OCTOBER 27, 2008

TOM PUTNAM:  Good afternoon. I’m Tom Putnam, Director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. On behalf of John Shattuck, CEO of the Kennedy Library Foundation, and all of my Library colleagues, I welcome you to tonight’s special forum. In his book, Can Poetry Matter?, our guest speaker this evening quotes Walt Whitman, “To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too.” So we sincerely express our appreciation to all of you for coming.

Let me also thank our generous underwriters beginning with lead sponsor, Bank of America, the Lowell Institute, Boston Capital, the Corcoran Jennison Companies, The Boston Foundation and our media sponsors The Boston Globe, NECN, and WBUR, which broadcasts Kennedy Library Forums on Sunday evenings.

We gather this evening in the spirit of President and Mrs. Kennedy’s efforts during their years in the White House to spark a revival in American arts and culture and are honored to have with us a man who has done more than any other in recent memory to advance that cause, Dana Gioia, the ninth Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts. After the cultural wars of the 1990s, Dana Gioia has been heralded as the man who saved the national endowment, in recognition of his successful efforts to strengthen a national consensus in favor of public funding for the arts. And for that Mr. Gioia, we all thank you.  [Applause]

This important achievement is perhaps a tribute to his own fascinating life story, the son of a working class family in Los Angeles with Italian and Mexican roots. As a boy he escaped most afternoons to his local public library, “a ruinous path,” he writes, that ultimately led him to break the hearts of both his sainted parents by becoming a poet. The first in his family to attend college, he earned degrees from Stanford and Harvard Universities. For 15 years he worked as a business executive, eventually becoming a vice president of General Foods, while writing poetry on the weekends and establishing himself as a major literary figure.

When asked once to give advice to young, aspiring poets he recommended, quote, “Spending your twenties, lonely, broke and unhappy in love. It worked for me.” The author of numerous prize winning collections of poetry and criticism, his 1991 volume, Can Poetry Matter? is credited with helping to help revive the role of poetry in American public culture. His anthologies of short fiction and stories include the works of Ernest Hemmingway, whose papers I should note are housed here at the Kennedy Library -- another of Jacqueline Kennedy’s enduring gifts to our nation.  Mr. Gioia recently announced his decision to leave the NEA in January, in part to have more time to write poetry, describing his current post as the most interesting job he’s ever had, but also suggesting that a poet needs the luxury of a little boredom.

Our moderator this evening, Sven Birkerts, is the author of numerous books, including Reading Life, Readings and a memoir, My Sky Blue Trades. He currently teaches at Harvard University and Bennington College and is the editor of the literary magazine Agni. I most appreciated his description in The Gutenberg Elegies of himself as, quote, “An unregenerate reader who still believes that language, not technology, is the true evolutionary miracle.” Or more simply as, quote, “A dreamy fellow who most often has an open book on his lap.”

To set the stage for tonight’s conversation, let’s watch a few excerpts of President Kennedy’s speech at the dedication of the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College, in which he speaks of Frost and on the role of the artist in a free society. There are some blips in the tape from when the footage was first shot in October of 1963. It runs about five minutes.

[Video clip]

So please join me now in welcoming Dana Gioia to the Kennedy Library. Following his opening remarks, he will be joined by Sven Birkerts.  [Applause]

DANA GIOIA:  Good evening. Having spent six years in Washington, I’ve grown deeply suspicious of public addresses by public officials. In most of the ones that I attend are people who read remarks written by someone else, to people they don’t know, about topics neither of them particularly care about. And so what I wanted to do tonight, before I enter my colloquy with the estimable Sven Birkerts, is to talk to you in very broad terms about some of the important things that I’ve noticed about American culture and its relation to politics and political thought since I’ve been in Washington.

This is not a topic I talk about. I can give you a very witty, well-paced speech on arts funding, on the strategies of the NEA, but we don’t want to talk about that tonight. What I would like to do is to give you a talk that you are unlikely to hear anywhere else, probably for good reason. And if I really want to make it unlike a talk that you are going to hear elsewhere in the public, basically this presidential library, why not begin with a poem?

This is a poem I often think about when I’m in Washington. I’m sure you all know it. It’s from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. It is spoken by the Duke Senior, whose kingdom has been usurped by his brother. He is now living in exile in the forests of Arden. And some of his advisors, some of the knights that are with him, want him to make peace with this brother so they can return to the court, which is much more comfortable than the cold forest. And this is what he tells them:

“Now, my co mates and brothers in exile, Hath not old custom made this life more sweet Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods More free from peril than the envious court? Here feel we but the penalty of Adam, The seasons' difference; as [when] the icy fang And churlish chiding of the winter's wind, Which, when it bites and blows upon my body, Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say '[Here] is no flattery: these are counselors [Who] feelingly persuade me what I am.Sweet are the uses of adversity, . . . And this our life exempt from public haunt, Finds tongues in trees, books in … running brooks, Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.”

What that’s about, in a way … [Applause]  Thank you … is the difference between a life of contemplation -- you might even say a life of the imagination --  and a life of power. We live in a world where power and the imagination aren’t really on easy speaking terms. And there is a whole series of reasons why this is the case. I mean one of them is fundamental -- is that there are different ways with which we understand and express the world. There are at least four of these ways.

One of them is very easy to explain. It is a scientific worldview where you can take reality. You can understand it, measure it, present it through mathematics, through science. And you can, by this way of expressing the world, you can do amazing things. You can make cameras, electric lights. You can have airplanes, you know, these huge metal objects that fly through the air. And everybody understands the instrumentality of this, the importance of this. Although I would imagine there is almost no one in this room who could tell us how something as simple as an electric light works. You know, we take it on faith and we are glad that somebody knows this so that we can enjoy these luxuries.

There’s another way, and this is something that we are all, especially at the JFK Library, are very comfortable with. And that’s a way of understanding and expressing the world through analysis and through conceptual language. We can find a way of taking everything in our experience and bringing it into sort of general concepts that, you know, here are three women sitting in the front row, which is not to be confused with three women sitting in the front row. Conceptually they are the same, even though in reality they are quite different.

This allows us to pass laws. It allows us to have political debate. It allows us to write newspaper articles. And through our educational process, institutions love conceptual language because it’s much more definite. And it gives us a way of running very complicated societies. And we use it so often that we begin to believe that it is really the most truthful language.

There’s another kind of way of experiencing and expressing the world I don’t even want to get into but I have to acknowledge it, which is a mystical way. You know, if you go to a Benedictine monastery or a Buddhist monastery, there are people there who, in a sense, both perceive and communicate fundamental aspects of reality in ways which are not conceptual, not scientific, but seem to be quite genuine.

Let’s just put that off to one side because the one I really want to talk about is something we don’t even have a comfortable name for. You can call it a poetic means of understanding and expressing reality, which is to say, poesis, the made thing, an artistic and aesthetic thing. And this is something that is really quite different from conceptual language. What poesis does, what this imaginative, this intuitive language does, is to insist that, indeed, when we experience the world, we experience our lives.  We do not separate it as it happens to us between the way we think about it, the way we feel it, the way we imagine it; it touches on our memories, our physical body, our senses, our conceptual ability are all, actually, a holistic kind of mess.

And this is the way we live most of our lives. And out of this way of, in a sense, experiencing reality, before we make it scientific, before we make it conceptual, before we even link it to the cosmos of the mystics, we face the fact that we respond to life, we lead our lives moment by moment, more or less with the fullness of our humanity, which includes our mind, our body, our intelligence, our senses, our imagination, our intuition, our memory.  Which is to say, I recognize something about this audience. Everyone of you has come here this evening for a variety of reasons, and you have brought to this room your entire life experience. And this person’s life experience is going to be different than this person’s life experience. And that’s the way we live. It is part of the completeness of our humanity. It is part of the human condition.

The arts come out of that poesis. They come out of that poetical knowledge and, in fact, express both, understand the world before we have had a chance to analyze it into neat, abstract, generalized concepts. That’s the first thing I want to say tonight, that there are these, let’s say for convenience sake, these three ways of talking about the world:  the scientific, the analytic conceptual; the artistic, intuitive, poetic.

Secondly, we now live in a society which is so complex that we specialize in small branches of knowledge. The prosperity of modern society, in many ways, is because of this specialization. In the old days you might have gone to a doctor for anything that ailed you. Now, there are dozens of specialties. You might have gone to a teacher to instruct you. Now, there are dozens of specialties there, too. The specialization of knowledge has given us tremendous accuracy and power over certain things. But it has also isolated us increasingly in our society.

I think it’s a truism that goes back to the fifties with people like C.P. Snow saying that scientists and non-scientists could no longer speak to each other.  They lived in different worlds. But I think in the beginning of the 21st century, we are now in a situation where even scientists can’t speak to each other because science has gotten so broad. Some of you, I assume, teach in universities. How often do you have meaningful conversations with people who are several departments away?

In the 21st century, we can basically talk to the people who are in our specialty and a couple of related specialties. But we find ourselves really unable to explain what we do or understand what somebody else does when you take too many steps. It is rather like 19th century Italy. If you went to the next village, you could understand the dialect and speak it perfectly. If you went two villages away, you could pretty much understand everything you said. You go 50 miles away, and they are speaking a Romance language you can’t even understand.

So there are these large languages. There is this specialization that is going on. And we have, in a sense, a society, which is less and less able. And, in fact, there is another thing, which people rarely acknowledge. And I’m sure some of you are already experiencing it in relation to what I am telling you. Since I am not explaining this to you in the concepts of your profession, I am not using the shibboleths of your specialty. In some ways it annoys you, what I’m talking about. You go, “Oh, God, this guy is this vague generalist who is not really nailing—you know, as a linguist, I know this,” or “As a historian I know this,” or “As a political scientist I know this.”

And so we have this kind of—as part of this hyperspecialization, this suspicion, this annoyance at people who aren’t doing it the right way—scientists who don’t think that the people in social studies are doing it quite in the right way. And so what this leads us to is a society in which there are dozens and dozens of consequences that would be interesting to talk about. But I want to talk about simply one of them. And I will make the case, and I don’t think anybody can disagree with this.

At the beginning of the 21st century in the United States of America, we live in a society which no longer understands the human purposes of the arts.  There is some vague superstition we have that we still need them.  But we don’t really quite know why. And because we have our society increasingly run by institutions, which have their own languages, their own little conceptual territories; because we don’t understand the arts, because we don’t realize the human purposes of them, we have systematically removed them from our society.

Most American schools no longer have arts education. Why? Because when it comes down to it, they have to cut budget. We keep the really important things. You know, we keep the math. We keep English. We keep girls soccer. But music, it’s not really necessary. Studio art, come on. That’s a luxury. Theater, who goes to the theater after all? You know, we are just encouraging our kids to be actors.

Now, in defense, we see the same thing in civic life. If you go back to the poorest area, the poorest period of the 20th century, the Great Depression—and you go into a poor city, and you look at the buildings that were built during the Great Depression by the city, by the state, by the federal government, they are beautifully designed. They have the finest craftsmanship, not just the overall architecture but the woodwork, the metal work. Often there are frescoes or sculpture. It is superbly done.  Because even in this moment of dire economic stress, which I daresay was more severe than the local school district’s budget crunch, they felt that there was a civic importance of creating something, which was  beautiful, something that belonged to the commonwealth that was beautiful. We no longer have this assumption. If you go into a WPA era post office, you can be pretty sure your letter is going to get there. You go into a post office built in the 21st century, you will say, “Well, where is that FedEx office, after all?” Because it says that this is merely an expedient, this is the cheapest possible way they could build this because that is what they think of us, that is what they think of the commonwealth.  So we are in this society which has stripped these away.

You see it in the media. When I was a kid, being raised in Los Angeles by adults who did not speak English, in a city, which to this day does not have a single cultural institution of any kind except for the public library, not a statue in a park in this part of LA, I would turn on the TV and on variety shows I would hear Jascha Heifetz, Robert Merrill, Anna Moffo, Artur Rubenstein. I would hear John Steinbeck, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Mary McCarthy talk.

I didn’t know who these people were. I learned that there was such a thing as philosophy because they would have Bertand Russell on the air; that anthropology exists because Margaret Mead would be on television. And this was something that filtered through our general culture. And so we in the 21st century, because we do not understand the role of these arts, have stripped them of education, out of civic life and out of the media. And what we have been left with -- because this is the interesting thing, and it’s true of the arts; it’s true of spiritual life -- if you do not feed these universal hungers, the hunger does not go away. It is satisfied more cheaply. It is satisfied with the equivalent of the junk food of the spirit. And so we have replaced these things at every level in our society with commercialized mass produced entertainment. Everything in our public culture -- and it is even creeping into the schools, it’s creeping into our cities -- is there to sell you something.

