Pity the Beautiful: Poems Paperback – May 8 2012
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“In his best poems, Gioia rises to the occasion of all great poetry: to immortalize our experience by submitting it to the test of tradition and inspiration.” ―Thomas D'Evelyn, The Christian Science Monitor
“Gioia concerns himself with every aspect of his craft: its traditions, its movements toward and away from rhyme and meter, and its ancient roots in the sound of the human voice . . . Gioia is clearly a poet whose words are heard, whose positions ignite debate, whose work constantly and unflinchingly searches out new ways to counter what he calls 'our sentimental, upbeat age.'” ―from the American Book Award citation for Interrogations at Noon
“Dana Gioia's poems always reveal his narrative ease and naturalness of diction; he's partly an old-fashioned storyteller and partly a metaphysical poet of reflection and devotion. From his very first book, which was published twenty-five years ago, he's always been considered one of this country's most accomplished formal masters.” ―David St. John
About the Author
Dana Gioia is the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and currently serves as the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California. He lives in Washington, DC.
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I heard Gioia read a couple of the poems at Grolier's Poetry Bookshop in Boston on Valentine's Day and pre-ordered immediately. Other than having the poems READ by the author, this collection is about as good as it gets. Each poem is lovingly created with an ear tuned to the ebb and flow of natural language, while upping the ante of meaning. The poems resonate with the passion of loss and resurrection.
Among my personal favorites are: The Angel With The Broken Wing (favorite), Finding a Box of Family Letters, and The Present. Of course I would be remiss in failing to mention Special Treatments Ward, which left me sobbing by the final stanzas. "I cannot name them -- their faces pale and gray/ like ashes fallen from a distant fire" It is haunting and a challenge to me personally to pay better and closer attention to the details of sorrow which make us all more human.
Likewise in Finding a Box of Family Letters, we find ourselves challenged to pay attention:
"It's silly to get sentimental./ The dead have moved on. So should we./ But isn't it equally simpleminded to miss/ the special enterprise of the departed/ in clarifying our long-term plans?"
I felt compelled to revisit my memories after reading this poem, to evaluate my relationship to the past and to my long-gone relatives. When Gioia writes, "They never forget that the line/ between them and us is only temporary..." I am again reduced to tears (in a good way). I need these reminders of how we are but pearls on a strand of cotton thread.
In The Angel With The Broken Wing, i would draw attention to two stanzas that may be emblematic of the entire collection:
I heard their women whispering at my feet--
Prayers for the lost, the dying, and the dead.
Their candles stretched my shadow up the wall,
And I became a hunger that they fed.
Oh my! This reminds me of another poem of Gioia's I love: Nosferatu's Sereade. It is evocative, poignant, and yet solidly NOT sappy. I lose a bit of my own solid feeling when I read these words, become a flicker of my own shadow. It is thrilling.
For even the godless feel something in a church,
A twinge of hope, fear? Who knows what it is?
A trembling unaccounted by their laws,
And ancient memory they can't dismiss.
Another big "oh my" here. I am dizzied by the beauty and suggestion in these lines.
Overarching all, however, is Gioia's talent with meter and rhyme, not bowing to the false gods of poetry's past but creating a platform for the future where poetry rises like a phoenix of form.
My father breaks my heart
simply by being so young and handsome.
He's half my age, with jet-black hair.
Look at him in his navy uniform
grinning beside his dive-bomber.
Then the haunting last stanza:
They never let us forget that the line
between them and us is only temporary.
Get out there and dance! The letters shout
adding, Love always. Can't wait to get home!
And soon we will be. See you there.
The whole poem will break your heart. And if this one isn't enough there is "Special Treatment Ward" with an opening line almost too painful to read: "So this is where the children come to die." The second stanza expresses the feeling that many of us have experienced: that if we love them and hold them, that we can somehow keep the dying alive.
