To Make Us Consider How Our Light Is Spent – An Evening With Dana Gioia

A few days ago I was high up – about 900 feet – on a mountain top overlooking hills and vineyards, stretched along the valley floor, in California’s wine country. I have a glass of Chardonnay in one hand – it would seem heretical not to – in this area that celebrates the ubiquity of the grape – and my mouth is trying to scan the poetry of taste in my mouth. Do I taste lemon and grapefruit? Is the acid balanced with the sugar? Do I feel the buttery complexity provided by aging in oak?

But other poetries also are singing inside me. In front of me, growing up on a steep slope is an imposing native Black Oak. I am struck by its size: it’s at least 30 feet tall and by its canopy, at least as wide. But what mesmerizes me is the contortion of its sinuous limbs as it reaches up high above the porch where I stand. In particular, I marvel at one limb, the circle it made, before straightening and lengthening out again.

Earlier my host had pointed out the circle with a fierce intensity. Then later in a talk he had described the beauty of that tree, the circled limb, as a result of  a one hundred year-old conversation with wind and weather. The beauty and poetry of that. And the poetry of his love poem to his wife which he recited by memory with such a musical cadence – the double sonnet The Lunatic, The Lover, And The Poet  from his 2012 collection Pity The Beautiful published by Graywolf Press.Here is the first of the poem’s four stanzas:

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.
Perhaps it is the words that summon us.
The tale is often wiser than the teller.
There is no naked truth but what we wear.

My host, the author of this poem, was Dana Gioia (1950 – ), the American poet (and more). Gioia may well truly qualify for the extravagant sobriquet – renaissance man. His range of expertises is impressive – from business marketing and management at General Foods, to languages, to music ( author of two opera  libretti), to poetry (four collections), to editing (literary anthologies) to teaching (currently a professor at USC)  and to his role as Chair for six years (2002 – 2009) of the American National Endowment for the Arts.

As I listened to Gioia’s poem I was so taken by the wisdom of these first lines. (For a complete version of the poem and a lot more detail on Gioia check out Cynthia Haven’s blog – Blog for the Written Word.) I almost jumped out of my clothes when he recited:

Perhaps it is the words that summon us
The tale is often wiser than the teller.

The utter mystery of this. That, as the American poet Jane Hirschfield says, we are in service to the poem not the other way around! And as Gioia says Perhaps it is the words that summon us! Yes! And how can it be that The tale is often wiser than the teller? But I know the truth of that as a poet! In an interview with Image Journal last Fall, Gioia said I believe that a poet works in collaboration with the language and with the unconscious. They both have things to say that at first the poet can hardly guess.

I was at Gioia’s home as part of a small community brought together for a seminar called Ferment sponsored by Image Journal out of Seattle; the journal that notably celebrates art, faith and mystery in its pages through essays, poetry, visual art, short stories and interviews. The seminar was an exploration of the connections between the making of wine and art. The importance of place, of transformation. Yes, a great excuse to taste exceptional wine! But more. Much more, thanks to talks by renowned American sculptor Ted Prescott and the evening we spent with Gioia and his wife Mary. (Image runs many workshops, on-line courses and seminars. I have found them so helpful in my development as a poet and poetry retreat and workshop facilitator.)

While most of us there listening to Gioia, a devout Catholic,  shared a common Christian faith and story, from my perspective Gioia’s talk was relevant for anyone. It was about the critical importance of beauty and art  in a world of I-phones and computers where so many of us are distracted almost out of our minds. He stressed the importance of beauty, how it can stop us in our tracks and make us pay attention. And not just what we might see as obvious beauty in nature and art but the harsher beauties as well, of a blind Lear, for example, on the heath gaining, so painfully, redemptive insight.

This kind of paying attention according to Gioia “pierces the surface of the world”, provides us in that moment entry into what he calls the mysterium. Clearly, for him, the mysterium is a place where he finds the Divine. And this is why he considers art so important and I will add, important,  in any context, religious or otherwise, however one defines the mysterium. Gioia says Art speaks to a person’s best self. Beauty speaks to the beauty in everyone. I say Amen to that.

I have seen this piercing happen countless times as men and women, religious or not, read their poems during workshops and poetry retreats. A certain line or series of lines open a space and something other enters the room. Creates what I call a sacred space. People are transformed. And during my time here in wine country I hear wine-makers call this by the French word,  elevage – the time when the grape juice in the barrel ferments and turns into wine.

I first came across Gioia thanks to an essay published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1991 – Does Poetry Matter. Noted already as a poetic formalist, not popular at the time, Gioia made a strong argument for getting poetry out of academia and back into the world. To bring poetry back as something relevant and vital for the culture.

Here is few paragraphs from that essay:

How does one persuade justly skeptical readers, in terms they can understand and appreciate, that poetry still matters?

A passage in William Carlos Williams’s “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” provides a possible starting point. Written toward the end of the author’s life, after he had been partly paralyzed by a stroke, the lines sum up the hard lessons about poetry and audience that Williams had learned over years of dedication to both poetry and medicine. He wrote,

             My heart rouses
                    thinking to bring you news
                             of something

that concerns you
                    and concerns many men. Look at
                            what passes for the new.

