“Verse is dressed up that has nowhere to go,” the poet critic John Wain once said in one of his own verses, “Apology for Understatement.” I thought of the line the other day when thinking of Dana Gioia’s poetry because, although his poems may not be “dressed up” in the sense of being overdressed, they are definitely smartly dressed and they always know where they are going, even when their destination is the most unravelable mystery. A good example of this can be seen in the final lines of his sonnet, “The Road:”
He noticed then that no one chose the way
All seemed to drift by come collective will.
The path grew easier with each passing day,
Since it was worn and mostly sloped downhill.
The road ahead seemed hazy in the gloom.
Where was it that he had meant to go, and with whom?
If at some point in our checquered lives, we have not paid any mind to the road we go, or asked ourselves why, where and with whom we go, what an unexamined life we live! And yet Gioia realizes why we may be tempted to forgo such inquiries. In the dramatic monologue of “Interrogations at Noon,” the speaker finds himself asking himself questions that are not easily answered.
“Who is the person you pretend to be?”
He asks, “The failed saint, the simpering bore,
The pale connoisseur of spent desire,
The half-hearted hermit eyeing the door?”
As those who have followed Gioia’s career know, form, the appropriate dress of verse, whether free or unfree, has always preoccupied him — “how,” as he says in one of his essays, “a poet best shapes words, images, and ideas into meaning.” And yet it is never form for form’s sake that interests him but form for the sake of radiance, memorability, order. In “All Souls’,” he marshals the order of form to portray what the experience of death might be like where there is no life after death:
Suppose there is no heaven and no hell,
And that the dead can never leave the earth,
That, as the body rots, the soul breaks free,
Weak and disabled in its second birth.
And then invisible, rising to the light,
Each finds a world it cannot touch or hear,
Where colors fade and, if the soul cries out,
The silence stays unbroken in the air.
The very matter-of-fact orderliness of the verse accentuates the horror of an afterlife where there is no touch, no sound, no color; where cries, like the cries of nightmares, go unheard and unheeded. Here is a vision of desolated loss, where the unrisen dead remain forever excluded from life. These are the dead not of ghost stories but of apostasy.
…they are silent as a rising mist,
A smudge of smoke dissolving in the air.
They watch the shadows lengthen on the grass.
The pallor of the rose is their despair
Here, we can also see that symbols are another element of poetry that engage Gioia’s attention. The poem’s pallid rose is an anti-rose: a symbol not of love but of lovelessness. And yet its inadequacy when it comes to capturing the full force of the lovelessness that issues from denial of what our Lord and Saviour calls “the resurrection and the life’ is patent. The reader is obliged to imagine himself what the poem can only encourage him to imagine in all its terrifying nihilism.
In “Autumn Inaugural,” Gioia again admits that symbols can only be approximations of the things they signify. The road as a symbol of the pilgrimage of desire has, of course, an accustomed warrant. Yet Gioia recognizes that one reason why symbols cannot be entirely the things we wish them to be is because they are of our own devisal.
Symbols betray us.
They are always more or less than what
Is really meant. But shall there be no
Processions by torchlight because we are weak?
What native speech do we share but imperfection?
Gioia may concede that symbols savor of the imperfection central not only to our speech but to our very being, but he also chides those who imagine that “…the still star of painted plaster/Praised creation less than the evening star.” Symbols, in other words, for all their limitations, are one of our pro-creative means of sharing in God’s creativeness. They are how we receive and pass on the life of marriage, the life of baptism. They accompany the sacraments on their way to grace. And this is not to mention how they enable a poet with as much music in him as Gioia to sing.
Praise to the rituals that celebrate change,
Old robes worn for new beginnings,
Solemn protocol where the mutable soul,
Surrounded by ancient experience, grows
Young in the imagination’s white dress.
Praise, celebration, mutability, growth, rejuvenation: for all of these things to be jostling one another in a stanza of five lines is proof not only of the poet’s economy but of the power of form, symbols, rituals, rites.
Because it is not the rituals we honor
But our trust in what they signify, these rites
That honor us as witnesses—whether to watch
Lovers swear loyalty in a careless world
Or a newborn washed with water and oil.
