Online Conversation | Poetry & Beauty in Solitude
On Friday, May 1 The Trinity Forum hosted from Former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and Poet Laureate of California, Dana Gioia. Dana shared his unique insights about beauty, poetry, and solitude. Dana encourages us to use this time of quarantine to begin afresh.
Painting is The Monk by the Sea by Caspar David Friedrich, 1810
Intro song is Cinema Paradiso by Ennio Morricone
Transcript of “Poetry & Beauty in Solitude” with Dana Gioia
Cherie Harder: With all of us in quarantine, our days can indeed seem rather dull, anxious, and prosaic. So it is a particular pleasure to get to engage the topic we’ll be discussing today: poetry and beauty in solitude. And it is a particular delight to get to do so with my longtime friend and Trinity Forum Senior Fellow, Dana Gioia. Dana is a rock star. He is an internationally renowned poet, literary critic, and essayist; the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts; for the past four years, the Poet Laureate of California; the publisher and the author of more than five full-length poetry collections, which have variously won the Poet’s Prize and the National Book Award; an active translator of poetry from Latin, Italian, and German; composer of three opera libretti; and the recipient of more than ten honorary degrees and the Aiken Taylor Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry. Dana, thanks for joining us.
Dana Gioia: Good morning from California. It’s good afternoon to you in Washington, and I guess in Austria it’s […], I don’t know. It’s a pleasure to talk to everyone, especially since we really are all having a one-to-one conversation, because people are in their various rooms in solitude. That I think actually makes the conversation more fun and more interesting, and, I hope, have some more importance.
Cherie Harder: Dana, to start right off, I’m sure you’ve encountered many people, even avid readers, who feel they should love poetry, much the way perhaps that they should eat their vegetables: there’s something good in it for them, but there’s not a driving hunger there. How did you come to love and to write poetry, and what guidance would you give for those who want to more fully discover and delight in it?
Dana Gioia: Falling in love with poetry was easy for me. It simply happened. My mother, who was a working-class Mexican woman of no great education, loved the poems that she had had to memorize in what they then called grammar school. She would just recite them un-self-consciously. She was from that terrible era of education where the repressive teachers made poor, innocent children memorize poems. The brutality of that system goes without saying. Nonetheless, these were treasures for my mother. We would be doing housework together—yes, she forced me to do housework with her, because she was a working woman in the 50s, she had a job, and so on Fridays we would clean the house—and she would simply start to recite. She would say, “It was many and many a year ago, / In a kingdom by the sea, / That a maiden there lived whom you may know / By the name of Annabel Lee; / And that maiden she lived with no other thought / Than to love and be loved by me.” At the earliest age, I fell in love with what I have come to call “the enchantment of poetry.” Which is to say, what poetry does—I don’t think people understand this, certainly teachers don’t understand this any longer—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. Now, 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. However intelligent, well-written, well-crafted the poem is, it doesn’t communicate with you. It doesn’t reach out and bring you into that state of heightened consciousness, heightened sensitivity. And so the two of you—it’s like a relationship where you can’t find a common language. And I think because of that, a lot of people assume they do not like poetry. And yet they’ll always talk about these great poems they remember reading in high school or perhaps in college. So I think that the problem with poetry is a version of the problem of the general culture: our high culture has gone wrong. Our high culture is broken. The ways in which academics and critics talk about the high culture is, in many cases, broken. And what has happened is, it’s separated the artist from the audience – the art from the people that it was intended to speak to. What I’ve tried to do as a poet, as a critic, as a teacher, is to reconnect people to the best of what is being written.
Cherie Harder: We’ll want to unpack that in a bit. But before getting there, you had a very unusual trajectory to become a full-time poet. You got your MBA and you actually worked in marketing as a V.P. for many years before transitioning to poetry. What propelled you to leave a successful job in advertising and marketing with an MBA to go write poems full-time?
Dana Gioia: You have to understand the basis of this is that my parents were good people. [They] neglected to give me the private income I so richly deserved. And so—I hope that none of the people that are joining us today suffer this way—I was faced with the indignity of having to get a job. At the earliest age, what I realized—I was in Vienna, Austria, studying music—but I realized I didn’t want to be a musician, I wanted to be a poet. But I had no idea what that meant. What do you do if you’re a poet in today’s society? There’s one common answer: if you want to be a poet, then you go teach poetry, teach poetry writing. So I started off at Harvard studying poetry. And I realized I didn’t really want to be a professor in an Ivy League university. It’s a wonderful thing, but it wasn’t for me. So I had to figure out some way of making a living. I had had crappy jobs my whole life. I think my first job was at the age of nine, when one of my Sicilian uncles brought me and my cousin to a field and told us to clear the weeds. I knew what it was like to work with my hands. So I decided to go to business school. T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens had both been businessmen who had written poetry. So I figured I could do that. For fifteen years, I worked in the corporate world. I worked about ten hours a day, and I wrote at night. It worked very well for me. I became a very well-known writer, and there came a point where I just felt that—money has never been motivating for me, but I wanted enough money where I could pay the bills and not have to worry about it, because I was raised by people that were full of anxiety about money. At the end of every month, my parents were quite literally broke. So I didn’t want to be in that situation. I was very successful as a businessman, but I realized I was now well-known enough that I could simply quit and write full-time. Ironically, I would say it was better for me as a poet to have a business job, because I never had to worry about making a living. Once I quit and became a full-time writer, for a couple of years we were really skating on thin ice—often falling through. But it worked out. I started writing journalism; I worked for the BBC; I wrote for The Washington Post, The New York Times; I edited textbooks; I did readings and lectures. So I became a man of letters. And that’s really what I wanted. I wanted not to be a poet in the narrowest way, but a writer, the core of whose existence was poetry. So why did I quit? To write more, and out of misplaced idealism.
Cherie Harder: We’re going to be talking about poetry and beauty in solitude. We basically understand what poetry is, but beauty is a contested concept, so it’s probably fitting to start off with definitions. What is beauty?
Dana Gioia: I just did a film that’s being broadcast on First Things. People haven’t seen it. It’s 24 minutes long. But I give a kind of detailed explanation of what I think beauty is and why it matters. So I would urge them, if they want to explore that, they could look at that. I don’t want to repeat everything that I talked about. Beauty is really quite complicated, but it’s also something that all of us have common experience of. I think that the easiest way of talking about beauty is to start with what I believe is a universal experience: all of us have the experience of just walking along or sitting along and then being stopped in our tracks by something that strikes us as beautiful. It could be a tree, a person, a landscape, a painting, a building. But somehow it makes us say, “Wait. I’ve got to pause.” The experience of beauty is in four stages. The first is what I call “the arresting of attention,” where we stop our busyness, our preoccupation. All of us are walking around with our head full of worries and ideas and hopes, and suddenly it stops. The second thing is, as we stop, we begin to take pleasure in the thing that we are beholding. So [there’s] the arresting of attention, the sense of pleasure. And frequently it is pleasure that is somewhat disinterested. I’ll be walking by the hillside, and it’s covered with flowers. I don’t own the hillside; I don’t own the flowers; I’m not even going to pick the flowers. But it just stuns me. Then out of that arresting of attention, which is where we actually stop our busyness and think and take in the world, take in reality, we’re filled with this pleasure, and suddenly we’re given an insight. I’ll give you an example here. Just outside the door of my studio are hillsides which were completely devastated in the October fires in California. Hundreds of my trees—I have twenty acres—were destroyed. The ground was burned down to this blackened surface. Yet after the winter rains, suddenly, everything began to grow. But what began to grow was not necessarily what had been there beforehand. So I’ve got a whole hillside now covered with lupine that’s about two feet tall. It’s spectacularly blue. I realized that for decades, the seeds of these lupines were sleeping under the surface of the earth, only to be reawakened in the fire. These trees suddenly have shoots coming out of them, like the madrones, these things that look almost like lettuce leaves coming out of the charred bases. That’s an example of the third thing: your attention is arrested, you get pleasure, and suddenly you get a glimpse, large or small, of the inner workings of reality. The great philosopher/ theologian Jacques Maritain said it’s the secrets of existence radiating into the intelligence. Suddenly you’ll start to see [that] the design of a tree reflects the soil, the sky, the weather around it; that there’s an interrelationship between all of these things. You get this incredible rush of knowledge of how reality operates. And then the fourth part of beauty happens. It’s over—which is to say, you can’t control it. You are dealing, in a sense, with the reality of a phenomenon greater than yourself. Now, what does that tell us about the nature of beauty? I think what it tells us about the nature of beauty is what the ancients have told us, what the romantics told us about beauty: that truth is beauty, beauty, truth. Now, it’s not that this beautiful thing is all truth or that all truth is going to create beauty. But beauty is a means of knowing the world as it really is. Thomas Aquinas had a very elegant three-part definition of this. Anybody who’s read James Joyce’s novel “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man” knows that the very end of it this artist, using Aquinas, suddenly understands his life, understands his future, for the first time. What Aquinas said is, you see a the beauty of the part, and then you see the way that it relates to the whole. For example, I see this flower growing on the hill that I’ve never seen before. I suddenly [see that it’s] related to all the flowers on the hill and the scorched earth, and I suddenly understand that it’s all interrelated. The fire is what caused this beautiful flower to come back into being after sleeping under the Earth for thirty years. So it’s the beauty of the part, the integration of the whole, the harmony of the parts making the whole. What Aquinas calls it is “integritas.” Then the third thing happens, which Aquinas calls “claritas”—which is not “clarity,” it’s “radiance.” Reality begins to radiate into our intelligence. Now if you say [that] beauty is all subjective, [that] there’s no connection between this socially-constructed sense of prettiness and outer reality, you’ve essentially put sunglasses on to block the radiance of creation, the radiance of the world. And indeed, our culture has deliberately taken cheaters and put them over their eyes. Academics have for thirty years now maintained that there’s no such thing as beauty. It’s a social convention determined by race, class, income, gender, nationality. It’s a means of one group oppressing the other by elevating some things and demoting others. But that completely misunderstands what beauty is. Beauty is not something that aggrandizes one group of people at the expense of another. And if you stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and you look into it, [you don’t] say, “Hey, that really makes me look a lot better.” No, the beauty of the Grand Canyon makes everybody actually understand their insignificance amidst the glory of creation. Once again, I hate to be habitually quoting Aquinas, but Aquinas at one point defines humility as seeing things as they really are. You understand how insignificant all of your wishes and your desires and your ambitions are to the extent of reality. And beauty does the same thing. Beauty allows us to see at least momentarily and partially into the harmony of existence, the interrelationship of existence. That’s why a lot of things that are beautiful are not pretty.
Cherie Harder: If beauty depends on our apprehension and our attention, these are not entirely straightforward. I think about Georgia O’Keeffe saying, “To see takes time, like having a friend takes time.” How do we learn to see and to discern the reality and the beauty that is there?
Dana Gioia: We have to educate our senses. But I think I need to back up to say, we as intellectuals like to imagine we think our way rationally to things. We really don’t. So little of what we experience is rational. You and I, Cherie, in a good week (you perhaps more than me) probably get in forty-five minutes of true rational thought. Everything else is experiential, which is to say we simultaneously bring things in with our senses, our intellect, our imagination. We relate them to things in our memory, and all of it’s filtered through our physical body. Our physical body even allows us to do rational thinking better some days than others. And so what we have to do is not to educate just our intellect, although that’s very important. I’m first in line saying we’ve got to make our intellect and our rational capability stronger. But we have to educate ourselves in the completeness of our humanity. Anybody who’s been trained in music has got a good notion of this, or even somebody who’s been trained in athletics. In music, you train your ear; you train your hands; you train your eye to be able to read a score, reproduce it on a violin or a piano, and hear the results. If you’re a singer, you’re singing the results, so you have to produce the sound out of your body. There’s this constant dialectic where you refine these things. You do it by playing music, practicing music, listening to music, doing all these things. So what we need to do is train our eyes, our ears, our tongues in a complete human way. Out of that, we relate all of these things that our rational mind and our imagination can work with in coordination with our memory and with our physical bodies. The trouble is, our official education has become highly intellectual and almost completely disembodied. We are not pure spirits. We are incarnate beings with body and soul. Unless we take the body seriously, we’re really overestimating our angelic capabilities.
Cherie Harder: I notice you have made a similar critique, not only of the education system, but even of the church. You wrote in The Catholic Writer Today at one point that “whenever the church has abandoned the notion of beauty, it has lost precisely the power it hoped to cultivate—its ability to reach souls in the modern world. Current Catholic worship often ignores the essential connection between truth and beauty, body and soul, at the center of the Catholic worldview.” When did this start happening, and what counsel would you give to retain the connection?
Dana Gioia: I don’t know when it started happening, because almost any big trend has multiple causes. But I unfortunately am old enough to have seen some of the breaking points. Catholicism, I think, is the test case here, because you have whole parts of Protestantism that sort of deliberately pulled themselves away from the physical. You think of the ultimate Calvinist or Puritan chapel, where you have whitewashed walls and clear glass so that you have nothing distracting the mind from a direct relationship with God. The Catholics, however, have always believed in embodied worship. That’s in the Mass, where you’re literally eating bread and wine that has been transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ as part of the service. You’ve got incense and bells and candles, all these things that Puritans were driven nuts by. But what I saw in my own lifetime in the Catholic church was that we went away from a sense of coming into a sacred space in which all of our senses were involved with music, with ritual, with prayer. Once again, I cannot overestimate the importance of architecture itself— paintings, sculptures, draperies, vestments. [Then,] suddenly, it just became a meeting hall where people talked to us. I don’t know for other Catholics, but most of what’s happened positively to me during Catholic worship has not been the sermon—which is not one of the great Catholic traditions. Sermons are what we listen to as punishment for our sins. But it was the overall sense of a ritual which tried to replicate the Last Supper and the sacrifice of Christ. This meditation, which required all of my senses, even my sense of taste, was transformative and sustaining to me once I fully understood it. But you have to be able to put yourself in the right frame of mind for this. If you go into a modern church, which is poured concrete with some kind of bizarre design, and you’ve got bad music in a kind of ugly space, I don’t think it happens. We are weak. We are the slaves of our senses.
