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08-23-2010

 

Dana Gioia

 

Prayer

 

Echo of the clocktower, footstep
in the alleyway, sweep
of the wind sifting the leaves.

 

Jeweller of the spiderweb, connoisseur
of autumn's opulence, blade of lightning
harvesting the sky.

 

Keeper of the small gate, choreographer
of entrances and exits, midnight
whisper travelling the wires.

 

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.

Planting a Sequoia

 

All afternoon my brothers and I have worked in the orchard,
Digging this hole, laying you into it, carefully packing the soil.
Rain blackened the horizon, but cold winds kept it over the Pacific,
And the sky above us stayed the dull gray
Of an old year coming to an end.

 

In Sicily a father plants a tree to celebrate his first son's birth-
An olive or a fig tree-a sign that the earth has one more life to bear.
I would have done the same, proudly laying new stock into my father's  orchard,
A green sapling rising among the twisted apple boughs,
A promise of new fruit in other autumns.

 

But today we kneel in the cold planting you, our native giant,
Defying the practical custom of our fathers,
Wrapping in your roots a lock of hair, a piece of an infant's birth cord,
All that remains above earth of a first-born son,
A few stray atoms brought back to the elements.

 

We will give you what we can-our labor and our soil,
Water drawn from the earth when the skies fail,
Nights scented with the ocean fog, days softened by the circuit of bees.
We plant you in the corner of the grove, bathed in western light,
A slender shoot against the sunset.

 

And when our family is no more, all of his unborn brothers dead,
Every niece and nephew scattered, the house torn down,
His mother's beauty ashes in the air,
I want you to stand among strangers, all young and ephemeral to you,
Silently keeping the secret of your birth.

 

-from The Gods of Winter

BIO: It seems almost a requirement for a poet to have an unconventional résumé, but Dana Gioia’s is perhaps notable for being so conventionally unpoetic. A graduate of Stanford Business School, Gioia claims to be “the only person, in history, who went to business school to be a poet.” He later rose to become a vice president at General Foods, where he marketed products such as Kool-Aid. These experiences in the corporate world, Gioia states, “taught me a lot of things that have helped me as a poet.” In 1992, he committed himself to writing full-time. Most recently, he served as chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2008. Though Gioia has worked in various high-level positions, his approach to poetry might be deemed populist. Born in a suburb of Los Angeles, Gioia remembers his mother, a Mexican-American who he says had no advanced education, reading and reciting poetry to him at an early age. “Consequently,” he declares, “I have never considered poetry an intrinsically difficult art whose mysteries can be appreciated only by a trained intellectual.” As head of the NEA, he increased the budget and launched several successful initiatives, including Operation Homecoming, which provides writing workshops to U.S. soldiers and their spouses. He has also taught poetry at the university level and sits on the board of several arts foundations. Gioia completed an MA in comparative literature at Harvard University and is an active translator of Latin, Italian, German, and Romanian poetry. While at Harvard, he studied with the poets Robert Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Bishop. His collections include Interrogations at Noon (2001), winner of the American Book Award; The Gods of Winter (1991); and Daily Horoscope (1986). Although Gioia writes in free verse, he is known primarily for his formal work, and has been included in the school of New Formalism, a movement in the 1990s by American poets to bring traditional verse forms back to the fore. Reviewer Kevin Walzer notes that “Gioia’s range, in both style and subject, is unusually broad. In his lyric poems, he works equally well in free verse and traditional forms, and in fact merges them in many cases; he works hard to give his metrical poems the colloquial quality of the best free verse, while his classically-trained ear gives his free verse a sure sense of rhythm that approaches a formal measure.” Also a noted critic, Gioia has authored some influential and widely referenced essays on American poetry. In particular, his 1991 Atlantic Monthly essay, “Can Poetry Matter?,” argues that poetry has lost its central status in contemporary culture. The essay generated so much feedback that he later turned it into a book of the same title, which was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. For several years, he has also served as a commentator on American literature for BBC Radio and as a classical music critic for San Francisco Magazine. His interest and training in music composition has led him to write opera libretti for Nosferatu (1998) and Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast (2008). Gioia has founded and codirected two major literary conferences: the West Chester University summer conference on Form and Narrative, and Teaching Poetry, which is dedicated to improving the teaching of poetry in high schools. He lives with his family in Sonoma County, California.

An Interview with Dana Gioia by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: The first three stanzas of “Prayer” are a fragmentary list of metaphors for God, or so I assume, disguised as sentences. It seems that sentence fragments and lists are used quite often in lyric poems, which this poem most certainly is. Why do you think this is a device often used by lyric poems and why, in this instance, did you feel compelled to open “Prayer” in this way? 

 

Dana Gioia: I consider “Prayer” a rather unusual poem in tone, shape, and texture. It was certainly different from my own earlier work. I rather like the way I suspended both the sense and syntax for several stanzas. But, of course, poets admire their own work. Vanity is our occupational vice.

