Posts Tagged ‘Mel Pryor’

“We don’t lead global lives!” Dana Gioia gives a passionate defense of the arts at inaugural Sierra poetry festival

Tuesday, June 6th, 2017
Share

 

Dana Gioia_5

California state poet laureate launches the first-evan Sierra Poetry Festival. (Photo: Radu Sava)

Dana Gioia, California’s poetry laureate, vowed to visit each of California’s 58 counties, and by gum he’s keeping his word. He’s visited Los Angeles County, 9.11 million, and Alpine County, 1,114. He also helped launch the first-ever Sierra Poetry Festival in Grass Valley in April (that means he gets to check off Nevada County on his list). While there, he gave perhaps the most passionate and eloquent defense of the arts, literature, and poetry I’ve ever heard.

Sierra Poetry_1

Poet from afar: U.K.’s Mel Pryor leads a workshop at Sierra festival. (Photo: Radu Sava)

The former chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts lauded the people gathered in the room, some of whom had come from some distance and personal sacrifice, praising them as people who have “dedicated significant part of our lives, in a broader sense, to something our society doesn’t much value. We are people at odds with the values that are trumpeted around us in the media.”

Those values, he said, could be summarized in three terms: “money, power, and other visible forms of social status.” That’s why, he said of one of his predecessors as state poet laureate, Al Young, who was in the audience “operated at a level any celebrity chef would look down upon.”

He countered society’s values with “three words our society is suspicious of, and professors of literature absolutely hate: beauty, truth, goodness. Are there three more discredited words in our society?”

Dana cited Robert Frost‘s words, that a contemplation of stillness moves you from delight to wisdom. “That is what it’s about. To make something that is beautiful. … to get something right.”

Sierra Poetry_12

Pablo Frasconi on William Everson (Photo: Radu Sava)

Intellectual rationales don’t capture the motivation that drives us. The real reasons, he said, are “experiential” – “to restore our souls, to give us a drink of what refreshes us.”

“We bear a certain kind of spiritual wisdom,” he said. “It’s something that happened to all of us. We saw and experienced, at a really very early age, the transformation that beauty affords. We encountered things that changed who we were.”

“You have this beauty, which leads to joy, which becomes wisdom, which becomes a kind of helpful humility about what you can possess, and where and what you are. That has happened to everyone in this room repeatedly. Once you experience that, you want more. You will bring yourself at great expense and great difficulty” to those places that provide such occasions, whether Yosemite, the National Gallery of Art, or a small poetry celebration in the Sierra Foothills.

“It awakens you to the full possibilities of your own humanity,” he said. “What we are sold by society are generic, prepackaged versions of what our lives should be and how we should experience them– and what it’s going to cost us to have those predictable experiences,” he said. “Apple, Amazon, Netflex: they don’t want beauty, they want to own beauty. They ‘like’ art, they want to own art – and turn it into entertainment.”

“They want to take all the unknowns and pre-package them, and sell them as a predictable product that they can own as a kind of property. We’re rather helpless and hopeless in front of this enormous global power which is trying to narrow and define our lives in ways that are not the way we want to live. It’s not the kind of mystery that has to unfold unpredictably and personally,” he said. “Joy is something I cannot own.”

“We don’t lead global lives. We don’t lead generic lives.” Speaking for myself (and the Book Haven), that’s one reason why I’m so uncomfortable about the politicization of our culture, which is another attempt to co-opt the private sphere, the personal “aha” into a collective, ready-made experience, which is necessarily narrower and more generic. This trend, of course, is accelerated by the social media, by television, and even by our academic institutions.

Dana Gioia_11

“The battles are mostly local.” (Photo: Radu Sava)

I was happy to hear, at the end of the day, Dana’s eloquent championing of the writer William Everson, in an onstage conversation with filmmaker Pablo Frasconi, who is doing a film on the too little-known poet of the San Francisco Renaissance.

During the morning address, Dana also mentioned Everson, recalling his frequent misrepresentation and neglect over the years. It returned him to his main line of thought: In his research, he recalled a Poetry Foundation article that was riddled with errors, and noted that, in 1947, Everson became “a poet of national importance.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Dana asked. “Poetry is not something that happens and is judged in New York or Paris or London. We lead our lives in a particular place, in a particular time, in a particular body.”

“We have battles to defend that. The battles are mostly local. Why is there no arts education in local schools? It’s not because anyone in Washington made that decision.” Those decisions are made at the city and county level.

Yet an education in poetry, literature, the arts, is the way we shape our students’ emotions and intuition, he continued. “To produce people who are not educated in that experiential part of their humanity,” he said, is to process students who are “not educated, not able to take their particular life into a complicated society in the complicated business of living to have a productive life.”

33840183316_07fe90f1a0_k

Dana poses for a photo with Humble Moi, with flowers by the matchless Eliza Tudor, who organized the event. (Photo: Mary Gioia)

“We are here because we know these things are of value,” he said to the audience. “It rests on us unfortunately to communicate those beliefs to society, be it in the U.S. senate and House of Representatives, where unfortunately I have spent a great deal of my energy and time in the last three months – not to mention the previous decade – or the local schools boards or county supervisors.”

May the Book Haven add a note to this? Too often, arts education has yielded to a wrong-headed notion of self-expression, rather than as an apprenticeship to something more enduring and more profound than the limited ego and short-lived self. For example, it is a lesson in humility to write write essays, articles, even blogposts, and then read Great Expectations on the train, or memorize Shakespeare on the elliptical, just as it must be for an artist (or anyone else really) to study Giotto before returning to the commercial art studio. It subsumes us into something greater than ourselves, and one is happy to put a nail into the most obscure cupola in the magnificent edifice of civilization. It teaches one humility, and we could all use a little o’ that.

“I love California, I want to see every corner of California. Every place matters,” said the Angelino poet as he concluded his remarks. And a few hours later he hit the road again. I got an email from him a little while later – he’d traveled over a thousand miles by car in the past ten days, not counting flights to and from Los Angeles, where he currently holds the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.

Listen to his whole talk here. Kudos to Eliza TudorExecutive Director of Nevada County Arts Council, for pulling off a smashing launch of a promising annual event. And congratulations to Molly Fisk, Nevada County’s inaugural poet laureate!