No Monsters but Ourselves: On Dana Gioia’s 99 Poems

Reviewed in this essay:
Dana Gioia, 99 Poems: New and Selected
Graywolf Press
April 4, 2017
$18.00; 208 pp.

By Ryan Boyd

You aren’t supposed to do it much in Los Angeles: walk. The city is an auto megapolis, and crossing its wide boulevards at the wrong time can get you killed. Don’t even get an Angelino started on the war-zone sidewalks, which are cracked and heaved up and splattered and askew, especially in the neighborhoods where writers can afford to live. Granted, in the twenty-first century L.A. has grown denser and more public-transit oriented, but the private car is still king. To walk long distances, whether aimlessly or on errands, marks you as weird, poor, or both. It’s hot and getting hotter with climate change. The air smells like diesel. Drivers don’t watch when they turn through intersections. As a tenuously middle-class professor, I’m supposed to have leased a Civic and cut myself off from all that by now.

But even under these conditions, I like walking. There is something meditative, or at least calming, about it that genuinely improves my days, and this has a lot to do with its essential rhythm: walking makes it easier to slip into a groove of physicalized thought, wandering but deliberate. And for me at least this has always been like reading poetry with a distinct meter. Poems that rhyme and scan are certainly more easily memorized; they lodge in your mind to return and return. Thinking of something like this, the great theorist of prosody Paul Fussell observes that “The pleasure which universally results from foot tapping and musical time-beating does suggest that the pleasures of meter are essentially physical and as intimately connected with the rhythmic quality of our total experience as the similarly alternating and recurring phenomena of breathing, walking, or love-making.” I often remember this passage when I’m walking around Los Angeles or reading someone like Auden, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Housman, or Larkin or—the list could roll on. You get the drift: poets with rhyme schemes and discernible beats even in experimental texts, like Dickinson’s weird hallucinatory hymns.

When Dana Gioia began publishing in the 1980s, critics grouped him with the New Formalists, younger US poets who sought to fuse certain formal elements of traditional English lyric with an American voice. The label fits him, as far as generational and stylistic labels, which are fundamentally imprecise, go. Gioia writes frequently—and well—in free verse, and he has a fine sense of narrative tension and evocative imagery, but what you remember after encountering his work is that so much of it rhymes and sings. Take the six-line lyric “Unsaid”:

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.

With the third and fourth lines rhyming, the poem is split down the middle like a book. Each line is generally in iambic pentameter, but not all have rhyme partners (though there is a hidden unsaid/dead rhyme), and while the aural form does not draw elaborate attention to itself, it is more crucial to the poem’s total architecture than the neat visual format on the page. This sense of order informs Gioia’s free verse. Open and traditional forms are “complementary techniques,” he writes in the 1992 essay “Notes on the New Formalism,” and “working in free verse helped keep the language of my formal poems varied and contemporary, just as writing in form helped keep my free verse more focused and precise.” Form does not necessarily strangle inspiration. Sometimes it unlocks it. Likewise, as T.S. Eliot says, there is little that is truly free about free verse.

Gioia’s provenance mingles the unlikely and the predictable. On the one hand, born in the L.A. suburbs, he was the first person in his family to attend college, and until his early forties he was a marketing executive for General Foods, where he put an MBA to use. (You might call this the Wallace Stevens angle—the great modernist was also a corporate VP.) But on the other, like a lot of eventually famous writers he attended Harvard, where he studied for his master’s degree with older famous writers, one of whom was Elizabeth Bishop. No doubt such a pedigree helps talent find purchase in the world. Since his debut, Daily Horoscope, in 1986, Gioia has published regularly but not voluminously, working as both poet and critic. Like Auden, another superb poet-essayist-reviewer, his sense of style and comedy carries over from one genre to the other. He’s good. Full disclosure: he is also my colleague at the University of Southern California, where he sits as the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture. I’ve never met him though.

