by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
A poet with an MBA from the Stanford Business School who became a Vice President at General Foods and marketed Kool-Aid? Doesn’t sound very promising, does it?
Even more damning, he’s written literary criticism, in books and articles like An Introduction to Fiction, Can Poetry Matter? and Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture, in which he wrote:
The purpose of art is not to deny artifice but to manage it so well that it appears inevitable…
As long as humanity faces mortality and uses language to describe its existence, poetry will remain one of its essential spiritual resources. Poetry is an art that preceded writing, and it will survive television and video games. How? Mostly by being itself—concise, immediate, emotive, memorable, and musical, the qualities most prized in the new oral culture, which are also the virtues traditionally associated with the art…
The problem won’t be finding an audience. The challenge will be writing well enough to deserve one. Even if there are fewer readers, people will be listening.
Dana Gioia (1950 – ) isn’t your typical Ivory Tower academic, but he’s not a “man of the people” either. His look at the current massive cultural shift from “literary poetry,” which is meant to be viewed by a reader on the printed page, to “popular poetry” which is recited aloud for an audience, as in Rap or at poetry slams, makes for interesting reading. For those of us who do still read.
I have always straddled the line between written and spoken verse. I love books and the written word, but my background is in theatre, not academia, so I respond more to poets who use rhythm and resounding words meant for the ear than poets who focus on laying out a poem on the page for a reader’s eye. I often read a poem aloud to get the feel of it in my mouth, as well as listening for its subtler meaning.
Dana Gioia is also a Californian, so we share its landscape, one that is not commonly found in literary poetry. There’s something about the West Coast – all the miles of chalk desert and lush forest, the rugged coastline and bright-sand beaches, and always the biggest thing under our sky, our ever-never-changing Ocean – that calls for waves of sound layered with silence.
In this poem, Gioia makes you see it, but if you listen, you can also hear the waiting silence of our August:
California Hills in August
I can imagine someone who found
these fields unbearable, who climbed
the hillside in the heat, cursing the dust,
cracking the brittle weeds underfoot,
wishing a few more trees for shade.
An Easterner especially, who would scorn
the meagerness of summer, the dry
twisted shapes of black elm,
scrub oak, and chaparral, a landscape
August has already drained of green.
One who would hurry over the clinging
thistle, foxtail, golden poppy,
knowing everything was just a weed,
unable to conceive that these trees
and sparse brown bushes were alive.
And hate the bright stillness of the noon
without wind, without motion.
the only other living thing
a hawk, hungry for prey, suspended
in the blinding, sunlit blue.
And yet how gentle it seems to someone
raised in a landscape short of rain—
the skyline of a hill broken by no more
trees than one can count, the grass,
the empty sky, the wish for water.
Evocative – one of the magic things about music is the way just a few bars can instantly transport you back in time to feelings and places you haven’t thought of for years. Here’s Gioia’s tribute to the Beach Boys’ endless summer and young love.
Cruising with the Beach Boys
So strange to hear that song again tonight
Travelling on business in a rented car
Miles from anywhere I’ve been before.
And now a tune I haven’t heard for years
Probably not since it last left the charts
Back in L.A. in 1969.
I can’t believe I know the words by heart
And can’t think of a girl to blame them on.
Every lovesick summer has its song,
And this one I pretended to despise,
But if I was alone when it came on,
I turned it up full-blast to sing along –
A primal scream in croaky baritone,
The notes all flat, the lyrics mostly slurred.
No wonder I spent so much time alone
Making the rounds in Dad’s old Thunderbird.
Some nights I drove down to the beach to park
And walk along the railings of the pier.
The water down below was cold and dark,
The waves monotonous against the shore.
The darkness and the mist, the midnight sea,
The flickering lights reflected from the city –
A perfect setting for a boy like me,
The Cecil B. DeMille of my self-pity.
I thought by now I’d left those nights behind,
Lost like the girls that I could never get,
Gone with the years, junked with the old T-Bird.
But one old song, a stretch of empty road,
Can open up a door and let them fall
Tumbling like boxes from a dusty shelf,
Tightening my throat for no reason at all
Bringing on tears shed only for myself.
