Dana Gioia—poet, critic, and arts leader—has sometimes said, “I’m the only person who ever went to Stanford Business School to become a poet.” A native Californian of Italian and Mexican descent, he studied at Stanford (BA, MBA) and Harvard universities (MA), worked as VP of marketing for General Foods, and has published four poetry collections with Graywolf Press: Daily Horoscope (1986); The Gods of Winter (1991); Interrogations at Noon (2001), which won the 2002 American Book Award; and Pity the Beautiful (2012). He has also written two opera libretti: Nosferatu (2004) and Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast (2008). Though he is considered a central figure of New Formalism, his work is not easily categorized. His seminal essay “Can Poetry Matter?,” first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1991, challenged academic writing programs to connect to a broader public and return poetry to the deeper, perennial questions. As chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (2003–2009), he created the largest programs in the endowment’s history, several of which, including the Big Read, Operation Homecoming, and Poetry Out Loud, continue as major presences in American cultural life. For many years, Gioia served on Image’s editorial advisory board, and he has been a guest lecturer for the Seattle Pacific University MFA program in creative writing. In 2010 he won the prestigious Laetare Medal from Notre Dame. Last year, he was appointed the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California—his first regular teaching post. He now divides his time between Los Angeles and Sonoma County. He and his wife, Mary, have two sons in college and two cats still at home. He was interviewed by Erika Koss.
Image: I once heard you say that if you could only have one art form, it would be music. Why?
Dana Gioia: I could give you reasons, but that would suggest that my response is rational. It isn’t. My choice of music is simply a deep emotional preference. I like the physicality of music. It is a strange art—not only profoundly beautiful, but also communal, portable, invisible, and repeatable. Its most common form is song, a universal human art that also includes poetry.
Image: As a young man, you intended to be a composer. What led to your discovery of poetry as your vocation?
DG: I started taking piano lessons at six, and I eventually also learned to play the clarinet and saxophone. During my teenage years, music was my ruling passion. At nineteen I went to Vienna to study music and German. But living abroad for the first time, I changed direction. I reluctantly realized that I lacked the passion to be a truly fine composer. I was also out of sympathy with the dull and academic twelve-tone aesthetic then still dominant. Meanwhile, I became fascinated with poetry. I found myself spending most of my time reading and writing. Poetry chose me. I couldn’t resist it.
Image: What does it mean to be a poet in a post-literate world? Or to be a librettist in an age where opera is a struggling art form?
DG: It doesn’t bother me much. I wasn’t drawn to poetry or opera because of their popularity. It was their beauty and excitement that drew me. Of course, I would like these arts to have larger audiences, but the value of an art isn’t in the size of its audience. It’s in the truth and splendor of its existence.
All that being said, let me observe that a post-print world is not a bad place for poetry. Poetry is an art that predates writing. It’s essentially an auditory art. A poet today has the potential to speak directly to an audience—through public readings, radio broadcasts, recordings, and the internet. Most people may not want to read poetry, but they do like to hear good poems recited well. I’ve always written mostly for the ear, and I find large and responsive audiences all over the country. The current cultural situation is tough on novelists and critics, but it isn’t all that bad for poets.
Image: Duke Ellington objected to his music being labeled jazz, since he just considered it music. This led me to wonder if you are bothered by the term “New Formalism” being applied to your poetry.
DG: I have never liked the term “New Formalism.” It was coined in the 1980s as a criticism of the new poetry being written by younger poets that employed rhyme, meter, and narrative. I understand the necessity of labels in a crowded and complex culture, but labels always entail an element of simplification, especially when the terms offer an easy dichotomy.
I have always written both in form and free verse. It seems self-evident to me that a poet should be free to use whatever techniques the poem demands. My work falls almost evenly into thirds—one third of it is written in free verse, one third in rhyme and meter, and one third in meter without rhyme. I do believe that all good art is in some sense formal. Every element in a work of art should contribute to its overall expressive effect. That is what form means. Whether the form is regular or irregular, symmetrical or asymmetrical is merely a means of achieving the necessary integrity of the work.
Image: But don’t some of those early poems have a consciously oppositional spirit?
DG: Yes, but I didn’t see myself writing in opposition to free verse. Using both free and formal verse, I wrote only in opposition to the sloppy, self-indulgent, and pretentious poetry that pervaded the 1970s. I wrote against the verbose, the narcissistic, and the tone-deaf schools of poetry. Rhyme, meter, and narrative were merely some of the techniques I explored in search of compression and expressivity.
