Stanford Graduate School of Business
Stanford Business

February 2005

On the Road with Dana Gioia

Illustration of Dan Gioia, MBA '77


by Philip Kennicott

He has marketed Jell-O and written opera librettos. Now Dana Gioia brings all his talents to bear on marketing the National Endowment for the Arts in zip codes high and lowbrow.

Dana Gioia says he’s a man “who’s good at running things.” In the first half of his adult life, in the late 1970s and 1980s, he parlayed that ability into business success, rising in 1991 to the position of vice president of marketing at General Foods. During those same years he also worked with his pen, writing poetry for an increasingly wide national and international audience. By day, he buoyed the sinking sales of Jell-O; by night (and mornings and weekends), he worked just as assiduously to build a second career as a man of letters, a poet, a critic, an editor, and ultimately an influential arbiter of American cultural life. Now, as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, he is again “running things,” and his various skills and aspirations are no longer compartmentalized.

Appointed to the top federal arts post by President Bush in January 2003, Gioia came with impeccable credentials: business success and artistic success; a reputation for hard work and talent; and a love of the American literary tradition that was reassuringly canonical and invigoratingly unpredictable. The NEA, buffeted for years by conservatives and their allies in Congress who accused it of promoting obscenity, had at its head a smartly dressed, energetic, charismatic, and Republican Poet-Businessman, a convenient hyphenated shorthand that Gioia did little to discourage.

“I’m the only person who ever went to Stanford Business School to become a poet,” he said shortly after his confirmation. It was a good joke and it had the virtue, like some poems, of being not quite what it seems at first, and fundamentally true on closer inspection. He didn’t really go to Stanford Business School to become a poet; he went to become a businessman. But he went into business because he needed to be a poet. He was heading for bohemia by way of respectability, on a path blazed before him by poets such as Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot, and composers such as Charles Ives—all of them successful businessmen and artists at the same time.

“I think he felt business school would be a good challenge for someone who had a literary education—in the manner of Wallace Stevens,” says author and Stanford professor emerita Diane Middlebrook, who taught Gioia as an undergraduate and asked him to be a dormitory resident assistant when he returned for business school in 1975. Middlebrook remembers a serious student, fully fledged intellectually, and capable, at a young age, of thinking strategically about his future. Like another Gioia mentor, Herbert Lindenberger, she also remembers Gioia invoking Wallace Stevens—the great American poet who rose to prominence in the insurance industry—as a role model. In that, and other things in life, Gioia has been consistently and conventionally unconventional, in a particularly American way.

Gioia’s self-description has always been more voluminous than the Poet-Businessman shorthand. He is, he says, Latin (of Italian and Mexican lineage), Catholic, and a Californian with working-class roots. He came from East Los Angeles, born in 1950 to a taxi driver father and a telephone operator mother. His youth was spent crisscrossing Los Angeles, in search of new music, and art, and anything else that caught his imagination. He studied the piano, and Latin, and availed himself of the book and record collection left by an uncle killed in a plane crash. An approved biography, though not the one he uses as chairman of the NEA, mentions that he was a high school valedictorian, editor of the school paper, president of the speech club, and that he was “expelled or suspended for conduct three times.”

“He was very proud of the fact that he came from East Los Angeles,” says Lindenberger, Stanford professor emeritus of comparative literature. “I remember him telling me, ‘A lot of the kids I went to high school with are in jail right now.’ Yet here was a kid who had all the social manners of a Stanford student.”

Gioia left Stanford as an undergraduate, spent two years at Harvard studying literature, and then returned to the West Coast to start at Stanford Business School.

“When I arrived at Harvard, I knew everything about books and nothing about the world books were written in,” says Gioia, in his office in Washington, in the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue. He’s in a dark suit and his foot is in a cast, the result of negotiating the driveway, on a dark night, with too much of his kids’ stuff left lying about.

“I realized I wasn’t really being trained to become a writer, I was being trained to be a professor. Comparative literature was in the avant-garde of the whole change in literary studies; it was the first one to go theoretical. What comp lit became was essentially literary theory, and I was being trained to write in this mandarin code—which I was quite good at because I had been trained in theology and philosophy. It is a related discourse: philosophy without truth and theology without God.”

Jobs in academia, especially literature, were becoming scarce. Gioia had no particular sense of entitlement, either. The decision to go to business school was pragmatic and made without any sense of regret or sacrifice. He returned to Stanford determined to get a career—and write.

“People often understand maturity as renouncing parts of your life, rather than refining and developing aspects of yourself,” he says. “I was in business school to qualify for a good job that would develop into a real career. I was surprised that most of the people in business school began talking about their future jobs entirely in the language of self-realization: They imagined themselves coming into careers that gave them human fulfillment. To a certain degree this mystified me, because I brought a working-class attitude. The reason they pay us to do our jobs is because we wouldn’t do them for free.”

