"Dana Gioia on Poetry, Death and Mortality"
Conversations for the Curious

0:23 Russ Roberts “… Our topic today is death, mortality, and impermanence. We’re going to look at those topics using a couple of poems from your collection of poetry: Meet Me At The Lighthouse, and I’m sure we’re going to get into some other topics along the way. Let’s start with Meet Me At The Lighthouse. That is the book, but it is also named after one of the poems. I’d like you to read it and we’ll talk about it.”

0:48 Dana Gioia: “Yeah. Let me show you. [Holds up cover of book] This is a picture, actually, of the entrance of the lighthouse. It is an actual nightclub, a rather shabby one, that’s in Hermosa Beach, California, just outside of Los Angeles. Anyone who is a huge jazz fan will know this nightclub. And this is a poem that takes place there. Everyone in the poem except me is dead. I’m talking, actually, to my closest friend growing up, my cousin who died at 39. This is a place we went together. So it’s really a poem to him. I’ll mention a lot of names in the poem: Chet, Cannonball, Stan, Jerry. These are the names of famous jazz musicians: Cannonball Adderly, Chet Baker, Art Pepper. So don’t let them disturb you. The name of the house band at the club was The Lighthouse All-Stars."

"Meet me at The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, that shabby nightclub on its foggy pier. Let’s aim for the summer of ‘71 when all of our friends were young and immortal. I’ll pick up the cover charge, find us a table, and order a round of their watery drinks. Let’s savor this smoke of that sinister century, perfume of tobacco in the Tangy Salt Air. The club will be quiet, only ghosts at the bar, so you, old friend, won’t feel out of place. You need a night out from that dim subdivision. Tell Dr Death you’ll be home before dawn. The club has booked the best talent in Tartarus*, Jerry, Cannonball, Hampton, and Stan, with Stan and Chet and Art, those gorgeous green horns: The swinging masters of our West Coast soul. But the All Stars shine from that jerry-built stage with their high notes shimmer above the cold waves. Time and the Tide are counting the beat. Death the Collector is keeping the tab.”

3:22 Russ Roberts: “That’s really lovely. Now this is another reference that might be unfamiliar. It was unfamiliar to me. I had a vague idea but I didn’t know precisely which is it’s Tartarus.

3:33 Dana Gioia: I say the club has booked the best talent in Tartarus. Tartarus* is the lowest region of kind of the classical Greco-Roman Hell. So it’s the underworld. I have no idealistic notions of where these jazz musicians have ended up. They’re in the underworld and they’re not even the higher echelon, but I liked that “the club has booked the best talent in Tartarus”

4:04 Russ Roberts “I thought the alliteration “talent in Tartarus” is nice. Tartarus itself has an incredibly, again, I said even though I didn’t know exactly what it was. I knew it was a bad place. I thought it was hellish. It’s funny. It reminds me of Cerberus.”

4:23 Dana Gioia “Cerberus lives in Tartarus. He guards the gate to it. There’s one other allusion in the poem I should probably point out. It’s I love to steal great lines and play with them. And its at this visionary moment in W. B. Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium where he imagines these holy men that are kind of in the gold mosaic of a wall. He calls them the ‘singing masters of our soul,’ so I have ‘the swinging masters of our West Coast soul.’ I stole part of that line but I think I made it my own.”

5:07 Russ Roberts “Yeah. I think that’s fair. I know that poem but it didn’t, I don’t know well enough.

5:11 Dana Gioia “But that’s exactly what I want. I want you to, sort of, for it to be a kind of faint allusion. You know, I believe that really great poetry just necessarily, unavoidably plays off all the poetry that’s been written, because if I’m reading you a new poem, you’ve had a lifetime of experience. And so you take that experience and you just don’t repeat it, but you play with it and you honor the listeners’ lifetime of experience. So I’ve got, you know, I’ve got a kind of novel beat. I’m playing with a, you know, a different rhythm. But I’m playing with all sorts of things, because you try to make every line interesting

6:02 Russ Roberts “I will just mention, Dana, I have the copy, I have your book on my Kindle and while you were reading it, I was following along. And you made a couple of changes, like you did the last time when you read a poem for me.”

