Posts Tagged ‘Garrison Keillor’

Dana Gioia’s 99 Poems: plaudits, readings, an award, and an evening at Stanford

Saturday, May 28th, 2016

Dana Gioia at Stanford’s Humanities House on May 5.

Dana Gioia and his 99 Poems: New and Selected (Graywolf Press) have been getting a lot of attention. California’s current poet laureate had a reading from his new collection at Stanford’s new Humanities House on May 5 (an occasion that also doubled as a family reunion afterwards), and the following week he received the Denise Levertov Award in Seattle on May 11. This week, a reading at Kepler’s in Menlo Park on the 26th.

There’s more: A.M. Juster (we’ve written about his work on Petrarch here) has an article, “The Case for Dana Gioia,” in the current Claremont Review of Books here. An excerpt on Dana’s career:

99PoemsThough Gioia continued to publish poems, essays, reviews, and libretti, he came to devote more time to public service. He received broad praise, after some initial grumbling, for his tenure as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009. His Poetry Out Loud program, a poetry recitation competition for high school students, has become a blowout success, particularly among recent immigrants. He also initiated programs that promoted community discussions of poetry, brought Shakespeare to mainstream audiences, and helped returning veterans relate and cope with their war experiences.

Now 65, Gioia’s new collection of brief essays, Poetry As Enchantment, is a quieter and more reflective expansion of the themes in Can Poetry Matter? He defends poetry as a spiritual need, partially resistant to the tools of New Criticism and later schools of literary theory. His populist argument is rhetorically brilliant. Gioia undercuts a likely objection by including the songlike chants of Ezra Pound’s verse as evidence for his proposition, even though Pound was instrumental in transforming modern poetry into obscurities academics pored over and everyone else ignored. Enchantment also cites the work of Rainer Maria Rilke, William Blake, and the surrealists to bolster its point.

Though Gioia’s role as a cultural warrior and arts leader would be sufficient to make him a minor figure in American literary history, his time in public service damaged his literary productivity. Thankfully, he is back on a mission with 99 Poems, a “new and selected” collection likely to be a future candidate for inclusion in the canon.

Dana is one of the few poets in the world to have an MBA – from Stanford, no less. He worked at General Foods in New York, eventually rising to vice-president. The story is retold by a former colleague, Rochelle Newman-Carrasco, in  “A Poet Laureate, Jell-O, and Me” over at the Lunch Ticket:


The Gioia clan at Stanford, May 5.

I attended Dana Gioia’s poetry workshop on The Poetic Line and listened to him read Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “We Real Cool” twice—once to accentuate the rhymes and once the way it was written. As he discussed strategies of syntax and stops, I could clearly see Gioia, the client, the man I knew more than two decades prior—the one who seemed different from other corporate executives even then.

When we had worked together, I was in my early twenties, he was in his thirties, and aside from a client crush sparked by his unchanged good looks and resonant voice, I was particularly enamored with his ability to simplify complex marketing ideas, communicating only what was essential. He was also one of the few clients who not only got the idea of culturally-specific marketing, but also seemed to embrace it. All too often, the average white male (or even female) marketing execs struggled with this new way of looking at the world. Nothing about Gioia was average. The son of a Mexican-American mother and an Italian-American father, Gioia was no stranger to cultural nuances, but there was more to his distinct style than that.  He wasn’t as literal as many of his corporate MBA-trained colleagues, and he approached problem solving with an open mindedness and imagination that was more often associated with liberal arts types. At the time, I had no clue that he was a poet and neither did anyone else at General Foods or the Agency. Likewise, he didn’t know that I was an actress-writer in a costume, playing a role. There was a time when such things were better left unsaid.

…What we conceal
Is always more than what we dare confide….
From Unsaid, by Dana Gioia

jelloOne day in 1992, I was informed that Gioia had left General Foods. The news came as a surprise to everyone. He had turned the Jell-O brand around. We had even worked on Jell-O Jigglers together, a product innovation that helped grow sales. I heard something about his leaving to become a writer, but it wasn’t anything too specific. I remember thinking, That makes sense. He was sensitive and soulful in an industry where souls were sold, not protected.

In his essay, “Being Outed,” Gioia writes about the Esquire  article that stripped him of his literary anonymity. “When I entered corporate life, I resolved to keep my writing secret,” writes Gioia. “There was no advantage in being known as the company poet. For nearly a decade I succeeded in keeping my double life hidden from my co-workers.”

Oh, and listen to Garrison Keillor read Dana’s “Places to Return” last month (April 24) on the Writer’s Almanac – it’s here.