The very language is owned by corporations in terms of trademarks. And so we have replaced this sense of the commonwealth of the res publica, the things of the republic, which linked us back, I think, to the greatest impulses of the ancient world and their difficult survival through all the vicissitudes of history. We have replaced it, essentially, with a kind of shopping mall vision of culture, in which these things are owned and rented to us.  This is a phenomenal disaster. It is not just a disaster culturally. As a poet, I see it as a disaster. It is a disaster culturally, educationally, economically and politically because you cannot have a vital, free society without the arts playing a role.

Now, I want to qualify that because this is something that is often misunderstood. I do not have an instrumental view of the arts. I’m about to join the Aspen Institute in February. And when I went to the Aspen Institute meetings four years ago, they believe that you should read books because if you read the right book, it will help you recycle more. The purpose of film is there to make you see the beauty of hybrid engines. They have this vision that art is there, in a sense, to bring you to a correct political or social consciousness.

That is not the purpose of art. There may be occasional by-products of art. There are instrumental uses of the arts. But what the arts do is essentially … Now, if you go back to think about this, what it is is a language, a language for understanding and expressing the world. There are conversations in this language that must happen, because if they do not happen in this language they will not happen, period.  There are some truths that we can only express to one another as stories, as songs, as images. There are some very uncomfortable truths that we can only express to others as jokes because they are too grim to consider otherwise. And so what the purpose of arts are—and if you think of this—because each of the separate arts tends to be based on a particular sense, sense of sight, sense of hearing, sense of movement.

Let’s just take one. Let’s just take literature because my colleague Sven Birkerts is a distinguished literary critic and we will probably be talking about that. Why do we need literature? I mean really. If you’ve got movies, if you’ve got video games, if you have interactive, you know, computer fiction, what do you need books for, for God’s sake? What to you need poetry for? What do you need fiction for in the old fashioned sense? Why do you need theater? Isn’t theater about as dead as a medium could possibly be?

Well, there are things that happen in each of those media which are irreplaceable, poetry being the most primitive one. I mean you cannot find a society anywhere in the world which does not have poetry. Poetry exists. It develops before the development of writing. And why would you have poetry? Well, I think Robert Frost, who we saw commemorated there, had an interesting way of expressing it that I think an anthropologist would agree with. He said, “Poetry is a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget.” 

A culture understands and it’s beset on all sides by … You think of it as a primitive culture but it is beset by all kinds of dangers. You need to know who you are, where you’ve been, who your people are, what their stories are, what their values are before you can figure out where you are going. There has to be a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget. Before writing, the mnemonics of poetry were there. And even after writing, what poetry becomes in a sense is the way of passing on types of human knowledge.

What art does and what poetry does and what literature does is to awaken us to the full sense of our own human potential. It doesn’t necessarily make you a better person, but it makes you a bigger person, a more capable person. And you see this in fiction, that people that read -- and I used to know this intuitively but I can now demonstrate this; in fact, these reports that we put out in the lobby will demonstrate it to you scientifically and statistically through huge amounts of research.  Fiction seems to do two things. Reading awakens you to a higher sense of your own destiny. It makes you recognize that, you know, “I’m Dana. I’m not my mom. I’m not my dad. I’m not Sven.” Sven goes, “I’m Sven. Thank God, I’m not Dana.” And you start to get a sense of who you are.

The other thing it does -- and this is the miracle of fiction. This is why those nations in which the novel was first developed, which created a large, middle class and upper middle class readership for the novels were, not coincidentally, those countries which first developed what we think of as liberal democracy.

The other thing that fiction does is make you understand that other people have existence as real and as complicated as yours. The habit of daily reading, which this country is now in the process of losing … Think of this, of imagining the lives of other people and the daily-ness of existence, psychologically, socially, economically, people that may be a different gender from you, a different race from you, a different age from you, different economic circumstances from you. The daily meditation of those people’s existence in the minutia of their daily existence breeds a kind of empathy and sympathetic imagination which allows you to understand a complicated society, a diverse and complicated society.

Poetry does the same thing. As an older person, you remember what it is to fall in love for the first time. As a younger person, it shows you some of the things that you will be facing. In a sense, it creates a compendious kind of imagination. Now, you can take those higher mental powers, things like this, and you can use them for good and for bad. But it does awaken you. It does enlarge, enhance and refine you. You make the case that our educational system does a reasonably good job to educate us analytically. But it does a pretty awful job of educating us emotionally, of educating us imaginatively, of educating us spiritually. And these are all at least the possibilities that art presents and that literature presents in particular.

I could talk now forever. Those of you who know me know that I can. But I think at this point I will invite my colleague, Mr. Birkerts up here to … I was telling him, this is such a nice place. Because if we were at a poetry reading, the glasses would never match. So we know we are in a classy joint here. So please welcome Sven Birkerts here. Come on.  [Applause]

SVEN BIRKERTS:  Good evening. I was glad to listen to Dana talking about beauty and craft because as I was listening and sort of getting absorbed in what he was saying, I was also staring at this chair. And it kept striking me—what a beautiful chair. And I’m delighted now to sit down in it. And speaking of the beauties of things, one of the beauties of conversations I think, as opposed to other modes of discourse, is that almost by definition it doesn’t know necessarily where it is going and where it may end up.

And so I have things I’ve been thinking about, but I don’t have a conversational script. I have things I would like to try to sound you out on and lure you into talking about. I was going to begin by outing my own hypocrisy slightly. I’m basically somebody who is known to be a critic and skeptic of kind of the overblown aspects of the electronic age. I’m cautious and skeptical and I have various riffs I could go off on relating to the omnipresence of Wikipedia, for instance, as the first go-to place, nowadays, for anyone who wants to find out anything.  But I went to Wikipedia earlier today just because I wanted to—and I’ve known Dana for many years so it’s not that I needed to find out who Dana was -- but I wanted to see what the first public portal would have to say. And I’m just only saying this because I should have maybe known this, but the striking thing for me was to notice that we were born in the same year.

It certainly changed things for me slightly. I thought, “Oh, we really are contemporaries.” And that fed into all of this thinking that I’ve been doing about this conversation. Because we agreed early on through the economy of e-mail that we would talk about reading, that that would give us plenty of subject area to maneuver in. And God knows we are just going to probably scratch at the very surface.

