Of Poetry and Pandemic, Reading and Reality, Writing and Work
Dana Gioia says: ‘Solitude and reflection … will change lives.’
“I can’t speak for other poets, but solitude and isolation are very natural to me. I can happily spend my days alone. I read. I write. I do manual labor on our 20 acres. My imagination has room to breathe.”
So said Dana Gioia, the internationally acclaimed poet and writer, currently a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum, a Christian-based educational organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. He spoke to the Register March 24, from lockdown in rural northern California.
So what in particular has his imagination “breathed” during these strange times?
“I have been writing,” Gioia replied. “But not things directly inspired by the pandemic. I have mostly been working on a long poem-in-progress called The Underworld — the pandemic has been a natural backdrop for this Dantean poem, but it will take me a few years to complete.” He added, “I have also finished a poem about my complicated hometown of Los Angeles. It starts with the founding of the Spanish pueblo that became Los Angeles. It then jumps to the present. It’s called Psalm to Our Lady Queen of the Angels. It will be published soon in First Things.”
Casualties in the Arts
So, how did Gioia experience the initial shock of lockdown? “Initially, it was very nerve-wracking,” he said. “My wife and I were in rural northern California. Our two sons were in urban San Francisco and Los Angeles. Once we got our sons safely together in L.A., we could relax.”
No one is under any illusion that the economic impact of COVID-19 will be severe across the world, with many dire financial predictions for the funding of the arts once the pandemic is over. Does Gioia share that pessimism? “Unfortunately, I do,” he said. “The impact will be huge, both in public and private terms. First, the pandemic has already closed most institutions and put many artists out of work. It will bankrupt thousands of arts organizations. New ventures that have been started by the younger generation will be especially vulnerable. The major institutions will reopen, but with lower budgets and employment.”
Whereas the arts thrive under patronage during prosperous times, economic depressions produce not just different but less art.
“Amid all the other political priorities,” observed Gioia, “there will be less public money for the arts and for arts education. The private money, which constitutes most of arts budgets in the U.S., will return very slowly in a depressed economy. In the meantime, many plays will never be produced; books not published; exhibitions canceled; lives put on hold. The younger generation of artists will be hurt for years, not only professionally, but also personally. These artists will have to rebuild their lives. Among other things, many will delay marriage and children. How do you put a price on that loss?”
A Rooted Faith in Words
However, Gioia sees another, unexpected positive emerging from the disruption caused by the pandemic. “On a spiritual level, this pandemic has shocked many people out of the self-absorbed cultural complacency that has characterized the arts in recent years. Who knows what the reactions will be? Two months of solitude and reflection, especially in an atmosphere of death and danger, will change lives.”
Gioia knows all about “changing lives.” His life is a testament to many changes. Born in 1950, he was baptized and raised a Catholic in working-class Los Angeles. The first person in his family to attend college, he received a B.A. in English and then a M.A. from Harvard in comparative literature before going on to Stanford, where he completed a MBA. For the next 15 years, he worked in corporate America — writing on nights and weekends. He became known as the “businessman poet.” At 41, however, he quit to become a full-time writer: “I wanted to go beyond just writing poetry. I wanted a full literary career.” He went on to become chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (2003-09) and California’s poet laureate (2015). Until December 2019, he was the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.
In December 2013 Gioia published an essay entitled: “The Catholic Writer Today.” It is a veritable call-to-arms asking all Catholic creatives, as in previous times, to engage with the wider culture and not just construct a Catholic creative “ghetto.” Almost seven years on from the essay’s publications, does he see any signs of hope with regard to this call?
“I’m happy to report that there is an enormous surge of activity among Catholic writers and artists, at least some of which was in direct response to my essay,” he said. “For example, the Catholic Literary Imagination conference, which I founded at USC, has now been enlarged and repeated at Fordham by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell and at Loyola Chicago by Michael Murphy. There is another conference in planning for Denver. These enormous gatherings have become serious intellectual events.”
Gioia went on to point out that since the publication of “The Catholic Writer Today,” there has sprung up new magazines, presses, writers’ conferences, podcasts, radio shows and book groups — all Catholic.
“Most importantly,” he observed, “many Catholics who felt they were working in isolation now sense that they are part of a larger effort. I’m confident that over the next few years we will begin to see the impact of this new cultural revival.” He continued, “The younger generation of Catholic writers and intellectuals are less passive than my generation was.”