6:17 Dana Gioia “Well this one actually I probably changed one line [RR: ‘more than that’] it could be. It was interesting, I was listening to Bob Dylan last night, a live concert from 1966, and I noticed he played with his lines. And I liked that. I said, you know, that’s what oral performance is. And this is what I made, a couple of adjustments in the last part of the proofs [RR: ‘that’s crazy’]. You know, it’s an oral text is like jazz. It always has a little bit of room, a different memory. So you know …”

6:56 Russ Roberts “That’s awesome. Let’s talk a little bit more about the poem and then I want to move on to talk about death and the challenge of living while knowing that death is in the wings, Dr Death. So this is written for your cousin who died young ...”

7:26 Dana Gioia “Yes. He grew up next door to me. We were in this little enclave of Sicilian immigrants. And we were, you know, the two kids who went to college. And he actually was a dentist. He had got a brain tumor. He had two small kids. But growing up I saw him every day. We went to the same school, the same church, same high school. We hitch-hiked to the beach together. So we were like brothers. And I thought that he needed a night out. I mean, that sounds odd. I mean, let me be clear about this, Russ. I believe in a metaphysical realm of existence. It could be external or it could be entirely internal. But, you know, I believe there’s a continuity between the living and the dead. I pray for my parents. I lost a son when my first son died. And so I carry the dead with me. And I still talk to my mother. And she talks back. And I would consider it an impoverishment, you know, for me to lose my son, my dad, my mother, my cousin, my many friends. And so it’s, you know, I mean that it’s all pretty un-American. Americans tend to say you shouldn’t think about death. Oh, that’s morbid. But I don’t think it’s that at all. I think it makes my life more interesting.”

8:56 Russ Roberts “Well, the other motto is: ‘Move On.’ And it’s a very strange idea that you should leave behind the people who made you who you are, who formed you – and for me, I think of – I have a different metaphysical way of thinking about it. It’s ‘I am my parents.’ I’m an extension of them, genetically, culturally. As human beings we want, I think we have a powerful urge for selfhood, independence, agency, and so on. The idea that we are merely our parents is unappealing, especially when we’re young, and we spend a lot of time when we’re young trying to get away from them, asserting ourselves and asserting that we are not them. As I’ve gotten older, I think that’s an illusion. I am them. And my children are me. They don’t like that idea at all, I’m sure. They’re 23 to 30 years old and they assert their independence in all kinds of ways. And I love that they do. It’s a beautiful thing, but the truth, to quote a line of Kipling ‘You can’t get away from the tune that they play.’ It’s embedded in you. It’s, again, genetically and culturally, nature and nurture work together there. And I find it actually deeply comforting and moving to think of the generations that way. And it’s Un-American? It’s out of fashion? But that’s what I think.”

10:50 Dana Gioia “I’m very tribal. But, you know, when I think of what poetry is, I think of myself as an artist. And I’m coming into a conversation that has gone on since the beginnings of human history. Actually it predates history because poetry predates writing. And so I come into this conversation which is going on and it’s going to continue on after I’m gone. And if I’m a great poet, I can expand the conversation or refine it. And I realized after a while that’s how I think of life. I’m part of this genetic human, you know, continuity that goes back to ancestors I can’t even imagine. But I did know my grandparents, my parents, and my children. And there’s a continuity between life and death, between generations. And we see it in genetics. And we see it in the personalities and the values and the experiences. So if you say ‘Move On,’ I’ll say ‘OK. I’ll move on, but I’m taking them with me.’

11:58 Russ Roberts “Yeah. I’ve quoted this before but I’m going to quote it again because I like it so much. It’s the line from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. He says ‘We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms. And what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march but there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost of you will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of our committees had been hiding in the Great Library of Alexandria we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?’ So that’s saying something related to what you were saying.”

