Dana Gioia Goes to Washington

Still shaking up the poetry establishment

Poet Dana Gioia is the 2010 recipient of the University of Notre Dame's Laetare Medal. This profile was published in Commonweal in 2003, when Gioia was the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.


 

At the West Chester University Poetry Conference in Pennsylvania, walking the pathway between the university’s bland, modern landmarks, poet-turned-politician Dana Gioia looks disarmingly boyish with his tousled hair and Oxford-style shirt. His hands are stuffed in his trouser pockets as he listens attentively to Tim Murphy, a venture capitalist and farmer-poet from North Dakota.

Murphy is one of Gioia’s protégés. Several years ago, Gioia told the redheaded poet where to send his poems and which ones to publish. Now they discuss the troubled economics of publishing in general. Gioia says he fought “ferociously” to get to this conference, in the remote, nondescript suburbs of Philadelphia, amid a punishing schedule of appointments.

Except for the slightly increased gravel in Gioia’s deep voice, there is little in this moment to announce that he became chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) a few months earlier, on January 29. The gravel is due to vocal strain—the speeches and interviews he gives even during bouts of laryngitis.

Eventually, the tensions of the job become evident, at least to those of us who know him. For one, he tells me there are to be no interviews. This from a man who, in addition to being a widely honored writer and poet, was one of the best on-tap literary resources for journalists in California.

A more obvious change comes later, at the conference podium in Sykes Auditorium. When Professor Michael Peich, who founded the conference with Gioia a decade ago, starts to talk about the future of the conference and its financial needs, Gioia begins to fidget uncomfortably. When poet and journalist Johanna Keller begins an impromptu, on-the-spot fundraising session, Gioia excuses himself from the panel and waits at the back of the room, by the exit.

An utter necessity, he explains, given the “enormous number of federal regulations” that now govern his professional life. “The appearance of propriety is as necessary as propriety itself,” he tells the crowd.

The NEA chair has had an odd and varied image in the past. Some of its occupants have been visible defenders of the arts under fire—actress Jane Alexander comes to mind—while others have been low-key Washington bureaucrats whose names don’t elicit a blink of recognition. Gioia has already cornered the spotlight without the usual kerfuffle to provoke it.

That wasn’t always the case. Before his appointment, Gioia was best known for his 1991 Atlantic Monthly article “Can Poetry Matter?” a broadside against the poetry establishment. The article created one of the biggest firestorms in the magazine’s history. Gioia accused American poetry of becoming the property of a small, inbred, self-perpetuating clique of academics: “Though supported by a loyal coterie, poetry has lost the confidence that it speaks to and for the general culture,” he wrote. Gioia has also drawn fire for his part in the new formalism movement and, by extension, the West Chester conference, which focuses on renewing traditional craftsmanship in poetry, principally through metrical forms. Critics charge that the conference, and its founders, are “traditionalist” or “elitists.” Gioia himself insists that he is not “against” free verse—he estimates half of his poetic oeuvre is not metrical—but rather that he’s against ignorance of form.

Gioia’s contrarian streak no doubt made him an attractive candidate to the White House. So did the fact that he’s a Republican—a rarity in the arts community—with a background in business (he was vice president of General Foods before turning to poetry full-time.) Plus, he’s a born consensus builder, a moderate who has a way of being able to get along with just about everyone. I’ve never known anyone to actually dislike him, though some have taken violent exception to some of his ex cathedra pronouncements. Some critics have even called Gioia highhanded—perhaps a reaction to his rather blunt style.

Roughly speaking, this is Gioia’s third professional incarnation: after taking an MBA at Stanford in 1977, he joined General Foods in White Plains, New York. In 1984, Esquire chose Gioia for its first register of “men and women under forty who are changing the nation,” citing his articles and poetry. He quit the world of business rather abruptly to become a full-time poet on January 1, 1992. “To my surprise, by the early nineties, I discovered I was internationally famous. I had never let myself consider the option of quitting,” he says. Since then, he has lived the life of a full-time man of letters—without the pipe-and-slippers kind of leisure the term usually conjures in the mind—at his idyllic hilltop home amid the vineyards of Sonoma.

