Library porn: The Cincinnati Public Library, circa 1874

June 24th, 2016
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It’s been awhile since we featured library porn, more than four years, in fact – try here. Or gaze at the photo above. The “Old Main” library of Cincinnati was once one of the nation’s most beautiful public libraries and one of the city’s most stunning buildings. It was demolished in 1955, and the current address, 629 Vine Street, is now a parking garage. Go here for more views of the library, and the people who visited it, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Life and Fate: “There’s nothing can stop me – as long as I can find the strength to face my destruction.”

June 21st, 2016
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War correspondent Vasily Grossman with the Red Army in Germany.

Vasily Grossman‘s Life and Fate (New York Review Books Classics) was deemed so dangerous in the Soviet Union that not only was the manuscript confiscated – the typewriter ribbons used to type it were taken as well. As Book Haven readers know, I’ve been ploughing through the 880-page epic tale of World War II, which eloquently, powerfully, unforgettably describes the dark forces that shaped the 20th century (more here and here). It made a five-hour delay at the Denver Airport bearable, certainly by comparison with the circumstances writer and journalist Grossman describes. The author had witnessed the Battle of Stalingrad as a war correspondent, and provided the first eyewitness accounts of an extermination camp, from Treblinka.

Here’s an moving excerpt, from a conversation in a German concentration camp. The characters: Mikhail Sidorovich Mostovskoy is an Old Bolshevik, often in fierce argument with Chernetsov, a former Menshevik. Ikonnikov is a former Tolstoyan; Gardi is an Italian priest (and a “Vernichtungslager” is a German extermination camp):

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Russian soldiers and inmates at Treblinka. (Photo: Yad Vashem)

Ikonnikov’s hands and face were smeared with clay. He held out some dirty sheets of paper covered in writing and said: ‘Have a look through this. Tomorrow I might be dead.’

‘All right. But why’ve you decided to leave us so suddenly?’

‘Do you know what I’ve just heard? The foundations we’ve been digging are for gas ovens. Today we began pouring the concrete.’

‘Yes,’ said Chernetsov, ‘there were rumours about that when we were laying the railway-tracks.’

He looked round. Mostovskoy thought Chernetsov must be wondering whether the men coming in from work had noticed how straightforwardly and naturally he was talking to an Old Bolshevik. He probably felt proud to be seen like this by the Italians, Norwegians, Spanish and English – and, above all, by the Russian prisoners-of-war.

‘But how can people carry on working?’ asked Ikonnikov. ‘How can we help to prepare such a horror?’

Chernetsov shrugged his shoulders. ‘Do you think we’re in England or something? Even if eight thousand people refused to work, it wouldn’t change anything. They’d be dead in less than an hour.’

grossman‘No,’ said Ikonnikov. ‘I can’t. I just can’t do it.’

‘Then that’s the end of you,’ said Mostovskoy.

‘He’s right,’ said Chernetsov. ‘This comrade knows very well what it means to attempt to instigate a strike in a country where there’s no democracy.’ …

Chernetsov’s blind, bloody pit stared at Mikhail Sidorovich Mostovskoy.

Ikonnikov reached up and grasped the bare foot of the priest sitting on the second tier of boards. ‘Que dois-je faire, mio padre?’ he asked. ‘Nous travaillons dans una Vernichtungslager.’

Gardi’s coal-black eyes looked round at the three men. ‘Tout le monde travaille là-bas. Et moi je travaille là-bas. Nous sommes des esclaves,’ he said slowly. ‘Dieu nous pardonnera.’

C’est son métier,” added Mostovskoy.

‘Mais ce n’est pas votre métier,’ said Gardi reproachfully.