13:02 Dana Gioia “Well, you know its in The Real Thing, where Stoppard also talks about he’s thinking about writing, and I think it’s actually even about writing a poem. And I think he’s talking about comparison to I think a cricket bat, and the refinement of the shape, and the swing, and things like this. And that’s what a poet is doing. And the reward is to have your words mouthed by children not yet born.’ And that struck me as absolutely the highest honor in poetry. To have people outside of your narrow time band that see something of value in what you’re doing.

“When I was a young, ambitious writer at Stanford and Harvard imagining how I’d make my mark, I had this very English Department notion of what a poem is and its relationship to the great tradition and the history of ideas. But nowadays I think of a what a poem is this instrument of language that you create, is it one half a game and one half a kind of spiritual exploration. But the highest thing that you can do is to be useful, is to have these words be useful to people in the dilemmas of their actual lives. And if you’re lucky, they’ll find uses for your poem that you don’t even imagine.

14:47 “I had a very odd thing where I wrote a poem and I had people talk about it in a totally different context. And I read the poem and I realized it applied to that context equally. And in fact, I rather liked that as much as I liked my own because poems are like children. Once they’re out of the house they do things that you didn’t even imagine and you may not approve of. But what you’re doing is to make them able to lead independent lives. I know that sounds very odd but once my poems are published, I’m simply one of the readers. I’m probably maybe the best informed reader, but if they belong anywhere at all, they belong in the language, into the readers of the language.”

15:35 Russ Roberts “You chose this shabby nightclub on a foggy pier. Why did you pick that place to meet your cousin, the ghost of your cousin?

15:45 Dana Gioia “What came to me, there was an artist, a very fine artist, and he was collaborating with another artist, and they were making this extraordinary book. I mean this huge large folio books, prints of jazz musicians. And they got the idea that they would ask my brother Ted Gioia -- who’s probably at this point if not the most famous jazz writer in the world, he’s certainly the best-selling jazz writer in the world – if he would write prose and I would write a poem. And I told him, I said, you know, I’ve written one or two poems about jazz, but I can never write a poem that is necessarily any good. And I began thinking about it and then I realized it wasn’t going to be about jazz. It was going to be about a world that jazz created. And then my cousin’s ghost came to me, as it were, and I thought about going there to him and then suddenly the poem became possible. … If the poem doesn’t come out of an inner urgency, and I realized that we had done this together. Jazz itself was simply part of the total human experience that we had. And once I brought my cousin Philip into the poem, the whole poem became alive. And I knew it was all the ghosts. If you love music, if you love literature, most of the people you’re reading are dead; most of the people you’re listening to are dead.

17:29 “I just read a novel by Iris Murdoch. I’ve been listening to Artur Rubinstein play the piano. I’ve been listening to Joan Sutherland sing. These are people that in some cases I overlapped with their lifetime and some I might not have overlapped at all. … There is this pursuit they have in German universities called geisters history, history of the spirit. And I always loved that, this notion that you’ve got the history of the visible world, but you’ve got this thing that’s somewhere between the history of ideas and the history of a sort of human consciousness that you’re studying. And that’s what any artist does is to live in the history of the spirit. Which means that you have to take the things of the spirit seriously.

18:20 Russ Roberts “What I was thinking – not when I first read the poem but talking with you about it -- … There’s a wonderful idea embedded in the poem which is when we think of the people who are no longer with us, if we had a chance to commune with their ghosts in some fashion – and of course we can do it in our imagination (you did meet your cousin at the lighthouse and can meet him anytime you want) – but when we think about that you can ask: Where would you meet your father? Where would you meet your son? Where would you meet your friend, your cousin who is gone? And you could even ask the question: Where would you want your great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren to meet you after you were gone?

