In a previous post, I defined a “story guide” as someone who articulates something that was previously inexpressible to me. Such companions can name an ambiguous, sometimes unsettling aspect of life in this world, and their stories become my stories.
Dana Gioia is one of those writers who has profoundly affected how I understand, feel, and tell my story. Gioia took me by surprise. I would never have sought him because Gioia is a poet. For the first fifty years of my life, I had no connection to poetry. Why read poems? I would ask. Poetry seemed like a waste of time. Why write poems? Why not just state your point? All my education emphasized rational, analytical thought and anything else smacked of “subjectivity.”
Dana Gioia has named for me what I call the “sadness of beauty” and the “homelessness of exile.” Beauty’s sadness is that it touches the heart, bringing such joy but ever so briefly. I’m fooled every time, thinking I can bottle beauty. The homelessness of exile is the feeling not only of impermanence but also of being a perpetual outsider. Gioia helped me realize I was not alone in this, and I have no reason to be ashamed of these feelings. I thought I was doing something wrong for decades.
My first encounter with Gioia was not through reading but the experience of listening to him. He was a guest on Ken Myers’ Mars Hill Audio Journal, reciting, not reading, a poem with palpable passion and pleasure. I can still hear him—the poem was “The Grandeur of God” by the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. Soon after that, I listened to Gioia give a talk called “Why Beauty Matters.” Never had I heard someone so unabashedly put words to my euphoric and vulnerable experiences. Gioia opened a door for me to a world and a language I did not know was hiding in plain sight.
As I became more familiar with Gioia’s work, I was struck that he referred to his life as a “series of exiles.” He had lived in many places and negotiated multiple social and cultural worlds. Mobility had led to attendant feelings of displacement. The loss of his young son brought devastating grief. Faithful to his Stoic upbringing for years, much remained unexpressed. But he learned to name it in poetry that resonates. Gioia’s emotional freedom is a great help to me. He does not see grief as a failure of faith. It’s simply the price we pay for refusing to shut down. Grief and joy are both honest responses to a beautiful and broken world.
That’s me, I thought. Whenever people ask where I’m from, I don’t know how to answer because my family lived in five different locations before I left home for college. Each time I was a new kid at school, I became more anxious. I was an outsider, so I worked tirelessly to fit in. As a result, I buried my feelings and talents. When I’m asked how I feel, it’s even harder to explain than where I’m from. I’ll think, “How should I feel? What is the right way to feel?” Because Gioia has become a story guide, I’m learning that my grief is nothing to be ashamed of, nor should I try to eliminate it.
Regarding encounters with beauty, Gioia describes the stages: your attention is arrested, you experience pleasure, you get a glimpse of reality, then it’s over, and you can’t control the experience. In his poem, “Do Not Expect,” Gioia refers to how “briefly we press against the surface of impenetrable things.” That makes me think of what I call the sadness or ache of beauty. Beauty is like a drink that makes you thirstier. You feel joy and sadness.
A visit to Yosemite National Park when I was twelve has been my most remarkable encounter with beauty. My family lived near San Francisco at the time, so we went to Yosemite nearly every season. When we later moved to the Pittsburgh area, I was devastated and became obsessed with returning. When I finally did, I experienced a big letdown. But I kept going back, looking for the euphoria. I usually had a good time, but never as good as when I was twelve. And reentry to daily life brought sorrow.
So, to my surprise, it was a poet who put words to this dimension of my story. Gioia named that mysterious mixture of grief and awe I felt all my life. He helped me see that feeling sadness concerning beauty is not some kind of failure or defect. Splendor, this side of heaven is fleeting, but foretastes keep us moving toward God, the unseen wellspring of beauty. When I think about it now, it seems that only a poet could name this part of my story because his words caught me like the slow rhythms of a song, a cry of the heart.
Dana Gioia is a poet of considerable influence. His most recent 2017 collection, 99 Poems: New and Selected, won the Poets’ Prize. He served as chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2008, then as Poet Laureate of California from 2015-2018. I highly recommend his memoir Studying with Miss Bishop.
