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Making Poetry Matter

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Making Poetry Matter

California’s new poet laureate wants to enrich the cultural life of the Golden State’s rural communities. January 8, 2016
California
Arts and Culture

Say what you will about California governor Jerry Brown’s policy choices, but when it comes to his choice of poets, he has exceptional taste. On December 4, he announced his selection of Dana Gioia to succeed Juan Felipe Herrera as the state’s poet laureate. Gioia, who served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts under President George W. Bush and currently teaches poetry and culture at the University of Southern California, says that one of his top goals as laureate is “to reach rural communities.” “It would be very easy for a California poet laureate to spend the majority of time in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, which are huge, culturally vibrant regions,” Gioia told me by e-mail. “I won’t ignore those areas, but the majority of California is rural or agricultural. I want to start planning from the beginning how to reach those areas.” Gioia says he will begin by focusing on high schools and public libraries.

Born and raised in Hawthorne, a working-class city south of Los Angeles, and surrounded by “Sicilian-speaking relations . . . in a largely Mexican neighborhood,” Gioia said that the public library was indispensable to his education. “I was raised in a town where the only cultural institution was the local library . . . I would never have gone to Stanford and Harvard without that place—which always made me feel welcome.” High schools and libraries are “the foundation of literacy and public culture in the state,” he noted, and creating opportunities for people to practice and appreciate poetry in these institutions is a small way to broaden its audience and enrich the cultural life of the state.

Reaching rural and general audiences has preoccupied Gioia for years. As the head of the NEA, he launched the Poetry Out Loud initiative in 2006 to encourage high school students to memorize and recite great verse. He also established “Big Read” grants, which support community reading programs, and oversaw initiatives funding theater groups in all 50 states to put on high-quality productions of Shakespeare’s plays.

Gioia’s own poetry ignores the current fashion for obscure, partially fragmented free verse whose allusions and assimilated jargon appeal mostly to academics and other poets. The author of five slim, accomplished volumes, including his forthcoming 99 Poems: New and Selected, Gioia—like Robert Frost, about whom he has written often—is both accessible and complex, dealing with everyday experiences and emotions in subtle and surprising ways. In Pity the Beautiful (2012), he writes:

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.

It is in this task of telling the “right story,” however imperfectly, for himself and for others that sets Gioia apart from many contemporary poets who have reduced poetry to a mere tool of self actualization or some (usually overwrought) political struggle.

Gioia’s criticism, which has recently included essays on contemporary Catholic writing and the little-known poet Dunstan Thompson, has often examined the role of the poet in society. In his provocative 1991 essay for The Atlantic, “Can Poetry Matter?,” Gioia called attention to the paradoxical situation of contemporary poetry, still largely true today, in which thousands of books of poems were published every year and hardly any of them read. Poetry is “a universal human art,” Gioia wrote recently in “Poetry as Enchantment.” “Despite postmodern theories of cultural relativism that assert there are no human universals . . . there is no human society, however isolated, that has not developed and employed poetry as a cultural practice.” Poetry does matter, and always will, Gioia suggests, but how much it matters will depend on whether poets begin taking the risk—and it is exactly that—of writing for the general public.

Writing for “what we used to call the common reader . . . doesn’t mean dumbing things down,” Gioia told me. “It is possible to bring the best of poetry to a broad audience without condescension . . . The common reader is not an idiot. He or she is a lawyer, doctor, farmer, soldier, scientist, minister, civil servant.” He noted that that one of his Mexican uncles who served in the Merchant Marines “brought a case of books, including poetry, to read on his voyages. People forget how immensely popular the early Modernists were with readers. Frost, Eliot, Cummings, Jeffers, Millay, and Hughes all sold well.”

While today’s poets “have mostly lost the ability to converse with a mixed, general audience,” Gioia said, “I would like to help broaden the audience for poetry. I’m just one guy in a big state, but it seems worth a try.” It certainly does.

Photo by Nancy Ostertag/Getty Images

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