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Intro. [Recording date: January 22nd, 2021.]
Russ Roberts: Today is January 22nd, 2021, and, my guest is poet and author Dana Gioia. His latest book is Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer's Life.
I want to thank Plantronics for providing today's guest with the Blackwire 5220 headset.
And, I want to let listeners know that our poll of your favorite episodes of 2020 is closed and results will be available soon.
Dana, welcome to EconTalk.
Dana Gioia: Glad to be here.
Russ Roberts: Your book is a very short, very beautifully crafted set of memoirs about a handful of people who influenced your career as an aspiring writer and poet. But, I want to back up a bit and talk about an essay you wrote about 30 years ago in The Atlantic that got a great deal of attention. The title of that essay was "Can Poetry Matter?" One theme of that essay was that poetry matters a lot less than it once did. What do you think happened?
Dana Gioia: Well, let me recapitulate the argument in my book. I point out a cultural paradox: that there has never been a country in the history of the world that has paid more people to profess poetry.
We have 100,000 people teaching poetry. We have poetry foundations. We have poetry readings. We have poetry residencies. And yet, there's probably never been a great nation in which poetry mattered less than it did in the United States in the 1990s.
And, the assumption, in the Academy--if you ask the Academy, they will say, 'Well, people never liked poetry because it's too challenging--this, that, and the other.' But, the fact is, if you go back and you look at history, poetry was enormously popular in the United States. It was read by all classes of people.
I know this from my own experience, and you and I were chatting before this session: I had a Mexican grandfather who was a cowboy, a vaquero. He'd gone to fourth grade. He knew dozens of poems by heart. My mother, a Mexican American working class kid from LA [Los Angeles], knew dozens and dozens of poems by heart. Poetry was part of the culture. The Sicilians would get together and they would recite poems in dialect. And so, there was a disconnect there, which is what happened that made America lose its mass audience for poetry. You know, at the end of Longfellow's life, his birthday was a public holiday.
And so, what went on--and so, I tied it together, and just said, 'Well, I think there's an obvious smoking gun.' Which is, that as we brought the poets out of Bohemia into the university, you created a profession of poetry. And, you know, I don't want to cast any aspersions on lawyers, but, you know, it's a lot like an independent warrior for justice becoming a member of a firm: Your behavior changes. You have to have a collective identity.
Poets began to, in a sense, treat each other with professional courtesy. They never gave bad reviews, because they may lose some of the benefits.
So, ironically, the more benefits we gave poets, the less they mattered to society.
Now, I ended the article just saying that I believed in poetry's vitality. I believed that poetry represents our most concise, memorable, and moving way of using words to describe the human condition; and that the appetite for poetry remained. And, if we could reconnect the audience with poetry, there would be enormous cultural energy.
Now, if I can still talk for one second, I want to point out two things. First of all, this article generated more mail than any article in the history of the Atlantic Monthly on any subject. So, this astonished the editors because they chose not to make it a cover article. They said, 'Well, this is too specialized.' But we got letters from diplomats, from farmers, from soldiers, from bankers. I mean, this is when people still wrote letters--I would get these boxes full of letters.
So, what it said is that there was an audience out there that liked poetry. And, the interesting thing--now, you know this, I'm sure, and I bet all of your viewers who are probably very successful professionals and intellectuals and academics--you know, when people write letters, are they happy or unhappy?
Russ Roberts: Unhappy.
Dana Gioia: Yeah. They're usually negative letters. 90% of the mail was positive. They said, 'Yes, he's right.'
And, the other interesting thing is if you took the negative letters that weren't written by mad people--because you got a certain amount of insanity--all of the letters that said I was wrong were by people who identified themselves--self-identified--as members of creative writing departments. That seemed to me to prove the case. If you criticize an industry and absolutely everybody in society agrees with you except the people in that industry, there is, at the very least, a disconnect.
There's another point I'll maybe make later, but let's go on. I don't want to talk too long.
Russ Roberts: No, that's all right.
Russ Roberts: You write in your book--I love this--you say:
Our inner lives are as rich and real as our outer lives, even if they remain mostly unknowable to others. Perhaps that is why books matter so much. They serve as intimate companions. Some books guide us. Others lead us astray. A few rescue or redeem us. All of them confide something of the wonder, joy, terror, and mystery of being alive.
And, I've been thinking recently a lot about how hard it is for people to convey their inner lives to others, either out of fear or just the inability to express themselves. And, for me, poetry is a way that we can understand emotions and experiences of others, as well as ourselves that we can't put into words. Would you agree with that?
Dana Gioia: Yeah, I do. Even the people we know most intimately, we don't fully understand their inner lives. And for strangers, we surmise something is going on. Just think of how many times you're with somebody and you kind of sort of wonder what they're thinking.
Now, the great thing of literature--and this is literature as distinct from film and other theater, which are forms of storytelling--but the beauty of the novel and poetry is that they essentially are our cultural machinery for articulating the inner lives of people. In effect, the novel is based on--the very definition of the novel, although people never talk about this--is based on irony. Which is to say, somebody's outer life is doing this and their inner life is doing that.
And you know this from the very beginning--Don Quixote, he thinks he is a great chivalric warrior. Everybody else realizes he's a slightly dotty old man. And so, the whole novel is about the difference between what he thinks--this beautiful woman, this great aristocratic sort of maiden that he's encountered, somebody else realizes it's a prostitute. And, that's what it's about.
But, in a much subtler way, what the novel does is give us a machinery by which we can begin to learn how complicated everybody else's inner life is. And, also to articulate how complicated ours are. Poetry takes this 500-page thing and puts it into 14 lines.
And, right now I'm reading a wonderful novel, Cousin Bette--La Cousine Bette--by Balzac. And, it's about all of these completely corrupt French aristocrats dealing with each other and their inner lives are just sheer messes. But it's wonderful. Balzac is wonderful about explicating the weird motivations that drive people, which may or may not be apparent to others.
Russ Roberts: I've been thinking about how hard it is to convey certain life experiences to people before they've had a chance to experience them. We've been talking on the program a number of times about what past guest, L.A. Paul, calls the vampire problem. Once you're a vampire, it seems pretty great. But, before you're a vampire, it seems, like, horrifying.
And, I would suggest that marriage has some of that characteristics. I think people who aren't married look at marriage as a life-ender or life-deadener, at times. And, those people who aren't married or who don't have children, for example, struggle to access the inner life of that experience. Which is a huge part of it. It's not--the joys of marriage are not visible on the outside in general. Or parenting.
And so, I think what poetry does is it allows us to put the things we can't articulate, or again, don't want to, into some form of communication so that if you'd like you can actually--you can learn something.
Dana Gioia: Let me start by commenting on a different question that you asked, but to agree with you. Anyone who has ever had a child understands you're this person one day, and then suddenly all of these switches go on inside you. The experience is like hitting puberty. Before you hit puberty, you look at the stupid stuff that adults do, like, 'Why are they doing it?' You hit puberty and you understand. Having kids is the same way. And you understand--I think every parent understands that part of the profound destiny of being human is to bring new life into the world and to raise it. And, when it happens, it's Pentecostal. It's like tongues of flame appearing on your head. And, it's impossible to describe this without sounding like you're having cliches.
But, when you have it, when you see it happen to your friends--I mean, I have a brother who was--you know, a free spirit, I guess it's the proper word for it. But he finally got married at 50 and he had two kids; and he became a fundamentally different person. And, he also became much, much happier.
And so, I think we miseducate our children. We miseducate our adolescents because we don't know how to use literature. Poetry, especially. If I give you a poem in school--what's going to happen next for you to show me the inner meaning, write a paper? So, poetry is--
Russ Roberts: Analyze it--
Dana Gioia: Yeah: analysis to conceptual thought. But, poetry is not conceptual thought. If you are writing a poem, you're using language fundamentally differently from how an economist would use it. You are using things in a semi-abstract language to make it absolutely clear about a general case.