Gioia describes himself as “one-hundred-percent non-Anglo.” His father was a Sicilian cabdriver; his mother, Mexican and Native American, was a telephone operator. He was born on Christmas Eve, 1950, in Hawthorne, California—a tough, blue-collar community where the Beach Boys were born, where pulp films were made, where Mattel factories spewed out toys. He went to a Marianist boys’ high school, where he received “a sectarian but nonetheless broadening and oddly international education,” he says. That’s one way to put it. Seven students out of two hundred went to college.

Gioia has always been upfront about his roots: “I think that being proud of your religion, your culture, and your ethnicity is the beginning of revival for Catholic artistic culture. As an individual, I refuse to be ashamed of my faith, my culture, or my family background.”

Gioia was the first member of his family to leave the barrios of Los Angeles for college. “I had twelve years of Catholic education before I traded down to Stanford and Harvard,” he told a conference on “American Catholics in the Public Square,” sponsored by Commonweal and the Faith and Reason Institute in June 2000. He received his Stanford BA, then went on to Harvard, where he studied with poet Elizabeth Bishop and classical scholar and translator Robert Fitzgerald.

At Harvard he began to notice he was writing poems “to be interpreted rather than simply being experienced. They weren’t training me to be a poet but rather a literary theoretician,” Gioia told the Hartford Courant. “I was learning to master a code that was understood by about seventeen hundred people in North America. Well, if you had twelve years of Catholic theology, this stuff was easy.” He headed for the world of business, following in the footsteps of Wallace Stevens, an insurance executive, and T. S. Eliot, a banker and publisher.

Significantly, his book of essays, Can Poetry Matter?, includes three pieces on Eliot and Stevens. Is there an echo of Gioia’s own temperament in the following passage? “Eliot refused to put his craft above his values. He rejected the idealistic egotism that George Bernard Shaw once characterized by saying, ‘The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art.’ Eliot—like his contemporary Wallace Stevens—was determined to live a responsible life. Neither would abandon his middle-class morality for art....No Americans ever wrote greater poems.”

Heading the NEA sounds sexier than it is—it promises influence, but is mired in its own history and bureaucracy. Diminished financial influence is part of the picture. The NEA’s budget has dwindled substantially since the mid-1990s, when conservatives in Congress tried to shut the agency down. With bipartisan support, it’s slowly climbing back.

A leadership vacuum is also part of the troubled picture: Gioia assumed the office after it had been vacant nearly a year (the previous chairman of the agency, Michael P. Hammond, died in January 2002 after just a week in the post). During that time, Deputy Chairman Eileen Mason spearheaded a drive to streamline the NEA’s administration and to save money. Critics, in Congress and throughout the arts world, worried that the changes would treat some artistic disciplines as stepchildren.

In this context, Gioia’s goals to invigorate the NEA are immediate and practical. His first major move was to launch what has been called the largest theatrical tour of Shakespeare in American history, with professional companies visiting more than a hundred small and midsize cities in all fifty states.

Gioia wants to broaden the public discourse beyond the narrow range of topics and genres offered by the mass media, and make a voice for the “high arts.” “How can we create the culture that we want to live in—a culture that recognizes intellectual and artistic accomplishment one one-hundredth as much as an accomplishment in sports?” he inquires. “I’m not asking for equality, I’m asking for the humblest minority position. The average American teenager can name two hundred NBA players, but probably not a single living poet or painter.”

Initially, Gioia resisted his NEA appointment...at least mildly: “I had turned down the opportunity to even be interviewed for it, and refused to let my name go in nomination for some time,” he says. “I did hope that the president would find someone else.”

The reasons for his resistance were many. When asked how the chairmanship has affected his poetry, Gioia is rueful: “The main way it affects my poetry is by stopping it entirely. I haven’t written a single line of verse since coming to Washington in November [2002]. Poetry is a mysterious and involuntarily art. You can force it, but not with good results....I have no doubt that I will always be able to write a bad poem. I must be humble before the possibility that I, like many other poets, might lose touch with whatever gift I have that gives my work some quality.”

