Getting ready for Halloween: Dana Gioia’s ghost story

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“I don’t believe in ghosts,” he said, “such nonsense.
But years ago I actually saw one.”
He seemed quite serious, and so I asked.

That time of year...

So opens Dana Gioia‘s new ghost story. A fitting topic as we draw closer to Halloween.  (And to All Saints’.  And to All Souls’.)

I wrote earlier about visiting Dana in Santa Rosa last August, when he read his then-unpublished poems to me, which included the “Haunted,”  a short story in verse.  It’s unpublished no more: so I was delighted  when the Hudson Review arrived in my mailbox, courtesy of Dana.  The Hudson Review comes with a CD, including an introduction, a reading, and a short interview.  Dana refrained from publishing new literary work during his six years as NEA chairman — so this publication marks a comeback after long absence.

The 200-line poem (the same length as Robert Conquest‘s “Getting On”) is in blank verse, but with so much chiming — internal rhyming, assonance, and other tricks of the trade — that there were times I would have sworn it was rhymed verse.

Dana tells a short story in verse (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Dana is a strong advocate for narrative poetry.  “There was a time when you wanted to tell a story, you told it in verse,” said Dana.  Look at Homer.  Or Shakespeare.  Poetry is now mostly confined to short, lyric utterances.  People who want stories turn to novels and drama instead.  “When poetry lost that audience, it lost something that was absolutely essential to its vitality.”

That said, “It’s really hard to write a good narrative poem,” said Dana, adding that he has abandoned a number of efforts over the years.  “You have to have a compelling story, a narrative that moves forward,” all the while “condensing this into essentially lyric medium.” A ghost story requires even more:   Atmosphere is imperative for ghost story, said Dana, noting that Edgar Allan Poe‘s “The Raven” is composed almost entirely of atmospheric effects.  Dana said he had to “build the setting room by room.”

When a narrative poem fails, it’s because “either the story is just not good, they cannot create forward momentum” or else “the language is not good, it’s prosaic.”

Dana says “Haunted”  is somewhat “Jamesian,” and that may be something of a weakness.  His plots, like Henry James’s, consist largely of the states of mind of the characters, rather than in dialogue or a series of events.  This was true also in “Counting the Children,” one of Dana’s best-known poems from Gods of  Winter — another narrative poem.  Of the two, I prefer this new poem, certainly because it reflects (oddly enough) a more familiar range of experiences and states of mind — from the experience of evil (a more intense brush than the one Dana describes, I’m afraid), to the experiences of ghosts, to the illusion that “We thought we could/create a life made only of peak moments” (did anyone not think that at 25?)

The poem’s antagonist is Mara, launching the poem’s curious series of reversals, the equation of light with darkness:

Do you know what it’s like to be in love
with someone bad?  Not simply bad for you,
but slightly evil?  You have to decide
either to be the victim or accomplice.
I’m not the victim type. That’s what she liked.

Young Marian Seldes would have been "magnificent" as ghost, said Dana

Yet, the unnamed protagonist said, “She seemed to shine/as movie stars shine, made only of light.”

And later, of his ghost, he recalled:  “She seemed at once herself and her own reflection/shimmering on the surface of clear water/where fleeting shadows twisted in the depths.” and “Her pale skin shined like a window catching sunlight,/both bright and clear, but chilling to the touch.”

Is the poem autobiographical? “These things did not happen to me autobiographically,” he said, “a bit of this, a bit of that happened, a person I met a house I saw, all worked its way into the story” — even the ghost, though Dana said he doesn’t believe in them.

A suitable theme for Halloween.  But a day after the arrival of the Hudson Review in my mailbox, I received an American Opera Classics CD of Paul Salerni‘s Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast — called “Opera in ten short scenes on a libretto by Dana Gioia.”  I haven’t listened to it yet.

Dana has been busy indeed.  But then, he always is.


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