In his essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” (1991), Gioia rankled many vested interests when he called attention to the ill-formed poetry produced in reams by America’s academic establishment. “Seeing so much mediocre verse not only published but praised, slogging through so many dull anthologies and small magazines, most readers … now assume,” he wrote, “that no significant new poetry is being written. This public skepticism represents the final isolation of verse as an art form in contemporary society.” Yet in “Autumn Inaugural,” he relents and treats his refractory critics to a lesson in song. He practices what he preaches. If they will not concede the points he makes in his essay, they might at least listen to his music, a music replete with form’s enrapturing alchemy.
So praise to innocence—impulsive and evergreen—
And let the old be touched by youth’s
Wayward astonishment at learning something new,
And dream of a future so fitting and so just
That our desire will bring it into being.
Born in 1950 in Los Angeles of Mexican and Sicilian parentage, Gioia has led a life driven by desire. If desire is a theme that commands constant attention in his poetry, it shaped his life. He was such a good scholar as a boy that he went on to Harvard and Stanford. It was while studying for a year in Vienna that he first decided to consider poetry as a profession. At Harvard, he studied with Flannery O’Connor’s good friend Robert Fitzgerald, the poet and crack translator of Homer, and with the poet Elizabeth Bishop before leaving what he feared would be the stultifying hot house of academe to pursue a successful business career from 1977 to 1991 in New York, though even as a businessman he never stopped studying and writing poetry. Like T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, he decided to make his living in business, rather than poetry, and the bet paid off. Indeed, in 1986, while a top executive with General Foods, he published his first book of poems, Daily Horoscope. Four highly acclaimed and commercially successful volumes of poetry followed. A new collection is in the offing.
Gioia left business to dedicate himself fully to poetry a year after the publication of The Gods of Winter (1991), one of the few American volumes ever chosen as the main selection of England’s Poetry Book Society. Although he has cited Hardy, Frost, Stevens, Eliot, Auden, Bishop and Larkin as influences on the technical aspects of his work, he has also championed less popular or well-known poets such as Robinson Jeffers and Weldon Kees. From 2003 to 2009, he headed up the National Endowment for the Arts with great creative aplomb. In addition, he is an accomplished librettist, having written the texts for four operas and collaborated with the composers Dave Brubeck, Morten Lauridsen and James MacMillan.
Anyone attuned to music will see in a trice Gioia’s natural affinity for its ineffable swing. The opening lines of “New Year” are good examples of his assured musicality:
Let other mornings honor the miraculous
Eternity has festivals enough
This is the feast of our mortality
The most mundane and human holiday.
Married with two children, Gioia lives in the hills of Sonoma Valley, which he describes in one of his poems as:
A hiding place, a shrine for dragonflies
and nesting jays, a sign that there is still
one piece of property that won’t be owned.
As this brief overview of his life shows, Gioia has always been fascinated by the fortunes of desire, whether in forming or in failing its object. In “Convergence of the Twain” (1912) Hardy responded to the loss of the Titanic by showing what become of human vanity and the pride of life when their desires come to smash.
Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.
Gioia’s take on the miscarriage of desire is rather more subtle. In his poem, “The Apple Orchard,” he sets desire in its natural, indeed, its supernatural habitat where “perfume of blossoms” is “mingled with the dust.”
You won’t remember it—the apple orchard
We wandered through one April afternoon,
Climbing the hill behind the empty farm.
A city boy, I’d never seen a grove
Burst in full flower or breathed the bittersweet
Perfume of blossoms mingled with the dust.
A quarter mile of trees in fragrant rows
Arching above us. We walked the aisle,
Alone in spring’s ephemeral cathedral.
We had the luck, if you can call it that,
Of having been in love but never lovers—
The bright flame burning, fed by pure desire.
Nothing consumed, such secrets brought to light!
There was a moment when I stood behind you,
Reached out to spin you toward me … but I stopped.
What more could I have wanted from that day?
Everything, of course. Perhaps that was the point—
To learn that what we will not grasp is lost.
Reading the poem, one is given a jolt by the last line. It seems, at first, so discordant. One expects the line to cast a wry, perhaps half-wistful look back at lost romance, something along the lines of Hardy’s little poem, “A Thunderstorm in Town.”
She wore a ‘terra-cotta’ dress
And we stayed, because of the pelting storm,
Within the hansom’s dry recess,
Though the horse had stopped; yea, motionless
We sat on, snug and warm.
