124th Annual Commencement Address
Dana Gioia, Poet and Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California
East Portico, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
May 18, 2013
The following is an excerpt of the address given by Dana Gioia. In it, Gioia elucidates the decisive influence his family and his faith have had on his life and career.
I am now 62 years old at that odd stage in life between being middle-aged and being old. I was born in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, 1950. My father was a cab driver, my mother a telephone operator.
If you believe in the law of averages, I should have had an average life. I was born among the working poor into a family full of immigrants — Sicilian on my father’s side, Mexican on my mother’s. My family had little money and less education. No one in our family had ever gone to college. Both of my grandfathers had left school by the age of 12. Many in my family spoke little or no English.
But my life has not been an average one. I have enjoyed a degree of success, fame, and financial security beyond anything my parents or grandparents could have imagined. When I look back on my own life to ask why I have succeeded, I see two things at the center: My family and the Catholic Church, especially the Catholic schools I attended for 12 years.
When I hear sociologists, journalists, and politicians talk about backgrounds like mine, I often hear words such as “underprivileged,” “marginalized,” and “deprived.” But such words don’t describe my upbringing. Because of my family and those Catholic schools, I felt empowered and free to search out my own destiny.
Even in my ugly, run-down urban L.A. neighborhood I felt connected to the centers of wisdom, imagination, and achievement. As a Catholic, I was part of a communion that went back two thousand years to ancient Rome and Jerusalem to the Caesars and the Apostles. I didn’t feel in the least marginal.
I knew I stood at the center of the Western tradition — intellectually, artistically, spiritually. I knew that this tradition not only included philosopher-saints such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, but it also encompassed artists, such as Michelangelo, Mozart, Dante, and El Greco. Finally, I felt that it was a living tradition that would nourish me if I had the courage and resolve to become an artist myself.
The faith had also visibly shaped the daily world in which I lived — especially in California — where the cities and landscapes had been named by Franciscan missionaries after the angels and the saints — San Gabriel, San Jose, Santa Clara, and San Francisco, not to mention my hometown, named after Nuestra Señora, La Reina de los Angeles, Our Lady the Queen of the Angels. At my parochial school I was taught by the Sisters of Providence.
They offered the standard academic subjects, and they taught these very well. But they also pushed us to master skills outside the normal curriculum. Starting in second grade, Sister Camille Cecile gave me two weekly lessons, one in piano and one in music theory for only $3 a month. Within a few years I was playing Bartok, Mozart, and soon Beethoven. She also got us free tickets to the LA Philharmonic — a magical event I would never otherwise have encountered.
This tiny nun shaped my future in ways I would not understand for years. Those weekly lessons put me on a trajectory that led, 40 years later, to my appointment as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Meanwhile, in eighth grade, Sister Mary Damian — the best and hardest teacher I’ve ever had — made me memorize poems by Shakespeare, Kipling, Longfellow, and Chesterton. I was bewitched by this poetry. My thirteen-year-old-ears could hardly bear the beauty of poems, such as Longfellow’s “Evangeline”:
|This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.
The trouble was that when I recited them in class, I mumbled so badly that no one knew what I was saying. Appalled at my delivery, Sister Mary Damian kept me after school — not to punish me but to teach me to speak clearly.
Those after-school tutorials in elementary elocution gave me two great gifts — poetry and public speaking. In ways I did not recognize those gifts took root in my soul and eventually determined my life’s work.
And so it continued at my Marianist Catholic high school where I was taught Latin and theology, two subjects which most people considered impractical. But learning Latin was how I began to master English — its grammar, rhetoric, and vocabulary. Likewise studying theology not only deepened my sense of Catholicism, it also introduced me to philosophy and argumentation. Brother Terrence Wong required us to write weekly essays on theological questions. We hated those assignments. But those weekly themes trained me to think clearly and write clearly.
Now please don’t get the idea from what I have said that I was a model student. I may have been a smart student, but I was also a smart-ass one. I am surely the only valedictorian in the history of Junipero Serra High School who had been expelled three times for misbehavior. I’m not sure why they kept letting me back in. It probably has some theological roots in forgiveness and redemption.
I got a good education, but I learned something beyond academics from these dedicated nuns, priests, and brothers. They always linked what I was learning to things of the spirit. During those formative years I developed a Catholic sense of life as a purposeful journey, a pilgrimage, if you will, or a quest through time toward eternity. In this view of life every moment matters, every step or misstep brings you closer or moves you farther from your destiny. That very Catholic sense of human existence has guided me through life.
A Catholic education also trained me in the habit of high imagination. It gave me the long view into the past, and into the future, and even beyond time into eternity. The habit of high imagination also filled me with a sense of the richness of our existence in a world where we feel the presence of things both visible and invisible. What better training could a young poet ask for?