Image: You have frequently mentioned the impact of your mother reading poetry to you as a child. You’ve described her reciting Poe’s “Annabel Lee” from memory. What other poems did she recite?
DG: She loved the popular poets of her youth—writers such as Rudyard Kipling, Robert Service, James Whitcomb Riley, and James Greenleaf Whittier. I heard her recite chestnuts such as “Gunga Din,” “Maud Muller,” and “Barbara Frietchie,” as well as speeches from Shakespeare’s plays. The pleasure she took in these poems was contagious. She was fond of Tennyson, Longfellow, Byron, and Poe. Finally, she loved Ogden Nash. His “Tale of Custard the Dragon” was one of her favorites and remains one of mine. I read it to my boys, too. It is important to remember that my mother was a working-class Mexican-American woman born in poverty. Despite what the professors would have us believe, average Americans once loved poetry.
Image: I’d like to ask you about each of your earlier books of poetry before talking about your new collection. I love the title sequence of your first book, Daily Horoscope. How did these poems begin, and how did they eventually become a sequence?
DG: Title tells all. I was reading the horoscope column in a newspaper when I noticed how interesting the language was—second person, future tense, intimate tone, and prophetic manner. It struck me as very much like the language of the great modernist lyric poems. Think of T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes,” Eugenio Montale’s “Ossa di seppia,” or Hart Crane’s “Voyages.” Then suddenly the opening of the first poem came to me. The inspiration was so strong that over the next few weeks I filled most of a notebook with sketches. Then I had to figure out the form they should take. I could have just published a dozen or so short poems, but I felt that the poems all had a deep connection. They needed to be arranged meaningfully to suggest their affinities.
I eventually put the six best together in a sequence that addresses one protagonist through a single day from the moment in which he first wakes to a point just after he has fallen asleep at night. As I did this, the poems started to reveal things that I hadn’t initially been conscious of. This is one reason why I believe that a poet works in collaboration with the language and with the unconscious. They both have things to say that at first the poet can hardly guess. These are dense and challenging poems, but I don’t think I have ever written with more intense lyricality.
Image: An invisible mystery seems to permeate the sequence. You write that “In a moment’s pause another world / reveals itself behind the ordinary.” Lines like these seem to echo both fantasy and Christianity.
DG: It was in writing this early sequence that I started to explore what has become one of my persistent themes—the sheer mystery of our existence in which the visible and invisible worlds both press upon us. I think it was in this sequence that I stopped trying to sound smart—the great literary vice—and simply surrendered myself to the phenomenon I was trying to capture and the language that I hoped summoned it. The poems are simultaneously very mundane—describing an ordinary day—and deeply visionary. They suggest a person overwhelmed by spiritual hungers and energy who doesn’t yet know how to bring them into his life.
Image: Your second collection of poetry, The Gods of Winter, is dedicated to your first son who died at four months. Did his death provoke a crisis of faith?
DG: No, his death simply deadened me. For several years I felt as if I existed behind a thick glass wall beyond which the rest of the world went on obliviously. I eventually discovered how many other people lived in this isolated, joyless world. I met them everywhere. I had joined a secret society no one wants to enter. But I trusted my sorrow, and it eventually led me where I needed to go. I talked to these other lost souls—most of them so much worse off than I was—and I learned a depth of compassion I had never experienced. I was broken, and only with immense pain and long suffering did I heal. I then discovered that I had become a different person—humbler, kinder, and more patient. Only then was I open to grace.
Image: You have often claimed that most of your poems aren’t autobiographical. But by your own account, your elegy “Planting a Sequoia” is an exception. Did you and your brother really plant a redwood in memory of your first son with a lock of his hair and a piece of his umbilical cord wrapped in its roots—according to an old Sicilian tradition?
DG: Yes, everything in the poem is true. I left certain things out, but poetry requires excluding some details to allow the important things to emerge more clearly. My son died suddenly a few days before Christmas. We planted the sequoia on Christmas day, but to include that particular holiday seemed too much symbolism for a poem already so burdened with emotion. My sister was around, but it seemed clearer to focus on the men since the original custom of planting a tree (usually an olive or fig tree) was a father’s task. When my son died, I stopped writing for nearly a year. This was the only new poem I wrote. I carried it around in my head for months before I had the strength to write it down.
Image: Is the tree still there?
