The highlight of my week in Washington was not the lunch at the White House, or the meetings with various politicos, or even becoming one of the elite group of people who can claim to have been featured on “Theology on Tap.” Although, all of those things were great. My personal highlight ended up being an impromptu meeting that we wouldn’t have even dreamed of trying to get on our original schedule.
Through some combination of divine and human machinations, my television writing friend, Dean Batali, and I had the privilege of a private meeting with Dana Gioia (pronounced Joy-ah), the new Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. What a guy.
Every so often, you get the chance to meet someone with an intellect that could boil water. In this case, it is an added plus that this man is a devout Catholic, and in a place of great influence in Washington. It is positively freakish, when the man also happens to be an artist who moved from citing great moments on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Fantasy Island to sharing a line from his libretto for the 1920’s horror film classic Nosferatu.
Here is an excerpt from an interview Gioia did in a literary review about the decline of narrative poetry. The whole interview is here.
“When poets stopped telling stories, they not only lost a substantial portion of their audience; they also considerably narrowed the imaginative possibilities of their art. As long as there have been poets, those poets told stories. These stories were rarely about their own lives but about imagined lives-drawn from myth, legend, history or current events. The source scarcely mattered as long as the poet vividly reimagined them for the reader. From Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Attar, Firdausi, Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Camoes, Spenser, La Fontaine, Milton, Goethe, Pope, Pushkin, Byron, Longfellow, Mickiewicz up to Frost and Jeffers, the history of poetry was inextricably bound with the history of narrative- until, that is, about seventy years ago. Modernism, which grew out of Symbolism, was primarily interested in exploring the expressive possibilities of the lyric mode. American Modernism especially prized compression, intensity, indirection, and allusion. Not surprisingly, the movement had little use for the expansive and mostly linear nature of narrative. That mode was best left to middlebrow novelists and the movies. I won’t condemn Modernism’s rejection of narrative because the movement produced some of the greatest poetry written in our language. All artistic movements make decisions on what to explore and what to ignore. If they produce great art, one must concede they made the proper choices.
Now that Modernism is dead, however, the problems with its bias toward the lyric mode have become obvious. No Modernist masterpieces have been produced for decades. The avant-garde is moribund. But the American arts establishment, especially in the visual and literary arts, still passively accepts most of Modernism’s tenets. Even in the 1960’s when contemporary poets first returned to the narrative mode, they made a crucial mistake under the influence of Modernism. They tried to recreate poetic narrative out of an autobiographical lyric “I” rather than the invented third-person. The Confessional aesthetic that resulted exhausted itself artisfically within five years, but it continued to be the mainstream style of American poetry for the next three decades. The recent return to narrative is one of the crucial changes now transforming American poetry. This broadscale shift in sensibility represents perhaps the surest evidence that Modernism is now an irretrievably dead period style, despite the cosmetic expertise of the embalmers of academe like poor Marjorie Perloff who naively believe in an eternal avant-garde.”
I love a man who can state with authority, and almost a yawn, that “Modernism is dead.”
Gioia is a profound thinker with a truly clear and balanced vision of culture. He’s one of those people who leaves you with the kind of conviction that you get walking into St. Peter’s in Rome. Catholicism must be mostly true to produce a person/place like that.
I was also impressed, by extension, that George W. Bush had found this man, and appointed him to this important position. “Water”, as the saying goes, “seeks its own level.”
Now, I can die.