‘But that’s just it, Mikhail Sidorovich, you too think you’re going to be forgiven,’ said Ikonnikov, hurrying to get the words out and ignoring Gardi. ‘But me – I’m not asking for absolution of sins. I don’t want to be told that it’s the people with power over us who are guilty, that we’re innocent slaves, that we’re not guilty because we’re not free. I am free! I’m building a Vernichtungslager; I have to answer to the people who’ll be gassed here. I can say “No.” There’s nothing can stop me – as long as I can find the strength to face my destruction. I will say “No!” Je dirai non, mio padre, je dirai non.’

Gardi placed his hands on Ikonnikov’s grey head.

‘Donnez-moi votre main,’ he said.

‘Now the shepherd’s going to admonish the lost sheep for his pride,’ said Chernetsov.

Mostovskoy nodded.

But rather than admonishing Ikonnikov, Gardi lifted his dirty hand to his lips and kissed it.

 

David Mason remembers friend Patrick Leigh Fermor: “What a life!”

June 19th, 2016
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The poet remembers…

Someone we did not see at West Chester last week was poet David Mason, currently the Colorado poet laureate.

Fortunately, fortunately, we were able to connect to David cybernetically, via the Wall Street Journal this weekend, where he recounts an unusual friendship in “So No More He’ll Go A-Roving”:

“Toward the end of his life, the great writer, war hero and traveler Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died on June 10 at age 96, grew deaf and suffered from poor eyesight, sometimes wearing a rakish eye patch to correct his vision. But when I saw him last September he was still volubly alert, his memory undimmed as he retold stories of World War II. His hair was thick, hardly grayed, and his hands resting on the tablecloth resembled knots of wood. We were seated outside for lunch beneath the Byzantine-styled arches of his villa in southern Greece. Ilex trees cast shadows on the stone walls, and waves washed the rocky beach nearby.”

An excerpt:

 Dimitri Papadimos

Verbal embroidery? (Photo: Dimitri Papadimos)

Paddy was not a travel writer—the term is an idiotic reduction for the purposes of marketing. He was a poet, a fantastic re-creator of experience, a maker of paradisiacal sentences that leave me hungry for life. Chatwin chided him for his verbal embroidery, but what a rare thing it is to find the baroque in our time, and Paddy was just as capable of the simple observation—turning on a tap in an overheated Greek village and seeing nothing but a lonely cockroach crawl out of it, or hearing the conversation of Greeks muffled by a bedroom wall, as he noted in “Mani”: “The soft murmur of the town was suddenly drowned by the furious jay-like voices of two women below my window, arguing across a narrow lane about something I couldn’t catch. It didn’t matter. The point was the inventive richness of the language, the splendour of the vocabulary, the unstaunchable flow of imagination and invective. . . . I can actually see the words spin from their mouths like long balloons in comic strips.”

He had the good luck, or bad, depending on your point of view, to become a legend in his own lifetime. He saw the remote part of Greece he had chosen for his home commercialized and was himself the subject of innumerable tours by people far less likely to sweat for their adventures. None of this bothered him, as far as I could see. Now that he is dead, friends exclaim to me: “What a life!” Indeed, and what books he made of it—their breadth and style worthy shadows of the man himself.

Read the whole thing here.

Poetry, passion, politics: translator Dick Davis and the poems of Fatemeh Shams

June 16th, 2016
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A poet and a gentleman: Dick Davis at the West Chester Poetry Conference last week. (Photo: Gerry Cambridge)

Poet Dick Davis was staying at the home of Persian scholar Asghar Seyed-Gohrab in Leiden a few years ago. As he headed for bed one night, his host suggested he take a look at a sheaf of poems by Fatemeh Shams. The British poet, who is the foremost translator of Persian literature into English, ever (as well as a gifted poet in his own right), followed his advice.

He was up most of the night. He was hooked. And last week at the West Chester Poetry Conference, we had a chance to hear the collaboration that resulted from a late night in the Netherlands. When They Broke Down the Door: Poems was published a few months ago by Mage Publishers, which also published his translation of the eleventh-century Vis & Ramin (500 pages of rhyming couplets).

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She’s coming to the U.S. in 2017. (Photo: Mage)

Dick Davis is the translator of another eleventh-century masterpiece, The Shahnameh – well, we wrote about the poet and his translations here – so the poems of this poet, born in 1983, provided an especial challenge: “I usually read medieval Persian poetry, not modern poetry, and the idiom is different, so I had to read them slowly to be sure I was getting everything – even so I’m sure there were things I missed,” he explained to me.

Yet powerful affinities link The Shahnameh with the poems of this 21st century poet. The Persian “Book of Kings” echoes with a “recurrent cry for justice against cruel or incompetent kings,” Dick writes in the introduction. Prison poems begin during the same era in Persia as well – Mas’ud Sa’d (1046-1121) starts the sad tradition, and it continues to this day. Political anger bubbles below the surface in Persian poetry throughout the last millennium.

And so it does with Fatemeh Shams. “It is an association that may at first sight seem counter-intuitive – the privacy of erotic passion allied with the public stance of political protest,” the translator writes, “but the link is of course that both the passion and the politics are subversive of the status quo – of patriarchy that would deny women erotic autonomy, and of political authority that would deny them social freedom.”

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Shams was born in Mashhad, the second most important city in the Iran for Shia pilgrimage (it has the tomb of Imam Reza, the eight Shia Imam). Simin Behbahani was a notable influence, and perhaps encouraged the younger poet to write on contemporary subjects in traditional forms, though Shams is equally at ease in free verse.

As an undergraduate at the University of Tehran, her political involvement led to a warrant for her arrest, and she fled to her hometown Mashhad. Later, while studying in England, the government crackdown on the Green Movement meant that she was effectively an exile. Her sister was imprisoned, and the poet’s eight-year relationship cracked under the strain.

“Her poetry comes most strikingly out of a response to human suffering, that of others and her own, and one of the reasons that politics is so omnipresent in many of her poems is that it is seen as the chief cause of such suffering,” yet “during the dark days of her exile it has been poetry that has saved her, and clearly for her, poetry – despite the political implications of her own verse – is something inward and personal rather than public and propagandistic…”

She is joining the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania in January, as assistant professor of Persian.

Three poems reprinted below. (I was going to make it two, but I couldn’t decide among them). The first is the poem about the city of her birth, Mashhad; it’s the poem that opens the collection. The next two … a different kind of suffering.

Mashhad

I come from a town of beheaded closed cafés
from a town of latticed houses
from a town whose old execution square is now called Martyr’s Square
from the meeting place of cigarette smoke and angels’ wings
they’ve named the barracks The Resting Place
which makes no reference to the Restlessness of the Sentries
polluted by two strands of a woman’s hair
two strands!
I come from the town of stubborn singers
from the place of my own martyrdom
Mashhad.

Even If You’re Never to Be Here

I want you in my moments of uncertainty,
Asleep, awake, and in this night of watching endlessly
I want you on cold silent days, I want you in
This wave of pointlessness, this vain futility
I want you season after season in my life
On snowy days, hot days, and spring’s vitality
I want you, I want you every moment of each day
Oh blood that flows within my every artery
I want you even if you’re never to be here
And even if you never give a thought to me
I want you from afar, from near, from everywhere
With all you have and are, wherever you may be.

Overcoat

I curse your gray overcoat
that all at once pours
the smell of your body
and of wanting you,
and the rare expensive scent produced
by that damned company that’s bankrupt now
into my heart
I curse your gray overcoat
not you.

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Postscript: A quick note from poet David Mason: “Dick is a genius. His project is one of the most humane literary projects of our time.” By “project,” he qualified, he means Dick Davis’s whole body of translations – and his own poems, too. We couldn’t agree more.

Biographer Andrew Motion remembers Larkin: “he was 53 coming on 153…and he looked like God.”