 

As for lists, they have always been a major poetic technique from Homer’s catalogue of ships to Whitman and Borges. Why? Surely because there are so many things in the world that poets want to put into poems.

Sentence fragments are also natural for poetry people tend to speak in sentence fragments and phrases rather than complete sentences. Poetry imitates and heightens aspects of speech. Only a grammarian should be troubled n what is granted by poetic license.

AMK: At first these metaphors seem built on imagination but, after a second look, it’s clear that sound is what drives them. There’s “the echo of the clocktower ” with its repeating O-sounds, the “jeweler of the spiderweb; connoisseur” with its Rs, Ws and Is, and “Seducer, healer, deity or thief” with the opening short-E turned long. I think that without this use of sound, we might get tired of this opening and our attention would wane. Is all this music-making something that came via revision or did it come more naturally? 

DG: The poem began as words and phrases that felt fraught with both sound and sense. Revising sharpened it a bit, but the auditory sense was always inseparable from the emotional sense. In poetry music makes meaning. Otherwise it’s just perfunctory prose.

AMK: Can you talk about music more generally? Why is it important for a poem and what are you willing to sacrifice in your work for the sake of it? 

DG: If a poet is doing a good job, he or she never sacrifices anything for music. Verbal music is what gives force and credence to a poem. A poem casts a spell or it isn’t much of a poem. The poems that first moved me did so by their sound. I was enchanted by their music not their paraphrasable meaning. Sometimes I didn’t even understand the sense of the poem, but I experienced something deep and genuine almost entirely from the sound and images. Poetic meaning is not primarily analytical and abstract; it is physical, sensory, and emotive.

For me, poems begin as resonant first lines or phrases, not as ideas. If I have a tune, then I can finish the poem. Otherwise the words tend to sit there dully on the page.

AMK: You utilize the em dash in the fourth and fifth stanzas, which is typically used to set apart a “violent disruption” in the sentence, but this isn’t a terribly violent disruption at all. I’m not sure the poem changes much if you replace them with commas, and I can see ways in which you could use fragments as in the stanzas before to get these lines into the poem with equal attention. Then again, there’s a part of me that takes those em dashes as a signal to change my tone when I read and, with the repetition of “in the,” a little more quickly. Is the em dash used here as a sort of stage direction to the reader? Am I overanalyzing? 

DG: I do love dashes. They provide a small rhythmic pause and clear out a small semantic space without chopping up the poem. Maybe that’s why Emily Dickinson loved them so much. I’ve never thought of the double dash as violently disruptive. It seems a mark of many moods.

AMK: There’s a mysterious “him” that enters in the third to last line who, it seems, the speaker’s prayer is for. I have no problem with this because prayers typically are for either the self or someone else, but I can also imagine a workshop of poets all clamoring over the unidentified “he” showing up so close to the end of the poem. Is this a risk you’re taking or is such criticism simply misplaced? 

DG: I’m sure you are right about how a poetry workshop might react to the end of “Prayer.” But who cares what a workshop would think? Poems are not written for committees.

Our lives are full of mystery. A poem should not be afraid to embrace a little of it. Mystery is not the same as obscurity or muddle. A mystery is a truth we feel but don’t fully understand—exactly the sort of meaning poetry expresses best.

In isolation, the him in “Prayer” may seem mysterious, which I don’t mind since it lets the reader project his or her own life into the poem. But in its original context, as the first poem in The Gods of Winter, a book dedicated to the memory of my first son, the identity of the him should less puzzling.

AMK: I’m aware of the dangers of applying a writer’s biography to that of the speaker in her/his poetry. What’s your take on this issue of speaker/author in contemporary poetry? 

DG: A poet necessarily creates out of his or her own life experience. Being rooted in that way isn’t bad. It gives a writer authority and authenticity. The problem is when the poet can’t move beyond autobiography. I believe that the best poetry is usually personal without being strictly autobiographical. There is a sense of a real human being writing, but the poet isn’t simply talking about himself or herself, but finds a way to address and engage the reader. Usually the engagement is implicit rather than explicit, but the poem is about us not about me.

AMK: Almost every poem in “Gods of Winter” starts with a certain number of lines per stanza and maintains that number throughout. Why does this matter to you? 

DG: I write best when there is some resistance. That is especially true with free verse. If I work in five line stanzas, I find myself compressing eight or nine lines into five in ways that make the final lines richer and more evocative. There is also aesthetic pleasure in symmetry, as long as it also contains elements of variety and surprise.

AMK: Why, with that in mind, does “Prayer,” the first poem in the book, end with that dangling one-line stanza? 

DG: Why not end with a single line? It seems conclusive. And it adds an element of disruptive energy and surprise. I appreciate your minute attention to the formal and stylistic elements of my poems. I take these matters seriously. I ponder formal elements in my poems. I rarely use traditional fixed forms. I tend to experiment in some way and like to think I have a reason for everything I do. But it feels too self-regarding to talk about at such length. I don’t want to spend time justifying the style of my poems. Either the poems speak compellingly for themselves or no amount of justification on my part will redeem them.

