Posts Tagged ‘Paul Salerni’

“Pity the Beautiful”: The necessary angel and the sound of light

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

From music to words

A postcard in the mail, telling me Dana Gioia‘s new book, Pity the Beautiful, is officially out. It’s the first collection since he stepped down as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in 2009.  The postcard, with an amiable handwritten note from Mary Gioia,  invited me to a reading and discussion at Kepler’s in Menlo Park on Wednesday, May 2, at 7 p.m.  (Another one, on May 15, will take place at the Booksmith, 1644 Haight Street, San Francisco.)

I already wrote about Dana’s ghost story here, and a little about the book itself here, and about the magical evening in Santa Rosa, when Dana read some of the poems to me and his wife Mary here.

I was intrigued that the new book is dedicated to Morten Lauridsen, with the words “the necessary angel” beneath the composer’s name.  Some years ago Dana sent me Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna – a marvel.  I’d never heard of the composer before Dana’s introduction – he’s largely overlooked in the MSM, though widely performed in choral music circles.

The composer said in an interview with Bruce Duffie:

I’m getting all this mail on the Lux Aeterna, because it’s a large cycle; every one of the five movements relates to light, a universal symbol in so many ways. It was a great deal of pleasure to write that particular cycle, and I wrote it as my mother was in the process of dying, so it was a way of, as so many artists do, of dealing with that kind of a situation in an artistic way. … On Lux Aeterna and so many of my works, I like the immediacy — to draw my listener in immediately, to hold their attention, to transport them, to do something to do them on some level, whether it’s excite them, or move them, or elate them, or whatever.

Necessary angel on left

The connection is no surprise, really.  Dana began his studies at Stanford with aspirations to become a composer.  Since changing directions towards poetry and business (he has an M.B.A.), he has created the libretti for two operas – Alva Henderson‘s Nosferatu, and Paul Salerni‘s Tony Caruso’s Last Broadcast. Fewer know Dana was one of the champions of Derrière Guard, founded by the composer Stefania de Kenessey.

Lauridsen got a National Medal of Arts in 2007 – during Dana’s term as chairman of the NEA.  Then Dana stepped down and became the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California – where Lauridsen has been a professor of composition at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music for more than three decades.

So Dana has at last returned to poetry full time.  The new collection has many fine poems, and a few translations.  The title poem is likely to get the most notice, but I know the one I’ll remember is the three-part “Special Treatments Ward”:



So this is where the children come to die,
hidden on the hospital’s highest floor.
They wear their bandages like uniforms
and pull their IV rigs along the hall
with slow and careful steps. Or bald and pale,
they lie in bright pajamas on their beds,
watching another world on a screen.

The mothers spend their nights inside the ward,
sleeping on chairs that fold out into beds,
too small to lie in comfort. Soon they slip
beside their children, as if they might mesh
those small bruised bodies back into their flesh.
Instinctively they feel that love so strong
protects a child. Each morning proves them wrong.

No one chooses to be here. We play the parts
that we are given – horrible as they are.
We try to play them well, whatever that means.
We need to talk though talking breaks our hearts.
The doctors come and go like oracles,
their manner cool, omniscient, and oblique.
There is a word that no one ever speaks.


I put this poem aside twelve years ago
because I could not bear remembering
the faces it evoked, and every line
seemed – still seems – so inadequate and grim.

What right had I whose son had walked away
to speak for those who died? And I’ll admit
I wanted to forget. I’d lost one child
and couldn’t bear to watch another die.

Not just the silent boy who shared our room,
but even the bird-thin figures dimly glimpsed
shuffling deliberately, disjointedly
like ancient soldiers after a parade.

Whatever strength the task required I lacked.
No well-stitched words could suture shut these wounds.
And so I stopped …
But there are poems we do not choose to write.


The children visit me, not just in dream,
appearing suddenly, silently –
insistent, unprovoked, unwelcome.

They’ve taken off their milky bandages
to show the raw, red lesions they still bear.
Risen they are healed but not made whole.

A few I recognize, untouched by years.
I cannot name them – their faces pale and gray
like ashes fallen from a distant fire.