Cherie Harder: I want to talk at least a little bit about poetry before we go to questions from our viewers. One of the things that was quite provocative in the past is that you’ve argued that an essential power of poetry is to (in your words) “purify language.” We’re at a time when facts themselves are disputed. We have alternative facts, and a whole variety of them. Language is muddied. Our information streams are siloed. You can increasingly almost predict people’s thinking by their voting behavior. It makes it all the easier to confirm our biases. How, if at all, can poetry purify the language of our time?
Dana Gioia: Well, the [phrase] “give a sense more pure to the language of the tribe” comes out of a poem by Mallarmé, which he wrote about Edgar Allan Poe. Then T.S. Eliot brings it into the “Four Quartets.” I think it’s really quite true. A poem, because it has so few words, so few images, has to have absolutely everything work. When something goes phony—Nietzsche said, “The poets, they lie too much.” In a poem, you can almost always sense when the poem’s bullshitting you, when the poet is lying, when the poet is pressing too far, when the poet is faking it. So I think that the beauty of poetry is that, in a way, it exists outside the marketplace. It’s a way of pure saying, of pure hearing, of pure experiencing. And the words are all naked. If the word is flabby and overweight, we see it, because you can’t gussy it up. We see with great poetry that it clears the space.
Cherie Harder: Do you have a favorite poem of your own that you’ve composed?
Dana Gioia: Actually, I do—I have three or four favorites. I don’t think they’re the poems anybody else likes.
Cherie Harder: Why don’t you let us be the judge of that and read one of them to us?
Dana Gioia: This is a poem of mind. It’s very complicated. It comes out of two things. It comes out of my sense that what real love is—I’m talking about real passionate sexual love—is mostly talk. It’s a conversation between two people in which everything in their lives begins to wrap around each other. You know you’re in love with somebody if nothing is real to you until you share it with that other person. If something happens to you, it’s not really real till you link your story with that person’s story. The other thing is that I’ve known people that have killed themselves. In fact, a dear friend of mine killed himself in December. What happens to those people is that their story comes to an end —they don’t know how to take their story forward. What it made me realize is, we live and we love by stories. That’s why literature matters, and why literary education matters: because if we don’t have many, many stories that give us all the alternatives of life, we probably don’t have what our imaginations need to go forward and to prosper in life. I take the title from Shakespeare, who said, “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact”—which means that all three of them are crazy. This is written in some ways to my wife. It’s in four stanzas, each of which changes its mood.
“The tales we tell are either false or true,
But neither purpose is the point. We weave
The fabric of our own existence out of words,
And the right story tells us who we are.
Perhaps it is the words that summon us.
The tale is often wiser than the teller.
There is no naked truth but what we wear.
So let me bring this story to our bed.
The world, I say, depends upon a spell
Spoken each night by lovers unaware
Of their own sorcery. In innocence
Or agony the same words must be said,
Or the restless moon will darken from the sky.
The night grow still. The winds of dawn expire.
And if I’m wrong, it cannot be by much.
We know our own existence came from touch,
The new soul being summoned into life by lust.
And love’s shy tug awakens in such fire—
Of flesh on flesh and midnight whispering—
As if the only purpose of desire
Were to explore its infinite unfolding.
And so, my love, we are two lunatics,
Secretaries to the wordless moon,
Lying awake, together or apart,
Transcribing every touch or aching absence
Into our endless, intimate palaver,
Body to body, naked to the night,
Apparelled only in our utterance.”
Cherie Harder: Thank you Dana. We have several dozen different questions awaiting you, so we’re going to turn to questions from our viewers right now. We’ll try to get through as many as we can. To those of you who are watching this, you can not only ask a question on the question function, but you can like a question. The more likes a question has, the more likely we are to be able to get to it, so you can express yourself both ways. Our first question comes from Kevin Antlitz, who asked, “Could Dana comment on the importance of memorizing poetry, especially during times like these when the temptation is to glue our eyes to screens? Memorizing verse was much more prevalent a century ago than it is today, and by and large [it is] a lost art. I wonder if Dana has any suggestions or strategies he’s found helpful to entrusting such important works to memory.”