DG: Yes, the tree still exists. It’s over sixty feet high now and perfectly proportioned. My father tended to it till the day he died, and it reflects that care.
Image: Your third collection, Interrogations at Noon, begins with a poem titled “Words” and ends with the poem “Unsaid.” The first poem implies that reality is greater than words. But it also affirms the importance of language “to know and remember.” To me, this has always seemed one of your most distinctively Christian poems, although nothing in it is overtly religious. It seems a poem that only someone who honors the mysteries of faith could write.
DG: I hate to interpret my own poems. I see certain things, but they may not be what a reader sees. Any good poem leads a life independent of its author’s narrow intentions. I began “Words” as an argument with postmodernism, which asserts that language is a social construction that has no exact relationship with reality (and indeed that reality itself is a cultural construction with no independent objective existence). This is, of course, pretentious posturing, a perfect example of what George Orwell calls “silly clever” thinking. No one believes that language has an exact correspondence with reality, but it is nonetheless our best tool for getting at certain truths. None of this background is essential to understanding the poem, but it was all part of my initial creative impulse. What emerged was ultimately a very Catholic sense of the relationship between language and the world.
Image: The collection begins and ends in paradox—the power of words and the power of silence. The short final poem, “Unsaid,” suggests that most of what we experience remains unexpressed in language:
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 what we dare confide.
Think of the letters that we write our dead.
How would you answer a reader who thought that this poem contradicted the ideas suggested in “Words”?
DG: There are some truths that can only be expressed as paradox. Existence is not a fixed and unitary state. It is fluid and dynamic, often with opposing forces pressing on us. Poems are not so much about giving answers as about unfolding questions. A good poem argues with its author and itself. I began Interrogations at Noon by exploring the powers and limitations of language, but I also wanted to remember how much of what we experience is never articulated but remains private. As a poet, I have also come to believe that what one leaves unsaid is often as powerful as what one says. The hard part is, of course, making the reader actually feel what is being left unsaid.
Image: Your new book, Pity the Beautiful, has just been published by Graywolf Press. One poem, “Prayer at Winter Solstice,” consists almost entirely of paradoxical statements. This seems to be a poem that only a Californian Catholic could write.
Prayer at Winter Solstice
Blessed is the road that keeps us homeless.
Blessed is the mountain that blocks our way.
Blessed are hunger and thirst, loneliness and all forms of desire.
Blessed is the labor that exhausts us without end.
Blessed are the night and the darkness that blinds us.
Blessed is the cold that teaches us to feel.
Blessed are the cat, the child, the cricket, and the crow.
Blessed is the hawk devouring the hare.
Blessed are the saint and the sinner who redeem each other.
Blessed are the dead calm in their perfection.
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 discover.
DG: I’m not sure about the Californian part, but “Prayer at Winter Solstice” is probably the most Catholic poem I’ve ever written. It is not a poem for everyone. It offers a set of beatitudes that praise the suffering and renunciation necessary to make us spiritually alert. It celebrates the transformative and redemptive nature of suffering—one of the central spiritual truths of Christianity as well as one easily forgotten in our materialist consumer culture. It is also a poem about facing the hard realities of our existence. Our feel-good society tries to deny suffering—unless it can sell you a pill or product to banish it.
Image: Your poem “Special Treatments Ward” has been haunting me for days, especially lines like “Risen they are healed but not made whole” or the closing line, “And vagrant sorrow cannot bless the dead.” Is it too much to say that this poem began from your continuing pain at losing your first son?
DG: This was the most difficult poem I’ve ever written. It began when my second son had a serious injury that required an extended stay in a children’s neurological ward where nearly every other child was dying of a brain or spinal tumor. Having lost my first son, I was entirely vulnerable to the pain and confusion of the sick children and their desperate parents. I began to write a poem about how unprepared everyone in the ward was for what they had to face. But the poem kept growing and changing. It took me sixteen years to finish. I didn’t want to finish it. I wanted to forget it, but the poem demanded to be finished. So the poem is not simply about my first son or my second son, though they are both mentioned. It is about the children who died.
Image: Critics are not going to know what to do with “Haunted,” your brilliant new narrative poem, whose very urbane narrator turns out to have a surprising identity. You have said that your poems often begin with a line or musical phrase. How did this long poem begin?
