December 10, 2010

Great Writers of DC

As I write this I am listening to the Schubert Ensemble of London play Dohnanyi's Piano Quintet #1. Sipping Pumpkin Spice coffee. Watching, through the glass doors of my balcony, the first snows flurry sideways over the neighborhood of Woodley Park. Everyone's chimneys have come to life.

Last night I heard Dana Gioia read at the Phillips Collection. He was clearly delighted to get to be a poet again, instead of having to shoulder the burden of being an Official Government Representative. I've always had a soft spot for Gioia's work. He started a lot of great programs during his tenure at the National Endowment for the Arts--including Poetry Out Loud, The Big Read, and Operation Homecoming.

It's easy to make the snarky presumption that those who come to poetry from successful business backgrounds (like Gioia, who most famously worked for Jell-o) prize polish over aesthetic grace. I don't think that's true; I think you can be savvy without being a sell-out. Ron Slate spent years in corporate communications, and his work in The Incentive of the Maggot and The Great Wave is incredible--supple, engaging, philosophically bold.

The strongest poem we heard from Gioia last night was "The Angel with the Broken Wing," which first appeared in the September 2010 issue of POETRY.


I am the Angel with the Broken Wing,
The one large statue in this quiet room.
The staff finds me too fierce, and so they shut
Faith’s ardor in this air-conditioned tomb.

The docents praise my elegant design
Above the chatter of the gallery.
Perhaps I am a masterpiece of sorts—
The perfect emblem of futility.

Mendoza carved me for a country church.
(His name’s forgotten now except by me.)
I stood beside a gilded altar where
The hopeless offered God their misery.

I heard their women whispering at my feet—
Prayers for the lost, the dying, and the dead.
Their candles stretched my shadow up the wall,
And I became the hunger that they fed.

I broke my left wing in the Revolution
(Even a saint can savor irony)
When troops were sent to vandalize the chapel.
They hit me once—almost apologetically.

For even the godless feel something in a church,
A twinge of hope, fear? Who knows what it is?
A trembling unaccounted by their laws,
An ancient memory they can’t dismiss.

There are so many things I must tell God!
The howling of the dammed can’t reach so high.
But I stand like a dead thing nailed to a perch,
A crippled saint against a painted sky.

-Dana Gioia

I was a little dismayed by his answer to the final question of the night, though. Someone asked if he had written about Washington, DC. No, he said. [Long pause.] But he might once he got back to California. To paraphrase, he said that DC is a bad place for poets. His theory is that our job is to be hyper-attuned to the world around us, and in a city so obsessed with political power ("60,000 alpha males, and 30,000 women who want to be alpha males"), our aesthetic antennae are overwhelmed by the static of constant wheeling and dealing.

"In a capital city this great--and it is the greatest in the world, I think--no great writer has come out of Washington. Now, you have to ask yourself, why is that?"

Ouch. Sterling Brown? Edward P. Jones? Ann Beattie? George Pelecanos? I suspect he realized mid-comment that he may have been a little harsh. He clarified; there's no writer to DC as Faulkner was to Oxford, Mississippi, he said. Aw, to have Oxford used as the contrast. Salt in the wound!

He clarified again; it isn't that there isn't great writing going on now, he said, it's just that all that energy goes into journalism.

I like it when someone says something strong enough to be agreed OR disagreed with. That's why I think an essay like "Can Poetry Matter?" is valuable, even if I take issue with some of its premises and conclusions. But honest opinion is a double-edged sword, and last night, sitting in the audience of the Phillips, I felt cut in two.

No great writer has come out of Washington?


Giulia said...

That was a very big mistake, what Dana said. I was fuming & making a list - all of your examples & 15-20 more. It was lazy of him & he knew it...that's why he looked like that...

Tricia said...

Also: "60,000 alpha males, and 30,000 women who want to be alpha males" is just eww

Jeannine said...

Same - the anti-feminist sentiment there bothered me more than the anti-DC sentiment...

Matthew Thorburn said...

I'm not a fan of Gioia's writing, but I do think poets who work in Corporate America are pretty great. ;)