But I suddenly identified us as belonging to, very narrowly, to the same generation. And I started thinking along the lines of generation. And the fact that for so long, with most questions, I identified myself generationally by my sense of opposition to those who were older to me. And I was part of a generation that was very oppositional in that sense. And I realized that it’s been, I don't know, maybe not too much more than a decade when the opposite has happened. And my generational sense of identity is now much more secured, and not necessarily secured in the sense of comforted by looking backward and seeing that I’m part of a generation because of what I’m not in the other direction.

And this has very much to do with the kind of intellectual self conception and relating to this whole question, the big public question of reading. I was thinking that Dana and I, as 1951 babies, also came of age in the glory days of the English major. We came of age also in a period when people took seriously, at least in the academy, Kenneth Burke’s notion of literature as instruction for existence. Basically, it’s equipment for living. We go to it naturally. We want it.  We need it.

And something has changed -- and that is what I want to remark before opening this up -- is that from my point of view, I noticed, maybe 15, 20 years ago, something very much changing. And I addressed it from the point of view of an enormous technological transformation that was happening and changing everything about the way we processed information and conducted our lives. And I saw this very much affecting broadly the humanities, narrowly that which I loved, which is literature and writing. And everything felt different, and I set out and wrote a bunch of essays and then eventually a book about it.

And Dana, from his angle, coming in as a poet, but also he responded to this in a much more hands-on, public sort of way, becoming the chairman of the NEA and undertaking a major initiative—which recognized that which I was feeling from my end, more theoretically and wondering about, you were addressing very much in terms of looking for decisive action and policy.  And also to make this inquiry much more definite.

And what you discovered was, essentially, you know, three words, “reading at risk” or four words, “reading at serious risk.” And that’s really what I’m wondering about, is it’s the thing that struck me watching the film clip when President Kennedy was speaking, was the astonishing natural, unapologetic confidence with which he spoke about what the arts were and their place. And I think that we’ve entered an era of apology, vis-à-vis these same things. And I wanted to open this up, to ask you first whether you feel that your sense of history, cultural history, is it that we are in a pattern of broad cycles and returns? Or do you feel that something has changed in the sense of one direction of possible irrevocably …

DANA GIOIA:  I’m not draconian about the cycles of history. I do think things go around and return.  But as they return, they are also changed. You lose some things and you gain some things. I think that you and I being of the same generation are actually just old enough to recognize how much we have lost. I mean you talk to somebody who is 30 years old, they don’t remember television when it was any different. They don’t remember civic life when it was ever very different. I mean we, Sven, I think that the fellow sitting next to President Kennedy was Archibald MacLeish Was it? [Pointing to Director Tom Putnam]


DANA GIOIA:  Who -- poet, Librarian of Congress, Undersecretary of the Interior, a member of Roosevelt’s brain trust. And it is almost inconceivable at the moment. Maybe it will change in the future that you will have poets in public life, artists entering public life. And it’s for two reasons. First of all, nothing in your training as a poet or an artist will prepare you for public life. And, frankly, public life doesn’t want you anyway. So you’ve got this kind of double jeopardy there.

And I think we are just old enough to remember that that wasn’t always the case. You know, that you did have men and women of considerable learning and talents going into …just in the Roosevelt administration, he had two poets working for him, Stephen Vincent Benet and Archibald MacLeish. And both of them were really quite successful. On the other hand, the CIA was entirely founded by poets. That’s another story.

So I do think that there is that sense that, you know, that we’ve lost something. And my feeling is that when it comes around, it’s going to be a much paltrier vision of public life, of public language, public education and public culture.

SVEN BIRKERTS:  And I know this is a subject matter for long answers, but a short answer, just a gut reaction to your sense of, what do you perceive to be the forces driving the change?

DANA GIOIA:  Well, there are many. I mean, I’ll just talk about three. Talk about the media, education, and the society’s sense of itself as portrayed by the government. You know, our media has completely collapsed as a sense of having any gold standard. I mean, if you look at the charter that created the BBC, there’s an unapologetic statement that the BBC is there to raise the level of the general culture and of information and culture. And the BBC, for all the moaning and groaning that my friends on the BBC have about it being not as good as it used to be, it still has the vision, that in a sense it tempers and corrects the general sort of dumbing down of society. In America, it is completely gone. I mean if you just look at what’s on television, if you look on the vision that cable television, that satellite television was going to have about enlarging the cultural possibilities, look at A&E, arts—I mean, it essentially runs old police shows and mysteries.

Education is a catastrophe in the United States. One out of every three American teenagers drops out of high school. When a teenager drops out of high school, he or she will not only make less, will not only have fewer options in his or her life, they will live six to seven years less. It is a cultural issue. It is a public health issue. It is an economic issue. We’ve got a system which isn’t working. And then if you look at what it does with people inside of it.  You know, these people no longer have almost any command of history, of language, the arts. It’s become almost a trade school mentality. Produce entry level workers for a kind of McDonald’s, K-Mart.

SVEN BIRKERTS:  A moment ago you were very eloquent, before I came up …

DANA GIOIA:  Then the final thing is that I don’t see our government, the vision of society, the vision of culture, the vision of citizenship of our society as portrayed by public offices being much different than the education and the media. So we have, you know, essentially an economic outcome, a very diminished role of what citizenship is, a sense that culture has been replaced by entertainment. And I think that this is almost universal in the United States. There are a few cranks like you and me who complain about it. But nobody takes us seriously.

SVEN BIRKERTS:  I want to ask you about the Big Read in a specific way, because you were so eloquent a moment ago, before I came up, about posing it and, in a sense, answering the question of why literature? What does literature give you?  And the answer you gave, which obviously of course is only a partial answer, but it really had to do with that way that you learn in a more and more sophisticated way to see the other, to understand the self outside the self and to create an empathic worldview and so on.

And if literature is at risk, then this quality, in a sense, is also at risk. I don’t think it’s a message that the population that you are trying to reach right now with the Big Read is going to accept, except as it makes its way in subversively. And so I mean, just because I think a 17, 18, 19 year old kid basically says, “Why have I got to learn this stuff? Okay.” I don’t think you want to get that message in through the back door and have them awaken to it and then realize it was there all along.  I just want to ask has the program been working or in play or in place long enough for you now to take a preliminary reading on the success of the approach and the initiative?

DANA GIOIA:  Yes. But I want to back up and just one thing. To complain about the culture, to complain about the dumbing down of our society does not mean that in every town in the United States there are not people that understand what’s going on, that essentially have an idealistic sense of what they should be doing, of what their community should be doing, of what’s missing in the schools. The trouble is anybody who is like this feels dispirited. You don’t feel like there is a lot of public support for your position.