Then the downpour ceased, to my sharp sad pain,
And the glass that had screened our forms before
Flew up, and out she sprang to her door:
I should have kissed her if the rain
Had lasted a minute more.
Instead, Gioia invites the reader in his poem to reconsider desire, time, action, will, love, loss. A casual would-be dalliance has impressed upon the poet – and his readers – the meaning of choices in a mortal world where the stakes are immortal. The carpe diem poem is often little more than a summons to hedonism. Laugh and lie down because who knows what tomorrow will bring. Marvell, unless I misread him, does not have rendering an account in mind when he bids his coy mistress to keep in view that:
The Grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
Gioia sets up the usual expectations inherent in the carpe diem poem to frustrate them – or perhaps, one should say, to redirect them. Desire partakes not merely of passing fancy but of our moral quintessence. Men are perpetually moralists but only gallants by chance. When we finish the poem, instead of Marvel, we think of T.S. Eliot’s summons to exploration that closes out the last of his four quartets, “Little Gidding” – an exploration “Costing not less than everything.”
In Gioia’s poetry, loss and desire are intertwined. The poem “The Lost Garden” could almost be a companion piece, a gloss on “The Apple Orchard.”
If ever we see those gardens again,
The summer will be gone—at least our summer.
Some other mockingbird will concertize
Among the mulberries, and other vines
Will climb the high brick wall to disappear.
Again, the setting is both natural and supernatural, particular and universal. The mulberries recall the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, the comic star-crossed lovers in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who find their death beneath a mulberry tree, about which Quince nicely remarks:
Gentles, perchance you wonder at this show
But wonder on till truth make all things plain.
That the mulberry is also an emblem of patience gives this plea a certain aptness. Gioia, too, pleas for patience. Indeed, to beguile the pain of loss, he even resorts to rifling the cards of contingency.
Still, thinking of you, I sometimes play a game.
What if we had walked a different path one day,
Would some small incident have nudged us elsewhere
The way a pebble tossed into a brook
Might change the course a hundred miles downstream?
The trick is making memory a blessing,
To learn by loss subtraction of desire,
Of wanting nothing more than what has been,
To know the past forever lost, yet seeing
Behind the wall a garden still in blossom.
Whether the trick actually works is another matter. Such counterfactual suppositions might keep historians from falling into the fallacy of imaging events inevitable, but they offer scant consolation to losers in love. In “The Lunatic, the Lover and the Poet,” Gioia wonders “if the only purpose of desire/Were to express its infinite unfolding.” And as for the past being “forever lost,” Gioia has some rather arresting things to say of that in a poem strikingly entitled, “Nothing is Lost.”
Nothing is lost. Nothing is so small
that it does not return.
that as a child on a day like this
you held a newly minted coin and had
the choice of spending it in any way
Today the coin comes back to you,
the date rubbed out, the ancient mottoes vague,
the portrait covered with the dull shellac
of anything used up, passed on, disposed of
with something else in view, and always worth
a little less each time.
Now it returns,
and you will think it unimportant, lose
it in your pocket change as one more thing
that’s not worth counting, not worth singling out.
That is the mistake you must avoid today.
You sent it on a journey to yourself.
Now hold it in your hand. Accept it as
the little you have earned today.
that you must choose again but over less.
Here, rendering an account, which had only been implicit in “The Apple Orchard,” becomes explicit. Desire and memory, choice and loss are all a part of the same accountancy. In Gioia’s poetry, time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near is more than simply a memento mori: it is a reminder that the books need balancing. That Gioia should have chosen to have an estate accountant narrate his bravura narrative poem, “Counting the Children” was no unconsidered choice. After he beholds the dead woman’s doll collection — with all of her dolls, plucked for years from city trash cans, arranged row upon row, from floor to ceiling — the accountant muses:
Was this where all lost childhoods go? These dim
Abandoned rooms, these crude arrangements staged
For settled dust and shadow, left to prove
That all affection is outgrown or show
The uniformity of our desire?
How dismal someone else’s joy can be.
This preoccupation with what amounts to a metaphysical accountancy might have been what impelled Gioia to write “Money,” his witty gloss on Wallace Stevens’ immortal jibe, “Money is a kind of poetry.”
