“I want a poetry that risks speaking to the fullness of our humanity, to our emotions as well as to our intellect, to our senses as well as our imagination and intuition.”
-Dana Gioia, in a 1995 interview conducted by Gloria Brame
This is the type of poetry that Dana Gioia, 2010 recipient of the Notre Dame Laetare Medal, has sought to create in his now extensive treasury of work. With a B.A. and M.B.A from Stanford University, as well as an M.A. in comparative Literature from Harvard University, Mr. Gioia now lives in Sonoma County, California with his wife and two sons, and has been a full-time writer since 1992.
As an essayist, critic, translator, and anthologist, Gioia’s diverse talents have received various recognitions, from his reception of the American Book Award to his appointment as the chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts from 2003 to 2009.
In a collection of essays entitled Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture, Gioia identifies and criticizes the current tendency to confine poetry to academic circles and to view the art merely as an object for analysis and interpretation.
Contrary to this relationship to poetry, Gioia hopes to see the intellectually curious “reclaim the essential sensuality of poetry,” returning it to its place as a high art, located in the living, breathing realm of tradition.
Below is printed some of his poetry, as well as an interview with Mr. Gioia, who generously took the time to enlighten the Rover on his work and mission.
1. Was there a specific moment when you discovered that poetry was your passion?
There were two periods in my life that brought me deeply into poetry. The first was in childhood. I often heard my mother recite poetry, and certain poems gave me a physical thrill. The excitement had nothing to do with the subject of a poem. I was responding to the rhythms and the music. This sort of exhilaration still strikes me as the single most important aspect of poetry. True poetry displays an element of magic. The language enchants the listener. Not everything my mother recited had this effect, but I still remember the dizzy excitement of hearing poems by Poe, Kipling, Longfellow, and Tennyson. That was when I first fell in love with poetry. By comparison, all of my later experience with poetry in school was deadening.
I loved poetry, but it never occurred to me that I might someday become a poet. That happened years later when I was studying music and German in Vienna. Speaking mostly German and living for the first time in a foreign country, I found myself reading poems constantly and also writing them seriously for the first time. Slowly I realized that I didn’t want to be a composer or critic, which was what I had mostly imagined till then. I knew I wanted to be a poet. I was 19 years old. I’ve never changed my mind since that moment, though I have had to make a living in many other ways.
2. Where did your formational experience as a writer take place?
It may seem odd to you, but although I attended Stanford and Harvard, I am mostly self-taught as a poet. I had some excellent courses in literature, and I remain devoted to many of my teachers, but very little of what they did in literature courses proved useful to me as a poet. In fact, I suspect that all the fascinating and serious critical study initially hampered my writing since it made it too self-conscious and academic. Literary criticism tries to bring everything to the surface of a discussion whereas a poet learns that much of what is most important in a poem must remain unsaid. Criticism analyzes, articulates, and organizes meaning. Poetry evokes it. It took me years to shed those habits in my work.
The one notable exception was my course in the History of English Versification at Harvard with Robert Fitzgerald. Although it was a historical survey of English-language prosody, we had to write exercises in each meter we studied—not poems, just verse exercises. That course probably saved me five years as a writer.
3. You are talking mostly about Literature courses. What about your Creative Writing courses?
The only real Creative Writing course I took was –oddly enough–during my time at Stanford Business School. The program allowed me to take an occasional course outside Biz School, and I enrolled in Donald Davie’s graduate poetry writing seminar. The class proved to be a fascinating exercise in practical criticism, but it did nothing to help my poetry. In fact, I think it mostly hurt it in the short term. But Donald and I did become good friends, and that greatly enriched my life.
4. How would you describe your poetry?
Brilliant, deathless, heartbreaking. At least that’s how I’d like to hear someone else describe it.
5. Do you belong to any recognizable literary movement?
Literary critics categorize me as a leader of New Formalism. I have never liked that term, but I have reluctantly come to accept it, though I still consider the name misleading. I write in both free and formal verse. If one looks at my published poetry over the past thirty years, it falls almost evenly into thirds—one third free verse, one third rhymed verse, and one third unrhymed metrical verse.
My feeling has always been that the poet must be free to write in whatever shape the poem itself suggests. Thirty years ago it was considered controversial to write in meter or rhyme. I thought that was dopey, and I helped lead some of the critical battles—often called the “Poetry Wars”—to insist on the poet’s freedom to write in form. I was much attacked and vilified, though that may seem incredible to you today. Critics nicknamed us—and it wasn’t supposed to be a compliment—“the New Formalists.” The term stuck. But we were successful in making the poetry world open to form, and one now sees formal poems in most journals. We helped make American poetry more stylistically diverse and inclusive.
But let me repeat that I have never advocated writing exclusively in form, though some people—both supporters and detractors—seem to think so. I believe that a poet needs to have all the possibilities of the art available to him or her.
6. Do you need to be in a certain location to write your best poetry?
I need peace and quiet. That has been a rare condition in my adult life since I have mostly had demanding jobs and a busy family. At present I find it almost impossible to write in Washington, D.C. I need to go off and hide in Northern California.
7. Do you plan to write a poem or do you write when you feel moved to do so?
Poetic inspiration is involuntary. It arrives when it wants to, not when you ask it. My poems come when I’m stuck in traffic, sitting in the middle of a concert, or taking a shower. They rarely come when I have a pen and paper handy. I often lose the impulse of inspiration as a result.
I have a great many fantastic ideas for poems. But ideas don’t turn into poems. They simply sit there lifelessly. One needs a first line—real words full of tangible imaginative energy.
- Although wary of putting yourself under any one category of poetry, you pointedly have avoided the modernist approach to poetry. Why? What early influences directed you away from that approach?
I am so glad you asked this question because it gives me the chance to say you are quite mistaken. My poetry reeks of Modernism. Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Montale, Rilke, and Valery are my household gods. But they are now a century in the past, and it would be a silly thing to try to copy them. Modernism died—along with most of its great practitioners—by the time I finished high school.
The real issue for me has always been what to do now? How does one combine the intensity, invention, and suggestive lyricality of modernism with the emotional directness, narrative power, and musicality of both pre-modernism poetry and the popular arts? Academic post-modernism gave one rather unconvincing answer. I’ve been looking for another. Or rather multiple answers. It is a dull thing to write in the same way poem after poem. That’s why I like putting an experimental poem such as “Elegy with Surrealist Proverbs as Refrain” in the same book as a narrative ballad such as “Summer Storm.” I prize creative range and variety. Every new poem provides an opportunity to reinvent one’s medium.
9. What influences kept you from writing the “English Department poetry” that is so common now?
Guilt and shame mostly. That’s the sort of poetry I began writing, and it’s fun to write. The trouble is that it isn’t much fun to read. I spent years trying to find a way to write poetry that interests me and the reader together. A good poem creates a secret collaboration between the author and the listener. It isn’t a lecture. It is a mysterious sort of conversation in which the listener’s responses are silent but essential.
10. What does it mean to write for the reader?
It means to cultivate what Keats called the ‘negative capability.” It requires a certain suppression of the ego. I found my own solution in Frost’s work, which is never autobiographical but always personal. Then I noticed the same quality in Auden, Rilke, Stevens, Eliot, and others. It was one of the great lessons of Modernism—correcting the excesses of Romantic egotism. The poem isn’t about me. It is about us. Doing that well is much harder than it seems. At least I find it hard. But attempting something difficult is one of the pleasures of art.
11. Being a poet entails more than just writing down inspired words. As you have said, it’s also carrying out a conversation between the living and dead. In teaching yourself to write, how did you cultivate and maintain this conversation?
I was first trained as a musician, and I have always thought of poetry as a similar art. In music, the student throws himself (or herself) into the art. You listen to all the music you can. You learn to play instruments. You study theory while also gaining the practical experience of performance. You memorize things you love.
Love is the key word. Your art isn’t work. It’s a lifelong love affair—full of romance, rapture, heartbreak, reconciliation, and constant discovery. You always want to be in the presence of your beloved.
One of the great discoveries every musician finds is the mystery of conversing with the dead. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert talk to you. So do Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and Art Pepper.
Every poet has hard hours and dark nights of the soul. After my first son died, I had them every night for years. If I had not been able to talk to Dante and Shakespeare, Rilke and Frost, Borges and Cavafy and heard them talk about their own sorrows and losses I might have given up.
12. Do you really talk to the dead?
All the time. Remember I’m a Latin—Sicilian and Mexican. We don’t share the Anglo-Saxon embarrassment about death. In Mexican neighborhoods the Day of the Dead is a festival. Dante wrote a pretty good poem about all the dead folks he visited.
I suggest we end our campaign of discrimination against the departed. They are a pretty interesting crowd—at least if we choose our dead friends carefully. Don’t forget that we are all future members of this marginalized group.