Posts Tagged ‘“Dana Gioia”’

“A Titan”: Caribbean poet Derek Walcott’s last voyage, 1930-2017

Friday, March 17th, 2017
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Shakespearean energy and scale

A few weeks ago, when I met Robert Pinsky for a quick coffee on San Francisco’s North Beach, he passed on the sad news that Nobel poet Derek Walcott wasn’t doing well, and to expect the bad news soon. And so I did, all the more when a Facebook friend, in touch with Walcott’s daughter, said the poet had slipped into a coma some days ago. He died today at 87.

The official cause of death has not been cited, but I’m pretty certain the poet died in the place, if not the way, he would have wished: on his native St. Lucia in the Caribbean, the sea that was the lifelong inspiration for his poems and plays. “I go back to St. Lucia and the exhilaration I feel is not simply the exhilaration of homecoming and of nostalgia,” he once said. “It is almost an irritation of feeling: Well, you never got it right. Now you have another chance. Maybe you can try and look harder.

He was born on the island, and attended the newly established University College of the West Indies in Jamaica. After graduating in 1953 he moved to Trinidad. He was awarded the Nobel in 1992. He is best remembered for his epic poem Omeros. The Caribbean’s brutal colonial history, as well as the native beauty of these islands, were his themes.

“He’s a titan.” That was from Garrett Hongo, another islander from another ocean, the Pacific: a Japanese-American poet from Hawaii. He continued:  “I’m weeping quietly and slowly. I cannot even begin to think of all the ways he has inspired me at different times in my life since I was a boy in an audience of a theater weeping at hearing his words in the dark, stage rain glittering down on the floorboards in front of me.”

“He was kind and encouraging to me when I was starting out. And he once called out my name as I stood in an autograph line, waiting with others. He said something to me I will never forget.” What did he say? “It was praise, I’ll just say that.”

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Another island poet remembers.

Garrett had hoped to travel to St. Lucia in February for his birthday but was told he was ill and would not be seeing any visitors this year. He thought to present the essay that was a tribute to him, which had been presented at the Folk Center on St. Lucia. It didn’t happen. “He mana’o he aloha,” [I have a feeling of love] he said, in tribute.

According to NPR, when Walcott was teaching at Boston University 1984, he said that a book-length poem like Midsummer was a natural extension of the language all around him. “You would get some fantastic syntactical phenomena,” he said in an interview, “You would hear people talking in Barbados in the exact melody as a minor character in Shakespeare. Because here you have a thing that was not immured and preserved and mummified, but a voluble language, very active, very swift, very sharp. And that is going on still in all the languages of the Caribbean. So that you didn’t make yourself a poet — you entered a situation in which there was poetry.”

More from The Guardian:

Walcott continued his project to make the western canon his own, summoning up the spirits of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Yeats and Eliot in collections that explored his position “between the Greek and African pantheon”. His decision to write mostly in standard English brought attacks from the Black Power movement in the 1970s, which Walcott answered in the voice of a mulatto sea-dog in The Star-Apple Kingdom: “I have no nation now but the imagination./ After the white man, the niggers didn’t want me/ when the power swing to their side./ The first chain my hands and apologize, ‘History’ / the next said I wasn’t black enough for their pride.” While Omeros tackled the ghost of Homer head on, relocating Achilles, Helen and Philoctetes among the island fishermen of the West Indies.

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Accepting the Nobel from King Carl Gustav

In 2012, he told The Guardian that he felt that he was still defined as a black writer in the US and the UK. “It’s a little ridiculous. The division of black theatre and white theatre still goes on, and I don’t wish to be a part of any one of those definitions. I’m a Caribbean writer.”

We’ve quoted Dana Goia, California poet laureate and former chairman of the embattled National Endowment of the Arts, a lot in the last few days. Let us do so once more. This afternoon he said: “Derek Walcott was justly celebrated as the historic figure who entered the great tradition of English-language poetry with his Caribbean identity intact, thereby both enriching and transforming the canon. It’s less known what a superb playwright Walcott was. His theatrical legacy is in every way equal to his poetry. Foremost among his dramatic achievements was his reinvention of contemporary verse drama in plays bristling with Shakespearean energy.”

I had the same thought when reviewing his verse plays, The Haitian Trilogy fifteen years ago for The San Francisco Chronicle. I wrote that Walcott was attempting to re-create West Indian history on a canvas as large and mythic as Shakespeare’s War of the Roses:

Commenting about his plays to the Caribbean Quarterly in 1968, Walcott said, “I hope that there is a moment, or there are moments, when the thing becomes a poetry on stage; and I would prefer to eventually write a play which would be a poem.”

