Despite Pandemic, Beauty Inspires and Learning Flourishes at Wyoming Catholic College, Thanks to Poet Dana Gioia

Before COVID-19 cast its shadow across the Spring semester at Wyoming Catholic College, the entire community was looking forward to the evening of May 8th with particular anticipation. That was the day Dana Gioia, internationally acclaimed poet and writer, was to visit Wyoming Catholic.

Born in Los Angeles and educated at Stanford and Harvard Universities, Mr. Gioia is the author of four poetry collections and three books of criticism, as well as editor of numerous literary anthologies and translations. The former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and the first California Poet Laureate to visit all fifty-eight counties in the state, he recently retired from his position as the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.

For an institution deeply committed to poetic education—our students learn more than thirty poems by heart over their four years in Lander—Mr. Gioia’s visit was imagined as a wonderful opportunity for the community to experience the art of poetry even more deeply. When the whole College went to online classes in March because of the pandemic, WCC had to cancel the live reading as well.

Undaunted, Mr. Gioia proposed an hour-long Zoom conference as an alternative. And so, Friday, May 8th found over fifty of the College’s professors, staff, and students signing into their laptops and smartphones to participate in a “Virtual Poetry Hour.”

Mr. Gioia began by speaking a bit about what poetry is and why he considers it the first human artform. He then recited a few of his poems (including “The Ballad of Jesus Ortiz,”  the story of his great-grandfather’s life and eventual murder in a small Wyoming town within an hour or so of Lander), took questions, and closed with “California Hills in August” (a student request).”

As in many of this semester’s necessary Zoom conferences, the video quality was uneven and the audio erratic; participants muted and unmuted themselves unintentionally, and it wasn’t always easy to tell who was speaking up when Mr. Gioia asked for questions. But none of the attendees cared about those technological hiccups, listening with rapt attention to the beauty and power of Mr. Gioia’s words. And when he turned to show them one of Robert Frost’s wonderfully gnarled walking sticks—made by Frost himself—on the shelf behind his computer, the chat column erupted with exclamations. Some of the students might have recognized Mr. Gioia’s unstated reference to a sentence in one of Frost’s essays: “We enjoy the straight crookedness of a good walking stick.”

These students are heading into the strangest Finals Week they can imagine, trying to gather their thoughts and reflect on what they’ve learned this past semester without the aid of the intellectual and spiritual community that is such an essential part of the Wyoming Catholic College experience. For this hour, at least, their spirits were buoyed up, their loads lightened, and they were reminded of the power of the community of learning that underpins everything we do here at Wyoming Catholic.

We are grateful to Mr. Gioia for this opportunity to be reminded of that powerful community, and we are indebted to him for his generosity, his insights, and his poetry. We look forward to the day when we can welcome him to Lander and to Wyoming Catholic College in person!

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