June 13th, 2016
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Love at first sight. (Photo: Gerry Cambridge)

Sir Andrew Motion, former British poet laureate, read Philip Larkin‘s poetry in school and “immediately fell in love with him” – fell in love with him, despite obvious differences in their poetry and outlook. Eventually, Motion became an executor following Larkin’s death in 1985, and then his biographer. His 1993 Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life won the Whitbread Prize for Biography.

The youthful enthusiasm that became a sort of vocation left him feeling “fascinated, privileged, lucky.” Motion, currently teaching at Johns Hopkins University, told the story to an audience at the West Chester Poetry Conference last week. One of the conference founders, California poet laureate Dana Gioia, was interlocutor for the discussion.

That early affinity was part of the reason why Motion accepted an appointment at the University of Hull in 1976, when he was only 24 – Larkin was the university librarian at Hull. But proximity didn’t guarantee access. “Bad luck,” a colleague told him, explaining that Larkin hated everyone at the university, especially those who teach English.  “You’ll never meet him,” he was warned.

The colleague was wrong. The encounter finally happened at the university pub. “There he was,” Motion recalled. “He looked very much like I was expecting – and not as I expected. Taller, bulkier, looming, funeral-suited.” Larkin was fatherly, downright biblical – “he was 53 coming on 153.”

“He was ten years younger than I am now, and he looked like God.”

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Gioia (Photo: Gerry Cambridge)

The god-like Larkin took a huge swig of beer and it went down the wrong way.  Motion began thumping him on the back. “That was an icebreaker,” he recalled. Here was another: when Motion mentioned that his father was a brewer, “Philip’s face absolutely lit up.”

While Larkin was seen as austere and forbidding, when he was among friends, “he was the most charming man, deeply funny.”

Motion was later asked to be one of Larkin’s literary executors. “I said I would do it but please would he not die,” he said. Motion also warned Larkin to discard anything he didn’t want preserved – “he was to understand I would not throw anything away.” Motion was as good as his word: he saved many of Larkin’s papers from imminent destruction after his death. (But not before his diaries were shredded, page by page.)

Motion was perfectly positioned, after the nine-year friendship, to become Larkin’s biographer. “When Philip died, his Number One girlfriend” – presumably Monica Jones – “was sitting in a chair, smoking herself to death, sozzled, with unkempt hair, and dropping ashes on the floor.” She picked up Larkin’s address book and threw it at him. “Everyone you need to talk to is there,” she said.

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Reading his poetry (Photo: Anna Yin)

“He lived a very very discreet life,” said Motion. “He had lived his life in extraordinarily discrete compartments. We all do that to some extent.” All biography is a kind of invasion of the subject, however, and Motion had pangs of guilt.

“I had series of very peculiar dreams during period of writing about Larkin.” In one, Motion was speaking in an auditorium – and Larkin was sitting in the audience. Motion was remorseful in the dream, thinking, “Oh shit. I’d say none of this when he was still alive.” It was the guilt working through itself, he said.

Finally, Larkin appeared to him in a dream, with a collar made of hay. Motion interpreted that  “as a vision of him saying, ‘It’s okay.’”

larkinbookWhen Motion was named poet laureate, following the death of his predecessor, Ted Hughes, he redefined the role from a lifetime position to ten-year term. He said this allowed consideration of younger people for the office, and brought more vigor to the role.

His signal achievement was the creation of the Poetry Archive, a web-based library of English language poets reading their own work. It currently includes 400 recorded voices, and attracts 300,000 visitors a month. “I’m very proud, very pleased about the archive. It’s done a lot of good in the world,” he said.

It also refutes an argument that “come round like a sock in the washing machine” – that is, the claim that people don’t read poetry anymore. “We should probably cheer up,” he said. “More people listening to poetry than ever before, via things like archive.”