So what I’ve tried to do at the NEA is … I’m a poet. And poets understand something that other government bureaucrats don’t. They understand the power of a symbol. We understand that a symbol communicated effectively can communicate things both intellectually and emotionally to people that give them courage to get more things done. So from the very beginning at the NEA I’ve tried to run the place --  and it’s interesting, you use the very word -- unapologetically.

I have a very simple philosophy. This is not something the NEA ever stated before. Our purpose is to bring the best of art and arts education to all Americans, not to bring the best to an elite, not to bring mediocrity to millions -- but out of a conviction that art has an ability to awaken us to the best in ourselves. The Big Read comes out of this. Which is to say, we will bring superb books of broad appeal and we will introduce them into a community in a way that they can’t ignore them. And I want to create positive social pressure to read good books.

Now, that is not the way that intellectuals, you or I … you or I want to read books nobody else has because it makes us feel better. But most people are more sane than us. They like to read books that bring them closer to other people. If somebody else is reading a book, they want to read it.  And creating this pressure has one of two outcomes, and I’m happy with both. One is you read the book and the other is you feel guilty you don’t. Guilt is good. We have to make people who are ignorant feel a little guilty about the fact. I have no problem with that. But I’m Catholic. [Laughter]

So we have now 553 Big Read grants out. We have it in every state of the union. I have it in 417 or 435 Congressional districts. I have XM Sirius radio broadcasting for free, donated time, our books in half hour segments during morning drive time, you know, night drive time. We actually have truck drivers writing us saying, “I’m so glad of this because I always wanted to read Fahrenheit 451 but I thought it was too difficult.” Now, you and I would think of it as a difficult book but we are giving people the opportunity and the permission to become readers.

And so, is this program so big and so powerful that it single handedly will save American reading? No, it won’t. But it is the biggest cultural program, the biggest literary program the United States has undergone since World War II.

SVEN BIRKERTS:  And what are you hearing from the very first, frontline of those who are implementing and administrating it locally.

DANA GIOIA:  That they like it and they want to do it again.

SVEN BIRKERTS:  They do like it.

DANA GIOIA:  And every time we do it, when we do it a second time … See, one of the problems with foundation support, NEA support, is they give you a grant to do something. Then a year later, we are bored and we are doing something else. But what I have noticed is that you let somebody do it.  They get it about half right. Then the next time they get it about three-quarters right. And then the third time they do it, they really know what they are doing.

We now have over 21,000 organizations in the country that are partnering with us. So you go into a town like Topeka, Kansas. I have 153 institutional partners. I’ve got the schools, the libraries, the mayor’s office. I’ve got foundations. I’ve got businesses. I’ve got barber shops. I’ve got hair salons. And you get to a thing and everybody does at least one event. So you will have 153 events in 30 days. So it is kind of hard to ignore the book.

SVEN BIRKERTS:  Yes. Absolutely.

DANA GIOIA:  And so I think that what we are doing is we are creating a symbol that the country doesn’t have to get stupider. Now, how many—when you hear—what was the biggest culture story of the nineties? According to the way media rates, it was Michael Jackson. That’s their idea of a culture story. We’re trying to create—we think of cultural stories as basically, well, this failed. This thing didn’t work. They are going bankrupt. We are trying to create success stories to give people the courage that if they try something, it may work and that there are models for this. And so we’ve created something now. I think it is going to grow larger and larger. What I’m trying to do right now is to seduce the Girl Scouts. I want to get three million …

SVEN BIRKERTS:  Figuratively. [Laughter]

DANA GIOIA:  I want to get three million girls and one million parents to read a book together. And maybe even have the older Girl Scouts read it to the younger ones, have the parents do it. And actually create a community that is not a geographical community, not a municipality, but to take a leadership.  I like to get corporations to buy everybody that works for them a book and have them read it together. So I think we are just on the cusp of this, to make it something that is part of the common culture.

SVEN BIRKERTS:  I’m guessing that people will shortly have some questions, maybe, about this. I wanted to squeeze in one more question of a different sort before maybe opening up the floor for your own inquiries and observations. It was in the elevator which they work with a key, so not everyone can get up to the seventh floor. If you don’t have the key, you are out of luck. But it was in that elevator that I heard Dana say … Well, the question was asked is he going to go back to private life, the writing life, which is the very private life after his tenure ends as chairman. And Dana said something I had never known, which is, while you are in the position of Chairman you are not allowed to publish. So he has been absolutely holding back his … When I first met Dana decades ago, it was as a poet. I think of Dana as a poet. So I’m still getting used to Dana, the Chairperson. Now, it is going to be Dana going back to the life of poetry. I would love to just get you to reflect for a few moments before we open up.  This transition, I don't know in what ways, but just what is it? It is such an enormous deceleration or acceleration in other compartments. But how are you thinking about it now? Are you counting the minutes?

DANA GIOIA:  You know, for six years now, I keep making a chalk mark on my wall every day. If you work in Washington … Have any of you seen “The West Wing,” the way they are always walking around, people are always doing. It really isn’t much different from that. I mean, there’re people coming all the time, meetings all day long. Everybody is always coming through. The phone is always ringing. There’re e-mails coming through. There is always some little crisis. And almost everybody in public life develops attention deficit disorder because you don’t have to pay attention to things because everything is coming to you.

So the other thing is I have been per force the spokesman nationally for public support of arts and arts education because no one else in the country was talking about these issues. We needed to make them public issues. So I’ve talked too much for six years. I’ve got to shut up. I’ve got to slow down. I’ve got to get away from phones. And I’ve got to sit there and listen to the still, small voice inside me. And I don't know what form that will take. I think I’m going to be a nervous wreck.

I have a place out in the country in northern California. So I’m going to read. I’m going to prune trees. I’m going to cut brush and I’m going to stare at a blank tablet and just see what comes. And I think it is going to take a while. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, said there is a very common thing that happens when people become Trappists. They take a vow of silence. And they go there and about two or three months into the monastery they go to their confessor and they say, “Father, I believe I’m going crazy.” And the priest knows what’s coming. And he says, “Why?” He says, “Well, I hear voices. I hear voices talking inside of me all the time.” And what the Trappists say, “You finally lost the world and for the first time you are hearing yourself.”

So what I want to do is see if I can hear myself again. And it’s going to take—I think—I have absolute confidence that I can write a bad poem again. [Laughter] The thing I don't know is if I can write well. So I want to wait and I want to think. I want to do physical labor. I want to do some serious reading and then see what comes.