But, poetry, even if it's about big issues, is always about a particular case.
And so, a poet uses words in such a way that they don't address primarily your intellect. They simultaneously address your intellect, your emotions, your physical senses, your memory, your intuition in a way which does not ask you to divide them.
And so, it's essentially holistic [sometimes spelled "wholistic"--Econlib Ed.] language. And, I know 'holistic' is a word that makes people feel, 'Oh my God, do you want me to eat bran and bean sprouts?' But, poetry is wholistic language, which addresses the entire human being.
Now you say, 'Well, that's kind of, you know intellectual.'
But, here's the key: Most of us, most of the time, experience the life we lead wholistically. These things happen to us, we're sort of semi-sorting them through.
So, what poetry does is actually address people in the language by which they live their lives. Where, an economist has to, in a sense, create a new language, which is more disciplined, more consistent, and clearer than what experience itself is.
And so, poetry is not sophisticated. It is the most primal art. It goes back to a time when people have no other tools but their bodies. I mean, they didn't even have a language to write in, but they moved their bodies, they chanted, and they said, 'Let's stop ordinary talk right now and create a special kind of language, which says special sorts of things.'
Russ Roberts: And, it's really beautiful. I've mentioned on here that when people ask me whether they should have children, one of the reasons I give is that it's a central part of the human experience. And, the answer that one listener gave me is that: 'Yeah, well, so was farming. And, we don't think everybody should be a farmer.'
But I think it's fundamentally different. It's part of that continuity. It's something that--we're all children of some parent, and it's a chance to experience that, for what it's worth.
Dana Gioia: Well, I would go a separate--maybe we don't have to be farmers, but anybody who goes through their whole life and doesn't try to grow something from the earth and see what happens--or doesn't happen--has really missed an essential experience.
I mean, it's interesting to me, people--they want to go to Antarctica, they want to go to Iceland. But they don't want to have kids. And, the argument that they--they say, 'Well, I want to experience this. I want to experience this.' It's sort of like saying, I want to go to a great restaurant, but let's just talk about the parsley that is on the edge of the plate versus the central meal.
But, anyway, it's--I'm tribal. And, I believe that you--that there is a basic human wisdom of embracing the life force itself.
And there's a wonderful--I don't know if you know this. My wife and I lost our first son. Our first son died at four months of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome [SIDS]. And, it was terrible. I mean, we'd waited a long time to have kids. And both of us were astonished at how happy we were when this kid came. Because we had been thinking, 'Well, we want to have kids, but it's going to be a hassle.' But, suddenly we were the happiest we had ever been, except for maybe our honeymoon.
And, then we lost our child and we went through this whole journey of grief. And, that is reflected indirectly in a lot of my poems. I don't tend to be a tremendously autobiographical poet, but a friend of mine gave me the advice: 'If'--and he's quoting Seneca, 'If you resist your destiny, it drags you behind it. But, if you follow your destiny, it guides you.' And, it was really true. So, I just let grief guide me. But it led me to a larger sense of life, which is to say that you embrace the energies of your life. You embrace the things that are offered to you in your life. And you make the existential leap. You can either be a Danish philosopher and just go "Errrh", and you know--and I know people like this. They can't figure out whether to order green or black tea because it's such a tremendous choice. Or you can simply be intuitive.
Russ Roberts: Well, I knew you'd lost a child because you wrote about it in a beautiful poem, which reminded me of--I've mentioned on air, I think before, James Russell's "The First Snowfall," which is also about a similar experience. And, that was a poem that my father used to recite all the time to me when we'd go walking in the snow: He'd read the first few lines. He never read the rest of it to me. As an adult, I came, happened to stumble on the poem at some point. It's a heartbreaking poem. It's a beautiful evocation of a snowfall, but it's about a lot more than that. I'm just curious if you know the poem and if it--does it speak to you?
Dana Gioia: Well, it is. I mean, I think when you lose a child, you need some place to put your thoughts. You need resonance. You need conversations. And so, the whole literature of grief begins to console you. And, you know, Longfellow lost a daughter and then lost his wife. And so, once again, he wrote these poems.
It was a much more common experience in the 19th century. Throughout history, people lost children. And so, there was a--I wrote a poem: It's about actually decorating a Christmas tree with these crappy old ornaments that were my mother's. And, I don't have the heart to throw them out, but they're kind of embarrassingly awful. And I'm doing it. And, it's in a sense a way of honoring this kind of very brilliant, difficult woman who raised me. And, my last line is: 'There is no holiday without ghosts.' And, I think that's true. As you get older and you lose people, every joy you have is qualified by your losses. But, in a weird way, that amplifies your joy and makes your memory bearable.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. That's a deep insight about it.
I think it's part of the reason that getting older has an impact on us, besides just the fact that we've struggled to sometimes play tennis or get up the stairs. There's a richness to older age that I've experienced.
And, part of it comes from wisdom, but a lot of it comes, I think, from an appreciation of life--that is, I think, it comes from death. And the experience of death, of loved ones, friends. It's bittersweet. It's not just bitter, it's bittersweet.
Dana Gioia: You know, the book I just published, Studying with Miss Bishop, is not a book I could have written as a young man. And, in fact, there's parts of it that I wrote years ago, but, you know, they--they were--dare I say it, they were wonderfully written--
Russ Roberts: Of course--
Dana Gioia: but they were the immediate impressions of things, versus the reflection.
And so, what I learned, in taking--what I wanted to do this book and I literally--I thought it would be very easy to assemble. But then I said--you know, and pardon me for saying this--my wife says this is the most embarrassing thing I could say: I wanted to write something that was perfect. I wanted to write a book that was as good as I could possibly write it. And, I wanted it to be short. I wanted it to be something you could sort of just enter into without a huge investment.
And so, I began writing the damn thing and I went through--I mean, I can't tell you how many drafts. A hundred drafts of some pages. But, what I wanted to do is to have--the story is then, but I'm now. And, rather than it being like this, it's like that.
And, that I realized, was the pleasure of the book: To be able to look back on yourself--on these teachers, to describe what happened, but then, now, years later, to be able to, in a sense, present the resonances of that.
And, I think that that is what people are responding to in the book.
I've had the weirdest reaction. I've published a lot of books. I mean, this is not--I'm 70 years old, I'm an old timer; but I've never had this reaction. I get the same thing again and again. People say, 'The book came, and I read it in one evening. I've read it and I couldn't put it down.'
Cynthia Ozick, a great Jewish intellectual--I love Cynthia. She said, 'I got this and I read it all night.'
You know, and, I think that people do because they sort of say, 'Yeah,' they can enter into this. And, it speaks very deeply to your own experience.
Because, you know, I was the Chairman of the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts], so I spent an--
Russ Roberts: That's the National Endowment for the Arts--
Dana Gioia: Yeah. The National Endowment--I spent an unholy amount of time talking to members of Congress. I mean, I was in the halls of Congress almost every day. And, we were talking about these programs that are--and I went to this one senator and I said, 'Look. I can guarantee you that the reason you're here is that because there was a teacher in high school.' And, I saw tears forming in his eyes. People who are successful in life, they know it's their own talents and everything else, but they also know that there were people who awakened those talents, refined them, gave them the little push, gave them the advice. Because we all know lots of people with talent, who have not made much of their life. They never found, in a sense, the ways of focusing their talent and everything else, and they just thrash around.
A couple of days ago, an old friend of mine died. He died at 80. One of the most talented guys I ever met, but he ended up in rural Washington, more or less in poverty, playing jazz in a nightclub. And, he never found a way of his literary talents, his administrative talents, his musical talents, and making them in a sense vehicles for his own success and happiness.
Russ Roberts: A great teacher lights a spark, right? Let's see if I can get it correct, the quote from Plutarch: 'The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.' And, a great teacher sparks that fire, gets it going.
