Dana Gioia

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Dana Gioia
Born (1950-12-24) December 24, 1950 (age 64)
Hawthorne, California, U.S.
Occupation writer, critic, poet, businessman
Nationality American
Alma mater Stanford University (B.A.)
Harvard University (M.A.)
Stanford Business School (M.B.A.)
Notable awards Laetare Medal (2010)

Michael Dana Gioia (born December 24, 1950) is an American poet and writer who also served as the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). He was born in Hawthorne, California to Italian and Mexican parents, attended Stanford and Harvard Universities, and spent the first fifteen years of his career writing at night while working for General Foods Corporation. After his 1991 essay "Can Poetry Matter?" in the The Atlantic generated international attention, Gioia quit business to pursue writing full-time. Gioia has published four books of poetry and three volumes of literary criticism as well as opera libretti, translations, and over two dozen literary anthologies.

Gioia was chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. government's arts agency from January 29, 2003, until January 22, 2009. In August 2011, Gioia became Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California where he now teaches.[1] He currently divides his time between Los Angeles and Sonoma County, California.

Early years[edit]

Michael Dana Gioia —his surname is pronounced "JOY-uh"— was born in Hawthorne, California, the son of Michael Gioia and Dorothy Ortez. His younger brother is jazz historian Ted Gioia.[2] Gioia grew up in Hawthorne, "speaking Italian in a Mexican neighborhood", he said.[3] He attended Catholic schools for twelve years including Junipero Serra High School in Gardena, California.[4]

Gioia was the first person in his family to go to college and earned a Bachelor of Arts from Stanford University in 1973, a Master's degree from Harvard University in 1975, and a Master of Business Administration from Stanford Business School in 1977. From 1971-73, he was editor of Sequoia Magazine and then its poetry editor from 1975-77.

Business career[edit]

After business school, he joined General Foods Corporation in 1977, where he eventually became vice president of marketing. He was on the team that invented Jell-O Jigglers and [5] is credited with reversing a long-running sales decline for Jello.[6]

In 1992, Gioia resigned from his position at General Foods to pursue a full-time career as a poet.


Gioia is classed as one of the "New Formalists", who write in traditional forms and have declared that a return to rhyme and more fixed meters is the new avant-garde. He is a particular proponent of accentual verse.[7] While working at General Foods Gioia wrote in the evenings, producing several books of poetry. From 1977-79, he was literary editor of Inquiry Magazine and served as its poetry editor from 1979-83. For the academic years 1986-89, he was a Visiting Writer at Wesleyan University.[8][9]

After becoming a full-time writer, Gioia also served as vice-president of the Poetry Society of America from 1992 and as music critic for San Francisco magazine in 1997. He also wrote the libretto of the opera Nosferatu (2001).

Gioia objects to how marginalized poetry has become in America. He believes that university English departments appropriated the field from the public:

The voluntary audience of serious contemporary poetry consists mainly of poets, would-be poets, and a few critics. Additionally, there is a slightly larger involuntary and ephemeral audience consisting of students who read contemporary poetry as assigned course work. In sociological terms, it is surely significant that most members of the poetry subculture are literally paid to read poetry: most established poets and critics now work for large educational institutions. Over the last half-century, literary bohemia had been replaced by an academic bureaucracy.[citation needed]

Gioia has also written or co-written a number of texts used in college courses, including An Introduction to Poetry (with X. J. Kennedy) and an anthology (edited with Dan Stone) 100 Great Poets of the English Language (2004). He has authored many essays and reviews.


It was as a poet that Gioia first began to attract widespread attention in the early 1980s, with frequent appearances in The Hudson Review, Poetry, and The New Yorker. In the same period, he published a number of essays and book reviews. Both his poetry and his prose helped to establish him as one of the leading figures in the New Formalist movement, which emphasized a return to traditional poetic techniques such as rhyme, meter, and fixed form, and to narrative and non-autobiographical subject matter.

As a result, Daily Horoscope (1986), his first collection, was one of the most anticipated and widely discussed poetry volumes of its time. Its contents—like those of the three subsequent collections that Gioia has thus far published—range widely in form, length and theme: traditional forms and free verse; lyrics, meditations, and mid-length narratives; deeply personal poems and poems drawn from myth, history, and the other arts. Among its more notable—and widely reprinted—pieces are “California Hills in August”, “In Cheever Country”, and “The Sunday News”.

The Gods of Winter (1991) is in many ways a deeper and darker book than its predecessor. It contains “Planting a Sequoia”, his most direct engagement of the tragic loss of his infant son, as well as two long dramatic monologues, “Counting the Children”, in which an accountant has a disturbing interaction with a grotesque doll collection, and “The Homecoming”, whose narrator explains his motivations for committing murder and the effects that his violent acts have had upon him. Simultaneously published in Britain, it is one of the few American volumes ever chosen as the main selection of the U.K. Poetry Book Society.[citation needed]

Gioia's third collection, Interrogations at Noon (2001) was the winner of the 2002 American Book Award. (It is surely no coincidence that each book’s title contains a temporal reference, given the importance of time and its passing as a theme in Gioia’s poetry.) Its varied contents include a suite of translations from the contemporary Italian poet Valerio Magrelli and two excerpts from Gioia’s translation of Seneca’s Hercules Furens, amid many original poems in which contemplative and occasionally wistful notes predominate, as in the concluding stanza of “Summer Storm”: “And memory insists on pining / For places it never went, / As if life would be happier / Just by being different.”[citation needed] "Words" explores the power and limits of language to understand the world. Other poems examine the lives of poets, painters, and composers. Blank verse remains significant in this volume, and the overall collection was widely praised in both the British and American presses for the quality of his writing and for his handling of varied subject matter.

Pity the Beautiful (2012) marked Gioia's return to poetry with this full length collection of verse. As with his other books of poetry, epigrams precede the five thematically organized sections which feature metrical verse and free verse. " Special Treatments Ward" has garnered notice for its description of a pediatric cancer ward. "Haunted", the central poem in the collection is both a love story and a ghost story. The themes of the collection, love, death and memory, are seen in many poems, including "Finding a Box of Family Letters" which begins:

The dead say little in their letters

They haven't said before.

We find no secrets, and yet

How different every sentence sounds

Heard across the years.

His poetry has appeared in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, The Oxford Book of American Poetry, and many other anthologies. They have been translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Chinese, and Arabic. His poetry has been set to music, in styles ranging from classical to jazz and rock, by—among others— Morten Lauridsen, Ned Rorem, Dave Brubeck, Paquito D’Rivera, and Alva Henderson; song cycles based on his poems have been composed by Stefania de Kenessey, Lori Laitman, and Paul Salerni. Gioia has also written the libretti for the operas Nosferatu (2001; music by Alva Henderson) and Tony Caruso's Last Broadcast (2005; music by Paul Salerni).[citation needed]

NEA chairman[edit]

Gioia was nominated as NEA Chairman by President George W. Bush following the January 2002 death, after only eight days in office, of composer Michael P. Hammond. As Chairman, Gioia worked to bring new visibility to the agency through a series of national initiatives that stressed broad democratic reach and artistic excellence. Bored with discussions of past NEA controversies, Gioia declared publicly, many times, that the issues that reporters and agency critics continued to raise “happened in the last century” and that it was “time to change the conversation”. He believed that neither the arts nor art education should be divisive or partisan issues and made a point to reach out to NEA critics in the United States Congress in an effort to find common ground. As a practical matter, Gioia expanded the Challenge America fast track grants to Challenge America: Reaching Every Community, which put at least one NEA grant in every Congressional District. Gioia’s reasoning for this initiative was to guarantee that the NEA was serving Americans in all parts of the country and to acquaint every member of Congress with at least one arts organization in their district.

With the support of both Congressional Democrats and Republicans, Gioia gained a $20.1 million increase in his agency's budget and for the remainder of his tenure, silenced the perpetual requests from conservatives to defund the agency. "Dana is a superb politician. He knows how to talk to Congress and to the arts community, and to state and federal agencies and to the complex, gigantic, fire-breathing beast called the White House", said David Gelernter of Yale University. Bill Kauffman called Gioia "the best poet in government service since President Tyler sent John Howard Payne, who wrote "Home! Sweet Home!" to Tunis. In November 2006, Business Week Magazine profiled Gioia as “The Man Who Saved the NEA”. Five years after Gioia left office, the Washington Post referred to him as one of "two of the NEA's strongest leaders," Nancy Hanks being the other. Gioia stepped down from the NEA in January 2009.

NEA national initiatives[edit]

While Chairman, Gioia created national initiatives such as Shakespeare in American Communities, which supported tours to small- and medium-sized communities by more than 40 American theatre companies with grants of $25,000.[10] Since the launch of the program in 2003, the tours visited thousands of communities in all 50 states and more than 4,000 schools, were seen by millions of students, and provided work for hundreds of actors, directors, and crew. The late New York Times columnist William Safire referred to this and other NEA national initiatives as A Gioia to Behold”.

