Greatness, Marginalization, and an Endangered Species: Dana Gioia’s The Catholic Writer Today and Other Essays

/ /

The Catholic Writer Today and Other Essays
by Dana Gioia
(Wiseblood Books, 2019, 220 pages, $18.00)

Dana Gioia is the son of an Italian father and Mexican mother whom he describes as “working people who had been born in poverty and suffered enormous losses in their lives.” Gioia grew up speaking Italian in his Los Angeles neighborhood of mostly Mexican poor and working-class families. He understands the countless ways and means of marginalization, and its myriad faces.

Nevertheless, he discovered early on, it seems, that art not only reflects but also shapes the culture. Throughout his career, he has put forward that belief in his poems and critical essays. In this newest collection of essays, he takes a wide, long, deep look at art and artists—mostly poets, with a painter, a sculptor, and a cloud of witnesses added for good measure—who have nurtured their excellence while living, in one way or another, on the margins.

Part I includes the title essay and critical essays on John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dunstan Thompson, William Everson (Brother Antoninus), and Elizabeth Jennings. Part II consists of two wide-ranging interviews of Gioia published in the journals Christianity & Literature and Image. And Part III contains essays on the Letter of Paul to the Philippians, modern Christian martyrs, the paintings of George Tooker, the sculpture of Luis Tapia, and the “Tantum ergo Sacramentum” of St. Thomas Aquinas as Gioia learned to love it in his boyhood. (“In my Los Angeles parish, 1960 didn’t sound much different from 1660,” he writes.)

From among the poets covered in Gioia’s first section, readers may perhaps be most interested in one of the least-anthologized. If ever a great poet could be said to have been marginalized, it is British poet Elizabeth Jennings, CBE (1926-2001). Her story is sad, with neither villain nor hubris to blame for the sadness. Jennings appeared, at first, to be fast-tracked for success. She was the only female member of “The Movement,” a mid-century British group of poets which included Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, and Thom Gunn. Her first two publications achieved enthusiastic popular and academic praise. By the time she was thirty, Jennings had received more accolades than most poets ever hope for. Then her career soured as her male counterparts’ careers soared.

One reason may have been her politics—she leaned further left than the Movement poets—but Gioia posits that there were other, more powerful reasons that Jennings’ life and career went off the tracks. She was a woman at a time when female poets were considered second-rate. She was a devout Catholic at a time when the world was becoming increasingly secular. She was a lyric poet at a time when that was becoming unfashionable. Her poetry was personal but not emotional, analytical rather than confessional. She was physically and emotionally fragile, couldn’t hold even an entry-level job, and was hospitalized for mental illness. None of her passionate love affairs lasted. (The affairs were “all unconsummated, though not all platonic,” writes Gioia). At thirty, the world was her oyster; by forty, and until her death at seventy-five, she was destitute, alone, and mostly unappreciated by literary influencers. In 1992, Queen Elizabeth bestowed a CBE upon Jennings, who wore to the ceremony “a knitted hat, duffle coat, and canvas shoes.” That’s when the tabloids started calling her “the bag-lady of the sonnets.”

Yet from her first publication, she had a modest but fervent U.K. readership for her short, deep, metrical, rhyming jewels of poems. “Essentially,” Gioia writes, “the case against Jennings is that her poetry was different in form and perspective from the sort leading critics preferred.” Is that not every poet’s burden and secret fear? Although Jennings “lacked the rare capacity for mystical experience,” says Gioia, she craved it, and her poems analyzed and expressed, often with wrenching clarity, the nearly inexpressible. The literary world has long been addicted to innovation; Gioia says Jennings’ style “was not to innovate but to perfect.” He ranks her “among the finest British poets of the second half of the twentieth century.”

On the other hand, those who prefer raw poetic ambition to refinement may prefer Gioia’s discussion of William Everson, or “Brother Antoninus.” In mid-twentieth-century America, writes Gioia, “no figure was more interesting than the Beat poet William Everson, who at the height of the San Francisco Renaissance briefly achieved celebrity as Brother Antoninus.” Everson (1912-1994) dropped out of college twice and somewhere along the way discovered the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, about which he wrote, “Suddenly the whole inner world began to tremble.” For the rest of his life, Everson would write about the natural world—especially the natural beauty of California—and its relationship to the imagination.

Both the man Everson and his life were odd and marginalized. He was a conscientious objector who learned to do fine letterpress printing at an Oregon C.O. work camp during World War II. Then he read Augustine’s Confessions, had a mystical experience, was baptized into the Catholic Church, and joined Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement. In 1951, he became a Dominican lay brother and was given the name Antoninus. This brought on a mighty outpouring of poetry. In eight years, Everson published three books of poems as Brother Antoninus. Many critics consider them his best work.

Brother Antoninus was a key member of the San Francisco Renaissance, which included Kenneth Rexroth, Jack Spicer, and Michael McClure. But Antoninus existed only between 1951 and 1969, when Everson precipitously and dramatically left the Dominicans to marry. He later became poet-in-residence at Kresge College at the University of California at Santa Cruz and founded Lime Kiln Press, which produced fine letterpress limited editions. (One of the limited editions is Granite & Cypress, a hand-printed selection of Robinson Jeffers’ poems on handmade paper, in a cypress box set with a Carmel granite inlay. This edition is currently available on Amazon, used, for $16,500.00).

In the final years of his life, Everson authored a number of important works of critical prose. “He was particularly interested in the connection between the imagination and the natural landscape,” Gioia writes, adding that Everson “analyzed the artistic and spiritual forces that had created the distinctive cultural vision of California and the far West” and “developed a range of perspectives on American regional ecosystems and their impact on human creativity.”

Addressing some of the cultural visions “of California and the far West,” in section III of his book, Gioia turns to a meditation upon the sculptures of Luis Tapia. In Mexico and areas of the U.S. that are historically and culturally Mexican, the santero was an important part of the community: a folk artisan making religious art depicting saints and angels. Santeros still exist, and the art world has come to value their paintings and sculptures even if it looks sideways at their former and current devotional purposes. New Mexico sculptor Luis Tapia (b. 1950) is a self-taught master craftsman who has gained international acclaim for his work. Of Tapia’s work, Gioia writes:

There is so much activity and variety in the American visual arts that it is difficult to assess the significance of any individual artist, especially one still productive and unpredictable. Over the last quarter century, however, it has become clear that the sculptor Luis Tapia has accomplished something singular, important, and slightly surprising. He has reconceptualized one of the oldest traditions of Latino and American regional art—the santero’s craft devotional sculpture—in a way that is both strikingly original and deeply respectful of its origins. In the process, Tapia has not only redeemed this powerful but narrow tradition from the weight of its own past; he has given his personal revision of it an international presence.

“Tapia,” writes Gioia, “has emerged from the Latino, Catholic, Southwestern, rural poor—five varieties of marginalization, all alien to the metropolitan world of contemporary American art.” And yet to Gioia, the sheer human triumph—the Invictus—of overcoming “five varieties of marginalization” is not what sets Tapia above other talented santeros and makes his art compelling and prized around the world.

To discuss Tapia’s artistic identity in cultural and sociological terms is clarifying, but it also risks losing the main reason he is worth discussing in the first place—his excellence and originality. Contemporary art labors under heavy clouds of ideological weather. Latino artists in particular are rarely allowed to exist as individuals; they are abstracted into representations of group consciousness. Tapia’s art doesn’t matter because it is Latino, culturally marginal, or politically engaged. His art matters because it is so powerfully expressive, memorable, and original on its own individual terms. Studied in depth, his oeuvre reveals itself to be intellectually ambitious, thematically diverse, stylistically inventive, and masterful in technique.

Again we find Gioia’s recurring theme: virtue rising from the margins, being shaped by the margins, and finally outshining—by owning (and, in Tapia’s case, celebrating)—its own marginalized roots.

The longest essay in Gioia’s collection is the first and title chapter. In it, he discusses the current marginalization of American Catholic writers—only three generations after what was a veritable golden age of Catholic writers.

Sixty years ago Catholics played a prominent, prestigious, and irreplaceable part in American literary culture. Indeed, they played such a significant role that it would be impossible to discuss American letters in the mid-twentieth century responsibly without both examining a considerable number of observant Catholic authors and recognizing the impact of their religious conviction on their artistry.

The long list of Catholic American writers, poets, playwrights, and critics he mentions constitutes a large part of the very best. O’Connor. Hemingway. Kerouac. Berryman. Merton. Maritain. Nouwen. McLuhan. Ciardi. In Britain: Greene. Waugh. Tolkien. Belloc. And Chesterton, dead by 1936 but still profoundly influential. Today, though? Try to name half a dozen luminous Catholic American or British writers of the twenty-first century.

“Does it not seem newsworthy that the religion of one-quarter of the U.S. population has retreated to the point of invisibility in the fine arts?” Gioia asks. The phenomenon apparently does not seem newsworthy to the media, academia, or even the arts world. All those entities ardently celebrate cultural diversity but have been oddly silent about the steadily receding role of American Catholics in the arts.

This loss matters, says Gioia, because art matters, not only reflecting but also shaping culture. A loss in the arts is a loss to humanity (just as any loss of a plant or animal species is a loss to humanity). And over the past sixty years, an entire widespread and flourishing species, the Catholic artist, has become rare and possibly endangered. The Catholic worldview—which, Gioia reminds us, “has been articulated, explored, and amplified by two thousand years of art and philosophy”—is hard to find in the arts these days. There is a disconnect in the formerly intimate relationship between the Catholic Church and the arts; the result is an impoverishment, “[t]he shallow novelty, the low-cost nihilism, and the vague and sentimental spiritual pretentions of so much contemporary art.” There are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world and seventy million in the U.S.; how can Catholic writers today possibly be considered marginal? Yet marginal they are.

The definition of “Catholic worldview” is two millennia in the making and not simple. “There is no singular and uniform Catholic worldview, but nevertheless it is possible to describe some general characteristics that encompass both the faithful and the renegade among the literati,” Gioia writes. In Catholic teaching, human beings are fallen and sinful, struggling for redemption and grace. Suffering is inescapable but is also a gift, a redemption, when accepted and lived in imitation of Christ. Nature and the human body are sacramental: they reveal God. And the Catholic timeline is long, in both directions. It stretches back to creation and then forward to the ancient Jews, to Christ, to our own time, and into eternity. The Catholic worldview is Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead,” including those who have gone before and now live elsewhere.

Good Catholic literature, Gioia says, has nothing to do with subject matter or piety.

There is a crippling naiveté among many religious writers (and even editors) that saintly intentions compensate for weak writing. Such misplaced faith (or charity) is folly. The Catholic writer must have the passion, talent, and ingenuity to master the craft in strictly secular terms while never forgetting the spiritual possibilities and responsibilities of art.

Catholicism is an incarnational faith: the body is holy. Matter is holy. A red wheelbarrow is holy. Much of the greatest Catholic writing contains wholehearted celebrations of matter and the flesh—holy or otherwise—as well as vibrant spiritual messiness. “In ways that sometimes trouble or puzzle both Protestant and secular readers,” Gioia writes, “Catholic writing tends to be comic, rowdy, rude, and even violent. Catholics generally prefer to write about sinners rather than saints.” He quotes Flannery O’Connor: “Good and evil appear to be joined in every culture at the spine.” He also uses an O’Connor quotation to help define the Catholic writer: “The Catholic novelist doesn’t have to be a saint; he doesn’t even have to be a Catholic; he does, unfortunately, have to be a novelist.”

Regardless of the reasons for the sparsity of Catholic writers in our time (and Gioia makes a strong case for what he believes are the reasons), his consistently long view leaves him with hope.

The history of the Church and the history of art repeatedly demonstrate that a few people of sufficient passion, courage, and creativity can transform an age. . . . The real challenge is not in the number of participants but in the arrival of a few powerful innovators who can serve as cultural catalysts. Two great poets are stronger than two thousand mediocrities.

In the end, seeking a way to restore vigor and relevance to the arts, Gioia turns to the example of the vital, multicultural Los Angeles neighborhood of his childhood.

If the state of contemporary Catholic literary culture can best be conveyed by the image of a crumbling, old, immigrant neighborhood, then let me suggest that it is time for Catholic writers and intellectuals to leave the homogenous, characterless suburbs of the imagination, and move back to the big city—where we can renovate these remarkable districts which have such grace and personality, such strength and tradition. . . . Starting the renovation may seem like a daunting task. But as soon as one place is rebuilt, someone else will already be at work next door, and gradually the whole city begins to reshape itself around you. Renovation is hard work, but what a small price to pay—to have the right home.

Some may rejoice if Catholic artists vanish, just as some rejoice when inner city neighborhoods vanish. But those who seek the fullness of truth will appreciate Gioia’s inclusive vision of a culture resembling Augustine’s City of God, embodying the sacred nature of all persons and all things.