Monday, August 9, 2010

Dana links poetry, politics and the everyday world

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Oct. 8, 2009

Dana links poetry, politics and the everyday world

By Jeff Charis-Carlson

Iowa Cityscapes

I think every public official -- especially those serving on boards, commissions and committees -- would benefit from reading Robert Dana's "Selling the Earth and Everything on It." The poem can be found in the former Iowa poet laureate's 2000 collection, "Summer," and Dana gave permission for the organizers of the 2008 Tallgrass Bioneers Conference to make it available online ( ).

Although not everyone will agree with the eco-politics at the heart of the poem, far too many everyday readers will able to identify with the experience of standing before a government body in which "One council / member dozed; the other four / were glassy eyed; bored with / the arguments they'd disposed of / months before." Many readers likewise will agree readily with the poem's translation of a quote from Paul Valery, "Politics is the art of keeping / out of the process those who / will be most affected by it."

While "Selling the Earth" is more overtly political than much of Dana's work, it also showcases those poetic practices that Dana has been honing since graduating from the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1954. With a fine appreciation for Midwestern plain-spokenness and for the mystery of nature, Dana manages to pull poetry out of otherwise mundane objects, people and relationships.

"And blessed be the pacemakers and the peacemakers," Dana proclaims in "Beach Attitudes," a poem included in his most recent collection, "The Other" (2008).

In his four years as Iowa poetic laureate, Dana enacted his inclusive poetic vision both on and off the page as he served as an energetic and engaging liaison between poets and the general population.

"He helped get the poet off the pedestal," said Mary Swander, who earlier this year succeeded Dana in the state's catbird seat of poetry. "He was a very gracious presence as a poet laureate ... and an extremely good role model for other writers. He had a demanding day job teaching all those classes (at Cornell College), but he kept writing all these great books of poetry one after another. He never slacked off."

Local residents can see the 80-year-old Dana read behind a podium -- though not on a pedestal -- at 7 p.m. today at Prairie Lights Books.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

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