A Christian Poet You Will Like

Matthew Brennan's superb introduction to Dana Gioia.

Matthew Brennan’s The Colosseum Critical Introduction to Dana Gioia pro-vides an accessible and inviting overview of Gioia and his oeuvre. Following a brief outline of the poet’s life and work, Brennan summarizes and illustrates his poetics. Wallace Stevens once wrote, “One is always writing about two things at the same time in poetry and it is this that produces the tension characteristic of poetry. One is the subject and the other is the poetry of the subject” (in Gibbons, The Poet’s Work, 1989). Brennan’s chapter on Gioia’s poetics illustrates this observation; it offers a helpful overview of formalist poetics and prepares the reader for the wide-ranging survey of Gioia’s poetry that follows. Two final chapters examine Gioia’s work as a critic, public intellectual, and Catholic writer. 

Brennan describes Gioia as a poet of presence whose “poems explore the conflict between our practical, routine lives and our desire for an idealized but ultimately impossible transcendence, the desire to see beyond the material surface of reality” (27). He gives many fine examples of Gioia’s mastery of meter and rhyme, at the same time explaining the poet’s freedom to invent new forms and to continue using free verse, as each poem demands. His analyses of Gioia’s poems might well serve as an introduction to reading formal verse, showing how lines work with forms, rhythms, images, and themes to engage the heart as well as the mind.

Gioia is, of course, strongly associated with the New Formalism move-ment in poetry. Brennan explains, “Gioia argues for a revival of form in poetry to parallel the return to tonality in music, representation in art, and ornamental detail in architecture” (73). “The purpose of reviving form and meter, he writes, is to widen the audience for poetry and to provide poets with long-dormant possibilities for fresh expression” (73). Gioia’s work as poet, critic, and public servant – he led the National Endowment of the Arts 2003-2009 – has made a strong contribution to that end.

Gioia is a Catholic writer, as he explains, but not because he pursues religious themes. Brennan notes that, in Gioia’s view, “what makes a writer Catholic is not so much the subject matter as the incorporation of other spiritual aspects: sacramental nature, the long view, redemption through suffering, and the ‘continuity between the living and the dead’” (79). As a Catholic writer, Gioia anchors deep in the heritage and tradition of his church, and explores many different forms of artistic expression, including opera, literature, criticism, and formal and informal verse. He is perhaps the best-read poet of our generation.

Overall, Brennan’s book is concise, enjoyable, and as useful an intro-duction to a poet as any I have read.