Leonard Nathan: At the end, still himself, says poet Jane Hirshfield

Monday, September 12th, 2011

"Finely woven intelligence"

I “met” the poet and translator Leonard Nathan in 2000 – actually, it was a telephone interview, hence the quotes.  I never had the privilege of meeting face-to-face with one of Czesław Miłosz‘s earliest translators, and the man who translated Anna Swir into English by the Nobel laureate’s side.

After our short interview, we kept in email touch over the years.  I told him about my plans to compile the essays for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, and he contributed his previously unpublished memoir.

Some time afterward, I got a phone call from him out of the blue.  He saw my name on a his phone list, and wondered if I was a photographer – or who, actually, I was.  He was his usual chipper and polished self, but I had already lost a mother to the early onset variety of Alzheimer’s in 1988, and the odd and cheerful phone call struck a familiar chord.

During her reading of her latest collection of poems, Come, Thief, at Kepler’s tonight, my friend Jane Hirshfield described how Leonard Nathan had been very open about his disease, calling Jane before she had even noticed anything amiss to warn her he would be having good days and bad days.

Jane told the story of visiting him in a nursing home when he was in a more advanced stage of the disease.  When she asked what to expect, she was given a “dire, dire” description of his condition.

She was instead amazed at “how much he was still the eloquent, educated, finely woven intelligence he had always been.” Even as his mind deteriorated, he would be endlessly discussing Beaumarchais, or any of his other literary preoccupations.

So she wrote this poem for him, “Alzheimer’s”:

A good day for Jane

When a fine old carpet
is eaten by mice,
the colors and patterns
of what’s left behind
do not change.
As bedrock, tilted,
stays bedrock,
its purple and red striations unbroken.
Unstrippable birthright grandeur.
“How are you,” I asked,
not knowing what to expect.
“Contrary to Keatsian joy,” he replied.

“I couldn’t come up with a line like that on a good day,” said Jane.

(By the way, it was otherwise a good day for Jane today:  Garrison Keillor read her “I Ran Out Naked in the Sun” this morning on “The Writer’s Almanac” – it’s here.  Her “Three-Legged Blues” is here, with a blues musical setting by Kay Ryan‘s brother-in-law, David Fredrick Lochelt, here.)

Garrison Keillor, August Kleinzahler, and the perils of one-sided fisticuffs

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

A polished schtick (Photo: Andrew Harrer)

Sam Leith at the Guardian revisits August Kleinzahler‘s 2004 Poetry magazine “full-frontal assault” on Garrison Keillor’s “appalling taste”.

The occasion was the publication of Keillor’s anthology, Good Poems.

Kleinzahler wrote this:

Now, had Keillor not “strayed off the reservation” and kept to his Prairie Home Companion show with its Norwegian bachelor farmers and Lutheran bake sales (a sort of Spoon River Anthology as presented by the Hallmark Hall of Fame), comfort food for the philistines, a contemporary, bittersweet equivalent to the Lawrence Welk Show of years past, I’d have left him alone. But the indefatigable and determined purveyor of homespun wisdom has wandered into the realm of fire, and for his trespass must be burned.

Full disclosure: I was asked to review Keillor’s poetry anthology some years back (was it for the San Francisco Chronicle? I can’t remember) and I gave it a pass.  I’d seen nothing in the vaunted Prairie Home Companion to convince me that Keillor’s tastes would make his anthology worthwhile reading (and I gave the same pass, for the same reasons, when Camille Paglia‘s anthology came out).  So as far as aesthetics go, I’m probably more along the Kleinzahler end of the spectrum, except for the ire.  Of Kleinzahler’s long-ago review of Keillor, “No Antonin Artaud with the Flapjacks, Please,” Leith writes:

I looked it up: a dismissive review that took two and a half thousand words in the dismissing. It’s been said that criticising P.G. Wodehouse is like “taking a spade to a souffle“. This was something similar; and if you hit a souffle with a spade, you get egg on your face.

Keillor’s taste in poetry may differ from Kleinzahler’s, and his understanding of what it’s for may differ – caricaturally, he thinks it does the soul good, and that makes Kleinzahler wince with embarrassment.  … But it strikes me as odd that the response is not indifference but active rage …

Leith continued:

The divide isn’t actually between people who want to stitch rhymed verse into samplers and sell it in tourist shops, and those so high-minded they think Basil Bunting was a sellout. It’s between people happy for both views to co-exist, and people for whom it isn’t enough to play in the Premier League – you have to be energetically affronted by the existence of Sunday league.