If so, Walcott has hit the target. “The Haitian Trilogy is like the great hull of a lost ship, its crushed timber shot through with starlight. And what lies at the bottom of the seas it once sailed is the inevitability of time, the inevitability of history to crush kings and the certitude of conquerors, the inevitability of remorse for things done and undone – and, as always, the ability of gold to betray men.”

Godspeed, Mr. Walcott. Requiescat in pace.

Postscript on 3/18: Courtesy Elizabeth Amrienwe have a 52-minute podcast with Derek Walcott at Boston University, on the theme “Poetry and Politics.” Irena Grudzinska Gross moderates. It’s here.

BREAKING NEWS: Finally, actual evidence that Trump plans to recommend eliminating the NEA and NEH

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017
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Vincenzo Camuccini’s commemoration of the day. He supported the arts, too.

It’s the Ides of March and President Trump has been busy with his knife.

This afternoon, Jane Chu, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, called in her staff to announce that the President has recommended the elimination of both cultural agencies, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. His budget will call for defunding both. A Republican White House political appointee was in the room during the meeting.

Harumph.

He supports the arts, too.

The decision now moves to the House of Representatives, where both cultural agencies have a great deal support, as we wrote about here. It’s time to flood the offices of your Congressional representative with letters and phone calls of support. Don’t know who your representative is? You’re not alone. Find it here.

“Now we know for sure where the president stands on the issue,” said Dana Gioia, California poet laureate and a former chairman of the NEA. “It is fortunate that in America we have a division of powers. The decision is now with Congress. I am confident that they will make the right decisions for our civic and cultural welfare.”

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Courage, Ms. Chu!

He added: “I urge everyone to write their representative in the House to speak for their cultural agencies.We want to win votes in the House!”

How is “defunding” different from the “elimination” of the agencies? An agency cannot be removed immediately. Its funding will be slashed over a period of several years as it winds down its operations.

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Grinch.

Seriously, though, if those hostile to the cultural agencies a quarter-of-a-century ago could not close the NEA – at a time when it was supporting photographs of crucifixes in urine – how will they successfully axe an agency that is now renowned for Shakespeare performances, jazz, and veterans writing about their war experiences? It seems little short of delusional. But let’s take no chances.

Speaking of William Shakespeare, let me repeat: it’s the Ides of March – you know, the day a mob of lynchers killed Julius Caesar. Let us echo Mark Anthony‘s words on this occasion: “Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war!”

Postscript 3/15: And the race is on: Twitchy reported this story about  here. But they were citing The Hill here, but The Hill was reporting from Sopan Deb‘s 7:45 p.m. article from The New York Times here. But you read it first here, folks. And had you not read it here at about 11.30 a.m., you would not be reading it anywhere else. Stay tuned, folks. Postscript on 3/16: London’s Independent names Humble Moi, if not the Book Haven, in its story here.

Keep writing letters, and don’t panic! More on Trump, Congress, and the future of the NEA.

Monday, March 13th, 2017
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Spoleto Festival USA 2015; Opening Ceremonies

The opening ceremonies of the NEA-funded Spoleto Festival USA 2015.

From last week’s New York Times:

“New York City sees itself as the cultural capital of the nation — if not the world — but its artistic community is suddenly vulnerable to budget cuts in Washington, where the administration of President Trump is considering eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, which provides millions of dollars each year to groups in the city.”

News flash: Donald Trump cannot eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, or any of the other federal agencies. Got that? That’s good. The New York Times didn’t. These agencies were created by Congress, and can only be eliminated by Congress.

However, budgets can be slashed. An agency can be starved, if not murdered. Will it happen?

At least one hero I know is working behind the scenes to make sure that it doesn’t. A few words to the Book Haven from Dana Gioia, former chairman of the NEA, over the weekend: “There now seems to be a bipartisan majority in both houses of Congress to support the NEA and NEH. It is still uncertain what President Trump will propose, but it won’t matter in the end. The budget is done by Congress, and they are set to preserve the cultural agencies.”

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Dana Gioia takes advice from a friend.

A few weeks ago we wrote about the rumors that Trump will trash the NEA and the NEH. We wrote about Dana’s radio interview about the NEA and what you, as a private citizen, should do to protect it. The upshot: write, write, write your congressional representatives! It needn’t be long. Just two or three sentences. Go here for Dana’s remarks.
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Here’s some good news: Democrats and Republicans are voicing support for the agencies, in light of the concern that the Trump administration will propose a 2018 budget that will strike at the tiny, but popular NEA.

