This is the forty-fifth interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series.
Interview with Dana Gioia, poet and former NEA Chairman
via email 26 March & 5 April 2011
IA: What topics tend to recur in your poetry?
DG: I never choose the subjects of my poems. They choose me. If I try to write on a particular topic, it never works. So I am at the mercy of inspiration, and mine tends to address all sorts of subjects from forgotten pianists and French Surrealists to film noir, Los Angeles, and the apocalypse. But whatever the surface subject, certain themes tend to recur—love, loss, mortality, desire, redemption, and the sheer mystery of our existence.
IA: Why those?
DG: They are the unavoidable themes, don’t you think?
IA: Are they typical of poets working just now, or representative of contemporary American concerns?
DG: I’m no longer sure what typifies contemporary poetry. It mostly seems very distant and vague to me nowadays. I don’t want my poems to be of the moment. I want them to resist the moment. That’s the only chance they have of outlasting it.
IA: You have published three volumes of poetry:
Daily Horoscope, 1986
The Gods of Winter, 1991
Interrogations at Noon, 2001.
How has your poetry changed since Daily Horoscope?
DG: I’m not sure that a poet is the best judge of his own development. An outside reader might give you a more reliable opinion. But if I must venture a judgment, I would say that my poems have grown more emotionally direct and less intellectual. Although I found my voice in that first volume, I now let the music of the poems carry more of their meaning. I’ve learned to trust the reader.
IA: If anything, the meters sound even stronger and more rhythmical to my ear in your most recent book, Interrogations at Noon—is this intentional?
DG: Yes, it is. The sound of a poem is what gives it authority. The music creates the necessary enchantment that makes everything else possible. You hear it immediately in a great poet. Read ten lines of Keats or Tennyson, Stevens or Eliot. Their voices are not only unmistakable but also compelling. I take great trouble to coax the sound of my poems into a fully realized and tangible shape.
IA: So what exactly are we hearing in these poems?
DG: Part of what you’re hearing is the book’s musical variety and formal invention. Most new formal poetry is predictably iambic, usually in lines of 6 to 10 syllables. Those are powerful meters, but the English language has so many more possibilities. In Interrogations at Noon I use almost every meter available in English (except syllabics, which you really can’t hear in our language). I also invent a number of stanza shapes--in both free and formal verse—and I experiment with lines that modulate between free and formal rhythms. Readers probably don’t know exactly what I’m doing—certainly the critics haven’t figured it out—but they can hear it. The poems have a strong but often unusual musicality.
IA: Congratulations on your forthcoming new book! Will this collection, Pity the Beautiful, depart at all from the themes and techniques of your previous three volumes? What new concerns have you been working through recently?
DG: The new book is not a departure, but I hope that it goes deeper into the heart of things. The central poem is a long narrative, a sort of short story in verse, called “Haunted.” It is, on the surface, both a ghost story and a love story, but it eventually turns into something different and unexpected. I was able to work at lot of things into this poem that I had never before found the right form to express.
IA: I detect a sense of sympathetic melancholy in your work: the melancholy of the narrative persona and of the reader, and a sympathy of both with each other. Is there something about our era that calls us to share one another’s sorrows more particularly than previous eras?
DG: I can’t speak with any authority about the past, but how can anyone contemplate the present age without some melancholy? It’s not the political or economic problems, as serious as they are, that sadden me. It is the cynical materialism that pervades our culture at every level, even in education, government, and the arts. There seems to be no other measure of value in society but wealth and power. And so few voices seem raised in opposition, except to demand the transfer of wealth and power elsewhere.
IA: The term “New Formalism” first appeared in a 1985 essay by Ariel Dawson: what is “New Formalism”?
DG: New Formalism was the name given to a movement among younger American poets in the 1980s who had unexpectedly started writing in rhyme, meter, and narrative. At that point in literary history, free verse was the dominant style, and these young poets were attacked—sometimes extravagantly—by the poetry establishment. Some of the so-called “New Formalists,” myself included, responded by publishing essays defending and explaining their notions of poetry, and the literary debates went on for the better part of a decade. The controversy was sometimes called the “Poetry Wars.”
IA: When you wrote the poems published in Daily Horoscope, how intentional were you about joining a radical new literary movement?
(N.B. You can read some poems from this book on Dana’s website:
“The Burning Ladder”
“California Hills in August”
“The Country Wife”
“Sunday Night in Santa Rosa”)
DG: I knew I was writing poems that went against prevailing fashions. But I never wrote them to be controversial. I composed in meter and rhyme, and explored poetic narrative because these were things that gave me pleasure. They were modes of expression which lent themselves to the sort of musicality and narrative energy I wanted in my work. I guess I wasn’t surprised to see myself attacked for my stylistic choices, but the possibility of those reactions had never influenced my aesthetic.
