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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Number 83: Dana Gioia "Sunday Night in Santa Rosa"

Sunday Night in Santa Rosa

The carnival is over. The high tents,

the palaces of light, are folded flat

and trucked away. A three-time loser yanks

the Wheel of Fortune off the wall. Mice

pick through the garbage by the popcorn stand.

A drunken giant falls asleep beside

the juggler, and the Dog-Faced Boy sneaks off

to join the Serpent Lady for the night.

Wind sweeps ticket stubs along the walk.

The Dead Man loads his coffin on a truck.

Off in a trailer by the parking lot

the radio predicts tomorrow's weather

while a clown stares in a dressing mirror,

takes out a box, and peels away his face.

--Dana Gioia

Hap Notes: Dana Gioia (born 1950- and it's pronounced "JOY-A") makes me a little uneasy. I suppose it's because he has the perfect education for corporate America (B.A. from Stanford, M.A. from Harvard, M.B.A. from Stanford) and he worked as Vice-President of Marketing for General Foods from 1977-1992. He quit that job to write poetry full time and was chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) from 2003-2009. He has done worlds of good for poetry when he served at that post. So what makes me uneasy? (Come on, Wallace Stevens was a vice-president for Hartford Insurance wasn't he? What's my problem?) Maybe it's just the contemporary corporate aura that surrounds his work. He's a talented poet and a fair-minded enthusiastic and literate critic. He edited literary magazines. What the hell do I want, eh?

Ah, and my uneasiness also stems from a poetry lover's quandary. Gioia has taken up the daunting (and often thankless) task of editing several poetry anthologies. I don't know how you read an exciting new anthology, but I always look for my familiar favorites to see which poems got selected for the book. I was sort of crestfallen from the lack of favorites in the Gioia edited Twentieth Century American Poetry. Gioia wasn't the only editor and I know the decision making is tough but there are 180 poets in this book so leaving out Kunitz. Koch, Wakoski and Brautigan frosted me a little. If you are a poetry reader, you'll understand my blunt-headed belligerence. Also, I'll point out that Francis Turner Palgrave was a poet (Palgrave's Golden Treasury was first published in 1861) and I had issues (so did Tennyson, who re-edited it 30 years later) with him too. The C. Day Lewis version from 1954 was a blessing. What I'm saying is, there's a danger in expecting too much from an anthology. I found many delights in all these books. Still....

Oh, let's look at the poem and I'll stop my carping. He's an extraordinary person and part of me wants to find the flaw because I'm a bit of a skeptic.

First off, the poem is a wonderful word picture, isn't it? The cadence is brilliant, too. But, let's look a little deeper at the poem. It's the end of the weekend, the carnival shuts down and now it's time for "civilians" to put on make-up and go to work, isn't it? And it's Sunday night. Could the poet be saying something about the church? Look at the poem again. It's possible. Can you see any analogies to God in three persons here? David and Goliath? The "Dead Man" who is still alive? Could Eve be considered a "Serpent Lady?" Is this the church packing up its "show" for the weekend? Who else could be "taking off their face" on Sunday night? Can you see the meek inheriting the earth in the mice? Do you see a few more apt religious analogies in the "Wheel of Fortune"? And what does that radio signify about whoever is in that trailer who may run the carnival? Just some food for thought. Some more food for thought- is a carnival an inherently bad thing? Maybe, maybe not. "Palaces of light" hardly sounds evil does it?

Gioia is a Catholic and in 2010 he was awarded the Laetare Medal from Notre Dame, an honor given to an American Catholic in recognition of outstanding achievement to the church and society.

Gioia was born in Hawthorne, California so he's a native of the state. He lived in Santa Rosa (which is close to Petaluma, north of San Francisco) for quite a while as an adult. His dad was Italian, his mom was a native Californian of Mexican heritage, so he grew up in a house with three languages. And the Latin of the church, by the by. He likes the poetry of Longfellow (yay!) and he believes that a return to more formalized verse (with rhyme and meter etc.) is needed which strikes me as refreshingly modern, actually. He doesn't need me for a PR agent, he's got his own website with some of his poetry on it and many great critical pieces as well. Visit him here

He is also a great proponent of jazz as a unique American art form (Brubeck even put one of his poems to music.) He worked, while with the NEA, to promote the reading of William Shakespeare, literacy in grade school students and pretty much revitalized that much maligned and battered arts organization. Every civilized country in the world understands the value of the arts and acts as patrons to their burgeoning, and also, established artists. Gioia, with his corporate savvy, knew how to talk to congress to get the NEA back on its feet again. Everybody in America owes him a debt of thanks for that.

Perhaps you remember or participated in the program Poetry Out Loud, where students from around the country memorized poems for competition in local, then state, then national levels. Around 320,000 high school students competed in this in 2010, thanks to Gioia's piloting of the program.

Here's a good Gioia quote: "Memorization went out of vogue in English classes, but kids still memorized rock and rap lyrics. The advantages of memorizing great poetry seem pretty obvious. It allows one to master and possess great language expressing powerful emotions, ideas, and situations. Memorizing and reciting also helps develop the student's powers of expression and gives experience in public speaking."

here's another: "The role of culture, however, must go beyond economics. It is not focused on the price of things, but on their value. And, above all, culture should tell us what is beyond price, including what does not belong in the marketplace. A culture should also provide some cogent view of the good life beyond mass accumulation. In this respect, our culture is failing us."

"Art is an irreplaceable way of understanding and expressing the world—equal to but distinct from scientific and conceptual methods. Art addresses us in the fullness of our being—simultaneously speaking to our intellect, emotions, intuition, imagination, memory, and physical senses. There are some truths about life that can be expressed only as stories, or songs, or images."

You can find more Gioia at his website listed above.

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