Poet reconciles art and religion

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Photo by Elena Malloy.

Poet, critic and businessman Dana Gioia opened his Tuesday evening lecture in the Woolsey Hall President’s Room with a dramatic reading of a scene from William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”

Gioia, who has also served as the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, read several poems — which were mostly his own — before beginning his discussion of the difficulties of reconciling one’s religion with creating art. The poems he read reflected on young romance, mourning for his infant son, the surrealist movement of the 20th century and the art of writing poetry itself. The discussion, which drew approximately 100 members of the Yale and New Haven communities, was moderated by Christian Wiman, a lecturer at the Yale Divinity School.

Gioia said the poems he read — including “The Lunatic, the Lover, and The Poet,” a love poem dedicated to his wife — touch upon the idea that humans see the world as a narrative they have the freedom to construct. He used this example to reflect on why children must study literature.

“Existence is a kind of active literary creation,” Gioia said, adding that the study of literature helps humans understand their own lives as stories.

After the poetry reading, Gioia and Wiman discussed the way the poet has maintained his identity as a practicing Catholic while engaging with and writing poetry. Gioia referred to an instance when an audience at a poetry reading was surprised when he announced that he was not only raised Catholic, but has also continued to practice the religion.

“The answer is — I’m a Catholic,” Gioia said. “It’s who I am. It’s how I respond to the world.”

Gioia explained that his identity as a Catholic helps him relate his art to his community. There is merit in returning to one’s own group with poetry, he said.

“There’s a kind of conversation you can have with your own tribe that helps you clarify your ideas,” Gioia said.

Gioia said he is concerned by the dwindling number of Catholic voices in the arts, adding that he thinks the increase of Catholic voices must come from individual writers and not from the Church itself. While institutions may commission artistic endeavors, he said, they cannot create them independently.

Asked if he thinks there is a tension between believing in the truths of God and constructing his poetry, Gioia told the audience that his writing aims not to fabricate truths but to express his understanding of them — an understanding he has gained through his experiences. Gioia noted that he thinks it is possible to follow creative impulse and write poetry without interfering with the idea of God as manufacturer. He described his view of poetry as experiential and his view of faith as conceptual and abstract. He warned that bad religious poets attempt to make their poetry approximate abstract theology instead of focusing on their own experiences.

Gioia said that he doesn’t know if his poetry contains only truth but added that he does his best to use his experiences to communicate truth as he understands it to his readers. He encouraged all artists to “pursue truth as [they] see truth.”

Several students who attended the lecture said they enjoyed Gioia’s creative approach to expressing ideas.

“I thought it was fantastic,” said Sofia Lapides-Wilson ’17. “I thought he had the perfect way to describe universal human truths we all know and put them into words that are succinct and beautiful and capture their essence.”

Hayley Kolding ’17 said she enjoyed Gioia’s readings because they were performative but did not feel staged.

Gioia received a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University.

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