What use am I to them, almost a stranger?
I cannot wake them from their satin beds.
Why do they seek me? They never speak.

And vagrant sorrow cannot bless the dead.


(Meet you at the reading on Wednesday at Kepler’s.  And if you’re too far away, check out these 2011 interviews with Dana and Martin Perlich here.  Below, Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium – he says “it’s become the best-selling octavo in the history of Theodore Presser, who has been in business for over two hundred years now. We’ve had perhaps 3,000 performances of it.”)

Dana Gioia in WLT: “It’s better to be noticed than ignored”

Sunday, August 21st, 2011

"Fame gives you the freedom to pursue your interests" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The new September issue of World Literature Today is out, including an interview with poet, and former NEA Chairman, Dana Gioia. The Q&A was conducted by WLT‘s managing editor Michelle Johnson (who was also my editor for the July/August article on eminent Polish poet Julia Hartwig).

Not online, alas – but here are a few excerpts:

On fame:

I try to accept the good and the bad with equanimity.  As Oscar Wilde observed, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” I have been lucky to have enjoyed a degree of celebrity across my career, and the experience has taught me a lot about the nature of contemporary fame. Notoriety requires you to be simplified, usually into a neat and tidy headline. First, I was widely discussed as the “businessman-poet.” Then I became notorious as the ringleader of the New Formalists.  Soon thereafter I became famous as the literary maverick who wrote “Can Poetry Matter?” Then I became a public figure as the champion of arts and literacy who ran the National Endowment for the Arts. Each of these reputations contained an element of truth and a simplification. But it’s better to be noticed than ignored, and properly used, fame gives you the freedom to pursue your interests as a writer.

On his legacy as one of the proponents of “New Formalism”:

It’s easy to forget how odd things were back in the 1970s. Form and narrative were almost universally denounced as dead literary modes. They were considered retrograde, repressive, elitist, antidemocratic, phallocentric, and even (I’m not making this up) un-American. It was impossible to publish a formal or narrative poem in most magazines. One journal even stated its editorial policy as, “No rhyme or pornography.” Poems wee supposed to be free-verse lyric utterances in a confessional or imagistic style. I’m happy to say that journals and presses are now open to formal or narrative poetry. This is a direct result of the so-called “Poetry Wars,” the long and loud debates over these issues that lasted from the early 1980s through the 1990s. …

I had no interest in making rhyme and meter the dominant aesthetic. What I fought for – and one really did have to fight back then – was for the poet’s freedom to use whatever style he or she felt was right for the poem. I can’t imagine a poet who wouldn’t want to have all the possibilities of the language available, especially the powerful enchantments of meter, rhyme, and narrative. I never saw the movement as a rejection of modernism. Why throw away the greatest period of American poetry?

What’s next?

America's mystical composer gets National Medal of Arts

I am most eager to work with artists I admire unreservedly. Collaboration depends upon talent – the pairing of two talents that inspire each other. Morten Lauridsen, who seems to me one of the greatest living composers, wants to create a work together. That is very exciting. Helen Sung and I are going to write a jazz song cycle. The composer William Bolcolm has suggested doing a musical setting of my narrative poem “Haunted” for a pianist and an actor. Lori Laitman is writing a song cycle using my translations of Montale’s love poems. Paul Salerni and I have sketched out a dance opera. I also have a third opera subject in mind, but it is still in the early stages. But, of course, the important thing is to keep writing poems.

The article also included a poem from his forthcoming collection Pity the Beautiful (2011, Graywolf), titled “Finding a Box of Family Letters.” I thought it sounded familiar.  Indeed, it was. He read it to me a year ago, over wine at his house in Santa Rosa, at the same time he read “Haunted,” which I very much look forward to hearing with Bolcom’s musical setting.  The poem made a very strong impression on me then, and also when it was published in the Hudson Review some time later.

Some time ago, Dana sent me a DVD of Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna – please, please go find it, if you haven’t heard it.  He’s largely unheralded in the MSM, but is perhaps the most popular choral composer in the U.S.  Moreover, Lauridsen has been called “”the only American composer in history who can be called a mystic.”