Russ Roberts: Let's turn to the book. You talk about studying Homer with Robert Fitzgerald, who, at the time, I think had the most renowned translation of The Iliad and The Odyssey that were out at the time. Since there's been others--Richmond Lattimore, Robert Fagles. But, that must have been quite an experience. Obviously it was. You writes about it beautifully. I'm curious how it changed you and affected your own poetry, if at all, in your mind.
Dana Gioia: Well, you and I probably have something in common. I don't know your background, but we're both scholarship guys. We're both people that--I'm the first person in my family ever to go to college. You had to be smarter than everybody else to get to the next level. I had to get into Stanford, and I had to get into Harvard grad school. Then I had to get into Stanford Business School. And, then when you get to business, you've got to make it up the ladder.
So, we're used to pushing ourselves and working hard. I wanted to be--it was about the time I was 19, God help me: I wanted to be a poet. I had no idea what it meant to be a poet. I just knew that this was the stuff I wanted to hang around with. This was the part of me that I wanted to cultivate. So, I said, 'What do poets do? They're professors.' I had hardly met a poet, but every poet I met was a professor.
So, I went to Harvard Graduate School in literature, and I did what scholarship kids did, which is to be the best kid in every class you're in. And if the teacher wants you to do this, you do this. But, what my teachers wanted me to do--and I had great teachers. I know you're at Stanford. Have you ever met Walter Soquel, Herbert Lindenberger, Diane Middlebrook? These were great, great teachers at Stanford. And, they all were about analysis. They were about, in a sense, taking a holistic phenomenon, experiential phenomenon called poetry or the novel, and turning it into elegant conceptual arguments. And I was so good at that. It was like being in a law school, in some ways.
And suddenly, it was Robert Fitzgerald--there was this man of charm. He could have charmed the birds out of the trees. He was older and he had, for many years, lived in Italy translating Homer. He knew Ezra Pound and everybody else. He'd written about culture for Time magazine, so if they wanted somebody to talk to T.S. Eliot or Robert Frost, it was Robert Fitzgerald.
Now he was teaching this class as the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard, which is, I think, a position that was created for John Quincy Adams in the 19th century. And in fact, one of the privileges of being the Boylston Professor was that you could graze a cow on the Harvard yard.
Russ Roberts: Wow.
Dana Gioia: Robert, alas, never exercised this rite. I was disappointed. That's how old the position is.
And, I took two classes from him. They were both highly intellectual subjects. One was the classical epic: Homer, Virgil, Dante. The other was the history of versification, which is the technique by which poetry is written. And he started from the Greeks and went up to the moderns.
There was this sense, when Fitzgerald talked about these things, that he understood the intellectual, conceptual, linguistic things of these deeply, but they'd been entirely translated into something that had been integrated into his personality and into his imagination as great vehicles of human meaning. His whole thing was that we had to--and we were tested on this--know every character who was in the Odyssey, the first six books of the Iliad, and in The Inferno. I'm talking about maybe 700-800 characters; we had to know the names. Sometimes they just differed by a single vowel.
And his point was that a great writer makes every detail significant. So, if they put a name, they put a description, in, it's because it's part of both an immediate feeling and a larger fabric.
And, you start to do that--so, you literally have to read and reread the poem; and suddenly a kind of wall breaks down inside of you, and you fully enter into the imaginative world.
The same thing with the language: He would just take a line:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
That's the beginning of The Divine Comedy--and start to listen to the music, the meaning, the particular words.
And it was liberating to me, because he wasn't fundamentally asking me to analyze them. He was asking me, almost like an empirical scientist, to study them so well that the structures themselves became internalized in me, not as things that I looked at from the outside, but ways I could generate meanings.
And, that's what poets do. Because, you assimilate the tradition, and out of that assimilation, you produce the ability to speak within that tradition, to expand the tradition, to communicate it.
And so, I felt in those two classes--suddenly I realized, I don't belong at the university because the teachers I have that are speaking most deeply to me are people who spent most of their lives outside the university as creative artists.
And so, I decided to quit, and then I ended up in business school--because I figured if I was going to write poetry while having a job, let me make it an interesting job. So, I became the first person in human history to go to Stanford Business School specifically to be a poet.
Russ Roberts: Well, we're going to come back and talk about that. I want to ask you though, first, about Homer while we're on Mr. Fitzgerald. I'm a big fan of The Odyssey. I have not read The Iliad, I'm ashamed to say; but I'm a big fan of The Odyssey. I love, love, love many, many, many passages in it. But, I think lot of people would--today, I assume many of our listeners, have not opened either the Iliad or the Odyssey and would say, 'What do I need read that for? It's old. It's a bunch of people that I can't relate to. Really, what's the point? Wouldn't I be better off reading something more modern?'
Dana Gioia: Of course not--
Russ Roberts: Why?--
Dana Gioia: I can be absolute in that.
Let me start with the historical reason, then come to a modern reason. Greek civilization--which we honor as, in a sense, one of the generative energies of Western civilization--Greek civilization was based on Homer. That was their foundational text. The second, The Iliad, was philosophy and some of the tragedians, and stuff like that; but Homer was the central text.
Now, that's extraordinarily odd to a modern person. But, what they believed was, once again, that embodied truths, embodied wisdom--embodied in narrative, embodied in poetry--spoke more deeply, immediately, and memorably to people.
Let's just take The Odyssey, which has to be one of the greatest stories ever told, simply on a narrative level--
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Phenomenal--
Dana Gioia: It's about a great man who has achieved a great victory, which is to say that he was the person who engineers the Greek triumph over Troy; who then wants to get back to be with his wife and his son--his son, whom he left in infancy. That's one half of the story.
The other half is about the son, Telemachus[pronounced Telema'chus] or Telemachus[pronounced Tele'machus] depending on how you're scanning it. Telemachus has never had his father. He knows his father is a great hero. He knows his father is the King of Ithaca. Now, being the King of Ithaca is like being the king of a savage island, but it's still a king. And, his own mother and he are in danger, because these people--these suitors--are coming in. They all want to marry Penelope. They say, 'Your husband's dead. Marry me so I can become the king.' And they were beginning to recognize that they've got to kill Telemachus.
And so, you've got these two stories: a son looking for a father, a father looking for his family to resume his life after a war. And, it's about the thousands of things, which are their obstacles--some of them from the gods, some of them are from humans--and how through courage, through love, through ingenuity, they outwit a huge army of opponents know and come together again.
And, it is exciting, it's memorable, it's meaningful.
Now, think of our society. In American society, what are the ten top problems? Certainly one of them is sons without a father. The other one is fathers who have abandoned their families. Another one is people returning from a war and having to integrate into society. Those are all there.
And, I think that's what the Greeks understood is that there's very few things that you're going to experience in life--including seduction, murder, natural disaster, all these things that are in The Odyssey--very few things that you'll experience in life that are not there.
And, part of the purpose of literature, for young people, is to give them an imaginative experience of something they might actually experience later in their lives. For adults, it's to reflect on the actual experiences that you have. No one with a wife and children can read The Odyssey without enormous emotion and a kind of imaginative expansion of your memory and your emotional capacity. So, it's a wonderful story.
Now, my worry is that a lot of people nowadays read what I would think of as disposable books. They're books which are written so you can scan them quickly once, glean two or three ideas, and then you can throw them away.
But, literature operates differently. It sort of says, 'Look, I want you, for a few moments, to give me the whole of your attention. I want you to open up not just your mind but your emotions.'
See, that's why poetry has melody:
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
So, you know, what's happening? You hear a rhythm. The rhythm is slightly hypnotic. And the power of poetic rhythms is to relax your conscious mind so that you can bring your emotions, your intuition, your memory, your imagination, closer to the surface--that you can become slightly vulnerable. That allows certain things to happen in that transaction that don't happen in ordinary life, don't happen in book that's designed to be scanned.
A booked that's designed to be scanned, says, 'You know, look, the only thing--I'm going to talk entirely to your intellect and the rest of you can do whatever you want to do.'
But, that's not deep learning. It's not transformative in any way.
