'99 Poems' is Dana Gioia's celebration of the human endeavor

Gioia, California’s Poet Laureate and a poetry icon, offers selected verse.

99 Poems By Dana Gioia Graywolf Press 194 pp.

What is life? How do we confront it? Why do we so often squander it?

Award-winning poet and critic Dana Gioia has made a career of facing such questions head-on. Gioia, the former head of the National Endowment for the Arts, sent shock waves through the poetry world with his 1991 essay in The Atlantic titled “Can Poetry Matter?” Today 99 Poems: New & Selected serves to reenforce Gioia’s reputation as one of America’s best living poets.

Gioia writes in both metered and free verse and has a respect for form that gives his verse a somewhat classic feel. And yet there is also a heartfelt simplicity that keeps his work warm and accessible.

Much of Gioia’s verse seems to speak directly to the empty corners of human life. “He sometimes felt that he had missed his life/ By being far too busy looking for it,” he writes in his short poem “The Road,” which he concludes by asking, “Where was it he had meant to go, and with whom?”

Gioia directly challenges the emptiness of much of human endeavor. “Strange how most journeys come to this: the sun/ bright on the unfamiliar hills, new vistas/ dazzling the eye, the stubborn heart unchanged,” he notes in “Most Journeys Come to This.”

Yet Gioia’s poems never seem to suggest futility. There is always a point to the striving, a virtue to be won in the attempt. In a short, poignant poem called “Unsaid,” Gioia acknowledges the truth of what we experience, even when we cannot express it in words as we may wish to do.

So much of what we live goes on inside –
The diaries of grief, the tongue-tied aches
Of unacknowledged love are no less real
For having passed unsaid. What we conceal
Is always more than we dare confide.
Think of the letters that we write our dead.

In other words, even our failed or belated efforts to share our inner lives still serve to validate their power.

In “Autumn Inaugural,” Gioia writes:

There will always be those who reject ceremony
Who claim that resolution requires no fanfare....

And they are right. Symbols betray us.
They are always more or less than what
Is really meant. But shall there be no
Processions by torchlight because we are weak?
What native speech do we share but imperfection?

It’s hard to imagine a better defense of poetry than this.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s books editor.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to '99 Poems' is Dana Gioia's celebration of the human endeavor
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today