Dana Gioia Captures Life in a Poem

Reading a poem can be an individualistic experience. The imagined pitch of the narrator’s tone, the length of the pause at a carefully placed comma, the speed with which the lines flow from one into the next are all determined by our own voice as we consider the artful collection of lines on the page in front of us. A poem can paint a unique picture for every person who takes the time to read it–some may think in watercolors while others think in acrylics or even in oils. That’s the beautiful thing about poetry: it becomes what we need during the moment we read it. The person who creates the lines of a poem also creates an entirely different experience through speaking those lines.

With the calming backdrop of tree branches that stretched out into a blue-gray sky, Dana Gioia’s voice embodied the soul of some of his most famous poems better than any sheet of paper ever could. Gioia’s poetry was the focal point of the next installment of Lehigh’s Notation Series, and the Baker Hall stage in Zoellner Arts Center gave Gioia a canvas to bring his poetry to life. He could’ve easily spent the full hour discussing the unique circumstances of becoming an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed poet after getting his M.B.A. at Stanford University–turns out most poets don’t also go to business school before publishing their first poetry collection. Who knew? However, there was no need for Gioia to speak to his own accolades; his poems did more than enough talking.

He began with “Pity the Beautiful,” a “very L.A. poem” that encompasses the fleeting nature of being both beautiful and powerful in the city of stars. Adopting an ironic tone, he initially implored us to pity the “babes with big daddies” and “the pretty boys” and “the tens out of ten” whose looks always bring them success. The soft chuckles shared amongst us in the audience evidenced the humor behind this sentiment, as we could only imagine inflated egos bigger than hot air balloons. But, our laughs soon ceased when Gioia asked us to pity “the bloated” and “the blowsy” and “the gods / no longer divine.” His tone no longer carried the light-heartedness that had been present just a second earlier–the fatality of aging makes it so that even the brightest of “stars lose their shine.” What once seemed superficial became entirely too real, and Gioia used his following poems to remind us all of our mortality.

“The Ballad of Jesus Ortiz” speaks to how life can be snatched away in an instant, without warning or a chance to say goodbye. Gioia brought his great-grandfather onto the stage with him that night, his presence taking shape in the line after line that Gioia poured out into the crowd. His voice was both strong and wavering as he detailed the life and murder of Jesus Ortiz, a man whose story was characterized by loss, sacrifice, and untimely violence. His great-grandfather became another grave in the ground and another body to be replaced in the working fields in the spring. Gioia’s poem offers the unsettling reality that endings aren’t always happy–we can’t count on a hero to save us.

So, what do we do with our time while we have it? Gioia’s “Majority” forced us to confront the fact that many of us take the gift of time for granted. We think of each new day as a definite and forget about those who barely got to know life before it departed. This poem imagined the growth of the son Gioia and his wife lost at only four months old. He saw his son in the children playing during the summertime and teenagers sprouting up into the sky and twenty-one year olds who have just reached another milestone in aging. For Gioia, this is the only way that such a loss could make sense. His child lived on in others, his life giving the poet his muse.  

Besides the quiet applause after each poem, Baker Hall was next to silent. Gioia had entranced us all with his reflection on living and mourning, and his final poem brought beauty to the fragile thing that we now understood as life. “Marriage of Many Years” captures the love he shares with his wife, their affections taking shape through the unspoken words of touch and smell and reactions only they can invoke in each other. Gioia spoke their love language without ever offering us a definition–his wife is the only other person who could and should understand.

As the lines of Gioia’s final poem came to a close, we were left to consider our own lives, our own losses, our own languages. Where would our stories take us? Would we all have happy endings? As Gioia’s poems demonstrate, it’d be impossible for us to know the answers to these questions. However, his poems also ask us to still confidently go forward into our stories with this uncertainty.  

To accept each day as it comes.

To value each day as it’s given.

To embrace love.

Gioia’s parting words were these: we’re living the lives we were meant to live, and our lives become prayers to our existences. The only question we can answer is if these lives are worth praying for.

Feature photo credits: Susie Poore

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