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.