Dana Gioia's collection of poetry Interrogations at Noon (2001), which includes his poem "The Litany," has been praised for its lyricism as well as its classic sense of subject and theme. One of the strongest poems in the collection, "The Litany" makes a powerful statement of love and loss and of the search for a way to comprehend the nature of suffering. These became common themes in Gioia's poetry after the tragic death of his son at four months of age. Gioia's verse collection The Gods of Winter (1991) expresses his pain over his son's death; his later work is less personal but still focuses on the subject of loss.
In "The Litany," Gioia makes a confessional investigation of the nature of life and death and the universal design of that nature. Each stanza lists things the speaker has lost. These losses include someone he has loved as well as his faith in his religion, which had taught him to believe in the rightness of the cycle of life and death. His questioning of this cycle becomes an expression of grief.
Michael Dana Gioia was born on December 24, 1950, in Los Angeles, California, to a tightly knit family headed by his Italian father, Michael, and his Mexican American mother, Dorothy. His father was a cabdriver and store owner, and his mother was a telephone operator. Gioia rose from these humble beginnings through the academic world by earning a scholarship to Stanford University and obtaining a bachelor of science with honors there in 1973, as well as winning an award for the best senior essay. He went on to earn two master's degrees, one from Harvard University in 1975, where he studied with the poets Robert Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Bishop, and one from Stanford University in 1977.
Gioia's initial course of study was music, but he soon turned to literature. At Stanford, he had book reviews published in the Stanford Daily and served as editor of the campus literary magazine, Sequoia. His time at Harvard helped him cement his poetic aspirations, but he began to doubt whether academia was the best place to foster his talents. As a result, after completing course work for a PhD, but without finishing the degree, he left for Stanford Business School.
After graduation, Gioia joined General Foods Cooperation and made his way up the corporate structure, first as manager of business development (1977–1987), then as marketing manager (1988–1990), and finally as vice president of marketing (1990–1992). He continued to write poetry during these years, and, after he began to receive national recognition for his work, he left the business world to devote himself full time to writing.
Gioia married Mary Hiecke on February 23, 1980; the couple had three sons, one of whom died in infancy. His verse collection The Gods of Winter is dedicated to this son. Gioia established himself in the literary world first as a critic, with such essays as "The New Conservatism in American Poetry," published in American Book Review in 1986, and "Notes on the New Formalism," which appeared in the Hudson Review in 1987. His first collection of poems, Daily Horoscope (1986), won acclaim in America and Britain.
Gioia's literary reputation was firmly established with the publications of The Gods of Winter in 1991 and Interrogations at Noon in 2001, which includes "The Litany." His work earned him the Frederick Bock Prize in Poetry in 1985 and the American Book Award in 2002 for Interrogations at Noon. He became more famous, however, for his essay "Can Poetry Matter?," published in the Atlantic Monthly and available in Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture. In this essay, Gioia complains that the public's lack of interest in reading poetry is a result of the genre's growing inaccessibility.
In January 2002, President George W. Bush appointed Gioia chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts following the untimely death of Michael P. Hammond after only one week in the office. Gioia's appointment came at a time of Republican attacks on the NEA that were part of the wave of culturally conservative views sweeping the United States.
This is a litany of lost things,
a canon of possessions dispossessed, a photograph, an old address, a key.
It is a list of words to memorize
or to forget—of amo, amas, amat, 5
the conjugations of a dead tongue
in which the final sentence has been spoken.
This is the liturgy of rain,
falling on mountain, field, and ocean—
indifferent, anonymous, complete— 10
of water infinitesimally slow,
sifting through rock, pooling in darkness,
gathering in springs, then rising without our agency,
only to dissolve in mist or cloud or dew.
This is a prayer to unbelief, 15
to candles guttering and darkness undivided,
to incense drifting into emptiness.
It is the smile of a stone Madonna
and the silent fury of the consecrated wine,
a benediction on the death of a young god, 20
brave and beautiful, rotting on a tree.
This is a litany to earth and ashes,
to the dust of roads and vacant rooms,
to the fine silt circling in a shaft of sun,
settling indifferently on books and beds. 25
This is a prayer to praise what we become,
"Dust thou art, to dust thou shalt return."
Savor its taste—the bitterness of earth and ashes.
This is a prayer, inchoate and unfinished,
for you, my love, my loss, my lesion, 30
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. 35
Until at last it is our litany, mon vieux,
my reader, my voyeur, as if the mist
steaming from the gorge, this pure paradox,
the shattered river rising as it falls—
splintering the light, swirling it skyward, 40
neither transparent nor opaque but luminous,
even as it vanishes—were not our life.
"The Litany" begins with the speaker calling attention to the poem as "a litany" in the first stanza, repeating the title phrase. The word litany can have two meanings: a series of prayers spoken or sung at a Christian worship service, asking for God's blessing, or a long, repetitious list of items that are usually considered complaints or problems. Both would be appropriate definitions here, since the poem is about "lost things," as noted in the first line.
The speaker finds another way to describe the litany in the second line, as a "canon." There are several definitions of this word, too, but the most relevant ones—which would suggest another term for litany as it is used in the first line—would be a body of religious or artistic works; the most solemn part of the Mass, or Holy Communion; and a list of Catholic saints.
The speaker notes that he has lost possessions, that they have become dispossessed (expelled or ejected) without his consent. He lists the things lost: a photograph, an old address, and a key, perhaps all relating to the same person. The litany then becomes a list of words to memorize or forget. The words could be part of a liturgical prayer or a list of the things lost. He then adds to the list the Latin words "amo amas amat," which is the conjugation of the verb "to love": "I love; you love; he or she loves." The speaker is not sure whether he should memorize or forget these words. The "dead tongue" refers to Latin, which is considered to be a dead language. In the last line, he declares that "the final sentence" of that language "has been spoken."
In this stanza, the speaker moves from a personal focus to a description of landscape, listing different types on which rain falls. The rain falls to the earth indifferently, apathetically. It completes the cycle of life as it rises up again "without our agency" (that is, without our help) to the clouds.
In this stanza, the list becomes the speaker's "prayer to unbelief," to "guttering" candles, and to incense drifting emptily. The prayer is likened to "the smile of a stone Madonna," to "the silent fury of the consecrated wine," and to "a benediction on the death of a young god." All the items in the stanza are found in Christian worship services.
Here the litany becomes a list or a prayer to "earth and ashes," to dust, to fine silt, "a prayer to praise what we become." This wasteland, with its dusty roads and vacant rooms and silt settling "indifferently" on the objects in the rooms, is the backdrop for the scripture that the speaker quotes: "Dust thou art, to dust thou shalt return." The cycle of life and death, which in the second stanza was the cycle of rain falling and evaporating, now becomes focused on human death, as the body turns to ashes and dust after going into the grave. This cycle tastes bitter to the speaker.
The first line in this stanza again insists that the poem is a prayer but that it is "inchoate" (unclear or unformed) and "unfinished." For the first time, the speaker identifies the person to whom the poem is addressed. This "you" is loved by the speaker and apparently lost to him. The reference to "lesion" suggests that the memory of this person is like a painful wound. The prayer becomes a "rosary" of words, a series of prayers, like a litany or like the string of beads used to count the prayers recited. But these words "count out / time's illusions." The illusions the speaker refers to are that the "past / existed somewhere" and that it could be "claimed," suggesting that the person that he had loved is gone.
The first line in the final stanza continues the thought from the last. The prayer now becomes "our" litany, which is the poem itself. The speaker apparently shifts from speaking to the one who was lost, the "you," who died, to a different person, whom he calls "mon vieux" (my old one). This new person is a reader and a voyeur, looking in on the speaker's suffering.
In the final lines, the speaker refers back to the cycle of the rain falling to earth and then rising again but finds a more positive way to view it. The water falls down into a gorge and the mist steams upward. This process becomes a "paradox" of rising and falling, life and death. As the mist swirls skyward it becomes luminous—a symbol of "our" life, our litany, our death.
The Artistic Impulse
The impulse to communicate artistically becomes a dominant theme in the poem. The speaker reveals this need from the first line, when the poem becomes a "litany of lost things." All but the final stanza begin with the word "this," which refers to the poem itself and continually calls attention to it. This structure helps reinforce the confessional tone of the poem, as the speaker addresses first the lost loved one and then the reader of the poem.
