The decline of culture, the loss of beauty—and the surprising resurgence of poetry

“We worry that the Church has lost a vital connection to its own traditions,” says poet and composer Dana Gioia in an interview with CWR, “At this moment, our Church feels exhausted and enervated.”

(Images: danagioia.com)

Dana Gioia is an internationally recognized poet and critic, and the author of several collections of verse, including Interrogations at Noon (2001), which won the American Book Award, and the widely acclaimed 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, written lyrics for several musical projects, and edited over twenty literary anthologies.

Gioia served as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009. He has been awarded 11 honorary doctorates and is the former Poet Laureate of California. He has also received the Laetare Medal from Notre Dame, the Aiken-Taylor Award in Modern Poetry, and the Presidential Citizens Medal. Until his recent retirement, Gioia was for several years 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 some of his current publications and projects, as well as his thoughts on some favorite poets, sacred music, the loss of beauty within the Church, and the surprising relationship between pop culture and poetry today.

CWR: Seven years ago, you wrote a much-discussed essay for First Things titled “The Catholic Writer Today”, which is now featured in a handsome collection of essays recently published by Wiseblood Books. What did you hope to accomplish with that essay? How has it been received, and how would you characterize its impact?

Dana Gioia: I wrote “The Catholic Writer Today” to spark a public discussion about the decline of American Catholic culture. Catholics form the largest religious group in the U.S., and yet they have almost no positive presence in the arts. Catholic artists and writers feel isolated and alienated from both their society and the Church. The Catholic Church had lost its traditional connection with beauty. That was a subject we needed to talk about seriously.

The essay had a large and immediate effect. Clearly, I had articulated the experience of many Catholic writers and artists. The piece became a major topic of conversation in the Catholic media. Many people saw it as a call to action. Things have begun—just barely—to change.

CWR: Several of the other essays, of course, are about poets, including John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Elizabeth Jennings. What is it about those three poets, in particular, that resonate with you, as a poet and a reader?

Dana Gioia: I love their poetry and found their lives fascinating—each in a different way. I wanted to tell the stories of their difficult but productive lives

Hopkins was, quite literally, a saint. I expect him eventually to be canonized. His life is the story of personal suffering but spiritual triumph. He was the top student at Oxford’s finest college, but he lost nearly everything when he converted to Catholicism. He eventually joined the Jesuits, who wasted his genius. He died without having published any of his mature poetry. His magnificent work was only published twenty-nine years after his death.

CWR: What about John Donne?

Dana Gioia: John Donne was a sort of Elizabethan playboy who left the Catholic Church for Anglicanism. He hoped for a political career, but he eventually became a minister in mid-life for mostly financial reasons. He ended his life, however, in vibrant sanctity. I was fascinated that he wrote some of the best and sexiest love poems in English as well as some of the most profound religious devotions. Though he ended as the Dean of St. Paul’s, his religious imagination was Catholic to the end.

CWR: And Jennings? She is not a poet most Americans have read. [Note: See Edward Short’s March 2019 CWR essay on the life and poetry of Jennings.]

Dana Gioia: Elizabeth Jennings is a modern poet, part of the small Oxford Catholic community that included Tolkien. She became a famous poet while still in her twenties. Her life was plagued by alcoholism and madness, but she wrote eloquently through every crisis. I consider her England’s best Catholic woman poet of the modern era.

CWR: You conclude the collection with an essay about sacred music, titled “Singing Aquinas in L.A.”, in which you say, referring back to your youth: “No one recognized the banality of the new liturgy as keenly as a California teenager.” Some say that the renewed interest among many young Catholics in Latin and traditional liturgical music and texts is “nostalgic” and harmful; how would you characterize it?

Dana Gioia: The literal meaning of “nostalgia” is a painful longing for home. That emotion is not necessarily a delusion. Home is, after all, where most of us belong. I share the nostalgia that many young Catholics feel. We long for a Church that is different from the one we find. It is not just the liturgy. Or the terrible scandals. We worry that the Church has lost a vital connection to its own traditions. At this moment, our Church feels exhausted and enervated.

CWR: What has been the effect of bad and banal music within the Church over the past fifty years?

Dana Gioia: The poor sacred music (often badly performed) in many churches is a perfect example of how Catholicism has lost its ancient and essential connection with beauty. There is no understanding of the power of sacred music, art, and architecture to move and engage people. When did Catholicism decide that God only deserved the second-rate?

I know the official line. “These exterior things don’t matter. What matters is what’s in our hearts.” But I suggest that part of what is in our hearts is laxness and complacency—a failure to engage the hearts and imagination of parishioners.

CWR: Speaking of music (which you’ve stated elsewhere was your first artistic love in many ways), you recently collaborated with the wonderful jazz pianist and composer Helen Sung on an album titled “Sung With Words”. How did that project some about? How did your approach to writing song lyrics compare to your approach to writing poetry?

Dana Gioia: I loved Helen Sung’s music, and she liked my poetry. We talked about how in jazz’s golden age, musicians created both vocal and instrumental jazz. We thought it would be exciting to create new jazz songs that combined jazz and poetry. Helen joked that we were also combining the two least commercial arts.

I loved working on the album. It allowed me to write poems that were simpler, more musical and emotionally direct. Helen and I have done a dozen performances in jazz clubs around the country. Audiences love hearing fresh and contemporary songs.

CWR: You were the guest editor of the Best American Poetry 2018 (Simon & Schuster) anthology. What goes into selecting poems for such a volume?

Dana Gioia: A lot of hard work. I read about 12,000 new poems to select the 75 pieces for the anthology. I read new work for several hours every night for a year.

I had three goals. I wanted to include the broadest variety of poems possible in every style. I wanted to reflect the social and cultural complexity of the country. Most important, I resolved only to include poems that evoked a deep personal response—wonder, delight, terror, fascination, or gratitude. My taste isn’t perfect, but it is all I have to register the human effects of a poem.

CWR: How would you describe the state of poetry in America today?

Dana Gioia: There is a huge revival going on in American poetry. It is the fastest growing art in the U.S. The audience is expanding, especially among the young. The revival is populist, inclusive, and unacademic. Poetry has finally broken out of the English Department. It has moved into cafes, bookstores, libraries, bars, and galleries.

The new poetry is musical and performative—written as much to be spoke aloud as read on the page. We also see many poets returning to rhyme, meter, and story-telling. It is a very interesting time to be a poet.

CWR: In the introduction to that volume, you reflect on how popular culture, in many surprising ways, actually references poetry and even encourages it. “As elite culture has less use for poetry,” you write, “popular culture has embraced it.” Why is that the case? What does it say about both elite culture and popular culture?

Dana Gioia: Poetry is in an odd position right now. It is constantly quoted in movies, television, and the general media. There are even commercials now that consist only of poetry. I noted this trend years ago, and I have watched it grow. I think poetry’s renascence is the result of two large cultural changes.

First, electronic technology has moved society from the printed page back to spoken language as its primary means of communication. Poetry is primarily a spoken art—so ancient that it predates writing. The new orality is in some ways a return to poetry’s traditional identity. Spoken recitation feels more natural than it did fifty years ago. Second, poetry has remained oddly pure. It may be weird and self-indulgent in some ways, but it has survived outside the marketplace. The great global corporations cannot make money from poetry. The art still belongs to individuals. That makes it uniquely uncompromised among the arts.

CWR: You also write, in that introduction, that the “chief way American poets now reach their audience is through readings, either live or transmitted by radio, television, and internet. The new venues, such as YouTube, haven’t replaced print, but they have amplified it.” You do many readings, and you also have a YouTube channel with you reading some of your poems. Why are readings so important? How has using YouTube and other media helped you share your poetry?

Dana Gioia: The poet today reaches his or her audience through performance—either in live readings or electronically. I publish books that sell well and stay in print, but I reach many more people through readings and recordings. I see my audience in a way that earlier poets rarely did. I can feel their reactions, good or bad, to what I recite. I can’t see my audience on YouTube, but I know exactly how many people have watched each video.

My younger son is a filmmaker who has created a company called Blank Verse Films to produce literary and intellectual videos. He convinced me to film a few poems several years ago. He remarked that his generation likes to discover new poetry on line. He was right. I have an audience on line that has enlarged my total readership. I have always thought of my poetry in musical terms, so I am also pleased to have a record of how I hear each poem.

CWR: Finally, what are some current projects you are working on, or projects you hope to pursue in the future?

Dana Gioia: I’m writing the words for a choral work by the composer Sir James Macmillan that will be performed in a special inaugural concert at the new Christ Cathedral in Orange County, California. This is the magnificent Crystal Cathedral designed by Philip Johnson that was purchased by the diocese of Orange County, which has remodeled it for Catholic worship.

I’m mostly trying to step away from my overwhelmingly busy public life. I’ve left the California state laureateship and resigned from my position at USC. I have been turning down most lectures and readings. I need a more contemplative life to write poetry.


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About Carl E. Olson 1109 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. 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.

8 Comments

  1. “Poetry has finally broken out of the English Department.” As a teacher I did not imprison poetry; I promoted it. In my last term my primary source book (in discreet rebellion against the official syllabus) was the 1939 edition of THE OXFORD BOOK OF ENGLISH VERSE.

    Don’t stereotype.

    • Don’t use loaded words. They discourage conversation.

      I’m reading Gioia’s “The Catholic Writer Today” and am finding something interesting and important in every one of his essays.

  2. If I may add a view I think different from Dana Gioia Why poetry is suddenly emoting? We’ve [the many] lost reasoned understanding rejecting Natural Law adrift. Poetic expression impresses a sense of hidden meaning. Wisdom that is often thoroughly lacking. Not all. Many the less credentialed like myself discover writing on the internet [not always] a medium to convey thought as it appears unadulterated in the mind a form of stream of conscious redaction. My sense is that for many aside from the internet it offers freedom to convey convictions that otherwise are difficult to express in ordinary language when dealing with one’s own doubts and challenges to those inner convictions. Then there is learning from tradition myself the easy deeply beautiful poetry of the master John of the Cross in his Living Flame of Love.

  3. The facile glissando, the shallowing impulse, the look past instead of into — ours is a culture of insubstantiality and noncomprehension. It — we — cannot last.

    Here, now, beauty is persecuted.

    Because, here, now, the appreciation of beauty is an aggressive act.

    Unfair! Elitist! Patriarchal! Unjust!

    Indeed.

    Here, now, the beautiful is an affront. An insult. A privilege that cannot be tolerated.

    And so we legislate gaudily unornamented public buildings resembling outscale pissoirs, and “worship spaces” where dessicated human figures are suspended from the ceilings like stalactites, and “sacred music” that in time serves to shrink the heart into a trivial, crusted blandness rather like potato chip.

    As I say, it — we — cannot last.

    Cannot. Will not. Last.

    Deo gratias.

  4. I think a generation reared with Dana Gioia’s “Poetry Out Loud” program for public schools has contributed to the increased interest in poetry among young people. Gioia’s beautiful poems, too, have garnered broader interest in the art. Thank you for this interesting interview — so full of hope.

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