Money, the long green,
cash, stash, rhino, jack
or just plain dough.
Chock it up, fork it over,
shell it out. Watch it
burn holes through pockets.
To be made of it! To have it
to burn! Greenbacks, double eagles,
megabucks and Ginnie Maes.
To get a comparative sense of the geniality of Gioia’s attitude towards what Balzac regarded as “the one god who yet finds worshippers in modern times,” we can look at what Robert Graves had to say of money. In “The Virus,” he is rather less forbearing.
We can do little for these living dead
Unless to help them bury one another…
They are, we recognize, past praying for—
Only among the moribund or dying
Is treatment practical.
Faithfully we experiment, assuming
That death is a still an undetected virus
And most contagious where
Men eat, smoke, drink and sleep money:
Its monstrous and unconscionable source.
Gioia, by contrast, is too humane a satirist to give way to bitterness. In his send-up of the degree to which we are attached to money there is a comic gaiety entirely missing in Graves’ withering screed. The master of language in Gioia also relishes the opportunity the subject gives him of celebrating the idiomatic genius of English, for if we are unduly attached to money, we express our attachment with a certain eloquence. Roget, wherever he happens to be, must delight in how Gioia sets out the varieties of our attachment.
It greases the palm,
feathers a nest, holds heads
above water, makes both ends meet.
Money breeds money.
Gathering interest, compounding daily.
Always in circulation.
Money. You don’t know where it’s been,
but you put it where your mouth is.
And it talks.
The exclamation points in the third stanza here – “To be made of it! to have it / to burn!” – show what a truly superb comedian Gioia is. Whenever he means to be funny, he never misses the mark. This is difficult enough to do in prose. After all, why else would James Joyce have thought so highly of Flann O’Brien or Evelyn Waugh of P.G. Wodehouse if not for the fact that they were both so brilliantly funny in their prose. To be truly funny in verse – rather than simply amusing — is much more difficult. Any anthology of comic verse will prove, pace Gavin Ewart, pace John Gross, how poetry, as a rule, even when it means to be, is seldom funny. As Samuel Johnson was fond of saying, “Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme for merriment.” Yet Gioia’s “Progress Report” is sublimely funny.
It’s time to admit I’m irresponsible.
I lack ambition. I get nothing done.
I spend the morning walking up the fire road.
I know every tree along the ridge.
Reaching the end, I turn around. There’s no point
to my pilgrimage except the coming and the going.
Then I sit and listen to the woodpecker tapping away.
He works too hard.
Tonight I will go out to watch the moon rise.
If only I could move that slowly.
Precisely because of its wit, the poem makes a serious point. The writing of poetry, which also includes preparing to write poetry, requires more meditative idleness, more leisure, more otium than our middle-class obsession with business can often tolerate, much less understand. Then, again, unlike too many contemporary poets, convinced of what they imagine the dividends of slapdash spontaneity, Gioia plays the long game; he is content to let a poem’s gestation take its own sweet time; he is never in a hurry.
Words obsess Gioia, as they should all good poets. His sense of form, after all, is never focused on the old debate about whether poetry should be ‘cooked’ or ‘uncooked’ but whether it should be well made or poorly made, whether its words should be true, though he is never unaware, as he says in “Words, Words, Words,” that:
The truest words subvert what we intend.
They bring no ease.
The cost is always more than we can spend.
In the precision and wit with which he chooses his words, Gioia never shies away from the obligation all good poets have of “purifying the dialect of the tribe,” to use the Dantescan phrase of which Eliot was so fond. Accordingly, those who insist on regarding Gioia as merely a publicist for the ‘new formalism” get him wrong. Form is not a matter for him simply of rhyme and metre or of no rhyme and metre: he is as much at home in free as he is in traditional verse. No, for this most accomplished of poets, form is the condition of style. In this sense, he is one with Swift, the most economical of the great Georgian stylists, who neatly defined style as putting “proper words in proper places.” Indeed, Gioia’s entire oeuvre as a poet could be summarized as a compiling of “a rosary of words,” as he says in “The Litany,” with the understated exactitude with which he always speaks of prayer, a rosary
…to count out time’s
illusions, all the minutes, hours, days
the calendar compounds as if the past
existed somewhere—like an inheritance
still waiting to be claimed.
Gioia is thus aware that, to an extent that few of us may recognize, we live by words. This is why we must contrive to make sure that the words by which we live are true. This is why dogma in the understanding of the profession and practice of faith is so profoundly important. This is why we cannot live by words which are demonstrably false. It might be true, as the poet says in “Words,” that “The world does not need words;” but that does not mean that we do not need them.
To see a red stone is less than seeing it as jasper—
metamorphic quartz, cousin to the flint the Kiowa carved
Gioia’s choice of the word ‘jasper’ here is well-chosen. It reminds one of Ronald Knox’s niece, the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000). Precisely because she had something of a soft spot for her fun, faithful, fastidious uncle, she had a soft spot for the Church of Rome, even though she never abandoned the broad-church Anglicanism of her childhood. Indeed, during a visit to the Holy Land in 1992, she took outdoor communion at St. Peter’s Church and then “took a perfectly flat, smooth, pale red pebble home to remind herself of it. “I think it may have some jasper in it,” she wrote, “and it shines a little in a good light.” The poet, too, as we shall see, has a personal attachment to the precious stone.
For Gioia, this is why getting words right is so consequential: it helps us to understand the meaning of our lives. He does not subscribe to what Craig Raine nicely referred to as “the modishly perverse platitude that language is always an obstacle to expression.” If our lives are buried lives, to use Arnold’s phrase, one of poetry’s charges is to excavate the buried. And obviously this is not only vital for poets, but for the common reader for whom the poet writes – the reader, as Johnson says in his life of Gray, “uncorrupted by literary prejudices.” No one can read Gioia’s work without seeing the solicitude he shows these common readers, the allowances he makes for their collaborative contribution to his work. Frost, not the confessional Lowell is his model, the same Frost, about whom he once wrote: “…he is never autobiographical but always personal.”
Gioia’s investment in the personal has always this attentiveness to communion: it is the reverse of narcissistic. “No possession is joyous,” St. Thomas Aquinas recognized, “without a companion.” In choosing to treat the common reader as his audience, not the secluded, footling academy, Gioia has chosen his companions well. After all, they bind him to the real world, with which all of us, poets, readers and saints – saints especially – must inveterately contend. Falstaff may daff it aside and bid it pass but poets do so at the risk of losing touch with the very thing that gives their art life. And this inescapable connection between words and the world, words and life, words and the inner life, words and prayer, is one that Gioia returns to again and again. It gives his work its great unity. In “Speaking of Love,” he could almost be giving his readers a primer in why the poetry bound to this respect for reality matters.
Speaking of love was difficult at first.
We groped for those lost, untarnished words
That parents never traded casually at home,
The radio had not devalued.
How little there seemed left to us.
So, speaking of love, we chose
The harsh and level language of denial
Knowing only what we did not wish to say,
Choosing silence in our terror of a lie.
For surely love existed before words.
But silence can become its own cliché,
And bodies lie as skillfully as words,
So one by one we spoke the easy lines
The other had resisted but desired,
Trusting that love renewed their innocence.
In the debates of whether poetry in our own time has become debased – whether as a result of the general debasement of the language or by the conformism of the academy that demands and applauds only the sort of poetry that feeds its ideological pathologies – Gioia is always salutary by reminding readers that the damage “easy lines” wreak is never inconsequential. After all, the narrator of his dramatic monologue succumbs to an easy line himself when he imagines that he and his lover have left no words unsaid. Of course, they have left no borrowed words unsaid, and this makes all of the difference.
Our borrowed speech demanded love so pure
And so beyond our power that we saw
How words were only forms of our regret.
And so at last we speak again of love,
Now that there is nothing left unsaid,
Surrendering our voices to the past,
Which has betrayed us. Each of us alone,
With no words left to summon back our love.
As he often does, Gioia follows up avowals from various voices in his poems with disavowals of his own. In “Unsaid,” he tells his reader what the narrator of “Speaking of Love” has chosen to forget – or, perhaps, conceal.
So much of what we live goes on inside –
The diaries of grief, the tongue-tied aches
Of unacknowledged love are no less real
For having passed unsaid. What we conceal
Is always more than we dare confide.
Think of the letters we write our dead.