The act of constructing the lists in the poem appears to help the speaker sort out his responses to the loss of the loved one and the subsequent loss of faith in his religion's ability to help ease his suffering. The development of his thoughts can be followed, as he moves back and forth from the universal focus on nature's cycle of life and death to his personal response to the death of someone he loved. Each list that he constructs for the poem helps him clarify and communicate his point of view.
The power of art to provide a sense of unity becomes apparent in the final stanza when the speaker addresses the reader, who shares in the universal nature of his suffering. The acknowledgment of this sympathetic understanding between poet and reader appears to trigger the speaker's more unified and therefore more satisfying vision of nature's cycle. What had previously appeared to be an "indifferent" world now becomes a paradoxical one that unites contrasting images of life and death in the rising and falling of the river. After the speaker has successfully communicated his vision to his reader, he can then turn to the living world of the present.
Influence of the Past
The powerful influence that the past can have on the present is reflected in the suffering the speaker experiences. The poem begins with the sense of loss, reinforced by memories of a loved one who has died. The speaker feels dispossessed when he looks at a photograph, an address, and a key, objects that somehow relate to the person he has lost. One of the central questions of the poem centers on whether the speaker should remember or forget the love ("amo, amas, amat") he has experienced in order to lessen the pain of remembrance.
Topics for Further Study
- Read Gioia's "Notes on the New Formalism" and investigate the responses to it. Lead a class discussion and assessment of his vision of the future of poetry.
- Gioia uses the technique of listing in the poem, much as Walt Whitman does in his poetry but with different effects. Read one of Whitman's poems, such as "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" or "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer," and compare in an essay his lists with those in "The Litany." Consider why each author chose the objects in the list and how they help express the poems' themes.
- Investigate the stages of grieving that a person goes through when a loved one dies. Chart these stages and any appearance of them in the poem in a PowerPoint presentation.
- Write a short story or poem about the speaker in "The Litany," envisioning him twenty years from now.
He is unable to escape the past, however, as it colors his vision of the present and of the future. Because his memory has become a painful "lesion," his vision of the world has darkened. Nature imposes a cycle of life and death that is indifferent to the sufferings of humanity. Time appears to stop in the vacant rooms as mortals return to the dust of the grave. This world seems to offer no salvation for the dead or for the living.
The overwhelming presence of the past becomes most obvious as the speaker directly addresses the loved one, trying to construct a prayer that will not be "inchoate and unfinished." He struggles to find the language that will offer his loved one a clear benediction and himself a respite from his pain. He realizes that the past can never, unlike an inheritance, be claimed. It is only through the acceptance and expression of suffering that the speaker can find any relief from the burden of the past.
Repetition of Word or Image
The poem uses repetition of the same word at the beginning of several verses for thematic emphasis. Five of six stanzas begin with "This is" followed by either "litany," "liturgy," or "prayer"—all used in a similar way to emphasize the loss of a loved one as well as the loss of faith. The variation in the three words reflects the dual nature of the loss. A litany could be a series of prayers or a list, having both a religious and a secular connotation. Yet the repetition of the word and its variations implies that the one loss, that of a loved one, has caused the other loss, that of faith in the rightness of the cycle of life.
Images are also repeated in stanzas 2, 4, and 6 to reinforce the focus on this cycle. In stanza 2, the life-giving part of the cycle emerges as rain falls on a mountain, a field, and an ocean and then rises to become clouds that will eventually turn into rain. In the fourth stanza, the speaker focuses on death as the body returns to the earth, to the dust from which it was formed. The final stanza reveals the entire cycle of life and death as the river rises and falls, "luminous" as it "vanishes."
Repetition of Sound
Gioia also uses the repetition of speech sounds for emphasis throughout the poem. In the first stanza alone, there are several instances of both consonance, the repetition of consonants, and assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds. Examples of consonance are "litany" and "lost"; "amo, amas, amat"; "is" and "list"; and "sentence" and "spoken." The linking of "litany" and "lost" reinforces the poem's main focus: things lost. The repeated sounds in the Latin conjugation of the verb "to love" emphasizes that the most painful loss is that of a loved one. The consonance in the last example in this stanza alludes to the loss of faith, which has prevented the speaker from finding a vocabulary to describe his loss.
Assonance occurs with the vowel sounds in "this" and "litany"; "it," "is," and "list"; and "photograph" and "old." The repetition of the vowel sounds in the first two words points out the relationship between the construction of the poem ("this," meaning the poem itself) and the speaker's feelings of loss (his "litany"). The last example of assonance links details relating to the one lost. The words "possessions" and "dispossessed" contain both consonance and assonance and connect the fact of loss to the emotional response to it. Gioia's repetition of sounds also creates a musicality that adds Style a sense of unity and pleasure to reading the poem.
The poem creates a controlled confessional tone. Confessional poetry, a term first linked to Robert Lowell's lyric collection Life Studies (1959) and later to the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, expresses intimate details of the poet's life. This poetry differs from that of the nineteenth-century Romantic poets like William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley in that it explores the poet's experience with more candor. Typical subjects for the confessional poet include sexual encounters and extreme emotional states, often involving mental instability, drug use, and suicide.
In "The Litany," Gioia alternates between a confessional and an investigatory style. He expresses a personal sense of loss when he identifies the litany of the poem as a prayer to an unidentified "you," a "young god" who has died and is "rotting on a tree," most likely referring to both his infant son and the crucified Jesus. Yet he couples his sorrow with an investigation of the nature of the cycle of life and death and the ability of faith to ease suffering. This duality helps the poem achieve a more universal status.
The New Formalists
New formalism is a poetic movement, led by Gioia, that rejects the dominance of free verse (poetry that is not organized into recurrent units of stressed and unstressed syllables) in contemporary poetry. New formalists promote, instead, a return to traditional poetic meters (recurring regular units of speech sounds in a poem), rhymes, and stanza forms. Gioia, along with other new formalists like Charles Martin, Tom Disch, Phillis Levin, and Frederick Turner, has generated a sometimes heated discussion on the importance of prosody (the study of meter, rhyme, and stanza form) and the influence of past literary values. The theories of these poets are outlined in essays like Alan Shapiro's "The New Formalism," in Critical Inquiry, and Gioia's "Notes on the New Formalism," published in Conversant Essays: Contemporary Poets and Poetry (1990), edited by James McCorkle. In his discussion, Gioia insists that attention to form does not limit a poet but, in essence, frees the poet to expand the impact of the poem.
The new formalists emerged from a group called the "Movement," formed during the 1950s by British poets, including Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, John Wain, and Elizabeth Jennings. Like their formalist predecessors, they stress a unity of emotion and language in poetry rather than the intellectual exercises they claim are being taught in academia. The new formalists take as their model the lyric of the nineteenth-century British writer Thomas Hardy, which is a carefully metered lyric stanza that contains direct, common language rather than poetic diction. The members of this movement have sparked important debates about the future of poetry and its relationship to the reading public.
New Oral Poetry
In Gioia's essay collection Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture (2004), he explores, in the title essay, the ways in which popular culture can help revive the public's interest in poetry. He argues that hip-hop and cowboy poetry and events like poetry slams, which depend on the oral presentation of verse, have become important new cultural forms. In an assessment of Gioia's title essay for Wilson Quarterly, the reviewer notes that "new popular poetry uses modern-day media such as radio, CDs, video, and the Internet … to attract a general audience that is less and less inclined to devote time to reading."
Hip-hop developed in the 1970s with the emergence of artists like the Last Poets, whose songs contained a mixture of spoken word and jazz background rhythms that expressed the African American experience. Gioia insists that hip-hop's fixed rhythms and rhyme schemes resemble those of English oral poetry, from Anglo-Saxon verse to Rudyard Kipling's ballads. The genre was promoted by Cool Herc, an influential disc jockey in New York City. Hip-hop artists like LL Cool J and Grand Master Flash have helped hip-hop maintain its popularity.
Poetry slams, which give poets a venue where they can perform their poetry in front of live audiences, first appeared in the mid-1980s. They may have been inspired by the open-microphone sessions for poets in a Chicago bar started by the poet Marc Smith. Slams are held in bars and cafés where poet-performers compete for top honors, awarded by a panel or the audience. In 2002, Russell Simmons, owner of Def Jam Records, reflected the popularity of the events when he opened a poetry slam on Broadway.
