The Sewanee Review is proud to announce that Dana Gioia is the recipient of this year’s Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry. Dana Gioia, known for his poetry, criticism, and arts advocacy, holds the newly created Judge Widney Chair in Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.
Twenty-eight years ago, through the generosity of Dr. K. P. A. Taylor, theSewanee Review established an annual award honoring a distinguished American poet for the work of a career. Howard Nemerov was the first poet honored and was followed by Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, and W. S. Merwin. The other recipients of this important prize (which cannot be applied for) include Gwendolyn Brooks, Maxine Kumin, Wendell Berry, and most recently, Donald Hall, Louise Glück, Billy Collins, William Logan, and Debora Greger.
Because Dana Gioia’s poetry defies categorization, any attempts to do so can become tangled in contradictions. Widely known as a champion of formalism and counted among the earliest practitioners of new formalism (a title Gioia grudgingly accepts) Gioia also writes magnificent free verse. Reviewer Kevin Walzer describes Gioia’s ability to blend seemingly antithetical poetic traditions: “He works hard to give his metrical poems the colloquial quality of the best free verse, while his classically trained ear gives his free verse a sure sense of rhythm that approaches a formal measure.” Known for his affecting narratives, Gioia also frequently engages in self-reflection and philosophical queries; David St. John notes: “Dana Gioia's poems always reveal his narrative ease and naturalness of diction; he's partly an old-fashioned storyteller and partly a metaphysical poet of reflection and devotion.” The defining feature of his poetry is not, therefore, any particular habit or style, but rather the freedom that his poetry exemplifies, advocates, and revels in.
Gioia’s first collection, Daily Horoscope (1986), made the old new, returning poetry to the constraints of form, meter, and rhyme, a move revolutionary at the time of its release and a catalyst for discussions concerning the role of form in contemporary poetry. Since that first collection, Gioia has released three books of poetry, each arriving every decade or so with its riches of formal and free verse. He has also translated two collections of poetry, penned three collections of criticism and three opera libretti (the most recent being The Three Feathers, with Lori Laitman, which will premiere in the fall), and served as an editor for over thirteen anthologies and handbooks. Of his most recent collection, Pity the Beautiful, David Lehman says in Best American Poetry, “I have no hesitation in declaring it to be his finest to date . . . These poems in which sentiment is refined by technical prowess, and simple words combine to make music and meaning merge marvelously and memorably."
Gioia’s poetic philosophy—particularly his belief that poetry should “touch on those things that are central to people's lives”—can be traced back to his childhood in Los Angeles, where his Sicilian father and Mexican mother raised him. He remembers that his mother, who, he says, received no education beyond high school, recited poems to him by heart and read others from a “crumpled old book that had belonged to her mother.” Because of this, Gioia says, “I have never considered poetry an intrinsically difficult art whose mysteries can be appreciated only by a trained intellectual.”
The first in his family to go to college, Gioia eventually earned an M.B.A. and launched a successful business career, rising to the rank of vice president in marketing with the General Foods Corporation over his fifteen-year career. Gioia wrote poetry throughout his corporate years, publishing poems in some of the most prestigious journals and magazines in America, including the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Nation, Poetry, the New York Times Book Review, and the Hudson Review, earning him the nickname, “the business poet.” That moniker perhaps helps explain his famously successful tenure, from 2002 to 2009, at the helm of the National Endowment for the Arts. As chairman of the NEA, Gioia blended his business prowess with his love of the arts, founding popular initiatives including Shakespeare in American Communities, Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, NEA Jazz Masters, American Masterpieces, Poetry Out Loud, and The Big Read, and prompting Business Week magazine to dub him “The Man Who Saved the NEA.”
Perhaps no other poet in recent times has, with a combination of criticism, policy, and, above all, exemplary poetic work, sparked as much conversation on the role of poetry in society. As the American Book Award citation for Interrogations at Noon puts it, “Gioia is clearly a poet whose words are heard, whose positions ignite debate, whose work constantly and unflinchingly searches out new ways to counter what he calls 'our sentimental, upbeat age.’” And yet Gioia does so with a deep knowledge and reverence for the historical foundations of verse: “Gioia concerns himself with every aspect of his craft: its traditions, its movements toward and away from rhyme and meter, and its ancient roots in the sound of the human voice.”
One of Gioia’s particularly revolutionary poetic beliefs is a resolve to wrest poetry from the grip of an elite subculture. In his essay, “Can Poetry Matter?”— published in the Atlantic in 1991—he laments the confinement of poetry to academic circles, an arrangement that he finds detrimental to both poetry and society: “Society suffers by losing the imagination and vitality that poets brought to public culture. Poetry suffers when literary standards are forced to conform with institutional ones." He goes on to prescribe an approach to make poetry relevant to the larger culture: “It's time to experiment, time to leave the well-ordered but stuffy classroom, time to restore a vulgar vitality to poetry and unleash the energy now trapped in the subculture." Perhaps not surprisingly, the questions posed in his essay were debated ferociously within and without academic circles around the globe. But this wasn’t Gioia’s first poetic call to arms: In “Notes on the New Formalism,” published in the Hudson Review in 1987, Gioia catalogs what he sees as the deficiencies in the contemporary poetic scene: “the debasement of poetic language; the prolixity of the lyric; the bankruptcy of the confessional mode; the inability to establish a meaningful aesthetic for new poetic narrative and the denial of a musical texture in the contemporary poem. The revival of traditional forms will be seen then as only one response to this troubling situation.” One way to look at Gioia’s work is as an exemplary corrective for the deficiencies he sees in this culture’s body of poetry.
Here it should be noted that Gioia rebels against the term he helped make part of the poetic vernacular. In a 2011 interview with World Literature Today, Gioia says, “I’ve never cared for the name [new formalism] . . . I had no interest in making rhyme and meter the dominant aesthetic. What I fought for—and one really did have to fight back then—was for the poet’s freedom to use whatever style he or she felt was right for the poem. I can’t imagine a poet who wouldn’t want to have all the possibilities of the language available, especially the powerful enchantments of meter, rhyme, and narrative.” It is that fight for poetic freedom that defines Gioia.
Dana Gioia’s poetry, criticism, and arts advocacy have earned him a swath of formal affirmations. Gioia has been the recipient of eleven honorary degrees and numerous awards, including the Laetare Medal from Notre Dame. His widely praised third collection of poems, Interrogations at Noon (2001), won the American Book Award. Gioia’s critical collection, Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture (1992), was chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the “Best Books of 1992.” This volume also became a finalist for the 1992 National Book Critics Award in Criticism. Gioia is the co-founder and long-time co-director of a major literary conference. In 1995 he co-founded with Michael Peich the West Chester University summer conference on “Exploring Form and Narrative,” which is now the largest annual poetry-writing conference in the U.S.
We invite you to attend the Aiken Taylor Award presentation to Mr. Gioia on Thursday, February 19th, by Vice-chancellor John McCardell in Convocation Hall, on the campus of the University of the South, at 8:15 p.m., followed by his reading and a reception. On Tuesday evening, February 18th, poet David Mason (Colorado College) will give a lecture on Gioia’s poetic career at 4:30 p.m., in the McGriff Alumni House, also followed by a reception. At both events there will be opportunities to purchase books.
Aiken Taylor Recipient Announced