It slipped under the radar but it is unsurpassingly good news for poetry: the poet, critic, and arts administrator Dana Gioia has been made poet laureate of California. Poet laureate positions don’t commonly receive the attention many feel they deserve in the U.S., which often shows — at least publicly — an indifference to the arts. If a poet laureate receives media attention, it is usually when a famous person, say the poet Billy Collins, is appointed a U.S. Poet Laureate. Or a firebrand, say the late poet Amiri Baraka, is appointed at the state level. Moreover, the storyline on contemporary poetry is that it is abstruse and self-reverential, leaving little room for the “common reader” to find pleasure and meaning in it.
Gioia is among the great populists of poetry, a select group that currently includes Collins but which in the past had a wider and more prestigious membership: Robert Frost, Edna Vincent Millay, W.H. Auden, and Karl Shapiro. Gioia’s goal is to revive interest in poetry by going outside the urban metropolises to rural places across California. It is in line with his prior work as National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) chairman in the George W. Bush administration, where he funneled NEA grants to schools and community theaters (the NEA’s ever popular Shakespeare program, “Poetry Out Loud” and “Big Read”) by congressional district. This largesse accounted for his popularity with individual congressmen, and the revival of the NEA after the poisonous arts wars of the 1990s. This apolitical pick by California Democratic governor Jerry Brown is a win for the arts, not just in California, but America.