, but 99 Poems is an important collection by an important poet. One small complaint is that it shortchanges Gioia’s impressive body of work as a translator by offering a translation of Carlo Betocchi but none of Gioia’s superb translations of Montale and Seneca. That objection, however, does not diminish the significance of 99 Poems.