What is a poem? What is it meant to do? Who is it meant for? Poet Dana Gioia and host Russ Roberts explore these questions and more as they talk about the meaning of poetry. The conversation touches on many personal topics: death, loss, family, and our common humanity. At the beginning of each episode, Roberts mentions EconTalk’s tagline: “Conversations for the Curious”.  This conversation certainly fits the bill, as the two explore what poetry in various forms has meant to them and their families.

Dana Gioia’s career as a writer, poet and critic has spanned several genres, including as a librettist for opera and jazz artists. He has done public advocacy work within the arts as the Poet Laureate for the state of California and as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Here’s an excerpt from Gioia on his powers as a poet:

You know, when I was a young, ambitious writer at Stanford and Harvard and imagining how I’d make my mark, I had this very English-department notion of what a poem is, and its relationship to the great tradition and the history of ideas. But, nowadays, I think of what a poem is, is this instrument of language that you create, that is one-half a game and one-half a kind of spiritual exploration. But, the highest thing that you can do is to be useful, is to have these words be useful to people in the dilemmas of their actual lives. If you’re lucky, they will find uses for your poem that you don’t even imagine.

But, I had a very odd thing where I wrote a poem and I had people talk about it in a totally different context. And I read the poem, and I realized it applied to that context equally. In fact, I rather liked that as much as I liked my own. Because, poems are like children. Once they’re out of the house, they do things that you didn’t imagine and you may not approve of. But, what you’re trying to do is to make them able to lead independent lives.

I know that sounds very odd, but once my poems are published, I’m simply one of the readers. I probably may be the best-informed reader, but if they belong anywhere at all, they belong in the language, into the readers of the language.

Gioia and Roberts agree on the power that poetry has within ordinary lives, whether for a writer or economist, mother or child, opera lover or pop-song-enthusiast. Do you agree? Their discussion reminded me of scraps of poetry I memorized when I was younger, as a high school or college student, and how they occasionally resurface in my daily life. As an enthusiastic choral singer over the years, many of these poems are songs and have managed to engrave themselves into my brain, almost by accident, but somehow remain, through their words and rhythms, relevant to emotions and thoughts that I have years later.

What did you take away from Gioia and Roberts’ discussion? You may want to consider some of the questions below:


1 – Much of Roberts’ and Gioia’s conversation centers around poetry’s power to connect us with past and future generations. Russ quotes from a few line from Septimus in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia:

We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?

Sophocles, as a great tragic playwright, was certainly a kind of poet. Archimedes and ancient doctors, however, belong to what we would characterize as science. What about other human forms of expression and ideas? Do scientific or economic ideas also sometimes serve in this role of poems, connecting human to human?


2 – Gioia describes poetry as something that is “meant to be heard.”  Historically, he points out, poetry has always been connected to song and performance. Perhaps this is true to some extent of any knowledge expressed in human language, it is more than just the visual representation on the page. Can ideas exist independent of discussion? To what extent is poetry a conversation as well as a performance?


3 – In the opening part of the conversation, Gioia reads a poem that he wrote, Meet Me at the Lighthouse. This is dedicated to his cousin, who died at a young age. It begins a discussion about the poem itself, which contains allusions to jazz, Yeats, and classical mythological topics, as well as references to the poet’s memory of his cousin. How do these allusions work together within the unit of the poem to evoke meaning? What do they express about Gioia himself, or his cousin? 


4 – Gioia mentions the Latin word for poem is the same as its word for song, carmen. Modern popular music often functions like poetry. Is there a particular poem that has stuck with you throughout life? What was it about that poem that was so meaningful and why do you remember it? If the poem has a musical setting, how does that enhance it? What is it about the music that is necessary to the poem, or is it necessary at all? Does this apply equally to different genres and eras of musical poetry: J.S. Bach, opera, ancient epic poems, Bob Dylan, Taylor Swift (of the Tortured Poets Department), Kendrick Lamar?


Related podcasts 

Dana Gioia on Learning, Poetry, and Studying with Miss Bishop, EconTalk
Dwayne Betts on Beauty, Prison, and Redaction, EconTalk
Cheryl Miller on Hertog and the Humanities, The Great Antidote

Zack Weinersmith on Beowulf and Bea Wolf EconTalk


More to explore

Shannon Chamberlain on The Freedom of Poets: Thomas Wyatt as a Character in Wolf Hall at the Reading Room and, related, Garth Bond’s The Freedom of Poets 2: Thomas Wyatt and Petrarch

Sarah Skwire’s The Opportunity Costs of J. Alfred Prufrock at EconLib

Sarah Skwire on Milton’s Poetry and Prose: From the Liberty Fund Rare Book Room at the Online Library of Liberty

Confucius’The Shi King, the Old “Poetry Classic” of the Chinese at the Online Library of Liberty

The Bard and The Professor: Adam Smith’s Influence on the poet Robert Burns at AdamSmithWorks

Adam Smith Also Teaches Good Teaching at AdamSmithWorks

The Imitative Arts: Some Fun With Adam Smith’s Artistic Opinions at AdamSmithWorks

Ancient Perspectives on the Value of Poetry at the Reading Room

The Poet as Intellectual: How the Romantics Took on Thomas Malthus at the Reading Room


Nancy Vander Veer has a BA in Classics from Samford University. She taught high school Latin in the US and held programs and fundraising roles at the Paideia Institute. Based in Rome, Italy, she is currently completing a masters in European Social and Economic History at the Philipps-Universität Marburg.