Gioia was born in Los Angeles, to a father whose Italian last name means ‘Joy’ and a Mexican-American mother who read and recited poetry to him from an early age. He credits his mother with his attitude, “I have never considered poetry an intrinsically difficult art whose mysteries can be appreciated only by a trained intellectual.”
After getting a comparative literature MA from Harvard, Gioia switched coasts and fields to earn his MBA from Stanford, then went into the corporate world. Writing became an avocation. But when his 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter?” in The Atlantic attracted international attention, he decided to change his life again, and at 42, left his executive job to write full-time.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice,
for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
— Heraclitus of Ephesus (535-475 BCE)
From Heraclitus to Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, humankind has looked back at our choices and wondered “what if?”
The Lost Garden
If ever we see those gardens again,
The summer will be gone—at least our summer.
Some other mockingbird will concertize
Among the mulberries, and other vines
Will climb the high brick wall to disappear.
How many footpaths crossed the old estate—
The gracious acreage of a grander age—
So many trees to kiss or argue under,
And greenery enough for any mood.
What pleasure to be sad in such surroundings.
At least in retrospect. For even sorrow
Seems bearable when studied at a distance,
And if we speak of private suffering,
The pain becomes part of a well-turned tale
Describing someone else who shares our name.
Still, thinking of you, I sometimes play a game.
What if we had walked a different path one day,
Would some small incident have nudged us elsewhere
The way a pebble tossed into a brook
Might change the course a hundred miles downstream?
The trick is making memory a blessing,
To learn by loss the cool subtraction of desire,
Of wanting nothing more than what has been,
To know the past forever lost, yet seeing
Behind the wall a garden still in blossom.
Towards the end of the 20th century, Poetry was having chest pains and gasping for breath, buried under the weight of modernism and post-modernism, and deconstructive criticism. It lost its rhyme and most of its rhythm, story-telling was passé, and only the literati claimed to understand it. Gioia was one of the first to notice that a new generation of poetic experimenters were bringing back some of the old ways, and combining them with the proliferation of new communications media.
Cole Porter’s 1920s “Everything Old Is New Again” is new again in the 21st century. Most of this new work is raw, the first faltering steps of a new-born Poetry exploding from the heads of Z-rappers and slammers, but it’s breathing freely again.
Here Gioia gives us his take on an old form, a story poem with four-line stanzas, but with a more modern alternating line rhyme scheme.
The Angel with the Broken Wing
I am the Angel with the Broken Wing,
The one large statue in this quiet room.
The staff finds me too fierce, and so they shut
Faith’s ardor in this air-conditioned tomb.
The docents praise my elegant design
Above the chatter of the gallery.
Perhaps I am a masterpiece of sorts—
The perfect emblem of futility.
Mendoza carved me for a country church.
(His name’s forgotten now except by me.)
I stood beside a gilded altar where
The hopeless offered God their misery.
I heard their women whispering at my feet—
Prayers for the lost, the dying, and the dead.
Their candles stretched my shadow up the wall,
And I became the hunger that they fed.
I broke my left wing in the Revolution
(Even a saint can savor irony)
When troops were sent to vandalize the chapel.
They hit me once—almost apologetically.
For even the godless feel something in a church,
A twinge of hope, fear? Who knows what it is?
A trembling unaccounted by their laws,
An ancient memory they can’t dismiss.
There are so many things I must tell God!
The howling of the dammed can’t reach so high.
But I stand like a dead thing nailed to a perch,
A crippled saint against a painted sky.
Gioia added another credit to his burgeoning resumé. From 2003 to 2008, he dusted off his executive skills and chaired the National Endowment for the Arts, raising funds and arts awareness by launching several new programs. Shakespeare in American Communities sent over 75 professional theatre companies touring the country. Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest involves nearly half a million high school students in a national contest that awards $50,000 in scholarships. The Big Read is the largest literary program in federal government history. Over 400 communities held month-long celebrations of great literature. Operation Homecoming put distinguished American authors in charge of writing workshops for returning troops and their spouses to help them express their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. No wonder Business Week Magazine referred to Gioia as “The Man Who Saved the NEA.”
