Archive for November 5th, 2010

Breaking news: Dana Gioia — new feather, new cap

Friday, November 5th, 2010
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Academia has captured him at last (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Does this man ever sleep?  I’ve come to the conclusion he does not.

On my to-do list for weeks now, I have scribbled down a plan to write a nice, leisurely note to Dana Gioia, following his visit to Palo Alto. But I can’t keep up.  Each time I turn my back he gets a new honor, a new book, a new published poem.  I haven’t even listened to the CD, Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast, he sent to me yet, and now it’s just been announced that that he has taken an endowed chair at the University of Southern California — the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture.  The chair is reserved for eminent individuals from the arts, sciences, professions, business and community leadership.

What could be more fitting? Think of his “Can Poetry Matter?” essay that launched a nationwide discussion of poetry.  Dana’s university-wide appointment includes affiliations with the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, its Thornton School of Music, its Marshall School of Business, and its School of Policy, Planning, and Development.

But he has avoided so many academic appointments in the past, this comes rather as a surprise.  I hadn’t a clue until Ted Gioia‘s announcement of his brother’s honor on his own Facebook page.  Not so much of a surprise, perhaps, is the SoCal locale — Dana was born, after all, in the gritty little burg of Hawthorne, outside Los Angeles.

Said Provost Elizabeth Garrett, senior vice president for academic affairs: “As a poet, literary critic, and innovative arts leader, Dana Gioia has demonstrated that poetry—and the arts—do matter. Through initiatives like Poetry Out Loud and The Big Read, he forcefully reminded us that poetry and literature can be oral art forms, inspiring people of all ages to imagine and to think creatively and critically.”

It will be great to have Dana on the West Coast again.  Perhaps he can catch a nap now?

Postscript on Nov. 6:  I spoke too soon.  When I got home last night, I found in my mailbox Dana’s newest effort, John Donne’s Sacred and Profane Poems, for which Dana wrote a 20-page introduction.  “He alone was master of both the sacred and profane,” Dana writes, though he notes James I’s criticism of the poems, that they “are like the peace of God; they pass all understanding.”  Hadn’t heard that one.

Memorial reading for Morton Marcus on Nov. 6: a literary “bright spot” on West Coast

Friday, November 5th, 2010
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At Vasili's Greek Restaurant, 2009 (Photo: Valerie Marcus Ramshur)

“If you were going to make a literary map of America, there would be a bright spot on the map at Santa Cruz,” said Robert Hass, who will be the keynote speaker at the first annual memorial for poet Morton Marcus tomorrow night at 7.30 p.m., at the Cabrillo College Music Recital Hall, 6500 Soquel Drive in Aptos.  (Gary Young, Stephen Kessler, Joe Stroud will also read.  Tickets are gone — arrive at 6.30 for no-shows and returns.)

Perhaps Mort is a bright spot on the bright spot.

“He was larger than life,” said Santa Cruz poet Stroud, who knew Marcus for more than 40 years. “Mort loved nothing more than to have a meal and to have a conversation. I think of him as a conductor almost, eating and drinking and driving the conversation this way and that. It was an unforgettable experience.”

I met Morton Marcus via the world wide web — and our relationship, alas, remained an epistolary one.  Poet Jane Hirshfield brought my attention to his remarkable memoir of Czesław Miłosz in his autobiographical Striking Through The Masks, and I approached him about contributing to a book I had in the back of my mind.  (The book, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, will be out soon — really it will.)  He wrote a note back in September 2006, with some evocative thoughts about Prague:

I’m back now. It was my second trip. This time I was there to teach a poetry composition class in the Prague Summer Program. It really is an incredible city, but a far as I’m concerned not for the reason other people are so enchanted by it. The Renaissance and baroque buildings are masks that cover centuries of suffering which are marked by the extraordinary number of memorials that dot the city. If one looks, one sees a microcosm of all cities in Prague, and one experiences the timeless misery and joy of being alive. Then going to Prague becomes a pilgrimage to pay homage to all our ancestors.

I’m not a professor, by the way. I’ve taught classes at UC, but mainly I taught Literature and Film for thirty-two years down the road at Cabrillo College.

Thanks for your interest, and I hope we’ll meet one day.

Jane Hirshfield

We didn’t.  But in a book that was filled with a not-always-harmonious assortment of contributors, he was one of the most easygoing of the bunch.   Good natured.  Not a prima donna.  It was appreciated.  As we were finishing up in June 2009,  he wrote to me the terrible news:  “I’m glad the book is coming out. When will that be? Since last year, my life has drastically changed: I’ve been diagnosed with terminal cancer. So before I go I have to get as many facts down on paper about new work coming out as quickly as I can.”

He sent me a brief bio for the book, and ended with the comment:  “I’m still standing.  Regards to all.”

I’m told he sank into pain, but never into less than good spirits.  I asked him about second opinions:  “It’s all through my bloodstream with growing tumors in my lungs and liver verified again and again. Second, third and fourth opinions, too. No problem; I’ve had a great life,” he wrote with daunting equanimity.  I offered at last to visit — but thought he might be less interested in meeting pen pals than gathering himself into himself.  I guessed right.  His last note to me said:  “Thanks so much for your thoughts, Cynthia, and the offer of a visit, but as you’ve guessed I’m more interested in solitude.”

Jane wrote to me to tell me he had died on October 28 last year.  His final words were, “I’m ready.”

Two poems from his last collection, The Dark Figure in the Doorway: Last Poems

ALL WE CAN DO

All we can do on this earth is step into the future
with a sense of the many people behind us,
the living and the dead, as if we carried our bodies
like amphorae filled with sunbeams into each new day,
continually reaching inside ourselves
to scatter golden butterflies over the land before us,
or to fling them against the night, not like tears, but like stars
that will guide those who follow across the darkness.

WHAT IS ALIVE IN US

What is alive in us, what vibrates
in our animal skins, is a harp string
that is never still, a harp string
tuned to the drone of silence.
It is the single thread, the radiant filament,
that sews us to our coat of darkness,
the umbilical that holds us
to the planet each of us is
yet allows us to wander among the stars —
the guy rope that secures us
to ourselves, yet lets us venture
into the darkness all the way
to the planet of someone else.

One can see why Miłosz liked him.