Rare is the artist who cultivates a particular identity — regional, generational, ethnic, or religious — and yet finds an audience everywhere.
Dana Gioia has done it.
He’s identifiable by the small details. He’s a native Californian from Hawthorne. He’s the son of a Mexican mother and Sicilian father. Born in 1950, he exemplifies the postwar baby boom. And his most recent collection of essays makes plain his religious affiliation: “The Catholic Writer Today.”
All of these “identities” inform his work, and any of them might have relegated him to a tiny, specialized audience.
But Gioia, as a poet and literary critic, has earned prestige and influence equaled by few of his contemporaries. He served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009.
He was poet laureate of California from 2015 to 2018. He received the Presidential Citizens Medal (2008) and Notre Dame University’s Laetare Medal (2010). His poems have achieved the closest thing to canonical status conferred by the literary mainstream: inclusion in the Norton Anthology of Poetry.
He belongs in an undeniable way to the Catholic Church in Southern California. And at the same time he, as much as anyone, has emerged as a leading voice for the art of poetry in the United States.
Everything about his upbringing taught him to be catholic — that is, universal, eclectic, diverse, open-minded. He grew up speaking an Italian dialect in a Latino neighborhood. “Babel was my hometown,” he says. For 12 years he attended Catholic schools whose classrooms were over-enrolled with the children and grandchildren of immigrants from everywhere.
Even in those crowds he felt somewhat alone. “I had a happy, lonely childhood,” he told an interviewer in 2016.
In a memoir essay in his new collection, he describes his young self as unusually scrupulous. From an early age he abstained from Communion because of his intense sense of unworthiness. “I rarely received Communion, usually just at Christmas and Easter,” he writes in “Singing Aquinas in LA.”
“We had been instructed only to receive the sacrament in ‘the state of grace.’ In my convoluted young mind, I was a notorious sinner. Even before puberty, I always felt guilty about something.”
He went “listlessly” to daily Mass, but found himself transfixed during the school’s occasional celebration of Benediction, the ritual blessing with the eucharistic host. There, Gioia recalls, “I momentarily lost my self-consciousness in joyful musical communion — singing ancient and enigmatic words in honor of an inexplicable transubstantiation.”
He was singing the “Tantum Ergo,” a 13th-century Latin hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas.
Even as an adult, he admits, he “can’t accurately judge whether that experience was spiritual or esthetic.” He concludes that “those two categories of perception are more interdependent than most people believe, especially for a child.”
After graduating from Junípero Serra High School in Gardena, he became the first member of his family to go to college. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University, where at age 19 he discerned his vocation to write poems.
He pursued graduate studies at Harvard with the premier poets of the time: Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Fitzgerald. Eventually, he returned to Stanford for a master’s degree in business administration.
While in college, his Mass attendance became irregular. “I never stopped attending Mass,” he told Angelus News, “but I stopped going every week.” If his religious practice was weak, his Catholic identity remained stubborn and strong. He read Scripture and theology, and he prayed. “I recognized I was deeply Catholic. There was nothing else that spoke to my spirit.”
Still he felt estranged from Catholic parish life as he found it in the ’80s and ’90s. “My faith,” he recalls, “had become private, intellectual, and inert.”
His career, nevertheless, was soaring. Rather, his careers were soaring. His vocation was poetry, and he labored at the art by night; but by day he earned his bread in corporate America.
With his MBA from Stanford he was hired by General Foods in 1977, and soon gained notice for his marketing efforts. He revived their slumping Jell-O brand, introducing new products such as Jell-O Jigglers. He remained with General Foods as vice-president until 1992, when he resigned in order to write full time.
In 1991 he had gained national attention by writing a provocative cover story for The Atlantic. Its title was “Can Poetry Matter?” and it charted the decline of poetry in U.S. popular culture through the 20th century.
Passionately argued from esthetic principles — but well stocked with sales figures and other statistics — the essay could only have been written by a poet with an MBA. It initiated a contentious conversation, and it is often marked as the launching point for an emerging movement in poetry: the New Formalism. Gioia is usually tagged as one of the leading poets in the movement.
But tags don’t always stick to him. Most of Gioia’s poems are composed in traditional form, such as the ballad or the sonnet, but he has written in free verse. He is, moreover, generous in his promotion of fellow poets, whether their work is formal or not.
That generosity of spirit has been a hallmark since his youth. And it made him especially well-suited for his appointment in 2003 as chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts.
