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Poetry That Matters: A Plunge Into Shared Experience

THE GODS OF WINTER. By Dana Gioia, Graywolf Press, 62 pp., $22.95 cloth, $9.95 paperIN the May issue of The Atlantic, Dana Gioia asks "Can Poetry Matter?" A well-researched essay on the paradox of poetry in our time - as the practice of poetry spreads, so does the indifference to it - the essay does not quite answer the carefully crafted question ("can" not "does" or "should") posed by the title. By implication, and by example, the question is answered in his new book of poems, "The Gods of Winter." Poetry can matter, we come to see reading Gioia's poems, if poems, one by one, address themselves to generic experiences we all have at one time or another. This carefully constructed book opens with poems on death, moves through poems of place, and ends with poems on essences. As a whole, the book moves away from dark, compact experiences to light-filled, differentiated ones. Sections II and IV are given to long narrative poems, poems that successfully overcome the echo of past masters who haunt Gioia' s previous, first book of poems, "Daily Horoscope." "The Gods of Winter" is full of solidly realized individual poems. Like Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot, Gioia is a businessman, and he once said in an essay that "by refusing to simplify themselves into the conventional image of a poet they (poets who held down real jobs) affirmed their own spiritual individuality, and the daily friction of their jobs toughened the resolve." Opened randomly, the way most poetry books are opened, this volume yields first lines of quiet authority: "Give me a landscape made of obstacles,I think of you standing on the sloping deck,Stand in a field long enough, and the sounds...Speaking of love was difficult at first." Aside from no-nonsense craftsmanship, what characterizes these poems is nostalgia of various kinds. Gioia lives in New York, but many of the most powerful images come from California. In a characteristic piece of balance, the first section concludes and the final section opens with a poem about the great redwood trees. In "Planting a Sequoia," Gioia memorializes the death of his infant son, and the tree provides fitting symbols of consolation. At the other end, "Becoming a Redwood" registers the distances we've crossed reading through the book. Here Gioia tempts himself to merge with nature in a romantic pantheism critiqued in other poems; here too thought wins over nostalgia for a simpler - much simpler - life. It's as moving in its way as the earlier poem about his son. As is to be expected of a poet of nostalgia, Gioia's personae - which include visionaries, curmudgeons, and killers - often involve family roles: nephew, father, brother. His best poems confirm family responsibilities. The first long poem, "Counting the Children," turns on the speaker's love for his daughter. It combines Gioia's belief that our workaday worlds should penetrate our poetic dreams. Ambitious and many-sided, it may be Gioia's best poem yet. Even this poem's diabolical twin, "The Homecoming," a powerfully conceived and executed long poem spoken by a man who has just murdered his foster mother, serves Gioia's larger thematic ends, which are traditional in the way W. B. Yeats's were traditional. This has nothing to do with right- or left-wing politics, everything to do with the continuity of the affections and the concern for quality of life; it is both "hard-headed" and "spiritual." As readers of The Atlantic article know, Gioia can write scathingly about bad poets. He does so in the central section of this book, which, as a whole, has a various, personal, easier tone: a kind of cream at the center of a candy. In his best poems, Gioia rises to the occasion of all great poetry: to immortalize our experience by submitting it to the tests of tradition and inspiration. Anyone who really wants to know the answer to the question, "Can poetry matter?" will find that "The Gods of Winter" is full of answers.

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