Posts Tagged ‘“Dana Gioia”’

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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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

Congratulations, once again, to Dana Gioia!

Saturday, January 25th, 2014
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Dana at Stanford in 2007 (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Once again, Dana Gioia has a new honor: This time, the Sewanee Review has just announced that he will receive this year’s Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry.

Previous winners have included Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, W.S. Merwin, Anne Stevenson, Donald Hall, X.J. Kennedy, and others.

Dana, known for his poetry, criticism, and arts advocacy, holds the newly created Judge Widney Chair in Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.  He’s also a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and has received a number of honors in recent years, including the Laetare Medal. We’ve written about him here and here and here and here and, oh, perhaps a zillion other places.

His most recent collection is Pity the Beautiful – we’ve written about it here, and I’ve published excerpts from the volume, also here.  Writing in Best American Poetry, David Lehman stated unequivocally:  “I have no hesitation in declaring it to be his finest to date . . . These poems in which sentiment is refined by technical prowess, and simple words combine to make music and meaning merge marvelously and memorably.”

Pity-The-BeautifulI love all the Gioias – including those I have never met (his parents, for example) – so perhaps my favorite passage from the announcement is this one:

Gioia’s poetic philosophy—particularly his belief that poetry should “touch on those things that are central to people’s lives”—can be traced back to his childhood in Los Angeles, where his Sicilian father and Mexican mother raised him. He remembers that his mother, who, he says, received no education beyond high school, recited poems to him by heart and read others from a “crumpled old book that had belonged to her mother.” Because of this, Gioia says, “I have never considered poetry an intrinsically difficult art whose mysteries can be appreciated only by a trained intellectual.”

The awards ceremony will take place February 19 at the University of the South in Sewanee.  David Mason will give a lecture on Dana’s work on the 18th.

Weekend roundup: John Lennon, W.H. Auden, Geoffrey Hill, Danilo Kiš, and Dana Gioia

Sunday, December 8th, 2013
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Yoko Ono: Passages for Light

Yoko and me in 2009 (Photo: Toni Gauthier)

Today is the somber anniversary of John Lennon‘s assassination in 1980. In tribute, my sister, an indefatigable Beatles fan, posted my photo with his widow Yoko Ono on my Facebook page. I’ll do the same for the Book Haven – at left.

Meanwhile, a few articles culled from the weekend:

In The Telegraph today here, Alexander McCall Smith, author of What W.H. Auden Can Do for You (I know, I know…a utilitarian approach to the poet) picks out his five favorite W.H. Auden poems.  He has excellent taste. In fact, it coincides largely with my own.

mccall-smith-auden“In Praise of Limestone” and “Lullaby,” two personal favorites, are on his list. He calls the latter “one of the finest love poems in the English language.” I couldn’t agree more. As for the latter, “Who would have thought that there was so much to say about limestone and its merits?” Actually, I find his endorsement of limestone somewhat ambiguous. See what you think in the video below. In any case, I love the lines “The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,/Having nothing to hide.”  Joseph Brodsky shuffled over this line with one of his odd smiles, where the ends of his mouth went up while the center stayed down in a sort of suppressed chuckle.  “Tautological,” as I recall he said.

geoffrey-hillGeoffrey Hill isn’t a difficult poet, he is “one nut to crack among many,” according to Jeremy Noel-Tod, reviewing the poet’s latest volume, Broken Hierarchies, over here at The Sunday Times, if you can crack the paywall.  I can’t.

kisThis isn’t a new article, but one I finally got ’round to reading, to my profit: Adam Thirlwell considers the staggering neglect of Danilo Kiš, one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century, which is “morally and aesthetically, a scandal. It’s also, I think, some kind of literary koan or mystery. The optimist might try to analyse the possible pragmatic reasons for his obscurity – such as that comical bird perching on the final letter of his name; or his reckless savagery towards every ideology, menacing both the Right and the Left; or his political bad luck, to die shortly before the wars in Yugoslavia made the lands of his birth briefly famous, albeit for the wrong reasons. But none of these seems adequate. Or this optimist might then urbanely lament Kiš’s own lack of urbanity, his legendary irritable boredom with the world of social appearances.” One redress is Mark Thompson‘s inventive and erudite new biography-of-sorts, Birth Certificate.  Read about it at the Times Literary Supplement here.

DanaGioiaDana Gioia has always been upfront about his roots: “I think that being proud of your religion, your culture, and your ethnicity is the beginning of revival for Catholic artistic culture. As an individual, I refuse to be ashamed of my faith, my culture, or my family background.” Even more so now:  he’s written about the decline of Catholic culture in an essay entitled “The Catholic Writer Today.”  The article (here) was trapped behind a paywall several weeks ago, but has been officially liberated, and so was picked up this weekend by Andrew Sullivan today here, and has also been picked up here and here and here and here.  Dana has never shied away from controversy – his essay “Can Poetry Matter?” is still a gold standard for controversy, generating a record avalanche of mail after it was published in The Atlantic Monthly.  Looks like he’s about to do it again.

 

Defending the humanities: “Show, don’t tell.”

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013
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Take the “no-brainer option.” And hurry.

Earlier today, a friend brought my attention to Mark Bauerlein‘s defense of the humanities over at the New Criterion.  Like me, he is frustrated by the misguided arguments advanced to defend the humanities (I wrote about that recently, here and here and here).

His diagnosis of the disease:

In a word, the defenders rely on what the humanities do, not what they are. If you take humanities courses, they assure, you will become a good person, a critical thinker, a skilled worker, a cosmopolitan citizen. What matters is how grads today think and act, not what Swift wrote, Kant thought, or O’Keeffe painted. No doubt, all of the defenders love particular novels and films, symphonies and paintings, but those objects play no role in their best defense. Ironically, the approach resembles the very utilitarianism the defenders despise, the conversion of liberal education into a set of instruments for producing selected mentalities and capabilities.

pericles

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Pericles” in Washington D.C., supported by NEA

What an odd angle, and an ineffectual one. Think of it from the perspective of two individuals whose decisions directly affect the humanities, one of them a twenty-year-old sophomore picking classes for spring term, the other a sixty-year-old state legislator on a committee setting the year’s higher education budget. If the sophomore avoids humanities courses, she hurts enrollment numbers for the fields, a factor in how a dean allocates resources across departments. If the politician discerns no palpable gain from humanities instruction, he will steer funds to technical colleges and vocational programs. What will change their minds? …

The advantages they promise are too vague and deferred (“to know something of other civilizations,” “opportunities for integrative thinking,” “act adroitly,” “we’re human”), especially in contrast to other options (“major in speech therapy and become a speech therapist—there’s a shortage!”). Besides, social science fields claim the same insights, such as the anthropologist who rejoins, “And we don’t study what it means to be human?!” Hard scientists, too, might add, “You want critical thinking? Learn the scientific method!”

Tepid and half-credible, these fuzzy encouragements sound ever more vain and dispirited the more they circulate. They exhort the public to appreciate the humanities, but, with the grounds so abstract and promissory, the appeal falls flat. The failure comes down to bad marketing. The defenders misconstrue their audience. They think that support for the humanities will stand on the anticipation of a job skill, a civic sense, or moral self-improvement, but these future benefits are insufficient to youths worried about debt, politicians about revenue, and employers about workplace needs. No, students enroll and politicians fund and donors donate for a different reason, because they care about the humanities themselves, and they care about them because they’ve had a compelling exposure to a specific work. …

Then he brings up an interesting point.  Most of us were taught, somewhere in our zillion years of education, to “show, don’t tell” when writing. Have the folks in the humanities, of all places, forgotten that fundamental lesson? 

othello

Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s “Othello,” supported by NEA

My former boss Dana Gioia understood it well. As Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (2003–09), he was obligated to use the bully pulpit and summon local and national, public and private support for museums, orchestras, and after-school arts programs. It was a delicate task partly because of the suspicion conservatives retained for this agency at the center of the Culture Wars ten years earlier, and partly because saying the wrong thing could jeopardize the annual request for funding from Congress.

In the early 2000s, as No Child Left Behind pressed schools to cut arts, theater, dance, and music programs, organizations such as Americans for the Arts offered standard reasons for arts education including the commercial value of arts investments, better reading and math scores by kids in schools with music instruction, and behavioral improvements for kids in theater programs. Gioia recited them dutifully, but relied at critical times on another one: direct exposure. When he conceived a national initiative called Shakespeare in American Communities with a large in-school component, he might have presented it to Members of Congress in testimony backed by the usual moral and economic corollaries. But instead, he hosted an event on Capitol Hill for Members and invited 5th-graders from Rafe Esquith’s legendary Shakespeare program in Los Angeles to show up in Elizabethan garb and perform scenes and soliloquies for them.

midsummer

Shakespeare & Co.’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”

The event proved the point. The kids acted splendidly, and a few Members themselves grabbed a costume and declaimed lines, reenacting their own school days and drama club. The politicians had heard every rationale for cultural programs before, but the call of “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” they could not withstand. Gioia got the funding—and heaps of good will, too.

Exposure works better than explanation, participation better than entreaty. The humanities defenders, mistakenly, try to persuade and coerce when they should intrigue, excite, fascinate, and inspire. Why humanities defenders neglect this no-brainer option, why they lay down their strongest weapons, is a mystery only if we forget the turn from primary texts decades earlier.

Read the whole thing here.