And so, what a poet is trying to do is to create that magical spell that momentarily allows you to open up your complete humanity and have a transaction that at least has the possibility of being transformative.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I couldn't agree more. I happened to be reading Homer last night in the Fagles translation. Sorry, Mr. Fitzgerald. But, it is so cinematic. It is so riveting. It is so heartbreaking. It's just--as you say, it's a great story. But it's more than a great story. It actually, to use a little Yiddish, it gets in your kishkes--it gets into your innards. And it's quite amazing.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk for a minute about memorizing poetry. You talk in your book about Elizabeth Bishop, the poet, teaching a class at Harvard and worried that you won't get much out of it, at least you'll get something by having to memorize, I think you said, was it 10 or 15 lines a week of poetry?
And, it's interesting. I've mentioned Ms. Kineen on this program before, my eighth grade teacher, who was one of those teachers that sparked my adulthood and education in all kinds of ways. And she actually made us read--and memorize--the poem "Ulysses"--which is funny, because we are talking about The Odyssey,--by Tennyson.
Dana Gioia: 'It little profits that an idle King--'
Russ Roberts: '--By this still hearth, among these barren crags, match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole unequal laws unto a savage race, that hoard, and sleeps, and feeds, and knows not me.' It's close. I may have missed a word there.
But, it's iambic pentameter. It has that rhythm that you're talking about. It's profound. It has lessons for life that are amazing. And, I cherish that I know a chunk of that by heart. I also know the last eight or so lines by heart. I wish I knew the whole thing, as I did then, but I don't anymore.
Talk about the importance or value of memorizing poetry. You mentioned your ancestors who knew it by heart. What's the value of that? And, do you still remember some things that Elizabeth Bishop had you memorize?
Dana Gioia: Yep. I do. I do.
If you look at the--now, I know we're smarter than everybody who ever existed-- that's why we're so happy and peaceful, and everything's going so well. But if you look at the entire history of humanity, a fundamental part of education, from China, you know, to England, you know, to basically illiterate people, was to memorize poetry.
If you go to--here's a quiz for your listeners. What goddess is the mother of the muses? What goddess had nine daughters who created the arts? Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. So, memory is the mother of poetry.
And so--and, myths portray profound truths. They embody profound truths. And what that's saying is that the arts--you know, think of this, if you go to the ballet and a dancer comes out there and goes, 'One, two, three--oh, two, three,' and is moving by--you go, 'What's going on?' It has to be--
Russ Roberts: People who aren't listening at home, Dana was showing a, miming a ballet dancer consulting a document while she was dancing.
Dana Gioia: Yeah. You want to see--it has to all be in the muscle memory. When a soloist plays the violin, they're doing it without music, because what they've done is they've taken the form of a masterpiece and they've embodied it.
And that was always the notion of poetry. When Tennyson, you know, would be, you know, asked about a poem, he said, 'Oh, that one'--he would just recite it. Mandelstam, the Soviet poet who died in transit to a prison camp, towards the end of his life, never wrote any of his poems down because Stalin and the secret police would find them. But, this entire thing was in their memory. Pasternak, in his old age, was giving a reading in Moscow, and he was reciting a poem and he missed a line and the audience shouted it to him, because everyone knows.
Same thing--I was in Russia when I was chairman of the NEA, National Endowment for the Arts, and my translator said, 'You are the perfect person to come to Russia because we love two things in Russia, most of all: officials and the poets. And you are both.' And it was bizarre, because whenever I sat down with a public official, they would recite a poem to me. They go 'Here is Pushkin. Here is Akhmatova. Give me one of your poems. Give me one of your great poets.'
And I went to this one high school, this Gymnasium. There were hundreds of kids there, and this woman came. It was one of these things, it was right out of a Soviet poster, this old lady, she goes, 'You will recite American classics to us!' But I had her, because I knew them all. Not all, but I mean, I knew it--
Russ Roberts: You had some--
Dana Gioia: But I said, 'Who do you want?' She goes, 'I want Longfellow.' I said 'Here's some Longfellow.' She goes, 'No, give me Frost.' Luckily, she never called one I didn't know. But that's what they did. Then the students came and recited them to me in Russian and some of them in English. Little girls would come up and say, 'Here is a poem by Walt Whitman,' and then she would recite it, you know.
That's what the traditional relationship with poetry is, because what they believe is the importance to take children and give them the opportunity to embody the greatest language available, but also the language as a vehicle of the greatest ideas, the greatest sentiments, the greatest experiences, and that they would prepare people for life.
That's why Abraham Lincoln didn't have to go to college or law school. He read Shakespeare. He read poetry. He, in a sense, had the capacity to experience and articulate. Because, you know, you can't articulate something that you haven't experienced. You can't articulate something you haven't noticed. One of the purposes of poetry--and this has been forgotten, I think, in our society--is to awaken you to the full potential of your humanity. Most of us are operating at two-thirds speed on a good day, one-third speed on a bad day. This just has to give you that charge. As you said, Plutarch: it ignites you.
And so I think that that's why we need to integrate it in. But, you don't integrate it in by having people write papers about it. It's by memorizing and reciting. The most important thing I did at the NEA, and actually last night I was doing this thing and people, on this Zoom, were asking me about this because they had, themselves, participated in it, was to create a National Poetry Recitation Contest for high school students, in which they memorize and recite poems in competition at the school level, the town level, the county level, the state level, and then on a national level.
When we announced the program, 49 out of the 53 states--I think I'm talking about the Federal government because you have Virgin Islands, the District of Columbia--but 49 of the 50 states didn't want to do it. They said, 'Kids don't like poetry. Doing arts in competition was degrading, and memorization was repressive.' They also said, 'Because of those three things, it would discriminate against immigrants and people of color.'
Through charm and threats, we got them to try it for one year. I said, 'If it fails, you can use the money for anything you want.' And, well, of course, it was immensely popular because kids liked poetry. When you start doing something in competition, it gets actually more interesting. Memorization allowed people--and I told them, I said, 'The teacher says, you'll be surprised. The kid who wins your competition is not going to be your A student. It's going to be the class clown; it's going to be this sullen jock in the back who never says a word, and it's going to be your theater queens.'
Then thirdly, about 80% of our winners have been first-generation Americans or people of color. Because, they come there and they understand the importance of mastering the language; of, in a sense, creating a public persona that can just charm people. They can move people.
So, now, it's the signature program of the state arts organizations and millions of kids have participated in this.
Not coincidentally, I believe--now this is a statistical fact--poetry is the fastest growing art in the United States. Most of the arts are declining in participation. Poetry is growing rapidly among the 18- to 25-year-olds. Which is to say, the generation that began this program, the audience for poetry has doubled in the last 10 years.
And so, most of your listeners are saying, 'Ehhh, poetry, who cares about poetry?' But, poetry has reentered the culture right now, because we've made it performative, we've made it democratic, we've made it accessible, and we've separated it from critical analysis. In a sense, the university took poetry away from the people. We've given it back.
Russ Roberts: Well, this week was the inauguration of Joe Biden; and Amanda Gorman recited her poem, "The Hill We Climb." It was interesting--I was not paying any attention to the inauguration. Like you, I'm not a big fan of Washington. It's not my thing; I try to stay away from it as much as possible. Even though you don't know me, Dana, you think I'm at Stanford. I'm only out there in the summer and not this summer because of COVID. I actually live outside of Washington. But, I tried to stay away from it. I saw on Twitter in my Twitter feed a lot of people complaining, 'Oh, horrible poem, it was awful.' So, I thought, 'Well, that's too bad. You know, such is life.'
Russ Roberts: Then my wife said, 'Did you see that poem?' And, I said, 'No, I heard it was horrible.' And so, I watched it and it's--to say it's extraordinary--it certainly was performative. It was an incredible delivery. I joked on Twitter, I said, 'Biden should have just recited the poem, and that would be it.' She said it all.
And, then people were like, 'I don't think he would have recited it as well.' You think? No, he wouldn't have. It was an extraordinary performance.
