He is primarily known as an essayist and critic and is especially known for his defense of Formal Poetry. In his Notes on the New Formalism, he wrote: “the real issues presented by American poetry in the Eighties will become clearer: the debasement of poetic language; the prolixity of the lyric; the bankruptcy of the confessional mode; the inability to establish a meaningful aesthetic for new poetic narrative and the denial of a musical texture in the contemporary poem. The revival of traditional forms will be seen then as only one response to this troubling situation.”
He was a contributing poet to the anthology “Rebel Angels”, which I hope to review at some later date.
Selections of his poetry can be found at his web site.
With Interrogations at Noon, Gioia is true to his preference for meter and rhyme and offers a variety of verse forms and rhyme schemes. The first poem, Words, appears to be an accentual poem. Whereas the number of syllables per line vary, one could read each line as having 5 stressed syllables. I think, to most readers, the poem would feel and read like a free verse poem. (Accentual verse is frequent in nursery rhymes, where the accentual rhythm is more easily discerned in the shorter line lengths.)
The world does not need words. It art-ic-ulates it-self
in sun-light, leaves, and sha-dows. The stones on the path
are no less real for ly-ing un-cat-alogued and un-count-ed…
The artfulness of writing accentual verse is not so demanding as accentual/syllabic, accentual verse being closer to free verse. So the poem succeeds or fails in its use of imagery, phrase and content.
And in this first poem we are greeted by many of the traits that typify the poems that follow. Gioia does not possess the same gift for imagery & language as his contemporary, A.E. Stallings. His imagery, such as it is, is generally abstracted and literary, lacking sensuality, texture, smell, feeling. One very seldom wants to linger over a given image or combination of words. His imagery and language tends to be on average, pedestrian, sometimes verging on cliche.
Even calling it a kiss betrays the fluster of hands
glancing the skin or gripping the shoulder, the slow
arching of the neck or knee, the silent touching of tongues.
There is the abstraction of “articulates itself/ in the sunlight”.
Such phrases as “glancing the skin”, “gripping the shoulder”, “slow/arching of the neck or knee” are the stuff of every day prose. The phrase “silent touching of tongues” flirts with cliché. The poem concludes:
The sunlight needs no praise piercing the rainclouds
painting the rocks and leaves with light, then dissolving
each lucent droplet back into the clouds that engendered it.
The daylight needs no praise, and so we praise it always —
greater than ourselves and all the airy words we summon.
The sun “piercing” anything is a stock image. We have some poetic language in “painting the rocks… then dissolving each lucent droplet..” but there is no color, sense of touch, motion, sound or even sensation in any of it. Neither does one see the world in new ways as when Frost writes: “But I had the cottages in a row/ Up to their shining eyes in snow.” Such moments of transcendent imagery are a pale rarity in Gioia’s palette. Gioia’s imagery is straightforwardly visual and the language conceptual and intellectual: as in: “The daylight needs no praise, and so we praise it always…” which has an elevated, antique ring to it, though not so archly archaic as A.E. Stallings’ excesses. Gioia generally avoids the archaisms favored by Stallings.
Reading Gioia, one hears the voice of a skillful essayist writing poetry. What do I mean by that? Read Robert Frost’s essays and you will hear the voice of a poet writing essays. Frost’s essays are like his poems – indirect, playful, coy. He would write lines like the following: “”Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” Gioia’s poetry is like his essays – direct, intellectual and explanatory. (When I was dating, I once played the piano for a girl I was trying to impress. Her friend sniffed: “He plays the piano like a typewriter.”)
Gioia, in a nutshell, frequently writes poetically, but does not write poetry.
The verse form I am most passionate about is blank verse. Gioia offers us a sampling of his skills in the poem Juno Plots her Revenge. The poems first lines are as follows:
Call me sister of the thunder god.
That is the only title I have left.
Once I was wife and queen to Jupiter,
But now, abandoned by his love and shamed
By his perpetual adultery,
I leave my palace to this mistresses.
Why not choose earth when heaven is a whorehouse?
Even the Zodiac has now become
A pantheon of prostitutes and bastards.
Look at Callisto shining in the north,
That glittering slut now guides the Grecian fleet.
Or see how Taurus rises in the south,
Not only messenger of spring’s warm nights
But the gross trophy of Europe’s rape!
Or count the stormy Pleiades — those nymphs
Who terrorize the waves, once warmed Jove’s bed.
Watch young Orion swaggering with his sword,
A vulgar upstart challenging the gods,
While gaudy Perseus flaunts his golden star.
My first reaction is to find Gioia’s blank verse very conservative. For instance, most of his lines are end-stopped, 16 out of these first 19 lines, (meaning that the end of the lines are either marked by punctuation or reflect a normal pause in speech patterns or phrase). And this is a pattern which is representative. Not even pre-Shakespearean writers of blank verse were as conservative with enjambment. The attribute marks a poet who is either an inexperienced writer of blank verse or one who is simply very conservative. It marks a poet who isn’t at ease with the form. His thoughts don’t move freely through the lines, but instead march line by line, each thought fitted therein. His skills have not transcended the verse form.