Not that it would help balance the books in more than an infinitesimal way. The NEA receives about $150 million annually out of a more than $4 trillion federal budget – less than one-tenth of one percent of the budget. Too small to be anything more than symbolic – and why axe popular institutions as a gesture?

Someone sent me an interesting column by Jennifer Shutt of CQ Roll Call, entitled “Some Republicans Lukewarm on Killing Off Federal Arts Funding,” noting that the NEA has been targeted in the past. But right now? There isn’t much interest in slashing it. Some quotes from the article:

Budget Committee member and Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla: “I think it has a lot of support,” he said, when asked how many House GOP members would back continued NEA funding. “It’s not a lot of money in this budget, so I think there is considerable sentiment for it. And a considerable belief that it’s a fight not worth fighting because there is not much money there.”

Walker: a fan of the arts

Walker: a fan of the arts

Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee: He said he has not looked at NEA funding extensively but added that he is not inclined to support cutting funding for the arts. “My background has a lot of music-related events to it: I’m from a music past, and my daughter is in a lot of the local theater and maybe even looking to go to New York,” Walker said. “I appreciate the education that is found in the arts, so at this point I have no path to making any kind of hard cuts right now.”

Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Charlie Dent, R-Pa.:  Speaking broadly about the upcoming fiscal 2018 process, Dent said, “We simply cannot increase Department of Defense funding on the backs of the non-defense discretionary programs.”

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y.: Speaking during the members’ hearing in February, he said, “I know it’s symbolic for a lot of people, but it does do a lot of good things in a lot of great communities, like my community in Buffalo and western New York.”

Subcommittee Chairman Ken Calvert:  “The arts and the humanities touches every congressional district in the United States,” he said. “So you know there is a lot of support for that, and I certainly take that into consideration … we’ll be working together to try to resolve these things,” Calvert said.

There’s more from Dana in a February 27 NPR broadcast, “Former Leader Of National Arts Fund Says Organization Should Be Protected” – go here. Quote: “What the NEA really does is fund art programs that are, for the most part, created in your community, by people in your community, to serve your community.”

Will Trump trash the NEA and NEH? Here’s what to do.

Sunday, February 5th, 2017
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Charleston's Spoleto Festival USA opens in 2015

Spoleto Festival USA 2015; Opening Ceremonies

It was all over the social media: President Donald Trump is going to trash the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. I know, I know, everyone has said that for years. Even though the official U.S. agencies to promote the arts and the humanities only get tens-thousandths of a percent of the U.S. budget ($148m last year), they are regularly attacked – but now the threat looking less rhetorical and more existential. The source, however, seems to be a single story in The Hill that’s been repeated everywhere.

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Dana with Doctor Gatsby. (Photo: Star Black)

California poet laureate Dana Gioia, former chairman of the NEA, appeared on WNYC’s Studio 360 this weekend, in a discussion with novelist Kurt Andersen, to discuss the prospects. The link is here.

“The NEA is very efficiently run nowadays,” he said. “The staff is small. Most of the money goes out the door” – that is, to individuals and groups in the arts. “The NEA does not subsidize the American arts. It doesn’t have enough money to subsidize anybody.” Rather, it serves as a catalyst for local groups in communities, and the imprimatur of the NEA means that an individual or group can be more successful in raising its own funding in the future.

Nor are the awards made only to coastal elites. He pointed out the NEA’s Shakespeare program, which brings professional-caliber Shakespeare to places that don’t have professional theater companies. It’s visited 4,000 towns – and these are small towns, for the most part.

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Menotti (Photo: Carl Van Vechten)

What would he say to President Trump? “The presence of art in schools and the presence of art in communities makes them more economically viable. They become places that are desirable to live in, desirable to locate businesses in, desirable to invest in. This is probably one of the cheapest economic development programs that the United States has. That’s my Trumpean argument. It’s not the argument I would make to a cultural person.”

“When you do something positive, it tends to be positive in many ways,” he continued. He pointed out that Charleston forty years ago was a dying community. The mayor talked to a gay, Italian-American opera composer, Gian Carlo Menotti. The Spoleto Festival USA was born. “It tranformed Charleston into the most attractive city in the American South,” with galleries, restaurants, and huge local employment, he said.

“Donald Trump does not create the budget – he can suggest a budget, but Congress does.” He recommended that everyone write to his or her representative in Congress, a short, two- or three-sentence letter: “As a constituent, I am concerned about protecting budget of NEA.”

“I guarantee you that any member of the House who gets 500 individual letters on an issue will begin to change his or her mind. They will act on it,” he said. “We need American culture to win the battles. We will win this battle.”

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.

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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
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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
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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.
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(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
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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:

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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
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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:

.

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.