DG: Actually, this poem began with the first two lines: “‘I don’t believe in ghosts,’ he said. ‘Such nonsense. / But years ago I actually saw one.’” As soon as I heard those two lines, the whole poem started to unfold, though it took an immense amount of work to create the narrative tone and the musical qualities I wanted. The odd thing about poems is that when the good ones come we often realize that we have been writing them in the back of our mind for years. A single line brings them into existence almost fully formed.
“Haunted” is a ghost story that turns into a love story about a mutually destructive couple, but then at the end the reader realizes that the whole tale was really about something else entirely. The real theme is quite the opposite of what it initially seems. I wanted the poem to have the narrative drive of a great short story but also rise to moments of intense lyricality. I was particularly pleased that I was able to weave humor and horror, as well as tenderness and toughness, into a continuous narrative fabric.
Image: Flannery O’Connor said that fiction is “an incarnational art.” Would you broaden this statement to include poetry?
DG: All art is incarnational. Art doesn’t consist of conceptual abstractions. It is embodied truth created for creatures with bodies. A poem doesn’t communicate primarily through ideas. It expresses itself in sound, images, rhythms, and emotions. We experience poems holistically. They speak to us simultaneously through our minds, our hearts, our imaginations, and our physical bodies. They speak to us, in other words, as incarnated beings.
Image: Some readers may be surprised to learn that your “first literary love affair” was with Edgar Rice Burroughs, especially his John Carter of Mars novels. How old were you? And what did these books spark in you?
DG: As a boy, I loved science fiction and adventure stories. I first came across Burroughs when I was about ten. I discovered an Ace paperback of At the Earth’s Core on the bookrack of the local drugstore. Soon my friends and I bought every book by Burroughs we could find. They were just being reissued after many years. When A Princess of Mars and its two sequels appeared, we knew that we would never read better novels. They were full of breathless action, lofty heroics, wild fantasy, and a rather impressive vocabulary. And there was a fetching heroine—“the incomparable Dejah Thoris.” What more did a bookish boy need to attain aesthetic bliss?
I eventually read forty-five of Burroughs’s novels. It was the first of many literary love affairs, and I remember those books as fondly as I do my first kiss. Years later I read at least a dozen of them aloud to my sons at bedtime. They loved them as much as I did.
Image: You once listed Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert as one of the most important books of your life, saying it made you realize how “spiritually starved” you were during your early years in business working at General Foods. You even suggested that it eventually led you to quit your job to become a full-time writer.
DG: I picked up Merton’s book on the desert saints quite by chance, and its defense of the contemplative life awakened a deep hunger in my soul. Merton described how a small group of men had abandoned the sophisticated city of Alexandria in the fourth century to live and pray in the desert—renouncing material comforts and worldly ambitions to focus on their inner lives. He made a compelling case for a life dedicated to matters that the everyday world does not understand.
It’s hard to describe the force with which Merton’s ideas struck me. I read his many books on the contemplative life and pondered them seriously. I recognized that I was one of those odd people who need silence and solitude (even though that would have seemed absurd to anyone observing my busy and practical daily life). I knew that I needed to remake my life. Eventually I quit business and a few years later moved back to California for a quiet rural life. Merton was not entirely responsible for those changes, but he was a catalyst. And, of course, Merton was one of the writers who made me understand I had to reconnect more meaningfully with my Catholicism.
Image: What other writers influenced you in this way?
DG: One book that has exercised a lifelong influence on me is Saint Augustine’s City of God, which I first read as a Stanford undergraduate. It has probably shaped my adult life more than any other book except the Gospels. Augustine helped me understand the danger of letting the institutions of power—be they business, government, or academia—in which we spend our daily lives shape our values. We need to understand what it is we give to the City of Man and what we do not. I couldn’t have survived my years in business as a writer had I not resisted the hunger for wealth, power, and status that pervades that world. The same was true for my years in power-mad Washington. Another writer who helped me understand these things was the Marxist philosopher and literary critic Georg Lukács—not a name one usually sees linked with Augustine’s, but he was another compelling analyst of the intellectual and moral corruptions of institutional power.
Image: Any other writers?
DG: Many other authors have been important to me. Sometimes they spoke to a particular need I felt at a point in life. Others have been lifelong companions. Many of them were poets and novelists, but to list a few of the philosophers, theologians, and thinkers, I might mention: Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Miguel de Unamuno, Mircea Eliade, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, George Orwell, Marshall McLuhan, Jacques Maritain, and recently René Girard. I have been particularly moved by the works of Albert Schweitzer (whom no one seems to read nowadays), especially his The Quest of the Historical Jesus and The Mystery of the Kingdom of God. I generally avoid devotional works, but back in my twenties I picked up a copy of Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, and for years I would pack it in my briefcase on business trips. It helped me be a little less evil.
Image: Since leaving the NEA (and being awarded the Laetare Medal by Notre Dame), you seem to be speaking more publicly about the relationship between Catholicism and the arts. What led to this change?
DG: When I was a public official, it was inappropriate for me to speak personally about a number of subjects. For example, I never made a negative remark about any living American artist. Of course, I had my private opinions, but it was important that no one mistook those private views for public policy. I did accept numerous invitations to speak at Catholic and Christian colleges and institutions, many of which had historically felt marginalized by the NEA, but I visited them in an official capacity as cultural rather than religious institutions.
Now that I am a private citizen again, I can speak from a personal point of view. At Catholic institutions, I feel it important to remind the audiences of two facts—first, how central the arts have been historically to Catholic worship and identity; and second, how completely the church has abandoned the arts in recent times. I feel very strongly that the church needs the arts, and also that the arts need the profound traditions of spiritual awareness and practice offered by the church.
Image: What has been the effect of this divorce between the church and the arts?
DG: The schism has hurt both faith and the arts. The loss of a transcendent religious vision, a refined and vigorous sense of the sacred, and the ancient and powerful tradition of symbolism and allusion have impoverished the language of the arts. We see the result of this immense loss in the cynical irony, the low-cost nihilism, the sentimental spiritual pretentions, and the shallow novelty of so much contemporary art.
Please understand, I am not asking that all art be religious. That would be a disaster. What I am suggesting is something more subtle and complex—namely, that once you remove the religious as one of the possible modes of art, once you separate art from the long established traditions and disciplines of spirituality, you don’t remove the hungers of either artists or audiences, but you satisfy them more crudely with the vague, the pretentious, and the sentimental.
Image: What is the impact on the church?
DG: The loss of a vital aesthetic sensibility in the church has not only impoverished worship. It has also weakened the church’s identity in modern society and limited the ways in which it speaks to the world. The graceless architecture of most new churches, the banal and formulaic painting and sculpture, the mediocre music so indifferently performed, and the tone-deaf language of religious services reveal a Catholic Church that has not only cut itself off from culture, but also lost touch with its own great traditions of fostering beauty and creativity. You see this problem in many ways but perhaps most dramatically in the flight of artists and intellectuals from the church.
Image: Why has this happened? Does the Catholic Church view art as an unnecessary luxury? There has been such a rich tradition of sacred art.
DG: There are many reasons. The church is rightly concerned with issues of poverty, health, education, and social justice. In the US, Catholicism has always been the religion of the poor, especially poor immigrants. These are communities with huge material needs. But, to quote a relevant old phrase, “Man does not live by bread alone.” Even the poorest people—perhaps especially the poor—need beauty and the transcendent. Beauty is not a luxury. It is humanity’s natural response to the splendor and mystery of creation. To assume that some group doesn’t need beauty is to deny their humanity.
Image: Do you consciously think of yourself as part of a tradition of Catholic writers?
DG: I am a Catholic, and I am a writer. I don’t think you can separate the two identities. But I have never wanted to be “a Catholic writer” in some narrow sense. Was Evelyn Waugh a Catholic writer? Was Flannery O’Connor or Muriel Spark? Well, yes and no. They were first and foremost writers who strived for expressive intensity and imaginative power. Their Catholicism entered into their work along with their humor, violence, sexuality, and imaginative verve. The few devotional works Waugh wrote are his worst books. His merciless early comic novels, which are Catholic only in their depiction of a hopelessly fallen world, are probably his best. Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange is a deeply Catholic novel about free will, but it is also a violent, dystopian science fiction novel about social collapse and political hypocrisy, all of which is written in an invented futuristic slang. There is something complicated going on here that cannot be simplified into faith-based writing.
I have been drawn to Catholic writers from the moment as a teenager I first read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I soon began to devour the work of Waugh, Burgess, O’Connor, Graham Greene, and Brian Moore. A little later I discovered Muriel Spark. (I have read all twenty-two of her novels, most of them twice.) And let’s not forget poor, doomed, marvelous John Kennedy Toole. What these writers have in common is not simply their Catholicism, but (with the exception of Greene and Moore) that they are comic writers who luxuriate in humanity’s fallen nature. None of them can be construed as a devotional writer.
