Pity the Beautiful
by Dana Gioia
Graywolf, 80 pages, $15
Dana Gioia is one of those poets known more for his criticism and service than his own poetry. His essay “Can Poetry Matter?,” published in the Atlantic in 1991, turned more than a few heads for arguing that poetry had wrongly become a coterie art, written for and read by “professional” poets only. Poetry could matter, he suggested, but only if poets wrote for a larger audience, engaged in honest criticism, and developed more innovative readings.
He promoted this interest in the popularity of poetry and literature in general through several widely used introductory textbooks on poetry, fiction, and drama, and his editorship of popular anthologies like 100 Great Poets of the English Language and The Longman Anthology of Short Fiction. And, of course, there is his work as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009, where he is credited with saving the agency from defunding because of his popular Shakespeare in American Communities and Poetry Out Loud initiatives.
Yet, until this year, he had published only three slim volumes of poems—the last eleven years ago. This hiatus is not due to a lack of material, but to Gioia’s perfectionism—he sometimes works on a poem for several years before it is published—and professional ethic. Gioia stated in a recent interview that he felt it was inappropriate to publish his own work while supporting the work of others at the NEA.
His long-anticipated fourth volume of poetry, Pity the Beautiful, has been well worth the wait. His poetry has always shown close attention to form, but it almost goes unnoticed in Pity the Beautiful, so naturally does he employ meter and rhyme. There are no forced rhymes or superfluously extended lines, and none of the predictable “tunk-a-tunk-tunk,” as Wallace Stevens put it, of tired formalism. Rather, these poems are presented in formal constraints that allow Gioia’s subtle humor and beguiling narrative to please and surprise.
This first poem in the volume, “The Present,” is a case in point. Written in a loose iambic pentameter, the speaker of the poem addresses an absent interlocutor:
The present that you gave me months ago
is still unopened by our bed,
sealed in its rich blue paper and bright bow.
I’ve even left the card unread
and kept the ribbon knotted tight.
Why needlessly unfold and bring to light
the elegant contrivances that hide
the costly secret waiting still inside?
The speaker’s simple diction seems entirely natural in these lines. Gioia uses an abab rhyme scheme in the first quatrain to imitate the hypothetical conversation between speaker and interlocutor, but shifts to ccdd couplets in the second quatrain to underscore the speaker’s firm decision to keep the gift unopened.
Yet these easy lines provide anything but a comforting ending. The interlocutor is conspicuously absent. The present given “months ago” is strangely still sitting unopened next to “our bed.” That possessive is telling, revealing the speaker’s attempt to maintain possession of someone who is—for whatever reason—no longer present. And the gift, it seems, is left unopened not because the speaker is apathetic, as he would have us believe, but because it allows him to nourish the figment of a relationship that has, in reality, ended. There may be a “costly secret” inside, but opening the gift would prove far more costly.
Gioia uses the present’s “elegant contrivances” as a metaphor for the contrivances of poetry itself. The poem’s diction and form, like the package’s exterior, at first hide the speaker’s loneliness. They are the tools of the imagination—taking reality and shaping it into a pleasing package. But unlike other figments, poetry’s reshaping of reality reveals something truer about ourselves and the world in which we live, and the truth is not always comforting.
The pull of “packages,” it turns out, is a major theme of the volume. In “Shopping,” a wonderfully humorous poem, a speaker wanders through a mall—“the temple of my people”—sorely tempted by “the kingdom of commerce”:
Redeem me, gods of the mall and marketplace.
Mercury, protector of cell phones and fax machines,
Venus, patroness of bath and bedroom chains,
Tantalus, guardian of the food court.
Beguile me with the aromas of coffee, musk, and cinnamon.
Surround me with delicately colored soaps and moisturizing creams.
Comfort me with posters of children with perfect smiles
And pouting teenage models clad in lingerie.
I am not made of stone.
Gioia is no anti-capitalist. He was, after all, a vice president at Kraft-General Foods for many years before turning to writing full-time. But neither is he blind to the dehumanizing effects of materialism. The speaker tells us he would “buy happiness if I could find it.” But he cannot find “the one true thing,” love. “I look for you among the pressing crowds,” Gioia writes, “But they know nothing of you, turning away, / Carrying their brightly packaged burdens.”
The empathy Gioia feels for those weighed down by materialism is missing in the work of too many of Gioia’s contemporaries. There’s no derision of evil suburban mothers in SUVs in Gioia’s work, but rather true pity for what the fiction of superficial beauty can do to us—whether it’s the “elegant contrivances” of unopened gifts or the somewhat more unsettling images of “pouting teenage models.” In “Prophecy,” therefore, the poet prays for what we need but do not want:
O Lord of indirection and ellipses,
ignore our prayers. Deliver us from distraction.
Slow our heartbeat to a cricket’s call.
In the green torpor of the afternoon,
bless us with ennui and quietude.
And grant us only what we fear, so that
Underneath the murmur of the wasp
we hear the dry grass bending in the wind
and the spider’s silken whisper from its web.
Almost as powerful are the lines of “Prayer at Winter Solstice” in which the poet faithfully develops Jesus’ beatitudes. “Blessed is the cold that teaches us to feel,” he writes, “Blessed is this shortest day that makes us long for light. / Blessed is the love that in losing we discover.”
In another poem, the poet opens a box of family photographs. He finds pictures of his mother and father before the war, before his father was shot down. While the contents of the box tempt him to create an imaginary world of what might have been, in the end the past teaches the poet to live life fully. The dead, Gioia writes, “never let us forget that the line / between them and us is only temporary”:
Get out there and dance! the letters shout
adding, Love always, Can’t wait to get home!
And soon we will be. See you there.
The volume also contains more personal poems. In “Special Treatments Ward,” a poem Gioia began after his first son had died and his second son was gravely injured and hospitalized, the poet is visited by dead children:
They’ve taken off their milky bandages
to show the raw, red lesions they still bear.
Risen they are healed but not made whole.
And neither is the poet healed, as he concludes the poem, near despair:
What use am I to them, almost a stranger?
I cannot wake them from their satin beds.
Why do they seek me? They never speak.
And vagrant sorrow cannot bless the dead.
While Gioia can be unflinchingly honest, many of his poems that seem confessional are in fact stories told by characters. “Modernism,” Gioia wrote in an essay on Longfellow, “declared narrative poetry at best obsolete and at worst a contradiction in terms.” In Pity the Beautiful, as in his previous volumes, he shows why this is false on both counts.
These poems take the form of parables, ghost stories, and sensuous vignettes of lost love that are sadly nostalgic. As Gioia writes in “The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet”:
The tales we tell are either false or true,
But neither purpose is the point. We weave
The fabric of our own existence out of words,
And the right story tells us who we are.
This is not post-structuralist mumbo-jumbo but, with the opening poem, a recognition of the power of “true” verse and imaginative prose to say “who we are.”
Added to his narrative poems are poems for music, libretti, and his translations from the Italian. One criticism of the volume is that, in choosing variety over coherence, Gioia prevents the reader from escaping entirely into the volume—new topics and new forms require a recalibration on the part of the reader that is not always welcome. But if the result is that the poems constantly surprise, as is the case here, I’ll take variety over coherence any day.
Micah Mattix is assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University.