Posts Tagged ‘“Dana Gioia”’

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

Monday, 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.


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!

Friday, June 10th, 2016

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)


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

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

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.
(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

Saturday, May 28th, 2016

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:


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.

“Where are we going? Home, always back home”: On love, loss, and death…

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

Thomas reading Shakespeare’s sonnets in the woods outside Bucharest, 1997.

The poet Edward Hirsch wrote, “Implicit in poetry is the notion that we are deepened by heartbreaks, that we are not so much diminished as enlarged by grief, by our refusal to vanish–to let others vanish–without leaving a verbal record.”

A dear friend, Thomas Budd, died this week in his native Yorkshire. You don’t lose friends of such longstanding easily. When I met him in 1979 in London, you would not have guessed that he wasn’t a native Londoner, but what’s bred in the bone… After many sojourns abroad, he finally returned a few years ago to West Yorkshire, more specifically, a small village on the south end of the Yorkshire dales called Otley. And that is where his life ended.

“A deeply kind, sincere and quietly beautiful man,” said a mutual friend. Not a bad summary, but one must add that he loved language, and Shakespeare, and poetry, so it right to celebrate his life with them – celebrate even in the sobriety of loss. Circumstances conspired to remind me of him today (as if I could forget) with two poems and a bit of prose.

Dana Gioia inadvertently started it. The Virginia Quarterly Review just published his “Meditation from a Line from Novalis,” with its refrain, “Where are we going? Home, always back home,” a translation of the German line that serves as an epigraph from Novalis:

Whether through genius or incompetence,
His fragments blur together—but into what?
Not quite philosophy or even art,
But the disclosure of some primal secret.
“Love is the final purpose of the world.”


At the National Gallery, 2012.

You can read the whole poem here. The German Romantic poet, who proposed a sort of “magical idealism,” is little-known today. “Our life is not a dream but must become one.” Schelling kept watch over him as he died, and, according to this poem, marveled at how joyfully he faced death, even at the terrifyingly young age of 28.

I visited Thomas in Otley in 2013. I’m pretty sure I began to hear the edges of a long-abandoned Yorkshire accent reappear in my all-too-brief stay with him that winter. In voice and manner, however, he still reminded me of that native Londoner Alec Guinness, one of my favorite actors. So it was a pleasant coincidence to find, this morning, that a friend had brought my attention to Guinness’s recording of T.S. Eliot‘s “Four Quartets,” one of my favorite poetic works, on youtube. If you can avoid the grating voice that introduces the quartets (she mispronounces “Dry Salvages,” too), it’s worth a hearing. It’s the same cassette recording I lost somewhere years ago, after I had played and played and played it again, and I had thought never to hear this matchless voice read these words:

… As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. …

“In my end is my beginning.” Now you can hear it, too, in the youtube video below.

Finally, today also, someone brought my attention to these words from Evelyn Waugh, in Brideshead Revisited. Charles Ryder says it to Julia Flyte, about their doomed love (and in the sense Waugh means it, perhaps all love is doomed):

“Perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; vagabond-language scrawled on gate-posts and paving stones along the weary road that others have tramped before us; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.”

Au revoir, Thomas.

Rescued from oblivion: selected poems from the early and late Dunstan Thompson

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

thompsonHere at last is Dunstan Thompson‘s Here at Last Is LoveIt’s been a group effort to get this slim volume published. Author Gregory Wolfe, California poet laureate Dana Gioia, Thompson’s longtime companion Philip Trower, and others have rescued the poet from oblivion.

Thompson (1918-75) was an American poet who had risen to fame in the New York literary scene of the 1940s. After his wartime experience, he all but disappeared in a remote Norfolk village called Cley. His poetry was no longer sought after and published. The problem was, as Dana Gioia wrote, that there were two Dunstan Thompsons: the poetry of early Thompson of the 1940s is “expansive, ornate, dramatic, and confessional.” The later poetry is “austere, urbane, controlled, and quietly confident.” (I’ve written about Gioia’s essay, “Two Poets Named Dunstan Thompson,” which is now the afterword of the book, here.)

According to Kevin Prufer, co-editor of Dunstan Thompson: On the Life and Work of a Late American Master: “Here, for the first time, Gregory Wolfe draws draws poems from the poet’s entire writing life, including his harrowing, erotic wartime poetry and his almost entirely unavailable, more reflective work of maturity. In doing so, he brings to new audiences the work of an essential mid-century poet…”

Greg Wolfe, the book’s editor, has written a graceful introduction to this small volume (128 pages), but this commonplace sentence is the one that stopped me. It describes the poet’s life in rural Norfolk: “A steady stream of visitors – British and American – came to Cley. Thompson’s Harvard friend Billy Abrahams came for many visits along with his partner, the writer Peter Stansky.” Could there be two literary Peter Stanskys in the world, I wondered?

Naturally, I wrote Stanford’s Orwell scholar, Peter Stansky, right away to clear things up. He replied within an hour or so: “Many visits is an exaggeration. The first I remember fairly well, and we may have gone a second time. Dunstan was a contemporary of Billy’s at Harvard and one of his closest friends.  Dunstan had gone to England as a soldier during the war and may not have come back to the U.S.A. except briefly, but I’m not sure of that. If so, Billy would have seen him in New York after the war.

“I met Billy in 1961 and some years after that we went to England to work on Journey to the Frontier. We went to see Dunstan and his partner Philip Trower, a very nice Englishman and writer. Dunstan who had been, I believe, a rather irreverent poet had now become a devout Catholic and Philip had converted.  We had a very jolly time but I can’t remember much in particular. I bravely swam in the sea. We ate and drank well. They took us to Houghton, the great Norfolk Walpole house, where we were shown around by the Marchioness of Cholmondeley [that would be the former Sybil Sassoon, cousin to the poet Siegfried Sassoon]. Philip had been at Eton with her son.”

“Little did I know that years later after her death I would write her biography [i.e., The Worlds of Philip and Sybil (2003)], so in retrospect, it was terrific that I had met her. I have a feeling that we may have visited a Catholic English shrine at Walsingham.  The main point was for Billy and Dunstan to talk about the old days. They may have been somewhat wild, although I don’t remember anything specific mentioned,” he said.

“Billy remained in touch with Dunstan, though I don’t think either were good correspondents. It was very touching that on Dunstan’s death, he left Billy his Bulova watch, some books including, I think, an early edition of Byron I have somewhere and, most wonderfully, he very kindly left me specifically a print by Paul Nash, an artist I much admire that I have on my walls.”

Peter Stansky also gave Dana Gioia several books that Dunstan had inscribed to Billy Abrahams. The Stanford Libraries printed a selection of Abraham’s poems to commemorate Peter’s donation of Abrahams’ papers to Stanford.

The title poem is, as Greg notes, a short “shape poem” called “On a Crucifix”:

Here at last

443px-Geertgen_tot_Sint_Jans_002It’s one of the last poems in the volume. In keeping with the season, here’s Thompson’s short “Fragment for Christmas,” another poem from the very late Thompson:


Dear Lord, and only ever faithful friend,
For love of us rejected, tortured, torn –
And we were there; who on the third day rose
Again, and still looks after us; descend
Into each wrecked unstable house; be born
In us, a Child among Your former foes.

BREAKING NEWS! California’s new poet laureate is Dana Gioia, former NEA chair!

Friday, December 4th, 2015



Happy about the new job: Dana with Doctor Gatsby. (Photo: Star Black)

I’ve wondered why Dana Gioia has never been California’s poet laureate. After all, he is a genuine California native, born in Hawthorne, a gritty little burg outside L.A. As former National Endowment for the Arts chair from 2003 to 2009, as a leading poet who has won a number of awards, as a provocative critic, and as a champion of poetry (and indeed all the arts), who could better serve in the role?

Wonder no more: Gov. Jerry Brown today announced the appointment of Dana, who is the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.


Champion of Poetry Out Loud

Dana just sent me an email to let me know of his appointment. His statement to the Book Haven:  “I’m honored by this appointment. It’s hard for me to describe how much I love California. My life has taken me to many other places – Boston, New York, Washington – but in every case there came a point when I decided to quit and come back home. I can’t imagine anything more meaningful than to represent my art in my place.”

The office of the California poet laureate was created in 2001 to inspire an appreciation for the art of poetry throughout the state. During his two-year term, Gioia will provide public readings in classrooms, board rooms and other places. What else does he plan to do? I asked him: “It would be very easy to spend my time as laureate in a few big cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. But California is a big and diverse state. Most of it is rural. I want to visit as much of the state as possible. I especially want to focus on the high schools and public libraries. Those are the great civic institutions of literacy.”


Stanford’s 2007 commencement speaker (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

We’ve written about Dana before: read about his last collection of poems, Pity the Beautiful here, and on his recent essay about poet Dunstan Thompson here, and on whether America is getting dumber here, and a few words on his mentor Elizabeth Bishop here, and on receiving the Laetare Medal here, among other places.

“Dana will bring the voice of a native son of California to his new role,” Craig Watson, director of the California Arts Council, said in a statement. “And he’ll also help our state’s young people learn to explore and develop their own voices — just as he did when he created the Poetry Out Loud high school recitation program while at the NEA — a program which has greatly impacted California’s young people for ten years.”  (We wrote about Dana and Poetry Out Loud here.)

His newest collection of poetry, 99 Poems: New & Selected will be out in March.

He two-year appointment succeeds Juan Felipe Herrera, who is now the U.S. Poet Laureate. Now, I’ve always wondered why Dana Gioia wasn’t made the U.S. poet laureate…

Poet William Jay Smith, 1918-2015: “the truest and purest poems an American has written”

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

A most gentle warrior.

A few days ago, I wrote about poems as memorable speech, and the kind of poem that lodges in your brain and won’t leave. William Jay Smith wrote a dark and magical one, and it’s carved in my memory. It’s his enduring gift to me now.

Smith died on Tuesday, August 18, at the age of 97. From the New York Times obituary yesterday:

Mr. Smith’s poems for adults were praised for diction that was at once unfussy and lyrical; for thematic variety (they ranged over the natural world, erotic love, the experience of war, his Choctaw ancestry and many other subjects); for their ability to see minutely into everyday experience; and for a deceptive simplicity that belied the rigorous formal architecture beneath.

He embraced poetic devices, like rhyme and carefully calibrated meter, that many 20th-century colleagues considered passé — a self-imposed set of strictures that, critics said, gave his best work the sheen of something meticulously constructed, buffed and polished.

I met him at a West Chester Poetry Conference a dozen or so years ago. Too briefly to make much of an impression, except that he was courteous, gentle, and humble. He didn’t make much of his Native American ancestry, though it was patterned on his face. As I recall, he read from his poems on the Trail of Tears during the conference, and I bought one of his books as a result. Luckily, I was able to find it on my shelf this morning. As I thumbed through, I found this one, “The Eagle Warrior: An Invocation” from his 1997 collection The Cherokee Lottery, about a life-size ceramic man costumed as an eagle, thrown into a lake by the conquistadors and for that reason, and only that reason, it survived. This is how the invocation concludes:

O Eagle-warrior, surrogate of the sun,
.     fly off in my mind now
to circle the sun, that “ascending eagle,”
and with your penetrating eye
and your calligraphic wing-span
.     printed high upon the air,
follow the westward movement
.     of every vanquished tribe.
O Eagle-warrior, quick-eyed, fierce-beaked,
.     tense-taloned,
be their emblem, be their witness, be their scribe.

smithbookRichard Wilbur called him “a most gifted and original poet … One of the very few who cannot be confused with anybody else.” Dana Gioia wrote that his best poems “are unlike anything else in contemporary American literature … Although often based on realistic situations, Smith’s compressed, formal lyrics develop language musically in a way which summons an intricate, dreamlike set of images and associations.” And X.J. Kennedy said that he “has given us many of the truest and purest poems an American has written: the most resonantly musical, the most magical.” 

Smith authored over fifty books of poetry, children’s verse, literary criticism, and translation. Noted for his prodigious career, which spanned the fields of creative writing, translation, academia, and politics, Smith served a two-year term in the Vermont House of Representative, from 1960 to 1962, and also served as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (the position now known as the U.S. poet laureate) from 1968 to 1970. Smith was also a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters since 1975, as well as a former vice president for literature.

As noted over at, Smith’s honors include the Henry Bellamann Major Award, the Russell Loines Award from the National Institute of the Arts and Letters, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2002, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Louisiana Center for the Book. He also received honors from the French Academy, the Swedish Academy, and the government of Hungary for his translations.

Ah yes, the poem that lodged in my brain:


Poetry as pleasure – have we forgotten the fun?

Saturday, August 15th, 2015

He hasn’t left, either.

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish, I wish he’d go away…

When I came home last night at three,
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall,
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door…

Last night I saw upon the stair,
A little man who wasn’t there,
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away…

I read this poem to my daughter at least two decades ago when she was a very young girl, and she was silent for a long time afterwards, thinking long and carefully. “But he wasn’t there!” she finally exclaimed. “That’s right,” I said. And then she lapsed into silence again, and pondered some more. “But then, how … ? Why did he …?”