“It’s finally thinking about my own father, without thinking about it, without pondering it in a conscious way, where I would want to meet him is on a snowy street somewhere. Because after a snowfall he’d take what he would call a snow walk. And we would walk in the silence of that crunching feet in new snow. And we’d go in the morning when nobody was out, cars hadn’t come alive and the streets hadn’t been cleared, and the snow is still falling. And he loved that. So, it’s not a place for me, I think, at least for my first thought. It’s an idea. I don’t know what you call it. But it also reminds me that one of his favorite poems was The First Snowfall, by James Russel Law, which, I’m going to find it here. I’m going to read the first paragraph, the first few lines. It’s funny. I’ve written about this. The opening of the poem is about what it’s like to walk in the snow. It starts like this:

So my dad would often recite that as we’d be walking along because it was a poem of his childhood. James Russel Law wrote in the19th century. He lived 1819 to 1891, I’m just seeing on the web here, and that poem which I always viewed as a beautiful poem about snow is actually a poem of tragedy, and I encourage readers to read it. And it’s an extraordinary piece of emotional power. It’s about tragedy. But, listeners, I encourage you to think about the people in your lives that, if you’ve lost a dear one or a loved one, where would you meet them? And I would ask you, Dana, when you wrote this poem, and it is lovely, but do you spend time there, in your head at the lighthouse with Phillip?

21:51 Dana Gioia “I mean, I would go out with him. We’d go out to dinner. We’d go out to a club. We’d go to the beach. I mean, the two of us did things together. And so I think of us, not in the gloaming, but in the roaming. But when you talking about your father quoting the poem, my mother used to quote poems. She was this Mexican-American woman of no great education. But I think poetry did two things, and I think it’s exactly the same with your dad. Because I think it is one of the human purposes of poetry. Poetry simultaneously makes us notice things or allows us to see things with fresh eyes. So your father would go out into the snow and be able to in a sense see it with a kind of innocence and a kind of freshness. But also it allows you to recapture emotions that are somewhat difficult. It has taken me a lifetime to understand my family. I think at every age I thought I understood them. But the older you get the more insight you’ve got.

23:08 “Both of my parents worked. I used to do housework. We were always working. Not a bad training for somebody. But my mother would come in and she’d commit for a job and we’d have to clean the house. And while we cleaned the house, she would also recite poems. Some of the poems I liked and some I didn’t. But I realized, really it was after her death that those poems were ways of her being able to reveal emotions, reveal desires, reveal memories that she didn’t want to go to directly. One of her favorite poems was Annabelle Lee”

And my mother was reciting this and it was beautiful to me. It put me in a trance. It cast the necessary spell that a poem does. Arresting your attention, relaxing your emotions and memories, creating a special kind of temporary space of feeling and perception. And that’s what I was lost in. But what she was really communicating to me was this sadness that she carried about most of her life from the fact that her mother had died when she was very little. And she had a difficult father to say the least and that her favorite brother had died at a very early age. You know about that from studying with Miss Bishop.”

25:13 And so my mother had these sorrows that she only with difficulty should have kept under control. And this allowed her to vent those things, in a sense, without burdening her kid. And so I think that poetry is this secret language of emotion that is very powerful. It’s not an intellectual art, really. I mean, people think of it as so intellectual, so difficult. It’s a very everyday sort of magic that allows us to get through the crap we have to get through."

25:52 Russ Roberts: “Yeah. I think, especially in earlier generations – I don’t know if this is fair to our parents and parents parents – but emotion was often repressed, held beneath the surface. I mean for my father poetry for him was a way to connect to his father who had a sixth grade education but who knew much poetry and much Shakespeare by heart, and recited it, and loved ideas and loved books but had to make a living for his family and so never got educated."

26:29 Dana Gioia “Especially my Mexican grandfather only went to fourth grade. I asked him why he had to quit, he said, ‘Well, when my father was murdered, my brother and I had to become cowboys, you know. They were in the Lost Cabin in Wyoming. I wrote a poem about this in the book called The Ballad of Jesus Ortiz. But he was a cowboy, a Mexican cowboy with a fourth grade education, sort of bilingual, and he knew dozens of poems by heart, because cowboys would sit around the fire and they would recite poems, they would sing songs, and they would tell stories. And so I look at this thing and that’s why I have never believed what I was taught at Stanford and Harvard, that poetry was an elite, intellectual form of language.”

27:20 “It CAN be that because poetry is simply a special way of using words so that they are heard and read in a special way. And you can do anything you want in poetry. But the bulk of great poems have been works that are pretty accessible to, you know, any alert, intelligent person which is, you know, a substantial amount of humanity.”