Image: I can’t help notice that these are all prose writers. What about poets?
DG: That is the problem for a Catholic poet, isn’t it? There isn’t a modern poetic tradition comparable to the legacy of Catholic fiction. (And I didn’t even mention half of the major novelists.) The poets constitute an odd tradition, made up mostly of converts, such as Edith Sitwell, Roy Campbell, and Allen Tate. (Or temporary converts such as Robert Lowell whose flamboyant Catholicism always struck me as literary posturing.) This assemblage seems most notable for its eccentricity. I found little to sustain me there.
My poetic models were the great modernists, such as Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, Paul Valéry, Rainer Maria Rilke, Eugenio Montale, and—much later—Robinson Jeffers. Of these poets, Rilke, Valéry, and Montale were raised Catholic, but none of them practiced the faith as adults. Stevens became a Catholic only on his deathbed. For Catholic poets I had to go back to Dante, Shakespeare, Baudelaire, and Hofmannsthal.
There was, however, one special exception. At Harvard I studied with Robert Fitzgerald, the great translator of Homer, Virgil, and Sophocles. He was deeply Catholic, and his teaching and literary example had a profound effect on me. One of the many things he showed me was the continuity of the Catholic imagination across European literature. (He also helped me master prosody and versification.) At Harvard I also studied with Northrop Frye, who was an ordained minister as well as professor of English. His brilliant course on myth and poetry had an enduring impact on my understanding of both literature and the Christian mythos. He was an astonishing teacher in the lecture hall.
Image: And what about your place in this tradition?
DG: I don’t see myself as working in an active tradition of Catholic poets because such a tradition hardly exists in contemporary American letters. I feel deep affinities with other Catholic writers, but my deepest relationships are mostly with the dead. That will make no sense to some people, but it seems quite natural to a Catholic raised on the notion of the communion of saints. What has sustained me has been my sense of literature as an expression of the City of God, a place one has elected to enter in contradiction to the City of Man.
A poet’s calling requires one to stand outside the marketplace—be it commercial or academic—and to write as well and as truthfully as one can. We don’t write for the authorities—political or aesthetic. We write for the fellow citizens of our invisible city. We render unto Caesar those things that are Caesar’s, but we do not render up the truth. So what is my place in this tradition? I am just another pilgrim.
Image: Whom do you write for?
DG: Let me begin by saying whom I don’t write for. I don’t write for poets or literary critics. I don’t write for readers of any particular faith, politics, or aesthetic. It seems a grave danger to write only for people who share your own ideology—a kind of psychic laziness. I can’t imagine writing just for Catholics. A religious poem, for instance, should speak to an atheist as much as a believer. It might speak differently perhaps, but it needs to transcend any system of belief and touch some common humanity. Maybe “transcend” is the wrong word. “Exceed” might be better. John Donne’s “divine” poems have such an excess of meaning that their appeal isn’t limited to Anglicans. The same is true of Dante, Hopkins, Eliot, Auden, or Dylan Thomas.
I write for other human beings who both resemble me and differ from me in ways I can’t predict. I hope for readers who are alert and intelligent, though not necessarily learned. I speak to deeply felt experience rather than to higher education, though I do usually conceal a few jokes that only the erudite will catch. I still believe in what Samuel Johnson called “the common reader,” who is not an unintelligent reader but one open to pleasure and surprise. I was raised among the working poor, and I know that intelligence and creativity are found in every class and race and region. A poet should entice rather than exclude.
Image: Over the years you have been put in many categories. You’ve been called a New Formalist poet, a California poet. Why do you think your identity as a Catholic poet has been overlooked until quite recently?
DG: Most readers are very literal, and they focus mostly on subject matter. Since I didn’t write poems about the crucifixion or the Virgin Mary, it never occurred to them that I was a Catholic poet. What makes my poetry Catholic is the worldview, the sacramental use of symbols, the redemptive role of suffering, the interpenetration of the sacred and the mundane, and—crucially perhaps—the conviction that truth and beauty are interdependent. I am not drawn to the stage business of Catholicism—its pomp and circumstance. I write from the daily particulars of real life. You shouldn’t have to visit the Vatican to sense the divine. It is everywhere if you know how to look.
Image: In a 2003 article in Commonweal you said, “American intellectual culture remains unconsciously anti-Catholic.” Do you still regard this to be true?
DG: No, I don’t. It has now become consciously anti-Catholic. I now regularly read the most overtly bigoted things in the press, things that no one would say about any other group. At present it seems de rigeur to hate Catholics as impediments to secular progress. Robespierre felt the same way during the French Revolution. I guess we should feel grateful that our intellectual pundits don’t own a guillotine.
Image: How does the Catholic vision differ from other traditions of Christianity?
DG: To answer that question would require a shelf of books. There are so many Christian traditions. But let me mention one aspect of Catholicism that affects the writer. All Christian denominations believe in original sin and humanity’s fallen nature, but Catholicism emphasizes the slow and difficult nature of the personal struggle toward salvation. The notion of suddenly being “saved” feels alien to a Catholic who sees life as a pilgrimage in which each step forward can easily be followed by a fall backward from grace. For that reason the great Catholic writers characteristically write about the experience of sinners rather than saints, often people of great spiritual capacity who have lost their way. O’Connor’s mass-murderer the Misfit is one example, as is Greene’s nameless whiskey priest.
Image: Isn’t this emphasis on the dark side of humanity mostly a modern aspect of Catholic literature?
DG: Think of the greatest Catholic poem ever written, Dante’s Commedia, which was finished around 1320. Where does it begin? In the dark wood of despair where a lost sinner must confront the terrifying embodiments of his own sins. How does the poet begin his transformative journey toward grace? He descends into the darkness of hell to experience the nature of evil. That spiritual premise is profoundly Catholic. This emphasis on human weakness, spiritual failure, and evil allows the writer to explore the full range of human experience. The great theme of Catholic imaginative literature is the violent and painful struggle for redemption in a fallen world.
I am devoted to gentle books such as the Fioretti of Saint Francis of Assisi, but they lack the dramatic intensity of The Power and the Glory or “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Catholic literature seldom feels the need to be uplifting or devotional. Instead it depicts the difficult road to salvation in a fallen world. François Mauriac’s brilliant novel Nest of Vipers has only one secondary character who is not morally contemptible, but it profoundly explores the redemptive nature of love. These writers present life in all its rich and contradictory complexity while viewing it from the perspectives of faith. It is a potent combination. By comparison, American Protestant writing has often tried to present good people doing good things. Occasionally a masterpiece such as Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead appears, but it is a harder task to realize.
Image: Except for Dante, you’ve talked about fiction. What about Catholic poetry?
DG: Dante is not an exception. The great Catholic poets tend to wrestle with the darker spiritual emotions—guilt, doubt, and despair. For every great joyous poem Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, there is a corresponding dark one. That’s why I think of Baudelaire as an essentially Catholic poet. He saw himself as a man who was damned by his own sins. All he had left at a certain point was to revel in his own damnation. Catholic poetry ponders the possibility of damnation. But while it rejects the sort of sentimentality that vitiates so much religious poetry, it also opens itself to the immanence of grace. One sees this in the best Catholic poetry—in Hopkins, for instance, or Mario Luzi, the Italian modernist whom I consider the greatest Catholic poet of the twentieth century. Not the easiest, by any means, but a religious poet of international stature. He is hardly read in America and never—in my experience—by Catholics.
Image: After avoiding academic employment for years, you have just accepted a half-time position at the University of Southern California as the first Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture. What was your first semester like at USC?
DG: I liked USC a great deal. It has the strongest collection of arts programs of any university in the country, and it is full of abundantly creative people. The place is also strikingly optimistic and confident about the future—a rare thing at the moment for a university. It was also wonderful to be back in my old hometown.
I taught two courses—an undergraduate survey of modern American poetry and a graduate seminar on “Words and Music” at USC’s Thornton School of Music. The seminar explored material that lies outside the conventional scope of musical study—the relationship between poetry and music in opera, song, worship, and theater. It was a challenge to put the material together in a coherent form, especially since my students were singers, composers, and instrumentalists who mostly lacked any literary education. I enjoyed exploring the conjunction of the two arts.
Image: What are your plans for the future?
DG: After eight years in Washington, I want a quieter life. I want to return to writing poetry and essays. I will be teaching each fall at USC, and that will be my public life, which will be active and engaged. But the rest of the year I hope to hide in Sonoma County. I like to divide the day into writing and manual labor. I have twenty hilly acres of oaks, redwoods, and madrones, and there is always work to do. I’m trying to restore the landscape to its natural state and protect the native species. No one really cares about this goal but me. My neighbors think I should tear out the trees and plant grapes. But I prefer the place the way God landscaped it.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.