In June 2004, the NEA released a research publication, Reading At Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America that detailed a 20-year decline in literary reading among American adults. As a poet, essayist, critic, and author, Gioia found this a dangerous trend for a democracy that relies on an informed, engaged citizenry. In response, Gioia created another national initiative, The Big Read. Based on the “one city, one book” concept, The Big Read brings together partner organizations across the country to encourage reading for pleasure and enlightenment. It was launched as a pilot program with ten communities in 2006, and went national in 2007, eventually becoming the largest literary program in the history of the federal government. Millions of dollars[11] in NEA grants have supported Big Read programs with more than 25,000 local organizations, including libraries, museums, newspapers, mayors' offices, and private businesses. It also became a vehicle for international cultural exchange with Big Read programs in Russia, Egypt, and Mexico.

In addition to working to increase the nation’s taste for literature, Gioia proposed a partnership with The Poetry Foundation to create Poetry Out Loud, a national poetry recitation contest administered by state arts agencies. Each year, some 375,000 students participate, beginning at the high school classroom level. Teachers implement a two-to-three week curriculum using free, standards-based materials, including print and online poetry anthologies containing more than 600 classic and contemporary poems. Classroom winners advance to school-wide recitation competitions, and school champions advance to regional and state competitions, and ultimately to the National Finals in Washington, DC. The winner receives a $20,000 scholarship. In an interview[12] with Poetry Daily, Gioia noted that the competitive aspect of the program inspires both the students and the audience. “We did not predict that aspect of the Poetry Out Loud, but it was apparent from the first time we held a public event. The audience displayed an intensity of attention that is very rare at ordinary poetry readings.”

In expanding and energizing the NEA Jazz Masters, which is the nation’s highest honor in jazz music, Gioia aimed to raise the visibility of artists who he felt were undervalued in their own country. Gioia believed the NEA Jazz Master award should be the jazz equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize. As part of the NEA Jazz Masters initiative, Gioia created NEA Jazz Masters on Tour, to give artists more opportunities to perform live, and NEA Jazz in the Schools, a web-based curriculum produced in partnership with Jazz at Lincoln Center. "We have a generation of Americans growing up who have never been to the theater, the symphony, opera, dance, who have never heard fine jazz, and who increasingly don't read", said Gioia,[13] in justifying his efforts to bring large scale national initiatives of artistic excellence to millions of Americans.

NEA outreach to military personnel and families[edit]

Gioia’s term as NEA Chairman coincided with the peak of U.S. involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. During that time, Gioia worked to include the military and military families in NEA national initiatives. Shakespeare in American Communities was expanded to include tours to military bases—which were warmly embraced by audiences. The NEA also sent young artist programs from opera companies around the country to military bases with the Great American Voices Military Base Tour.

The NEA’s greatest military effort under Gioia was Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, which was underwritten by The Boeing Company. It was created in 2004 by the NEA to help U.S. troops and their families write about their wartime experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, and stateside. Between 2004 and 2009, Operation Homecoming conducted more than 60 writing workshops for troops, their families, and veterans at military installations across the country and in war zones. A global call for submissions from troops and families resulted in an anthology edited by bestselling author Andrew Carroll and published by Random House. There is also an archive of submissions housed at the Library of Congress. The anthology was named one of the “Best of 2006” non-fiction by The Washington Post. A documentary based on Operation Homecoming, produced by the Documentary Group, was nominated for a 2006 Academy Award.

Stanford Speech[edit]

In 2007, Gioia was named the 2007 commencement speaker for his alma mater, Stanford University. While his selection irritated a number of students who voiced a desire for someone more famous, the speech ultimately received positive reactions. In his commencement address, Gioia took aim at the students' complaint that he wasn’t "famous enough." He used their claim as an opportunity to lament the low esteem in which American society holds its artists. "...we live in a culture that barely acknowledges and rarely celebrates the arts or artists ... When virtually all of a culture's celebrated figures are in sports or entertainment, how few possible role models we offer the young ... There are so many other ways to lead a successful and meaningful life that are not denominated by money or fame. Adult life begins in a child's imagination, and we've relinquished that imagination to the marketplace." In May 2014, National Public Radio included Gioia's speech on its list of "The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever", dating back to 1774.[14]

Prizes and Awards[edit]

Dana Gioia has won several prizes. He won the Frederick Bock Award for poetry in 1986. For his 1991 poetry collection The Gods of Winter, Gioia shared the 1992 Poet's Prize with Adrienne Rich. Gioia won the 2002 American Book Award for his collection Interrogations at Noon. Gioia has received eleven honorary doctorates. In 2005, Dana Gioia received the John Ciardi Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry. In 2010, Gioia was announced as the year's recipient of the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame, an honor traditionally given to an American Roman Catholic in recognition of outstanding service to the Church and to society. In 2008, Gioia was inducted into the College of Fellows of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology.[15] He won the 2014 Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry. On November 17, 2008, Gioia was presented with the Presidential Citizens Medal by President George W. Bush.

