If you have attended many poetry readings, you know how often they turn out to be flat and pedestrian affairs. A figure at the podium recites lines from compositions published and unpublished, and otherwise doesn’t have much to say. You hear a bit of biographical context for this or that specimen, or something about how a fan or critic responded to the verse, or perhaps a reflection by the poet upon how successful the poem is in one way or another.
The remarks don’t often enhance the poems. They are too clearly subordinate to them. A poet says, “This poem I’m about to read was composed while I was living in _____” or “recovering from a car accident” or “returning to my childhood home.” In it, “I was trying to explore _____.” The poem ensues. The preface doesn’t widen our understanding. It narrows it. The context is too personal.
A better approach is to have the contextual remarks say something interesting in themselves and still illuminate the poem to come. They might contain a joke that relieves the excess solemnity and that might, in fact, sharpen the impact of a solemn poem. If the poem to be read is a sonnet, the poet might read a related sonnet first—one by Donne or Wordsworth, say, and then comment on it before getting to his own. Or he might relate an anecdote from literary history that gives the audience an awareness that this poetic event is part of a long story of poetic experience.
This better approach will be exemplified on Sunday evening at Central Presbyterian Church in New York City, when Dana Gioia delivers the First Things second annual poetry reading on the night before the Erasmus Lecture. Gioia has a new collection of poems, reviewed here, to go with The Gods of Winter, Interrogations at Noon, and Pity the Beautiful (which has been set to music). See here for an example of what you can expect when Gioia reads his own poems.
But Gioia is also a critic, as readers of First Things know from his much-circulated essay “The Catholic Writer Today” and his renowned Atlantic Monthly essay from 1991, “Can Poetry Matter?” Last year he issued “Poetry as Enchantment,” a major statement of poetry’s primary appeal—running squarely against academic criticism and ideological theories of culture, which cast enchantment as reactionary sentimentality, adolescent naivete, or watery religion. Gioia recalled the broad reach of poetry in earlier times and places, including his own childhood:
I was raised among working-class people, none of whom had any higher education and many of whom were born speaking Spanish or Italian. Yet most of them liked poetry—not exclusively or excessively, of course—but they considered it one of life’s many pleasures. They knew poems by heart and quoted them unselfconsciously. They also liked hearing poetry recited. These were generally people who were otherwise suspicious of intellectual things. But they quoted these poems, nearly all of which they had learned in school, with obvious pleasure and pride. Their education, however limited, had instilled an appetite and appreciation for poetry.
You may hear more about that on Sunday.
Gioia’s speeches on literature, culture, and religion are amply represented online—for instance, “The Great Divorce: Catholicism and the Arts.” These speeches testify to a different kind of poetry reading, one that expands from the recitation of one person’s verse to a wide-ranging intellectual discussion of the art of language. Gioia’s tenure as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (2001-09) was one of the most successful runs for the embattled agency, and only someone with a deep cultural understanding of the place of the arts in twenty-first-century America could have made it happen.
We expect a lively session on Sunday and hope First Things readers in the New York area and beyond will join us.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.