Keeping to a promise to write for three hours a day, he remained productive. But he noticed that his writing baffled his business school classmates, especially the “alpha males.”

“I realized that my teachers and my fellow students were confused,” he says. “If you’re in business school, why are you writing? I did not consider them mutually exclusive, and in fact, writing, while having a career in business, made my life more complicated, but it eventually made me a better businessman. I had kept certain creative and imaginative capacities active and alive during my early years that I very much needed later on.”

At least one Business School classmate, Richard S. Kelly Jr., says Gioia’s fellow students were aware of his literary life, but not the degree of his productivity. “He was very engaging with people—a fun guy—and a lot of us were surprised at how prolific he was. He was very quiet about it,” says Kelly, a retired investment banker who now works in the nonprofit world.

After school, when he went to work for General Foods, Gioia took his writing underground while working his way up the corporate ladder. He moved to New York and did what was required of an ambitious young man. But as he rose through the ranks, he didn’t join the expected country clubs. His cars didn’t get noticeably better, and his social world was increasingly centered on the arts. Frederick Morgan, a poet and founding editor of the Hudson Review, met Gioia when Gioia came to a reading at a New York loft, on a day snowy enough that attendance wasn’t mandatory even for close friends of Morgan’s.

“He heard about my reading through the grapevine,” said Morgan, shortly after Gioia’s Senate confirmation. “Before he came to New York, he found out everything about the poetry scene, and he is certainly still doing that. He knows what’s going on.”

Middlebrook, who has remained a friend of Gioia’s, says that “his character has been remarkably consistent since the time I met him to the present day.” His writing has remained lucid, his sense of self firmly rooted to his upbringing in California, and his criticism has often returned to the same themes. He has remained loyal to early enthusiasms, such as the writing of Weldon Kees, a California poet who disappeared, at age 41, probably into the waters below the Golden Gate Bridge. Gioia has written of Kees, “[His] work demands a critic who shares his belief in the desperate importance of poetry, and most critics—both in and outside of the universities—don’t believe that poetry matters all that much to anyone’s life.”

In that line, one gets a sense of two threads of Gioia’s life: Poetry matters desperately to him, and like other poets, he craves readers, especially ideal ones. The time at General Foods, especially the early years writing without much audience, found Gioia speaking two very different languages, a vulgate of commerce and a private discourse of poetry. And yet, as much as these were separate in Gioia’s life, there was definitely communication between them. Gioia’s poems are troubled by the sense that words, if unread, are impotent (“…among the endless shelves of the unreadable…” “Here are the shelves of unread books…” “The world does not need words”). Put in crass terms, a poem without an audience is like a product without a market, and Gioia very much wanted, and wants, a market for his poetry.

Gioia says he wasn’t really able to draw on his full talents—those imaginative skills he kept vital at night—until he had risen high enough to have a broader influence at General Foods. He cites, as an example, having rethought the marketing of Jell-O, which had been an immensely profitable but long declining product. The end result of this campaign was something called Jell-O Jigglers—a stodgy dessert reconfigured as finger food, home craft exercise, and a toy.

“I could absolutely think like an 11-year-old kid, and then step back and do the shares and volumes,” he says. “It went from decline to double-digit growth.”

Gioia, however, is impatient with platitudes about creativity in the work environment.

“For a lot of people in business, being creative means just coming up with crazy, stuff—you’re so creative,” he says. For him, rather, being creative was not just thinking like a child, but being critical at the same time. “I think the most important thing I did for General Foods, near the end of my career, was to be able to distinguish between a potentially high creative idea and mediocre creative idea, and to take the high potential creative idea through a series of careful refinements and additions to turn it into an enormous idea.”

Gregory Murphy, who as vice president of marketing was Gioia’s supervisor at General Foods, echoes this self-assessment. He describes Gioia’s work on Jell-O and Kool-Aid as “a renaissance” of the brands, and says, “There are lots of people who have a good idea a minute. That wasn’t Dana. When Dana had an idea it was a big idea, a creative idea, a powerful idea.”

The importance of criticism, whether it’s an executive being critical of proposals or a writer analyzing another poet’s work, is another consistent thread through all parts of Gioia’s life. At the National Endowment for the Arts, he has championed building the skills of this country’s newspaper arts critics.

“Part of fostering the arts is fostering discussion of the arts,” he said in April 2003, and he has moved quickly to create seminars for critics who may not be professional arts writers.