Dana Gioia: There's a genre called the Occasional Poem. It's a poem that doesn't have to work a hundred years later, it has to work at the occasion. And, it was an occasional poem. Amanda Gorman gave the audience exactly what they needed at that moment, which was a kind of rhythm of optimism and sort of an upbeat, emotional experience. Whether it's a good poem or not, doesn't matter as much as: Did it work in the moment?
Russ Roberts: Yeah, and it worked.
Dana Gioia: The national response is so overwhelming. It's obvious that it worked in the moment.
Russ Roberts: And, that's going to have an impact on poetry. That one event actually can spark a lot.
Russ Roberts: Before we leave--
Dana Gioia: Most of the inaugural poems have been--
Russ Roberts: Missing.
Dana Gioia: Yeah. Robert Frost stole the inauguration from JFK [John Fitzgerald Kennedy], and that's the last time we had an experience like this--
Russ Roberts: Yeah, yeah; and I thought of the same thing--
Dana Gioia: where she stole the inauguration from Biden.
Russ Roberts: It's interesting, given what we've been saying, that there is a poem that's recited. It's a throwback. It's a retro gesture.
Russ Roberts: Before we leave Elizabeth Bishop, I'm going to mention: we recently had Lamorna Ash on the program talking about her book, Dark, Salt, Clear, which is a quote from Elizabeth Bishop's poem "At the Fish Houses," which is a poem I love. Don't understand, but I still love it. I understand a few of the lines, a few of the images, but I find it a very difficult poem. I'm just curious, do you have a favorite Elizabeth Bishop poem?
Dana Gioia: Well, let me just say something. The purpose of poetry is not necessarily to understand it, but to experience it. I could bring you to things in life that you wouldn't really understand. Something would happen and it would be this, that, and the other, and you puzzle through it, but the experience itself would still be very powerful. You see two people fighting on the street, well you may not know why they're fighting but you experience the violence of their emotions, of their physicality.
What a poem does is bring you to an experience.
I think--there's two or three poems of hers I really like most of all, but towards end of her life she wrote a villanelle called "One Art"--
Russ Roberts: My favorite--
The art of losing isn't hard to master,
is the way that it begins.
So many things are filled with the intent
And, in this poem that she pulled the whole grief--you would never have known by talking to Elizabeth or having tea with Elizabeth, the losses, the strange losses that had been in her life from the very beginning--starting with her father, her mother, her lovers. She was a person of tremendous loneliness. She had a little bit of family money early in her life that sheltered her from it, but eventually that evaporated away. When her lover, Lota Soares, killed herself, she lost even this property that she had in Brazil. She couldn't go back to Brazil, which was the country she was living in.
And then she was basically--I have to say this--reduced to teaching creative writing. Which is not something she wanted to do. And so she was. I think at University of Washington. And then she got a job at Harvard--where she was not treated with a great deal of respect.
In retrospect, Harvard says, 'Well, we had Elizabeth Bishop whom we--.' No, they treated her sort of like an adjunct faculty member. She needed the job; she was protected by Robert Fitzgerald and Robert Lowell. But my advisor said, 'You don't want to take a class from her. She's not a serious person.' You know?
And there was only five people in my course with her. Now, in retrospect people said, 'Well, how can that be?' But, the reason it was is that she was not well-regarded at Harvard, except by the poets.
And so--I think she took all those losses and she put it into that poem.
Russ Roberts: Well, this is--crazily, this is the third recent EconTalk episode with an Elizabeth Bishop mention. We were talking with Scott Newstok--that episode hasn't come out yet. It will be out in a few days. He mentioned that that poem, "One Art," which is magnificent, went through 17 different variations that he--Scott and I--talked about it because it's an economic concept I love called emergent order: this idea that things happen not under anyone's control, often. I'm interested in it writ large as a price system or as other phenomena.
But, when we think about it at that micro level of--a poem takes on a life of its own. It's not under the control of the poet after a while in a certain sense. Obviously it is still. But, it becomes animated. It has a vitality to it that stuns the poet at times, or the writer.
And, I'm curious if, in your work, just a stylistic question: Do you go through a zillion drafts or do you tend to craft each line to your contentment and move on? What's your experience?
Dana Gioia: I go through a gazillion and one drafts. You're one of the few non-poets who actually understands the process. I was surprised to hear you express itat, I guess, in terms of an economic concept.
But, when I read a poem I immediately know whether it was willed into existence or if it really happened. And, I was talking to Richard Wilbur, who died a few years ago in his 90s. I thought of him as really the greatest living American poet towards the end of his life. He's the inheritor of Frost, and he won the Pulitzer Prize twice. But he was just a poet of perfection.
And I was talking to him once, and I said, 'Dick, when these poems come, I have this weird relationship so then I start to write them and I don't know the shape they want to take. And so I just keep writing and I'm trying to listen for the language to tell me whether it should be metered, whether it should be free verse, whether it needs to be rhymed, whether it is needs--.' I said, 'Does it sound like you?' He said, 'Yes, this is exactly it. You listen to the poem and the poem tells you the shape it wants to take.'
What I look on as writing a poem is to be in a partnership, a collaboration, with language itself, except language has 51% share and you only have 49%, so the language could always outvote you. What you do is you follow it around. A lot of times I'll get a poem and it really works, but then it just stops. I know it's not done and I've just got to wait. Sometimes I'll wait years for the rest of it to come. It is a thing called inspiration. Inspiration is, I think--Elizabeth Bishop said, 'A poem is many things coming together at the same time.' I think that's exactly what happens, is: you have an idea and then suddenly an exact word comes in and then another memory comes in that pours in emotion, and it has a catalytic effect on this and you start to have something happen.
When I am inspired, honestly, I feel it physically. I have a burning here and a burning in my temples and it makes me realize that the thought that I had is not a thought, but it's the muse speaking to me. And I've got to get to a piece of paper. A lot of times I'm not around any place I can write down, and then what happens is if I'm lucky I write in a trance for maybe half an hour; and then I have a mess, a complete mess, and then I have to find the shape it wants to take.
Every now and then the poem comes to you more or less whole. I'll recite a poem. This is a poem that the first three stanzas came, almost as a whole. And it wasn't over and I didn't know what to do, and then suddenly about a week later the last stanza came. It's a very LA [Los Angeles] poem: it's about beautiful people and the power that beauty gives someone but also the dangers of that because if you're beautiful and then suddenly your beauty vanishes, which happens in life, then suddenly you're without the skills, the energies, that ordinary ugly people have.
There's a reason it was written--because I heard about the death of this extraordinarily beautiful woman I had known when she was young who had gone through life, and everybody wanted, 'Let me open the door for you. Let me buy you this meal,' like this. And, then things started to go bad, but I don't mention her in the poem. It's called "Pity the Beautiful."
Pity the beautiful,
That came--I misspoke one word there, but you get the idea.
Russ Roberts: Yes, I do.
Dana Gioia: But, I'm trying to create a spell. This time, it all sort of came out and I realized it was because I had been thinking about the sadness of her death. I had been thinking about the fact that every gift that you're given in life has a danger in it ;and same way every suffering you're given in life has a possibility in it. I did this and I wanted to do it in slang.
Russ Roberts: That's nice.
Dana Gioia: I don't usually use a lot of slang in my poem. I wrote a poem called "Money" that's entirely slang. Slang are the metaphors that the street poets, as it were, the everyday poet creates about something.
But, it came all at once. Usually my poems are much more--it takes me a lot longer to write them. Can I do one more poem?
Russ Roberts: Yeah, one sec though. Can I say one thing about faded beauty? I want you to do more than one poem, so there's plenty of time. The fading beauty reminds me of a story I love of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe when she comes back from a tour with the USO [United Service Organizations] entertaining troops, I think maybe in the Korean War or World War II. I think it was the Korean War. She says to him--it's probably an apocryphal story but it's so good. She says, 'Joe, you've never heard such cheers.' And, he said, 'Oh, yes I have.' And, the, 'Yes I have,' has got a poignance to it because those cheers are over for him. They never faded for Marilyn because she died young and beautiful, which is another story, another poignant aspect of life.