In a calmer moment (Photo: Poem Present)

It isn’t elitist to think that Four Quartets is chewier, profounder and more artful than If or The Song of Hiawatha: it is simply common sense. Indeed, it is so obviously common sense that to be shrill in asserting it makes you look . . . well, weird. Is poetry so sickly that Geoffrey Hill catches a cold when Pam Ayres sneezes? Is the whole project of making high art threatened by the existence of low art? Nobody sensible can think so.

So the Keillors – the live-and-let-live brigade – will always look bigger than the Kleinzahlers. They are in a position to extend what you might call repressive tolerance. As it happens, to view Keillor as a dim, benevolent sweetie-pie – a manatee ripe for harpooning – is to be naive in any case: it is to mistake him for his persona. Nobody who remembers his caustic review of Bernard-Henri Lévy‘s book about America in the New York Times could make the mistake: Keillor skewered Lévy as “a French writer with a spatter-paint prose style and the grandiosity of a college sophomore”, and ended: “Thanks for coming. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

But for Kleinzahler, who swallows the persona in one gulp, Keillor is prepared to kill with kindness. His response, years after the attack, is one of superbly malevolent benignity: “I believe in vigorous free speech. Does no damage whatsoever that I can see. Bless his heart. I wish him well.”

I remember well Keillor’s scalding review of Bernard-Henri Lévy – “On the Road avec M. Lévy” – when I was briefly in the Frenchman’s thrall. It’s a classic.

Otherwise, however, I could never quite “get” the charm of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion. Too often I, too, have swallowed the schtick in one gulp  – though I shouldn’t have needed Leith to remind me.

The only part of Keillor I ever really enjoyed was the song below:

First the Book Haven — then the world. The Huck Finn “n-word” ignites the nation.

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

A classic: "a book which people praise and don't read."

Well, well, well.  We don’t like to brag … not much, anyway … but the whole world seems to have picked up on the Huck Finn and the n-word story, which started here a few day ago, thanks to a reader tip.  (If you find a story prior to our Dec. 31 post, let us know. We’re curious.)  Another case of the power of the blog, even a relatively obscure one.  We’re not Huffington Post, after all.

We started it, Books Inq picked it up Jan. 2, Bookshelves of Doom carried it later in the same day … then Publisher’s Weekly ran a story yesterday, the Entertainment Weekly published an article here, which was deluged with over 1,000 comments.

Unsurprisingly, EW writes:

Unsurprisingly, there are already those who are yelling “Censorship!” as well as others with thesauruses yelling “Bowdlerization!” and “Comstockery!”

Actually, we used the word “Bowdlerization,” and think people are smart enough to know the origins of the word and the 19th century editor Thomas Bowdler who made Shakespeare “respectable” for the fainting couch crowd.

EW continues:

The original product is changed for the benefit of those who, for one reason or another, are not mature enough to handle it, but as long as it doesn’t affect the original, is there a problem?

Frank Wilson at Books Inq exploded at that one in a post titled “Dumb Reaction“:   “Well, the point is that it does affect the original. Something else from Wittgenstein: ‘One age misunderstands another; and a petty age misunderstands all others in its own nasty way.'”

CNN picked up the EW story — and from there, the world.  From CNN:

Quote of the day: “What’s next? We take out the sexual innuendo from Shakespeare? Or make Lenny Small “normal”? How about cut all the violence out of Clockwork Orange? ” –AA

A pretty close paraphrase of what we said.

A couple more comments:

jujube said, “So it’s a children’s edition of ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ Adults can and should still read the original. I don’t get the outrage.”

Bobby said, “So we take the ‘n’ word out of Huck Finn, but all of these rappers and hip hop stars still say it every other word, and that’s fine?”

Publishers Weekly actually went so far as to write the n-word, which occurs in Twain’s book 219 times.  It also noted that Twain himself defined a “classic” as “a book which people praise and don’t read.” This one may be different.  Its article also notes that the new edition dispenses with the “in-word” — that is to say, “Injun.”

Dr. Gribben recognizes that he’s putting his reputation at stake as a Twain scholar,” said [NewSouth cofounder Suzanne] La Rosa. “But he’s so compassionate, and so believes in the value of teaching Twain, that he’s committed to this major departure. I almost don’t want to acknowledge this, but it feels like he’s saving the books. His willingness to take this chance—I was very touched.”

We posted a reply from NewSouth this morning as a postscript on our original post.

By the way, Garrison Keillor wrote a reaction to the newly published Autobiography of Mark Twain in the New York Times a few weeks ago here: “Samuel L. Clemens was a cheerful promoter of himself, and even after he’d retired from the lecture circuit, the old man liked to dress up as Mark Twain…”  Spoiler:  He didn’t like it much.