SVEN BIRKERTS:  It makes a very perfect circle with the fact you began citing the uses of adversity back in the forest of Arden. And there was a kind of removal from pomp of public life and, you know, being brought back to yourself. I hope that works. I’m thinking people very well may have things they would like to either say or ask.

DANA GIOIA:  There is a microphone. So just come forward as the spirit moves you.

AUDIENCE:  First of all, I want to thank you for the Town Read. I think that that has to be the best thing that has happened to us since Harry Potter. But I am very fortunate that the town where I live and the towns surrounding me are very, very into the Town Read. We went to a meeting about The Three Cups of Tea in Mansfield High School. And we came 15 minutes before and we said, “Oh, we will get a seat.” No, sir! There were people all around the outside of the school. The place was packed with people standing. So that I consider myself very lucky to be part of this.

However, I have relatives who live in Barnegat, New Jersey, who are very big readers and would very much enjoy being part of the Big Read. They have no idea of what that is. They never heard of it. The library was completely blank.  I sent her the article about Big Read and how it started. And they have nothing.

So I wanted to say thank you for allowing me who am -- I was always a very big reader -- able to be with other people who were just as happy to read as I am. Because the world is getting smaller, as you said. A can have a conversation with B. And B doesn’t know that Z exists. So it’s pretty sad that you can’t have conversations on general subjects with almost anybody, because not everybody is caring about what you’re caring about.

DANA GIOIA:  There is something that you are talking about, too, that needs to be said. We brought somewhere between two and three million people together in rooms in the United States over the last about 18 months to be part of Big Read events, you know, which is pretty phenomenal. And we’ve got 150 organizations working together with the town. My feeling is that when the Big Read goes away for 11 months before it comes back, those people will still know each other. Those organizations will have worked with each other. And that we are building the social capital that is necessary for healthy civic life, above and beyond what we are doing for reading.

AUIDENCE:  It’s a wonderful thing and thank you again.

DANA GIOIA:  You’re very welcome.

AUDIENCE:  My name is Dr. Joe Dorsey. One quick question and then a question that will require a couple of editorial comments. First, do your comments about television apply to public television also, I wonder? Secondly, I grew up in a home, single mother, two kids. My mother taught until she was 73 and always drilled into us, the read, read, read message. I now have nine kids and it’s much harder to get them to read.

As I look at who is out there now and who cares about this stuff, my conclusion is that the person who cares the most is Colin Powell. He spoke the other night about what is the one agenda item that he feels has not been on the agenda that he wishes was, and it is education. He talks with passion about the kids growing up in inner cities who don’t finish high school, whom he has to send off to war because they have no other choice.  He’s championed this American promise stuff. You know, he’s come out in favor of Obama. I think that instead of bringing him back as Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense, it would be an interesting idea to bring him back as Secretary of Education. 

DANA GIOIA:  I don’t think that was a question. But let me say this one thing. If you look at the role of the arts on public radio and public television over the last 30 years, they have really diminished. In fact, National Public Radio has had a campaign largely to eradicate classical music and jazz from their member stations for a variety of reasons. And there are many cities in the United States now that do not have a classical music station or only have a commercial one that plays happy Baroque drive time things.

So I think even there you see a sense that they don’t understand the role of the arts as part of their conceptual policy-driven agenda. And I think it’s an example of the kind of specialization and sequestering of segments of American culture. This is not to say I’m an enemy in any sense. We support public radio. We support public television. But we do have to fight for them to get arts coverage.

SVEN BIRKERTS:  Also, I’d add, too, that there are several layers on which to talk about this as a difficulty or a problem. And one is having to do at the level of education and funding and people who are, in many ways, disadvantaged and kept from the exposure that creates a reading sensibility. But I think the other is, when Dana was describing the nature of daily life in Washington with the West Wing model of things just moving and phones ringing—I don’t think that just applies to what you are doing there. I think that is kind of a template for how increasingly we all, in our different ways, carry out the day’s business.

And you said you have nine children? They are living in that world as are my two children. And I see it’s not that they are not intelligent or even disposed toward the idea of the book. But what needs to be overcome and pushed aside and dealt with before the simple act of sitting down and even assembling the first level of attention and clarity -- which then allows you to actually hear and see the words and be moved by them -- has become such an enormous challenge which formerly did not exist. In the Abraham Lincoln world of our imaginations, you lit the candle and you opened the book and there it was. It was a direct circuit to …

DANA GIOIA:  Or if you took a walk, you looked at what was around you; you listened to what was around you, you know, versus putting on your…

SVEN BIRKERTS:  Ear phones.

DANA GIOIA:  Ear phones and cutting it off.

AUDIENCE:  Yes, good evening. My name is Zayere Amanasis(?), and I just graduated from New England Conservatory of Music. I am a classical guitarist. Let me know if I’m speaking too fast because I’m originally from Mexico so I have to think twice, of two languages. So, basically, I’m glad I’m here because I feel I enter into another, at the John F. Kennedy room. I enter into the planet that I was dreaming about. In Mexico, we do have these connections with the government that supports the arts. And it is always, like all the support that we have in music and poetry and theater is from the government.

So I was speaking to my colleagues and my husband and many people at NEC, New England Conservatory, and I asked them about how come and why the government doesn’t get involved as much? Or maybe it does but I just don’t know. I’m not aware about what is going on. Why did all the social class, since in Mexico we do have these powerful music movements where all the social classes get together, high, medium and poor people. They all get together.

So I asked them, how come the high class, the percentage is bigger and not the other classes get involved as well. It is because of the lack of support that we have from the government as well. And I do appreciate all these private groups of people who support the arts and do all this movement supporting the arts. So could you please explain to me because I’ve been really having these nightmares? I need somebody to tell me what is going on.

DANA GIOIA:  I think that most people don’t understand how much the US government supports the arts. The US government actually provides more support for the arts than any other country in the world. It is mostly done through the tax deduction. But, you know, there is also … When you look at this, the US system in a funny way … Now, that isn’t to say that we don’t need more money in the NEA, that we don’t need more money in some of these federal agencies. But the US is actually a very generous nation. And the tax support, you can get the deduction, allows people to support projects the government might not necessarily like, might not approve of. It allows you to do it where you want with the organization you want, you know, etcetera, etcetera. I think it is a wonderful thing.

