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Dana Gioia

03-18-2013

Poems - Essay - More Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interview - Readings
 
Dana Gioia
 
Long Distance (Version 2, 2001)

Two weeks of silence broken by this call,
She holds the neutral phone against her cheek,
Hearing his whisper cross a continent.
Once words were never distant from his lips.
Now sound alone would stroke her like a kiss.

She still could tell him everything in touch
And read his certain answers in embrace.
But now his voice seems oddly out of place,
Almost anonymous, as if she overheard
A stranger talking on another line.

The conversation finished, phone in hand,
She wonders who has spoken, what was said?
Why is a lover's touch most keenly felt
The moment it is first withheld? She sees
The miles between them stretch beyond her reach.

She would forgive him now if he were here

And fall into his soothing arms like sleep.
His arms would be her answers, uninquired.
But words are never as precise as touch.
Now words that have no body ask her love.

 

Long Distance (Version 1, 1975)

Two months of silence broken by this call,
She holds the neutral phone against her cheek
And hears his whisper cross a continent.
She still could tell him everything in touch
And read his certain answers in embrace,
But now his voice seems like a stranger's presence
Which does not talk to her, intruding like
Another conversation on the line.

Once words were never separate from his smile,
And meanings never distant from his face.
Now sound alone would stroke her like a kiss.
Can memory create the rest?
She does not know, but whispers empty promises
And feels no lonelier when he hangs up.

The conversation finished, phone in hand,
She sits before the puzzle: who has spoken,
What was said? Were these sounds a thing to love?
She would forgive him now if he were here
And fall into his arms like sleep.
The arms would be her answers, uninquired.
But words are never as precise as touch,
And words that have no body ask her love.

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Revision and Inspiration, a Reflection on the Writing Process by Dana Gioia

Paul Valery famously stated that a poem was never finished; it was only abandoned.  In my experience that dictum cuts to the heart of poetic composition.  At what point am I willing to abandon a poem because I’ve lost faith that further revision can improve it?  I often work on poems for years because a single line or image seems off.  My draft isn’t bad; it just isn’t good enough, so I keep on working.

I’ve never seen the point of hurrying poems into print.  Poetry isn’t journalism.  The point is excellence not promptness.  Sometimes I’ll publish a poem in a journal because it seems finished. But when it comes time to put it in a book, I hesitate because something still needs to be done, though just what that something may still elude me.

I respect the magic and mystery of the poetic art.  A poet doesn’t will a poem into existence.  He or she collaborates with language first to receive initial impulse and then to transcribe it effectively into words. The process is mysterious. There sometimes comes a point when the poet needs to surrender control and wait. That notion isn’t the philosophy of the workshop, which must necessarily focus on the teachable portions of poetic practice. But a posture of patience and humility toward the imagination is central to the spiritual side of the art.

In 1975 I finished a short poem titled “Long Distance.”  I sent it to The Southern Review, which accepted it—my first publication in a major journal.  (The editor Donald Stanford wrote me a nice letter addressed to “Ms. Dana Gioia.”)  With the characteristic slowness of the old literary quarterlies, the poem wasn’t published until 1979. Putting together my first book of poems, Daily Horoscope in 1986, I did not include ”Long Distance” because I wanted to rework it. The process took longer than I thought. I finally put the poem into my third collection, Interrogations at Noon in 2001, a quarter century after it had first been “finished.”

Here are the two versions of “Long Distance” that Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum has asked me to republish. It is recognizably the same poem, but the differences are clear.  The early version has 22 lines arranged in 3 stanzas of irregular length.  The revision has 20 lines arranged in 4 symmetrical stanzas.  Most of the lines have either been revised or repositioned—to clarify the poem’s underlying narrative as well as intensify the lyric impulse. I also tried to improve the meter and music of the lines. I count at least two dozen changes, most of them quite small, in the final version.  Too much work for a short poem?  Certainly in practical terms.  But the whole point of the game is to get things as close to perfect as possible.  Otherwise why write poetry at all?

Dana Gioia

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Poems from Pity the Beautiful

The Present

The present that you gave me months ago
is still unopened by our bed,
sealed in its rich blue paper and bright bow.
I've even left the card unread
and kept the ribbon knotted tight.
Why needlessly unfold and bring to light
the elegant contrivances that hide
the costly secret waiting still inside?

 

Prayer at Winter Solstice

Blessed is the road that keeps us homeless.

Blessed is the mountain that blocks our way.


Blessed are hunger and thirst, loneliness and all forms of desire.

Blessed is the labor that exhausts us without end.


Blessed are the night and the darkness that blinds us.

Blessed is the cold that teaches us to feel.


Blessed are the cat, the child, the cricket, and the crow.

Blessed is the hawk devouring the hare.


Blessed are the saint and the sinner who redeem each other. 

Blessed are the dead, calm in their perfection.


Blessed is the pain that humbles us.

Blessed is the distance that bars our joy.

Blessed is this shortest day that makes us long for light.

Blessed is the love that in losing we discover.

 

Click here to read more poems from Pity the Beautiful

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Poems - Essay - More Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interview - Readings

It seems almost a requirement for a poet to have an unconventional résumé, but Dana Gioia’s is perhaps notable for being so conventionally unpoetic. A graduate of Stanford Business School, Gioia claims to be “the only person, in history, who went to business school to be a poet.” He later rose to become a vice president at General Foods, where he marketed products such as Kool-Aid. These experiences in the corporate world, Gioia states, “taught me a lot of things that have helped me as a poet.” In 1992, he committed himself to writing full-time. Most recently, he served as chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2008.

Though Gioia has worked in various high-level positions, his approach to poetry might be deemed populist. Born in a suburb of Los Angeles, Gioia remembers his mother, a Mexican-American who he says had no advanced education, reading and reciting poetry to him at an early age. “Consequently,” he declares, “I have never considered poetry an intrinsically difficult art whose mysteries can be appreciated only by a trained intellectual.” As head of the NEA, he increased the budget and launched several successful initiatives, including Operation Homecoming, which provides writing workshops to U.S. soldiers and their spouses. He has also taught poetry at the university level and sits on the board of several arts foundations.


Gioia completed an MA in comparative literature at Harvard University and is an active translator of Latin, Italian, German, and Romanian poetry. While at Harvard, he studied with the poets
Robert Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Bishop. His collections include Interrogations at Noon (2001), winner of the American Book Award; The Gods of Winter (1991); and Daily Horoscope (1986). Although Gioia writes in free verse, he is known primarily for his formal work, and has been included in the school of New Formalism, a movement in the 1990s by American poets to bring traditional verse forms back to the fore. Reviewer Kevin Walzer notes that “Gioia’s range, in both style and subject, is unusually broad. In his lyric poems, he works equally well in free verse and traditional forms, and in fact merges them in many cases; he works hard to give his metrical poems the colloquial quality of the best free verse, while his classically-trained ear gives his free verse a sure sense of rhythm that approaches a formal measure.”

Also a noted critic, Gioia has authored some influential and widely referenced essays on American poetry. In particular, his 1991
Atlantic Monthly essay, “Can Poetry Matter?,” argues that poetry has lost its central status in contemporary culture. The essay generated so much feedback that he later turned it into a book of the same title, which was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. For several years, he has also served as a commentator on American literature for BBC Radio and as a classical music critic for San Francisco magazine. His interest and training in music composition has led him to write opera libretti for Nosferatu (1998) and Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast (2008).

Gioia has founded and codirected two major literary conferences: the West Chester University summer conference on Form and Narrative, and Teaching Poetry, which is dedicated to improving the teaching of poetry in high schools. He lives with his family in Sonoma County, California.

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"Pity the Beautiful": Dana Gioia's well-crafted poems of the passionate inner life by David J. Rothman, first published at philly.com

Is there anyone in the poetry world who does not know or at least know of Dana Gioia? Over the last 25 years, since he gave up a successful career as a business executive at Kraft Foods to pursue poetry and criticism full-time, he has lived a literary whirlwind.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I know Gioia; in 1999 I produced the world premiere orchestral showcase of his first major opera, Nosferatu, at the Crested Butte Music Festival in Colorado. Even if I didn't know him, I'd be impressed by his achievements.)

He has published award-winning volumes of poetry, collections of essays, translations from Italian and Latin, original librettos, and major anthologies and textbooks. He has been a central and controversial figure in the revival of interest in meter, rhyme, and narrative. The title essay of his first critical book, Can Poetry Matter?, made a compelling case that it has and that it can again, and reportedly provoked more mail than any other essay in the history of the Atlantic Monthly when it appeared in 1991.

Gioia has also had a hand in the start-up of more new presses, conferences, and magazines than perhaps anyone since Ezra Pound. He cofounded the West Chester University Poetry Conference, which took place for the 18th time in June. As chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009, Gioia rescued the endowment from a defunding crisis and started major programs such as Poetry Out Loud, a recitation contest for high school students that this year involved more than 365,000 students nationwide.

Given his prodigious entrepreneurial, political, and administrative gifts, one might expect that his poetry would frequently offer a powerful, self-conscious public voice, like that of Yeats, or Robinson Jeffers, or Pound, or a thousand loud, minor poets.

But that tone only rarely appears. In his new volume, Pity the Beautiful, there are poems that do address the outer world, but, as in his earlier books, the best poems depict extraordinarily tender, interior landscapes of spiritual and erotic longing. In his best poems, Gioia gives public voice to a private world of elegy and regret, aspiring to speak for people rather than merely to them. After all, he can do that in his day job as much as he wishes; he is now Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California. He may remain a public figure, but he is a poet of the inner life.

Many contemporary poets mining the vein of subjectivity still seek the difficulty, or at least obscurity, that T.S. Eliot long ago insisted was necessary in such matters. Gioia's distinction from most of that crowd is his insistence on clarity, accessibility and formal grace, even eloquence, no matter how sorrowful or melancholy the subject. That very contrast — between his careful poetic craft, rhetorical skill and emotional restraint on the one hand, and the intensity of his feeling on the other — gives his poetry its decisive character.

This public man fills the page with questions and second guesses, mysterious regrets and a sense of spiritual bafflement as he tries to navigate the shoals of middle age. In "Reunion," he writes:

     Is this my home or an illusion?
     The bread on the table smells achingly real.
     Must I at last solve my confusion,
     Or is confusion all I can feel?

Even the well-intentioned search can be a false lead, as in "The Road": Amid all the emotional confusion, there is poetic control. "The Road," for example, is a metrical sonnet whose only liberty is a modified rhyme scheme. The speaker may be bewildered; the poet is not.

     He sometimes felt that he had missed his life
     By being far too busy looking for it.

There are poems with a more public bent. "Shopping" is a pitch-perfect satire of consumer culture:

     I enter the temple of my people but do not pray.
     I pass the altars of the gods but do not kneel
     Or offer sacrifices proper to the season.

Even here, however, Gioia turns back to questions of personal faith. As the speaker, again bewildered, again questioning, says near the end of "Shopping," speaking to an imaginary "fugitive" — God? — among the arcades: "Where are you, my errant soul and innermost companion?"

Again and again Gioia returns to a personal world where passionate arguments with himself about love, loss, and belief are so affectingly presented that they become the core of the faith they seek. As he writes in the closing couplet of "Prayer at Winter Solstice," "Blessed is this shortest day that makes us long for light. / Blessed is the love that in losing we discover." Loss is at the core of his faith, but that doesn't mean he is going to give up clarity to evoke it.

The weaker poems in Pity the Beautiful veer away from Gioia's sense of mysterious loss to become more discursive. But such poems are few, while the strengths are everywhere. The title poem reminds us of how much further the attractive, lucky, and successful have to fall than the rest of us. Even the gods are in this boat: "Pity the gods, / No longer divine." "Haunted," the longest poem in the book, tells the first-person tale of a young man who feels out of place in his wealthy lover's family mansion one weekend. He sees the ghost of a beautiful woman who tells him "You don't belong here," and he flees, ending up as a monk not so much because he believes in God, but because he finds it is a better way to live.

The translations from the Italian of Mario Luzi (1914—2005) are compellingly strange. The lyrics from Gioia's superb second opera, Tony Caruso's Final Broadcast — perhaps his best work to date, in my view — seem so well-suited to music one can almost hear it in the background. The final poem, "Majority," addressed to a son who died in childhood, traces his life as it might have been, as Gioia imagined it in the lives of other children he saw who would have been his son's age. It ends:

     Now you are twenty-one.
     Finally, it makes sense
     that you have moved away
     into your own afterlife.

Gioia is a man haunted by many pasts, but his dreams, however sorrowful, come to us with a precision of expression that would be welcome in any age.

More reviews of Pity the Beautiful can be found here

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Poems - Essay - More Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interview - Readings

Click here for an interview between Mary L. Tabor and Dana Gioia at Rare Bird Radio

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Poems - Essay - More Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interview - Readings

Click here for multiple readings by Dana Gioia




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