Dana Gioia: First of all, poems are written to be memorized. Who is the mother of the Muses? The goddess Memory. Poetry goes back to a time in our culture before there was writing. The things that were important needed to be memorized. So unless you’re memorizing poems, you’re not really entering into the art in the true way. There’s many ways of memorizing poems. What I often do is, I’ll have one or two poems I want to memorize, and I’ll just Xerox them on a little piece of paper and put them in my wallet. That way, when I’m standing in line, I can take them out and memorize it. Cherie, you know how much I’ve had to travel in my life. You have no idea how many poems I’ve memorized at O’Hare Airport, where I just wait for hours. Now, if you have trouble memorizing a poem, here’s how you do it: walk around. Just walk and say it to yourself. Actors know this trick; you’ll memorize things twice as quickly.
Cherie Harder: This question comes from Brad Gioia in Nashville, who says, “I have been struck by the difference between the terms ‘isolation’ and ‘solitude’ in this time of social distancing and stay-at-home orders. Can you discuss the spiritual meaning of solitude?”
Dana Gioia: First of all, Brad Gioia is not related to me, although I have met him. Hello, Brad Gioia. Well, I think what God gives you is what you need. Even if you don’t want it, it’s what you’ve got. And it’s your choice how to receive that. I think some people think of what we have right now as this terrible quarantine, this isolation. But I think properly seen, it is the gift of solitude. We are in this extraordinarily hyperactive world in which everything is accelerated, and we’ve been given weeks of solitude, of quiet, where we can actually experience life at a different pace. If you think of solitude, in a sense it gives you the chance to put all the noise of existence out of the way and see into the reality of yourself and your life and your existence. I’m very weirdly grateful for this time, despite all the anxieties and all the sorrows.
Cherie Harder: Fritz asked, “Who are some of your favorite poets of the past and of the present?”
Dana Gioia: As unoriginal as it sounds, William Shakespeare. […] I love Shakespeare. I was raised doing Latin in high school. Some of the Latin poets like Horace, Catullus, and Virgil were among the earliest poets that I read seriously, and I still love them. In English, I love John Donne, on whom I wrote a piece for the Trinity Forum, as well as Gerard Manley Hopkins, on whom I also did another of your little monographs. In the twentieth century, my favorite poet is probably W.H. Auden—wonderful poet. I love Eliot, and I love Philip Larkin and Robert Frost, and I love Emily Dickinson. I think my favorite younger poet in America is a woman named A.E. Stallings—Alicia Stallings. I think she’s terrific. So if you want a younger poet to read, you can’t go wrong with her.
Cherie Harder: We actually have a question from a younger viewer: this is Megan Meehan, who is a senior in high school. She is currently writing her thesis on the necessity of poetry and beauty. She says, “While researching and conversing with my peers, I learned that most of them, though they appreciated beauty, found poetry to be something unworthy to write about. Would you say that the reason for this is because they simply have not been exposed to poetry, or because not many people care for the kind of beauty which it represents?”
Dana Gioia: I think both of those statements are true, but they require some commentary. If you go back to, let’s say, 1900 in the United States, poetry was a universally popular art. A poet like Longfellow was not only read by everyone; virtually everyone in the United States would have known some of Longfellow’s poems by heart. They probably have known some of Poe’s poems by heart, Whittier, and people like this, because there was a relationship between the common person and poetry. In fact, the poet was thought of [as] the person who best articulated the hopes and aspirations of the common person. During the twentieth century, poetry became a kind of elite discourse done largely by intellectuals, and by the end of the century, almost entirely by academics. What’s happening right now is that poetry is regaining its audience. Poetry is the fastest-growing art in the United States by a huge margin. And among younger people, it has doubled its audience in the last ten years. But that’s because people like this young woman are, in a sense, reconnecting with the traditional notion of poetry. So what I would say to her is that she is in the vanguard, and that her generation is going to restore poetry to its rightful place in society.
Cherie Harder: This is a fascinating question from Mary Frances Dunlap, who asked, “Would you please speak to the relationship between beauty and suffering? How might suffering help us anticipate beauty that is to come?”