Money is a kind of poetry.
– Wallace Stevens
Money, the long green,
cash, stash, rhino, jack
or just plain dough.
Chock it up, fork it over,
shell it out. Watch it
burn holes through pockets.
To be made of it! To have it
to burn! Greenbacks, double eagles,
megabucks and Ginnie Maes.
It greases the palm, feathers a nest,
holds heads above water,
makes both ends meet.
Money breeds money.
Gathering interest, compounding daily.
Always in circulation.
Money. You don’t know where it’s been,
but you put it where your mouth is.
And it talks.
Dana Gioia holds the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.
When California Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera was chosen to be the U.S. Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, Dana Gioia was picked in 2105 to be the new California Poet Laureate.
For all his talent and worldly success, I found this simple poem to be his most moving and profound:
So much of what we live goes on inside–
The diaries of grief, the tongue-tied aches
Of unacknowledged love are no less real
For having passed unsaid. What we conceal
Is always more than what we dare confide.
Think of the letters that we write our dead.
How can you sum up a poet who takes on new challenges at every turn? By giving him the last word, a poem revealing a restless, questing spirit, never satisfied with the easy climb.
Give me a landscape made of obstacles,
of steep hills and jutting glacial rock,
where the low-running streams are quick to flood
the grassy fields and bottomlands.
no engineers can master–where the roads
must twist like tendrils up the mountainside
on narrow cliffs where boulders block the way.
Where tall black trunks of lightning-scalded pine
push through the tangled woods to make a roost
for hawks and swarming crows.
And sharp inclines
where twisting through the thorn-thick underbrush,
scratched and exhausted, one turns suddenly
to find an unexpected waterfall,
not half a mile from the nearest road,
a spot so hard to reach that no one comes–
a hiding place, a shrine for dragonflies
and nesting jays, a sign that there is still
one piece of property that won’t be owned.
- “California Hills in August” from 99 Poems: New & Selected, © 2016 by Dana Gioia, Graywolf Press — http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/california-hills-in-august/
- “Cruising with the Beach Boys” from Daily Horoscope, © 2002 by Dana Gioia,
Graywolf Press — http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2010/11/27
- “The Lost Garden” from Interrogations at Noon, © 2001 by Dana Gioia,
Graywolf Press — http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2013/10/22
- “The Angel With a Broken Wing” from 99 Poems: New & Selected, © 2016 by Dana Gioia, Graywolf Press — https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/detail/53823
- “Money” from 99 Poems: New & Selected, © 2016 by Dana Gioia, Graywolf Press — http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/money/#content
- “Unsaid” from Interrogations at Noon, © 2001 by Dana Gioia,
Graywolf Press — http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/unsaid/
- “Rough Country” from 99 Poems: New & Selected, © 2016 by Dana Gioia, Graywolf Press — http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/rough-country/
- Daily Horoscope,© 1986, Graywolf Press
- The Gods of Winter,© 1991, Graywolf Press
- Interrogations at Noon,© 2001, Graywolf Press
- Pity the Beautiful,© 2012, Graywolf Press
- 99 Poems: New & Selected,© 2012, Graywolf Press
- Can Poetry Matter?(1991)
- Barrier of a Common Language: An American Looks at Contemporary British Poetry (Poets on Poetry) (2003)
- Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture(2004)
- Eugenio Montale’s Motteti: Poem’s of Love (translator) (1990)
- The Madness of Hercules(Hercules Furens) (translator). Included in Seneca: The Tragedies, Volume II, published by Johns Hopkins (1995)
- Nosferatu (2001)
- Tony Caruso’s Last Broadcast (2005)
- The Three Feathers (2014)
- Central California hills in summer
- Santa Monica pier at twilight
- Dana Gioia, photo by Ed Pfieller
- Lamorran Gardens, St. Mawes, UK
- Face of an angel, damaged statue
- 1921 Morgan silver dollar
- Bristlecone Pine, photo by Carol Eller
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud