Seeing Things: Poetry That Matters

Flannery O’Connor once warned about the pious overvaluation of an often unhappy literary hybrid: “The Catholic novelist doesn’t have to be a saint, he doesn’t even have to be a Catholic; he does, unfortunately, have to be a novelist.”

Dana Gioia is a poet, essayist, and a Catholic. But no fair reader will ever accuse him of relying on his Catholicity as a substitute for literary talent and sheer effort. Gioia has written or edited 15 volumes of poetry, criticism, and translations, including an opera libretto that, with music by neo-Romantic composer Alva Henderson, premiered this June at Westchester University. His work is even more remarkable in that before becoming a full-time writer in 1992, he was an executive with General Foods in New York for 15 years.

But quantity alone cannot begin to measure the impact of Gioia’s work. He is one of the leaders of a poetic movement known as the New Formalism. Poets in this movement take advantage of the fact that nearly every writer of poetry today thinks free verse is the only form that captures modern reality. The New Formalists, therefore, have much aesthetic room to themselves in the old meters and stanzas. Though they are often dismissed by a suspicious literary orthodoxy as mere traditionalists, the New Formalists should be more properly thought of as presenting contemporary material in attractive and accessible forms.

Gioia wrote brilliantly about the movement in a much-celebrated article, “Can Poetry Matter?,” for the Atlantic in 1991, which was later included in a 1992 book of essays with that same name. He poses an odd question, perhaps, but one that needs to be asked in an age that has almost entirely divorced itself from serious literature. W.H. Auden once observed, “Poetry makes nothing happen”—that is, it has no practical function. But rhythmic speech and metaphor are the lowest rungs on the transcendent ladder that leads us to a larger world. Primitive societies directly understand that truth, and more sophisticated ones in the past retained a similar sense. Beauty, one of the three transcendentals, is a common reference point for many cultures.

Gioia knows quite well that contemporary factors such as the decline in education, the rise of television and other generally lowbrow forms of popular culture, and the crisis of the humanistic disciplines have played a role in the eclipse of poetry. But he rightly points out that about 2 percent of the population—nearly six million Americans—interest themselves in serious literature, music, and art. Not a large part of such a big nation, but no small number that could be appealed to if poets took seriously the task of trying to write publicly influenced verse.

Gioia seems to keep that audience constantly in mind in his own work as a poet. For instance, Interrogations at Noon, the poem that lends its title to Gioia’s latest collection (Graywolf Press, 2001), neatly captures a familiar experience: It recounts how the poet often hears a whispering voice in his head scornfully wondering “what grim mistake” thwarted “the better man I might have been.” The last two stanzas of the poem show simple mastery in the way they perfectly fit together matter and form:

“Who is the person you pretend to be?”

He asks, “The failed saint, the simpering bore,

The pale connoisseur of spent desire,

The half-hearted hermit eyeing the door?

 

“You cultivate confusion like a rose

In watery lies too weak to be untrue

And play the minor figures in the pageant,

Extravagant and empty, that is you.”

A good bit of this just-published volume beautifully traces out regrets, painful memories, losses to death and time, and unrealized possibilities. Gioia writes of these in common language at times tinged with religious images. In The Litany, for example, everything that we lose or fail at remains somehow potential:

This is a prayer, inchoate and unfinished,

for you, my love, my loss, my lesion,

a rosary of words to count out time’s

illusions, all the minutes, hours, days

the calendar compounds as if the past

existed somewhere—like an inheritance

still waiting to be claimed.

Most of the time, however, Gioia is not explicitly Catholic in his imagery and does not need to be, since his whole sensibility is steeped in the faith, even when he is questioning or busy with seemingly secular matters.

But he is never pious in the bad sense. In this volume, one poem, The Archbishop, forcefully satirizes a literary critic by comparing him to a haughty, self-important prelate. Another, At the Waterfront Cape, wittily lambastes the brand-name-driven lives of the rich and fashionable, but ends with an unusual twist:

But tonight I hope they prosper.

Are they shallow? I don’t care.

Jealousy is all too common,

Style and beauty much too rare.

Gioia, as his name suggests, is of Italian-American lineage and has not neglected the poets of the old country. Poems from Italy (New Rivers Press, 1985), a handsome anthology he edited with William Jay Smith, collects beautiful translations by various hands of figures from the time of St. Francis of Assisi and Dante down to our own day. And Gioia himself has translated the Motetti of the modern Italian poet and Nobel laureate Eugenio Montale (Graywolf Press, 1990).

Gioia’s recent opera libretto, Nosferatu, is based on F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent film of the story of Dracula, but it does not simply fall into the campy or sexual/violent mode common to recent treatments of the vampire theme. Instead, he makes the story primarily a shadow play of dark and light, in which the vampire, for all the threats he represents, would almost seem to have a spiritual function. “Serenade,” an aria from Act II of Nosferatu, concludes:

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 streams.

I am the future you crave and fear.

You know what I bring. Now I am here.

In the essay on libretto-writing that follows the text, Gioia defines the modest but essential role of the librettist: He must produce words simple enough to be understood, even if they are not all heard, and powerful enough to inspire the composer. Gioia himself has succeeded beautifully at that task.

At a recent reading of his work in Washington, D.C., Gioia alluded to Catholicism several times. Asked later if it was prudent to do so in literary circles, he replied that it was his modest way of witnessing. When he does so at universities or other high-culture venues, someone often approaches him later, not necessarily a Catholic, but a Christian who feels isolated and denigrated because of his faith, and thanks Gioia for making it clear that it is possible to be a committed believer and a serious cultural figure. Dana Gioia is both of those things. His powers—literary and intellectual—are at their height and promise even greater things to come.

Robert Royal

By

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of TheCatholicThing.org, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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