I should probably mention one other thing. I was unusual among the New Formalists—a term I’ve never liked, by the way—because I also wrote in free verse. My poems tend to fall into three almost equal groups—one third in rhyme and meter, one third in meter without rhyme, and one third in free verse. I also tend to experiment with metrical forms. I’ve always felt that a poet should be free to use all the techniques available. Versatility and range seem to me underrated qualities in a poet.
My openness to both free and formal verse annoyed some of the more conservative New Formalists, who also attacked me. I suspect I was the only member of the movement to be attacked by both sides. I was also eventually championed by poets and critics on both sides. Literary life takes strange turns.
IA: Why do you dislike the term “New Formalism?”
DG: The term seems both dull and reductive. For me, form was never an end in itself—only one of the ways to create a more immediate, expressive, and memorable kind of poetry. Reclaiming meter allowed me to summon a more physical and musical sound, just as reviving verse narrative permitted me to communicate some of the things that can only be said as stories.
The term “New Formalism” also misses one of the most important things that many of us were doing: namely, rejecting the confessional and autobiographic poetry so prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s. We wanted to regain some of the ground that poetry had lost to movies and novels—their ability to capture a wider human world. Poetry needed to escape narcissism. It needed to tell stories about people other than the poets.
IA: Is there a term you think would fit your work better, or do you dislike all of these tidy academic labels?
DG: Labels are usually unsatisfactory, though they are probably necessary to make sense of a crowded and complicated literary culture. I slightly prefer a term that had a certain currency at the time—“Expansive Poetry,” which did at least capture our effort to break outside the narrow fashions of the poetry subculture. But labels mostly just obfuscate the specific things that make an author either weak or strong. A lousy writer can often exemplify the general trends of a literary movement as clearly as a superb one.
IA: Robert McPhillips, in The New Formalism: A Critical Introduction, says that you “consciously endeavored to restore to American poetry clarity, music, and objectivity”—did you? Do you still?
DG: I don’t write poems to change American poetry. I try to write them to be moving, memorable, and true. I do value clarity, music, and objectivity (in the sense that the poems shouldn’t just be subjective or autobiographical ramblings). If anything, I have grown more concerned with the musicality of my poetry over the years. I want my poems to have clear surfaces and troubling depths. These are not the virtues most touted by today’s critics, especially in academia.
IA: In 2003, McPhillips wrote: “New Formalism remains one of the most influential—and controversial—poetic schools to have emerged in the United States since World War II.” Was that true in 2003? Is it still true now?
DG: Twenty years ago conventional literary opinion declared that rhyme and meter were dead techniques. Most magazine editors refused to consider formal poems for publication (one journal went so far as to declare that it wouldn’t consider “rhyme or pornography”). Now one sees formal poetry everywhere. The bulk of writing may still be in free verse, but the literary landscape is more diverse and inclusive. That change in literary climate is mostly the result of the notorious “New Formalism.”
More important, there are a number of significant poets who emerged out of this movement. (And it is important to remember that is wasn’t a unified group that had a single common aesthetic or agenda but rather a diverse group of younger poets reacting to a moment in cultural history.) Perhaps the best of these poets is David Mason, who is a narrative poet of stunning skill.
IA: Does American literature need another shake-up now—another sharp turn in the direction of literary technique or subject matter?
DG: American poetry seems pretty dull at present. It seems to have lost much of its energy and exuberance. It reminds me a little of the doldrums poetry found itself in a hundred years ago between 1900 and 1914. Except for the work of E. A. Robinson there was very little produced still worth reading. Then suddenly Modernism exploded on the scene. Who knows? Perhaps there is something amazing about to happen.
IA: Who are some of the best up-and-coming young poets whose work you admire?
DG: Some of the younger poets I admire most are A.E. Stallings, Christian Wiman, and Diane Thiel. I am also greatly impressed by David Yezzi and Ernest Hilbert’s powerfully poetic work in the opera libretto. There are surely other fine young poets whose work I don’t know.
But let’s not forget older poets. Many fine poets write for decades with little recognition.
Anne Stevenson is one of the great living poets in the language. She is well known in England but almost invisible in the U.S., her native country. Jared Carter and Timothy Murphy are both wonderful poets that few people read. There are many more. They aren’t young, but they are neglected.
