Tag Archives: National Endowment for The Arts

Readers and Doers

Janet has a discussion going on about reading and what our reasons are for doing it. I’ve been thinking a lot about the decrease in the habit of reading among Americans, which was discussed recently on a Mars Hill Audio interview with Dana Gioia.

Gioia was Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts when the agency did a large survey of the nation’s reading habits. We’ve known for decades that people are reading less…and less…and less. Isn’t this interesting, when a bachelor’s degree is becoming more common? Just this week I heard of a young woman who has a degree, who flat-out refuses to read anything, saying, “I don’t read,” at the same time she declares that she must need to get a job, she is so bored. This in spite of having a lively young child.

The phenomenon links right in to another observation by a college professor I also heard on Mars Hill, that the vast majority of students of “higher education” today do not connect their studies to their life outside the classroom. When they are with their friends, they would never think of discussing a novel or how the wisdom of the ancients applies today. Is reading a task they have only ever done to pass a test or please a teacher? One doesn’t want to call what these people have undergone “education.”

Still, there are those of us who read, and not out of duty! Not for escape, either. As it turns out–and this surprised Dana Gioia–people who have a rich internal life with books are more likely to be involved in their communities and do volunteer work than non-readers. Reading is not truly a solitary activity, because the reader and the writer are interacting, and as the reader’s interior world is enlarged, his engagement with his fellow humans broadens accordingly.

The research gives a lot to think about–and I would write down my thinking, too, if I weren’t embarking more intensely now on a very different sort of work, that of remodeling our kitchen and downstairs floors and ceilings. Just look at this bookcase that has been denuded! A pitiful sight.

It marks only the beginning of the destruction and deconstruction and disorder around here. My computer will be moved to another room, not as handy. I will be packing and packing, and scraping and painting, and cooking without a kitchen. Then I will be unpacking and setting up my home again. Though it’s certain I won’t give up reading altogether for this while, I must think of the next few months as more in the realm of doing good in “my community.”

Every Lent presents a new challenge, because even if our circumstances or station in life might be the same as last year, rare enough as that is, we as individuals have changed from last year’s season of the fast. As I heard the exhortation at Matins this morning that we would show compassion on the needy, it confirmed the idea that had been growing on me, that this house project is not this year’s distraction from Lent, but provides a perfect setting for me to learn compassion.

Having my house torn up and chaotic, wondering which task I should do next and where I stashed the item I didn’t think I would need but now I do–all this causes me anxiety. But my poor husband suffers more, I am certain, and he needs me to show compassion and patience and love.

It wouldn’t hurt me to pray the Lenten Prayer of St Ephrem throughout the days of my opportunity:

O Lord and Master of my life!
Take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King!
Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother;
For Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen. 

A Poet and Some Poetry

I’d like to tell about Dana Gioia, who has been a great blessing to me by dana gioia sitehis 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