Dana Gioia’s Pity the Beautiful resists many of the common conceits and devices of contemporary poetry books, instead frequently embracing rhyme, meter, formal structure, and strict narrative. The collection even boldly employs a vaguely Poe-esque “ghost story” in the form of a long poem. The poems in Pity the Beautiful open strongly and are immediately engaging; Gioia has mastered the art of hooking the reader from the first line. We are then urged along by poems that end by questioning far more than they have explained. Occasionally Gioia dwells a bit too long, however, allowing some of his poems to become slightly over-written.
Thematically, Gioia maintains a consistent tension between the traditional and the contemporary—between classical, high art and the cultural monopolizing of capitalism and commerce. His poems rage against the “phones, laptops, satellite[s]” of our generation. The first in a tongue-in-cheek sequence called “Four Songs from Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast,” itself titled “Marketing Department Trio,” dismisses renowned classical musicians one by one in a jingle that urges the reader to, instead, “commute with a smile.” In “Shopping,” a shopping mall somewhat tritely becomes a temple, an altar to commercialism. The religious and biblical act out numerous roles in this collection; “Prayer at Winter Solstice” urges us to appreciate equally not only the good and bad, but also the neutral and incredibly mundane.
In Gioia’s first collection in more than a decade, it is impossible to ignore the staggering presence of ghosts, often associated with lost, doomed love or otherwise serving to emphasize the book’s nostalgic qualities. Memory is a tricky thing in Gioia’s world; in “Finding a Box of Family Letters,” he recalls, “how different every sentence sounds / heard across the years.” Pity the Beautiful consistently begs the question of how we managed to get where we are from where we have been, and how we can accept the fleetingness of things. Gioia vacillates well between the more prosaic voice of a skilled storyteller and the musical, sing-song voice that pokes fun and enlivens.
My favorite is the fifth and final section, which opens with a line by Wallace Stevens and is perhaps best described by the spirit of the struggle. There is the struggle of love, of parenting, and of knowing how to survive amidst the occasional blankness and emptiness of existence. Gioia captures human emotions quite well and in shockingly few words when he is at his most successful. The most powerful poems in the book are the ones where the least is overtly said, as in “Majority,” the book’s final poem, which demonstrates Gioia’s capabilities when he practices the utmost restraint. This collection, also boasting a number of skilled translations, is a refreshing read in an age of poetry so experimental that it occasionally feels out of reach.