I didn’t tell her anything about the poem. I didn’t tell her that it was written by a young man at Harvard in 1899, describing a purportedly haunted house in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Its author, Hughes Mearns, would go on to be an educator. His notions about encouraging the natural creativity of children, particularly for ages 3-8, were apparently novel at the time. According to a 1940 Current Biography: “He typed notes of their conversations; he learned how to make them forget there was an adult around; never asked them questions and never showed surprise no matter what they did or said.”

I ran across these verses by chance today and, now that my daughter is a woman of twenty-something, I emailed the poem to her and asked her if she remembered it. “Wow! Yeah! I do remember that poem!” Without analysis or explanation, the poem had lodged in her memory, undisturbed for the last two decades. The poem may not qualify for the immortals sweepstakes, and yet it was, clearly, “memorable speech.”

blakeWhich brings me to Dana Gioia‘s major essay, “Poetry as Enchantment,” in the current issue of Dark Horse. (It’s online, here.)

“In the western tradition, it has generally been assumed that the purpose of poetry is to delight, instruct, console, and commemorate. But it might be more accurate to say that poems instruct, console, and commemorate through the pleasures of enchantment. The power of poetry is to affect the emotions, touch the memory, and incite the imagination with unusual force. Mostly through the particular exhilaration and heightened sensitivity of rhythmic trance can poetry reach deeply enough into the psyche to have such impact. (How visual forms of prosody strive to achieve this mental state requires a separate inquiry.) When poetry loses its ability to enchant, it shrinks into what is just an elaborate form of argumentation. When verse casts its particular spell, it becomes the most evocative form of language. ‘Poetry,’ writes Greg Orr, ‘is the rapture of rhythmical language.’”

I doubt he had a poem like “Antigonish” in mind, and yet I think we would be unwise to dismiss a poem that lodges so securely in a child’s imagination. In the absence of religion today, it may be the closest they come to mystery. Again from Dana:

Academic critics often dismiss the responses of average readers to poetry as naïve and vague, and there is some justification for this assumption. The reactions of most readers are undisciplined, haphazard, incoherent, and hopelessly subjective. Worse yet, amateurs often read only part of a poem because a word or image sends them stumbling backwards into memory or spinning forward into the imagination. But the amateur who reads poetry from love or curiosity does have at least one advantage over the trained specialist who reads it from professional obligation. Amateurs have not learned to shut off parts of their consciousness to focus on only the appropriate elements of a literary text. They respond to poems in the sloppy fullness of their humanity. Their emotions and memories emerge entangled with half-formed thoughts and physical sensations. As any thinking person can see, such subjectivity is an intellectual mess of the highest order. But aren’t average readers simply approaching poetry more or less the way human beings experience the world itself?

Life is experienced holistically with sensations pouring in through every physical and mental organ of perception. Art exists embodied in physical elements—especially meticulously calibrated aspects of sight and sound—which scholarly explication can illuminate but never fully replace. However conceptually incoherent and subjectively emotional, the amateur response to poetry comes closer to the larger human purposes of the art—which is to awaken, amplify, and refine the sense of being alive—than does critical commentary.

As Rainer Maria Rilke pointed out in his “Sonnets to Orpheus”:  “Gesang ist Dasein,” or “Life is singing.” His words meant enough to Lady Gaga to that she had them tattooed on her arm, a distinctly modern kind of tribute. Dana points out that William Blake‘s “The Tyger” is the most anthologized poem in the English language – children love it, love its rhythm and its images, even though they have no idea what it means. Probably nobody does.


Gaga over Rilke. Who knew?

It is significant that the Latin word for poetry, carmen, is also the word the Romans used for a song, a magic spell, a religious incantation, or a prophecy—all verbal constructions whose auditory powers can produce a magical effect on the listener. Ancient cultures believed in the power of speech. To curse or bless someone had profound meaning. A spoken oath was binding. A spell or prophecy had potency. The term carmen still survives in modern English (via Norman French) as the word charm, and it still carries the multiple meanings of a magic spell, a spoken poem, and the power to enthrall. Even today charms survive in oral culture. Looking at a stormy sky, surely a few children still recite the spell:

Rain, rain
go away.
Come again
some other day.

Or staring at the evening sky, they whisper to Venus, the evening star:

Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might
Have the wish I wish tonight.

A rational adult understands that neither the star nor the spell has any physical power to transform reality in accordance with the child’s wish. But the poet knows that by articulating a wish, by giving it tangible form, the child can potentially awaken the forces of imagination and desire that animate the future. As André Breton proposed, ‘The imaginary tends to become real.’

ramandsitaEvery time I hear the first schoolyard rhyme, I remember the version I heard in India, where the children sing:

Rain, rain
go away.
Ram and Sita
Want to play.

