The Poetry of Dana Gioia

Dana Gioia published Interrogations at Noon in 2001.

interrogations

He’s primarily known as an essayist and critic and especially 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; which is to say: whereas the syllables per line vary, one could read each line as having 5 stressed syllables. I’m guessing that most readers will feel and read the poem as free verse. (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…

In any poet’s favor, accentual verse isn’t remotely as demanding as accentual/syllabic. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that the line between accentual, free verse and prose is thin to naught. The poem succeeds or fails in its use of imagery, phrase and content.

Beyond that, the first poem greets us with many of the traits typifying the poems that follow. Gioia doesn’t 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; and 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’s the abstraction of “articulates itself/ in the sunlight”, while phrases like “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’s no color, sense of touch, motion, sound or even sensation. 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. He favors the straightforwardly visual, 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.)

In Gioia one hears the voice of a skillful essayist writing poetry. What do I mean by that? Read Robert Frost’s essays and you’ll hear a poet writing essays—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 favors the direct, intellectual and explanatory in both his poetry and prose. (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.”)

In a nutshell, Gioia frequently writes poetically, but doesn’t write poetry.

 

Blank verse is what I’m most passionate about and Gioia offers us a sampling of his skills in the poem Juno Plots her Revenge.  The poems first lines:

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 conservative. For instance, most of his lines are end-stopped, 16 out of these first 19, (meaning that the end of the lines are either marked by punctuation or reflect a normal pause in speech patterns or phrase). And it’s a representative pattern. Not even pre-Shakespearean writers were as conservative with enjambment. Generally, it marks the poet as inexperienced, very conservative, or having been born in the mid 16th century. It marks a poet who isn’t at ease with the form and whose thoughts don’t move freely through the lines. The poem marches line by line instead, each thought fitted to the line (the Restoration deliberately wrote their Heroic Couplets this way). Since Gioia’s neither an Elizabethan nor a Restoration poet, I’d have to say that his skills aren’t equal to the verse form.

In the first seven lines there’s 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  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, like the first seven, posses only one line that varies the iambic beat. All in all, the effect produced is stodgy and wooden. The natural rhythms of the language, which skillful poets use to counterpoint the iambic rhythm, are missing. Too much efficiency.

Lastly, one meets with the same sort of imagery as in the book’s first poem. There’s an over-reliance on adjectives and, inasmuch as he uses adjectives, they’re 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. They all serve their purpose, but they’re stale and overused. They evoke nothing and end up feeling 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 is found in Descent to the Underworld. There’s greater flexibility as thoughts 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 lines are still relatively conservative (perhaps too much so) but by Gioia’s standards, even here, there’s 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…

Gioia probably means to elide the word swaying so that it is read as one syllable, but a trochaic fourth foot is a daring departure.

Gioia’s rhyming gives a similar impression—a poet who writes line by line. In the two poems considered, The End of the World and The End of Time, both poems are end-stopped.

“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 reader will probably pause with each line as though each were its own independent accomplishment. Here again, the natural ebb and flow of the language is overruled 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 more so in that indistinct syllabic poetry or accentual poetry that exists somewhere between free and formal verse (when he doesn’t have to hew to meter or rhyme. 

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.

~ Pentecost

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 line to line. Written on the death of his son, the poem is poignant in its directness. And other poems like this: After a Line by Cavafy, Accomplice, (and my favorite) Homage to Valerio Magrelli—a series of short, direct and well-turned free verse poems. While his imagery remains mostly pedestrian, he does occasionally manage to startle:

…stranded in thought,
on the lonely delta of the spirit
as entangled as a woman’s sex.

Or

..in the equilibrium of their design
untouched and overlaid like the wooden pieces
in a game of pick-up sticks.

In truth, he’s 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. Writing formal poems is a tricky businesses, requiring the poet to both follow and lead a form’s constraints. Gioia’s best poems lie just a little outside those constraints.

Edited August 1st, 2021 | up in Vermont