Dana Gioia: Why Poetry Matters

By Peggy Eastman

In an era of Twitter and texting, poetry matters more than ever, said Dana Gioia, poet laureate of California, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and author of five poetry collections.

Poetry is as old as the human need to communicate and enriches human consciousness, Gioia said in an address at the National Press Club April 20.

“Art answers needs in human lives,” he said. “A human life is a linear structure of time. If you’re a Christian you believe there is a life outside this linearity. … Poems ponder the things that are important.”

The Trinity Forum, which promotes personal and cultural renewal, sponsored Gioia’s address.

Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter? (1992) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. He received the 2002 American Book Award for Interrogations at Noon, and the 2014 Aiken-Taylor Award for lifetime achievement in American poetry.

“I am a cradle Catholic; I go to Mass,” Gioia said. While most of his poetry is not overtly spiritual, he said, it reflects his worldview that human beings live in a broken world and seek grace and redemption. A number of his poems express people’s longing for connection to others and to a force larger than themselves.

He read aloud from “The Angel with the Broken Wing”: “For even the godless feel something in a Church / A twinge of hope, fear? Who knows what it is?”

Gioia grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Hawthorne, California. He remembers his mother reciting Edgar Allen Poe’s “Annabel Lee” while working at the kitchen sink.

“I fell in love with the enchantment of poetry, the magic of poetry,” he said. “I was the oldest kid in a big family that had no money.”

His favorite poet is Shakespeare, and he admires the work of Robert Frost and W.H. Auden. It is a “sacred responsibility of poets to use language in a pure way,” he said, and he quoted Frost’s definition of poetry as “a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget.”

Gioia decried the sloppiness of contemporary language. “Words are misused, they’re inflated, they’re forgotten,” he said. This is especially true in an election year: “What we’re mostly hearing is corporate language.”

He said poetry has been taught in a bland, uninspired way for years, which has marginalized it and turned many people away from poetry’s ability to enchant.

“Most Americans believe they don’t like poetry,” he said. “But if they hear it spoken well they like it.”

He said intellectuals and academics who have dominated poetry for years “are good at talking to each other, but not to the public.”

Asked by TLC what he thinks of new forms of rhythmic language such as hip-hop, Gioia said, “In a language you can say anything; I think it should be as broad and inclusive as possible.” He added, “I don’t necessarily think Snoop Dogg is the new Shakespeare, but hip-hop is the reinvigoration of oral poetry. I think it’s a good thing.”

The Rev. Dominic Legge, OP, a professor of dogmatic theology at the Dominican House of Studies, came to the National Press Club talk with a contingent of Dominican priests in their white habits.

“Truth and beauty go together, so when you find something beautiful it is true, … poetry helps us find that,” he told TLC. “We actually have a very poetic daily life,” because priests at the House of Studies chant from the Psalter four times daily. “This gives you a sense of the beauty of the word of God.”

“Poetry is countercultural,” said the Rev. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee, associate rector at All Saints Church in Chevy Chase, Maryland. “It’s a form of resistance to the mechanisms that are suffocating the heart today.”

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