Personal life[edit]

On February 23, 1980, he and Mary Elizabeth Hiecke (born May 26, 1953) were married. They had three sons, Michael Jasper Gioia (who died in infancy); Michael Frederick "Mike" Gioia; and Theodore Jasper "Ted" Gioia. His poem "Planting a Sequoia" is based on his real experience of losing his newborn son.



  • Daily Horoscope (1986)
  • The Gods of Winter (1991)
  • Interrogations at Noon (2001)
  • Pity the Beautiful (2012)


  • Can Poetry Matter? (1991)
  • Barrier of a Common Language: An American Looks at Contemporary British Poetry (Poets on Poetry) (2003)
  • Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture (2004)


  • Eugenio Montale's Motteti: Poem's of Love (translator) (1990)
  • The Madness of Hercules (Hercules Furens) (translator). Included in Seneca: The Tragedies, Volume II, published by Johns Hopkins (1995)

Opera Libretti[edit]

  • Nosferatu (2001)
  • Tony Caruso's Last Broadcast (2005)


  • New Italian Poets (editor, with Michael Palma) (1991)
  • Certain Solitudes: On the Poetry of Donald Justice (editor, with William Logan) (1998)
  • California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present (California Legacy) (editor, with Chryss Yost and Jack Hicks) (2003)
  • The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles (editor, with Scott Timberg) (2003)
  • Twentieth-Century American Poetry (editor, with David Mason and Meg Schoerke) (2004)
  • An Introduction to Poetry, 13th edition(editor, with X.J. Kennedy) (2010)


  • My California: Journeys by Great Writers (contributor / 2004)
  • This Man's Army. A War in Fifty Sonnets by John Allan Wyeth (introduction/2008)

Writings about Dana Gioia and his work[edit]

  • Matthew Brennan. Dana Gioia. A Critical Introduction. (Story Line Press Critical Monographs) (2012)
  • April Lindner. Dana Gioia (Boise State University Western Writers Series, No. 143) (2003)
  • Jack W. C. Hagstrom and Bill Morgan. Dana Gioia: A Descriptive Bibliography with Critical Essays (2002)
  • Janet McCann, "Dana Gioia: A Contemporary Metaphysics", Renascence 61.3 (Spring 2009): 193-205.
  • Michael Peich. Dana Gioia and Fine Press Printing (Kelly/Winterton Press0 (2000)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ Stanford.edu
  3. ^ Pulliam, Russ. "WORLD Magazine: Modern man of letters". WorldMag.com. Retrieved 2010-07-18. 
  4. ^ Gioia, Dana; Wares, Donna, "Being a California Poet", My California: Journeys by Great Writers 
  5. ^ Goodyear, Dana (February 19, 2007), "The Moneyed Muse: What can two hundred million dollars do for poetry?", The New Yorker 
  6. ^ Christy Spackman (August 17, 2012). "Mormonism’s Jell-O Mold". Slate.com. Retrieved August 17, 2012. 
  7. ^ "Accentual verse", Dana Gioia
  8. ^ State.gov
  9. ^ Wesleyan.edu
  10. ^ NEA
  11. ^ [2]
  12. ^ [3]
  13. ^ http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/07/arts/07gioia.html
  14. ^ "The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever". Retrieved March 15, 2015. 
  15. ^ College of Fellow's entry for Dana Gioia, home page of the DSPT


  • American Perspectives. C-SPAN. February 21, 2004. (Presentation of talk Gioia gave at the Agassi Theatre, Harvard University, February 9, 2004).
  • Cynthia Haven. "Dana Gioia Goes to Washington". Commonweal. November 21, 2003.
  • Cynthia Haven. "Poet Provocateur", Stanford Magazine, July/August 2000.
  • Belinda Lanks. "Bush Picks Poet for NEA", ARTnews December 2002
  • John J. Miller. "Up from Mapplethorpe". National Review. March 8, 2004.
  • Jim Milliot. "Gioia vows to change America's reading habits." Publishers Weekly. June 27, 2005.
  • "Reviving the Bard" (editorial). The New Criterion. December 2003.
  • Bruce Weber. "Poet Brokers Truce in Culture Wars." The New York Times. September 7, 2004.
  • World Authors 1990-1995. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1999

External links[edit]