Poetry is far from dead, according to faithful poet Dana Gioia—
On Friday, April 22, 2016 at Catholic University of America, Keane Auditorium was brimming with eighty students and locals and their quiet conversations as they awaited not a party but a poetry reading by renowned contemporary poet Dana Gioia, wearing a gray suit and pink tie, looking completely at his ease as honored guest, poet and speaker.
(Image from Catholic World Report)
As a few more stragglers joined the room and took their seats, a hush fell, and Gioia began the reading, or recitation more accurately, as he narrated most of the poems without checking the text, and when he did steal a glance at the pages, it was only occasional. Gioia shared twelve poems with personal introductions from his new book: “99 Poems, New and Selected.” One of them, “The Angel with the Broken Wing,” used first person perspective to the tell the story of a mexican carved angel that was vandalized during the persecutions and then removed from its ritual context and placed in a museum. “The staff finds me too fierce, and so they shut Faith’s ardor in this air-conditioned tomb,” read the end of its first stanza.
The introductory context he provided to each poem gave key interpretational clues. Afterwards, he took questions for almost thirty minutes, some regarding the role of the Catholic faith in the arts, a topic Gioia is well-known for addressing. In his 2013 landmark essay in First Things, “The Catholic Writer Today,” Gioia noted the decline of the presence of Catholics in the literary arts, a trend which seems to be met with mutual disinterest by both the Church and the secular arts establishment.
Rather than lament the Golden Age past from writers such as Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and J.R.R. Tolkien, Gioia calls on Catholic writers today to up their game, excelling on secular terms and bringing their faith into their work with the same naturalness with which it informs daily life.
After the reading and questions, Gioia signed books, both his “99 Poems” and his volume of commentary that grew out of his 1991 Atlantic article by the same title, “Can Poetry Matter?” The serene sixty-five year old sat and conversed with attendees for over an hour, spending time with each person who came for a signing and encouraging the many beginner and not-so-beginner authors in the audience.
The new Contemporary Catholic Writers group at CUA brought Gioia to campus and credit his essay for inspiring their 2015 inception. Jessica Schnepp, the group’s founder, is a doctoral student in the English department who studies mid-twentieth century Catholic writers.
She said that the group “had been percolating in her mind” for years, but after attending the Conference on the Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination, presented by the Institute of Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California, in early 2015 where Dana Gioia was the Master of Ceremonies, she felt energized and wanted to wanted to start something at Catholic University, where she studied, to be a model for other universities.
The group organized in the fall of 2015, to “start at the beginning,” by bringing together graduate students but also undergraduates and interested members of the public and the general reader, in order “to think and write about these things in the serious way that they deserve, but also to be accessible.” Schnepp said art is at the center of the Catholic faith, the “Mass presents a drama on the altar,” something accessible to all five senses that offers truth to the faithful gathered.
Schnepp emailed Gioia to share with him the group’s founding and he offered to visit and do a reading, which overjoyed the members.
The Contemporary Catholic Writers meet regularly to discuss fiction, poetry, and essays, and hosts public lectures and other literary events during the academic year. Find out more about them at the public facebook page:
Do you ever read poems just for enjoyment? Is the genre dead? Yay or nay?