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Summer 2004 | Volume 26, Number 7 | Features
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 in persuading 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 NEA chair.

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, holistically.”

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.

Now 53, 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.

T.S. Eliot, 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).

“Operation 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 first hearers.”

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.”

Gioia’s 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.”

This 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.”


To also read "A Conversation With Dana Gioia," click here.

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