29:04 “Our sorrows seem to come in the ordinary moments of our lives. Poetry is a kind of magic, you know, to turn a sorrow into a memory, a memory of value, or a sorrow that triggers and you can recapture the emotions that led you to that person, that place, or to your own mortality.”

32:52 Russ Roberts: “Our poets have been replaced by our songwriters. And it’s the songs that we sing at the sink rather than poems that we recite at the sink. So many of our ... because of the extraordinary time we live in. There are many challenges about living in this time, but one of the greatest things about this time is the extraordinary richness of music that we have available to us for close to free. So, in the old days if you wanted to relive your youth, you’d have to take out an LP – if you had it – and play it. And it might be scratched and it might be broken and gone. But today you can access all the songs of your youth instantly. And they can make me cry. I can hear songs from my adolescence or my twenties, and there’s so much emotion that I felt at the time when I was listening to those songs in real time, that I still tap into that. There’s a sense of loss. There’s a sense of fulfillment, a sense of the power of use ...”

34:06 Dana Gioia: “You probably think you’re going off topic, but you’re not. Poetry and Song were the same art. … Go back to the Latin. A Carmen is a song, it’s a poem, it’s a magic spell, and it’s a prophecy. And that’s because they’re all interrelated. The prophets were poets. If you look at the prophetic books of the Old Testament, they’re in verse. That’s because poetry is the medium for prophecy. My conception of poetry, and this is what makes me very different from most of my contemporaries – especially, at least, my literary contemporaries, who are writing poems in the grand tradition, let us say – is that my poems are meant to be heard. And I think Frost’s poems were meant to be heard. Certainly Shakespeare’s were meant to be heard because he never published the texts. They existed in performance. And my poems can be read, I think, with great profit on the page, but they come alive when they’re heard. And I think that’s in the nature of poetry. It’s related to music and to song. About half the work I do nowadays is writing words for music. I’ve written the libretto for four operas. And actually, today, Lori Leighton -- this great composer I work with – Lori and I made a deal with a Kansas City operator why not write a children’s opera for them. And I don’t think that is at all outside the mainstream of what a poet does.”

“If you go back to the Renaissance, this is… when I quit my job… I worked for fifteen years and I wrote at night. And my wife supported whatever I wanted to do, and I said, if I just wanted to write books of poetry, then, you know, I could have had a full-time job and written in the evening and weekends the way Wallace Stevens did. But I wanted to write verse plays and songs and essays. I wanted a Victorian, kind of, career. And, anyway, I believe that a poem is language raised to the level of song. Do you want to hear another poem?”

36:48 Russ Roberts “I do. But before that, I want to stick with Meet Me At The Lighthouse for a few more minutes. You didn’t say, did you go to that jazz club with your cousin? [DG: “Yes”] When he was alive? [DG: “Yes. That’s the connection that I had between jazz and an emotion that motivated a poem”]. I want to talk, if you’re comfortable, we don’t have to talk about your cousin, but I want to talk about this longing we have for people who are gone. There’s a song by Mark Knopfler that he wrote. It’s called “A Piper to the End.” A piper is a player of bagpipes. And your poem reminded me of his song. I’ve got a couple of examples I want to share and we can talk about them. Mark Knopfler never met his uncle. His uncle died at 20 in World War I. And he was a piper, a very unmilitary way to be a soldier. He was a bagpiper the Army, a military that was still imaginable in 1914."

"I don’t know if I’m allowed by copyright to sing the song or recite the entire lyrics, so I’m just going to recite the first verse.”

38:51 Dana Gioia “When you do the whole thing you get into trouble but I’m sure you could excerpt the link.”

38:55 Russ Roberts “Yeah. I’m going to excerpt it. And so imagine Mark Knopfler who is, I think, a great writer. He’s best known for Dire Straits, but I think his solo career as a songwriter is spectacularly magnificent. And I’m going to sing the first line and then I’ll finish reading the first verse without the song. But I can’t help but sing a bit of it. It goes like this:"

So that’s the first stanza, which is amazing. He says, you know, he’s a piper and so if there aren’t bagpipes that have it, he’s going to hell. He’s going to refuse at the entrance [of Heaven]. And he assumes he’s going to Heaven, which I love. The next part of the first verse I’ll just recite. He says:

And the rest of it is about what it’s like – the next few verses are gorgeous. They’re about what it’s like to die in battle which Mark Knopfler imagines. But the idea that our friends are never lost, that there are loved ones that will see them again, that we will return to leave you never is such a powerful human desire. And I think that a lot of us, religious or not, hold on to that idea even if we might think rationally that it isn’t going to happen.

41:02 But I want to talk for a minute about how the world has changed. And in the Nineteenth Century, surely, it was much more commonly believed that there was more to life than this world. That there was a Heaven, a world to come that would allow us to be reunited with the people we love because the thought that we are not with them is unbearableSo we hold on to this hope. People go to the graves of their loved ones and talk to them. And that view is out of fashion, as you were suggesting earlier. And I think about how that changes, if at all, how we live this life. I’m a religious Jew. Judaism does have an afterlife, although a lot of people think it doesn’t. It does have an idea of an afterlife. But it’s definitely muted relative to Christianity. In the Jewish theology, the afterlife is much less spoken of. It’s much less the focus, and there’s an enormous focus on this world. And certainly in Christianity, the weights are different. And I think that as religious belief has receded in the West, I wonder how that affects how we live.”

43:15 Dana Gioia: "If I can say something that doesn’t seem too contradictory, if you’re religious, which means a huge range of possible things, you have a sense of a mythos, of a Heaven, Hell, Birth, Death, Immortality, et cetera, you, can believe in these as objective supernatural realities. But even if you don’t believe those, you have to acknowledge that if humanity has kept them through all these ages as the central way of understanding The Human Experience, then there is a psychological, human reality to them."

"I absolutely believe that Heaven, whether it exists in the afterlife or not also simultaneously exists in the present moment, in the same way Hell does, the same way that the dead do. And I did not think that going into poetry, having spent a half century now as somebody dedicated to poetry, a poet creates that Carmen, that poem, that song, that spell, that prophecy. If the poem is good, I cast a spell over you. And what’s the most notorious kind of spell? Necromancy, a poem that summons the dead. And what I can do – and I’ve seen this with audiences – I’ll create this poem (I want to read next) about my mother. It’s about, you know, this little thing of, you know, probably not a big thing in Jerusalem: Christmas ornaments, and how putting these ornaments on summons up the Spirit. If I read that to an audience, people come up to me and they say, ‘I like that poem’ and then begin talking about the memories that it resurrected of their mother, their grandmother. And that’s what the spell of a poem is, if it’s any good it says everything you intend to say and all these secrets that you don’t even know about."

“It’s that simultaneous, it’s a metaphysical sense of life. That you have the material and the immaterial, the spiritual. You have the temporal and the Eternal. You have the visible and the invisible. I live a life rich in this beautiful visual place I live in. But it’s also rich in the invisible things that are around me. And why would you want to lead a life without the metaphysical, without the invisible, without some tangible connection? Now, whether it’s real or not, which of us can say?” But the traditions we come out of, and a Catholic, which I am, comes out of a Jewish tradition. Ultimately, everyone who created Catholicism was Jewish. So, presumably, is God, if you take this literally. So, we’re part of this continuity that has believed in these things as urgent, spiritual truths. Whether they’re literal or metaphorical doesn’t matter. They’re still true. And they’re necessary.”

46:15 Russ Roberts “Before you read the poem, I just want to mention, I recently discovered that there is a strong view in physics – not universally held – that time is an illusion: that there is no past or present or future in the sense that we understand that there’s – that the things that happened that we think of as the past are, in some sense, concurrent. Which means that no one is truly dead, but reachable.”