Postscript on 6/15: You may have observed that the earlier headline said “looked like a god.” I received this note from Gerry Cambridge (who took some of the photos above): “Cynthia great to meet you at West Chester. A wee observation: Andrew Motion actually said ‘… and looked like God’, not ‘…a god’. Which I think is funnier, if more risqué in some quarters.”

Stay tuned… more from Philadelphia, coming up soon!

June 10th, 2016
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The Book Haven has been unusually silent these last few days. We’ve been at the West Chester Poetry Conference outside Philadelphia, attending workshops, panels, and readings with Dick Davis, Dana Gioia, Sir Andrew Motion, Sam Gwynn, and many, many others.

Humble Moi will be on a panel tomorrow morning to discuss Robert Conquest, the late great historian and poet, who died last year at Stanford.

Just to let you know we mean business, the photo below is taken from Thursday morning’s public conversation with Andrew Motion, former British poet laureate and biographer of Philip Larkin. Dana Gioia was his interlocutor (and no, he’s not as unhappy as he looks). Photograph taken by Gerry Cambridge.

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Dana Gioia ponders a remark from Sir Andrew Motion. (Photo: Gerry Cambridge)

 

Was Dante happily married? Maybe so…

June 6th, 2016
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Was Dante Alighieri happily married? Tradition has it that he was not. Gemma Donati is regularly made the butt of jokes, so Marco Santagata’s Dante: The Story of His Life (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press) is a refreshing reconsideration of her role in his life. It’s refreshing in other ways, too: over at The Spectator, reviewer A.N. Wilson, author of Dante in Love, concludes: “This is a wonderful book. Even if you have not read Dante you will be gripped by its account of one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of literature, and one of the most dramatic periods of European history. If you are a Dantean, it will be your invaluable companion for ever.”

An excerpt on Gemma:

santagataThe strange mystery surrounding Dante’s marriage is also seen from a genial and old-fashioned point of view. Boccaccio made Gemma, Dante’s wife, into one of the shrews about whom he liked to tell funny stories in the Decameron. So, when Dante was exiled, Boccaccio has her remaining in Florence, with the marriage effectively at an end. Santagata shows how Dante holds back, in the Commedia, from attacking Gemma’s family, the Donati, until Corso is dead. He does not directly place Corso Donati in Hell, leaving it for his brother Forese Donati, in the Purgatorio, to describe Corso’s grisly death. In Paradise, we find Corso and Forese’s sister Piccarda, who is given one of the best lines in the entire poem. So, while the poet was ruined by his wife’s family, Santagata thinks that Dante made every effort to be pardoned by the city of Florence and to be allowed back. Gemma, Santagata speculates, might well have later joined Dante in his exile. Perhaps one of the most moving Canzone might even have been addressed to her.

The usual wisdom is that Dante never alluded to his wife in his writings, though sentimental Victorian scholars liked to imagine that the ‘donna gentile’, the lady seen smiling at him from a window after he had lost Beatrice, might have been Gemma. Santagata does not go along with this, but he thinks that the lines about Dante being set on fire by a woman’s eyes, though she is removed from his sight (‘per lontananza m’è tolto dal viso’) is an allusion to Gemma being stuck in Florence while he is in the first shock of exile.

Read the whole thing here

Poet Marianne Moore meets Muhammad Ali: “I’m a poet, too!” he said.

June 4th, 2016
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They decided to write a sonnet together…

A meeting between poet Marianne Moore and legendary Muhammad Ali, who died today. They had been introduced by George PlimptonThe historic rendezvous took place at Toots Shor’s in Manhattan. Here’s the story over at “Such Stuff“:

She made a confused, pleased gesture and then had a sip of her tea. He ordered a bowl of beef soup and a phone. He announced that if she was the greatest poetess in the country, the two of them should produce something together — “I am a poet, too,” he said — a joint effort sonnet, it was to be, with each of them doing alternate lines. Miss Moore nodded vaguely. Ali was very much the more decisive of the pair, picking not only the form but also the topic: “Mrs. Moore and I are going to write a sonnet about my upcoming fight in Houston with Ernie Terrell,” he proclaimed to the table. “Mrs. Moore and I will show the world with this great poem who is who and what is what and who is going to win.”

