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Rhyme and Reason

From the October 24, 2002 Wall Street Journal: An NEA nominee who's a perfect fit.

11:00 AM, Oct 24, 2002 • By J. BOTTUM
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YESTERDAY, the White House announced the choice of the poet Dana Gioia for chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. This is the job that Mr. Gioia was born for--or perhaps that's better put the other way around: Mr. Gioia is the kind of person for whom the job of chairing the NEA was first created. He is a major figure in American letters, an experienced business executive, and a man with a passion for great art.

There's something satisfyingly ironic in this. It sometimes seems that aspiring artists are required to take an oath to oppose the Bush administration. And now those philistine Republicans have put forward one of the nation's finest writers: an American Book Award winner, a best-selling textbook editor, and a critic of distinction. However one wants to construct the list of America's best poets, Dana Gioia ranks somewhere very high. His confirmation will mean the return of something missing in Washington since Archibald MacLeish was Librarian of Congress.

It's going to be a struggle for even determined opponents of President Bush's appointments to complain about the 51-year-old Mr. Gioia. The son of blue-collar Italian and Mexican immigrants in California, he has both an M.A. in literature from Harvard and an M.B.A. from Stanford. For 15 years, he worked as an executive, rising to become a vice president of General Foods--and then abandoned his business career in 1992 to begin writing and promoting poetry fulltime. Along the way, he's published three books of poetry, translations of Montale's Italian and Seneca's Latin, a long series of music reviews, and the libretto for a well-received neo-romantic opera called "Nosferatu."

The arts community, however, will almost certainly hunt for something to object to. Mr. Gioia has always been a careful manager of his poetic reputation. But he has nonetheless consistently been a lightning rod for whatever thunderbolt has been about to strike the world of arts and letters.

Back in the 1980s, he was identified with the "neo-formalists." These were the poets, particularly in the pages of the New Criterion and the Formalist magazines, who had mastered the difficult trick of writing traditional verse in contemporary language--and were widely denounced by much of the poetry establishment as reactionaries who would return us to those horrible, constricting Victorian days before free verse came along to, well, set us free.

Then, in 1991, Mr. Gioia wrote the Atlantic Monthly article "Can Poetry Matter?" and it became one of the most argued-about essays of the decade. Again, there was something in the air at the time. Joseph Epstein did much of the same work in an essay in Commentary called "Who Killed Poetry?" But when Mr. Gioia laid much of the blame on the transformation of poets into college writing-program professors, he caught the imagination of middle-brow America, and the letters to the Atlantic Monthly poured in for months.

What fits Mr. Gioia for the job at the NEA, however, is all the work he's done to promote an alternate vision of the arts in America. His annual poetry festivals on the West and East coasts, his promotion of younger poets and musicians, his ceaseless schedule of lectures and readings have all aimed to provoke a sense that art can, in fact, matter.

It's not a question of corporate or government sponsorship. Indeed, the lesson of writing-school poetry is that such things always fail. It's rather a matter of using whatever pulpit can be found to insist that serious art has serious purposes, that those purposes can be conveyed to a large portion of the population, and that traditional forms are traditional precisely because they have proved over centuries that they actually work. The astonishingly high demands made for the arts by Mr. Gioia are, in fact, far more populist than the feel-good, anything-is-art positions of recent NEA heads, from the actress Jane Alexander to the folklorist William Ivey.

If his experience in business and the arts combine to make him the perfect candidate for the NEA, it's less clear what the NEA offers Mr. Gioia. A chance to speak from one of the few bully pulpits for the arts in America, maybe even a chance to gain a bigger audience for his own work.

But Mr. Gioia's poetry is filled with an odd but constant regret--not just the unbearably sad "The Gods of Winter" and "Planting a Sequoia" about the death of his son, but all the poems about himself. "This is the litany of lost things," one of his recent works begins. The title poem of his latest volume, "Interrogations at Noon," says that he often hears at noon a voice: "It is the better man I might have been / Who chronicles the life I've never led." Another poem ends with a strange decaying rhyme: "memory insists on pining / For places it never went, / As if life would be happier / Just by being different."

From now on, Mr. Gioia's life is going to be different.

J. Bottum is Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard and the author of "The Fall & Other Poems."