Cowboy poetry, which became a popular form during the settlement of the American frontier, reemerged in 1985 at a meeting of poets led by the folklorist Hal Cannon in Nevada. This poetry, which began as tall tales and folk songs told and sung around a campfire, expresses the culture and lifestyles of the West. It is also characterized by its regional dialects, its traditional ballad form (a sung narrative that contains quatrains with alternate four- and three-stress lines, with the second and fourth line rhyming), and its combination of realism (a literary movement that stresses accuracy in the representation of life) and romanticism (a movement that represents a world more picturesque and adventurous than real). Among the most famous cowboy poets are Buster Black and Clayton Atkin.
Gioia's collection Interrogations at Noon has been well received for its technical artistry as well as its thematic import. Bruce F. Murphy, in his review of the collection for Poetry, praises the poet's "fluency and passion" and concludes, "In terms of lyricism, Dana Gioia is a virtuoso, it seems. Tones are augmented or diminished with great care. The poems are lyrical, fluid, assured; this is a poetry free of mistakes." Murphy insists that Gioia "embraces not only traditional measures, but traditional philosophy. The world exists independently of our thinking/speaking about it, and so the role of language is mimetic [something that mimics], not constitutive [something that constructs]."
Ned Balbo, in his review of the collection for the Antioch Review, claims that the poet is "a master of subtle registers" and insists that "elegiac in his outlook, Gioia is more likely to lower his voice than shout." He "sees the metaphors we live with every day."
In a discussion of theme, Murphy writes that Gioia "hints at the moral dimension of poetry." In all of the poems, Murphy finds a "sense of conscience, of being held to account." He argues that "behind its surface brilliance and the sometimes casual, occasional subjects, it is a very somber book. There are depths of sorrow that are refracted through form, and sometimes fully unveiled." Gioia's verse, Murphy claims, is a "public poetry that retains a sense of privacy, and a feeling for the limits of language." The "bottled-up suffering, when it finds an opening, comes out in a fierce jet. Death is everywhere present, as a desire for release from the unendurable."
Balbo concludes that Gioia speaks "with impressive gravity and range about what lies at the dark heart of human affairs," yet he "can lighten a dark moment or finely shade a lighter one." His poems are "superb in their blend of toughness and vulnerability, their quest for solace before loss, their measured yet memorable voice." Balbo concludes that though the collection "often speaks of death and absence, it offers the consolation of uncommon craft."
In his review of the collection for Booklist, Ray Olson notes that Gioia has obviously studied the classics of Greek and Roman literature, which teach that "the human heart is never satisfied." He argues that Gioia reveals a "formal dexterity" in his verse and has "learned the turbulent heart in the content" of his poems. Gioia "draws on Greek and Roman motifs, stories, and attitudes" and "conveys to us the acceptance of mortality and the celebration of beauty that have made the classics perdurably [long-lastingly] relevant." His "true" rhymes, "correct and musical" meters, and "fresh" diction suggest, Olson claims, that "he is well on the way to becoming a classic poet himself."
Wendy Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, she explores the interplay of the subjects of love, loss, and faith in the poem.
In his poem "Design," Robert Frost chooses as his subject nature's cycle of life and death and examines its design. The poem is focused on a seemingly insignificant event: the death of a moth. Frost describes how the moth is attracted to a flower where a spider is lying in wait for its breakfast. He notes that this scene can be viewed as an illustration of the life cycle, an illustration that the moth must die so that the spider can live. In his description of the event, Frost questions whether this cycle has been consciously designed or is the result of random occurrence. His questioning comes from his awareness of the suffering that is a consequence of this cycle. Frost often explored the subjects of death and suffering in his poetry, especially after his son committed suicide.
Gioia also turned to the subject of death in his poetry after his infant son died. His work focuses on the suffering associated with death but does not question whether the cycle of life and death is part of a universal design. In "The Litany," one of his most compelling explorations of this theme, Gioia centers on the experience of death for those left behind.
In "Design," Frost's struggle to come to terms with death is evident in the juxtaposition of positive and negative imagery in the first stanza. The three participants in the event—the flower, the moth, and the spider—become "assorted characters of death and blight" in one line and "mixed ready to begin the morning right" in another. In these two lines, Frost contrasts the rightness of nature's cycle with the recognition that death and blight are a part of that cycle. In the next line, the three characters become "the ingredients of a witches' broth," suggesting a "design of darkness to appall." Here, Frost implies that the creator of this cycle may have had a sinister intent.
Gioia's speaker never doubts that the universe has been designed by God or suggests that God's intentions were disturbing. His focus instead is on the suffering caused by death and the role faith plays in relation to that suffering. The poem's juxtaposition of secular and religious images calls into question the ability of faith to help alleviate the pain of loss.
The speaker begins his thoughtful probing in the first stanza, which reveals him to be engaged in an investigatory process while, at the same time, isolated as a result of his loss. Here he starts to question and reevaluate his experience in order to comprehend and cope with it. He first defines his loss as a litany of "things." The use of the word "litany," which means either a list of complaints or prayers spoken at a Christian service, highlights the dual nature of his focus: the loss and the question of whether faith can help one cope with that loss.
The speaker's tone contains a touch of bitterness as he declares that his possessions have been "dispossessed," taken against his will. This word also suggests that, as a result of the loss, he has become dispossessed, or homeless. The two losses that the speaker has experienced, a loved one and the power of his religious faith to ease his suffering, have caused this sense of homelessness. These losses are revealed in the second half of the stanza, where the speaker notes the influence of the past on the present when he wonders whether he should remember or forget the conjugation of the verb "to love." The following stanzas illustrate the pain caused by the memory of the loved one, who is now lost, and the inability of faith to relieve that pain. At this point, the language of his religion, expressed in litanies, liturgies, and prayers, has become "a dead tongue / in which the final sentence has been spoken."
Like Frost's speaker in "Design," the speaker in "The Litany" turns to a description of nature's cycle, moving from a personal to a universal focus as he describes the process of rain falling on the landscape and then evaporating back into the clouds. Yet, like the speaker in Frost's poem, he is unable to keep from including his response when he determines that the rain, which engages in a "complete" process of life and death, is nevertheless "indifferent" to the sufferings that the process causes. He recognizes that we are unable to stop this cycle, which continues "without our agency."
The personal tone gains intensity in the third stanza when the speaker's sadness combines with unrestrained bitterness. Here, the speaker reveals the failure of his faith to ease his pain. At this point, he does not believe that the ceremonial candles will conquer the darkness or that the incense will carry his prayers to heaven. The Madonna, who has previously offered him comfort, is now silent stone, and the consecrated wine expresses not salvation through the blood of Christ but fury over "the death of a young god," a reference to a loss of faith as well as the loss of the loved one.
Gioia turns from scriptural to allegorical allusions in the next stanza, which help add a universal as well as personal focus. The wasteland imagery in the fourth stanza reinforces the speaker's sense of desolation in the face of an indifferent world. Nature's cycle is again described, but here the imagery is darker. All life seems to have ended in the vacant rooms that contain an eternal silence, reflecting "what we become" as we return to the dust that we are. This prayer tastes of "the bitterness of earth and ashes."
The confessional intimacy of the fifth stanza adds a sad poignancy to the poem. The speaker admits that his prayer for conciliation is "inchoate and unfinished," because his suffering has not abated. For the first time, he speaks directly to the lost one and to the memory that has become a painful "lesion." His rosary cannot offer benediction, because the words he recites in prayer only "count out time's / illusions." As he recognizes that the past can never be reclaimed, the speaker turns to a new audience, the reader of his poem, and to the "litany" of loss that is universally shared.
The reader is a voyeur who shares in the speaker's suffering, an acknowledgment that appears to offer some comfort to the speaker. When he returns to a description of nature's cycle, he now seems to find a paradox in the rising and falling of the river. The cycle of life and death represented by the river not only shatters and splinters but also becomes "luminous" in its inevitable progress "skyward," bringing with it a suggestion of salvation for the dead as well as for the living. In his rendering of the speaker's need in "The Litany" to come to an ultimate acceptance of death as part of God's design, Gioia creates an eloquent statement of the often-suffocating aftermath of loss and the intense desire to comprehend it.
