The American Poet

In evangellyfish circles there used to be a joke thus —

Let us now turn to Malachi, the Italian prophet.

The joke works if you say chi the way we’re supposed to say Qi if it’s the Chinese thing.

And it works, though my Italian wife will die on the bruschetta with a hard “k” hill — correct, by the way.

And it works even though we never turn to Malachi, except to predict the Messiah, nor, indeed, any of the “minor” prophets. They are, shall we say … difficult. We laugh about Luther farting … well, some of us do … but when the guy farting also wants to take our money and give it to the undeserving poor … well.

We have to draw the line somewhere, right?

But like the Minor Prophets, this is not mostly about that.

It’s just a short note on Dana Gioia, American Poet.

He actually is Italian, though he’s mostly American, which is the point I’ll make.

Eventually.

Now there are lots of Italian poets. Americans play baseball. Italians play poetry.

And just as we say … well, some of us do … that Dante is The Italian Poet. Gioia is an American one. Or maybe the Italian-American one. But definitely American.

Here’s why.

The American Ideal is respect. It’s not individualism, because we do usually … eventually … come to see how not all individualisms — that of Charles Manson, say — are as equal as others.

And even earlier we might notice that individualism was always in service of … something.

That something was, and is, respect.

When the men who would not be king, but would be Americans, came here, it was to get respect. When they continued West it was for the same. It’s what they wanted, even when they didn’t do it well, the same as today when we say we want our say, deserve our say, it’s because we want to be heard — we want respect.

That is the American ideal.

Unfortunately, the American real is different, as ideals and reals often are. In practice, we want respect but we don’t accord it others. This is another unfortunate evangellyfish practice, but that is a subject for another note.

Suffice to say for now that while the American Ideal is —

Respect yourself and others

— this too often devolves, or rather never matures, beyond the first point.

We demand respect for ourselves but we by the God we occasionally pay lip service to, we won’t give it to anyone else.

They have to earn it, we might say.

Or, they don’t deserve it, anyway.

Which isn’t how it works for us, or how it’s (in general) supposed to.

But Gioia respects.

Which is to say others.

Which is to say he listens.

Men recovering after work … people in an airport … the young and criminal …

He even respects himself — not the same as demanding it of everyone in tarnation or our nation — he does so in recall and rumination, but not recrimination, on the death of his young son.

The American ideal.

It’s also a poetic ideal.

The writer John Dufresne says the first thing a writer needs is compassion. When a friend saw I’d written that down on a notecard, she asked, unkindly, if that meant I would be demanding it for myself.

No, I said. I’m demanding it of myself.

Now demand isn’t the way to cultivate compassion for others, and the writer Anne Lamott does put an oar in the writing water for compassion for ourselves, and I’m still much in the real not the ideal in all these.

But the point is, if you can’t do this, you can’t write. If you don’t have compassion on the people you’re creating and considering, you can’t write truly, and you can’t tell the story properly.

You can’t tell their story properly.

This rules out writing as an act, let alone a work, let alone a vocation.

Gioia’s an Italian-American by happy design of birth.

And he’s an American Poet because he hits that ideal.

Gioia listens. It’s why and how he can tell. If we listen.

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