The problem is in this country we have created tremendous institutional infrastructure for the arts, but almost no ability to have those institutions speak to a broader society. So we have 1,100 symphony orchestras in the United States. But in a downtown you will have the kids who live in the neighborhood walk by who have never been in the building. And so we have the capital investment but we don’t have the programs. We don’t have the culture to bring people into it.  It’s a tragedy. It’s a tragedy.

AUDIENCE:  So how can we create that? 

DANA GIOIA:  Public education. Every child in the United States should, at the very least, learn how to sing and should learn some basic musical instruction. Same thing should be for theater. Same thing should be for literature, performing arts, there should be some studio. Secondly, we need to acknowledge these things in our media. A third rate highway in Boston will get more daily coverage than all the arts in Boston on the radio and TV because traffic is considered more important than culture. Food is considered more important than culture. Celebrity divorces are considered more important than the arts.

We have to change this. And those changes have to be reflected in the government, in our sense of public life. I mean, there are a lot of small things that we’ve done at the NEA. One of the things that I’m really proud of is that we’ve just created—we’ve created new, federal honors where the American government honors artists in their own life time. And just as an acknowledgement that it’s one of the things that a state celebrates as part of its own vitality.

The interesting thing about America is that I think we are dying of thirst amid plenty and that’s the tragedy of it. I mean has any country had as many good musicians as America has right now, as many actors, as many painters, as many writers? And yet they are somehow isolated from the broader culture. And they bear some responsibility. We are not blaming it all on the Philistines.

When you get an artist in front of a school board and they say, “Why do we need theater?” And they say, “You need it to train actors.” No. No. The purpose of arts education is not to produce more artists. It’s to produce complete human beings who can lead productive lives in a complicated society. Some of them will become artists but the primary need for arts education is universal. It is not professional training. And our artists have forgotten how to explain that to people.

AUDIENCE:  Thank you.  [Applause]

AUDIENCE:  If you will pardon me for saying so, Mr. Gioia, you seem to be a man of some contradictions. You refer to what you call junk food of the spirit. But as I understand in your business career you were in charge of the Kool-Aid account at General Foods, which has to be the ultimate symbol of junk food. And, also, I’m perplexed a little bit at how you profess such admiration for Roosevelt style WPA post offices and disparage the 21st century post offices of your political patron George Bush.  But the most important contradiction I wanted to ask you about was in 2003 when you were being installed as the new chairman of the NEA, poets were flooding the White House with poetry opposing Bush’s illegal, immoral, invasion of Iraq and you stood by and said nothing. So I’m wondering whether art brought out the best in those poets that opposed this criminal invasion Iraq or poets like yourself who wanted to remain artistically neutral.

DANA GIOIA:  Well, my parents neglected to give me the private income I so richly deserve. And so I worked in business for 15 years. I sold soft drinks. I sold deserts. And I always thought the products we sold were good products at the price. And I have no apology for that. The second question?

AUDIENCE:  WPA versus Bush’s policies domestically …

DANA GIOIA:  I mean, I don’t think the general decline of the government’s vision of how they build buildings, how they portray themselves to the people, their investment to the people—the statement they are making is something that has happened under the Bush administration, specifically. It’s been a general deterioration I think from about 1950 on. And it really comes, I think, from what Galbraith says, that we live in a country of private affluence and public squalor. There is this sense that we are in a society which no longer believes in investing, and I use the old-fashioned word, the commonwealth. It’s almost a quaint term nowadays.

And I think you see it reflected in almost … You see it reflected in parks. You see it reflected in public buildings and federal buildings. But you see it reflected in the postage stamps we issue, which are Walt Disney seals and Star Wars things. The sense that somehow the pubic culture is just is an expedient versus something that leads people to a higher sense of what the nation can be, what the culture can be, what the society can be.

Now, I mean, if you want to bring everything down to some sort of partisan thing, there is them versus us, there is good people versus bad people, I don’t see the point in talking about it. What I’m trying to do, and I tried to do this in Washington, is to call forth from our political leaders their best selves. To take these partisan squabbles that have essentially paralyzed the cultural institutions in Washington for 20 years and make people understand that this is not a partisan issue. It is not right versus left. It is not Republican versus Democrat. This is common, civic sense. And I think we’ve been very successful about that and I’m proud of it.

AUDIENCE:  I’d like to thank you for coming and I’d like to thank you for your passionate devotion to a cause, which has certainly consumed my life. And I’m also from the New England Conservatory. My wife spoke earlier. And I live the two-continent life because I also teach in Salzburg at the Mozarteum. So I come back and forth between the two continents. I play a lot of concerts. I travel a lot. And watching President Kennedy at the start today, and every time I come back into Logan Airport, which is often, I have to sort of think of myself. I feel like Satan, is it Book II where he has just fallen?


AUDIENCE:  And I say, “How far have we fallen?” Look at this man. When is the last time we had a president that could make us proud in a way this President Kennedy does. And I hope on November 4th we will have a new one who will make me feel the same way again. But I would like to cite, since you quoted so brilliantly from Shakespeare—I’m not at your level. But I would like to cite two figures from literature how sort of, to me, embody where we ought to go in the arts. Because I think you have been very, very eloquent in describing the problem, which all of us artists are aware of.

We travel around the country, go to many places. I brought the guitar into prisons, into schools, into senior centers. I fought the battle on the hard lines. I’ve been in logging camps throughout Alaska with the guitar. And I will tell you, music is [German phrase] Music can even perhaps succeed where words cannot. And the two people I would like to quote is, first of all Satan when he said …

DANA GIOIA:  [German phrase]

AUDIENCE:  [German phrase] But Satan says, “We are in dubious battle on the plains of heaven,” which became the title, of course, of one of Steinbeck’s books. And Lady Macbeth who said, “Screw your courage to the sticking point and we will not fail. We will not fail.” What I would like to see and what I cannot get the universities of the world to do is we need a new generation of revolutionary artists. I don’t mean in the sense of tear down revolutionary artists. I mean in the sense of people who are smart enough to analyze the problem we are at now. Go at it in a very non-confrontational, very bipartisan, very overarching humanistic and patriotic way.

And when I, as a musician, stand up in front of a bunch of musicians and say, “I am an American patriot,” they all look at me like I’m a lunatic. But this is part of my patriotism. This part of what makes America great. And it’s, going back to my Quaker upbringing, it is that little bit of God in everybody, even in George Bush, that we have to touch and somehow, as you have tried to do as I understand it in your tenure, try to get to this universal message.

The only thing that I would just like to say is I just think in the universities, in the intellectual centers of the country, we’ve been too passive. We’ve rolled over and played dead. The situation sucks. We are hopeless. They are swamping us. Okay. Wait a minute. Let’s take a deep breath. Let’s get some strategies. Let’s try the strategies out. Let’s turn the universities, again, into a source of renewal for the country and not just fight over who is going to get the corner office with the view and whose paper is smarter than whose paper. Let’s have a new form of enlightened patriotism such as President Kennedy showed us and such as Barack Obama also shows us.

DANA GIOIA:  You’ve said a lot of smart things.  [Applause]

AUDIENCE:  Probably a lot of dumb things, too.

DANA GIOIA:  I’m part German, so I know Austria, too. And, you know, it gives you a different sense of the way a culture can cohere. When I went to Washington -- and this is sort of what I was trying to say to the previous guy -- everybody says, “Go there and fight. Go there and fight for this. Fight for that.” And it seemed to me that fighting is the wrong metaphor.

AUDIENCE:  That’s not what I meant to say.

DANA GIOIA:  You’re not. You’re not.

AUDIENCE:  I’m agreeing with you.

DANA GIOIA:  You’re exactly on the right page. And I thought about what was going on in South Africa, which is certainly a country where they have the most, the best reasons to fight. And what they realized was the only way they could build a society was on reconciliation. And it seemed to me that my job in Washington was reconciliation, to take these people that were locked in a fight that was ruining and impoverishing the lives of 60 million American school kids, and to make them understand that this was a stupid fight.

The most important thing I’ve done has not been the funding. We have had the largest funding increase in 28 years last year. It’s not been these programs. These are the largest art programs in the history of the federal government. But the fact that we’ve built a new public consensus that the federal, state and local governments need to support arts and arts education. Once you create that consensus, all sorts of other good things are possible. You raise the level of discourse. You raise the level of conversation.

We can all shout at each other. You know, we can all accuse each other of this, that or the other. But if you can train a place where people are actually collaborating and listening, then good things can be done. And it seems to me that arts in education are one of the places where this conversation begins. Once you begin it there, God knows where else it can go.

AUDIENCE:  That’s what I’m trying to do with my kids. I’m trying to turn them into, in the best sense of the word, revolutionaries.

DANA GIOIA:  One of the ways we can be revolutionary is not to allow ourselves to be defined by the institutions that employ us.

SVEN BIRKERTS:  We have time for one, short question from that microphone.

AUDIENCE:  My name is Lisa Wong. I’m a pediatrician and a violinist. And I run an orchestra called the Longwood Symphony that is 75% of medical professionals. But we all started as artists when we were young. I started the piano when I was three years old. And I realized that after all of these years of reflecting on why is it that our orchestra can continue for the 25 years that it has is because exactly what you said. Being an artist, being a musician is the core of our beings. All the creativity that comes from it after that is driven from that starting point.   

But about seven years into the orchestra, we realized it wasn’t just enough to be an orchestra: doctors that played music because it seemed elitist. We were having such a great time doing it. And after a hard day in the hospital, it was a wonderful thing to be playing. But it wasn’t enough. And what changed the orchestra was the third part. The third leg of the stool is that all of our concerts are now dedicated to helping raise funds and raise awareness for medical causes.

And I looked back and said, “Well, why is that?” And even as small children, the thing that really made it important for us when we were playing was not to play for ourselves in our practice rooms, but when we were playing for our grandmothers, when we were playing in the senior centers, when we were playing on stage with 100 other kids.

So the parallel of that is the Big Read that you are doing.  It’s not only that everybody has got a mind to think, where they are all thinking about the same book at the same time and they have a shared value that way. But the kids are reading to each other and they are performing and sharing something from within. And they are also reflecting a culture that is already been written down for them. I thank you for all that you have been doing.

DANA GIOIA:  That is a very eloquent summary.

SVEN BIRKERTS:  One quick question I have for you is will you be continuing arts advocacy when you are Aspen?

DANA GIOIA:  Yeah. I’ve taken the Aspen -- it’s a half time job -- to run their arts and culture programs because they don’t have any arts and culture programs. They understand that they need to break that, to build that. And it’s a very different situation because at the NEA I’ve insisted that this organization serve all Americans. I mean, we even bring Big Read programs in prisons and things like this, where there is no political capital for doing something like that but we have to reach everyone.

Where Aspen is different, this is real, these are the influence makers, you know, a substantial number of politicians, business leaders, scientific leaders, educational leaders. And so this gives me a very different set of people. But if I can get them thinking about stuff, if I can create conversations that wouldn’t happen otherwise, these are people who can make a difference. And so that’s the main reason I’ve done this is because I do believe we need public intellectuals in this country. We need serious intellectuals who can speak to people across professions about the importance of certain issues. And when we lose them that is one of the reasons that the culture is dumbed down.

Why don’t you let me end with a poem?  Policy is so lugubrious at times. This is a poem about two things. It’s about why we need stories and it’s about marriage. It’s about, in a sense, that stories have a way of … We live our lives by stories. You know, every day as we go forward in our future, something changes.  We have to reinvent our life as it goes along. And that’s why you need to study literature. Stories have multiplicities of plot turns, of endings and things like this. And we invent our story as we go along.

And what marriage is in a funny way, what love is, is where you wrap your story with someone else’s so they become permanently interlocked. And you have a kind of endless conversation. This poem takes its title from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream where he says, “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact,” which means that all three of them are crazy. It’s called, “The Lunatic, the Lover and the Poet.”

The tales we tell are either false or true
But neither purpose is the point.
We weave the fabric of our own existence out of words
And the right story tells us who we are.
Perhaps it is the words that summon us.
The tale is often wiser than the teller.
There is no naked truth but what we wear.

So let me bring this story to our bed
The world I say depends upon a spell
Spoken each night by lovers unaware of their own sorcery.
In innocence or agony, the same words must be spoken or
Restless moon will darken in the sky
The night grows still
The winds of dawn expire.
And if I’m wrong, it cannot be by much.
We know our own existence came from touch
The new soul summoned into life by lust
And love’s shy tongue awakens in such fire of flesh on flesh
And midnight whispering
As if the only purpose of desire were to explore its infinite unfolding.

And so, my love, we are two lunatics,
Secretaries to the wordless moon,
Lying awake together or apart
Transcribing every touch or aching absence
Into our endless, intimate palaver,

Body to body, naked to the night,
Appareled only in our utterance.

Thank you so much.  [Applause]