Dana Gioia: Yeah. That's why this is an LA poem. LA is full of people like this. Some were successful, some were never successful; but they possessed this gift from the gods. And, then there comes a point when the gods--they're no longer divine. [More to come, 59:16]
Russ Roberts: Read another poem, go ahead.
Dana Gioia: I think two may be sufficient for your audience. There's not a lot of poems, surprisingly, about a happy marriage. I guess it's because it's easier to write about an unhappy one, and if you have a happy marriage and you write about it too much, it may turn unhappy because your family doesn't want you to write about them, generally.
I was reading how in California there are a few Indian tribes and there's only one or two speakers left; and when that person dies, the language dies, the songs die, the dances die, and it vanishes. Whatever the particular glory of those people were, it becomes a footnote.
And, it struck me that this is what a marriage is like, what marital love is like. That, you are with somebody and if you have a happy marriage or a deep, long-term love--I guess you don't have to be married--the two of you create a private language, and you'll never have a more intimate form of communication with any other people. Now, your kids kind of half understand it, but you can't even help with your kids because they can't enter fully into the kind of communication you have with your spouse. But, it's a very fragile thing because if you lose one person, you lose that--its gestures, words, and everything else.
I have a book called 99 Poems. The last poem in it, I wanted it to be to my wife, and this is what I wrote. It's called "Marriage of Many Years."
Most of what happens happens beyond words.
Russ Roberts: I absolutely love that poem. I'm writing a book about decision-making and one of the things I'm writing about is the decision to get married and who to marry; and I actually quote a line from that poem, which I learned in preparing for this interview. I wrote it last night.
Dana Gioia: What line?
Russ Roberts: I'm going to maybe embarrass you. You changed one word.
Dana Gioia: I think I may have misquoted, let me see.
Russ Roberts: I assume you read it by heart just now.
Dana Gioia: Yeah, I just recited it.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. The word you changed was quite beautiful. You said "solemn secrecy," but I know from having read it last night it's "sovereign."
Dana Gioia: Oh, "sovereign secrecy." Yeah, exactly. I'm remembering an earlier draft.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Isn't that cool? That's spectacular.
Dana Gioia: Thank you for catching me on that.
Russ Roberts: But, that's the only--this is the only public version of that draft. But, actually, your other draft probably had other differences, but this version is unique.
Dana Gioia: Yeah. "We keep our tribe of two in sovereign secrecy. What must be lost was never lost on us." Yeah, and this is the problem about these things is that you do this and you remember, and it happens all the time. I'm remembering the earlier draft.
Russ Roberts: Beautiful.
Dana Gioia: Because sovereign secrecy is better than solemn secrecy.
Russ Roberts: But, solemn secrecy is beautiful too.
Dana Gioia: Yeah. Sovereign is better though because it's a little kingdom in a little tribe.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, right. Yeah, I know. But, anyway--
Dana Gioia: Well, I'm glad.
Russ Roberts: It's a beautiful poem, but it illustrates what actually--the reason I quote it is I'm writing in the book about this challenge of the unmarried, the vaunted young with their vaunted ecstasy to imagine the different kind of joy that comes from a long, deep love and relationship, and a poem is almost the only way to get a glimpse of it. If I as a non-poet tried to describe what's special about my relationship with my wife, to say, 'Oh, well we really know each other well. We finish each other's sentences.' It doesn't say it the way you did. It doesn't speak to the heart in a way that a poem can.
Dana Gioia: I like the deeper metaphor of the poem, which is that of a tribe, a tribe that's doomed in some ways because we're mortal. But, being in that tribe of two, which--it amplifies all of your joys. If you're really in love with somebody, anything that happens is twice as good or half as bad. For me, emotionally it improves life enormously.
Russ Roberts: But it's kind of a secret, because you can't imagine it. When you look at it from the outside--and this is what I try to explain in the book--when you see married couples before you're married, you get no glimpse of their inner life except to the extent that it's reflected in their emotional demeanor or their face. But, their true inner life--which is what you said earlier about what poetry does, and books--their true inner life is veiled from you. And, poetry and fiction, and sometimes non-fiction, but mainly poetry and fiction allow you to glimpse that and it allows, once you've experienced it, to feel its resonance in a way you might not be able to put into words and enriches it, and so on.
Dana Gioia: Yeah. That's what I wanted to do in this poem: I wanted to write a poem in praise of marriage. It's a poem in praise of marriage that acknowledges mortality and acknowledges the loss, but what a gift it is. You see this when people lose their spouse after long marriages, who do they talk to? They can talk to all their friends, but in a sense their partner--it's like a duet in music: the person they've been performing with their whole life has vanished.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I just read a poem last night about that--which escapes me. I'll try to find it. But, it's another rare poem in praise of marriage. The poet talks about going through that door--which, the door is death--and that there's one person left behind, and the poignance of that.
Dana Gioia: There's a poem by Howard Nemerov that's called--'They Called It Good Marriage,' which you should look at, too. [Perhaps titled "The Common Wisdom"?--Econlib Ed.]
Russ Roberts: Maybe that's the one I'm thinking of.
Dana Gioia: It ends up--one of them should be there when the other dies, is the way that it ends. But, you know, it's--both of my parents are gone but I talk to them all the time, and I think that's what happens, too, if you lose somebody in a marriage. They're still there because your inner life and theirs has at some level merged, and so you have in a sense, 'I know what they would have experienced.'
There's a wonderful sequence of poems by an Italian poet named Eugenio Montale who won the Nobel Prize in 1975 and I translated this. It's called Mottetti, a motet, which is an unaccompanied, usually rather austere choral piece. The premise of the poem, or the autobiographical origin of poem, is he was in love with a woman whom he never names and was secret for many years, named Irma Brandeis. They're in 1920s, 1930s Italy, so you can see what's going to happen. There comes a point where Irma Brandeis says, 'Look, I'm an American Jew, Italy's not a great place for me to be at.' And so, she leaves.
And so, he poem begins at the moment that he loses her and he knows he will never see her again. 'Lo sai: debbo riperderti e non posso,' as it begins. 'You know this: I must lose you again but I cannot.' So, the whole poem is about going through this grief, but then about halfway through realizing that he has her, because anything that happens to him, like a snowfall or seeing an animal or this, that, or the other, he knows exactly how she would respond. And so he has the gift, in a sense, of her company. Not physically, but spiritually.
It's a very Dantesque poem in a sense, the poet writing to a lady he'll never possess and things like that. The funny thing is that nobody knew who the woman was. And just about when I translated the poem it came out; so I dedicated it to her. I sent it to these people and they all said, 'This poem was written to Irma?' So, it was really--because people knew her. She taught Italian at Bard and she had generations of teachers and students that had worked with her.
Russ Roberts: That's really beautiful.
Dana Gioia: It's a great poem.
Russ Roberts: I had a widow confide in me that she was still speaking to her husband after he had died and that her friends said, 'You need to get over that.' And I said, 'No you don't. Of course you talk to him every day. Why wouldn't you?' It's fascinating that people think that you have to "move on." Why wouldn't you let that person continue to enrich their life from a distance?
Dana Gioia: Anglo-Saxon American culture does not understand grief.
Russ Roberts: That's true.
Dana Gioia: Italians understand grief, Mexicans understand grief, I think Jews understand grief.
Russ Roberts: Yes, we do.
Dana Gioia: These tribal people understand grief. And, versus, like--I once went to this funeral of a guy who dropped dead in his forties and his wife was there and she goes, 'It should be a celebration. I don't want any crying. We should all do this.' Two weeks later she had a nervous breakdown. What you should do is rend your garments and scream and cry.
Russ Roberts: Cry, yeah.
