Dana Gioia: “Poetry is fundamental to Christian identity”

“The best religious poems,” says the noted poet, critic, and educator, “give us a vividly authentic experience of the divine and the divine order of creation.”

(Photo courtesy of Dana Gioia)

Editor’s note: This is an installment in our series on the evangelizing power of beauty. In this series, we are looking at how beauty can bring us to God, convey a sense of the sacred, point us toward the Truth, and even help us know how to be good. Through essays and interviews, this series will examine how the beautiful can lead us to the true and the good.

Dana Gioia is a poet and critic of renown, and has held a number of prominent positions, including chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and Poet Laureate of the State of California. In 2008 he received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President George W. Bush, and in 2010 he was given the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame.

Gioia has written and spoken for many years about the arts, and the role they play (or should play) in society. In 1991, he wrote an essay that appeared in The Atlantic entitled “Can Poetry Matter?” In 2007 he gave the commencement address at Stanford University, decrying the lowly status of the arts in American society. His 2012 First Things essay, “The Catholic Writer Today”, started an international debate about the role of faith in contemporary literature.

In addition, he is 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 recently spoke with Catholic World Report regarding the nature of beauty, and how it can lead us to Truth.

Catholic World Report: Would you say some things are inherently beautiful and some things inherently ugly?

Dana Gioia: That’s a large and complex question to start things off! Let me answer it simply. Everything in the natural world, seen in its proper context, is beautiful. It isn’t necessarily pretty or pleasant, but everything expresses some aspect of the nature of things and reveals the shape of reality—from a microbe to a galaxy.

There are some things that are indeed inherently ugly. They are all human creations, either botched endeavors or things actually intended to be ugly or deliberately contradict natural order.

CWR: In the short film Why Beauty Matters you say that beauty is a subject that is often ignored today, even in the arts. You add, “The absence of beauty has doomed much of what we do in education, culture, and the public sector to failure.” Is it important for us to recapture a sense of the beautiful?

Gioia: Our natural response to the world is generally neither logical nor scientific; it is aesthetic and emotional. We understand the world mostly through experiential and intuitive knowledge. We are drawn to the beautiful.

If we want to communicate a compelling civic vision, it is most powerfully embodied in beautiful public architecture, city planning, and landscaping. Those arts foster community. They inspire order more than regulation and policing. The cities we design shape our sense of ourselves and society. Can anyone doubt that modern America—in both large cities and small—has failed to communicate a positive sense of common purpose?

CWR: In the film, you describe beauty as more profound than a synonym for “prettiness.”

Gioia: Beauty is the pleasure we experience from glimpsing the shapes of reality. It is a joyous perception of the order and interrelation of things. Sometimes that perception is pleasant—a sunlit waterfall. Sometimes it is frightening—the last act of King Lear when we understand the horrifying patterns of betrayal and revenge in human affairs. Both of those examples are experiences of beauty.

A sentimental movie with lovely young actors presenting a contrived plot in which everyone ends up rich, happy, and famous may be pleasant, but it is so far from reality that it isn’t beautiful. Prettiness is superficial. Beauty brings us into the center of a thing.

CWR: Can poetry be inherently beautiful, or inherently ugly?

Gioia: Yes, although those categories are not especially useful ways of approaching the art. Some poems are magnificent. Others are okay. Some are dull or even mendacious without being “ugly.” And, yes, a few are gratuitously hideous and deformed.

CWR: How can poetry point us toward God, toward the True, the Good, and the Beautiful? And does a poem have to be explicitly about God in order to do so?

Gioia: If you believe in God, then anything that you see in reality brings you closer to an appreciation of the glory of creation. As John Keats stated ecstatically at the climax of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “truth is beauty, beauty truth—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

The purpose of poetry is to discover and communicate the mysterious beauty of existence in all of its joys and sorrows. Great literature allows us to understand God’s creation not as we want it to be but as it is. That helps us understand our place in creation. Didn’t St. Thomas Aquinas, who was a poet as well as a philosopher, define humility as seeing things as they really are?

CWR: In your own work, is beauty something you strive for?

Gioia: Of course, beauty is at the heart of poetry. Beauty is the source of the art’s authority. But so is truth. I never try to be pretty or upbeat. I never offer an uplifting little lie. A poem gives pleasure by finding the right shape to perceive and convey something true.

CWR: Do you think that your poems (some or all) can evangelize? Is that something you want them to do?

Gioia: A poem does not exist to convince anyone to adopt a particular point of view. A poem offers an experience for the reader to share. It may be a religious experience or a secular one. But the poem does not require ideological acceptance.

If a poem brings one more deeply into the truth of existence, it will enlarge one’s capacity to recognize the divine. If it preaches—for religion or politics—it closes itself to anyone who doesn’t already agree with its premises.

Most religious writing preaches to the converted and drives away everyone else. In speaking of spiritual things, it is essential to respect the sanctity of the individual consciousness. People come to the divine in innumerable ways. There is no express lane to personal salvation.

CWR: How has your approach to poetry changed over the years?

Gioia: It has changed, although there is also much continuity. When I was younger, I wrote more intellectually. As I grew older—indeed as I suffered some terrible things in my life—my poetry grew more direct, emotional, and musical. It also became more joyful because I learned to appreciate what I had.

As I grew in my art, something else changed. I began to think of my poems as collaborative. I treated the reader as an equal partner. I wanted the poems to be open enough that a reader could bring in his or her own life experience. I wanted the meaning not to be about me but about us.

CWR: Are there particular poets, or particular poems, that you think are profoundly evangelizing?

Gioia: Once again I worry about your term “evangelizing.” A good poem is not a religious call to action. It offers an experience, not an outcome.

The best religious poems give us a vividly authentic experience of the divine and the divine order of creation. Dante does it in one way. He provides a symbolic journey through sin toward expurgation and ends with a glimpse of heaven, all of which combines into a map of divine order. But his Commedia is a lot for the average reader to take on.

Let me offer you three poems—two very well known, one not. John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud” is a powerful meditation on mortality. It both applies to the present pandemic crisis and transcends it. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty” is a visionary view of the complex and contradictory nature of beauty. Most people know those poems from school. May I suggest that they are worth rereading?

My third recommendation is Coventry Patmore’s “The Toys,” a profound and troubling view of parenthood. As a widower, Patmore had to raise his children without a mother. He was a loving but imperfect father. This touching poem ends in one of the best depictions of God’s mercy in English literature. Patmore is the great Catholic poet of the Victorian period.

Remember how much of the Bible is written in verse. Poetry is fundamental to Christian identity. The Book of Job is one of the most beautiful poems ever written, though no one would call it pretty. The prophetic books are full of visionary poetry. For Lent this year I memorized my favorite poem in the New Testament—Mary’s Magnificat. I am ashamed it took me this long, but better late than never!


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About Paul Senz 63 Articles
Paul Senz recently graduated from the University of Portland with his Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry. He lives in Oregon with his family.

2 Comments

  1. Twice this week I have seen someone recommend Coventry Patmore.

    It is a message from heaven…read Patmore’s poetry.

    I want to thank Mr. Goia for his wonderful tribute to Elizabeth Jennings in First Things a few years ago, and recommending her work. Goia used her poem “Clarify” as an opening gift. What a wondrous beginning: calling out to “God of the galaxies.” I will cherish that poem forever.

    God bless our poets…for discovering and sharing the wonder of truth.

  2. Acceptance first century by Christianity of The Song of Songs, also Song of Solomon or Canticles supports Dana Gioia in Why Beauty Matters. Judaism accepted Solomon’s Song of Songs until the first century on the belief it was allegorical love of Israel not simply a love poem for a young girl. Christianity retained the earlier Jewish interpretation. Later understood especially by John of the Cross as love between God and the soul. There are also evidence of pericopes that developed into poetic verse prior to insertion in the New Testament. If God is infinite good and perfect beauty Beauty certainly has an essentially divine, inspired place in Catholic liturgy, and in writing. It was Saint John of the Cross’ interpretation of Solomon’s Song The Spiritual Canticle that converted me to the mystical depth of poetic language, its unique beauty, and its ability to convey beyond ordinary verse.

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