Have Imagination, Will Travel
While in confinement, Gioia said he finished Nicholas A. Basbanes’ new biography of Longfellow that is “mostly a portrait of the poet’s singularly deep and happy marriage with Fanny Appleton.” Longfellow,” he continued, “is one of the few great authors who led an entirely commendable life. It was inspiring to read about the couple, despite Fanny’s terrible death by fire that left Longfellow a widower.” He added, “The poet grew his famous beard to hide the scars he received trying to smother the fire that had consumed his wife’s dress.”
This observation no doubt recalled for Gioia the fires that recently consumed much of northern California and seriously damaged his own property.
In contrast, Gioia has also been reading a poet of a different bent, having just finished Jad Adams’ biography of the poet Ernest Dowson, “a Catholic convert who indulged in nearly every vice. He was a doomed soul who died at 32. But he did leave a few great poems behind.” Such an interest in Dowson on the part of Gioia is not unusual, given the subject matter of his recent excellent collection of essays, The Catholic Writer Today and Other Essays. With insight and empathy, many of that collection’s essays deal with writers such as Dowson, all equally talented as they were “doomed.”
During this time of confinement, Gioia and his family are reading together Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. “We want to share the book as a family in this time of separation,” he explained. “It is an intensely Christian novel — the story of Prince Myshkin, an entirely good and honest man in a hypocritical and fallen world. He is the ‘the idiot’ of the title. The most interesting and brilliant thing about the novel is that Dostoevsky is less concerned with the prince’s actions than with the impact he has on the other characters. Myshkin is a spiritual catalyst.”
When asked about what poetry to read in these times, he countered: “Can we start with the Bible? If you want the unvarnished truth on suffering, read the Book of Job. The whole book can be overwhelming. Try just the Lord’s answer to Job out of the whirlwind — Chapters 38-41. I often reread those chapters. By the end, I, too, repent in dust and ashes; but I’m also full of joy at the glory of the universe.”
What about films or artworks: Does he have any recommendations? “I suspect most people are watching too many films at the moment. It’s easy to use TV as a narcotic. If people need one more movie, though, watch Groundhog Day, which captures our current dilemma and shows how a curse can become redemptive. It is a film that gets better with each viewing and never loses its comic edge,” he replied.
As for art, he suggests “the visionary modern painter George Tooker, who created powerful and original work, full of unforgettable images. His early work was dark, but after his conversion to Catholicism, he created a beatific new style.”
Gioia sees this time of lockdown as an opportunity. “Take advantage of the forced quiet and isolation,” he said. “Turn off the TV and computer. Pick up the book you have been meaning to read for years. It has been on the shelf waiting for you for years. The title of the book has already popped into your mind. If you can’t think of anything yourself, then read Manzoni’s The Betrothed. It is one of the best Catholic novels ever written, a classic of European realism and a page-turner. One of the central episodes of the novel is the plague in Milan. The novel is, incidentally, one of Pope Francis’ two favorite novels. The other is The Brothers Karamazov. Verdi’s great Requiem was written in memory of Manzoni.”
Ora et Labora
When asked of his spiritual resources at this time, Gioia’s answer was as wise as it was surprising: “I’m currently sequestered on a woody hill in northern California. The landscape is coming back to life after a series of devastating fires. In October my house was almost destroyed. We lost about a hundred trees just on our property. I work outside for a few hours each day — tending new trees, pruning damaged ones, clearing rubble. It becomes a sort of meditation on the cycle of destruction and renewal, death and rebirth. Every day I notice some small new change — a budding wildflower, a bird returning to nest, green shoots at the base of a burnt tree.
“My aged back aches; my knees hurt — but I hate to go back indoors. Despite the pain, I am so happy. Work has become a prayer of thanksgiving.”
A Poem by Dana Gioia
After the death of our son
Neither the sorrows of afternoon, waiting in the silent house,
Nor the night no sleep relieves, when memory
Repeats its prosecution.
Nor the morning's ache for dream's illusion, nor any prayers
Improvised to an unknowable god
Can extinguish the flame.
We are not as we were. Death has been our pentecost,
And our innocence consumed by these implacable
Tongues of fire.
Comfort me with stones. Quench my thirst with sand.
I offer you this scarred and guilty hand
Until others mix our ashes.
— from the collection 99 Poems; reprinted with permission of the author