As contemporary poets go, Dana Gioia is a classicist. In his new collection of poems, his voice, well-modulated and never shrill, falls effortlessly into the rhythms of iambic pentameter, and occasionally into rhyme, as he explores emotions that are none the weaker for being held so fastidiously in check. Gioia, who is also a librettist and translator of Seneca’s Hercules Furens, is distinguished among his contemporaries for the striking clarity of his diction: Disavowing the morbid self-referentiality of so many of today’s poets, he has written poems that can usually be understood at the first approach. And, lest there be any risk of inclarity, he has the decency to provide, where needed, brief explanatory notes at the end of the volume.
To praise his clarity may not sound like much of a recommendation, but it is. Though thoroughly alive to the complexities of life—a subject that occupies his poetry as much as it does that of his contemporaries—Gioia is nevertheless so confident in the force of his message that he rarely resorts to those diversions and obscurities by which many of his contemporaries contrive not so much to conceal what they have to say as to conceal how little they have to say in the first place.
That is not the only respect in which he stands as something of an anomaly among his contemporaries. Although I would not presume to characterize his politics, I observe that he served honorably as head of the National Endowment for the Arts under George W. Bush; that—as mentioned—he writes admirably in iambic pentameter; and that his poems have appeared in the New Criter-ion and the American Arts Quarterly, two publications associated with the cultural right. Furthermore, he has worked unapologetically in corporate America, as a marketing executive at General Foods. It was only at the age of 40, two decades ago, that Gioia took up writing as a fulltime career.
And yet, as everyone knows, poets are supposed to hew to the left. True, Coleridge and Wordsworth started out as ardent defenders of the French Revolution only to end up as Tories, and e. e. cummings was more of a Republican than most of his admirers realize. But that was long ago. For the past few generations, the poetic establishment, like Hollywood, has been largely inhospitable to anyone on the right. Even though the poems in this volume, in their quest for universal truths, transcend politics, Gioia’s proximity to Washington makes him something of a nonpareil among today’s poets.
There are numerous reasons to admire these poems. Gioia has the courage of his contentment. It hums, often unspoken, as the base note of these poems—even where the poet addresses some deep pain he has known, like the death of a 4-month-old son. Many poets today, like people in general, seem to operate on the assumption that happiness is a condition morally and intellectually inferior to depression. They agree with Keats in “Ode to a Nightingale” that to think is to be full of sorrow / And leaden-eyed despairs. Such happiness as poets avow is of that spasmodic and Dionysian sort that you find in Whitman and in Allen Ginsberg.
But the well-mannered contentedness of Gioia’s verse is rarely tolerated, even in prose. Yet, despite his awareness of life’s complexities and its grief, he can still conclude “Prayer at Winter Solstice” in this way:
Blessed is the pain that humbles us.
Blessed is the distance that bars our joy.
Blessed is this shortest day that makes us
long for light.
Blessed is the love that in losing we
Beyond that happiness, I admire his courage to seek beauty and to communicate it effectively—once more without apology—whenever he finds it:
Underneath the murmur of the wasp
we hear the dry grass bending in the wind
and the spider’s silken whisper from
Elsewhere he describes his wife’s coat as this relic of your grace / A pink Persephone among pin-striped shadows.
If there is anything with which I would reproach him, it is the liberties Gioia takes with his chosen forms, especially iambic pentameter. Consider this passage:
The tales we tell are either false or true,
But neither purpose is the point. We
The fabric of our own existence out of
words . . .
The first two lines are cast fluently, unimpeachably in iambic pentameter, but the third line is, according to the conventions of that meter, two syllables too long. To my ear, this surplus is irksome and immelodious—even though I am well aware that most living poets who take up the form would not hesitate to do as Gioia has done.
But why? I fear there is an element of insincerity here: a hesitancy to jump body and soul into the spirit of the meter, for fear of seeming out of step with one’s time. Those two extra syllables represent a leaven of rebellion, a sop to Cerberus, thrown in to deflect the criticism that the poem is too beholden to tradition. In this otherwise charming and meritorious collection, Dana Gioia needs to exhibit more consistently the courage of his prosody.
James Gardner recently translated Vida’s Christiad (I Tatti Renaissance Library).