Dana Gioia: Well, think of beauty not as being “pretty,” being “lovely,” but [as being] the joy we get from seeing things as they really are—seeing the interconnections of things. What is the most beautiful play in the world? I think it’s probably “King Lear,” which is full of evil and suffering and unbelievable misery. And the relationship is this: the purpose of poetry is to give us pleasure, to give us wisdom, to give us consolation. And as we suffer, we begin to see the beauty of things we did not understand before. Right now I’m reading “The Idiot” by Dostoyevsky. What made Dostoyevsky a great writer, which turned him from just a journalist into one of the greatest novelists who has ever lived, was his suffering. The fact that he was imprisoned unjustly in the gulag, he was actually almost executed, and then he lost two of his four children—that allowed him to see the deeper, darker, more encompassing truths. Most of us are not going to look at the uncomfortable truths most of the time. You could say one of the gifts of the current pandemic is that it has woken people up from the delusion they have [that] all of life is under their control, everything’s going to be good, and life is a series of increasingly wonderful consumer choices and things to possess. It allowed us to understand our own mortality better, to understand the precariousness of our existence. That is a gift to all of the survivors. I hope we will never live entirely the same as unconsciously [we did] before. So yes, the more we suffer, the more we see the beautiful.
Cherie Harder: An interesting question from Kashaf Zaman, who asked, “Do you think the lack of appreciation for poetry in our day and age has negative societal repercussions? If so, what kind?”
Dana Gioia: What poetry does is it gives us words to understand and express the complexity of our humanity. Our education system is largely intellectual, but if you educate people with poetry, much of your education is emotional and imaginative. So we are producing 18-year-olds and 21-year-olds—you know, thinking of high school graduates and college graduates—who are emotionally stunted, whose imaginations have never been called fully into being and whose powers of articulation are limited. And I say this as somebody who’s been teaching for the last decade. Their ability to express what they’re really feeling, what they’re going through, is so limited. So I think there’s a reason that through most of human history, poetry has been one of the building blocks of education. It makes us grow, and it gives us the ability to express ourselves.
Cherie Harder: A question from Joanne Welsh, who asked, “How does your understanding of beauty differ from C.S. Lewis’s understanding of joy? It’s been a very long time since I read ‘Surprised by Joy,’ but your definition of beauty sounds very similar to my recollection of the way Lewis understood joy.”
Dana Gioia: Well, let me say something that people should understand. Truth is the possession of no one. To the degree we’re getting at the truth, we are giving ourselves a common possession. Lewis is pulling himself actually out of Thomas Aquinas, out of Kant, out of the same people that I am. A way of saying this is that in the way that each age needed to understand beauty, it generally found the terms to do so—until recently. Suddenly we have these intellectuals saying it doesn’t exist, that it’s a falsehood, and things like this. So I think probably what Ms. Welsh is experiencing is, there was kind of a noticeable gap between the generation of C.S. Lewis and people like me who are trying to revive the necessary connection between truth and beauty that’s been denied for about forty or fifty years. So if I have much in common with C.S. Lewis, thank God! Roger Scruton was trying to do the same thing. Frederick Turner is trying to do the same thing. Because the consequences in our culture of misunderstanding beauty have been catastrophic.
Cherie Harder: A question from Roger Laing, who asked, “Do you believe we should be reading into the current situation, paying particular attention to writing that addresses the presenting issues of the day?”
Dana Gioia: Well, yes, but that’s called journalism. We need good journalism, both newspaper journalism and magazine—the daily journalism and the weekly/monthly journalism—to understand our existence in time. That’s not, by and large, what literature does. A poem is trying to write something that is true today, and is going to be true next year, and, if you’re really good, is going to be true one hundred years from now. It’s a very, very different thing. We’re so easily blinded by the emergencies that we have to deal with. But I do think there’s a real separation between what I would call “journalistic writing” and “literary writing.” Both should be good, both should be smart, and both should be honest.
Cherie Harder: You have a question from your friend and former deputy at the NEA, Eileen Mason, who asked: “What poem or poems best express the isolation, helplessness, and fears we are experiencing, and what poems might give us solace?”
Dana Gioia: A way of thinking about this is that most people—Eileen and I are probably just old enough to remember the polio epidemic. Not [the epidemic] itself, but we grew up among kids who were crippled by polio, so we understood these things even if we were too young to remember the epidemic itself. For younger people, this is an entirely new phenomenon, but for most of humanity, during most of time, this has been something that’s recurring. If you read John Donne, he’s writing in a period where people die customarily at twenty or thirty. If you’re fifty or sixty, you’re way, way ahead of the curve. Somebody mentioned earlier “Death, be not proud”—I think that’s a great poem. Gerard Manley Hopkins died before he even hit middle age of an infectious disease; you [can] read his dark sonnets. There’s a wonderful poem by Thomas Nash about the time of the plague—”Brightness falls from the air” is one of the lines from it. So the funny thing is that the answer is, literally almost every poem written before 1900! About a third of Emily Dickinson’s poems (this is a guess) are about death. In her case, it’s largely people being killed in the Civil War, but it’s also about the people around her that are dying. So I think that this is a time where we go back and we read the earlier poems. The poem I quoted that my mother read, “Annabel Lee,” is about a young woman dying prematurely—so all of these poems that Poe wrote. So the answer, Eileen, is “nearly everything written before the invention of penicillin.”
