A Public Catholic

An Interview with 2010 Laetare Medalist Dana Gioia

Dana Gioia, this year’s recipient of the University of Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal, is an award-winning poet, a controversial essayist, and the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. 

Although he holds degrees from Harvard and from Stanford, he was born in the tough, blue-collar community of Hawthorne, California, in 1950, the son of a Sicilian cabdriver and a Mexican and Native American mother. He attended a Marianist boys’ high school in Southern California, where less than a dozen out of his two hundred classmates went to four-year colleges. 

Gioia has published three full-length collections of poetry, and is now working on a fourth. His last collection, Interrogations at Noon, won the 2002 American Book Award. His influential volume of essays Can Poetry Matter? (1992) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle. He’s been called a “Poet Provocateur,” especially after his 1991 essay in the Atlantic Monthly (“Can Poetry Matter?”) created a firestorm. 

Yet Gioia’s years as NEA chairman under President George W. Bush, from 2003 to 2009, brought his more collaborative and harmonious side into the national limelight. Gioia succeeded in mobilizing bipartisan support in the Congress for NEA, and Business Week called him "The Man Who Saved the NEA."

Since leaving the NEA, Gioia has been director of the Aspen Institute’s Harman-Eisner Program in the Arts. He’s also writing more poems after a long silence. 

I profiled Gioia for Commonweal in 2003 (“Dana Gioia Goes to Washington,” November 21). At the time he told me, “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.” On the occasion of being awarded the Laetare Medal, he continued some of those thoughts in the following interview. 


Cynthia Haven: In commending you for this year’s Laetare Medal, Fr. John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, said you have "given vivid witness to the mutual flourishing of faith and culture.” You have spoken in the past about the need for a Catholic culture–what exactly do you have in mind?

Dana Gioia: What I envision is quite simple. In the diverse social mix of the United States, there would be a recognizable Catholic element in the arts and culture. It wouldn’t be a unified dogmatic block, but a vibrant and varied range of recognizable Catholic activity—rather like Jewish cultural life. This culture would not be the product of the church but of the laity. 

CH: You have said that anti-Catholicism remains the only acceptable prejudice among intellectuals in America today. Has the situation improved in recent years? 

DG: No, it has grown worse. Much worse. There has been a revival of militant atheism, which views all religion as a hindrance to social progress. This movement hates Catholicism, in particular, because of its size, authority, and continuity. In many circles now, anti-Catholicism isn’t considered bigotry, but a virtue. 

CH: You have commented that today’s Catholic writers see their religion "as a private concern rather than a public identity." 

DG: Catholic writers and artists have lost any sense of a meaningful cultural community. There is, of course, a meaningful spiritual community, but how do they connect it to their artistic vocations? They rightly feel as if they struggle in isolation without either the support or attention that a vital subculture should afford. Even unfavorable attention would indicate that what they are doing is important enough to argue about. 

For most artists and intellectuals, their only havens are the institutions of secular culture, which have grown increasingly anti-Catholic in recent years. This situation compels most Catholic artists and intellectuals either to shed or disguise their core religious identities. 

CH: In light of this prejudice, what do writers, artists, and humanists stand to gain from what you have called a “Catholic identity”? 

DG: They would gain authenticity, integrity, continuity, and community. 

Catholicism is not only a religious identity, it is also a rich range of cultural and ethnic identities—Italian, Polish, Mexican, Irish, Haitian, Vietnamese, Austrian, and so on. Catholicism is a universal without being uniform. I have regularly attended services in Mexican, Polish, and Italian parishes over the years, and each had a different sort of vibrancy. 

American Catholicism needs to resist the suburbanization of consumer culture. Keeping in touch with one’s ethnic and cultural roots is an essential form of resistance to social homogenization. 

CH: Such a culture used to exist—at least much more than it does today. What happened? 

DG: Affluence, assimilation, and social ambition—all aided and abetted by the church’s general indifference to the arts and the secular culture’s distaste for Christianity. The situation is not entirely new. The American Catholic Church has always been an immigrant church populated by the working poor. Consequently, it has never had much social cachet for the upwardly mobile. 

Meanwhile, the church has never had much use for artistic culture, which is a serious mistake since great art, especially sacred art, speaks across cultures and classes. 

CH: How can individuals foster this culture? 

DG: Catholics need to be better stewards of their cultural and intellectual traditions. Too often, they seem either ignorant or apologetic about their own legacy. Catholics also feel they need to cultivate humility and charity at the expense of culture, which is seen as a dispensable luxury. I think many Catholics feel especially virtuous for excluding the arts—as if having better music at services might be a luxurious indulgence that would morally undermine their commitments to homeless shelters and food kitchens. The poor do not live by bread alone. 

CH: Speaking of your own resonance with this culture: A recent article by Janet McCann, “Dana Gioia: A Contemporary Metaphysics,” described you as having a "sacramental imagination," where heaven and earth are "closely bound to this world.” 

DG: Being raised Catholic makes you deeply aware of symbols. That isn’t bad training for a poet. Catholicism also trains you to ponder the mysterious relationship between the visible and the invisible aspects of the world. 