He was not merely a bureaucrat. By that time he was a respected artist himself, having produced three collections that won overwhelmingly favorable reviews: “Daily Horoscope” (1986), “The Gods of Winter” (1991), and “Interrogations at Noon” (2001). (He would later publish “Pity the Beautiful” in 2012 and “99 Poems” in 2016.)
His experience in business and marketing also helped. Gioia showed himself remarkably adept at policy and politicking.
Gioia realized, around this time, that his private, cerebral relationship with the Church was unsatisfactory: “The situation was bad for me,” he told Angelus News. “When I moved to Washington to head the NEA, we put our sons in Catholic school. We became very involved with the Church.”
And he made a strong impression on others. The scholar and pundit Mark Bauerlein worked for Gioia for three years at NEA and was an atheist at the time. Today he recalls his time with Gioia as a milestone in his conversion to Catholicism.
According to Bauerlein, Gioia “circulated smoothly in an often irreligious world of art, literature, and politics, yet he was a staunch Catholic who thanked God for the benefits of his life.” He was “strong and just in tense and exposed situations.” He “taught everyone around him noble lessons in leadership.”
Gioia remained at NEA until 2009, and has been recognized as one of the most effective administrators in the agency’s history.
In this last decade, Gioia has returned to the private sector from the public — and he’s come home to California. He teaches at USC and splits his time between Los Angeles and Sonoma County.
He’s out of the public sector, but he’s been making noise in the public square. In December 2013 he published an essay that was every bit as provocative as “Can Poetry Matter?” It appeared in the journal First Things under the title “The Catholic Writer Today.”
It was more than an essay. It was an argument in 10 movements, a manifesto describing what he has called “the cultural crisis of American Catholicism.”
As in “Can Poetry Matter?” Gioia once again tracks a decline in literary fortunes. He invokes the cultural presence of Catholics in the mid-20th-century literary scene — Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Walker Percy, Jack Kerouac — and wonders where are the comparable voices today.
He writes: “If one asked an arts journalist to identify a major living painter or sculptor, playwright or choreographer, composer or poet, who was a practicing Catholic, the critic, I suspect, would be unable to offer a single name.”
He proposes a complex of possible causes for the decline: an increasingly and aggressively anti-Catholic secular culture; the reluctance of authors to come out as Catholic; the disappearance of a Catholic press willing or able to engage the arts; and a larger crisis of confidence within the Church itself.
The essay drew strong, long, and contentious responses from Catholics involved in the arts, including Gregory Wolfe, who was then editor of the literary journal Image, and Paul Elie, author of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” a book-length study of the Catholic literary revival of the last century.
Nor were the responses confined to print. Several universities have hosted academic conferences that were pretty much direct responses to Gioia’s essay. The first was at USC, and others followed at Fordham in New York, Loyola in Chicago, and Notre Dame in Indiana.
Gioia doesn’t blame the crisis on the institutional Church, and he doesn’t look to the bishops for solutions. “The bishops are so busy with so many things,” he told a radio interviewer recently.
“They do not have time to address the cultural crisis of American Catholicism. If there’s going to be a solution, it’s going to come from the laity — from Catholic writers, artists, teachers, and intellectuals who understand that beauty is one of the most powerful ways that God [delivers] his message in the world.”
The response so far has come mostly from the laity. If the momentum continues — and, after six years, there is every indication it will — “The Catholic Writer Today” may launch a movement, as “Can Poetry Matter?” did back in 1991.
It is now the centerpiece and title essay in Gioia’s most recent essay collection, published by Wiseblood Books.
He has said, repeatedly, that he intends to devote the remainder of his life to the restoration of Catholic artistic and literary culture.
Southern California is often an epicenter. This time, that’s a good thing.
Marriage of Many Years
By Dana Gioia
Most of what happens happens beyond words.
The lexicon of lip and fingertip
defies translation into common speech.
I recognize the musk of your dark hair.
It always thrills me, though I can’t describe it.
My finger on your thigh does not touch skin —
it touches your skin warming to my touch.
You are a language I have learned by heart.
This intimate patois will vanish with us,
its only native speakers. Does it matter?
Our tribal chants, our dances round the fire
performed the sorcery we most required.
They bound us in a spell time could not break.
Let the young vaunt their ecstasy. We keep
our tribe of two in sovereign secrecy.
What must be lost was never lost on us.
Prayer at Winter Solstice
By Dana Gioia
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.
Mike Aquilina is contributing editor to Angelus and author of many books, including the poetry collection “Terms & Conditions” (Serif Press).
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