Dana Gioia’s 99 Poems New & Selected is a varied collection of well-crafted pieces that also demonstrates understanding of what it means to be fully human, skillfully expressing private experiences in a universal way.
Gioia’s selections are organized topically. Fifteen poems are new while the rest are selected from his previous four collections. The sections include Mystery, Place, Remembrance, Imagination, Stories, Songs, and Love.
The Catholic Heart
From the arrangement alone, I felt a connection with Gioia. I knew he was a Catholic writer but, had I not, the themes of his poetry felt as familiar as a Scripture meditation or Sunday Mass reading. I relate to him as both a fellow Catholic and writer. In The Dyer’s Hand, W.H. Auden suggests questions to ask when reading a poem. Some of these include:
- Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?
- What kind of a guy inhabits this poem?
- What does he conceal from the reader?
- What does he conceal even from himself?
Gioia writes about ordinary things of life but applies craft and mystery that gives a glimpse of something beyond the veil. In doing this, he tells us about himself.
The Ritual of Poetry
In his craft book, Auden says “a poem is a rite, hence its formal and ritualistic character. Its use of language is deliberately and ostentatiously different from talk … Poetry can do a hundred and one things, delight, sadden, disturb, amuse, instruct—it may express every possible shade of emotion” (page 58, 60).
An example is in Gioia’s poem “Pentecost”, written after the death of his son. In it he writes:
Comfort me with stones. Quench my thirst with sand
I offer you this scarred and guilty hand
Until others mix our ashes.
This powerful lament is certainly different from talk. Not only is it sad but also sensory as it seeks to express and honor the life of his dead son as well as the process of grief.
Art Form and Heart Form
Then again in “A California Requiem”, Gioia confirms that he is a poet of place and nature mourning the loss of land to real estate development. We read:
My blessed California, you are so wise
You render death abstract, efficient, clean
Your afterlife is only real estate
And in his kingdom Death must stay unseen.
This one was a favorite and I read it many times silently and aloud. I kept asking myself why I liked it so much, why I wanted to laugh and cry, why I wanted to share it with others. The conclusion I came to is that this piece does many things I want to do in writing. As for structure, there are ten syllables in each line and it is written in quatrains. It also has a specific scansion to it that was difficult for me to identify.
But, I know enough to realize this is part of the appeal. The combination of stressed and unstressed word syllables gives it predictability and rhythm. In The Dyers Hand, Auden instructs “rhymes, meters, stanza, forms, etc., are like servants. If the master is fair enough to win their affection and firm enough to command their respect, the result is an orderly and happy household.”
On sound level and form alone, this is a great poem. With further reading this piece also instructs through the line “Teach us the names of what we have destroyed” then disturbs and surprises through “We cannot ask forgiveness of the earth/For killing what we cannot even name.”
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His Poetry Tells Me Something about Myself
Additionally intriguing was “Vultures Mating” because it aroused conflicting emotions.
First, vultures are gross and ugly and I don’t care about them. But Gioia used an observation of these birds to tell me something about life that I do notice and think about which led me to enjoy the piece: “The stink and splendor of fertility arouses the world.”
Then later: “Desire brings all things back to earth/charging them to circle, stretch, and preen.”
And again in the line: “yearning to burst, to burn, to blossom, to begin.”
The use of alliteration and imagery tells me about myself, my desires. The vultures demonstrate that desires encompass a lot in the human psyche and can be beautiful and unattractive.
As a person of faith, I look for messages like this that teach about the natural world and longings, where to go with what is wanted, how to know and seek the good. As a writer, I also look for unique language to express human experience.
Where Are We Going?
I did not like the topics of some of Gioia’s poems simply because I don’t have a natural interest or prior knowledge of Novalis as a person or the horror film Nosferatu. Since I don’t expect to love every work in a collection this was not a disappointment.
When first reading “Meditation On A Line From Novalis”, I was bored compared to the excitement from some others. When analyzed further, I realized this poem is celebrating someone who came before by writing about him and I liked that. Particularly noticed was the same line at the end of each stanza:
Where are we going? Home, always back home.
Auden says “this (poetry in a democratic society) forces the poet to constantly search below the external surface which is palpable to the senses in order to read the inner soul.”
Similarly, I often ask myself where I am going with my writing. That may mean with the next piece or in a broader context, as in, what I am going to do with this? Sometimes, I even wonder if I really know how to write. I don’t overreact to this because doubt is part of being human. I like this specific poem because it’s lucid. The piece repetitively asks a question then gives an answer. This technique gives a meaningful border to the words and gave me something to ponder and consider after the details were forgotten.
Passing the Baton
Gioia’s collection is like reading not only a poet but also a philosopher, a saint, a simpleton, a sinner. It’s reading someone who possesses a weighty and whimsical heart, a mastery of language.
I took the opportunity to read his essays Can Poetry Matter? and The Catholic Writer Today during this study of Gioia. In coming to understand his insight into poetry, faith, and culture, I felt as if he was exhorting and passing the baton to a younger generation of faith based writers.
Catholic imaginative literature as expressed through poetry is a worldview I would like to express well. For this reason, studying Dana Gioia’s poetry and letters both and now and in the future will keep me connected to a community that will enhance my understanding and writing life. I am grateful for the gift.
Any other poetry fans out there? Have you read Gioia?
Jenny Richeson is a Catholic writer who is a lover of language and its mysteries. By day she provides speech pathology and cognitive intervention services to kids. Her main goal in life is to be a speaking stargazer caught up in wonder whenever possible. She makes her home in Kentucky with her husband Matt. Together they find God in gardening and all manner of outdoor activities whenever they can. Stargazing is a favorite pastime too. You can find out more about her here.
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