FEBRUARY 7, 2021
FOR 15 YEARS Dana Gioia held down a day job as an executive at General Foods, successfully managing Jell-O and Kool-Aid. Meanwhile, he established a growing reputation as a poet that he concealed from his corporate colleagues. He was Catholic, like his working-class Mexican/Sicilian parents, and he had studied poetry at Harvard with (among others) the illustrious Elizabeth Bishop. Recently, this former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and founder of The Big Read, this poet laureate emeritus of the state of California, has published two new volumes of admirably finished essays, the first on his religious identity and some authors who share it, and the second on his early personal acquaintance with great poets and writers. In The Catholic Writer Today, Gioia does not turn to the contemporary church to find a renewal of arts and culture, instead looking to a rosary of Catholic writers who keep stepping into “the center of the western tradition.” In Studying with Miss Bishop, Gioia reflects, heymishly, often hilariously, on his coming of age as a poet in the company of poets.
These are not Gioia’s first major works of nonfiction. His essay “Can Poetry Matter?” made the cover of the May 1991 issue of The Atlantic, making it impossible for him to hide his writing life from his fellow execs. He opens that essay with the following assessment: “American poetry now belongs to a subculture […] Like priests in a town of agnostics, [poets] still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible.” This paradigm-shifting homily, delivered with the logic of a 13th-century Scholastic, marked Gioia as a meaning-maker on the national stage, a position he continues to occupy. Gioia’s most recent essays land far from the precinct of Limbo that coterie poetry and its criticism have come to inhabit. These memoirs especially endow otherwise mundane experiences with numinous significance. As he says in the poem “The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves,” “Another world / Reveals itself behind the ordinary.”
Dana Gioia has become increasingly a spiritual writer. The Catholic Writer Today describes close encounters with Catholicism both lived and represented:
Catholicism currently enjoys almost no positive presence in the American fine arts… [Though] Roman Catholicism now ranks overwhelmingly as the largest religious denomination in the United States with more that 68 million members. (By contrast, the second largest group, southern Baptists, has 16 million members.) […] To visualize the American Catholic arts today, don’t imagine Florence or Rome. Think Newark, New Jersey.
Yet, as Gioia continues, there is more to contemporary Catholicism than sociopolitics. By Catholic, for example, he means not only the immigrant peasant religion that many of us in Gioia’s generation inherited, but an assumption that there is a sharable language that transcends words. In Gioia’s work, small manifestations of higher meaning sunder time, like a breaking and entering of the divine into the earthly, like a “blade of lightning / harvesting the sky” (“Prayer”). In the essay “Poetry as Enchantment,” he explains that, in the creative realm, Catholicism foregrounds “the larger human purposes of the art — which is to awaken, amplify, and refine the sense of being alive.”
My favorite essay in the book is “Singing Aquinas in L.A.,” which begins, “When I was a child in parochial school, we began each morning with daily Mass. […] The Mass, which was conducted entirely in Latin, meant little to me. I endured it respectfully as a mandatory exercise.” As for the singing, he writes, “Here is the hymn [in Latin]. If you don’t know what the words mean, don’t worry; neither did I. Nor do I intend to translate them now. That is the point of the essay.” He means that the power of poetry transcends the words on the page, or, as he puts it in the poem “Words, Words, Words,” “Words are the cards, not why the game is played.”
The Catholic Writer Today seeks, above all, to acknowledge the “continuity between the living and the dead,” and advocates for a common redemption through literature without pedantry or the crotchets of the fanatic. The table of contents lists essays on St. Paul, Elizabeth Jennings, Brother Antoninus, Dunstan Thompson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and John Donne.
At 12 years old, Donne attended Hart Hall, Oxford (today Hertford College) as a Roman Catholic because they had no chapel and he could avoid common worship. His mother’s great-uncle was St. Thomas More. When Donne was 21, his younger brother, Henry Donne, died of a fever in prison, where he had been sent for harboring a proscribed Catholic priest. His two maternal uncles, both Jesuits, were forced into exile. After these things, John Donne opened a massive division within himself, and became Anglican. Upon this matter, Gioia comments:
The Catholic cult of martyrdom troubled Donne as a sort of theologically assisted suicide. In his family the topic had been much pondered. His mother took pride in the family’s legacy of martyrs. He had also begun to dislike and distrust Jesuit intrigues against Elizabeth I and the Anglican Church that so often occasioned the arrests and executions.
This, I think, underemphasizes the anguish Donne must have experienced in leaving the Catholic Church in whose defense his close relatives had suffered and died. Gioia’s commentary on Donne’s anti-saccharine deployment of the English sonnet, however, is remarkable. Gioia never doubts, furthermore, Donne’s familiarity with sin and its attractions, and highlights the consciousness of sin in his work. Gioia says, “Donne took the song-like form of the Renaissance English lyric and gave it a quality of symphonic development.” Donne’s interior torment, especially as he faces death, gives rise to a baroque conversation between violence and salvation. Yet, as in “Holy Sonnet 14,” he never submits entirely to God — “I, like an usurp’d town to another due, / Labor to admit you” — the constricted opening of a sinful soul cannot contain the divine.
Donne was a convert to the church which made him famous; the same is true of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–’89), the other major poet included in this volume. Hopkins sacrificed much — for example, a career at Oxford — by converting to Roman Catholicism when he was an undergraduate. Catholics could not receive degrees at Oxford until 1911, a lively reminder of the survival of English anti-Catholicism. His parents disowned him. He abandoned hope of a major Oxford professorship to teach the equivalent of parochial middle school. He tried to give up writing; even after he began, under obedience, to write poetry again, he published nothing. His friends and religious superiors hated his work. Gioia’s essay on Hopkins acknowledges his eventual status as “one of the most frequently reprinted poets in English.” Gioia also recognizes his holiness:
If modern Christian poetry has a saint, it is Gerard Manley Hopkins. No other poet, at least in English, occupies such a lofty position in terms of both literary achievement and spiritual authority. […] His reputation transcends questions of purely literary merit. He is venerated as a figure of sanctity, redemptive suffering, and heroic virtue.