The mother's spend their nights inside the ward,
sleeping on chairs that fold out into beds, [sounds so familiar!]
too small to lie in comfort. Soon they slip
beside their children, as if they might mesh
those small bruised bodies back into their flesh.
Instinctively they feel that love so strong
protects a child. Each morning proves them wrong.
Mr. Goioa says in his notes that he lost a child in infancy, surely every parent's worse nightmare. The poem "Majority" in the poet's own words "commemorates" that son's twenty-first birthday.
Now you'd be three,
I said to myself,
seeing a child born
the same summer as you.
Now you'd be six,
or seven, or ten.
I watched you grow
in foreign bodies.
Leaping into a pool, all laughter,
or frowning over a keyboard,
but mostly just standing,
taller each time.
How splendid your most
mundane action seemed
in those joyful proxies.
I often held back tears. [As did this reader]
Now you are twenty-one.
Finally, it makes sense
that you have moved away
into your own afterlife.
Mr. Gioia seems to have put into this exquisitely wrought poem what Paul Newman said when asked how long it takes to get over the death of a child. He responded that you do not, but the sorrow becomes different and that you learn to live with it. I would take bets that Mr. Keillor selects this poem to read soon.
In addition to these poems about loss, there are others : ("The Coat" for instance, where seeing a woman in a pink coat reminds the narrator of the poem of a long lost love: "Why had your ghost returned here with this warning?"
Finally the poet in "Being Happy" gives a splendid definition of happiness:
Being happy is mostly like that. You don't see it up close.
You recognize it later from the ache of memory.
And you can't recapture it. You only get to choose
whether to remember or forget, whether to feel remorse
or nothing at all. Maybe it wasn't really love.
But who can tell when nothing deeper ever came along?
I cannot say enough good things about these wonderful poems. They are some of the best new poems I have read in a very, very long time.If you like poetry, you will love this book. Like all good poems, these you will read again and again.
There's a name for this, of course; we have to give everything a name: The "New Formalism." It reaches back to a time when most poetry did indeed rhyme, and was metrical as well. It was also a time (roughly pre-World War II, perhaps a little earlier) when poetry has a much broader appeal than it does today. Newspapers, for example often published poetry on a daily basis. The poets associated with the New Formalism include Mark Jarman, Howard Nemerov, Donald Justice, Mary Oliver - and Dana Gioia.
Even after World War II, rhyming poetry was still taught to schoolchildren. I can remember learning (and doing a class-in-unison recital) of Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride" in the fifth grade. It was nationalism and poetry and performance art in one nice package.
And that is partially the point Gioia makes in Can Poetry Matter?, his collection of essays about poetry and American culture, that the post-war shift of poetry largely to academia essentially shut the door on poetry for the public. Poetic forms and techniques like rhyme (and meter) were largely abandoned.
Gioia has been working to resurrect both more traditional poetry and "Poetry for the public," and Pity the Beautiful is more than a nod in that direction.
The important point about rhyme is that it's memorable and accessible, and it makes recall easier. Consider the opening lines of Gioia's poem "The Reunion:"
This is my past where no one knows me,
These are my friends whom I can't name--
Here in a field where no one chose me,
The faces older, the voices the same.
It's not only rhyme that's at work here; meter and cadence are strong elements as well. Say the lines aloud - they're written to be read aloud.
Not all of the poems in the collection are "new formalist," but they share elements of similarity, particularly in how they flow in an orderly, formal way.
The poems are also distinguished by their subjects, like freeways, shopping, a children's hospital (a poem that is particularly moving), an apple orchard, a coat. These are subjects and themes that are familiar, recognizable, without abstraction. And each has a kind of narrative flow. One poem, "Haunted," is a story of what might be love found and lost.
What differentiates these poems from older poems like Longfellow's is the language - it's contemporary. Gioia avoids ornate or complex words; instead, he aims for the simple, often paired them in rhyme, and their simplicity is the power of each poem.
to give a rational poet my dollars. Most contemporary poets write for other poets, Gloia
writes for the rest of the crowd.