| Mr. Gioia Goes to Washington
Arts Endowment Chair Follows in the Footsteps of Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot
HOW MANY NOVELS
HAVE YOU READ THIS YEAR SO FAR? If you find yourself a bit embarrassed
by the answer, you’re in good company. Reading at Risk, a new study
issued by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), reports, “At
the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity
will virtually disappear in half a century.”
|T.S. Eliot once said, “Business today consists in persuading
crowds.” Dana Gioia’s business is
Americans that art
is essential to life.
That’s the kind of
information that keeps Dana Gioia up at night. It’s not just that
this award-winning poet cares passionately about the state of American
reading habits. He’s also responsible for addressing the situation.
Nominated by President George W. Bush in 2003, Gioia (pronounced
JOY-uh) happens to be the first creative artist to serve as the
At last November’s Image conference at Seattle Pacific
University, Gioia addressed an audience of artists and readers. “Art
is a distinct and irreplaceable way of knowing the world,” he said, “because
it alone, unlike science or philosophy, uses and engages the fullness
of our humanity. Art … simultaneously addresses our intellect,
our senses, our emotions, our imagination, our intuition, our memory
and our physical body — not separately, but together, simultaneously,
Strong convictions — but can he persuade “ordinary
Americans” to act on them?
Only the rarest of individuals is both
a visionary artist and a shrewd leader in things bureaucratic.
Gioia is one of those unusual people. Skimming his résumé proves
the point: M.B.A. from Stanford; former vice president of General
Foods; music critic for San Francisco magazine; author of the libretto
for the 2001 opera “Nosferatu”; founder of the nation’s largest
poetry writers’ conference; BBC Radio commentator. His work has
been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times
Book Review, Slate and Image. That’s just for starters.
Gioia has made major contributions to our national literary heritage
as a poet, including the 2002 American Book Award-winner Interrogations
at Noon. He is a staunch defender and practitioner of traditions
in poetry that incorporate meter Mr. Gioia Goes toWashingtonand
rhyme, elements that many contemporary poets consider archaic.
He’s also an editor (Literature: An Introduction to Fiction and
Poetry and Drama) and an essayist; and he translates poetry from
Latin, Italian, German and Romanian.
But it is his passionate perspective
on “the state of the arts,” especially poetry, that has proved
most controversial in artistic and academic circles. His influential
volume Can Poetry Matter? — among the finalists for the 1992 National
Book Critics Circle Award — drew both boos and cheers for his description
of contemporary poets as “priests in a town of agnostics,” artists
who tend to write for each other in the enclaves of academia rather
than for the culture at large. The book also featured close examinations
of the careers of Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot, poets who, like
Gioia, lived double lives as businessmen.
Suffice it to say, Gioia’s
qualifications are as impressive as the challenges he faces. Only
a decade ago, the NEA’s reputation was severely damaged — among
artists as well as the general population — due to controversies
associated with the “culture wars.” His strategy to regain trust? “Create
programs of indisputable public value,” he says.
The need has never
been greater. “Less than half of the adult American population
now reads literature,” Reading at Risk reports. Gioia observes
that American teenagers can name hundreds of basketball players,
but they’ll respond with blank stares if you ask about America’s
contemporary authors and poets. The implications reach far beyond
book sales. “Literary reading strongly correlates to other forms
of active civic participation,” says the NEA study.
a hero of Gioia’s, once asked, “If you aren’t in over your head,
how do you know how tall you are?” By that measure, the problem
is deep, but Gioia has developed impressive stature.
He has a powerful
partner: William Shakespeare. The NEA is currently bringing professional
theatre to schools across the country through a program called
Shakespeare in American Communities. It’s the most extensive American
tour of the bard’s work in U.S. history. Beyond the stage, the
tour will involve students in artistic and technical workshops.
The effort aims “to make professional theatre a vital part of the
cultural landscape of smaller communities” and to inspire all ages
to attend and appreciate live theatre.
It’s just the kind of work
for which the NEA, America’s largest source of annual arts funding,
was established by Congress in 1965. The NEA’s official mission
is to “ensure that Americans have the opportunity to experience
great art.” Every year, more than 2,200 grants, totaling more than
$100 million, are awarded to nonprofit organizations for art projects,
leadership initiatives and partnership agreements, as well as for
individual fellowships in literature and lifetime recognition awards
in jazz and the folk and traditional arts.
Can a government agency
contribute to the arts without getting its hands dirty in partisan
political projects? It’s a timely question. One of Gioia’s bravest
endeavors, Operation Homecoming, will surely raise a few eyebrows.
The program offers creative-writing instruction for U.S. troops
coming home from duty, equipping them to chronicle their wartime
experiences. The campaign will culminate with the publication of
the soldiers’ best work in an anthology. Workshop instructors include
accomplished writers such as Mark Bowden (Black Hawk Down), Tom
Clancy (The Hunt for Red October) and Bobbie Ann Mason (In Country).
Homecoming will make decisions based on artistic excellence, rather
than content,” Gioia explains. “We will have no political bias
in choosing the material; nor will we exercise political censorship
in the material. We will choose the best writing for the anthology.
That’s the way we run all Endowment programs.”
The “best” can be
difficult to judge in any artistic discipline. Gioia’s discernment
grows from deeper convictions. “The best art, poetry and narrative
tend to contain a universal or timeless quality that speaks across
culture and ages,” he said at the Image conference. “For instance,
Christ’s parables move us today as powerfully as they did their
He also brings to the table a distinctly Catholic
understanding of art’s incarnational nature. Gioia commented in
one interview that art can “call people back into the church.” He
described the sacraments as “outward signs that symbolize
an inward turn of grace. The Catholic … is raised in a culture
that understands symbols and signs. And it also trains you in understanding
the relationship between the visible and the invisible.”
training in poetry began in early childhood, instilling in him
the conviction that art is for everyone. “I have read poetry as
long as I have been able to read,” he wrote in the preface to Can
Poetry Matter? “Before that, my mother, a woman of no advanced
education, read or recited it to me from memory. Consequently,
I have never considered poetry an intrinsically difficult art whose
mysteries can be appreciated only by a trained intellectual.”
view of art is his greatest asset, said those who supported his
nomination as NEA chair. One of them, literary editor Jonathan
Galassi, explained it like this: “[Dana will] be able to testify
to the importance of art in the culture in a way that a lot of
people will be able to understand.”
— BY JEFFREY OVERSTREET
— PHOTOS BY EVAN VUCCI/AP WIDE WORLD PHOTOS
To also read "A Conversation With Dana Gioia," click here.
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