By the by, the magazine also has an essay by Jane Hirshfield, on American poetry.  Haven’t read it yet.

Getting ready for Halloween: Dana Gioia’s ghost story

Monday, October 25th, 2010

“I don’t believe in ghosts,” he said, “such nonsense.
But years ago I actually saw one.”
He seemed quite serious, and so I asked.

That time of year...

So opens Dana Gioia‘s new ghost story. A fitting topic as we draw closer to Halloween.  (And to All Saints’.  And to All Souls’.)

I wrote earlier about visiting Dana in Santa Rosa last August, when he read his then-unpublished poems to me, which included the “Haunted,”  a short story in verse.  It’s unpublished no more: so I was delighted  when the Hudson Review arrived in my mailbox, courtesy of Dana.  The Hudson Review comes with a CD, including an introduction, a reading, and a short interview.  Dana refrained from publishing new literary work during his six years as NEA chairman — so this publication marks a comeback after long absence.

The 200-line poem (the same length as Robert Conquest‘s “Getting On”) is in blank verse, but with so much chiming — internal rhyming, assonance, and other tricks of the trade — that there were times I would have sworn it was rhymed verse.

Dana tells a short story in verse (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Dana is a strong advocate for narrative poetry.  “There was a time when you wanted to tell a story, you told it in verse,” said Dana.  Look at Homer.  Or Shakespeare.  Poetry is now mostly confined to short, lyric utterances.  People who want stories turn to novels and drama instead.  “When poetry lost that audience, it lost something that was absolutely essential to its vitality.”

That said, “It’s really hard to write a good narrative poem,” said Dana, adding that he has abandoned a number of efforts over the years.  “You have to have a compelling story, a narrative that moves forward,” all the while “condensing this into essentially lyric medium.” A ghost story requires even more:   Atmosphere is imperative for ghost story, said Dana, noting that Edgar Allan Poe‘s “The Raven” is composed almost entirely of atmospheric effects.  Dana said he had to “build the setting room by room.”

When a narrative poem fails, it’s because “either the story is just not good, they cannot create forward momentum” or else “the language is not good, it’s prosaic.”

Dana says “Haunted”  is somewhat “Jamesian,” and that may be something of a weakness.  His plots, like Henry James’s, consist largely of the states of mind of the characters, rather than in dialogue or a series of events.  This was true also in “Counting the Children,” one of Dana’s best-known poems from Gods of  Winter — another narrative poem.  Of the two, I prefer this new poem, certainly because it reflects (oddly enough) a more familiar range of experiences and states of mind — from the experience of evil (a more intense brush than the one Dana describes, I’m afraid), to the experiences of ghosts, to the illusion that “We thought we could/create a life made only of peak moments” (did anyone not think that at 25?)

The poem’s antagonist is Mara, launching the poem’s curious series of reversals, the equation of light with darkness:

Do you know what it’s like to be in love
with someone bad?  Not simply bad for you,
but slightly evil?  You have to decide
either to be the victim or accomplice.
I’m not the victim type. That’s what she liked.

Young Marian Seldes would have been "magnificent" as ghost, said Dana

Yet, the unnamed protagonist said, “She seemed to shine/as movie stars shine, made only of light.”

And later, of his ghost, he recalled:  “She seemed at once herself and her own reflection/shimmering on the surface of clear water/where fleeting shadows twisted in the depths.” and “Her pale skin shined like a window catching sunlight,/both bright and clear, but chilling to the touch.”

Is the poem autobiographical? “These things did not happen to me autobiographically,” he said, “a bit of this, a bit of that happened, a person I met a house I saw, all worked its way into the story” — even the ghost, though Dana said he doesn’t believe in them.

A suitable theme for Halloween.  But a day after the arrival of the Hudson Review in my mailbox, I received an American Opera Classics CD of Paul Salerni‘s Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast — called “Opera in ten short scenes on a libretto by Dana Gioia.”  I haven’t listened to it yet.

Dana has been busy indeed.  But then, he always is.