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on "The Litany," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Dana Gioia and Christina Vick
In the following interview, Gioia recounts his early love of reading and his influences, and expounds on methods of writing poetry.
[Christina Vick]: When did you first conceive a love for literature?
[Dana Gioia]: I can't ever remember a time when I did not love poems and stories, but who knows how it all began? Oddly, I don't recall my parents ever reading books to me, but my mother often read or recited poems. I remember hearing hundreds of poems as a child. As soon as I learned to read, I devoured books. We had—because of political graft—an enormous library in my otherwise rundown hometown. I used to go there after school and wander the shelves. No one ever advised me on what to read, so I sampled everything. On the same visit I might bring home a book of Roman history, another of horror stories, and a third of Italian paintings. Reading was in many ways more real to me than my daily life. It opened up a world of possibilities beyond the dreary limits of working-class, urban Los Angeles.
Were there any special circumstances in your childhood that made books so important to you?
I spent a great deal of time alone. Both of my parents worked. My first brother wasn't born until I was six, and except for my cousins next door there were almost no children in my neighborhood, which was made up mostly of small cheap apartments. Our home, however, was full of books, records, and musical scores from my uncle, Theodore Ortiz, who had served in the Merchant Marines before dying in a plane crash in 1955. He was an old-style proletariat intellectual who spent all of his money on music and literature. His library lined nearly every room and spilled over into the garage. There were books in six languages and hundreds of classical LPs. My parents never read the books or played the records, but they kept them for sentimental reasons. The books were not especially interesting to a child—the novels of Thomas Mann, the plays of George Bernard Shaw, Pushkin in Russian, Cervantes in Spanish—but growing up with this large library around us exercised a strong magic on me, and later on me brother Ted.
At what point in your life did you know that you wanted to be a poet?
I remember quite exactly when I decided to become a poet. I was a college sophomore studying in Vienna on a Stanford exchange program. I had gone to Europe as a decisive gesture to figure out if I really wanted to be a composer. Living abroad for the first time and speaking a foreign language, I brooded a great deal in my room or else wandered the labyrinthine streets of the inner city in a fever of loneliness. Soon I found myself constantly reading and writing poetry—both in English and German. By the time I returned to America, I had decided to be a poet.
Who or what do you read for pleasure or inspiration?
I read all the time—newspapers, magazines, journals, and books—usually several books at once. I don't read as many novels now as I did when I was younger, though I still read forty or fifty a year. Now I tend to read more biographies and history. I also read theological and philosophical books. And, of course, I read—and reread—poetry all the time. I find myself habitually rereading certain books and authors, especially Virgil, Horace, St. Augustine, Shakespeare, and the Bible. I read science fiction for fun at bedtime. I also devour classical music and opera magazines. I sometimes worry if I have spent too much of my life reading, but how much narrower my life would have been without books.
What Do I Read Next?
- A Death in the Family (1957), by James Agee, is a tragic tale of the effect of a man's death on his family.
- For a comparative study of American poetry, read Richard Howard's Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950 (1980).
- Gioia dedicated The Gods of Winter (1991) to his son who died from sudden infant death syndrome. Several of the poems in the volume deal with the subject of death.
- Gioia's essay "Can Poetry Matter?," published in Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture (2002), presents his controversial views of the status of poetry in America in the early part of the twenty-first century.
Who are your favorite authors?
I have too many to list, especially poets. Some of my favorite novelists include Stendhal, Balzac, James, Cather, and Nabokov. I have a special passion for the short story, which seems to me perhaps the greatest single achievement of American literature, and I adore the short work of Poe, Cheever, Hemingway, O'Connor, Faulkner, Porter, Welty, Malamud, and Carver—though I would award Chekhov top international honors in the form. Philosophers and theologians like St. Augustine, Albert Schweitzer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, Friedrich Nietzsche, Miguel de Unamuno, Mircea Eliade, Marshall McLuhan, Jacques Maritain, and Georg Lukacs have all been important to me.
Who have been your mentors? What influence have they had on your professional and personal life?
I have moved around a great deal in my adult life and changed my profession three times—from academies to business to writing. No one person served as a mentor across all those changes, but at particular points in my life certain people had a crucial influence. The older writers who helped me the most—not so much in terms of external assistance but in internal clarification—were Robert Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Bishop, Donald Davie, Howard Moss, and Fredrick Morgan. Each helped me in a different way sometimes just for a short but critical period. There have also been some important relationships with older writers who were not so much mentors as dear friends—like Donald Justice, John Haines, Daniel Hoffman, X. J. Kennedy, William Jay Smith, Janet Lewis, William Maxwell, and Anne Stevenson.
What influence have these mentors had on you?
They provided useful models of what a writer's life might be like. Their work also kept my standards high. Each relationship was necessarily different. Elizabeth Bishop, for example, encouraged me, whereas Donald Davie discouraged me. Both interventions helped me develop as a writer. Robert Fitzgerald taught me essential things about poetic craft. He also provided me with a model of a modern Catholic man of letters. Frederick Morgan quietly encouraged me to write in my own way. I should also add that these writers were all remarkable human beings. Knowing them confirmed my sense of the importance of friendship, generosity, and integrity in literary life.
Do you compose a poem in longhand or on a computer? What is the reason for your choice? Do you think the electronic age has helped or hindered creative writing?
My methods are quite primitive. My poems begin as words in the air. I talk to myself—usually while pacing the room or walking outside. (Any observer would assume I was mad.) After I coax a line or two aloud, I jot it down. Very slowly and painstakingly I shape those lines and phrases into a poem. I pay equal attention to the way the poem sounds and how it works on the page. Only after many handwritten drafts do I type the poem up. That transition allows me to see the poem differently and revise it further. Since I believe that poetry not only originates in the body but also communicates largely through physical sound, I am skeptical of the putative advances of the electronic age. Though computers offer great convenience, they cannot substitute for direct physical embodiment of one's medium.
Mark Twain, famous for his prose style, once said, "The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." How do you know when you have the found the "right" word for a poem?
This is an excellent question because so often the expressive effect of a line or stanza depends upon a single word. In poetry no effect is too small to matter. I revise a great deal and often focus on a particular word or phrase which I instinctively feel is crucial to the poem's impact. I like to combine words in a way that initially seems slightly odd but also oddly appropriate. I hope to discover a new combination that the language was waiting to have happen.
When you begin work on a poem, what is your method? Do you have the poem, or the concept of the poem, in its entirety in your mind before you set it down in words, or is writing the poem a process of discovery?
My poetic method is best described as confusion, followed by madness, exhilaration, and despair. I advise others to avoid my conspicuously bad example. For me, a poem begins as a powerful physical sensation. I can feel the poem in my throat and temples—a sudden illumination that is mostly beyond words but which is also partially embodied in a few specific words. That line or phrase suddenly opens a doorway. I usually have no idea what the final poem might be beyond its opening line. Writing the poem is discovering what one meant to say. People who aren't poets have trouble understanding how mysterious the process is.
Many of your poems seem so heartfelt and personal, particularly the poems in your recent collection, Interrogations at Noon. I'm thinking especially the title poem, which discusses "the better man I might have been, / Who chronicles the life I've never led," as well as "Curriculum Vitae," "A California Requiem," and certainly "Pentecost" seem to speak to the reader about the author. To what extent do you chronicle your own experiences, and to what extent do you adopt a persona in your poems?
My poems are personal but almost never entirely autobiographical. I combine my own experiences with observations from other people often adding elements of pure fantasy to create situations and stories that feel true. I deliberately try to eliminate myself in literal terms from the poem. The speaker of the poem may resemble me, but he or she is also a surrogate for the reader. Paradoxically, I find that the more I invent the more candid and truthful I become.
How does the audience affect your poetry? By that I mean, when you give a reading of your poems, does that situation dictate your choice of poems to be read?
When I write poetry, I don't consider the audience except in the most general terms—as fellow human beings who share the English language. But when I give a public poetry reading, I always consider my immediate audience. I don't worry much about its level of literary sophistication. If a poem is good enough, it should communicate at some essential level to most audiences. What I consider mostly is each audience's range of life experience. To understand a poem it helps to have lived at least a little of its contents. I take readings seriously. The sort of poetry I love best is meant to be spoken aloud and heard.