It’s probable that Roman Catholicism taught Hopkins — who was raised as a High Anglican amid luxury and learning — more about being a devisor of major art than did private drawing lessons, prep school, or Oxford. His celebration of the nature he observed approaches but skirts the pantheism of his Romantic forebears. The preeminent detail about both Hopkins and his extraordinary body of writing is surely that he foregrounded theological considerations. For him, a world without a living God would have been unthinkable. Gioia’s essay put this into clear focus. This clarity of focus and of exposition are the chief merits and pleasures of every chapter in The Catholic Writer Today.
In My First Acquaintance with Poets (1823), William Hazlitt details his meetings with Romantic poets, especially Coleridge, and so reveals a great deal about his youthful self: “My heart, shut up in the prison house of this rude clay, has never found, nor will it ever find, a heart to speak to; but that my understanding also did not remain dumb and brutish, or at length found a language to express itself, I owe to Coleridge.” So too does Dana Gioia assign credit to his early literary influences in his newest and fantastically charming collection of essays, Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life.
Gioia introduces the volume with an acknowledgment of “six people whose examples helped me become a writer.” He also makes clear that “literary life is strange” and that, given everything we will learn about the author in his first chapter, “Lonely Impulse of Delight,” the course his adult life took was “unlikely.” He quotes Goethe, who says that to be lucky at the beginning is everything. Growing up in a large, crowded apartment in Hawthorne, California, constantly surrounded by his extended family, Gioia had a lucky beginning because he inherited an enormous eclectic library from his late uncle, the “proletarian intellectual” Ted Ortiz. One observation from this chapter expresses Goia’s quiet pride in his background: “Italians,” he writes, “admire any highly developed special skill — carpentry, cooking, gardening, singing, even reading. The best skills helped one make a living. The others helped one enjoy living.” And with the same practical humility, he reveals the origins of his autodidactic impulses: “Kids had time on their hands. We had to entertain ourselves, which meant exploring every possible means of amusement our circumscribed lives afforded. I paged through every book on every shelf.”
By the time we reach the title essay, Gioia, the first in his family to attend college, has reached the academic pinnacle of advanced study — Harvard graduate school — and has enrolled in a tiny seminar with one of the major American poets of the 20th century, Elizabeth Bishop:
“I’m not a very good teacher,” Miss Bishop began. “So to make sure you learn something in this class I am going to ask each of you to memorize at least ten lines a week from one of the poets we are reading.” Had she announced that we were all required to attend class in sackcloth and ashes, the undergraduates could not have looked more horrified.
Since that moment, Gioia has famously memorized thousands of lines of poetry and can recite them with the skill of a Shakespearean actor (check out his son Michael Gioia’s project, Blank Verse Films, for a selection of Gioia’s recitations). Thus we glean one solid piece of advice for any young poet.
The essay “Studying with Miss Bishop” was first published in The New Yorker on September 15, 1986. To what greater Olympus could a young man of letters aspire? Some readers at that time, including me, had also studied at Harvard under Miss Bishop in the 1970s, and the essay struck us as so spot-on that it took our breath away. Gioia’s subject emerges as self-effacing, and in representing her so astutely, he effaces his own ego as well. She is a reluctant teacher, a shy performer, quietly meticulous. She is dizzy with relief when the semester finally ends and she need teach no longer in that drab subterranean seminar room in Kirkland House.
Gioia describes Miss Bishop as his favorite teacher at Harvard, and also writes that Robert Fitzgerald — the acclaimed translator of classical poetry — was his favorite. Gioia’s essay on Fitzgerald is the masterpiece of the collection. “Fitzgerald’s ‘History of English Versification’ has proved so influential on certain young writers — and through them on current poetry—that it merits description,” Gioia begins, following up with his own mini-seminar. He also took Fitzgerald’s “Comparative Literature 201: Narrative Poetry,” about which he comments:
Fitzgerald slowed down our reading not only by compelling us to take careful notes but also by forcing us to differentiate Ktesippos, Agelaos, Amphimedon, Antinoos, and Eurymakhos from one another — figures we would otherwise have lumped together indiscriminately as Penelope’s suitors.
The essay contains numerous extended punctilios (“by the time Fitzgerald dismissed us with several handouts to scan, a hundred pages of Saintsbury to read, and two verse exercises [three stanzas in strict Sapphics and fourteen lines of Catullan hendecasyllabics], the class had become less crowded”) and I wondered if Gioia had fully measured how very, very much he had himself been formed by the great Boylston Professor. Toward the end of the chapter, he delivers a wise and beautiful analysis of how Fitzgerald’s teaching had driven home the immense difficulty of mastering the humane arts: “They require a life of constant application.” Also, “Forty years later […] the extent of Fitzgerald’s influence appears a verifiable fact of literary history.” Also, “He was the only professor I had in eight years of college and graduate school who was a practicing Catholic.”
Thus, Gioia’s latest book, also proves his most self-revelatory. In it, one of our country’s best literary personages takes pains to position himself on the shoulders of such unexpected giants as his Uncle Ted Ortiz, merchant marine, killed in a plane crash in his 20s. He pays a characteristically Catholic obeisance of not just reverence but also homely affection to the process and people who helped him arrive at himself.
Peggy Ellsberg is a poet and scholar who teaches English at Barnard College. She is the author of Created to Praise: The Language of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press, 1987) and The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selections from His Poems, Letters, Journals, and Spiritual Writings (Plough, 2017).