By Mattix, Micah
First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life , No. 226
Pity the Beautiful
BY DANA GIOIA
GRAYWOLF, 80 PAGES, $15
Dana Gioia is one of those poets known more for his criticism and service than his own poetry. His essay "Can Poetry Matter?," published in the Atlantic in 1991, turned more than a few heads for arguing that poetry had wrongly become a coterie art, written for and read by "professional" poets only. Poetry could matter, he suggested, but only if poets wrote for a larger audience, engaged in honest criticism, and developed more innovative readings.
He promoted this interest in the popularity of poetry and literature in general through several widely used introductory textbooks on poetry, fiction, and drama, and his editorship of popular anthologies like 100 Great Poets of the English Language and The Longman Anthology of Short Fiction. And, of course, there is his work as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009, where he is credited with saving the agency from defunding because of his popular Shakespeare in American Communities and Poetry Out Loud initiatives.
Yet, until this year, he had published only three slim volumes of poems--the last eleven years ago. This hiatus is not due to a lack of material, but to Gioia's perfectionism--he sometimes works on a poem for several years before it is published--and professional ethic. Gioia stated in a recent interview that he felt it was inappropriate to publish his own work while supporting the work of others at the NEA.
His long-anticipated fourth volume of poetry, Pity the Beautiful, has been well worth the wait. His poetry has always shown close attention to form, but it almost goes unnoticed in Pity the Beautiful, so naturally does he employ meter and rhyme. There are no forced rhymes or superfluously extended lines, and none of the predictable "tunk-a-tunk-tunk," as Wallace Stevens put it, of tired formalism. Rather, these poems are presented in formal constraints that allow Gioia's subtle humor and beguiling narrative to please and surprise.
This first poem in the volume, "The Present," is a case in point. Written in a loose iambic pentameter, the speaker of the poem addresses an absent interlocutor:
The present that you gave me months ago is still unopened by our bed, sealed in its rich blue paper and bright bow. I've even left the card unread and kept the ribbon knotted tight. Why needlessly unfold and bring to light the elegant contrivances that hide the costly secret waiting still inside?
The speaker's simple diction seems entirely natural in these lines. Gioia uses an abab rhyme scheme in the first quatrain to imitate the hypothetical conversation between speaker and interlocutor, but shifts to ccdd couplets in the second quatrain to underscore the speaker's firm decision to keep the gift unopened.
Yet these easy lines provide anything but a comforting ending. The interlocutor is conspicuously absent. The present given "months ago" is strangely still sitting unopened next to "our bed." That possessive is telling, revealing the speaker's attempt to maintain possession of someone who is--for whatever reason--no longer present. And the gift, it seems, is left unopened not because the speaker is apathetic, as he would have us believe, but because it allows him to nourish the figment of a relationship that has, in reality, ended. There may be a "costly secret" inside, but opening the gift would prove far more costly.
Gioia uses the present's "elegant contrivances" as a metaphor for the contrivances of poetry itself. The poem's diction and form, like the package's exterior, at first hide the speaker's loneliness. They are the tools of the imagination--taking reality and shaping it into a pleasing package. But unlike other figments, poetry's reshaping of reality reveals something truer about ourselves and the world in which we live, and the truth is not always comforting. …