The sacrifice is substantial for a man who used to publish poetry in the New Yorker and the Hudson Review, a man whose few volumes of poetry have received accolades. In 1991, The Gods of Winter was one of the few American volumes ever chosen as the main selection of England’s Poetry Book Society. In 1992, Can Poetry Matter? was a finalist in the National Book Critics Circle Awards; Interrogations at Noon received the American Book Award in 2002.

Gioia and I met some years ago, when I called him out of the blue at his Santa Rosa home. Not everyone warms to the cold call—they are one of the occupational hazards of the journalist—but my efforts were rewarded with a long conversation and, several days later, a press kit with an 8x10 glossy photo. He was the first poet, the only poet, to send me a press kit. And our conversation was the first of many.

Looking back, it was one of the luckier phone calls of my life. Gioia is a born networker, a power broker, the perfect “source.” He gave me a contact at the Los Angeles Times Book Review and the Washington Post Book World; I now write for both. When my Joseph Brodsky: Conversations was published by the University Press of Mississippi, Gioia phoned me at home, at 9:30 p.m., to offer his congratulations and praise. It was our first conversation since his NEA nomination; his schedule had already become hellish, and I was amazed he’d even had a chance to glance at the book. By that time, he had forgotten that the idea to publish such a book, and where to publish it, had been his.

I am not the only one for whom Gioia has been a sort of lucky charm. “Dana has figured in every major step in my emergence as a poet,” says Tim Murphy, the poet from North Dakota, “and thanks to his personal intercession with Lord knows how many editors, I have seen blessed few rejection slips.” Before 1998, Murphy was completely unknown; since then, he has published four substantial books.

Still, some find interaction with Gioia more of a scourge than a blessing. He likes a good fight, and has been known to ruffle a few feathers. His pugilistic side was on full display back in 1999 when he traded four days of high-spirited jeers with critic James Wood on Slate. He sized up the overnight success story of the octogenarian poet Virginia Hamilton Adair with casual zingers: “Unlike Donne or Herbert, Eliot or Auden, she has no coherent theology whatsoever—not even an intelligible skepticism like Dickinson’s,” he wrote, noting that’s why her poetry lacked the tension of, say, George Herbert’s. “She changes her cosmology to suit the mood. God exists or maybe he doesn’t. God is male or female or somewhere in between. Lutheran hymns are wonderful, but then so is Zen, the Eucharist, church picnics, Christ’s miracles, and the now inevitable angels. Having arraigned her on spiritual befuddlement, however, I must confide that her views resemble those of many Californian Protestants. Adair is a prophet of New Age piety. The purpose of religion is to make you feel good. Why shouldn’t beets and broccoli have souls, as she suggests, if that helps you face the day with a smile?”

Similarly, while interviewing Gioia for Philadelphia magazine about the West Chester conference, I was amazed at the alacrity with which Gioia leapt into the fray when I quoted free-verse poet Ira Sadoff. Gioia’s counterattack came with lightning speed: “It doesn’t surprise me that an older poet like Sadoff is less interested in form than younger poets, who seem to be quite excited by it. He doesn’t realize that he is on the far side of a new generation gap. Is rap an extension of formal academic poetry of the 1950s because it uses rhyme and meter? It’s a silly argument.”

Most famously, his Atlantic article attacked what he saw as the cabalistic world of American poetry. Gioia charged that professional standards have replaced artistic ones and poetry criticism has been replaced by collegial encomiums. Typical of the essay’s passages: “Most editors run poems and poetry reviews the way a prosperous Montana rancher might keep a few buffalo around—not to eat the endangered creatures but to display them for tradition’s sake.” Or this one: “Like priests in a town of agnostics, [poets] still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible.”

The mail and phone calls continued for months. Articles attacking and defending the piece were published in the Times Literary Supplement, New Criterion, USA Today, and the Washington Post, among others. “When the hate mail arrived, typed on letterheads of various university writing programs, no one was surprised,” Gioia wrote in a 1992 rebuttal published in Britain’s Poetry Review. “What did surprise both the Atlantic editors and me, however, was the enormously positive reaction the article created.”