IA: Now, in addition to writing poetry, you are also highly accomplished in writing about and promoting poetry—bringing it to a wider audience. During your time as chairman of the NEA, you initiated many excellent projects:
Shakespeare in American Communities
Poetry Out Loud
The Big Read
How are those endeavors faring now, after your tenure as chairman?
DG: I’m proud that during my tenure as NEA Chairman we launched the largest programs in the agency’s history. For the first time we reached almost every community in the country. The Shakespeare program alone reached nearly 3000 municipalities and millions of students. It also gave employment to thousands of actors, directors, designers, and crew. The Big Read became the largest literary program in federal history, and Poetry Out Loud is now probably the biggest single poetry enterprise in the U.S. I hope that the NEA will preserve these superb programs with vast democratic reach. but one can never be sure what will come. I have been gratified that in some cases, such as the Big Read, the U.S. Congress has insisted that they be continued as a requirement of the agency’s appropriations.
IA: Can you comment on the life of the “sacred” in contemporary poetry?
DG: Many of the poets I most admire are equally alert to the visible and invisible aspects of our existence. They see and celebrate the physical world, but they also sense the presence of what lies beyond it. This metaphysical sensibility is probably the great tradition of English-language poetry from Donne, Shakespeare, and Herbert through Blake, Wordsworth, and Keats (as well as Americans like Dickinson, Whitman, and Poe) up to Hopkins, Eliot, and Auden, to mention only a few of the great names. These were all poets alive to the sacred. Even an agnostic like Frost or an atheist like Larkin wrote elegies for the metaphysical longings they could not satisfy. No wonder Stevens, another spiritually alert skeptic, sought baptism on his deathbed—one final speculative leap into “the undiscovered country.”
An alertness to the sacred also teaches a poet a useful humility. It puts the individual human life into perspective against the immensity of creation. Ironically, that humility gives breadth to poetic vision since it requires writers to look outside themselves for meaning. So many poets today write only about the minutiae of their own lives.
IA: Economics and culture are becoming increasingly globalized. How does this affect the American arts and poetry?
DG: I worry that one of the great dangers to contemporary art is its globalization into vague categories like world music and world poetry. These things greatly appeal to politicians and administrators who see them as delivering ideological benefits. But beware of art or aesthetics created by committees. The arts are best, I think, when they are rooted in a particular place or sensibility. Art is also both created and received by individuals. I’ve noticed just in my lifetime how the sound of orchestras has become homogenized into a sort of safe international sound. When I was studying music and German in Vienna forty years ago, you could hear the difference between a Russian and German orchestra, or a French and Russian singer. There were distinct and expressive national styles. That’s all gone now. And culture isn’t richer for the loss.
IA: What are some projects you have in hand now?
DG: I am finally about to leave Washington, D.C., after 8 years spent mostly at the NEA. As I return to my native state of California, I want to return to my real life, which is being a writer not a public official. I want to write poetry, essays, and opera libretti. That last goal will puzzle some literary people, but I consider the libretto the one form of poetic drama that is still viable. There are certain types of poems that can only be written as drama. But writing poems is my main goal. I hope that my Muse has not deserted me. I was very inattentive to her during my years in public office.
IA: Can you name any composers with whom you would like to collaborate on operas?
DG: Yes: Mozart, Bellini, Verdi, Strauss, and Britten. But they all seem unavailable.
Fortunately, there are some other fine composers around. I’ve already done operas with Alva Henderson and Paul Salerni, and I am working with both of them now on other projects. I’ve also done songs with Lori Laitman. Perhaps one day she and I will both be free at the same time so that we can do an opera together. Speaking of songs, I am also planning a jazz song cycle with pianist-composer Helen Sung. Finally, Morten Lauridsen, a composer of Olympian stature in my judgment, is writing some songs based on my work. It is astonishing to work with composers of this stature.
IA: Do you have a new opera in mind?
DG: I do have a well-formed idea for a new libretto. I’ll have to find the right composer. It’s unheard of in the opera world for a librettist to originate a project, but that’s probably one of the reasons why most libretti are so poor. They are done as work-for-hire rather than original literary works. I am only interested in working on an opera in which the words are taken seriously. You wouldn’t mount a Broadway show with lousy lyrics. Why is opera any different? As an art form, it should have higher not lower standards than popular entertainment.
IA: Can you make some predictions for the future of American poetry?
DG: Poetry is an irreplaceable art. It is the most concise, expressive, and memorable way we have to describe in words what it means to be human. Poetry has survived since the prehistory, so it will probably even survive the experts and their committees.