Designed, says Gioia’s textual note, “for the reader rather than the scholar,” 99 Poems has a distinct architecture: within the magic total number, tantalizingly short of a perfect century, the text eschews career-chronology in favor of five themed sections (“Mystery,” “Place,” “Remembrance,” “Imagination,” “Love”) and two chapters labeled by genre (“Stories” and “Songs”). The latter entail core principles of his verse. Gioia, who headed the National Endowment for the Arts in the 2000s, has spent his career worrying about the cultural role of poetry. In the title essay from his first prose collection, Can Poetry Matter? (1992), he argues persuasively that as poetry declines in public importance, other forms of discourse colonize the linguistic space; many of these are debased capitalist and political uses of language. Gioia knows what he’s talking about. As an advertising exec, he was a specialist in rhetoric, literally the Kool-Aid man at his company. “Poetry is the art of using words charged with their utmost meaning,” he emphasizes, and “a society whose intellectual leaders lose their skill to shape, appreciate, and understand the power of language will become the slaves of those who retain it—be they politicians, preachers, copywriters, or newscasters.”

Open in form, “The Silence of the Poets” stages a scenario where this has happened. Now the “picturesque, unprofitable craft” has relaxed into obsolescence and been relegated to libraries where “a few old men may visit from time to time / to run their hands across the spines / and reminisce, / but no one ever comes to read / or would know how.” Not only is poetry unread here, it also goes unperformed. Nobody is relishing the sound and feel of word systems, of songs, of a joyful lyric state that used to be popular.

Gioia’s use of form is implicitly about this problem: What can poetry offer the typical literate person, the non-specialist? There are so many albums, podcasts, Netflix series, films, and magazines to monitor if one is culturally literate. Who has time for poems? Certainly, elaborate linguistic experimentation and avant-garde ambiguity have relegated poetry to the sidelines of American culture over the past fifty years. But for decades Gioia has produced poems that try to stay relevant to the lived experience of the general reader by being musically recitable and memorable, and by maintaining situational intelligibility (that is, you can tell what is going on around the speaker or in her mind). The best of his work achieves what he praises Ted Kooser for: “the difficulties [such a text] provokes are experiential rather than textual. It poses none of the verbal problems critical methodologies have been so skillfully designed to unravel.” “The Next Poem,” for instance, offers a theory of the contemporary lyric, wherein we ideally find

The music that of common speech
but slanted so that each detail
sounds unexpected as a sharp
inserted in a simple scale.

This remains a radical notion in some powerful literary quarters: that you can write poems which make immediate narrative or scenic sense, and that they can be wild in subject though buttoned-down in form.

Like Auden and Larkin, lyricists to whom Gioia is stylistically comparable, he is a deeply melancholy poet. His verse is a form of memory as well as a mode of moral and existential accounting, whether his subject is a dead infant son in the elegy “Planting a Sequoia”; the domestic boredom of “Insomnia”; the slow decay of a once-enviable friend in the darkly comic long narrative “Style”; loneliness (“Men at Work,” a kind of Edward Hopper painting); age (“On Approaching Forty”); or the progressive madness that Southern California’s weather can bring on, when “The Devil’s wind, / the Santa Ana, blows in from the east, / raging through the canyon like a drunk / screaming in a bar” (“In Chandler Country”). We live inside a “dark maze without a minotaur, / no monsters but ourselves” (“Maze Without a Minotaur”).

His lyric situations have the grain and immediacy of good fiction, as in this stanza from the doom dream I quoted above, “In Chandler Country,” one of the best California poems ever written:

             Another sleepless night,
when every wrinkle in the bedsheet scratches
like a dry razor on a sunburned cheek,
when even ten-year whiskey tastes like sand,
and quiet women in the kitchen run
their fingers on the edges of a knife
and eye their husbands’ necks. I wish them luck.

Tense with narrative import, Gioia’s aesthetic mingles pleasure and weight, much like the other great living American lyricist, Kay Ryan, who also happens to be a native Californian. Indeed, on the basis of their collected works alone one could make a decent case that the best poetry in the United States is being written out West, not in New York.

California is home to America’s discordant postwar dreams: our love of suburbs and cars that keep us sealed away from one another, our favorite movies and television shows, our debilitating fantasies of Silicon Valley technology organizing the world. To paraphrase Joan Didion, it’s where we ran out of continent and were forced to look our dreams in the face. When that happens, poetry—language raised to its finest pitch—is a way of keeping the record straight. In dark times, it’s a lamp.