Dana Gioia: And, share the sorrow. But, if you try to deny it, because once again, if you resist your destiny, it drags you behind it. If you follow it, it guides you.
Russ Roberts: Let's go back to your biography. You mentioned in passing--I know it from the book and I knew it in general--that you left a graduate program in Comparative Literature at Harvard to become an MBA [Master of Business Administration] student at Stanford at the Graduate School of Business [GSB]. You joked that you were the first person who went to the GSB to become a poet. What were you thinkin'?! That is such a bizarre transition. Let's just talk culturally. I understand the idea that you wanted to have a job and you wanted it to be an interesting job, that's lovely.
Dana Gioia: It was eminently rational.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, go ahead.
Dana Gioia: Very simple.
Russ Roberts: Oh, I should tell listeners--excuse me, Dana. I should tell listeners that you go on to be an executive at General Foods. But you were also one of the only poets at General Foods, presumably.
Dana Gioia: I believe I was.
Part of what an artist creates is his or her own life. You know, part of being an artist, part of creativity, is to figure out how do you make your way in the world?
Now, the--so many activities in our society have been institutionalized. There's institutional solutions to everything. An institutional solution is to become a creative writing teacher in the United States for the problem I faced.
But, I didn't want to do that. And, I, to this day, think that there is a significant artistic downside to working in the creative writing industry, because you are--for all kinds of--I don't want to get into them, but I don't think it produces the best writing. Certainly it doesn't produce the best criticism about the arts.
And so, I had to make a living.
Now, I looked at this: Wallace Stevens had been an insurance lawyer. T.S. Eliot had been a banker. Archibald MacLeish was a lawyer and member of the Roosevelt Brain Trust and a journalist. He was editor of Fortune. And, they were examples of men who had done other careers and had been able to write.
And so, I'm a person with a tremendous capacity for work. I'm very good with numbers. And, I think a poet actually is often better when they're good with numbers, because meters and things like that are a kind of numerical, mathematical design.
And so, I just said: I'm going to do it.
I took this Stanford literary magazine, which had been bankrupt, and I revived it. I ran a film series at Stanford--because I was a poor kid. I had to work my way through college. So I was always, you know, finding an angle.
You know, and so, I went there. And probably no one in the history of Stanford Business School has done less and still graduated than I did.
You know, but, I passed. And I spent three hours every day reading and writing before I did my business school work, because, you know, I said I have to do both of these things seriously.
And, I began publishing, you know, this. And so, I got through business school.
Now, if for no other reason, I am glad that I went to Stanford Business School--because I met my wife. You know, I met this girl; and I knew--I'd had a lot of girlfriends and everything else, but I never really had the impulse to marry anyone. You know, I was young and also the matches weren't right. But, I met her. After about two weeks of knowing her, I said, 'This is the girl I want to marry.' Now, it took me five years to convince her to do that, but it worked, eventually.
Russ Roberts: That's just a test to her wisdom.
Dana Gioia: 'Faint heart never won fair lady.'
And so, I got through both, and then I went to New York. She wanted to work in New York. I didn't. I wanted to stay in California. We actually both ended up working at General Foods, which was so big of a company that we didn't even see each other most days.
And, I would work 10 hours a day. I would come home. We'd have dinner. And then I would write, every night. And, my wife liked to read. She's a person with a great capacity for solitude. She likes--you know--and then on weekends if we went out at night, I would write during the day. If we did something in the day, I would write at night. So, I would--it was a pattern of working, working, working, working. Because, I didn't have a lot of time to write, but the continuity of time was enough. And, it was a very simple way of leading your life.
I had a lot of debt to pay off, so we didn't spend a lot of money. We paid our debt off. We had a little apartment we lived in, and we bought a townhouse eventually. I paid my brother--my youngest brother and my sister's way through college, because my parents were broke. And, we were happy.
When we had kids it got more complicated. Especially when we lost our first child, where we both plunged into a grief that lasted the better part of a year until our next son was born. But, you know, it was--I was very happy.
Then, after doing this for 15 years--17 if I count the years in business school, being in business for 17 years--I published this article called "Can Poetry Matter?" which made me internationally famous.
And then I chose to use that fame differently from other people. If I'd been a--you know, a--was it Francis Fukumara? You know, [?] type. Fukuyama, excuse me. I would have then gone on the lecture circuit and I would have written the book and the sequel book and everything else.
I said, 'No, I don't want to play the commercial game on this, but I do think I can now make my living as a writer.'
So, I quit. I had one kid and another kid on the way, and I quit. And, the next year I essentially made no money at all. But, within a couple of years, I was supporting the family as a writer.
I did a number of projects, and you know, I worked all the time. And so, that ended up--but, the thing is, I only did what I wanted to do.
I was offered a huge contract. I mean, an astonishing amount of money, if I wrote a book about how MBAs were ruining American business.
And I was--I told my wife, I said, 'I got offered this huge amount of money,' because they'd sold international rights for a book that hadn't existed. And I said, 'You know, what do you want to do with this?' I said, 'Nah, because if I do that, then I'm going to have to write another book like that, and another book.'
And, I thought--this might be corny--of "Two roads diverged in the yellow wood," and sorry, I could not travel both and be one traveler. And, I knew that if you go this, I doubted I would ever be back again, because knowing the way how road leads onto road.
And I said, 'If I go down that road, I'm not going to ever get back to what I want to.' So, I turned it down.
The agent was just--he couldn't believe that.
The same thing another person brought me, who'd worked with me who really liked me, offered me a million dollars--and this is like 30 years ago, you know--if I would become his partner. And, I didn't have a million. I was, like, 'Wow.'
But, I said, then, I'm going to be running this--it was a Spanish language ad agency run by a brilliant, crazy Cuban. But I liked the guy; I had worked with him. But: do I really--that's not what I want to do. And so, I chose--better only to do the things that really spoke to me as a writer.
And, I'll tell you that the things I wrote from love completely outside the marketplace are the things on which my reputation is based and which eventually allowed me to make a relatively good earnings as a poet and prose writer.
Russ Roberts: Well, it's a great luxury to be able to say No. I like to say that poverty is awful, but money is overrated. So, if you could avoid poverty, you should do what you love. But, as a general piece of advice--not always the best advice--but if you can make a living--it doesn't have to be the best living--Do what you love. Let's talk--
Dana Gioia: There was a great Italian mezzo-soprano, Ebe Stignani, great meaty voice. People that are opera fans will know her from the 1940s and 1950s. I remember reading an interview with her and they're asking her this, she goes, 'Success is the ability to say no. When you're offered a part, you realize that's not the right part for me, you say no, confident that something else will come along.' So, I mean, it's obvious, but I think a real artist has to know what he or she should be doing and what he or she should not be doing.
And, the marketplace is constantly trying to encourage you to make bad choices.
Now, I believe in the marketplace. I'm such a marketplace believer. But the fact is what the marketplace does is give you a price. You have to determine what the value is. And you need know your values, the values of your art, the values of your profession, to be able to respond to the marketplace.
So, in some cases, if I need to do this, I will do it for free. I'd rather do it for free than not do it at all. In other cases, no matter what you offer me, I'm not going to do it. It's just not where I choose, where I know I should be going. And, those few times where I do those things, I always regret it.
Russ Roberts: I want to ask you a quick question about Wallace Stevens, who you mentioned. Who, he's one of my dad's favorite poets: so when I was growing up, I'd always read his poetry and I couldn't understand it. And, then I got older and I couldn't understand it, so I took a class from a philosopher, Dick Smythe, who was an extraordinary teacher of mine at the University of North Carolina, and he taught a class on the philosophy of Stevens's poems. I don't remember anything about that class. I wish I could take it right now.
But, I was somewhat comforted by the fact that I think you said you don't have to care about Stevens's ideas, but about the sound of his poetry--his music. And, I do get that. But, do you understand--do those poems speak to you beyond the music?
