The day before speaking at Hillsdale’s fall convocation, renowned poet Dana Gioia read a selection of his own works to a group of students and faculty.
At the event, Gioia followed his poetry readings by answering questions from the audience and signing books, engaging in further discussion with the group.
The event organizer, associate professor of English Dutton Kearney, explained that this event has been in the works for years.
“Fifteen years ago, the College invited Dana Gioia to speak at commencement,” Kearney said. “Dr. Arnn pulled out all stops, even offering to have him flown here in a private jet, but Mr. Gioia had sworn off all commencement addresses.”
Kearney was not a faculty member at the time, but a few years ago he received a request from Jeff Bilbro, an assistant professor of English at Spring Arbor University, to partner with him in bringing Gioia to Hillsdale. Kearney accepted and began to work with Gioia to organize the trip.
“When Gioia mentioned that he had previously been asked to give the commencement address, I realized that his visit was bigger than the Visiting Writers Program,” Kearney said. “I suggested that Dana speak at convocation: still a solemn academic event, but not like commencement and he agreed.”
Kearney also noted the important role that Arnn played in bringing Gioia to the college. Unfortunately, problems arose that required the event to be pushed back.
“The delays sounded like an apocalypse: Wildfires, floods, riots, even a plague,” Kearney said. “Covid presented us with the longest delay, but all of us persevered.”
Gioia read poems composed in various styles, each conveying a unique set of emotions. He explained that variety has helped him to communicate to broader audiences on a deeper level.
“People have different moods and different sides,” Gioia said. “A person’s personality tends to be a thing of variety and abundance, and so I try to express that in my work.”
Gioia also advocated that, rather than isolating one’s poetic style to fit the current mold, one should write in the style that works best for them.
“Because I was trained in music, I probably respond more deeply to the musical elements of poetry,” Gioia said. “But I write in both free verse and forms.”
Kearney noted that he was pleased with the event, observing the way Gioia was able to captivate his audience.
“Some people in the audience were moved to tears, and some to laughter, but all were rapt for the entire 45 minutes,” Kearney said.
Assistant Professor of education, Jonathan Gregg, who was in attendance, agreed. He said that he enjoyed Gioia’s poems on marriage, especially as a married man himself.
“I love that he is such a constructive poet, not seeking to tear down or expose meaninglessness, but instead always searching for meaning and looking to bring ideas together and show them in new ways,” Gregg said.
Gioia concluded the event saying that poetry should invite readers to participate with the writer in creative thought and bring an audience to a place of discovery as they listen.
“Poetry is song,” Gioia said. “And I hope that the music of the poems unlock discoveries for the audience that are commensurate with the discoveries I had while writing the poems.”