Matthew Brennan begins his critical study of Dana Gioia’s work by quoting Robert McPhillips’s assertion that Gioia is “the leading poet-critic of his generation.” McPhillips is the author of The New Formalism and Gioia has often been identified with that literary movement, though Brennan soon points out that “Gioia’s poetics is more complex than the manifestos of the movement might suggest,” given that Gioia “uses free verse in one-third of his poems” and “likes to mix formal and free verse.”
That said, Brennan’s book provides ample and detailed evidence in support of McPhillips’s view.
His focus is on the poetry — though he also considers Gioia’s role as a critic, a public intellectual, and a Catholic writer. His quotations from the poems are substantial enough to give even a reader unfamiliar with Gioia’s work a genuine sense of their range and beauty. Moreover, his commentary is unfailingly insightful. He notes, for instance, that “Gioia’s chief concern … is for stylistic diversity,” but adds that “equally important to Gioia’s poetics … is his Catholic faith.” He then cites Gioia’s own references to “the redemptive side of suffering” and “the sacramental use of symbols” as what makes his poetry Catholic.
Brennan’s book restores one’s faith in literary scholarship. He has no ax to grind, no literary theory to parade. He just reads carefully and explains cogently.
Anyone who doubts Brennan’s high opinion of Gioia’s work need only start to read Studying With Miss Bishop, Gioia’s “portraits of six people whose examples helped me become a writer.” Four of them — Elizabeth Bishop, John Cheever, Robert Fitzgerald, and James Dickey — were themselves noted writers.
Two were not well-known at all. One was Gioia’s Mexican uncle, Theodore Ortiz, who served as a Merchant Marine and died in an airplane crash when Gioia was six years old, but who left behind an extraordinary library, “including a hundred bound folio scores, printed in Germany, of the complete works of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, and Haydn.” There were also cabinets filled with hundreds of classical records:
“My library was dukedom large enough,” Prospero says in The Tempest, and so seemed the kingdom of my childhood. The clock would tick toward midnight and beyond while I wandered through Rome and London, Lilliput and Mars. Today I am a world traveler, but life never seemed larger than in that tiny lamplit room.
The sixth portrait is of Ronald Perry, “a forgotten poet whom I never met.”
But first, Miss Bishop. During his last semester as a graduate student at Harvard, Gioia signed up for “English 285: Studies in Modern Poetry: Miss Elizabeth Bishop Instructor”. He was surprised to discover that it “rarely attracted more than a dozen unenthusiastic undergraduates.” But she seems to have been a wonderful teacher:
Her modesty was entirely sincere. She was the most self-effacing writer I have ever met. She had her own opinions and preferences, but there was no false pride in her. Several times in almost every class, she would throw up her hands and say, “I have no idea what this line means. Can anybody figure it out?” And all of us would then scuffle ineffectually to her rescue.
Another of his Harvard teachers, the poet and classicist Robert Fitzgerald, was different from Miss Bishop, but no less effective as a teacher:
The way a person teaches becomes an essential part of what is taught. Robert Fitzgerald was a splendid teacher in both ways. His courses broadened my knowledge of poetry and enlarged my pleasure in the art. Meanwhile his personal presence provided an unforgettable example of a writer who was both genuinely good and deeply learned. Whenever I read Maritain’s phrase, “the secrets of being radiating into intelligence,” I always think of Robert and the aura of wisdom and grace he brought into class. It is a light I still learn by.
Gioia’s first brush with John Cheever occurred in Boston when the writer failed to turn up at dinner, apparently because he was too drunk to get there. But their paths crossed again at Stanford, when Gioia was the resident advisor of an all-freshman dorm there, and Cheever turned out to be the parent of a prospective student and was going to be staying in the dorm’s guest room. Three things about Cheever surprised him. He had expected him to be “a magisterially tall Yankee gentleman.” He turned out to be just a few inches over five feet. But he was also “the most perfectly poised man I had ever met. … Even the way he sat still seemed as carefully composed as a portrait.”
Then there was his voice: “Cheever spoke a brand of patrician Massachusetts English that I now suspect he invented,” but that he used “so convincingly that … it carried the force of ancient authority.” Among the things Gioia learned from Cheever — with whom he exchanged some letters and occasionally met at readings — was his belief in “literature as an act of shared discovery between the writer and the reader. Fiction, he insisted, was innovative not by technical experimentation but by being ‘constantly and profoundly questioning.’”
The portrait of James Dickey is different from the others. Gioia had written a review of Dickey’s 1982 collection Puella. The review had appeared in an obscure literary journal called Nebo. Gioia thought the book was awful: “Puella was Pat Boone singing Heavy Metal, Roseanne doing a love scene in the nude, Mick Jagger starring in The Music Man. It was so bad I knew it would win a prize. And, of course, it did.”
Gioia felt sure that Nebo was so obscure that virtually no one would ever read his review. He was wrong. One person who read it was James Dickey. He found that out the hard way by running into Dickey at the Library of Congress’s 1987 Consultants’ Reunion, “when Dickey was brought over to my group by a well-meaning librarian.”
When Dickey hears Gioia’s name, “the poet paused, repeated it, and stared at me pensively.” To find out the denouement, you will have to read Gioia’s book. To give it away here would be an unforgivable spoiler.
“I never met Ronald Perry, though I feel I knew him very well.” Perry lived in the Bahamas and, while writing a “Poetry Chronicle” for the Hudson Review, Gioia had come upon a collection of his titled Denizens. “The poems in Denizens were technically brilliant but in a quiet, undramatic way.” They were also “highly original, often surprising the reader by taking unexpected turns.”
Gioia and Perry were scheduled to meet in New York in the summer of 1982. “On the morning of July 14, I phoned his Brooklyn number to ask what time we should meet for dinner. A priest answered the phone. He told me that Perry had died suddenly the night before.”
“Oblivion is the fate of most poets,” Gioia writes. All of Perry’s work is out of print. Few people remember it or him. But Gioia is hopeful: “Someone will explore his legacy — another impulsive and curious stranger. Not soon perhaps, but eventually, Camerado, I give you my hand.”
Studying With Miss Bishop is surely destined to become a classic. These affectionate portraits — yes, even the James Dickey piece ends on a note of affection — communicate as well as any book ever the love that underlies an authentic literary vocation.
The Colosseum Critical Introduction to Dana Gioia
By Matthew Brennan
Franciscan University Press, 2020
Paperback, 107 pages
Studying With Miss Bishop: Memoirs From a Young Writer’s Life
By Dana Gioia
Paul Dry Books, 2021
Paperback, 182 pages
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