“We will call it ‘A Poem on the Annihilation of Ernie Terrell,’ ” Miss Moore announced. “Let us be serious but not grim.”

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What rhymes with “hell”?

“She’s cute,” Ali commented.

A pen was produced. Ali was given a menu on which to write. He started off with half the first line — “After we defeat” — and asked Miss Moore to write in Ernie Terrell (which she misspelled “Ernie Tyrell” in her spidery script) just to get her “warmed up.” He wrote most of the second line — “He will catch nothing” — handing the pen over and expecting Miss Moore to fill in the obvious rhyme, and he was quite surprised when she did not. She made some scratchy squiggles on the paper to get the ink flowing properly. The fighter peered over her shoulder.

“What’s that say?” he asked.

“It doesn’t say anything. You could call them ‘preliminaries.’ Terrell should rhyme nicely with ‘bell,’ Miss Moore said tentatively. I could see her lips move as she fussed with possibilities. Finally, Ali leaned over and whispered to her, ” ‘but hell,’ Mrs. Moore.”

Read the whole thing here.

Are all happy marriages alike? Two poems that say they aren’t.

June 1st, 2016
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He is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong!

All happy marriages are alike, but each unhappy marriage is unhappy in its own way. That widely cited passage is from Leo Tolstoy. No, no! Wait! Tolstoy never said any such thing. He said all happy families are alike, et cetera. Never mind. The misquote has been cited so often that it has acquired a truth and authority of its own, separated from its putative author.

Dana Gioia doesn’t agree with it, in any case. And he says so in his poem, “Marriage of Many Years,” the final offering in his brand new collection, 99 Poems: New and Selected. (We wrote about it a few days ago here.) I love this one, for his wife Mary Gioia (who thoroughly deserves it). Here it is:

Most of what happens happens beyond words.
The lexicon of lip and fingertip
defies translation into common speech.
I recognize the musk of your dark hair.
It always thrills me, though I can’t describe it.
My finger on your thigh does not touch skin –
it touches your skin warming to my touch.
You are a language I have learned by heart.

This intimate patois will vanish with us,
its only native speakers. Does it matter?
Our tribal chants, our dances round the fire
performed the sorcery we most required.
They bound us in a spell time could not break.
Let the young vaunt their ecstasy. We keep
our tribe of two in sovereign secrecy.
What must be lost was never lost on us.

99PoemsHere’s another poem for another long and happy marriage – Richard Wilbur‘s “For C.,” for his wife Charlotte, who died a few years ago. He compares their long union to the brief encounters where “bright Perseids flash and crumble”:

We are denied, my love, their fine tristesse
And bittersweet regrets, and cannot share
The frequent vistas of their large despair,
Where love and all are swept to nothingness;
Still, there’s a certain scope in that long love
Which constant spirits are the keepers of,

And which, though taken to be tame and staid,
Is a wild sostenuto of the heart …

Well, you can read the whole thing here.
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(By the way, poet and historian Robert Conquest told me that Dick Wilbur is his favorite American living poet. What excellent taste, as always!)

Dana Gioia’s 99 Poems: plaudits, readings, an award, and an evening at Stanford

May 28th, 2016
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Dana Gioia at Stanford’s Humanities House on May 5.

Dana Gioia and his 99 Poems: New and Selected (Graywolf Press) have been getting a lot of attention. California’s current poet laureate had a reading from his new collection at Stanford’s new Humanities House on May 5 (an occasion that also doubled as a family reunion afterwards), and the following week he received the Denise Levertov Award in Seattle on May 11. This week, a reading at Kepler’s in Menlo Park on the 26th.