Dana Gioia: Yeah, I understand Stevens. It took me a long time to understand Stevens, because what you really have to do is just take literally everything he's saying, because he says things that you say, 'No, no, he can't really mean that.' But, in a very simple condensation, here's what Stevens is doing. Stevens is trying to figure out how do you make sense of the world and existence once you take away the idea of God? You know: What gives meaning to existence?
So, he spends his whole career doing this, and what he says is that humanity has to create the supreme fiction. Which is, essentially you create the idea of God, and--but it's a God that's based on man. He's very Nietzschean in this. No will to power, but a lot of other Nietzschean ideas. And that you create these fictions by which give your life meaning. And so, they are enabling fictions. But they're more than deceptions. It's the only way you can create meaning, is to create a construct, you know, which has virtues by which you live in. And, he spends--he's very serious as a philosopher, very disciplined in his thinking, in that when you look at the world, you have to see what's there and not see what's not there. And so, he's right about sort of the mainstream of modern philosophy.
But, significantly on his deathbed, Wallace Stevens asked to be baptized in the Catholic Church. And so, as he himself was facing eternity, the idea that it was a fiction was not sufficient. And, his friends, you know, would say--they would go to business trips with him, because he would--he was a strange boss. Everybody was terrified of him at Hartford Accident and Indemnity--
Russ Roberts: Insurance executive--
Dana Gioia: He was a huge, temperamental man.
And so, he would just tell somebody--he didn't drive, so, 'Drive me to New York.' So, they'd drive to New York. They would have a fancy lunch. He would go to galleries and things like this. But he would always, when he went by a church, a Catholic Church, he would just go in and just sit by himself, you know, for half an hour in silence. And people, they had no idea what was going on.
And, I think what it was is he was somebody, a poet who was actually an existential poet, which is: What is the purpose of life? How do you get through life?
And, he was a very private man, but I think it's significant that the supreme fiction that he articulated so magnificently was, in the end, perhaps not sufficient to support his spirit.
Russ Roberts: That's really beautiful. Let's close with a discussion of criticism: The act of being a critic, the role of the critic. One of the stories in your book is what happened to you after you gave a bad review to James Dickey, who wrote two poems I love: "Falling," and "The Bee." You mentioned "Falling" in there. I love "The Bee." But, you say--I'm going to quote. You say,
Criticism should be a conversation about the experience of reading a literary work. It is not the paid patter of public relations. It should be an honest account of the critic's reactions. Our relation to a book, like most other things in life, is usually mixed. We like some aspects of the thing and not others. To articulate the slippery experience accurately is the challenge a criticism even in the modest form of a book review.
And, then you go on to talk about the trust between the reader and the critic.
Criticism has become, generally in today's world, I would say the paid patter of public relations, and you allude to that I think in the "Can Poetry Matter?" essay, essentially that there's this club that people--as somebody said, it's the New York Review of Each Others' Books. And they tend to be positive. You will occasionally get a negative review that's designed. The editor picks somebody that they know will hate a book and they get them to savage it. It's an ugly, sometimes entertaining, but an ugly art.
Talk about criticism and that challenge. As an economist, I look at, and I think the incentives for honest criticism are not so great, so it is part of the problem.
Dana Gioia: There are almost no incentives to write honest criticism.
But, let me just start with the idea of criticism. If you and I went to a movie together, as we walked out, what would we talk about? We'd talk about our reactions to the movie.
So, criticism comes out of the most normal human behavior, which is that if you experience a work of art, a concert, or you read a book or whatever, you talk about it. You share it. That's why people like book clubs, because they like to read books, but it's more fun to read a book if somebody else is reading it. You can talk about it.
Actually, our family has a book club every year. We pick a book. Cousin Bette by Balzac. We did The Red and the Black, we did Anna Karenina, Catch-22. So, we read a book together, and it adds resonance.
So, really, we're in a culture that has too many books, too many movies. In the old days before the pandemic, too many plays, too many concerts. So, people want some guidance as well as some ability to reflect. What should they pay attention to?
And so, I think the health of the culture depends in a weird way as much upon the critics and the editors as it does on the artists. Because, without them, they don't have a conversation with a broader public.
In poetry, there is a long tradition that goes back to Dryden, to Samuel Johnson, to Coleridge, to Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot--you can go on and on and on--of the poet/critic. Poets write about their own art from the inside. It's an international tradition. Montale did it, Baudelaire did it, etc., etc.
And so, I've always thought of myself as a poet; but also a poet who's a writer. I write about poetry, I write about music, I write about culture. And, people need--people actually enjoy an article about a poem where you quote things and you explain things, because it allows them to enter the imagination, and they can make the decision on their own whether this is a writer they want to pick up on.
So, it's been a fundamental part of my own writing since high school. And, I've never stopped writing criticism. I now no longer write reviews, because I'd rather write a longer piece. In fact, I just wrote a monstrous piece, a 14,000 word essay on Baudelaire that is going to be the introduction for a new edition of Flowers of Evil that will come out in the fall. I like to talk about the author's life.
But, good prose. Now, the trouble with criticism is the academic criticism is almost entirely unreadable. You can love an author--you'll pick up a book from Yale University Press--and it's not actually written to be read. It's written to be evaluated and give somebody a promotion or tenure, because they're writing it in ways that demonstrate their worthiness for this kind of institutional employment. They're not writing for the reader. They're writing for the committee.
And so, you're in a situation once again where you have hundreds, probably thousands, of literary books coming out on poetry every year, of which perhaps a dozen are readable. So, there's a real need for these, and people respond with enormous generosity when they come across a book like that.
One of the great, maybe the best, poet/critic of the age, a guy named Clive James, you know, died last year. He was--in England, he was a TV celebrity. He would do travel shows and things like that. Americans have seen him. He's an Australian who lived in England, did Great Cities of the World and things like this. Very popular as a TV critic and a TV personality. But, his secret vice was poetry and poetry criticism, and he wrote it with an urbane Australian panache. And, I liked that, because you couldn't--I remember he was reviewing a book of memoirs by Brezhnev, and he said that 'if this book were taken into an open field, opened, and read aloud, the birds would fall dead from the sky.' You know, it was just about what an official Soviet autobiography was like.
So, the language was alive. And so, I try to write prose in which the language is alive, where you can bring your whole life into my book, and I'm acknowledging it.
See, this is the thing that I think a lot of critics and a lot of poets feel--is that unless you're always writing an unfinished work. I have a poem which is not finished until you read it. It's not finished until you are able to bring your life into my poem. If it's just about my life, it doesn't work for you.
And so, that's one of the critical things that I learned, not immediately as a poet, but as I began to write poetry, which was to give the reader many doorways into which to enter the poem. What it usually means is I cut things out.
I want to read you a six-line poem. Having just made a mistake in a poem, I'm afraid almost to recite it. But, it's got a story. I was asked by NPR [National Public Radio] to write a poem for New Year's Day. This is 20-some years ago. And so, I wrote a very elegant--I think it was a 32-line poem--about the idea of New Year's. And, then after we recited it and recorded it, I was now going to publish it. And, I looked at it. Well, that's just a little too long, so I took it from 32 to 28. I took it from 28 to 24. And I cut it down to 20. Then it became 18. And, I said, 'Well, maybe it's going to be a sonnet.' But, it went to 16, then it went to 12, so it never even stopped at the sonnet phase. And, then it went shorter, and finally it ended up being six lines long. It had nothing whatsoever to do with New Year's. And I think it's a better poem because of that. It's called "Unsaid."
So much of what we live goes on inside--
And, that's a poem that I think everybody will hear and understand a little bit differently, because I'm trying to in a sense create a lens by which we can sort of see our own experience. "Think of the letters that we write our dead." That's maybe a line that somebody who is 15 can't understand, but as you go on in life, it's something that you understand all too well.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Dana Gioia. His book is Studying with Miss Bishop, but you also could pick up 99 Poems and perhaps enjoy those as well. Dana, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Dana Gioia: It's been great fun. Bye-bye.