Written by Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP, on May 2008 at the Induction in the College of Fellows
Dana Gioia, husband and father, acknowledged poet and reader of our times , literary and cultural critic, promoter of poetic and critical discourse; teacher and educator of teachers, business executive and government leader, musician and patron of music from opera to jazz; son of immigrants; Angelino and voice of the Sonoma landscape, bilingual in Californian and Washingtonian dialects; anthologist in the service of imagination and memory, translator of works ancient and contemporary, of poetry, drama, and prose fiction from Latin, Italian, German, and Romanian sources; patron of composition and its performance in the classroom, theater, and band: The Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology salutes you.
Before, during, and after your many years in the food industry, amidst all the solidarity for family and society which that can express, you showed your keen sense of the Old and New Testament wisdom regarding the “Non in pane solo” (Deut 8: 3; Mt 4:4) and the importance to our communal life of the gift of language. Your intensely discussed, signature essay from 1992, ”Can Poetry Matter?”, and the collection of criticism it introduced the following year, answered the question posed in your chosen title with reference to “he role of language in a free society” and your reluctance to let poetry, together with the other arts, become the “subculture of specialists.” Your work as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, beginning with the year 2003, has translated many aspects of these hopes for the revitalization of language into a communal reality. Whether as an advocate for regional poetry or for world classics, for so-called higher or lower arts, for traditional forms of lyric or free verse, in programs for young and old, for professionals, schools, and wider communities, from programs for performing Shakespeare to ones for developing basic literacy, your practical labors have aimed at the common societal “action” needed for the task of learning again to read, to listen, to speak, and to sing.
It is difficult to imagine your success in criticism or cultural administration without your own poetic work. It brought to your other labors of language the dimension of connatural knowledge. Your poems are at once particular and universal, personal and perennial. They speak of nature and of incarnated love; they are both familial and of humankind. They remind us that the most treasured aspects of life do not grow unthreatened, that human flourishing and cultural superficiality are not strangers to one another, that without mourning there is no hope, and, recalling a nearly forgotten mode of language, that “there is no silence but when danger comes.” Your poems remind us of our gratitude for nature and our often uneasy attention to its creator.
The interwoven artistic, academic, cultural, political, and, in the end, religious goals of developing the yes and no of language, spoken boldly or beautifully in all its natality and resilience, so as to cultivate and protect both common and private life are what is compressed into the ancient notion of “koinonia.” Koinonia is at once communication, commonality, and communion. As Aristotle tells us, it is the foundation of all friendship and society. Your labors to make present the literature of the far and recent past and to restore power to the language of the present have been in the service of koinonia. To enter into that encounter with the other which is called “translation” between otherwise foreign languages, past or present, is a further contribution to koinonia. You have also done much to overcome more than one “Barrier of a Common Language,” not just across the divide of the Atlantic Ocean, but across the divides of cultural, educational, economic and generational differences.
We are truly honored and grateful that you have consented to collaborate with the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology as a Fellow of the School.
Therefore, as an expression of our esteem and gratitude, and in virtue of the authority vested in me by the Board of Trustees of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, I am privileged to bestow upon you, Dana Gioia, the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters honoris causa, and to name you a Fellow of the School.