You will not find it there but in
                    despised poems.
                            It is difficult

to get the news from poems
                    yet men die miserably every day
                            for lack

of what is found there.

What’s my take on the state of poetry today? I think it is gaining relevance. How else can you explain the large audiences at the readings of a poet like David Whyte who has done so much to widen people’s appreciation of poetry. And thanks to the internet great poems from all eras are easily available. And countless blogs celebrate the importance of individual poems to their authors. And my work with writers in retreats and recovering addicts provides me first hand evidence how poetry can positively transform a person’s understanding of themselves and the world around them. Many people are hungry for what is found in poems!

Gioia’s 1991 essay asked a question: Does poetry matter? It’s easy to say yes  when you are surrounded by 4,000 books in a writer’s studio as I was a few nights ago. And especially after Gioia  recited poems from his new collection including his love poem to his wife and his seven page poem Haunted!  This exquisitely metered poem is already getting rave reviews on line for its mastery of formal craft as well as for its gripping and surprising narrative. The ending has such a great twist!

I stayed in the studio as our small company left to go back up the slope to the Gioia’s house for dinner. Indirect evening light bathed the room and the wall to wall book shelves. My eyes found poetic treasures everywhere including lots of single page poetry broadsheets propped up against shelved books. One of them was small, postcard-sized . The poem there was titled The Purposes of Poetry by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. As I read it seemed such a perfect answer to Gioia’s question. I had not heard of McEntyre before and discovered on-line that she teaches at the University of California and has won a number of outstanding teacher awards. Here’s her poem:

The Purposes of Poetry

To find a way of putting what can’t be said
To startle us into seeing
To train words to dance
To rescue worthy words from slow death

To reassert the power of whim
To combat mind erosion
To make us feel what we think
And visa versa

To resuscitate the media-impaired
To remind us that truth is round
With holes and corners
To notice what will never happen
Just that way again
To make us consider how our light is spent

Or that the world is too much with us
Or petals on a black bough

To startle us into seeing
! That line could have summed up the essence of Gioia’s talk about art and beauty! That alone is enough to make poetry matter! And I so appreciate the paradoxical truth in the lines: To remind us that truth is round/ With holes and corners. But the line that I will carry with me longest from this poem and my evening with Gioia is this one:

to make us consider how our light is spent

A line like this surely is proof that poetry matters!

Last words to Gioia: his last stanza from The Lunatic, The Lover, And the Poet, his love poem to his wife Mary. And as I write these words I see him recite them. And I see that moment when he looked directly at Mary as he said the words. That kind of light is spent so well!

And so my love, we are two lunatics,
Secretaries to the wordless moon,
Lying awake, together or apart,
Transcribing every touch or aching absence
Into our endless, intimate palaver,
Body to body, naked to the night,
Appareled only in our utterance.


  1. Rosemary Griebel
    Posted April 9, 2013 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    What a beautiful posting, Richard. On this cold, spring morning, it is a gift.

  2. Richard
    Posted April 9, 2013 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    Rosemary: So happy to get your post today. To know the words land inside a heart. All best, R

  3. Liz McNally
    Posted April 9, 2013 at 10:47 am | Permalink


    Once again you have returned from your travels with trunks full of riches. Gioia is wonderful and your description of the time spent with him made me feel part of the evening. Thanks again for another poet, another story and another window opened to help me think about how my light is spent… xo Liz

  4. Richard
    Posted April 9, 2013 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much Liz for your comment! My pleasure! And ah yes isn’t that the big question. How are light is spent. The joy of the right words that help us see and understand differently. Best, R

  5. Andy Parker
    Posted April 11, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Richard, for sharing the gift of your exquisite evening with us. I love how the last three lines of the McEntyre poem quotes Milton, then Wordsworth, then Pound. Did I miss any others?

  6. Richard
    Posted April 11, 2013 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Andy! ANd thank you for pointing out the Milton, Wordsworth and Pound lines! I recognized the Pound but not the others!

  7. Posted April 11, 2013 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Hey Richard:
    You’ve captured your retreat experience beautifully. I envy your encounter with Dana Gioia. He is an excellent poet. Check out my blog about him here:
    and for good measure here’s my post about Milton and his poem “On His Blindness”:

  8. Richard
    Posted April 11, 2013 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    Don: I so appreciate the your response. And thank you for the Milton! Best, Richard

  9. Posted April 12, 2013 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    Here’s today’s poem from The Writer’s Almanac:
    Thanks for Remembering Us
    by Dana Gioia

    The flowers sent here by mistake,
    signed with a name that no one knew,
    are turning bad. What shall we do?
    Our neighbor says they’re not for her,
    and no one has a birthday near.
    We should thank someone for the blunder.
    Is one of us having an affair?
    At first we laugh, and then we wonder.

    The iris was the first to die,
    enshrouded in its sickly-sweet
    and lingering perfume. The roses
    fell one petal at a time,
    and now the ferns are turning dry.
    The room smells like a funeral,
    but there they sit, too much at home,
    accusing us of some small crime,
    like love forgotten, and we can’t
    throw out a gift we’ve never owned.

    “Thanks for Remembering Us” by Dana Gioia, from Daily Horoscope. © Graywolf Press, 1986. Reprinted with permission.


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