Cherie Harder: A question from Margarita Mooney, who asked, “Do you think it’s possible that oral cultures of the past were more comfortable with poetry? In other words, has the written word, printing, and the Internet weakened our possibility in speaking in verse so naturally, as you did at the start of this interview? How can written cultures such as ours learn to appreciate oral cultures past and present?”
Dana Gioia: The first part of Margarita’s question is easier to answer. They had to be comfortable with poetry because they didn’t have any other form of remembering anything. There were no books. There was no writing. So if you were going to remember anything, it had to be in a poem. I would remind people of how much of the Bible is written in poetry. Now, that connection with oral culture remained positive until really quite recently. In the nineteenth century, people recited poems to each other. If you look at the Lincoln-Douglas debates, these debates went on for hours, because people’s sense of oral culture was so vital. The earlier question “how do you get better?”: you develop these skills. Any adult in the nineteenth century would have had these great skills developed. What we need to do is to recover some of the capability of speaking and hearing complex language that we lost. If you look at the measurements, and unfortunately, you know, you were at the NEH and I was at the NEA, the ability of people to handle complex language has almost vanished in our culture. And our politics reflect this impoverishment. I think studying poetry, memorizing poetry, reciting poetry is an ancient and pretty reliable cure for that.
Cherie Harder: A question from Mary Ellen Bork, who asked, “How do you think poetry opens the mind to the possibility of religious faith? Is it through the power of beauty?”
Dana Gioia: Let me answer this indirectly. I’ve just retired as a teacher. Teaching was not my lifelong profession, but for a decade I taught at the University of Southern California—very bright, vital young students. But the thing that worried me about them more than anything else was that I didn’t see them developing their inner lives. They’re looking at their tweets, they’re looking at the Internet, they have headphones. They surround themselves, they immerse themselves, you could even say they drown themselves in external stimuli. It’s kind of a narcotic that allows every moment to be mildly pleasant. I think that we need to be alone with our thoughts more. That’s why I believe, even though you didn’t want to use it as the title, that quarantine is a gift. We need to develop our inner lives, which is essential to understanding ourselves as separate from the entertainment environment around us. We are not just a consumer. We are a person with a soul. And I think poetry is one of the ways in which we do this. Properly construed, it develops our spiritual capacity and our self-understanding. Part of that is, if you memorize a poem, where is it? It’s inside you. When you reproduce it, it’s inside you. And you’ll notice that you cannot memorize something without knowing what it means. Now, that doesn’t mean that the meaning that you’re giving it is what the author [meant]. But you begin to attach your personal meanings to it. The very act of memorizing a poem is transformative, expansive, and individualized. So I think poetry and prayer are two things which are very vital to our spiritual well-being. And in both cases, we’re on a starvation diet in this culture.
Cherie Harder: There’s a somewhat related question asked by Josh Christiansen, who said, “When you were in the business world, you said that you set the task every night of perfecting one line of poetry. Theodore Roethke once said that every line in a poem should be a poem itself. What rules did you set out for yourself in perfecting a line of poetry, and what qualities do you think a perfect line of poetry has?”
Dana Gioia: You know, I used to work about ten hours a day, and I’d come back and say, “Oh, God, I’m just so tired. I don’t want to do anything.” You look at something you’re writing, an essay or a poem, and it’s just an impossible task. I know people whom I’ve known for fifty years, and they’re still planning to write their book “when they have the time.” We’re never going to have the time! Until you’re in your grave—that’s when you get the time. So I said, “How can I keep myself from becoming depressed?”, because I couldn’t do it. I said, “Well, I’m going to lower the standards.” Happiness is about lowering your standards, I think. And I said, “If I can just write one good line.” So I would copy whatever the passage was I [wrote] before, and I would just keep working on a line. On a good night, I could write three or four lines, maybe more. But it had to be a line—as Meredith Wilson once said—that “gave me the wisps and the jingles.” First of all, it had to be good enough that I could remember it. If I can’t remember my poem after it’s written, it’s not good enough. I remember the poem I just read, “The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet”—I had a lot of trouble with that poem. But I remember when I wrote the last line, which was, “Body to body, naked to the night / Appareled only in our utterance”—it gave me the wisps and the jingles. I said, “Yeah, it’s a good line!” It was a very difficult line—”Appareled only in our utterance,” which is to say, we clothe ourselves by the language that we offer. It’s especially true in love. So I had sex and literature, and it was only ten syllables. It was great. So, what I look at is, [it has to have] musicality; it has to say something interesting; it has to give you a good feel; and you have to be able to remember it. If you can’t remember your own best lines, they’re not good enough.