It’s just as effective in that hemisphere. The same carmen.

I have many thoughts about Dana’s essay – I’ve barely scraped the surface. I hope to explore it in the coming days, after I’ve met a few deadlines. Meanwhile, you can catch up by reading Dana Gioia’s whole essay here.

Dana Gioia on little-known poet Dunstan Thompson: “ambitious, original, mercurial, uneven”

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Dunstan Thompson photoPoet Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has performed many good deeds for literature; here’s one that has generally gone unnoticed: he has promoted the work of many little-known poets and writers, both living and dead, who have received fame, acclaim, and wider circulation soon afterwards. In many cases, I think his imprimatur has been decisive. He was one of the early champions for Kay Ryan, the Marin community college teacher who went on to win a Pulitzer and just about every other major poetry award, as well as being named U.S. poet laureate. We can add Kim Addonizio, Weldon Kees, and even Robinson Jeffers to the list.

That observation alone would make it worthwhile to pay attention to his article in the current Hudson Review, “Two Poets Named Dunstan Thompson.” Thompson’s not entirely forgotten … at least not anymore. D.A. Powell and Kevin Prufer compiled a tribute volume, Dustan Thompson: On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master in 2010. Later this year, Thompson’s Selected Poems, edited by Gregory Wolfe, will bring his work (we hope) to a wider audience.

The Connecticut-born Thompson (1918-1975) was educated at Harvard and enlisted in the U.S. Army in World War II. Borges translated some of his work after Thompson’s Poems (Simon & Schuster) was published in 1943. His second poetry collection, Lament for the Sleepwalker, appeared in 1946. A 1954 novel, The Dove with the Bough of Olive was not well received. A travel book The Phoenix in the Desert was published in London in 1951. He had published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review, but his next three manuscripts remained unpublished. What happened in the final decades is most interesting.

Dana’s essay is highly recommended; it’s one of his finest. And you get two poets for the price of one. Here’s why:

Two contradictory views of Thompson and his poetry have emerged, which seem to reflect an irreconcilable dichotomy inherent in both his life and work. Each faction has made exclu­sive claim to his legacy. For one group, Thompson stands as a pioneering poet of gay experience and sensibility. He was one of the first poets—and certainly the best of the World War II era—to write openly about homosexual experience. Although his language remained slightly coded—even straight sex could not be depicted literally at that time without censorship or prosecution—there was little ambiguity about the hidden world of casual sexual encounters he describes so powerfully in his neo-Romantic and rhapsodic poems. An heir to Walt Whitman and Hart Crane, Thompson stood, to quote Jim Elledge, as “a kindred soul” to contemporary gay poets.

To the second group, Thompson ranks as one of the important English-language Catholic poets of the twentieth century. A neo-classical writer of cosmopolitan sensibility, he cultivated an austere and formal style to explore themes of history, culture, and religion. In ways that seem more European than American, the mature Thompson also used the long perspectives of Christian and Classical history to understand the modern world after the devastations, dislocations, and atrocities of a troubled century.

There is no question that Thompson’s poetry falls into two parts—the early work published during the 1940s and the later work gathered posthumously in 1984.

The “vast and insistent threnody” of the first era “transcends its own sentimentality mostly bit its sheer feverish persistence. All of the wrong notes seem small in comparison to its large, symphonic sweep.” The highly musical poems (“The boy that brought me beauty brought me death”) reflect a poet who “reveled in the hypnotic quality of formal rhythms. His mode is essentially rhapsodic – an attempt to cast an emotional spell over the listener.” The second period occurred after he had settled in the obscure Norfolk village of Cley, initially for financial reasons, but then he and his partner, the journalist Philip Trower, stayed and stayed, far away from the mainstream literary world. “If Thompson’s early verse is flamboyantly neb-romantic, the later work is calmly neoclassical. … His style cooled becoming more austere and controlled. The tone shifted from vatic to conversational.” He adopted free verse as another tool in his repertoire, and wrote dramatic monologues, narratives, hymns, satires, epigrams, epistles, devotions, discursive meditations. “The older Thompson obsessively ponders the past as window into the human condition.”

Dana concludes: “Dustan Thompson is not a major poet, but he is also not a minor writer in the conventional sense of doing a few things exquisitely well. He is ambitious, original, mercurial, and uneven in equal measures. His central themes – love, sex, desire, faith, war, and history – are not minor subjects.” Read about both poets – Dunstan Thompson I and Dustan Thompson II – over at The Hudson Review, here.


Refuge: Cley on the River Glaven (Photo: John Beniston)