Dana Gioia’s book, “Can Poetry Matter?” published in 1992, endeared him to both academic denizens and to the literary world in general. It’s subtitle “Essays on Poetry and American Culture” helped to expose the need of retaining poetry as part of our general culture, not as the microcosm of an exclusive academic subset. He lamented that magazines and newspapers no longer review poetry, and that the National Book Awards no longer includes poetry as a literary category.
I had the pleasure of meeting Dana and his wife Mary at a reading he gave in Angel’s Camp this summer. At dinner he remarked how important music was to him and encouraged us to listen to Morton Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna”.He has also written librettos for Opera, and other books of literary criticism.
Dana Gioia is the current poet laureate of California, and has published four widely acclaimed books of poetry, “Daily Horoscope”, “The Gods of Winter”, “Interrogations at Noon”, “Pity the Beautiful” and most recently a collection called “99 Poems”. He is currently a Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at USC in Los Angeles, and confesses he has read poetry for as long as he could read, while his mother often recited verse from memory to him as a child. Perhaps that is why he has inaugurated an important program for schools called “Poetry Out loud”in which students are challenged to recite poems from memory and engage in competition with other schools for significant prizes and scholarships on the state and national level.
“Poetry needs to be liberated from literary criticism. Poems should be memorized, recited and performed. The sheer joy of the art must be emphasized. The pleasure of performance is what first attracts children to poetry, the sensual enjoyment of speaking and hearing the words of the poem. Performance was also the teaching technique that kept poetry vital for centuries. Maybe it also holds the key to poetry’s future”.(p.23)
Gioia describes Poetry as “the art of of using words charged with their utmost meaning”, and warns us “that a society whose intellectual leaders lose the skill to shape, appreciate, and understand the power of language will become the slaves of those who retain it”. And just after WW II George Orwell prophetically announced that “the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language”. (p.20)
Though we can see our language shrinking into sound bites and tweets, and reading actual books becoming an anomaly, let’s infuse the love of poetry into our children and grandchildren by reading to them, and encouraging them to read their favorite poems to us. That will be a most delightful music to our ears.