Cherie Harder: We’re coming up to the witching hour, so I want to try to combine two disparate questions and throw them both at you, and you can answer them as you see fit. Guy Trudel asked, “Is there such a thing as a canon of poetry, and how do you respond to those who wish to deny the canon in Western literature?” And then Warren asked, “What would you say is the ideal role of poetry within the life of liturgy or within the life of solitude?”
Dana Gioia: Of course there’s a canon. But the very nature of canon, which means a list, is [that] you’re always adding things on the list and you’re always subtracting things on the list. It’s really quite weird—people say, “Well, T.S. Eliot and his fixed canon of literature.” No, Eliot was the first person who really said [that] the canon of literature is constantly changing, and every time new works come in it changes. So I think that the fact is that we’re mortal. We can’t read every book, every poem that’s ever written. And so we have mental or physical or communal lists of the things that people think are better than other things, things that are worthy of our attention. Everybody should have a personal canon, and it should be constantly revised. And what’s the purpose of poetry in the liturgy? First of all, [in] Catholic liturgy, we have a Psalm at every Mass. Usually the first reading is from the Old Testament; as often as not it’s from one of the prophetic books, which are in poetry. So if you’re a Christian, like it or not, you better like poetry, because that’s one of the [things] God’s given us. During Lent, I memorized the Magnificat. (I regret to say that I memorized it in the Protestant translation, which is much superior to the Catholic one. In fact, I memorize most of my Bible in the King James.) When given the news that she would bear the Savior, Mary responds with a poem. “My soul doth magnify the Lord…” And it unfolds in this wonderful poem, because only poetry was capable of embodying the magnitude of her joy.
Cherie Harder: Dana, I want to give you the last word in just a moment, but before we do that, I want to let all of our viewers know that at the end of this broadcast we will be sending you a survey. We would really love to get your feedback and results to help us make these even more valuable and even more enriching to our friends. As a special incentive, anyone who does fill out that survey will get a free digital copy of a Trinity Forum Reading of their choice. Two I would particularly recommend are a collection of poetry from John Donne, introduced by Dana Gioia, as well as a collection of poetry from Gerard Manley Hopkins entitled “God’s Grandeur,” also introduced by our guest today. We’ll also be sending around a video link by this time tomorrow to all of you who are on this viewing, and would really encourage you to share it with others so they too can be part of this conversation. We’ll include recommendations on related readings and other resources in that link to you as well. If you missed our last such Online Conversations, we’d encourage you to avail yourself of those. Last week, we had the pleasure of hosting Joe Loconte to talk about C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and the impact of war and friendship on their literary, moral, and spiritual imagination. We have heard from Karen Swallow Prior on reading in quarantine, Curt Thompson on redeeming shame, and other topics as well. Next week, we’ll have the pleasure of hearing from Senior Fellow and presidential historian Ron White about character and leadership in tumultuous times. We hope that you will join us for that next Friday at 1:30 Eastern. Finally, we’d really welcome your gifts to help make this program and others like it possible and to encourage others to be part of the membership in our Trinity Forum Society as well. There will be a link on our screen right after this Online Conversation concludes, and we encourage you to take advantage of that and to give. Finally, Dana, I’d like to give you the final word with a poem you’d like to share before we wrap up.
Dana Gioia: First of all, I want to say it’s a pleasure that we were able to have a town meeting for the City of God—this invisible thing which brings us all together as people who have made certain commitments in our life. I want to end with a poem by Philip Larkin. I chose it because I think it expresses the joy and anxiety that we’re experiencing right now. And it takes place literally today, in May, as we see the trees coming into leaf.
“The Trees” by Philip Larkin
“The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent bugs relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
While we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.”
So let’s all begin afresh. Cherie, it’s such a pleasure to talk to you, and it’s a pleasure to talk to all of you in this invisible city that we share for an hour.
Cherie Harder: Dana, thank you so much for joining us. To all of our viewers, thank you for joining us for this Online Conversation. Have a great weekend.