Dana Gioia is “a combination of Robert Frost and Dean Martin,” said National Italian American Foundation Chairman Ken Ciongoli in his introduction to the sixth annual Gay Talese Lecture at Kelly Writers House.
Many already know of Gioia as an influential literary presence whose body of work includes poetry, criticism (such as his now-famous essay, “Can Poetry Matter?”), translations and libretti. He’s also served for two years as Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. On Oct. 24, Gioia proved to be an engaging entertainer, too, talking about writing and reciting selections of his work in an expressive baritone.
Gioia opened and closed with “Unsaid,” a poem originally written as a 36-line reflection on New Year’s Day for National Public Radio. The version Gioia read was a mere six lines long and a poem that, he conceeded, no longer had anything to do with New Year’s Day. “What we conceal/Is always more than what we dare confide,” he recited.
Gioia, the first in his family to attend college (Stanford and Harvard), grew up in Hawthorn, California—a place perhaps best-known as the home of The Beach Boys and the setting for “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown,” two films that “capture the charm of Hawthorn,”
Gioia remarked dryly. Gioia also read the aria from his opera libretto, “Nosferatu;” his ballad, “Summer Storm,” taken from his American Book Award-winning collection, “Interrogations at Noon;” and his moving poem, “Planting a Sequoia,” written after the death of his infant son. This poem, Gioia said, refers to the Italian-American custom of wrapping the umbilical cord of a child around the roots of an olive or fig tree and then planting it:
But today we kneel in the cold
planting you, our native giant,
Defying the practical custom of
our fathers, Wrapping in your roots a lock
of hair, a piece of an infant’s
All that remains above earth of
a first-born son,
A few stray atoms brought back
to the elements.
Originally published on November 3, 2005