46:59 Dana Gioia That is a definition of something coming from the other side. That is what Mysticism is. Every tradition has this kind of little corner saying that there are some people who have these moments that go outside of time, go outside of place. And the universe implodes upon this and as it were, you know, which is also very Jewish in terms of these things and it’s indescribable in the language of time, in the language of finitude. There’s a wonderful poem by Borges called Matthew 25 30 where Borges is in the train station in Buenos Aires, and the train pulls the old deafening train whistle. And, suddenly, he hears in that train whistle the single word by which God created the world, which comes out of Jewish mysticism. And then he tries to explain what it is. And it’s one of the great poems of the Twentieth Century. He gives this long list of things that it could be at if only because the blood of heroes is through your veins. You have wasted the years and they have wasted you. And still, and still, you have not written the poem. And it’s this wonderful, you know, a great poem, but it’s a poem about the mystical experience which is, by definition, you know, illustrates the theoretical physics that you’re talking about.”

48:49 Russ RobertsYeah. I’m, the person who told me this is, says, there are people who don’t think it so. But it’s just an interesting thing to imagine. Let’s hear the poem about your mother. What’s the title?”

49:01 Dana Gioia “Well, this is a, it’s a fairly short poem. It, the time, if you know that, you know when Jesus was born, the three Maji, the three kings came from the East and they brought him gold, frankincense, and myrrh, these three gifts. This poem is a poem about my mother, but it’s a Christmas poem called tinsel, frankincense and fir – f-i-r – and I realized there’s an allusion, a term, in this poem that you and I know, which is “dime store” but nobody under 50 knows [what that means]. My mother could only afford to buy the cheapest of anything, and after your parents die, you inherit all their stuff. And you hate to throw anything out. So, I have all these God-awful Christmas ornaments that she had …”

50:06 Russ Roberts “The dime store has been replaced by the dollar store, because of inflation. Listeners probably know what a Dollar Store is, but a dime store, it was also [like] Woolworth’s was called the “five and dime”

50:21 Dana Gioia “… Newberrys, Woolworths, Crests, the five and ten cent stores ...”

50:26 Russ Roberts “… where you could buy inexpensive things for everyday people.”

50:33 Dana Gioia:

51:57 Russ Roberts “Well, that’s magnificent. That’s really, really beautiful.”

52:04 Dana Gioia “My mother was a … loved to create wildly, but she was a brilliant, difficult woman who never had a chance to do anything with her talents. I think I tried to capture that but most of it is about these things we hold on to because they reconnect us with people we love. And they may be kind of awkward things or secret things. Longfellow, you know, has this poem. And he lost both of his wives: one in childbirth and one in this horrific fire. And he has this poem called holidays, and at 100 is talking about these public holidays, but there’s also the secret holidays of the heart. These days that things happened that are very important to us but no one but us and perhaps our spouse knows about. My wife and I lost our first child. Neither of his brothers knew him. And he is incredibly important to us and we still cherish his memory, which has gone from being a sad memory to kind of a joyful memory. We had kids thinking it was sort of a burden. And we realized it was a delight. But only my wife and I, this is part of the secret language you speak with people you love.

53:46 Russ Roberts “Actually, I’d like us to close, if you could read it again, a lot of listeners found it very powerful: The Marriage of Many Years. I want to add a comment after it and then we can talk a little bit about it again."

54:06 Dana Gioia “In my book, 99 Poems – I was publishing my selected poems about four or I think five years ago – and I wanted to end the book on a poem to my wife. I don’t tend to write about my family because I don’t want to make their lives public. But I wanted to write a poem basically about how much she meant to me. And I was trying to think of the right metaphor for an enduring love, and I think it’s language. When you love someone, when you spend a lifetime with someone, the two of you create a private language, and it is the most intimate form of communication you’ll ever have with anyone in the world. But it is very fragile because if you lose the person, who do you speak the language with. And it reminded me of these California Indian tribes which only have one or two living speakers. And when that person dies, the language dies, the songs die, the dances die. And does that mean that that culture was not worth anything? No. It’s just Destiny in a way. All of us are mortal. So everyone will lose the language that they share with their beloved marriage. And yet it’s happy. It’s a joyful thing. And I think it’s all the more joyful for understanding its finitude.”