With the publication of “Can Poetry Matter?” in 1991, Dana Gioia established himself as a provocative essayist and public intellectual, and his recent tenure as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts gave him an influential platform from which to promote his belief in poetry’s importance. The publication of 99 Poems: New and Selected prompts us to remember, however, that poetry has always been Gioia’s primary vocation, the craft from which his other efforts flow.
In a culture obsessed with quantity and novelty, Gioia stands out for his commitment to quality. He has written four slim volumes of poetry in the past twenty years, and his new collection contains just fifteen previously uncollected poems. These 99 poems exhibit a remarkable range in both subject matter and form. Gioia is known as a New Formalist, a label that emphasizes a return to more traditional rhyme and meter. Many of his poems do draw on traditional forms, but he also writes in free verse and the only sestina in the volume pokes fun at “sestinas / written by youngsters in poetry workshops.” In his own description of New Formalism, Gioia emphasizes its subject matter: “What the New Formalists … imagined was a new imaginative mode that took the materials of popular art—the accessible genres, the genuinely emotional subject matter, the irreverent humor, the narrative vitality, and the linguistic authenticity—and combined it with the precision, compression, and ambition of high art.” Such material flits across the internet in a variety of forms, but it generally fails to receive the close attention and linguistic resources that poetry brings to bear.
Gioia explores the aesthetic resources of poetry in more detail in the aptly titled poem “Words,” which declares at its outset, “The world does not need words.” This assertion of poetry’s superfluity frees the art from a burden to create or sustain reality, a burden that it cannot bear. And yet, the poem contends, “the stones remain less real to those who cannot / name them / … To name is to know and remember.” It is this task of naming—a task simple and profound, superfluous and vital—that poetry accomplishes. By naming mundane life with care, poetry draws attention to and celebrates the way the world overflows all referential demarcations: “The daylight needs no praise, and so we praise it always— / greater than ourselves and all the airy words we summon.” If Gioia can bring such crafted language to bear on spheres of life often overlooked, he can encourage more people to avail themselves of the articulate, aesthetic powers of poetry.
These powers are sorely needed in a culture characterized by a lack of care. Consumer culture rewards those who discard the old and seek the easy pleasures of a new purchase, a new place, a new relationship. Gioia charts these forms of restless desire in poems like “Shopping,” which figures the mall as a pagan temple, and “Waiting in the Airport,” a place shaped by our longing to be somewhere else. Rather than taking the time to attend to others in all their complexity, it is easier to experience the ephemeral rush that comes from choosing something new. As he writes in “Style,”
Most lives consist of choosing the wrong things.
We try to compensate by choosing more,
As if sheer mass bestowed integrity.
In his 2007 commencement address at Stanford University, Gioia summarized Marcus Aurelius, urging the graduates “to trade easy pleasures for more complex and challenging ones.” And in his poetry, Gioia celebrates the complex and challenging pleasures of care—care for language, for people, for places, for God.
This attentive care yields complex pleasures that contrast with the easy gratification promised by clickbait and hot takes. Whereas consumerism renders desire ephemeral, exploitative, and shallow, Gioia’s careful poetry roots desire, making it responsible and committed. Gioia critiques the lure of rootless nostalgia in his poem “Summer Storm”:
There are so many might-have-beens,
What-ifs that won’t stay buried,
Other cities, other jobs,
Strangers we might have married.
And memory insists on pining
For places it never went,
As if life would be happier
Just by being different.
This same drifting desire, unwilling to be refined by the hard work of commitment, drives the plot of “Haunted.” This long dramatic monologue is a tour de force, its metrical brilliance bringing out the cadences of the narrator’s voice in a manner reminiscent of Robert Frost. The narrator insists that he doesn’t believe in ghosts but then proceeds to recount the night he saw one. He and his lover were sharing a tryst in an opulent mansion and, after a quarrel, had retired to separate rooms when a revenant entered his room and told him “You don’t belong here. No, you don’t belong here.” This declaration leads the young man to leave his dilettante life and take monastic vows. He concludes by confessing to his listener,