Among the negative reactions were those of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anthony Hecht, in the Washington Post: “This article is clearly intended to be militantly provocative, to excite strong feelings, and to sell itself to the editors of the Atlantic Monthly, who undoubtedly like things that prove controversial. But it’s garbage. To talk about how ‘the integrity of the art has been betrayed’—it’s dumb.”

“Dana Gioia’s full of shit,” the poet Donald Hall once told me with cheerful annoyance. “It’s always copy to say that contemporary poetry isn’t very good, and nobody is reading it. At any point in history, most of what is published is no good. The journalists, the people who write the articles, attribute their own declining interest in poetry to the population as a whole.”

Typically and significantly, Gioia is on good terms with both poets. He still defies his critics, though he maintains that the poetry scene has changed since he penned his article—partly because the article had an effect, he says. “Only the amnesiac can claim poetry was never popular in America. From the days of Bryant and Emerson, it played an important role in American intellectual life—until recently,” Gioia has written. “To rationalize away poetry’s current isolation by pretending it had always been ignored revealed a depressing brand of intellectual complacency.”

My own friendship with Gioia began with unhurried telephone conversations, which led to occasional visits to his Santa Rosa citadel, whose clean, white structures (the library/office is separate from his house) seem to be a Western version of a rural New England church. Now it takes several months to schedule a thirty-minute phone interview from his Washington office, which gets whittled down to twenty in the days before the appointment.

Gioia warms to the topic at hand. He speaks about how the chasm between art and religion in contemporary culture has impoverished both. “Art is one of the ways we can call people back into the church.” He says that the arts have always been congenial to the Catholic worldview, because Catholicism is a faith which believes that transcendent truths are incarnated. “The sacraments are models of this. They are outward signs that symbolize an inward turn of grace. The Catholic, literally from birth, when he or she is baptized, is raised in a culture that understands symbols and signs. And it also trains you in understanding the relationship between the visible and the invisible. Consequently, allegory finds its greatest realization in Catholic artists like Dante.”

At the June 2000 Pew conference, Gioia spoke of the Catholic aesthetic. “The U.S. church has never quite known what to do with the human hunger for beauty,” he said, “but I would maintain that the arts have always been a vital part of the Catholic identity and that Beethoven and Mozart, Michelangelo and El Greco, Dante and Saint John of the Cross, Bernanos and Mauriac, the anonymous architects of Chartres and Notre Dame, have awakened more souls to the divine than all the papal encyclicals.”

So how do we go about fostering a Catholic intellectual community? At the conference, Gioia suggested that Jewish intellectuals provide a model. Catholics need to focus on what unites them, “not only by religious belief, but also by cultural, artistic, and intellectual identity.”

“We need a big tent,” he explains, but “it will only happen if the Catholic artists and intellectuals allow it to happen. I think American culture, in the broadest sense, is very open-minded and understanding. But American intellectual culture remains unconsciously anti-Catholic. Catholic artists and intellectuals soon realize that they will be dismissed or condescended to if they exhibit their faith or cultural background.”

Gioia doesn’t believe in a single answer. He speculates that “one of the ways to foster a healthier view of Catholic arts is by creating opportunities, commissions—by having magazines like Commonweal. Commonweal has an extremely important place in American intellectual life because it represents one of the doorways between religious and secular culture.”

Our interview was to last twenty minutes. In typical Gioia loaves-and-fishes fashion, it miraculously expands to nearly forty. Near the end, I hear in the background the restless rumble of secretaries, assistants, communications staff, and others as they prepare to hustle Gioia to his next appointment. Gioia wants to continue the conversation, but within moments, he is off the phone, headed toward the familiar interior of a Washington taxi.

 


Related: An interview with 2006 Laetare Medalist Dave Brubeck: "'Great Art Survives'"
Paul Elie, "What Flannery Knew: Catholic Writing for a Critical Age"
Does "the Catholic novel" exist? Two views: Peter Quinn and Bernard Bergonzi

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About the Author

Cynthia L. Haven has written for the Times Literary Supplement, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Kenyon Review and Georgia Review. Her An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz will be published this fall.

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