In all of his poetry of desire, Gioia is ultimately concerned with loss, and this complicates and enriches his engagement with what the eighteenth-century poet Matthew Prior once called “the idiom of words.” Like the great short story writer and novelist, William Trevor (1928-2016), Gioia is often at pains to tell the stories of those whose lives baffle storytelling – the well-spoken murderer in “The Homecoming,” the accountant charged with making sense of the dead collector of damaged dolls in “Counting the Children,” the monk who once could have learned the secrets of the dead in “Haunted.” And yet nowhere is Gioia’s genius better displayed than in his portrayal of the story-defying lives of children in hospital destined to die.
In “Special Treatments Ward,” the reader is given a poem that exhibits at once the failure and the triumph of words. Ted Hughes once invited his readers to gaze into the eyes of a famous poet to see what he characterized as “the haggard stony exhaustion of a near-/finished variety artist.” Well, in this first-person poem Gioia may invite his readers to accompany him into a place where desire and loss collide, a place where his skills as a poet are tested to their limit; but he does so not as a “near-finished variety artist” but as a Christian poet alive to the exactions of the Cross. He does so as someone who has survived a harrowing at the very core of human and of divine love. I will not quote all of the poem – I do not wish to spoil it for those who may not have read it as yet – but what I have quoted here will show my readers what I mean. This is poetry of a very high order.
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.
Here, Gioia notes in passing that he has lost a son. He did indeed lose a son, his first, Michael Jasper Gioia, from sudden death syndrome. He thus comes to his meditations of these matters with bona fides. He comes to them as a man of battered, not simply tested faith. Then, again, in “Prayer,” desire and loss find expression in a poem of unforgettable beauty. Gioia may be the heir of Frost in charging the most seemingly ordinary language with the most extraordinary point – the line “in the brief violet darkening the sunset” does this with masterly ease — but he is no one’s heir when it comes to giving his verse the music of aggrieved longing.
Seducer, healer, deity or thief,
I will see you soon enough—
in the shadow of the rainfall,
in the brief violet darkening a sunset—
but until then I pray watch over him
as a mountain guards its covert ore
and the harsh falcon its flightless young.
When we speak of desire and loss, we must perforce speak of love. And this is a story Gioia tells with exquisite fidelity. In his poem, “An Old Story,” he tells it in a variation of the villanelle:
Our story is an old story, the tale of two,
Who met in our feverish, infallible youth
And woke transfigured in a world made new.
We walked through gardens of such stark perfume
That merely breathing left us drunk for days.
We rolled in brambles with our skin unbruised.
We shined in sunlight and in moonlight glowed,
As radiant as angels drawn by Blake.
How could such fiery brightness not explode?
In “The Present,” Gioia’s metaphysical wit toys with the gift-giving of love. Ben Jonson and John Donne would have enjoyed his elegant, mischievous sense of fun. In the anthology of metaphysical poets that Helen Gardner compiled she rightly singled out “concentration” and “a sinewy strength of style” as the first attribute of metaphysical poets, the second being a fondness for improbable conceits. Well, Gioia’s poems possess both. Here, while he does not venture an actual conceit, he does impel the reader to think twice about what he might otherwise be inclined to imagine an unremarkable convention.
The present that you gave me months ago
is still unopened by our bed,
sealed in its rich blue paper and bright bow.
I’ve even left the card unread
and kept the ribbon knotted tight.
Why needlessly unfold and bring to light
the elegant contrivances that hide
the costly secret waiting still inside?
In his essay, “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921), T.S. Eliot posited the bold theory that between Donne or Lord Herbert of Cherbury and Tennyson and Browning – that is to say, between, roughly, 1635 and 1832 – the reflective and the intellectual parted ways in English poetry; a “dissociation of sensibility” set in. Whereas Donne could both think and feel in his verse, the theory goes, Gray could only feel, and since the feeling is undisciplined by any proper thought, the feeling is crude. This, it seems to me, does justice neither to Donne nor Gray. Yet whether Donne was capable of expressing thought and feeling (something C.S. Lewis and A.D. Nuttall rather doubted), or whether Gray was capable only of factitious feeling and no thought, it is true that few poets, of any period, manage to capture both feeling and thought. Dana Gioia is one of the few. And this has everything to do with the quality of his response to love — both human love and divine love.