In the first seven lines there is only one line, the first line, that disrupts the iambic rhythm, the first two feet being trochaic. Some might read the first foot of the seventh line as being trochaic, but it could as comfortably be iambic. The line ends with a feminine ending – one of the few variations. The next twelve lines, like the first seven, posses only one line which varies the iambic beat. All in all, when one also considers the end-stopped lines, the effect produced is stodgy and wooden. The natural rhythms of the language which skillful poets use to counterpoint the iambic rhythm, are missing in Gioia’s conception of the form. Too much efficiency.
Lastly, one meets with the same sort of imagery as in the first poem of the book. There is an over-reliance on adjectives and, inasmuch as he uses adjectives, they are repetitive (as in the 4 line proximity of “warm nights” and “warmed Jove’s bed” and they are unimaginative – gross trophy, stormy Pleiades, young Orion, vulgar upstart, gaudy Perseus, golden star. These adjectives all serve their purpose, but they are stale and overused. They evoke nothing. One feels, after a point, that they are more for metrical padding (making sure there are enough syllables in a given line). One hopes that if Gioia writes more blank verse, he eschews such adjectives. The effect might be to add more flexibility to his line, favoring enjambment.
A more successfully attempt at blank verse can be found in Descent to the Underworld. The Iambic Pentameter shows greater flexibility in its flow of thought – which more freely overlaps from one line to the next.
At first the way is not
Entirely dark. Some daylight filters down
And gives the cave that same bleak iridescence
The sun shows in eclipse. But gradually
The path descends into undending twilight.
The iambic pentameter is till relatively conservative (perhaps too much so) but by Gioia’s standards, even here, there is some loosening.
There are no grassy meadows bright with flowers,
No fields of tassled corn swaying in the wind,
No soft green vistas for the eye…
Goya probably means to elide the word swaying so that it is read as one syllable, but a trochaic fourth foot is a daring departure for Gioia.
Gioia’s rhyming poems give a similar impression – of the poet who writes line by line. In the two poems considered, The End of the World and The End of Time, all the lines in both poems are end-stopped.The former poem begins:
“We’re going,” they said, “to the end of the world.”
So they stopped the car where the river curled,
And we scrambled down beneath the bridge
On the gravel track of a narrow ridge.
This first poem is written in heroic couplets – though some prefer to reserve that term for longer, narrative poems. (It is written in rhyming couplets.) The latter poem follows an ABAB rhyming pattern. Because each phrase and grammatical unit ends neatly with the end of each line, the flow of the poems wants to pause with each line, as though each line were its own independent accomplishment. The natural ebb and flow of the language is overrulled by the demands of the form – the very sort of writing that prompts scorn from poets who prefer free verse.
Gioia is at his best in shorter, pithier poems. And he is at his best when writing in that indistinct syllabic poetry or accentual poetry that exists somewhere between free verse and formal verse. He is at his best when he doesn’t have to hew to a meter or rhyme scheme. Pentecost is just such a poem.
Neither the sorrows of afternoon, waiting in the silent house,
Nor the night no sleep relieves, when memory
Repeats its prosecution.
Nor the morning’s ache for dream’s illusion, nor any prayers
Improvised to an unknowable god
Can extinguish the flame.
We are not as we were. Death has been our pentecost,
And our innocence consumed by these implacable
Tongues of fire.
Comfort me with stones. Quench my thirst with sand,
I offer you this scarred and guilty hand
Until others mix our ashes.
This is the poetry of a direct and unpretentious voice. Freed from the constraints he imposes on himself in other poems, he speaks directly and simply. His thoughts move freely from one line to the next. The poem, written on the death of his son, is poignant in its directness. This is Gioia at his best. Other poems like this: After a Line by Cavafy, Accomplice, (and my favorite) Homage to Valerio Magrelli – a series of verses, each short, written in free verse, unpretentious, direct and well-turned. While his imagery is not transcendent, while there’s nothing that makes one want to pause with admiration, he can nevertheless be sensitive to just the right description:
…stranded in thought,
on the lonely delta of the spirit
as entangled as a woman’s sex.
..in the equilibrium of their design
untouched and overlaid like the wooden pieces
in a game of pick-up sticks.
Gioia’s ability to hew phrase and thought to any given structure is skillful but not surpassing.
He is a poet able to shape his thoughts to the demands of whatever form he undertakes, but he fails to create the illusion that the form has grown organically from the unforced working-out of ideas. Writing formal poems successfully requires a flexible and creative mind able to both follow and lead the demands of the chosen form.
Gioia is at his best when writing just a little outside the constraints of formal verse.