I’ve read some great essays by Gioia as they’ve popped onto my radar over the years, but I’ve only seen a smattering of the actual poetry of one of America’s best and most important poets.
Having just read his most recent collection, I can highly recommend it. Gioia writes about the kind of thoughts and concerns I also care about. His work is what the kids I teach might call “relatable,” though they themselves, ironically, would find his meditations on careers, economics, rituals, and domestic relationships mostly incomprehensible, coming as they do squarely from the heart of a middle aged, middle class man. He’s the kind of man that the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Obsolete Man” memorialized, and like that classic bit of TV, this book of poetry might be called prophetic in some future day, when the target audience of like-minded readers will be ever and ever smaller.
There’s no pretension of universality here. In fact, that’s what leads to my one major ding against the book–it includes several poems translated from the Italian by other writers. As good as they are, the tone and style are wholly off from Gioia’s, and break the unity of the rest of the book, like an anachronism in an otherwise convincing fantasy.
Among the best works are “Prayer at Winter Solstice,” which includes such great lines as these:
Blessed is the road that keeps us homeless.
Blessed is the mountain that blocks our way.
Blessed are hunger and thirst, loneliness and all forms of desire.
Blessed is the labor that exhausts us without end.
Blessed are the night and the darkness that blinds us.
Blessed is the cold that teaches us to feel.
Another example of what makes this work so worthwhile, especially for this teacher, is “Autumn Inaugural:”
So praise to innocence—impulsive and evergreen—
and let the old be touched by youth’s
wayward astonishment at learning something new,
and dream of a future so fitting and so just
that our desire will bring it into being.
The collection is full of pithy observations drawn from the slice-of-life episodes recounted in his poems, like the section of “Special Treatments Ward” that discusses the hard feelings he dealt with while spending time in a children’s hospital cancer ward, and the likewise hard attempt to write and to not write about it, and the final reality of it: “But there are poems we do not choose to write.”
Here he is reading a poem not in this collection, but it gives you a good sense of his spirit: