Dana Gioia on the Usefulness of Poetry

In preparation for Margarita Mooney’s exclusive online conversation with Dana Gioia on October 19th, I’ve been pondering how beauty and poetry can renew our culture and educational system.

Why should anyone read poetry? Or more generally: why should anyone take beauty seriously? Why would anyone need poetry or beauty in a world where technical skills and resume virtues are what get you ahead? Especially, during a time of war and economic hardship, faced with the brutal realities of suffering and injustice, poetry just seems like an useless ornament or irrelevant enterprise.

In his 1986 T.S. Eliot Memorial lectures, Seamus Heaney commented on the paradoxical power of poetry:

“In one sense the efficacy of poetry is nil—no lyric has ever stopped a tank. In another sense, it is unlimited. It is like the writing in the sand in the face of which accusers and accused are left speechless and renewed.”

The Government of the Tongue, p. 107

Heaney is referring to the story of the woman caught in adultery in John’s Gospel. Jesus is asked for a judgment regarding the women, but before replying he pauses, stoops in silence, and writes on the ground, though we are strangely never told what he actually writes. Poetry is like this sacred pause absorbed with a mysterious text—a moment of pure concentration in which we see our own reflection in light of the grace that can heal us. And while no lyric can literally stop a tank, as this story shows it can stop the murderous impulses that drive them.

How can this be?

Beauty as Enchantment and Clarity

In her latest book, The Wounds of Beauty: Seven Dialogues on Art and Education, Margarita Mooney discusses the efficacy of poetry with Dana Gioia. Gioia, the former director of the National Endowment of the Arts and an acclaimed poet, explains how poetry functions to re-present to us the enchantment that permeates the world. It does this by helping us see, by bringing clarity to a moment or an aspect of reality that habit or familiarity has dulled.

Reading a good poem creates “a spell of heightened attention and sensitivity” that “allows us to look into the heart of existence” (p. 162). This is precisely the effect that Jesus’ writing in the dirt achieved on his audience. Poetry shows us things as they really are—not materially reducible inert particles, but the grace-laden mirrors of the transcendent. This is what beauty is all about.

One of Gioia’s poems, “The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves” in his 99 Poems: New & Selected illustrates just how poetry works in Gioia’s mind:

The stars now rearrange themselves above you
but to no effect. Tonight,
only for tonight, their powers lapse,
and you must look toward earth. There will be
no comets now, no pointing star
to lead where you know you must go.

Look for smaller signs instead, the fine
disturbances of ordered things when suddenly
the rhythms of your expectation break
and in a moment’s pause another world
reveals itself behind the ordinary.

And one small detail out of place will be
enough to let you know: a missing ring,
a breath, a footfall or a sudden breeze,
a crack of light beneath a darkened door.

99 Poems: New & Selected, p. 5

This poem illustrates what Gioia means when he speaks of “a spell of heightened attention and sensitivity.” In a moment’s pause another world reveals itself behind the ordinary. Poetry helps us see what’s right before us yet lingers just beyond the apparent. For this reason, poetry, if taken seriously and seriously cultivated, can redirect a society to its proper end—the contemplation of God, the transcendent. This is why Gioia claims that poetry is important to everyone. “It develops the power of articulation, it educates the emotions, it expands the imagination. Those are life skills as well as academic ones” (p. 168).

Beauty as the Form of God’s Glory

Beauty is the form of God’s glory. It is how God’s truth and goodness meet us at the pre-cognitive level of sense and impression. Gioia claims that “beauty is our most natural means of perception” (p. 180). He goes on to say that “poetic or aesthetic perception is different from conceptual knowledge but in no way inferior” (p. 165). When we ignore or sneer at beauty, when we abandon it for economic efficiency or scientific analysis, we cut ourselves off from a crucial means of grasping reality without reduction.

Beauty not only helps us perceive reality, more fundamentally, “notions of beauty shape people’s sense of reality” (p. 173), which is why totalitarian regimes care so much about destroying art and controlling its production. Beauty is not simply about having pretty things; it communicates something about what is true and good. Poetry is such a powerful tool because it distills this sense of ultimate meaning into memorably crafted words that move us. In other words, poetry is a portal to beauty wherein we perceive the world is more than nature—it is creation shot through with love and desire, which point us to God.

For more of Dana Gioia’s insights on the relationship between beauty, faith, and poetry check out his most recent article in First Things Magazine, “Christianity and Poetry.”

And don’t miss Margarita Mooney’s exclusive online conversation with Dana Gioia on October 19th. They will continue to explore how beauty and poetry can renew our culture and educational system. You can still register for the event here!

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