Top of page

Capitol Hill Lit Report: Dana Gioia on “Poetry as Enchantment”

Share this post:

The following guest post is by Yvonne French, webmaster for the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

I enjoy poetry readings as much as the next English major, but I relish poetry lectures–so when I found out former National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia was going to talk about “Poetry as Enchantment” at the Library, I knew I had to be there. Gioia is the author of four poetry collections and three books of essays, including the ground-breaking Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture. The nation’s top arts proponent from 2003 to 2008, he is currently the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.

“Poetry speaks best when it recognizes its connection to its musical and ritual origins,” said Gioia in his lecture, to a packed audience in the Whittall Pavilion on October 14th.  “Poetry began as an auditory art linked to religion, civic society, ritual and magic. It is our oldest form of literature, a primal form that flourished as an oral, performative art. . . . Verse was at the center of remembering, preserving and recreating the story of a tribe, a community, a nation.”

Dana Gioia giving a lecture on "Poetry as Enchantment" at the Library. Photo credit: Amanda Reynolds/Library of Congress.
Dana Gioia giving a lecture on “Poetry as Enchantment” in the Library’s Whittall Pavilion. Photo credit: Amanda Reynolds/Library of Congress.

The lecture was advertised as being about the connection between poetry and music, and I was hoping that Gioia, a critic, poet, opera librettist and university professor, would talk about writing lyrics. But when he mentioned magic, I was really surprised. By way of example he recited “The Tyger” by William Blake and noted it is the most widely-anthologized poem (Gioia has edited 12 anthologies). But, he said, “No one has adequately explained what that poem is about . . . it is a tune, a song, a magic spell of audible sounds that wakes up feelings and emotions.” He added that it creates “a rush, an enlargement of our senses, an enlargement of our understanding.”

I have always been fascinated with how the sounds of words can evoke feelings apart from their overt meanings. In college I tried to pinpoint this elusive technique in Middle English lyric poetry, and I continue to collect passages that I think do the trick.

The lecture took a different direction when Gioia asked, “If the art is a secular magic, then why is poetry so unpopular in Europe and North America?” Gioia, who brought the Poetry Out Loud recitation contest to schools throughout the nation, followed by saying the way poetry has been taught may be part of the problem. “Students liked poetry once we took it off the page,” he said. In the 19th century, poetry was used as a mnemonic to teach grammar, elocution, rhetoric and history, “or it was memorized as a punishment for wayward boys. Even though it was taught badly, it was immensely popular.”

In the early 20th century, Gioia said the New Critics changed the way poetry was taught. “They studied it as visual, conceptual, textual analysis without any other approaches to the art.” Students had a limited personal experience with poetry because they were not asked to recite or perform it as they were in the previous century. “The new methods became remote from the holistic, musical, magical experience of poetry itself.”

Almost as if to prove his point, Gioia sprinkled his lecture with some of his own poems and some by other poets, and the mostly older audience seemed to settle in and enjoy it each time. My own favorite form of entertainment is when someone reads aloud to me–I consider it a highly nurturing act. Gioia said that cognitive science has proven that humans are hard-wired to respond to it. “The sounds poetry creates are like the songs of birds or the dances of bees.”

“Teachers, writers and librarians need to remember that there are emotional and intuitive elements in the art,” he said. “We need to augment the methodology with magic and pass that fire on to the future.”


  1. Before man could read and write, stories were told or sung as verse. Dramas were written in verse and appreciated by the then called commoners. Also, opera, drama in verse and music was also the fare of the everyday person. I agree with this talk, but I add that somewhere along the line, poetry was made sissy for the tough manly man.

Comments are closed.