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On Wearing A Custard Yellow Tie In The White House

May 23, 2008

"Uh Oh" I thought to myself as Dana Gioia stepped on stage at The Merchants Exchange in San Francisco yesterday evening: The National Endowment for the Arts Chairman and former poet laureate was wearing a custard yellow knitted tie with a square end.

Turns out the tie was more than a fashion faux-pas. Startling in its guarish originality against the backdrop of a dullish tweed jacket, nothingy shirt and sensible slacks, it served as a metaphor for Gioia's current situation as, in his owns words, "the chairman of an arts agency in a country that isn't sure that it wants one."

Inspite of myself, I found myself very much taken in by Gioia's talk about "why art matters." Like his poetry, Gioia's approach to public speaking is refreshingly old-fashioned. He quotes liberally from literature to undersore his points. Shakespeare, Kafka and Tennyson, among others, all appeared during his deep-feeling half-hour lecture. He speaks without notes in a mellifluous voice. There's earnestness in his words but he's also very casual in his delivery, wanderning about the stage as he does, and stopping every now and again to loaf against a nearby lectern.

What's more, he's passionate about his subject matter. Gioia didn't say anything particularly revolutionary. But what he said needs to be restated time and time again so that people who don't understand the value of art to society start to get it, and to remind even the most stalwart arts fans why they do what they do.

Gioia's discussion about truth and beauty was like something Robin Williams' character would have intoned in Peter Weir's movie Dead Poets' Society. I felt like an impressionable teen listening to him speak. Gioia's desire to reconnect people with their culture and enable them to understand that art is an essential part of human life rather than a pretty luxury for those who can afford made a lot of sense.

But, oh, how I pity him! How often must his idealistic words fall on deaf ears in the White House? "Oh look," the bureaucrats must say as they pass him in the corridor. "There goes the poet in the custard yellow tie."


  • I whole-heartedly agree with your statements, but you made a very common word usage error that is a kind of pet peeve for me. (This surprises me, as your grammar is generally perfect.) He could not have leaned against a podium. A podium is a platform -- like a stage or a soapbox. You stand ON a podium, BEHIND a lectern. Now you know.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At June 13, 2008 at 1:47 PM  

  • I stand corrected. Thanks for pointing out my grammatical faux pas, no doubt the result of careless rushing on my part. I will now change the offending word in the post.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At June 13, 2008 at 3:26 PM  

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