NEA Chief Offers His Perspective

Monday, May 5, 2008

National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia is a nationally known poet and literary critic but he took an untraditional route to get there. Gioia was a conservative student at the liberal Stanford University in the 1960s. Though he had always written poetry, his day job for many years was an executive at General Foods in charge of marketing products such as Jell-O and Kool-Aid.

He eventually left the business world to write full time. In 2001, he was tapped by President Bush to head the NEA -- the first poet and the first Californian to be named. Following is an excerpt of a conversation he had with reporter Valerie Strauss about poetry and the program Poetry Out Loud that the endowment co-sponsors:

Q Some teachers introduce poetry to students through the lyrics of musicians: the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen. Is that a good idea or not?

A I think it's a good idea to use pop lyrics to introduce a poetry unit because you need to recognize the students' life experience in education. But the purpose of the poetry unit should be to bring them beyond the language they are experiencing in pop music into the diverse greatness of poetry.

Music lyrics are not really poems?

Music is part of the meaning of a lyric. Music can take a set of words that could never communicate as much without it, and turn those lyrics into something more powerful. . . . Songs and poems have a deep family connection, but they have become separate art forms . . . What 'Poetry Out Loud' and songs have in common is that they are both performed. Nobody tells me they love Bob Dylan because they read the sheet music.

It is interesting that rap music has played a role in the revival of recited poetry. How did that happen?

Rap music is an interesting phenomenon. In the 20th century, modernism took poetry away from the average person. When I was in college, I was told that poetry would never again be popular because modernist poetry had to be difficult and only intellectuals could fully understand it. But guess what? The average person needs and likes poetry. When the intellectuals took poetry away from them, they reinvented it for themselves. Rap and hip-hop is now the largest category of recorded sound in the world.

Still, it seems a far cry from Robert Frost.

I'm not saying that Snoop Dog and Lil Mama are the new Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. What I am saying is that rap was created to fill a real human need, namely people's desire to have memorable language to describe their world.

Do you have a favorite poet?

When I'm asked my favorite poet, I have to admit with great embarrassment that my answer is obvious. It's William Shakespeare.

Who else? And what poems do you love?

My other favorite poets are Robert Frost, W.H. Auden and Rainer Maria Rilke. I know several hundred poems by heart. My mother was a working-class Mexican woman who knew dozens of poems by heart and she would recite them to me when I was child, so my earliest experience with literature came from hearing my mother's voice recite the poems she loved. My favorite of many poems she use to recite was Edgar Allan Poe's 'Annabel Lee.' That has always remained a poem close to my heart.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company