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GIOIA, (Michael) Dana


Nationality: American. Born: Los Angeles, California, 24 December 1950. Education: Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, 1969–73, 1975–77, B.A. (summa cum laude) 1973, M.B.A. 1977; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1973–75, M.A. 1975. Family: Married Mary Hiecke in 1980; three sons (one deceased). Career: Worked at General Foods, White Plains, New York, 1977–92 (last title vice president). Editor, 1971–73, and poetry editor, 1975–77, Sequoia magazine; literary editor, 1977–79, and poetry editor, 1979–83, Inquiry magazine. Since 1992 independent writer, since 1995 co-director, West Chester Writers Conference, and since 1997 music critic, San Francisco magazine. Contributing editor, The Hudson Review.Awards: Best of the New Generation award, Esquire, 1984; Poetry Book Society (London) main selection, 1991; Poet's prize, 1992; Publisher's Weekly Best Books award, 1992; American Literary Translator's award, 1992. Address: 7190 Faught Road, Santa Rosa, California 95403–7835, U.S.A.

Publications

Poetry

Daily Horoscope. St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf, 1986.

The Gods of Winter. St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf, and Calstock, Cornwall, Peterloo, 1991.

The Diviners: A Book Length Poem, with Robert McDowell. Brownsville, Oregon, Story Line Press, 1995.

Other

Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture. St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf, 1992.

Editor, The Ceremony and Other Stories by Weldon Kees. Omaha, Nebraska, Abattoir Editions, 1983; expanded edition, St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf, 1984.

Editor, with William Jay Smith, Poems from Italy. St. Paul, Minnesota, New Rivers Press, 1985.

Editor, with Michael Palma, New Italian Poets. Brownsville, Oregon, Story Line Press, 1991.

Editor, with William Logan, Certain Solitudes: On the Poetry of Donald Justice. Fayetteville, University of Arkansas Press, 1997.

Editor, with X.J. Kennedy, An Introduction to Poetry (ninth edition). New York, Longman, 1998.

Editor, with X.J. Kennedy, An Introduction to Fiction (seventh edition). New York, and London, Longman, 1999.

Editor, with X.J. Kennedy, Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama (seventh edition). New York, Longman, 1999.

Translator, Mottetti: Poems of Love, by Eugenio Montale. St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf, 1990.

Translator, The Madness of Hercules, by Seneca. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

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Manuscript Collection: New York Public Library, Berg Collection, New York, New York.

Critical Studies: "The Poet in the Gray Flannel Suit" by Bruce Bawer, in Connoisseur (New York), March 1989; "Reading the New Formalists" by Robert McPhillips, in Poetry after Modernism, edited by Robert McDowell, Brownsville, Oregon, Story Line Press, 1991; "Dana Gioia and the New Formalism" by Peter Russell, in The Edge City Review #2 (Reston, Virginia), 1994; "Dana Gioia and Expansive Poetry" by Kevin Walzer, in Italian Americana (Providence, Rhode Island), 16(1), winter 1998.

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Dana Gioia is probably the most interesting poet to have emerged in the United States since the 1980s. He clearly thinks about the craft and role of the poet, and because he thinks critically, he has become a highly controversial figure. He writes about poetry and his fellow poets with both sympathy and clarity. Nonetheless, American letters—especially poetry—is heavily academic, wedded to the theory of free verse, and populated largely by professionals in higher education. Gioia, who comes from the world of commerce and who, like Poe, believes strongly in formal metrics, has been forced into the role of outsider.

In his poetry Gioia often reminds me of the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico—the melancholia of frozen seasons, the chiaroscuro framed, and the metaphysicality:

   The architecture of each station still preserves
   its fantasy beside the sordid tracks—
   defiant pergolas, a shuttered summer lodge,
   a shadowy pavilion framed by high-arched windows
   in this land of northern sun and lingering winter.

Is it a deep-seated memory of Gioia's distant Italian background coming through, a touch of the baroque in modern American functionalism? I do not know. But "In Cheever Country," which begins with "Half an hour north of Grand Central" and from which these lines are taken, is a marvelous poem that exactly captures the feel the city worker experiences when he is commuting home by train "to the modest places which contain our lives."

Donald Justice describes Gioia's poetry as being "work—in which dream and reality keep intersecting most beautifully," and as Eliot would have said, "that's a way of putting it." But there is more to be said than this, for Gioia is no mere dreamy fantast but rather a true poet of the imagination. He is one who operates not through strained metaphors of the fancy but by focusing on real particulars, and he knows it:

   Look for smaller signs instead, the fine
   disturbances of ordered things when suddenly
   the rhythms of your expectation break
   and in a moment's pause another world
   reveals itself behind the ordinary.

This is the heart of his art, for its program is to make transcendent reality accessible through the commonplace. His poetry is calmly and unobtrusively measured, and whereas Pound endeavored to make poetry concrete, Gioia keeps it simple, hence his accessibility. If I may be forgiven a pun, he makes the subtle and the complex simply accessible, and this is because in part, as with Donne, thought is its own experience—is experience.

