Pity the Beautiful
Poems By Dana Gioia
Graywolf Press. 73 pp. $15
Is there anyone in the poetry world who does not know or at least know of Dana Gioia? Over the last 25 years, since he gave up a successful career as a business executive at Kraft Foods to pursue poetry and criticism full-time, he has lived a literary whirlwind.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I know Gioia; in 1999 I produced the world premiere orchestral showcase of his first major opera, Nosferatu, at the Crested Butte Music Festival in Colorado. Even if I didn't know him, I'd be impressed by his achievements.)
He has published award-winning volumes of poetry, collections of essays, translations from Italian and Latin, original librettos, and major anthologies and textbooks. He has been a central and controversial figure in the revival of interest in meter, rhyme, and narrative. The title essay of his first critical book, Can Poetry Matter?, made a compelling case that it has and that it can again, and reportedly provoked more mail than any other essay in the history of the Atlantic Monthly when it appeared in 1991.
Gioia has also had a hand in the start-up of more new presses, conferences, and magazines than perhaps anyone since Ezra Pound. He cofounded the West Chester University Poetry Conference, which took place for the 18th time in June. As chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009, Gioia rescued the endowment from a defunding crisis and started major programs such as Poetry Out Loud, a recitation contest for high school students that this year involved more than 365,000 students nationwide.
Given his prodigious entrepreneurial, political, and administrative gifts, one might expect that his poetry would frequently offer a powerful, self-conscious public voice, like that of Yeats, or Robinson Jeffers, or Pound, or a thousand loud, minor poets.
But that tone only rarely appears. In his new volume, Pity the Beautiful, there are poems that do address the outer world, but, as in his earlier books, the best poems depict extraordinarily tender, interior landscapes of spiritual and erotic longing. In his best poems, Gioia gives public voice to a private world of elegy and regret, aspiring to speak for people rather than merely to them. After all, he can do that in his day job as much as he wishes; he is now Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California. He may remain a public figure, but he is a poet of the inner life.
Many contemporary poets mining the vein of subjectivity still seek the difficulty, or at least obscurity, that T.S. Eliot long ago insisted was necessary in such matters. Gioia's distinction from most of that crowd is his insistence on clarity, accessibility and formal grace, even eloquence, no matter how sorrowful or melancholy the subject. That very contrast — between his careful poetic craft, rhetorical skill and emotional restraint on the one hand, and the intensity of his feeling on the other — gives his poetry its decisive character.
This public man fills the page with questions and second guesses, mysterious regrets and a sense of spiritual bafflement as he tries to navigate the shoals of middle age. In "Reunion," he writes:
Is this my home or an illusion?
The bread on the table smells achingly real.
Must I at last solve my confusion,
Or is confusion all I can feel?
Even the well-intentioned search can be a false lead, as in "The Road":
He sometimes felt that he had missed his life
By being far too busy looking for it.
Amid all the emotional confusion, there is poetic control. "The Road," for example, is a metrical sonnet whose only liberty is a modified rhyme scheme. The speaker may be bewildered; the poet is not.
There are poems with a more public bent. "Shopping" is a pitch-perfect satire of consumer culture:
I enter the temple of my people but do not pray.
I pass the altars of the gods but do not kneel
Or offer sacrifices proper to the season.
Even here, however, Gioia turns back to questions of personal faith. As the speaker, again bewildered, again questioning, says near the end of "Shopping," speaking to an imaginary "fugitive" — God? — among the arcades: "Where are you, my errant soul and innermost companion?"
Again and again Gioia returns to a personal world where passionate arguments with himself about love, loss, and belief are so affectingly presented that they become the core of the faith they seek. As he writes in the closing couplet of "Prayer at Winter Solstice," "Blessed is this shortest day that makes us long for light. / Blessed is the love that in losing we discover." Loss is at the core of his faith, but that doesn't mean he is going to give up clarity to evoke it.
The weaker poems in Pity the Beautiful veer away from Gioia's sense of mysterious loss to become more discursive. But such poems are few, while the strengths are everywhere. The title poem reminds us of how much further the attractive, lucky, and successful have to fall than the rest of us. Even the gods are in this boat: "Pity the gods, / No longer divine." "Haunted," the longest poem in the book, tells the first-person tale of a young man who feels out of place in his wealthy lover's family mansion one weekend. He sees the ghost of a beautiful woman who tells him "You don't belong here," and he flees, ending up as a monk not so much because he believes in God, but because he finds it is a better way to live.
The translations from the Italian of Mario Luzi (1914—2005) are compellingly strange. The lyrics from Gioia's superb second opera, Tony Caruso's Final Broadcast — perhaps his best work to date, in my view — seem so well-suited to music one can almost hear it in the background. The final poem, "Majority," addressed to a son who died in childhood, traces his life as it might have been, as Gioia imagined it in the lives of other children he saw who would have been his son's age. It ends:
Now you are twenty-one.
Finally, it makes sense
that you have moved away
into your own afterlife.
Gioia is a man haunted by many pasts, but his dreams, however sorrowful, come to us with a precision of expression that would be welcome in any age.