CH: Your poems sometimes presuppose the Christian, if not Catholic, conviction that history has a point, and is not merely a random succession of moments in some Zen-like eternal now—I think of “Song for the End of Time,” “The End,” “The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves,” “Pentecost,” “The Litany,” “California Requiem,” the list goes on. 

DG: I am reluctant to gloss the meanings of my poems. If they don’t speak for themselves, no amount of commentary will redeem them. But let me make one general comment: Art craves teleology. It’s not necessarily a theological point. Hegel and Marx say it as clearly as Augustine and Aquinas. Unless one wants to write only impressionistic miniatures, poems need to go somewhere. Human nature also looks for patterns and meaning. If poetry is language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree, then you need to charge it with real meanings large and small. I like to connect small and large things in my poetry, especially to link the mundane and the mysterious. 

CH: One of the themes of Interrogations at Noon is the limits of words to reach reality. I tend to agree with your conclusion in “Words”: “To name is to know and remember.” But the same volume ends with “Unsaid”: “the tongue-tied aches / Of unacknowledged love are no less real / For having passed unsaid…” Is the jury still out for you on the relationship of words to reality, and our perception of it? 

DG: Words are an imperfect medium through which to understand and express the world. But they are also the best medium we possess as long as we don’t expect them to express everything. Language is probably the greatest achievement of humanity—how can a poet think otherwise?—but reality is greater. Language is vastly expressive, but we should also not forget the eloquence and mysteries of silence—be it human or nonhuman. 

CH: In a number of poems—Nosferatu and “My Secret Life,” for example—you write not only the risk of losing love, but the risks of love distorted. In “California Requiem,” a powerful voice-from-the-dead laments environmental plunder: “What we possessed we always chose to kill.” You wrote of Breton in “Elegy with Surrealist Proverbs as Refrain”: “‘Better to die of love / than love without regret.’ And those who loved him / soon learned regret.” Love lost, love distorted—is this Dantesque theme the essence of the darkness that hovers on the edge of your poems? 

DG: I don’t think I can briefly answer that large and interesting question, but let me go to the heart of it: Our vices and our virtues are related. Both arise from the same core human energies and impulses. Love, in particular, is such a powerful and dynamic emotion that it can lead us to heaven or hell. 

The object of love is crucial. Love and desire the wrong thing, and it can corrupt you. The challenges, responsibilities, dangers, and failures of love are probably the things I’ve written about the most, though they aren’t themes that today’s critics find interesting. But that’s okay. Readers understand. 

CH: When did you begin writing poetry? 

DG: The first poem I ever wrote was in fourth grade. We had a class contest to write a poem about our guardian angel. Manny Di Benedetto won first place, but I could tell his mother had helped him. A little later, like everyone else, I wrote a few self-pitying poems in high school. At that point music was my chief passion, and I intended to be a composer. By the age of twenty, I discovered that poetry was what most excited me. It’s really not as if I chose poetry. Poetry chose me. I simply recognized my vocation. It took years of study and practice to write anything good, but the hard labor of mastering the craft gave me a great pleasure.

CH: How has your Washington post as National Endowment of the Arts chairman affected your poetry—besides obviously limiting your time to write it? 

DG: Not writing was the essential thing. It’s not an altogether bad thing for a poet to stop writing for a while when the rest of life becomes engrossing. The unconscious works all the time. The poems will come eventually and probably be better for the wait. There is a silly pressure on American poets to publish constantly. So much new poetry seems dilute and underpowered.

Running the Arts Endowment for six years also reminded me of the larger purposes of art—both for individuals and communities—I never thought deeply about art’s communal role before coming to Washington. 

At the Arts Endowment, I had a very simple goal—to bring the best art and arts education to the broadest audience possible. I tried, in other words, to be true to both art and democracy. 

CH: Any indication of what your new poems will look like, how they have changed? 

DG: Poetic inspiration is an involuntary process. I never know what a new poem will look like till it arrives, and I am often astonished by what appears. 

I just finished a long narrative poem—a sort of short story in verse. I would never have predicted writing a psychological ghost story dealing with themes of wealth, ambition, and destructive sexual attraction. But one day the first three lines popped into my head, and suddenly the story and the characters were almost fully visible. 

What will my future poems look like? Who knows! I just hope that poems keep coming. Poetry is a more mysterious art than writing workshops would lead us to believe. 

CH: Given last year’s events at Notre Dame, with President Barack Obama being awarded an honorary degree and Mary Ann Glendon declining the Laetare Medal, do you feel under more pressure or scrutiny this year? 

DG: I always feel under scrutiny. It’s a sort of psychological disability. And no occasion brings out more anxiety than speaking at a large college commencement. But these worries have nothing to do with Barack Obama and Mary Ann Glendon. 

The problem is practical: How does one avoid being pompous and boring and manage to say something of value while addressing a large, restless audience who has other things on its mind? 

The only harder gig is talking about poetry to sixth graders.


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

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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