In Gioia's volume Daily Horoscope there are many poems whose ostensible settings are old ruins, museums, neglected mansions, chapels, and so forth, and at first one thinks, "Ah, another poet playing with the past … a poet with a strong historical sense." But very quickly one perceives not merely the historical sense but also the religious or, more properly, the metaphysical sense at work and sees that it is preponderant. True, "the bankrupt palace still remains / beyond the wall that summer builds, / doors bolted shut, the roof caved in…," yet it is not merely a poetry to evoke spent or derelict feeling but rather one to question and, as it were, reenvision such dead places:

   wasn't this the purpose of our listening:
   to sit in the same place with our eyes open
   and know that we have moved? That finally
   we've woken up into the place from which
   we've always woken up out of, that strange place
   that's always changing, constantly drifting
   between the visible and invisible,
   that place that we must stumble onto, now
   as an unkempt garden.

How marvelously he has grafted Rilke onto the tree of contemporary American poetry and regrafted the Eliot of "Little Gidding" back onto his American roots.

But I would not wish to mislead and to misrepresent Gioia and his style as that of only a new metaphysical poet. There are a number of highly contemporary, self-expressive, even "social" poems scattered throughout his books as well. I am thinking of poems like "Cruising with the Beachboys" or "Bix Beiderbecke." In the former the poet, "travelling on business in a rented car," listens nostalgically to a pop record of the 1960s; in the latter the poet works through the persona of the jazz musician who died in 1931, creating a miniature life story in twenty-five lines and concluding with

   He lit a cigarette and closed his eyes.
   The best years of his life! The Boring 'Twenties.
   He watched the morning break across the snow.
   Would heaven be as white as Iowa?

Thus, Gioia also is a very contemporary poet, down to his marvelous particularity of detail: "Another sleepless night, when every wrinkle in the bedsheet scratches / like a dry razor on a sunburned cheek." But it is contemporaneity not for its own sake but only as the grist of fact awaiting his unique poetic interpretation. Gioia knows and in his poetry shows, as Robert Graves said, that "fact and truth are not the same thing"; truth is the conclusion drawn from fact. Gioia has a great eye for fact and a mind set on telling truth, which is to say that he has vision.

Gioia's poems, as I have suggested, are a consequence of thought—even thought about thought—not "the spontaneous over-flow of powerful feelings" but rather "emotion recollected in tranquillity." This is possibly why there is here and there a movement into narrative, as, for example, in "The Journey, the Arrival and the Dream," from Daily Horoscope, or in the desperately sad and faintly unpleasant "The Homecoming," from The Gods of Winter. Both poems are characteristic of the soliloquy, that is, are imbued with memory. The reflective disposition, as with Philip Larkin, shows up in the perusing of old mementos, such as photographs that evoke the poet's past. I am thinking especially of "Photograph of My Mother as a Young Girl" and "The Sunday News," both of which reveal an obsession with the past, a subliminal wish to stop the passage of time and its consequences—"and watched, as I do / years later, / too distantly to interfere"—and, similarly, the desire to find a way of resisting loss through time—"A scrap I knew I wouldn't read again / But couldn't bear to lose." In his own words, it is the being of "an eternal witness trapped in time."

A personal tragedy, the death of an infant son, brought about a shift in Gioia's poetic impulse in his second volume, The Gods of Winter. In this collection there is a touch of anguish, a darkening of tone, an intensification of feeling, which bring his poetry closer to lyrical spontaneity:

   Storm on storm, snow on drifting snowfall,
   shifting its shape, flurrying in moonlight,
   bright and ubiquitous,
   profligate March squanders its wealth.

Gradually, however, after writing the strange, perhaps therapeutic poem "Counting the Children"—a poem motivated at bottom by the fear of sudden infant death syndrome, I would guess, but one that also incorporates an examination of questions of mortality and immortality—Gioia gets back into his more normal urbane stride. Measured reflection takes over again, leading from time to time to poems like "My Confessional Sestina," "Money," or "News from Nineteen Eighty Four," all of which have something of the odor of the occasional poem about them. He has also moved into the field of translation, often a worrying sign in all but the most prolific of poets, for it can indicate a diminishing of original impulse and a conscious searching for themes.

Between Gioia's two principal volumes of poetry, however, there are a fair number of different themes, a couple of which deserve mention. One that appears early in Daily Horoscope is that of the suppressed nature poet, which every poet is at heart: "suddenly I realize the obvious: / that even this parking lot / was once a field." It is a conflict that shades off into another theme—or variant thereof—in his later poem "Rough Country," a quiet paean to the wide-open spaces where the poet seeks "a sign that there is still / one piece of property that won't be owned." It is an interesting thought coming from a poet with a background in business and from one who has written one of the few respectable poems—albeit ironically toned—to money, beginning with an approving epigraph from Wallace Stevens—"money is a kind of poetry."

Apart from translation, there has been another interesting development in Gioia's work. He has collaborated with the composer Alva Henderson on an opera, Nosferatu, based on F.W. Murnau's silent movie. Asked in an interview why he, "a serious poet," would want to write an opera libretto, Gioia answered laconically, "to grow." He then added, "It is exciting to explore a new form." The results should be interesting not only for opera but also for his own poetry. If the songs—some of which this writer has seen—are anything to go by, an impressive lyricism is being birthed through the demands of music. Gioia is often panned for being in the vanguard of the so-called New Formalist movement. It is more true, however, to observe of his work, as Charles Causley wrote in the early 1990s, "These lucid, varied and beautifully-crafted poems are the work of one of the most accomplished and compelling poets to have emerged on either side of the Atlantic over the past decade."

—William Oxley

Gioia, (Michael) Dana

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