The purpose and place of poetry today: An interview with Dana Gioia

“I worry about my students,” says the award-winning Poet Laureate of California, “so many of whom are so preoccupied with social media and digital entertainment that they lack the contemplative space to develop their inner lives.”

(Photo courtesy of Dana Gioia)

Dana Gioia is Poet Laureate of California, an internationally recognized poet and critic, and the author of five collections of verse, including Interrogations at Noon (2001), which won the American Book Award, and 99 Poems: New & Selected (2016). His critical collections include Can Poetry Matter? (1992), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Award. He has written three opera libretti and edited twenty literary anthologies. His 2012 First Things essay, “The Catholic Writer Today”, started an international debate about the role of faith in contemporary literature. Gioia served as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009. He has been awarded 11 honorary doctorates. He has also received the Laetare Medal from Notre Dame, the Aiken-Taylor Award in Modern Poetry, and the Presidential Citizens Medal. Gioia is the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.

Gioia recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about his poetry, the role of the poet today, and why people do—and do not—read poetry.

CWR: Your first collection of poetry, Daily Horoscope, was published just over thirty years ago in 1986, and 99 Poems was published last year. Looking back, how would you describe your work and journey as a poet?

Dana Gioia: Choosing 99 poems from my life work for a selected volume compelled me think about what I’d accomplished as a poet. That is hard for any writer. But it is particularly agonizing for a Catholic because we tend to be so introspective and self-critical. We see our lives as spiritual journeys.

How have I changed over the years? My poems have become more direct, musical, and emotional. I began as a very intellectual young man who loved literature. The experiences of my life, especially the loss of my first son, deepened my sense that poetry needed to communicate with the reader.

The purpose of a poem isn’t to show how clever you are, though intelligence is not a liability. The purpose is to create something moving and memorable that connects to a reader’s truest sense of life.

CWR: Along the same lines, how is poetry and the work of poet understood today—in the academy and the dominant culture—compared to the 1980s?

Dana Gioia: The poetry world is still an active but isolated subculture. There have never been so many poets publishing, but few have any audience. Academic criticism has become ponderously theoretical and ideological. Almost no one reads it, not even in the English Department.

At the same time there is still a hunger for poetry among common readers. Just look at the popularity of institutions such as Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac and Poetry Out Loud, the national high school recitation contest. Poets and critics long for a wider audience, but they can’t overcome the cultural obstacles they themselves have created.

CWR: Why do people read poetry today?

Dana Gioia: People probably read poetry now for the same reasons they did a hundred years ago—to illuminate their lives. Poetry is the most moving and memorable form of literature. It is so concise that reading a single page can open up your imagination. Where else is wisdom so closely connected with pleasure?

CWR: Why did people stop reading poetry?

Dana Gioia: Yes, the more interesting question is why so many people have stopped reading—not only reading poetry but reading any literature. There are so many distractions in our daily lives, most of them self-inflicted. Many people can’t find the quiet space and focus necessary to read. I worry about my students, so many of whom are so preoccupied with social media and digital entertainment that they lack the contemplative space to develop their inner lives.

CWR: You have written some influential essays on the state of Catholic literature. In a nutshell, where do things stand in 2017?

Dana Gioia: The situation of Catholic writing in the U.S. is not good. The mainstream literary culture is not only secular but now often openly anti-Catholic. It is very hard for religious writers to get a fair hearing. Nonetheless there is a generation of smart young Catholic writers who are doing fine work. Some are creating journals and presses to publish and discuss new writers. Wiseblood Books is only a few years old, but it has already done important work. The same is true for new journals such as Dappled Things and Presence.

CWR: Who are some of the current Catholic authors—novelists and poets—whose work you admire and would recommend?

Dana Gioia: For novelists, let me start with the obvious. Alice McDermott and Ron Hansen are major Catholic novelists. For poetry, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell and Julia Alvarez are both writers with huge appeal. Among the younger generation, James Matthew Wilson is a formidable poet and critic. A healthy literary culture depends on capable critics who help guide and expand public taste. Nick Ripatrazone and Anthony Domestico are two superb younger critics. These young writers give me hope for the future.

Related at CWR: “The Arts—Agents of Change and Source of Enchantment” (Oct 15, 2013) | Dana and Ted Gioia discuss literature, music, education, business, culture, and the Catholic Faith.

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About Carl E. Olson 1227 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

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