Dana Gioia is a distinguished man of letters and former chair (January 2003 – January 2009) of the National Endowment for the Arts. He currently holds the position of Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.
Gioia was born in Hawthorne, California, on December 24, 1950, into a family of Italian and Mexican heritage. He attended Catholic schools for 12 years, including Serra High School in Gardena. His undergraduate studies were at Stanford, followed by an M.A. from Harvard. In a perhaps unusual move for an emerging poet, he returned to Stanford for an M.B.A, which led to a successful 15-year career with the General Foods Corporation. During that time he wrote during evening hours and on weekends. His 1991 Atlantic essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” generated wide attention and, in the words of Gioia’s website, “sparked a firestorm of debate and discussion over the role of poetry in today’s world.” Gioia contends that poetry is largely confined to the groves of academe and has lost the influence it once enjoyed in the wider culture. In 1992 he resigned from General Foods in order to devote himself completely to his work as a poet and critic.
Gioia has published four books of poetry: Daily Horoscope (1986), The Gods of Winter (1991), Interrogations at Noon (2001, winner of the 2002 American Book Award), and Pity the Beautiful (2012).
Gioia’s Atlantic essay has been reprinted as the title selection in his collection of essays on poetry and American culture, Can Poetry Matter? (1992, 2002). Other works of criticism include Barriers of a Common Language: An American Looks at Contemporary British Poetry (2003), and Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture (2004).[i]
Gioia’s most recent essay, published in First Things (December 2013), is entitled “The Catholic Writer Today.” The essay is a straightforward critique, the opening paragraph setting forth the paradox the essay explores:
Stated simply, the paradox is that, although Roman Catholicism constitutes the largest religious and cultural group in the United States, Catholicism currently enjoys almost no positive presence in the American fine arts—not in literature, music, sculpture, or painting. This situation not only represents a demographic paradox. It also marks a major historical change—an impoverishment, indeed even a disfigurement—for Catholicism, which has for two millennia played a hugely formative and inspirational role in the arts.
Gioia’s tenure as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts was marked by efforts “to bring new viability to the agency through a series of national initiatives that stressed broad democratic reach and artistic excellence.” These efforts included programs specifically designed during the height of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan to reach out to the military and their families (Wikipedia).
Gioia is the recipient of 10 honorary degrees and of numerous awards, among them the President’s Citizen’s Medal (2008) and the University of Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal (2010).
[i] Gioia’s books have all been published by Graywolf Press, St. Paul, MN.