The poet Dana Gioia, who will turn 70 later this year, has eluded classification throughout his career. Increasingly, however, to define his work readers have been converging on the simple but comprehensive term “classic”. Reviewers of Gioia’s 99 Poems: New & Selected (2016) read his work without preconceptions and recognised his poems’ distinctive power and elegance.
When Gioia published his first book, Daily Horoscope, in 1986, several critics used his job at General Foods to label him as “Yuppie Poet” and “Poet of Money”, overlooking figures such as Wallace Stevens, TS Eliot and Charles Ives who successfully combined business and the arts. A few poems dealt with the life of work, but rather than glorify it, they evoked its human costs. In “Men after Work”, diners at a coffee shop find that even the “bitterness” of their coffee, their “last taste of evening”, won’t “wake them up”.
One of Gioia’s most brilliant poems, “In Cheever Country”, draws on Gioia’s experience commuting to General Foods to market Jell-O, but the poem moves beyond literal context and presents sacramental imagery. Gioia’s commuter glimpses through his train window “a moment” when “the sunset broadens” and “passengers/ standing on the platform turn strangely luminous”. This light then leads to a small yet potent epiphany: “If there is an afterlife, let it be a small town/ gentle as this spot at just this instant.”
Soon after his first book was released, critics christened Gioia the New Formalist poet. Daily Horoscope and The Gods of Winter (1991) include many formal poems: a double triolet, a sestina, rhymed quatrains, blank verse, even an unrhymed sonnet. But detractors naïvely equated a return to traditional forms with political conservatism. In fact, besides the absence of politics in his poems, Gioia had no interest in making rhyme and metre the rule in poetry, and indeed about a third of his poems are in free verse.
In controversial essays collected in Can Poetry Matter? (1992), Gioia did attack free-verse poetry, especially short autobiographical lyrics, but only to emphasise that this kind of poetry had worn out and needed renewal. In addition to defending metre and rhyme, he argued that the revival of form and narrative could expand the appeal of poetry to audiences bored by the short, confessional lyric and the bankrupt and mystifying experiments of “the perpetual avant-garde’’. Gioia’s chief concern is for stylistic diversity, which is why two of his favourite modern poets are WH Auden and Elizabeth Bishop. Free verse and metre, Gioia believes, are complementary modes, and he employs both.
Unlike some New Formalists, Gioia did not reject Modernism, but he believes poets must reconcile this poetic movement with the need to make poetry accessible. Unlike some contemporary poets who embrace obscurity and difficulty in their work, Gioia makes accessibility a hallmark of his style. If his earliest influence as a college poet was the revolutionary Ezra Pound, his own poems make clarity a virtue. Thomas Hardy and Philip Larkin have been two of his models. For instance, Gioia’s book of selected poems devotes an entire section to songs. The rhyme and metre of this verse enchants the reader, sometimes through amusing sarcasm as in “Pity the Beautiful”: “Pity the faded,/ the bloated, the blowsy,/ the paunchy Adonis/ whose luck’s gone lousy.” He also fills a section with narratives such as “The Homecoming” and “Haunted”, which work like engaging short stories, though they unfold in unrhymed iambic pentameter, not in prose.
Casual labelling has pinned down Gioia as a California poet and a Catholic poet. Again, both terms apply to certain poems and to Gioia generally. Still, “Becoming a Redwood”, “Planting a Sequoia” and “A California Requiem” don’t define him as a California poet, even if he recently served as the state poet laureate. Nor do “Litany”, “Prayer for Winter Solstice” and “The Angel with a Broken Wing” define him as a Catholic poet, although he has said, “I am a Catholic, and I am a writer.” His poems are never dogmatic or devotional, but they express the theme of redemptive suffering and manifest sacramental symbols, markers of the Christian mythos.
All these ways of identifying Gioia the poet are partly valid, but none captures his essence as well as “classic”. Though diverse, Gioia’s poetry shows little outward dramatic change from his first book to his most recent; there is, however, not only a deepening of emotional power in his poetry, as late poems such as “Special Treatments Ward” and “Sea Pebbles: An Elegy” attest, but also a more open expression of spirituality. His verse has become more emotionally direct while sustaining its artfulness, and thus it has become all the more likely to endure as classic.
Matthew C Brennan is a professor of English at Indiana State University and director of graduate studies. He has published Dana Gioia: A Critical Introduction (Story Line Press, 2012)