There’s more: A.M. Juster (we’ve written about his work on Petrarch here) has an article, “The Case for Dana Gioia,” in the current Claremont Review of Books here. An excerpt on Dana’s career:

99PoemsThough Gioia continued to publish poems, essays, reviews, and libretti, he came to devote more time to public service. He received broad praise, after some initial grumbling, for his tenure as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009. His Poetry Out Loud program, a poetry recitation competition for high school students, has become a blowout success, particularly among recent immigrants. He also initiated programs that promoted community discussions of poetry, brought Shakespeare to mainstream audiences, and helped returning veterans relate and cope with their war experiences.

Now 65, Gioia’s new collection of brief essays, Poetry As Enchantment, is a quieter and more reflective expansion of the themes in Can Poetry Matter? He defends poetry as a spiritual need, partially resistant to the tools of New Criticism and later schools of literary theory. His populist argument is rhetorically brilliant. Gioia undercuts a likely objection by including the songlike chants of Ezra Pound’s verse as evidence for his proposition, even though Pound was instrumental in transforming modern poetry into obscurities academics pored over and everyone else ignored. Enchantment also cites the work of Rainer Maria Rilke, William Blake, and the surrealists to bolster its point.

Though Gioia’s role as a cultural warrior and arts leader would be sufficient to make him a minor figure in American literary history, his time in public service damaged his literary productivity. Thankfully, he is back on a mission with 99 Poems, a “new and selected” collection likely to be a future candidate for inclusion in the canon.

Dana is one of the few poets in the world to have an MBA – from Stanford, no less. He worked at General Foods in New York, eventually rising to vice-president. The story is retold by a former colleague, Rochelle Newman-Carrasco, in  “A Poet Laureate, Jell-O, and Me” over at the Lunch Ticket:

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The Gioia clan at Stanford, May 5.

I attended Dana Gioia’s poetry workshop on The Poetic Line and listened to him read Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “We Real Cool” twice—once to accentuate the rhymes and once the way it was written. As he discussed strategies of syntax and stops, I could clearly see Gioia, the client, the man I knew more than two decades prior—the one who seemed different from other corporate executives even then.

When we had worked together, I was in my early twenties, he was in his thirties, and aside from a client crush sparked by his unchanged good looks and resonant voice, I was particularly enamored with his ability to simplify complex marketing ideas, communicating only what was essential. He was also one of the few clients who not only got the idea of culturally-specific marketing, but also seemed to embrace it. All too often, the average white male (or even female) marketing execs struggled with this new way of looking at the world. Nothing about Gioia was average. The son of a Mexican-American mother and an Italian-American father, Gioia was no stranger to cultural nuances, but there was more to his distinct style than that.  He wasn’t as literal as many of his corporate MBA-trained colleagues, and he approached problem solving with an open mindedness and imagination that was more often associated with liberal arts types. At the time, I had no clue that he was a poet and neither did anyone else at General Foods or the Agency. Likewise, he didn’t know that I was an actress-writer in a costume, playing a role. There was a time when such things were better left unsaid.

…What we conceal
Is always more than what we dare confide….
From Unsaid, by Dana Gioia

jelloOne day in 1992, I was informed that Gioia had left General Foods. The news came as a surprise to everyone. He had turned the Jell-O brand around. We had even worked on Jell-O Jigglers together, a product innovation that helped grow sales. I heard something about his leaving to become a writer, but it wasn’t anything too specific. I remember thinking, That makes sense. He was sensitive and soulful in an industry where souls were sold, not protected.

In his essay, “Being Outed,” Gioia writes about the Esquire  article that stripped him of his literary anonymity. “When I entered corporate life, I resolved to keep my writing secret,” writes Gioia. “There was no advantage in being known as the company poet. For nearly a decade I succeeded in keeping my double life hidden from my co-workers.”

Oh, and listen to Garrison Keillor read Dana’s “Places to Return” last month (April 24) on the Writer’s Almanac – it’s here.


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