I’d like to tell about Dana Gioia, who has been a great blessing to me by his writings and other contributions to the human community. He is a poet and literary critic, and served for several years, until a few months ago, as Chairman of our National Endowment for the Arts. If you are interested in poetry or arts education you may already be familiar with him. If not, you can read more here: http://www.danagioia.net/ . The way in which I first met him might best be told through excerpts from the letter I wrote him in the spring of 2002:
Dear Mr. Gioia,
I was driving down the street one day listening to a man on my Mars Hill Audio tape talk about poetry. When the man mentioned that he lived in [my county] I nearly ran through a stoplight, so great was my wonder. That man, of course, was you. Since that day I have borrowed two of your books from the library, and bought Can Poetry Matter?, which I am still reading. I am delighted to have you here, contributing to the literary wealth of the area, and even if I never get to meet you, I consider you a friend and teacher…
We always had our children memorize poems as part of their lessons in humanity as well as in literature, spelling, and diction. One of our daughters took up this project on her own and memorized “Horatius at the Bridge” when she was about twelve. Recently on a long car trip my husband asked if one of us might have some poetry to recite, and she revealed that she had memorized “The Walrus and the Carpenter” while also working on her degree in biology.
…I recently read an article by Steven Faulkner in an old Touchstone magazine, “The Workshop of Worship: On Recovering Poetry for Our Children.” In it he laments the loss of poetry as a way, as Plato said, “to bring order to their wild little souls.” Do you have children? If so, you no doubt make good use of this activity! I must admit I had never thought of it the way Plato does, but reading Faulkner’s essay relieved me of my guilty feelings for not doing much more than introducing our children to the sound of poetry.
He points out that the youngest will have no idea of the meaning, anyway, but that is not important. It is the rhythm and music and dance of it that educate, and it is a shame, he says, if someone first learns poetry by way of analysis of its meaning. I am curious as to whether you know of Faulkner and of Touchstone magazine? I imagine a network of people in the poetry world who nurture and inspire one another, but I can’t know how wide-reaching it is. And how about Mars Hill—do you have a subscription to their audio magazine? It’s partly the chance to hear the audible voice of thinkers and writers that makes me love those recordings; it’s sort of like eavesdropping on some brainy people sitting at a café.
Since that first discovery of you and your books, I have heard the Mars Hill segment you did on Longfellow, too, and I was encouraged to leaf through all the anthologies in the house to find his poems to read. Then I realized anew just how important it is to read poems aloud — I seemed unable to attend to them, just sitting alone and reading silently. So I must eat my dinners quickly and read to the rest of the family while they finish; and my younger daughter and I read aloud together during our “school time” in the mornings.
I have always loved poetry, enough that it makes me sad to think how little I have read….I am glad you are boldly and eloquently bringing light to [the current disinterest in poetry in the general population], and even entering into discussion on the topic at [a local bookstore], I see! I hope to be there on the 12th to hear a talk that will probably be way over my head, but will be exciting nonetheless.
In the last few years I have become acquainted with the Eastern Orthodox Church and their richly poetic liturgy, as well as prayer-poems of some of their monastics. Perhaps that has influenced me to pursue poetry generally. This morning I read this, from Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich (translated from the Serbian):
I repent for all the slayers of men, who take the life of another to preserve their own. Forgive them, Most Merciful Lord, for they know not what they do. For they do not know that there are not two lives in the universe, but one, and that there are not two men in the universe, but one. Ah, how dead are those who cut the heart in half!
I repent for all those who bear false witness, for in reality they are homicides and suicides.
For all my brothers who are thieves and who are hoarders of unneeded wealth I weep and sigh, for they have buried their soul and have nothing with which to go forth before You.
….Would you ever consider teaching a class on poetry appreciation? ….And do you have any ideas for me on the best way to organize my own reading of poetry? If you think nursery rhymes and such are foundational, I probably have that part under my belt!
By the time he received my letter it was the afternoon of the mentioned event, and he phoned me right then to tell me that yes, he would be glad to help homeschoolers. Also, in answer to my last question, that I might like to read the poetry textbook he had co-authored with X.J. Kennedy, An Introduction to Poetry.
After that I met him a couple of times before he moved to Washington, D.C. in the service of the nation’s art programs, intending to come back to California in two years. The poetry appreciation group never materialized, because I couldn’t drum up enough interest.
Just last month Pippin gave me a book of Gioia’s poems, and as I read an old favorite, “California Hills in August,” I was reminded of part of another letter I wrote to Dana Gioia a bit later:
Oh, I just noticed that your poem “California Hills in August” is in the Introduction to Poetry. I think it was the first of your poems I read. I love it because I grew up surrounded by those hills…, and I tromped around on that stickery grass and sledded down on old ladders, trying to avoid the cow pies. I think, though, that all the time I was gentled by it, as I think you convey. The child just gives in to the heat and drought and lives fairly contentedly as one more creature in the ecosystem.
Here is the poem, from Daily Horoscope, which you can also read on his website:
California Hills in August
I can imagine someone who found
these fields unbearable, who climbed
the hillside in the heat, cursing the dust,
cracking the brittle weeds underfoot,
wishing a few more trees for shade.
An Easterner especially, who would scorn
the meagerness of summer, the dry
twisted shapes of black elm,
scrub oak, and chaparral, a landscape
August has already drained of green.
One who would hurry over the clinging
thistle, foxtail, golden poppy,
knowing everything was just a weed,
unable to conceive that these trees
and sparse brown bushes were alive.
And hate the bright stillness of the noon
without wind, without motion,
the only other living thing
a hawk, hungry for prey, suspended
in the blinding, sunlit blue.
And yet how gentle it seems to someone
raised in a landscape short of rain –
the skyline of a hill broken by no more
trees than one can count, the grass,
the empty sky, the wish for water.
©1986 Dana Gioia