Dana Gioia’s Introduction to Edwin Arlington Robinson

Poet and information billionaire Dana Gioa has a YouTube channel. He regularly posts videos about the art of poetry, poem recitations, and profiles of poets past.

This week Mr. Gioa introduced me to Edwin Arlington Robinson.

Robinson lived a tortured life. His parents died while he was still a young man. He battled alcoholism. He was in love with his brother’s (Herman) wife Emma. And worked probably the worst day job of all time – 10 hours a day walking the darkness as a New York Subway time-checker. He once went an 11 year stretch without publishing a poem. And when finally published, the critics ridiculed his poetry. But despite life’s beat-downs, he found the fortitude to keep writing.

Success did arrive. An unexpected friendship with Kermit Roosevelt. Eventually, consistent publication. Multiple Pulitzer Prize wins for his Collected Poems, The Man Who Died Twice, and Tristram. And even romance, with the painter and the brilliantly named Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones.

The theme of Robinson’s life was tragedy, but his perseverance inspires.

Worth watching all the way through.

Poet Dana Gioia nails it.

Every not-so-often, a person can distill a complex idea into one sentence.

It’s a rare event. But when it happens the idea snaps into your mind forever.

Today’s Econ Talk podcast episode was one such occasion.

Dana Gioia snapped my synapses when he shared this definition of the novel:

Now, the great thing of literature–and this is literature as distinct from film and other theater, which are forms of storytelling–but the beauty of the novel and poetry is that they essentially are our cultural machinery for articulating the inner lives of people. In effect, the novel is based on–the very definition of the novel, although people never talk about this–is based on irony. Which is to say, somebody’s outer life is doing this and their inner life is doing that.

It’s hard to think of a novel that doesn’t follow this idea. I’m sure there’s some experimental four hundred pager out there, but the novels I truly know all exhibit this tension between the characters inner and outer life.

In Tolkien’s The Hobbit – Bilbo duels between his craving for comfortable Shire life and his Took instincts for adventure.

In Jeff Smith’s Bone – Fone Bone longs to return to Boneville, but harbors a secret love for Thorn who could never follow him there (Graphic novels count too right?).

Or in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake – Gogol’s divided between the need to honor his parents and his traditional Indian heritage, and the allure of American success.

Irony threads through all of them. And novels will no longer read the same to me.

Russ Roberts and Dana Gioia’s conversation was inspiring throughout.

Listen in full below: