An Interview With
Poet and Critic
Dana Gioia

© 1995-1996 by
Gloria G. Brame

Paradigms Lost: Part Two

Published in ELF: Eclectic Literary Forum
Summer, 1995

"A poem need not shout to be heard."
Dana Gioia

This is the second of two interviews conducted with Dana in 1995. To read the first interview, and the introduction by GGB, click here.

GGB: The Gods of Winter is dedicated to the memory of your son, Michael Jasper. Has your son's death redirected your artistic vision?

GIOIA: The sudden death of my first son not only changed my life initially, but it still influences me daily in ways both large and small. Losing him brutally clarified my life. It made me recognize what mattered and what did not. I more or less stopped writing for a year. I no longer saw the point of working towards anything.

Until then I had always found solace in writing. During my first ten years in business, I had managed to write almost every night, even after spending twelve hours in the office. I worked every weekend. I gave up a great many things to carve out this time, but this nightly routine sustained me spiritually and creatively. It made my daytime life possible. Then suddenly the world I had so carefully constructed collapsed. My will snapped. I have never regained the patient discipline or quiet certitude of those years. As I slowly emerged from my pain, I resolved to reshape my life to build my daily existence on the things I valued most. I proceeded slowly because I wasn't always sure what I wanted. I made many changes. The most obvious one was leaving a business career I had invested seventeen hard years in building.

How did these changes affect my writing? You may see the influences better than I do. My work has always been dark, but it now became more emotionally direct. Rightly or wrongly, I became impatient with poems that could not bear a certain spiritual weight. I also gradually realized that all lyric poetry is directly or indirectly about mortality. The reason we feel the over- whelming force of a particular moment is that our lives are finite. As Wallace Stevens said, "Death is the mother of beauty."

GGB: One of the book's more remarkable qualities is the tranquility and understatement of its poetic meditations. As a poet, and a father who experienced a fatal loss, where does the dividing line fall in your work between the personal and the confessional? Should a poet respect his form over his feelings?

GIOIA: In a good poem there is no division between form and feeling. The form embodies the feeling just as the emotion animates the form. Pure form is lifeless and abstract, pure emotion subjective and incoherent. A madwoman screaming on a street corner has emotions enough for an epic, but she lacks the form to express her interior life clearly to anyone else. I believe that emotion is most keenly felt when it is partially held in check. A poem need not shout to be heard.

As for the poems in The Gods of Winter, there was an additional private concern. I did not want my son remembered by uncontrolled howls of pain. My wife and I suffered more than I can express, but to make poems merely out of the agony would have been self-pitying and dishonest. My son had been my greatest joy. His birth had left me awe-struck and humble before life. He turned me from a son into a father--and allowed me to understand my own father clearly for the first time. If I mourned him, I also wanted to preserve the joyful mystery of his existence. The sorrow could not be adequately appreciated without also expressing the joy and wonder. I wonder if what you perceive as tranquility isn't actually two strong and conflicting emotions momentarily holding one another in check.

GGB: In your poem "Counting the Children," you wrote:

I saw beyond my daughter to all children,
And, though elated, still I felt confused
Because I wondered why I never sensed
That thrill of joy when looking at adults
No matter how refined or beautiful,
Why lust or envy always intervened.

--from "Counting the Children," The Gods of Winter

I'd like to know if the narrator ever found the answer to this question. Are children innocents in your work? Are adults corrupt?

GIOIA: I'm probably the wrong person to ask. Once an author finishes a poem, he becomes merely another reader. I may remember what I intended to put into a text, but what matters is what a reader actually finds there--which is usually something both more and less than the poet planned. Each reader of "Counting the Children" will have to decide whether the poem adequately answers the father's quandary. I have never subscribed to the sentimental Romantic notion that children are innocents. I am a Catholic and consider Man's fallen nature an article of faith. If children are in some sense innocent, they are also greedy, cruel, domineering, self-centered, and temperamental as well as curious, tender, loving, loyal, and ingenious. In other words, children are just like adults, although they have not yet learned to disguise their less attractive impulses. Likewise adults are not necessarily corrupt, but they are almost inevitably weak--sometimes fatally so. Human nature isn't doomed, but it is nervously balanced between contradictory impulses.

GGB: There are chilling undercurrents (and sometimes vivid descriptions, as in "The Homecoming") of violence in your narrative poems. Why? Is there something about the narrative form which unleashes your violent impulses?

GIOIA: "The Homecoming" is the longest poem I've ever written. It took years to finish. "Counting the Children" and "The Room Upstairs" were only slightly less difficult to complete. Writing extended narrative poems is a different proposition from writing shorter lyric poems. A memorable idea is not enough for a narrative poem. Style and sensibility are not enough. A lyric poem articulates the impulse of a moment, but a narrative brings all sorts of other matters to bear. Something crucially important needs to be at stake. Otherwise the story becomes merely anecdotal. A story too boring to tell in prose doesn't become more interesting told in verse. I could not have worked on "The Homecoming" for so long had it not dealt with actions of mortal consequence.

Why is "The Homecoming" so violent? There was no other way to tell that story truthfully. It is a poem about the power of evil. Violence has become an unavoidable subject for American poets. Too much contemporary poetry is platitudinous, full of blandly uplifting and usually self-congratulatory sentiments. We need darker, more dangerous poetry--not sensational but willing to probe uncomfortable areas.

GGB: "Counting the Children" is one of several poems which attempt to reconcile life, death and immortality. In this poem you wrote about immortality:

...we do not possess it in ourselves.
We die, and it abides, and we are one
With all our ancestors, while it divides
Over and over, common to us all....

Your view on immortality somewhat resembles your aesthetic position on poetic tradition as an eternal cycle in which contemporary poets and their antecedents are immortally engaged. Is poetry itself an immortal engagement...or an existential dilemma?

GIOIA: Genuine poetry always grows out of our basic existential dilemma--our mortality. Our minds have the ability to reach across time to scan the past and ponder the future, but our bodies die. "Counting the Children" is spoken by a Chinese-American narrator. Although born in America, he understands instinctively how deeply his life is rooted in the past--of his family his heritage, his race. The vision he has at the climax of the poem may seem odd to someone raised in the American traditions of progress and individualism; he sees his destiny as historically determined and collective. For him, immortality is not merely about the future; it is a concept that unites the past, present, and future. His vision is tribal rather than individual. The present is a pivot turning between the past and future.

GGB: How do you balance the self-consciousness of writing poetry which emerges from the existential dilemma with the detachment that craft requires?

GIOIA: I've always considered my work fairly unself- conscious. In fact, I often don't know what a poem is really about until years later. I try to keep myself busy with the surface of the poem, so that my unconscious has free play to write the rest. I think of my poems mostly in musical and sensory terms. I want them to be physically arresting--like music or painting. I work obsessively to point and balance the language of my poems. In revising, I consciously shape the rhythm, tone, and texture. I also deliberately look for things to cut out. I rarely know where a poem is going until it is finished. In fact, if I know initially how a poem will end, I lose the impulse to write it.

GGB: This witty poem--a sestina which satirizes sestinas-- reiterates some of the points you have in made in your criticism about contemporary poetry as an industry, and a banal one at that.

Where will it end? This grim cycle of workshops
churning out poems for little magazines
no one honestly finds to their taste?
This ever-lengthening column of contributors
scavenging the land for more students
teaching them to write their boot-camp sestinas?

--from "My Confessional Sestina," The Gods of Winter

Does your awareness of this dismal state of affairs weigh on you when you write poetry?

GIOIA: Absolutely not. The current state of literature is always dismal, and yet literature gloriously survives. Genuine poetry is both more timeless and more timely than the fashions of the moment. Compared to the excitement earlier this century, American poetry does now seem to be in a fin-de-siecle slump. I can't imagine that even the most indiscriminate cheerleaders of Creative Writing would pretend that we have anything happening at the moment comparable to the 'Twenties when Frost, Stevens, Eliot, Williams, Moore, Millay, Pound, Jeffers, Ransom, Cummings, MacLeish, Hughes, Crane, and H.D. redefined the art. There had never been a moment like that earlier in American poetry, so it's probably not surprising that it isn't recurring now. We have some superb poets writing today, but we no longer have the conviction that our best new writing is also our most innovative.

How does this sense of the cultural moment affect my writing? It depends. When I am writing an essay or review, I carefully consider its current context. My opinions and approach grow out of the critical discourse surrounding the subject. Critical prose is necessarily timely and pragmatic. But poetry--at least in my experience--originates and develops differently. When I'm writing a poem, I hardly consider its contemporary context. I am not conversing with current opinion; I am talking with the language and its history.

That's why I can work on a poem for years without feeling it is losing anything essential, whereas a critical piece might easily lose its edge. Very few literary essays are readable after a century, but the best poetry still feels fresh.

GGB: You seem to feel that contemporary poetry is doomed to mediocrity.

GIOIA: No, just the opposite. I can't tell you how happy I am when I come across a really splendid new poem in a journal--a poem I know I will reread for the rest of my life. I am especially pleased if it is by an unfamiliar author. I get a physical thrill of excitement and delight. I remember when I heard my first poem by Philip Larkin. It was "Poetry of Departures." I had no idea who Larkin was then, but I knew immediately that he was the writer I had been looking for-- not merely a master but a confidant.

Likewise, I vividly recall coming across a set of poems, including "The Garden of Medusa," by Radcliffe Squires in The Sewanee Review twenty years ago at Stanford. I reread them every day for a month. This electrifying feeling of discovery and kinship reminds me of Larkin's description of his passion for New Orleans jazz, "On me your voice falls as they say love should,/Like an enormous yes." I felt that "enormous yes" the first time I read particular poems by Weldon Kees, Ted Kooser, Charles Martin, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, James Fenton, Edward Field, and R. S. Gwynn. It doesn't happen often. It doesn't have to. Good poems don't wear out.

GGB: Having proclaimed the death of Modernism in your criticism, what do you, as a poet, do now that Modernism is dead?

GIOIA: It would not only be pompous to represent myself in an historical context, it would also be misleading. I never think of literary trends when I'm writing poetry. I didn't begin working in formal meters as a student twenty years ago because it was fashionable. At the time, rhyme and meter were almost universally despised. I explored meter because it seemed the right way to compose the poems that were haunting my imagination. The same was true of narrative. I wanted to describe certain things that could only be said as stories.

The British poet critic Donald Davie, who was my unofficial mentor at that time, actively discouraged me from working in both form and narrative. Donald was a Modernist. Americans, he told me, should work in free verse; that was our vital tradition. But the older generation can never teach the young how to write. Every poet must undertake that slow, difficult task on his or her own. And young poets can't expect that the older generation will necessarily like their solutions. Every new movement in poetry will inevitably meet some opposition. If an artist isn't strong enough to keep his or her vision intact while meeting that opposition, he or she probably shouldn't be writing.

GGB: Who are your poetic heroes? What example have they set which you follow in your work?

GIOIA: There are so many ways in which I can answer your question. I admire a great many poets for different reasons. The poets who have influenced me most as an artist are probably W H. Auden, Robert Frost, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Ezra Pound. Some of these influences have been very specific. Frost, for example, shaped my notions of the narrative poem. T. S. Eliot, George Orwell, and Randall Jarrell have influenced my criticism. Wallace Stevens and Eliot, both of whom worked out- side academia, became important models for my spiritual life, as in different ways did Orwell and Thomas Merton. It's all fairly complicated and subjective.

I have read voraciously since childhood, and hundreds of writers shaped my opinions and sensibility I love E.E. Cummings' poetry--an unpopular enthusiasm nowadays--but I can't point to a single poem of mine that was directly influenced by his work (except perhaps 'The Gods of Winter"). The sheer extravagance of Cummings' poetic language, however, is often before me as a reminder of how lyric poetry should work. I feel the same admiration for the language of Hart Crane, and early Stevens. They are touchstones.

Philip Larkin and Elizabeth Bishop have also been important influences in a different way. They reinforced my sense that poets should be slow to publish. It is not how much work a poet publishes, but how good that work is. I sometimes keep a poem back for ten years because a single line doesn't seem good enough. Or I will revise a poem fifty to a hundred times trying to get it exactly right. Some people consider that behavior neurotic. Larkin and Bishop, however, demonstrate that such a neurosis may not be altogether bad for a poet.

Let me mention one more thing. By the time an active writer reaches his or her forties, one's personal style has pretty much set. I can still learn some small trick from another author or be reminded of an important general principle, but I no longer feel another writer's sensibility actively shaping my work as I did at nineteen or twenty. Rereading Frost last month, for example, I noted how often he loosens the meter slightly in his blank verse poems by substituting a three-syllabic foot, but he never puts three loose lines in a row. He always feels the need to return to a tightly regular line to keep the beat in the reader's ear. Frost's practice will probably influence my blank verse in some way, but this is a small point of technique. Likewise, rereading Dante, I was reminded how difficult and even obscure he can be at times--something surely Eliot learned from him. Dante trusted the expressive power of sound and story to carry the reader through complex or mysterious moments in the poem. The poet's right to be mysterious is worth remembering. But I will not immediately begin writing an allegorical poem about the afterlife. By middle age, the strongest influence on a writer is probably his or her own earlier work. Now, alas, I'm now stuck with myself. Self-improvement is now slow and difficult, and it must come from within.

GGB: You are fascinated by the art of translation--as evidenced by your book-length translations of Seneca and Montale, as well as the anthology of Italian verse which you co-edited. If you could rewrite your own personal history, would you choose another native tongue in place of English? Which is the most perfect language for poetry? Are all languages perfect...or are all inherently flawed?

GIOIA: I can't imagine a more beautiful or supple language for poetry than English, especially American English. Just look at our vocabulary. It is as richly stocked as the British Museum. We have the sturdy Anglo-Saxon words and a suave overlay of Norman French. Then come borrowings from Italian, Latin, Greek and eventually Hindu, Spanish, and Yiddish. One can live in a house, home, villa, bungalow, cottage, cabin, manse, or condominium. The vocabulary of French seems low budget in comparison. Of course, anyone who studies other languages learns that each offers its compensations. French has a clarity and purity that make all sorts of subtle effects possible that could never work en anglais. Since German is half-inflected, the word endings make it possible to use classical meters beyond the practical scope of English. When I hear Holderlin, Goethe, or Rilke recreating the hypnotic beauty of dactylic hexameter or the elegiac couplet, I wish one could manage those rhythmic shapes in English. The sheer acoustic beauty of Italian--the language spoken around me in childhood--intoxicates the listener. It can either be as smooth as Petrarch or as spiky as Montale. And how easy it is to rhyme in French, German, or Italian! As a student in Austria, I wrote several poems in German, and the rhymes came effortlessly even for a foreigner. The effect I envy most, however, is the complete freedom of word order that Latin affords. A poet can arrange the words into shapes that simultaneously emphasize both the music and the sense. Latin can pack more meaning into fewer words than any language I know. But what poet would willingly give up English-the mother tongue of Shakespeare, Milton, Mother Goose, Keats, and Dickinson? Or, to go back a hundred years ago, what other language could produce E. E. Cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Hart Crane, Basil Bunting, Archibald MacLeish, and Langston Hughes-not to mention Noel Coward and Dr. Seuss--all within a single decade? Yes, I think I'll stay with English. I'm only just beginning to explore its possibilities.

To read some of Dana's work, visit THERMOPYLAE.

This interview was originally published in ELF: ECLECTIC LITERARY FORUM "an international quarterly of significant contemporary literature. " ELF publishes poetry, short fiction, essays, literary book reviews, interviews, photography, humor, and ethnic lore. Gloria is an advisory editor for the magazine.

copyright © 1995 & 1996 Gloria G. Brame

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