AMK: “Planting a Sequoia” is a similarly lyric poem to “Prayer,” but the line breaks and the resulting shape of the poem is completely different, “Prayer” being made up of short tercets (save for the last line) and “Planting a Sequoia” of quintets of varying length. What’s the guiding principle behind these line breaks?  

DG: The only guiding principles for line breaks are music and meaning. Not all tunes fall into the same rhythm. I hate to write in the same form or meter too often. I like variety. It allows one to go after different moods, effects, ideas. I am puzzled that so many poets fall habitually into one form or rhythm and never experiment. I usually find a book dull if all the poems are written in the same shape and style. I prefer variety and surprise.

AMK: I love how you personify the earth in the line “a sign the earth has one more life to bear.” It creates this notion that the earth is, in fact, bearing a life when we plant something in it and, perhaps more importantly, that it does have a limit to what it can nourish. Is this poem an environmental poem in a way? 

DG: I come from peasant stock. We look to the earth to feed us. The redwood described in that poem is a real tree planted in my parents’ orchard with a small working farm around it. All of my poems about nature reflect deeply held environmental concerns. This isn’t politics. It’s common sense. We depend on the earth to live. We need to keep it livable. Nowhere are these issues more urgent than in California, a great despoiled paradise.

AMK: Teach us a little bit about personification as an element of imagination. When is it well placed; when is it not? 

DG: There are no set rules for such things. Personification works when we feel it work. A poet can do everything perfectly well, and the poem remains stillborn. Another writer does something odd and seemingly incorrect, and it succeeds. This is the mystery of art.

Read Thomas Hardy. He is often awkward and heavy-handed, and yet he so often breaks your heart. Sometimes the very imperfections endow his poems with a sincerity and spontaneity that adds to their power. So I guess the best advice is to be a genius. That seems to work.

AMK: What about metaphor? “Planting a Sequoia” is largely void of metaphor until that wonderful “circuit of bees” in the middle of the penultimate stanzas. “Prayer,” on the other hand, is chock full of them… 

DG: I love metaphors, but I like to use them sparingly. It’s also nice to have a few hiding just under the surface of the poem so that the reader feels them without exactly knowing why.

But, of course, sometimes it’s just fun to go hog wild. Just like changing the meter or stanza, changing the texture of the poem is a pleasure. I think a lot about creating the right texture for each poem.

Mastering poetic craft does not consist of learning a few techniques one uses habitually. Mastery comes from learning how (and when) to use all the ways in which language conveys meaning.

AMK: I think it’s easy to forget that this poem is an apostrophe, a poem addressed to a person who is absent or imaginary or to an object or abstract idea. Why compose this poem in this form? 

DG: Why not compose a poem as an address? In daily speech we are almost always addressing someone. It is something both speakers and listeners understand intuitively, even if it puzzles some critics. I’ve been re-reading John Donne. Most of his poems address someone—God, a lover, a friend.  

AMK: I really like that strange moment around which the poem revolves in the third stanza. It adds a ceremonial aspect of the planting of the sequoia and also reveals quite a bit about the people in the poem with few words. Is this an aspect of the economy of language or of a disinterest on your end to go any further into what the poem is largely about? 

DG: Now you have found me out. I like to have turns in my poems—moments when the poem changes direction or tone. This is a fundamental element of my style. That is also how our minds work. No sooner do we focus on some idea, thing, or emotion, than a contradictory notion suddenly emerges. 

AMK: If you could only have five books on your bookshelf, what would they be? 

DG: Dante, Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and a book-dealer’s catalogue to order more books. I own at least ten thousand books, and that seems a bare minimum. I like having my favorite volumes within easy reach. Reading is one of life’s great pleasures. 

AMK: What are you working on right now? 

DG: I am trying to complete my next volume of poems. I only need to finish three or four more poems before I sent it to Graywolf Press. The trouble is that some of these poems are ones I’ve been struggling with for years, in one case almost 15 years. This summer I sent off poems for the first time in 8 years. I refrained from publishing while I was the Chairman oaf the National Endowment of the Arts. I thought it best for the agency if I removed any possible conflict of interest. (Not that I had much time to write since I often worked 7 days a week with constant travel.) Now I am trying to rediscover who I am as a poet. That’s not so easy as it might seem. 

AMK: Would you be willing to share any of your new work with us? 

DG: Since we have spent much time discussing two interrelated poems from The Gods of Winter which was published nearly twenty years ago, may I offer a recent poem on the same subject? 

Majority 

Now you’d be three,

I said to myself,

seeing a child born

the same summer as you.

Now you’d be six,

or seven, or ten.

I watched you grow

in foreign bodies.

Leaping into a pool, all laughter,

or frowning over a keyboard,

but mostly just standing,

taller each time.

How splendid your most

mundane action seemed

in these joyful proxies.

I often held back tears.

Now you are twenty-one.

Finally, it makes sense

that you have moved away

into your own afterlife.

(Majority: Copyright 2009, Dana Gioia. Originally published in First Things.)