Dana Gioia: A Contemporary Metaphysics

By McCann, Janet | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Dana Gioia: A Contemporary Metaphysics


McCann, Janet, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


CONTEMPORARY metaphysical poetry is the response to the dryness of the post-Christian world that many, including many Christians, believe we now inhabit. It is not Christian poetry per se, but it often dips between a luminous sadness and a sense of divine presence. Richard Wilbur writes it, also Mary Oliver, Annie Dillard, Marie Howe, and many others. This is not to say that many explicitly Christian poems are not being written, and that these poets do not write such poems. Rather, I would affirm that there is a kind of poetry that is metaphysical/nonsectarian and stops short of stated religious commitment--the religious content remains underneath. Dana Gioia is a contemporary metaphysical poet whose work fits this description. Its Catholic roots and its attention to the real daily presence of good and evil are its pragmatic dimension; its search for belief in beauty through and in form is its transcendence. Two elements in Gioia's poetry define its Christian spirit--an ethical stance and a sacramental vision. His work is a significant presence in current Christian literature.

Gioia was recognized during his term as head of the National Endowment for the Arts for his focus on reawakening interest in classic forms and figures, for the wave of renewed interest in Shakespeare in the schools his programs have brought about, for his workshops for war participants, and for many other programs that seek to revitalize interest in serious literature on a broad-based level. A spokesman for the New Formalist movement, Gioia is noted for reviving interest in Longfellow and other semi-neglected formalists. In his essay "Can Poetry Matter?" he argues for a number of techniques and devices that could help bring poetry back to the reading public, including a shift away from the professorial type of reading toward mixed evenings of poetry and music, poetry and art, poets reading others' work as well as their own, and a general opening wide of the narrow room he believed the art had stuffed itself into by the mid-1980s. His public presence provides a surge of confidence and enthusiasm among many who think poetry should be an important part of the wider culture, and disconcerts some experimental poets who believe that poetry's most important responsibility has always been to challenge. Gioia places the primary responsibility of poetry elsewhere, in the area of instruction and experience.

From his public role, a reader might expect Gioia to write traditional poetry, metrically exact and freely accessible, on social topics and on the role of poetry today. We might expect a classicism in form and content. And if one reads a few of his best-known poems, such as "Words" and "Veteran's Cemetery," these expectations appear to be met. Some of his poems are graceful reflections noted for their wit and precision. Their subjects are timeless; they may remind the reader of Martial and lapidary verse. This kind of crafted poetry is not usually thought of as metaphysical, though it can be. Certainly it is closer to George Herbert's or even Ben Jonson's work than it is to John Donne's. This is in fact the kind of poetry one memorizes almost accidentally in rereading it, like certain poems of Robert Frost's. "Unsaid," which concludes the 2001 collection Interrogation at Noon, is one such poem:

   So much of what we live goes on inside--
   The diaries of grief, the tongue-tied aches
   Of unacknowledged love are no less real
   For having passed unsaid. What we conceal
   Is always more than what we dare confide.
   Think of the letters that we write our dead.

The frequently quoted "Words" opens the book and "Unsaid" closes it; in between are the words said. This kind of careful parenthesis is typical of the poet. These poems express and practice an ethic. They underscore the theme that love in its various dimensions and definitions is the key to right living, and their finely crafted expression may suggest that poems themselves have a duty--are accountable--to the society they serve. …

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