Posts Tagged ‘“Dana Gioia”’

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

Thursday, January 7th, 2016
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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.”

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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
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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”:

See
Here at last
Is
Love.

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:

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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
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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.

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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.”

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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
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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 poets.org, 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:

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Poetry as pleasure – have we forgotten the fun?

Saturday, August 15th, 2015
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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.

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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
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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.

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

 

“Poetry Out Loud” is ten years old – and California celebrates!

Sunday, April 5th, 2015
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Dana in Sacramento. (All photos Jay R. Hart)

Poetry Out Loud wasn’t an easy sell. When Dana Gioia, then chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, first suggested a national high school poetry recitation competition a decade ago, state arts education departments dug in their heels. Kids hate poetry, he was told – besides, it’s too intellectual for the average students. Memorizing poetry? That’s repressive and “not creative” enough. (One rather wonders at the thinking – teenagers love performing, and all high-school plays involve memorization.) It’s since become perhaps the most successful and enduring legacy of Dana’s tenure at the NEA.

He finally persuaded all the states to give it a try, at least for a year. To perhaps everyone’s surprise except Dana, Poetry Out Loud was a stunning success, right from the outset. It soon had hundreds of thousands of American teenagers memorizing and reciting poems. The competition has now involved about two and a half million students. I can’t think of anything else on this scale in the U.S. to build a new audience for poetry. (Dan Stone, now editing Radio Silence, did much of the ground work in making the program national.)

Poetry Out Loud celebrated it’s tenth anniversary in Sacramento last month. Dana gave a talk at the state finals. The national finals take place next month in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, a few photos from the Sacramento event.

Top photo below: Dana Gioia, founder of Poetry Out Loud, speaking in Sacramento last month. On the second photo below, you can see state winner Levi Lowe gettin’ into it, as he recites Al Young‘s “The Blues Don’t Change.” Below that, Steve Hansen, recipient of the 2015 California Poetry Out Loud “Hero” Award, as best poetry teacher. And rounding out the picture: Shelly Gilbride, Arts Program Specialist; Dana Gioia, poet, critic, former NEA chair; Al Young, judge, poet, and former California poet laureate; state champion Levi Lowe; Craig Watson, director of the California Arts Council; and Jason Jong, arts program specialist. All photos by Jay R. Hart.

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New children’s opera Three Feathers: “magic naturally lends itself to rhyming spells”

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014
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Dana, Lori, and a very tall Frog King

I wrote about the new children’s opera, Three Feathers, a week or two ago here. Since then, the collaboration of composer Lori Laitman and librettist (and friend) Dana Gioia made its world premiere on October 17 at the new Moss Arts Center in Blacksburg, Virginia. I haven’t been able to find an actual review online, but I did find an October 14 article in The Huffington Post here. An excerpt:

“‘We wanted to have a strong story that appealed to both kids and adults,’ Mr. Gioia explains in an email: ‘There’s nothing better than Grimm’s Fairy Tales for compelling plots and memorable characters that quietly speak to our deepest fears, fantasies, and desires. At the heart of Grimm’s best tales is a young person’s quest to find love and meaning in a world that seems scary and chaotic. Lori and I chose The Three Feathers because it was a great story that almost no one in America knew. Disney or Broadway had never touched it…And who can resist an underground world ruled by a giant Frog King?’

“Lori Laitman adds, ‘There’s also an upperworld with three princesses: Dora, the heroine, sings a soul-searching aria, ‘Just Once,’ and there’s an aria for the shopaholic Gilda and one for the athletic, bossy Tilda. While there are similarities in the lyrics for these princesses, I wanted to create distinct character differences in the music so each one had her own motif. When they return you can instantly tell which princess it is because of what’s happening in the orchestra.’

“‘Also, since there are three children’s choruses,’ Ms. Laitman says, ‘we wanted to have bats, rats, and frogs, the denizens of the underworld. The opera has a very large cast, and all the kids sing except for a few supernumeraries. Here’s where my prior experience was helpful, because I’d written the oratorio Vedem for a boys choir. And when you’re constructing musical lines for children you have to keep in mind that their ranges are different [from adults], and you have to create music they can learn that is instantly memorable to them.’

“Given the whimsical tone of the text, Dana Gioia chose to write all the songs and choruses in rhyme. ‘That’s what kids want, and so do adults, even if they won’t admit it. Our opera needed to be both fun and at times mysterious. Comic opera needs rhymes and magic naturally lends itself to rhyming spells. Oddly, writing a rhyming libretto nowadays is slightly avant-garde. Most of the new libretti I see are in free verse.'”

Gioia-as-librettist and a chorus of rats, bats, and frogs

Saturday, October 11th, 2014
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grimmbros

Author, author!

An email from Dana Gioia, poet, professor, and former NEA chairman: “I’m about to fly off to Washington to do a lecture at the Library of Congress and then attend the final rehearsals and premiere of my new opera with Lori Laitman, The Three Feathers. Here is a photo from the rehearsals – the Princess meeting the Frog King in the Underworld.” Librettist Dana retells the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, and Laitman composes the music for the new one-act children’s opera, commissioned by the Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech. As I wrote a dozen or so years ago in an article here, “Gioia-as-librettist isn’t a complete departure. As a Stanford undergraduate, he considered a career in music and spent his sophomore year studying music and German in Vienna.” That was one of my early interviews with him, about the time he was about to debut Nosferatu, his collaboration with composer Alva Henderson. (I’ve also written about Dana here and here and here, among many other places.) According to the opera’s website here: “The Three Feathers creates a mysterious world inhabited by a king, his three princess daughters, and courtiers; and the fantastical underworld kingdom of the Frog Prince and his chorus of rats, bats, and frogs.” World premiere is Friday, October 17, at the new Moss Arts Center in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Meanwhile, photos. The soprano is Nora Cotter. “How nice to have reality rhyme with fantasy,” Dana writes. And another website has cropped up here. And a vimeo clip of an aria here.

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The Princess meets the Frog King in the Underworld, in “The Three Feathers”

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Soprano Nora Cotter sings in the underworld.

Happy birthday to poetry impresario Mike Peich!

Monday, May 19th, 2014
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philimagpeichYesterday on Facebook I wished a Michael Peich a happy birthday. He is the cofounder (along with Dana Gioia) of the West Chester University Poetry Conference, as well as founder of Aralia Press– I wrote about the conference, and Mike, fourteen years ago in the pages of Philadelphia Magazine here.  Frank Wilson over at Books Inq. says he is “pretty sure” that it’s still the largest annual poetry conference in the U.S. I have no reason to doubt his word. But I have no firsthand way to observe it, either. I attended several in the early years – but soon the June dates coincided with the high school and then college graduations of kids and stepkids, so I lost the habit of making the East Coast trek. Frank has an advantage – he lives in Philadelphia. So I’m stealing these poems on Books Inq. as a kind of revenge.

Several of the West Chester poets sent poetic greetings to Mike on his 70th, and three of them have been in these pages already: Dana, of course, but also David Mason and A.M. Juster (in fact, West Chester probably where I got that short volume of his Petrarch translations, which I discussed on Petrarch’s birthday here). Joshua Wren, by the way, is the founder of the brand new Wiseblood Books.

Frank intends to run more commemorative poems later – so check out his blog over here.  It’s a good habit to get into, if you don’t scan Books, Inq. regularly already. Meanwhile, evidence of my theft:

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birthday cakeFOR MICHAEL PEICH ON HIS 70th BIRTHDAY

May 18, 2014

 

Gnarliest of trees, this apple now
Sports withered fruit along its bough,
Drooping sideways, sere and gaunt—
Hardly the symbol that you want.

Now of your threescore years and ten,
Seventy will not come again,
And take from seventy springs that sum . . .
Well, on this subject, let’s play dumb.

But since you’re now on borrowed time,
you’re spending someone else’s dime,
So hang around the bars and gab,
And let your heirs pick up the tab.

 

.                                             – Dana Gioia

 

Gnarly? Withered? Drooping? Sere?
No, No, my dear!
Let no such imagery from Gioia
Even begin to annoy ya!

Trust, instead, to Rhina,
Whose eyesight’s keener,
Though it’s an old codger’s:
She says you’re gorgeous!

 

.                                       – Rhina Espaillat

Mike Peich
Doesn’t much like
A bad Cabernet or weak Pinot —
And he’s not afraid to tell you so.

.                                         –  David Rothman

 

Had not Mike helped design our book
the thing wouldn’t have garnered a second look
But there is no “had not,” you see
and – what’s more – he offered advice for free
Now that I know he’s on borrowed time,
spending someone else’s dime,
I wish he’d spend mine!
So Pinot, Cabernet, you name the type
I’ll send it with thanks near o’er ripe
Seventy times seven bottles to give
Hoping seventy times seven eternities you’ll live

.                                              – Joshua Wren

 

Mike Peich still has his fastball at his age
and throws that inside heat like Satchel Paige.
Our formal phenom is still on his game;
the Phillies’ closer cannot say the same.

.                                              – A. M. Juster

 

Mike Peich
Took a vast hike
Down to the wine cellar.
He is quite the feller.

Peich, Mike?
What’s not to like?
You tellin’ me
The bastard’s seventy?

Dianne’s old man
Made a big plan.
So what’s so baffling
About God’s laughling?

Old man Peich
Made a lucky strike.
I know it by dint
Of I seen it in print.

 .                                          –  David Mason