Take, for instance, his poem, “Prophecy,” which is shot through with what one might call the thought of feeling, a sort of feeling we rarely encounter in the arid rationalism of our techno culture. It is also apt that it should be written in Dante’s terza rima – the same Dante who is the master of thoughtful feeling.
For what is prophecy but the first inkling
of what we ourselves must call into being?
The call need not be large. No voice in thunder.
It’s not so much what’s spoken as what’s heard—
and recognized, of course. The gift is listening
and hearing what is only meant for you.
Life has its mysteries, annunciations,
and some must wear a crown of thorns. I found
my Via Dolorosa in your love.
And sometimes we proceed by prophecy,
or not at all – even if only to know
what destiny requires us to renounce.
Again, we encounter the theme of desire and loss. But we also encounter the primacy of prayer where renunciation alone equips us to read “the signature of things to come.” And in Gioia’s prayer, feeling and thought are indissolubly one.
O Lord of indirection and ellipses,
Ignore our prayers.
Deliver us from distraction.
Slow our heartbeat to a cricket’s call.
In the green torpor of the afternoon,
bless us with ennui and quietude.
And grant us only what we fear, so that
Underneath the murmur of the wasp
we hear the dry grass bending in the wind
and the spider’s silken whisper from its web.
Here, we can see how fine an ear Gioia has. We can also see what an instructive awareness of aesthetics his poetry displays. Like Shakespeare, he often writes not only to articulate but to exhibit the understanding of art that his poems embody. Indeed, the last triplet here puts one in mind of what Biron has to say to his fellow courtiers in the court of Navarre in Loves Labours Lost, which could almost be an apologia for precisely the sort of thoughtful feeling that suffuses Gioia’s work.
…love, first learned in a lady’s eyes,
Lives not alone immured in the brain;
But, with the motion of all elements,
Courses as swift as thought in every power,
And gives to every power a double power,
Above their functions and their offices.
It adds a precious seeing to the eye;
A lover’s eyes will gaze an eagle blind;
A lover’s ear will hear the lowest sound,
When the suspicious head of theft is stopp’d:
Love’s feeling is more soft and sensible
Than are the tender horns of cockl’d snails…
In another of Eliot’s essays, his most famous, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), he gave out, in his best pontifical manner, that “The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates…” Well, now that we have the letters that Eliot wrote when he was composing some of his greatest poetry in London after the first world war, we can see that this was not entirely the case with Eliot himself. The man who suffers and the poet who creates were inseparable in Vivienne Haigh-Wood’s beleaguered husband. His endeavoring to appear otherwise was an attempt on the part of a rather private man, for all of his confessional compulsions, to leave his wounds unbared. Gioia, too, can be seen as an artist whose suffering has been inseparable from the development and dispatch of his considerable talents. As he once told an interviewer, “I admire poetry that conveys hard wisdom won from and still inseparable from experience.” The suffering may not have caused the creativity, but it has given the creativity not only its mettle but its wisdom.
To conclude, I shall quote one of Dana Gioia’s best poems, “Marriage of Many Years,” which can be read as a kind of coda to the central preoccupations that animate his work, though its theme is the love that not only transcends but transfigures desire and loss. It is also, incidentally, a moving rebuttal to the Wain poem with which I began, especially its ill-considered contention that “We only utter what we lightly know.” No, sometimes, with the grace of gratitude, we actually mange to utter what we know profoundly.
Most of what happens happens beyond words.
The lexicon of lip and fingertip
defies translation into common speech.
I recognize the musk of your dark hair.
It always thrills me, though I can’t describe it.
My finger on your thigh does not touch skin—
it touches your skin warming to my touch.
You are a language I have learned by heart.
This intimate patois will vanish with us,
its only native speakers. Does it matter?
Our tribal chants, our dances round the fire
performed the sorcery we most required.
They bound us in a spell time could not break.
Let the young vaunt their ecstasy. We keep
our tribe of two in sovereign secrecy.
What must be lost was never lost on us.
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Great essay, thank you!
“The writing of poetry, which also includes preparing to write poetry, requires more meditative idleness, more leisure, more otium than our middle-class obsession with business can often tolerate, much less understand.” One might add that this applies to the reading of poetry also.