Does the act of reading in public transform the experience of those poems for you? What do you wish your audience to receive or take away from a reading?
Yes, over time the act of giving poetry readings has gradually transformed my attitude toward my own poems. Now that the finished poems exist independently of me in print I find that I am merely one of their readers, and I begin to see them very differently. They often mean things I never initially realized or intended.
In the title essay of your 1992 collection, Can Poetry Matter?, you lamented the fact that "most poetry is published in journals that address an insular audience of literary professions." Nine years later, do you see any reasons for optimism about the dissemination of good and accessible poetry to a large reading public?
A great deal has changed since the publication of Can Poetry Matter?—some for the good, some for the worse, the most important development has been the astonishing growth of the poetry world outside the university. There has been an explosion of poetry readings, festivals, broadcasts, and conferences based in libraries, bookstores, galleries, and communities. (I like to think my original essay had something to do with inspiring academic outsiders to build these new enterprises since many people have written me letters saying so, but perhaps I unduly flatter myself.) These new poetry venues range from the sublime, to the ridiculous, but collectively they have had the effect of democratizing our literary culture. Most of this activity happens on a local basis, so it has hardly challenged the established reputation-making power of New York and the Northeast, but this new bohemia does allow poets to speak directly to a broader and more diverse audience than ever before.
Writing has been called a lonely profession because it is performed of necessity in solitude. Do you have a support system—family, friends, colleagues—people who offer encouragement in your practice of what is generally considered, in America at least, an unorthodox profession?
Writing is mostly a solitary endeavor—sometimes terribly so. For many years I wrote after work and on the weekends. I had to give up a great many things to make the time for poetry. That decision exacted its price in human terms, but I paid it gladly because I felt most truly myself, most intensely alive when writing or reading. Now my life is even more solitary. I no longer work in a busy office but alone in a studio across the hill from my house. Many days I see no one except my family—and a great many animals. If things go badly, my life can become very lonely. I accept that loneliness as a necessary part of who I am. I should be lost without my friends, even though I seldom see them. Solitary people feel friendship deeply. There are a few fellow poets I love quite deeply. They sustain me.
In your experience, can writing poetry be a therapeutic exercise as well as an imaginative, creative endeavor? Do you sometimes turn to writing poetry as a means of coping with difficulties in life, past and present?
I associate therapeutic poetry with bad writing—especially my own. I guess there is some therapeutic aspect in much poetry, but it also seems to me that it concerns the emotional impulse behind the poem rather than the poem itself. I have often sat down and poured my suffering soul onto some innocent piece of paper, but surrendering to a powerful subjective emotional state does not create an imaginative structure that will replicate the experience in the reader's mind. A poem is a mysterious verbal device, a sort of magic spell, directed not at the author but the reader. If a poem is therapeutic, then the patient must be the reader not the writer.
In your experience, how much of writing poetry is art, and how much is craft?
All art depends on craft. Without proper technique a poet, however talented, can amount to very little. Despite the proliferation of graduate writing programs—perhaps because of them—our age has seen both a denigration and ignorance of poetic craft. Today any poet who wants to master verse-craft must do it mostly on his or her own. Technique is the necessary beginning, but it is only a means to an expressive end. Having something genuinely compelling to express is essential. That gift can't be taught.
Your considerable background in the business world might come as a surprise to readers familiar only with your poetry. Could you comment on this background?
I originally went to graduate school in literature, but it seemed a bad place for me as a writer. I liked it too much. Harvard aggravated my inherent tendency to be overly intellectual and self-conscious. Working in business gave me a chance to construct a different sort of writing life—more private, independent, and contemplative. I went to Stanford Business School, and in 1977 I joined General Foods in New York. When I resigned fifteen years later, I was a Vice President. I still miss the people I worked with. They were smart, friendly, and funny. There were a few idiots, scoundrels, and egomaniacs, but no more than I've encountered in literary life.
Were you engaged in creative writing at the same time that you were involved in a business career?
Yes. I went into business to be a poet. For me, business was always just a job, even though I ended up doing quite well. I would work ten or twelve hours a day at the office, and then I tried to squeeze two or three hours of writing in each night at home. It wasn't easy, but I managed—mostly by giving up other things.
Did you consider these pursuits antithetical or complementary to each other?
I never considered business as either antithetical or complementary to my writing. Business and poetry were simply different occupations.
In your essay "Business and Poetry," in which you create an intriguing exploration of such poets as T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, James Dickey, and others who sustained themselves and their families in business careers, you pose the question: "How did their business careers affect the lives and works of these poets?" This issue has personal relevance to you. Would you answer the same question you posed in your essay? How has your experience in the business world affected your literary work?
My years in business offered at least two advantages. First, they allowed me to develop as a poet at my own pace and in my own way. I had no pressure to publish or need to conform to any academic or intellectual fashion. I made my own necessary mistakes and discoveries. Working in isolation, my most intense literary relationships were with the great dead, the most demanding and yet attentive colleagues. Had I stayed at Harvard I would have been too vulnerable to the many captivating influences around me. Neglect, obscurity, and loneliness are the necessary nourishment of a young poet.
Second, working in business greatly broadened my life experience. It permitted me—indeed forced me—to see the world and literature from a different angle than I had in graduate school. Working with intelligent but non-literary people for nearly twenty years made me conscious of the cultural elitism I had acquired at Stanford and Harvard. I no longer took certain assumptions for granted. Most important, I understood the importance of writing in a way that does not exclude intelligent people.
Could you discuss your writing life outside the university?
It is an odd enterprise in our society to make a living as a poet outside academia. It's definitely not a career for the faint of heart. The poems—no matter how good—won't pay the bills. I work seven days a week. I travel constantly giving readings and lectures—always working on airplanes and in hotel rooms. I edit anthologies, write for BBC Radio, review books and music, and collaborate with composers. The practical challenge is to pay the bills, which I've gradually learned how to do. The deeper challenge is primarily spiritual—how to create and sustain a passionate sense of living the right life. That is far more difficult. Loneliness, exhaustion, disappointment, and despair are always nearby.
You have recently published an intriguing libretto for the opera Nosferatu based on the silent German expressionist film directed by F. W. Murnau. What drew you to this particular retelling of the Dracula myth?
The subject chose me. I was looking for an idea for a libretto, and by lucky coincidence I happened to read an essay on Murnau by my friend Gilberto Perez. By the time I had finished the piece I knew that this was the subject, the only possible subject for the opera the composer Alva Henderson and I were planning. What drew me to Nosferatu was the depth and complexity of the heroine, and the symbolic possibilities of the vampire myth. Opera is the last surviving form of poetic theater, and I wanted a subject that would allow my imagination a wild freedom.
To what extent did your background in musical composition influence your decision?
I knew I wanted to write a libretto that revived and explored traditional musical forms—arias, duets, trios, choruses, and ensembles. I also wanted the language and the dramatic structure to be inherently lyrical. I had no interest in writing a prose drama to be set to music. I tried to give every scene a dramatic shape embodied in musical and poetic structures.
When can we hope to see a staging of your opera?
Rimrock Opera will mount the world premiere in Billings, Montana and Boise, Idaho. Meanwhile two concert performances are being staged in Chattanooga. Two groups in New York also want to stage Nosferatu—Verse Theatre Manhattan and the Derriere Guard Arts Festival—but it remains to be seen if they can raise the money. Opera is an extraordinarily expensive art form. When we began the project, I told Alva that I wanted to perform excerpts of our work-in-progress because even successful new operas achieve so few productions. We have already produced showcases in Georgia, California, Texas, Illinois, Connecticut, Colorado, and Pennsylvania—and portions of the music have been broadcast by the BBC, KPFA, and several NPR affiliates—so a surprising number of people have heard some of the music.
You have published a number of college textbooks, including Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama co-edited by X. J. Kennedy, an anthology I have used for a number of years. Has this been a rewarding experience for you?
Editing anthologies has been enormously interesting and rewarding. It has also been exhausting. To edit them responsibly, I must constantly read and reread poems, stories, plays, and scholarship to make the right selections. I am also perpetually writing critical overviews, historical notes, author biographies, and commentaries. In the dozen or so anthologies I have published in the last decade, I have published well over a million words of critical prose. I sometimes feel I am living in an eternal finals week. My private goal has been to manage this task without ever letting the writing become dull or insipid—in other words never to let it sound like most textbooks.
Why do you work so hard on textbooks?
Because they are so important. A great anthology can change a student's life. A dull one can turn him or her away from literature forever. I take anthologies seriously because they represent the logical extension of my concerns as a poet and critic. What better way is there to correct, improve, and expand literary taste? I also love to bring new or neglected writers to a broader audience.
On what current projects are you working?
I have too many projects. Graywolf Press will publish a tenth anniversary edition of Can Poetry Matter? in late 2002, and I am writing a special introduction about the reception and impact of the book. I am also putting together a new collection of critical essays. I am now just finishing up two large anthologies on twentieth century American poetry and poetics. I'm co-editing these ambitious and comprehensive books with David Mason and Meg Schoerke. The critical apparatus is itself several hundred pages long, and it gives me the opportunity to discuss writers and issues I have not written on before. I also plan to edit an anthology of California poetry with Chryss Yost for Heyday Books, as part of the California Legacy Project. I am also writing a second opera libretto—a phantasmagoric one-act work that mixes comedy and tragedy—for the composer Paul Salerni. And I hope to finish a few new poems. No rest for the wicked.
You recently won the American Book Award for Interrogations at Noon. Has the prize changed your life in any way?
The award made me slightly more respectable in official circles. More important, it greatly impressed my nine-year-old son, Mike, who likes the gold-foil sticker that went on the cover of my book. I was pleased to win a prize for my poetry since my criticism so often dominates my public image. I was also delighted to win an award given by a jury of writers, who were all strangers. Mostly, I consider the event sheer good luck, which should be enjoyed but not taken too seriously.
What advice do you have for poets who are relatively new to their craft but who want to pursue it as a serious endeavor?
Read widely and memorize the poems that move or delight you. Immerse yourself in the medium. All writers begin as readers. I also recommend spending your twenties lonely, broke, and unhappily in love. It worked for me.
Source: Dana Gioia and Christina Vick, "Interview with Christina Vick," in Louisiana Review, Vol. 4, Fall-Winter 2004–2005
Bruce F. Murphy
In the following review, Murphy analyzes Gioia's form of lyric poetry and finds "fluency and passion."
Samuel Johnson said that we would worry less about what people think of us if we knew how little time they spent doing it. I was reminded of this humbling quip by a recent essay by Billy Collins (Poetry, August 2001), in which he explored the problems of "memory-driven" poetry—that is, all poetry written since the great Romantics that deals with, to put it crudely, stuff that happened to the poet. The appeal of memory to the rememberer is self-evident; but why a memory should appeal to anyone else is another matter. Collins dared to say what everybody already knows, that most contemporary poetry in the personal vein fails to reach "escape velocity," and never achieves lift-off into "another, more capacious dimension." The poem remains a resume of stuff that happened to the poet, tempting the guileless, and those who haven't been given a warning kick under the seminar table, to respond with a Johnsonian So what? The missing link, too often, is imagination, which would take the poem "beyond the precincts of ordinary veracity."
Collins is right, but there is more to the story than getting the tinder of memory somehow to light. Imagination also takes us beyond ordinary language. It isn't always the case with dull autobiographical poems that the author is stuck in the world of fact; sometimes he or she is stuck in the world of prose. I don't mean that the prose deck of words should be shuffled and a new, more "interesting" hand dealt, as if (to use a Collins example) "The raspberries used to hang dark and moist / in our neighbor's woods" should become "Dark and moist used they to hang, / The raspberries in our neighbor's woods"—though that is how much of the boring poetry of the nineteenth century seems to have been written. True lyricism, on the other hand, language inspired with music, is as different from merely formal sing-song as Bach is from a school fight song. Collins's moment of lift-off is when language becomes lyrical, incandescent, when the filament stops being a piece of metal.
Real poetry makes something happen. Now, in the moment of reading it. Lyricism is a kind of electricity that hums in the poem—humming being the threshold, maybe, of music—and at the very least it gives you a shock. "Lyric poetry" as a term, however, has become as stretched out of shape as an old sweater. Contemporary American poetry may be a "house of many rooms," but "lyric" is always underfoot, a term that gets stuck to poets at opposite ends of the spectrum, like Dana Gioia and Carl Phillips. Sometimes it seems lyric means merely "short"; sometimes it's just a mood (the brown study in the house of many rooms); or it's a reference to subject matter—the poet's corner in the heartbreak hotel.
All these poets have embraced—however coldly or ambivalently—lyricism in some form. Carl Phillips's lyricism is elliptical, mellifluous, and interrupted. His most recent collection begins, "What we shall not perhaps get over, we / do get past"—a pithy statement of the themes of loss and endurance. This poem, "Luck," has the dazed clarity of summer afternoons; some men pitch horseshoes in a field while another mows. But whereas William Carlos Williams would have told you, "They were pitching horseshoes!", Phillips's lyricism can be read either as an encryption of the "facts" (a la Stevens), or as a vision that pierces the everyday and reaches some "more capacious" dimension:
How did I get here,
we ask one day, our gaze
relinquishing one space for the next
in which, not far from where
in the uncut grass we're sitting
four men arc the unsaid
between them with the thrown
shoes of horses, luck briefly as a thing
of heft made to shape through
air a path invisible, but there …
The "thing unsaid" is luck, is the "insubstantial," the realization of the role of chance in our lives—here symbolized by the game of horseshoes. The poem makes us feel the heft of the iron shoe, and the weightlessness of air; what could have been merely an idyll somehow (that is, lyrically) becomes an evocation of the raw contingency that surrounds even the quietest, most serene moment. It is hardly necessary to note that the poem is not about being Carl Phillips; it's about being alive.
But Phillips does not always, it seems to me, trust his own intuitions, and the traces remain in the syntactically broken lyricism: "It is for, you see, eventually the deer to / take it, the fruit // hangs there." Here we are back in the raspberry patch, a kind of strange pastiche of seventeenth-century diction (as a teacher once put it to me, "I threw my horse over the fence / some hay"). In some of these poems, it is the idea that's lyrical, not the poetry. For all his penetrating brilliance, Phillips does succumb to what I would call the Jorie Graham effect, a poetry of temporizing self-interruption:
Of course, of course,
the doomed crickets. The usual—as if
just let go on their own
recognizance—few birds acting
natural, looking guilty.
Gray black gray.
You were right, regarding
innocence. A small pair of
smaller moths rising
parallel, simultaneous, ascent
itself seeming axis for
what rotation? sex? combat?
"This, The Pattern"
These poems are dramas of thought, but they are existential, not classical dramas; they avoid their own iterative tendency. One of the hallmarks of this poetry is that it constantly refers to what lies outside, beneath, behind the poem; another is the profound remark stumbled upon like a coin, as in "Lustrum," which begins inauspiciously "Not less; only—different. Not / everything should be visible. / Wingdom: // doves. Not everything / can be. There are many parts / to the body." And then, the poem says, "To begin // counting is to understand / what it can mean, to / lose track." At last, we are getting somewhere, I think, betraying my own perhaps retrograde desire to hear the chords resolve. What has been subtracted from lyricism is its urgency. A big word like "truth"—over whose definition millions have fought and died—is now a kind of Roman candle set off in the poem, dazzlingly, but with no pressure to see where it lands. Hence, "I became tired, as / who doesn't, having always // the truth, and not saying." As though the truth were so obvious as to be not worth bothering with; instead, we have "less the truth, than a way to frame it," as Phillips says elsewhere.
At its best, the poem is a series of snapshots in which the taker's thumb has been caught over the lens:
nothing priceless. To believe
anything, to want anything—these,
too, have cost you. Flame,
and the beveled sword, set
inside it. This one,
this—what did you think
body was? What did you
mean when you said
not everything should
be said? The light as a tippe
The body pops up the way God used to in devotional verse, tethering the poem to something that everyone can relate to, the crossroads of materiality and sexuality being the only serious subject our culture can any longer imagine. But truth and apparentness are not exactly the same thing. If the body is self-evident, what of the self? Could the body be, I wonder, not the end of lyricism, but the beginning?
Peter Balakian made his reputation as a poet with work that explored his own experience, but probed through it to the bedrock of the Armenian experience and the genocide of 1915 ("at last, poetry about genocide that is truly, in every thrust, pause, and detail, real poetry," as James Dickey wrote of Balakian's 1983 collection, Sad Days of Light). But it isn't quite accurate to say Balakian's work was "about" genocide, though there may be a door in the big house of American poetry with that word written on it. There were poems, like "The Claim" (containing documents from the poet's grandmother's human rights suit against the Turkish government), in which the personal element shrank beside the enormous shadow of history, but it was always there. And Balakian went beyond the poem of the body to the poem of the flesh, the human (and animal, for history reduces us to animals) flesh which has faced steel and fire and lime in the past century. In his best poems, the self was a lamp to illuminate world memory. The lyrical force of "For My Grandmother, Coming Back," transcends categories like personal/historical even as it fuses them:
For the purple fruit
for the carrots like cut fingers
for the riverbed damp with flesh,
you come back.
For the lips of young boys
for the eyes of virgins brown
and bleating on the hill,
for the petticoat of your daughter
shivering by the lake,
for the yarn of her arms
unwinding at her father's last shout.
For the lamb punctured
from the raw opening
to his red teeth,
for the lamb rotating
like the sun
on its spit …
For a time, Balakian seems to have been overtaken by such images of offal, which in a peculiar way allow us to identify with the dead, for example in "Mussel Shell" ("I must come when the sky is burnt / the color of a mussel shell—/ my head bloated as the stomach of a clam") and "Fish Mouth" ("There's an imprint of scissored / teeth bound into my head / like fins that turn behind my eyes"). Sometimes it seems that the poet wants to get down into the earth with the dead to find out what our living and dying means, a drive typified by the title "I Wish Us Back to Mud".'
I wish us back to mud
for love that asks us
to be free of nothing
and nothing to be free of us.
Undeniably there is something violent in these lyrical, sometimes nightmarish poems; but undoubtedly there is something violent in cell division, as there is in genocide, war, and hunger. The poet is so carried away by his vision that he forgets to step back, or it is no longer possible. Memory is not a storehouse of material; it's a kind of diver's belt you could use to sink yourself into the past, history, the darkness—that is, if you thought there was something down there that was worth the risk.
In some of the recent poems in this collection, Balakian seems to have gone too far down. "In Armenia (1987)" contains a deep or Jungian image of a cave, a "basalt cavern," in which the self is sloughed off; "Down there I felt my name / disappear." In "Yorkshire Dales" Balakian remarks, "I came to forget the limestone anyway, / and my name given to me by history." Still haunted by history, the poet seems worn down by its horrors, past and present. The lyricism is still there, but now ironic and satirical, for example in his labs at Fifties America and its grotesque refusals and rituals: "We're the streaks of the ICBMS / as they tethered / over Iowa, // where a box top of Cheerios / gets you a plastic A-bomb ring." Although Balakian may be tired of his imprisonment in history—everyone is—he still tries to reach across. Balakian is one of the few who have realized that memory is useless if none of us remembers the same things.
Alongside Balakian's visionary history one can place Derick Burleson's documentary one. This extravagantly praised volume grows out of Burleson's experience in Rwanda teaching English in the two years prior to the genocide. Unlike ambulance-chasing "committed" poetry, Burleson's is a modest voice and a personal one; having been there, Burleson knows that history happens to people you know—suddenly, shockingly, irreversibly: "A year / from now they'll use hoes and machetes / to harvest their neighbor's heads." Burleson faces squarely the fact that his friends may have found themselves on either or both sides of the divide, which he expresses in typically spare rhythms in "Home Again":
President Habyarimana's plane
is still in flames on the runway,
and all the next month we watch
as our friends are murdered,
There is a deftness to the syncopation, ending the poem on an upbeat while leaving the reader hanging on that terrible word.
Burleson has absorbed many African elements into his poetry, including language, the folktale, humor, magic, and the fabliau. But he also acknowledges his own position: "Safe at home we eat fast food / each night and channel-surf / until sleep takes us on the sofa, // blue tides of TV light lapping / our knees." He has an eye for the most brutal ironies of the West's self-serving interventions, whether military or humanitiarian:
Relief planes bomb refugees
with food, and a few more perish
under the crashing crates of manna.
"One Million One"
Sometimes the irony is heavy-handed ("Maggots bloom out of bellies. / Crows whet beaks on bones, such glee!") as it is reiterated over and over in "One Million One." The poem circles the scene, looking for a place to land, but there is none. There's nowhere to go.
Burleson's lyric poems are journalistic rather than mythic; he sticks mostly to the major keys, his words forming pictures more than images. But these are pictures that ought not to be forgotten. Burleson reminds us that most of the world goes to sleep worrying not if tomorrow will bring greater happiness, success, and ego satisfaction, but whether they will wake up at all. Whether they too will be swept over the falls by history:
a pile of machetes and hoes
higher than your head most bloodstained
and every thirty seconds or so
another body pounds
down Rusumo Falls in the pool
at the bottom they bob
back and forth so
bloated and gray
you might think
massacre had created
a new race
"At the Border"
Though this ironic voice, the phrasing, and the arrangement on the page seem learned from Zbigniew Herbert's Report from the Besieged City, Burleson has poured his own powerful memories into the mold.
In terms of lyricism, Dana Gioia is a virtuoso, it seems. Tones are augmented or diminished with great care. The poems are lyrical, fluid, assured; this is a poetry free of mistakes (though that is not the same as perfection). "Words" is an ars poetica of sorts:
The world does not need words. It articulates itself
in sunlight, leaves, and shadows. The stones on the path
are no less real for lying uncatalogued and uncounted.
The fluent leaves speak only the dialect of pure being.
The kiss is still fully itself though no words were spoken.
There's more to Gioia's revival of formalism than meets the eye, or ear; here he embraces not only traditional measures, but traditional philosophy. The world exists independently of our thinking/speaking about it, and so the role of language is mimetic, not constitutive. Gioia also hints at the moral dimension of poetry in the title poem:
Just before noon I often hear a voice,
Cool and insistent, whispering in my head.
It is the better man I might have been,
Who chronicles the life I've never led.
"Interrogations at Noon"
Throughout this book, there is a sense of conscience, of being held to account. Behind its surface brilliance and the sometimes casual, occasional subjects, it is a very somber book. There are depths of sorrow that are refracted through form, and sometimes fully unveiled, as in "Pentecost, after the death of our son":
We are not as we were. Death has been our pentecost,
And our innocence consumed by these implacable Tongues of fire.
Comfort me with stones. Quench my thirst with sand.
I offer you this scarred and guilty hand
Until others mix our ashes.
Gioia's is a public poetry that retains a sense of privacy, and a feeling for the limits of language. As he says in "Corner Table," "what matters most / Most often can't be said." The theme is repeated in "Unsaid," which is preoccupied with and perhaps justifying this holding back; that it is the final poem in the book underscores the point that "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." This bottled-up suffering, when it finds an opening, comes out in a fierce jet. Death is everywhere present, as a desire for release from the unendurable. Hence the evocation of "The End of the World," the "Song for the End of Time," and the dark prayer of "Litany":
This is a litany to earth and ashes,
to the dust of roads and vacant rooms,
to the fine silt circling in a shaft of sun,
settling indifferently on books and beds.
This is a prayer to praise what we become,
"Dust thou art, to dust thou shalt return."
Savor its taste—the bitterness of earth and ashes.
This is an eerie picture of a depopulated world, after the end of time—the eternal silence in which nothing happens but the accumulation of dust.
Peter Sirr shares Gioia's fluency and passion, but it is for a world of vivid colors and rooms not vacant but stuffed to bursting. It is the lyricism of life rather than of the afterlife. A Dubliner, Sirr has a Joycean sense of the city's quotidian majesty:
At night I open the cupboard:
voices and stones arrive
fruit and fish from the market
a hand whisking tobacco
from an inside pocket
greened copper of a dome
ingredients for The City
which is not the city
but the grocery of an eye.
"Domes of the City"
Many poets seem to shy away from the treacherous territory of enthusiasm. This is why the poem about desire is often about the disappointment of desire. Sirr's The Ledger of Fruitful Exchange, on the other hand, contained one of the most powerful erotic poems of the last twenty years, about desire's fulfillment. Here, the object of desire is—everything:
Not an expedition exactly, or a journey; say then a
walking out, a meandering, an inclination towards dust
and bustle, a putting of ourselves among buildings and
people, which is how we found ourselves in that city,
walking along the narrow streets on a fair day, admiring
the stalls, running our fingers along bright fabrics, sniffing
cheeses, wandering wherever the crowd took us;
and half expecting to be blurted eventually into the
square, the columned hall, the wide theatre where the
city is saved or the trial proves more complex than had
been imagined and the day grows long, where hucksters
come to show the latest miracle, and prophets unload
their dark freight …
Here the lyricism works just as well within the prose technique; there is a tricky fusion of meditation and material reminiscent of Seferis or Seifert. The underlying implication is the solace that what is fully realized—"The table, the chair, / look, are utterly here"—is never entirely lost. There is a faith in connection, both of language to the world ("Sometimes you can say it and it stays") and of consciousness to existence. But all is water, as Thales said, including us; and yet we can find a kind of ecstasy in dissolution and merging; "as we approach each other / our bodies slip their ropes and drift, / how lightly, without hesitation or inquiry, / one steps into another, and stays there." But it's profoundly disturbing. Hence Sirr says, humorously, "Morning returns the world / We are gathered here / to refuse it." Luckily, things know nothing of our ideas, and "the fork in my hand, the glass at my lips / and the water in my mouth // have not learned silence. / Their language is everywhere."
Being is for tourists, becoming is for poets. Sirr understands that experience is something one devours and is devoured by—gladly, in his case, perhaps sadly in Gioia's. One can even marvel at the fading of one's own dust. Sirr echoes Whitman's "I stop somewhere, waiting for you" in the beautiful "Song":
Look for me
in the galaxy of stone,
in the ashes of the sun,
in the stubborn notes
of the servant's song
as she works through the night,
her voice filling
the empty rooms;
in the charity of the moon
above this town,
the assassin's knife,
the solitary life;
that is pitiless and beautiful;
where earth meets water and water meets light.
Source: Bruce F. Murphy, Review of Interrogations at Noon, in Poetry, Vol. 179, No. 5, February 2002, pp. 238-49.
In the following review, Balbo calls the poems in Interrogations at Noon "superb in their blend of toughness and vulnerability, their quest for solace before loss."
Tireless essayist, librettist, and anthologist, Gioia is a poet first and foremost, as his third collection decisively confirms. A master of subtle registers, elegiac in his outlook, Gioia is more likely to lower his voice than shout, as when a husband, his wife in the shower, calls himself "the missing man … surrounded by the flesh and furniture of home" ("The Voyeur"). Gioia sees the metaphors we live with every day: in "New Year's," for example, "A field of snow without a single footprint" suggests our need to look toward an always unfolding future, while "Words" weighs the admission that "The world does not need words" against the recognition that "To name is to know and remember." Gioia includes two poems freely adapted from Seneca, "Descent to the Underworld" and "Juno Plots Her Revenge"; both allow him to speak with impressive gravity and range about what lies at the dark heart of human affairs.
Gioia can lighten a dark moment or finely shade a lighter one, as in "Elegy with Surrealist Proverbs as Refrain." With its arresting refrains and effortless syntax, the poem is a tour de force, a lively whirl among eccentrics; still, it remains, at bottom, a catalogue of loss, of bluster in the face of death, among minds petty, brilliant, frail: "Breton considered suicide the truest art, / though life seemed hardly worth the trouble to discard." "Words for Music," a separate section, takes a lighter touch, though here, too, death is present: the vampire Nosferatu's dactylic "Serenade," for example, summons us to an eternal idyll. (Nosferatu, Gioia's complete libretto, is also currently out from Graywolf.) Finally, "My Dead Lover" is a moving tribute to a loss, its anguish understated yet plain, its language charged with a sad music: "And now you are nowhere. You are nothing, / Not even ashes. How very like you, love, I To slip away so skillfully. / You didn't even leave behind a grave…." Gioia's poems are superb in their blend of toughness and vulnerability, their quest for solace before loss, their measured yet memorable voice, and though Interrogations at Noon often speaks of death and absence, it offers the consolation of uncommon craft.
Source: Ned Balbo, Review of Interrogations at Noon, in Antioch Review, Vol. 60, No. 1, Winter 2002, p. 167.
In the following review, Olson praises Gioia's incorporation of classical elements into Interrogations at Noon and asserts that Gioia will become "a classic poet himself.".
The ancient Greeks and Romans created European civilization, and studying their literature—the classics—has long been considered a civilizing activity. But the classics also teach plenty about chaos, not least that the human heart is never satisfied. Gioia and Slavitt, each of whom has translated classical literature (Slavitt prodigiously), show that they have learned civilization in the formal dexterity of their verse, that they have learned the turbulent heart in the content of their poems.
Gioia is, at midlife, full of regrets. He writes about the youthful intellectual sparring partner, never seen since, who he learns has died of AIDS; about the child who grows ever "more gorgeously like you" but whose likeness is also "not a slip or a fumble but a total rout"; and about "the better man I might have been." Most affectingly, he writes about his son who died in childhood. "Comfort me with stones," he prays. "Quench my thirst with sand." In those desolate lines, he echoes the Song of Songs, a masterpiece of the third classical tongue, Hebrew, whereas in many other poems, he draws on Greek and Roman motifs, stories, and attitudes. He finds in the classics and conveys to us the acceptance of mortality and the celebration of beauty that have made the classics perdurably relevant. And his rhymes are true, his meters are correct and musical, his diction is fresh—he is well on the way to becoming a classic poet himself.
Fifteen years Gioia's senior, Slavitt has largely shaken off regrets and assumed the great Jewish obligation and passion for arguing, maybe not always with God but always with the way things are said to be. If "an instant's sin endures forever," he asks, why not a moment of grace or of beauty? And why must time flow in one direction only? He questions beauty and its satisfactions, whether the beauty produced by honed talent in "Performance: An Eclogue," or the beauty descried by honed perceptions in "Against Landscape." He speculates that Moses was barred from the promised land because by bringing down the Torah, he "did not / diminish heaven so much as elevate earth." Slavitt complements his querulous querying with rancorous humor (see "Spite"); bittersweet resignation (see the self-scouring "Culls"); wordplay ("Cake and Milk," for instance, consists entirely of cliches); classical references and translations from Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, and German; and a grandfather's love. He has written many civilized books, but has he written any more broadly and deeply civilized than this one?
Source: Ray Olson, Review of Interrogations at Noon, in Booklist, Vol. 97, No. 14, March 15, 2001, p. 1345.
Balbo, Ned, Review of Interrogations at Noon, in the Antioch Review, Vol. 60, No. 1, Winter 2002, p. 167.
Frost, Robert, "Design," in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. D, 6th ed., edited by Nina Baym, Norton, 2003, p. 1196.
Gioia, Dana, Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture, Graywolf Press, 2004.
―――――――, Interrogations at Noon, Graywolf Press, 2001, pp. 10-11.
"Hip-Hop Bards," in the Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 4, Autumn 2003, pp. 105-106.
Murphy, Bruce F., "Music and Lyrics," in Poetry, Vol. 179, No. 5, February 2002, pp. 283, 290, 291.
Olson, Ray, Review of Interrogations at Noon, in Booklist, Vol. 97, No. 14, March 15, 2001, p. 1345.
Bawer, Bruce, "The Poet in the Gray Flannel Suit," in Connoisseur, March 1989, pp. 108-112.
Bawer presents a comprehensive overview of Gioia and his work.
Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth, On Death and Dying, Scribners, 1997.
This important study explores ways to cope with the end of life.
McPhillips, Robert, "Reading the New Formalists," in Sewanee Review, Vol. 97, Winter 1989, pp. 73-96.
McPhillips examines the doctrines of the new formalists, including Gioia.
Turco, Lewis, "Neoformalism in Contemporary American Poetry," in his The Public Poet: Five Lectures on the Art and Craft of Poetry, Ashland Poetry Press, 1991, pp. 39-56.
Lewis adds to the discussion his interpretations of this new school of literary criticism.