Gioia opened poetry to me—and not just his own. He showed me that poetry could not only be accessible and pleasurable but is also a way of knowing what can’t be communicated in analytical language.
“Poetry is the most concise, expressive, moving, and memorable way of articulating what it means to be human.”
When I first heard Gioia, I was going through a painful period of failure and shame. Because I was unfamiliar and aversive to poetry, I could not articulate the complexities I was feeling. There were vast parts of my story I detached myself from, which drove my shame and hindered my ability to talk with friends. I needed a new language; I needed poetry. As Gioia says:
“Poetry is a special way of speaking that invites and rewards a special way of hearing. And by extension, poetry is a special way of writing that invites and rewards a special way of reading.”
He showed me why I, though moved by music and films, “didn’t like” poetry:
“The reason most people don’t like poetry is that they’re constantly given bad poems to admire. They’re constantly given poems which do not enchant them.”
Gioia again put into words the effect of a good poem, and why hearing him recite Hopkins moved me so much:
“What real poetry does is create an enchantment, a state of heightened consciousness and heightened receptivity, a kind of mild hypnotic spell which allows certain things to transact in your mind, in your imagination, in your memory. And that is why poetry has a particular power.”
Of art in general, Gioia wrote:
“Art is mysterious. It reaches us in certain ways we don’t fully understand. The literal sense of a song or a poem is only part of its meaning. Physical sound and rhythm exercise a power of enchantment that eludes paraphrase. Our intuition often outpaces our intellect, and music anticipates meaning. He who sings prays twice, sometimes unaware.”
As I continue to listen to and read more of Gioia’s work, I’m becoming more at home with that particular way of speaking and writing, so I’m able to hear and read it with more reward, and therefore more vulnerably convey my story to others.
I’m impressed by the variety of subject matter and moods in Gioia’s work. Although a committed Catholic, he rarely writes explicitly religious poetry. He’s not trying to teach or preach but evoke the wide range of human experience and make a personal connection.
“I don’t want my poems to provide answers. I want them to pose questions worth pondering.”
The impulse of my poetry originates mostly in mystery, anxiety, and uncertainty. If something can be stated unequivocally and unambiguously, I see no purpose or pleasure in saying it in poetry.”
This willingness to admit uncertainty means a lot to me. We all need some space to time to just ponder and come to our own conclusions.
Dana Gioia’s Catholicism has been a surprise blessing to me. At an early age, I uncritically imbibed a profound bias against Catholics. Dana Gioia changed all that, exposing my senseless caricature of Catholics as self-righteous moralists weighed down with guilt. It turns out I was the self-righteous one with all the guilt. Through Gioia’s Catholicism, I’m discovering an artistic and literary tradition that values the concrete embodiment of life in a creation that is marred but has great value and beauty. A superb example of Catholic art is the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who has become one of my favorites.
Through the forms and language of poetry, Gioia is helping me forge a greater connection to the real world and a more comfortable honesty about the flux and varieties of my embodied experience. Poetry gives voice to the complex and tangled web of contradictory feelings, bodily sensations, memories, and non-linear stream visualizations we call life. I’m a little less threatened by all that nowadays. The voice of shame is not as loud.
Dana Gioia is one of my story guides. His work is an example of navigating this glorious and frightening world and anticipating the coming new creation. I am starting to embrace the fact that I am a grieving exile. But I am also privileged by the Creator to have moments of enchantment, letting me be lost briefly in wonder. It’s OK that I can’t bottle the beauty or demand an encore.
For further exploration
Here are a few books and links I drew from:
*Trinity Forum conversation with Dana Gioia (video and transcript: https://www.ttf.org/portfolios/poetry-beauty-dana-gioia/
*Dana, Gioia, “Why Beauty Matters https://www.firstthings.com/media/why-beauty-matters
*“If Any Fire Endures Beyond Its Flame: A Conversation with Dana Gioia,” in his books of essays, The Catholic Writer Today.
*My Review of Gioia’s memoir, Studying with Miss Bishop
*Dana Gioia, 99 Poems New and Selected
*Dana Gioia, “Ten Observations about Poetry”: