I’ve written about poet Dana Gioia recently, but I couldn’t resist this opportunity to do so again. I don’t know Mary Tabor, except on Facebook, which is how I found her interesting interview with Dana over at Facts and Arts (the interview is here). A good deal of the talk is about his latest collection, Pity the Beautiful (I got a private early reading of some of the poems – I wrote about that here). Says Dana, “Everything in this new book is in a sense a subtle, complicated protest against the gross, short-term materialism of contemporary life in the United States. In protesting, I think that we move with compassion, not with anger.”
Tabor: At this point in your career that has been so sterling, you have 11 honorary degrees—
Gioia: None of which I deserved.
Tabor: Aren’t you modest? On psychologist Maslow’s Pyramid, at the bottom are food and shelter, safety, then love, esteem and at the top is self-actualization. Are you there?
Gioia: I’ve always had kind of an inverted pyramid. My life seems terribly practical from the outside. I’ve had to construct a practical life because everything inside is totally idealistic and self-actualizing. So how could I lead the life I wanted to lead when essentially I’m a working-class kid? I always had a job and I’ve turned down practical offers. I only wrote what I believed I should write. My pyramid is all mixed up. It’s like Maslow’s Rubik Cube.
Tabor: What did your parents do?
Gioia: My Dad was Sicilian and when I was born he was a cab driver, then a chauffeur. My mother worked at the phone company. She was Mexican-American. They were good working people but poor as could be. At the end of their lives, they were totally broke. My brother and I felt we had to be practical with two more kids younger than we were. But at this point I do think I’ve earned the right to just do what I want: to write and to energize culture. American literary culture right now is in the doldrums.
Tabor: You’ve said, “I don’t think Americans are dumber than they were 25 years ago, but our culture is.” Tell me how our culture is dumber.
Gioia: Our culture is vastly dumber. I’ll give you an example. If you’ve got a copy of The New Yorker from 30 years ago, it would have about six times as many words as it does now. The same thing for The Atlantic. With most of our newspapers, if somebody wrote a review of a book, it was thousands of words long. People would actually think through things in print in a serious way. Even if you didn’t like The New Yorker, you had to take it seriously. Nowadays we have the USA Today version of culture. People have been trained by TV and the Internet to want an image and a headline. The notion of careful sequential thought contextualized historically, ideologically is a vanishing skill. When we collectively lose our ability to have sustained linear attention, whole types of thought are impossible. I see this in my students who are bright kids but have read very little.
Read the whole shebang here.
I agree with Gioia, but you don’t have to look to The New Yorker or The Atlantic for examples. In 1952, Time magazine published a piece about postwar efforts to preserve and publish Anglo-Saxon manuscripts; the article treats the subject seriously and assumes the curiosity of the middlebrow reader.
By contrast, when Heaney’s Beowulf came out in 2000, Time covered its publication with a cliché from Woody Allen and a crack about Harry Potter, characterized it as the epic every English major only pretended to read, said it was “filled with odd names and a lot of gory hewing and hacking,” and called Heaney’s translation “boffo.” A reader from 1952 transported to the year 2000 might well have concluded that Time had become a magazine for children.