Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Dana Gioia on Writing a Poem

Be present.  “Be present” is my January 2014 mantra.  Providentially, Dana Gioia, public intellectual reinforced poetry’s role in being present, the quality of poetry with which I fell in love.

"...a poem calls you to be present," remarked poet, critic, professor and formere NEA Chair, Dana Gioia, to Professor Lucy Wilson's poetry class at Loyola Marymount University, Tuesday, January 28th.   Gioia, immediately following his keynote address to faculty for LMU’s Mission Day, brought poetry to life for LMU’s poetry students.  The performative recitation of poetry is an art, and one that Dana Gioia has mastered.  If you want someone to love your poetry, give them a quality story, insight and performance, invite them into your poem with the chant, song and dance, the origins of poetry’s musicality.

Poetry’s invitation at the collegiate level first came to me through Professor James Brasfield, poet, translator and professor currently at Pennsylvania State University, State College.  Brasfield enacts a similar call to students of poetry, and I'm proud to be included on that roster.  James Brasfield reads poems with conviction, alerting his listener to the revelations unfolding.  I comprehended the sacredness in the music of the poem when, mid-reading, Professor Brasfield paused.  An extended caw outside our classroom window increased.  Only after the bird took flight, leaving silence in its wake, did Brasfield continue.

The transcendence of true beauty, as Gioia described in his keynote address, arrests us.  True beauty, that which transcends, derives from Truth.  And it is a transcendent experience to take audience when Dana Gioia recites poetry by heart.  In this performative act, he invokes poetry’s primal place in human history.  Rhymes helped our ancestors, and helps us, too, remember epic tales, famous stories and, in our case, nursery rhymes.  Our recording keeping originates in the oral tradition long before the written word.  Gioia calls all artists to give the gift of beauty through art—that is to enact, in his case, the full realization of the art’s potential.  While privy to poetry recitations by Dana Gioia, don’t take notes.  Watch Professor Gioia as he invites you into the music, imagery and metaphors of a poem—a universe held in the palm of our hands, resonating from our ears through to our hearts, our whole selves, our souls.

A student pointed to John Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" as her favorite poem.  His seamless response: 

"But we by a love so much refined,
   That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
   Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
   Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
   Like gold to airy thinness beat."

Gioia’s audience feels his passion for poetry.  A passion fortified by intellect and steadfast, ceaseless study, brow sweat and craftsmanship.  Gioia presents a poem with his whole self.  He is a poet who enacts his call to artists to strive toward true beauty.  When performing poetry recitations, Gioia provides that moment of arrest akin to beholding the Sistine Chapel for the very first time.

For him, Gioia confided to the LMU students, writing a poem is like creating a room.  Drawing upon the music of poetry, the poet invites the reader into the room.  Once there, the reader finds the room half furnished.  A skilled poet helps the reader to hone in on the universe at hand (my metaphor not Gioia's) and the reader fills in the details.  That is the reader participates in the poem furnishing the other half of the room using clues the poet has labored to sharpen.  Professor Gioia discussed details that he took out of poems to help the reader focus.  In the case of his beloved poem, “Planting a Sequoia,” Gioia chose to eliminate detail that the action of planting the sequoia happened on Christmas Eve.  Gioia compared poetry's musical origins (song, choral dance, and chanting) to today's pop songs, Dancing with the Stars, and hip-hop, respectively.  We enjoyed the music in his ballad, “Summer Storms”.  “…To my surprise, you took my arm—/ A gesture you didn’t explain—”.  Though largely ignored by contemporary American poets, the ballad form, Gioia pointed out, is widely enjoyed in pop, folk, and country music.  Upon reading his poem, a double-triolet, “The Country Wife,” Gioia imparted that forms relying on repetition such as the villanelle and triolet lend themselves well to emotions that obsess over or that we can't seem to get away from with ease.   The country wife “makes her way through the dark trees/ down to the lake to be alone./ The night reflected on the lake,/ The fire of stars changed into water.”  

If you have a passion for poetry, Gioia's essay, "Can Poetry Matter?", is a must read.  During the private readings and conversations in Professor Wilson’s course, Dana Gioia brought me into the present moment through poetry, at once reminding me of the moments I first fell in love with poetry in Professor James Brasfield’s intro to poetry.  A poem calls us to the sacramental present.

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