It is as a critic that Gioia has had his most public career. In 1983, he published a poem that was also, in many ways, a distillation of a line of critical thought that he has pursued throughout his recent career. “My Confessional Sestina,” as its title suggests, is written in sestina (or “song of sixes”) form, a fiendishly clever display of poetic virtuosity that probably dates back to the 13th century. Six stanzas, of six lines each, form the bulk of the poem, with each line ending with one of six key words, repeated throughout according to a formula. In the first stanza, Gioia gently mocks the fashionability of such displays of idle skill:

Let me confess. I’m sick of these sestinas
written by youngsters in poetry workshops
for the delectation of their fellow students,
and then published in little magazines
that no one reads, not even the contributors
who at least in this omission show some taste.

Using the form to hammer home the dry, incestuous insularity of the poetry world, Gioia repeats throughout the poem in different combinations the words: sestinas, workshops, students, magazines, contributors, taste. One can sense the outsider’s pleasure at mocking the claustrophobic world of academia—while proving, through his skill at the form, that he could hold his own within it, if he wanted to.

In 1991 he came back to these same thoughts in an essay for the Atlantic that was not so playful, and was taken by many as much more than a light gibe at the professional poetry world. In “Can Poetry Matter?” Gioia lamented the loss of a wide audience for poetry—again, those unread books. And he did it, in part, in the language of the business man he still was. “Like subsidized farming that grows food no one wants, a poetry industry has been created to serve the interests of the producers and not the consumers,” he said. And even that subsidized product no one was buying. The late poet Anthony Hecht called the argument “garbage” and “dumb.”

The essay, however, long outlasted its criticism. The notoriety it brought Gioia may have eased his transition from businessman into full-time writer. Its reception demonstrated wide interest in Gioia’s literary ideas, and that attention arrived just a few years after one of the most difficult personal chapters in his life. In 1987, his first son, Michael Jasper Gioia, died of sudden infant death syndrome. He had two more sons, but the loss initiated what he calls a period of “soul searching.” That soul searching, and a life that had, by the 1990s, become strangely bifurcated, help precipitate a move to full-time literary work.

“I was on Charlie Rose at night, then I went into the office in the morning, and I said, you know, I’m nationally, internationally known—I could actually make a living,” he remembers. “So after ‘Can Poetry Matter?’ that’s what I did.”

There was, perhaps, a sense among Gioia’s artistic peers that he had made his fortune and would now lead the leisurely life of a gentleman poet. Not true, he says, “but I encourage people to believe that because it pains my enemies.” Gioia asked his wife, Mary, a Business School classmate, to figure out how much they needed to live on and says, “She gave me a number and—like most people who are whizzes with numbers—it has always been the wrong number, perfectly calculated, but much smaller than it [should have been].” His literary career has had some lean years and some very good ones. Certainly, he has worked extraordinarily hard and published diligently.

He may have left business, but he didn’t leave behind the talent “for running things.” Gioia has emerged as the most influential chairman of the NEA since the beginning of the culture wars in the late 1980s. In the midst of huge national budget deficits, he managed to convince the president to give the agency a 15 percent budget increase, to $139.4 million (later reduced, after the presidential election, to $121 million).

More important, his tenure has been without significant controversy. He has championed initiatives that focus on access to the arts, rather than funding for individual artists, including a nationwide tour of Shakespeare's plays and writing seminars for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, a mix of writing as therapy, talent search, and oral history project, as well as an overt statement about the Endowment's interest in "red state" America.

Not long after he took the NEA job, Gioia appeared at a Press Club luncheon in Washington, D.C. Before he began his talk—essentially a stump speech for the agency and his plans for it—he spoke, from memory, a little poem by Longfellow.

The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, and the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveler hastens toward the town,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.

He offered the poem apropos of nothing, just to say, why not start the afternoon with a little poem? But this poem figures in an essay Gioia wrote, years back, about Longfellow—at the time, about as unfashionable as any dead white male poet could be. He cited the poem, in his essay, as an example of the poet’s “popular” as opposed to high style. The essay was also a defense of poets who manage to succeed at both the high and low styles.

Gioia has bridged both styles, and his career in business may have been, in some ways, part of that intellectual span. Businessmen, especially ones who market things, must sell to a wide audience. They must know the vernacular, and love it without condescension, if they are to find consumers. On the other hand, every poet wants to find the ideal reader, the kind of reader that Gioia tried to be for Weldon Kees when he discovered the poet among the shelves of the unread and championed his work. This is what Gioia once said of his style, and his ideal reader:

“I suspect, however, that I still write more for my old fellow workers, who will never read my poems, than for the literati …”

Philip Kennicott is culture critic of the Washington Post.

Stanford Business Home

Features In This Issue

Organizing for Performance: How BP Did It

Poet at Work: On the Road with Dana Gioia

Career Development: The Power of Feedback

Global Sourcing: Business without Borders

Risky Disclosures: Read the Fine PrintWe Dare You


As chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia, MBA'77, is determined to develop the arts in all areas of the country, including small cities. At left, he discusses projects with Robert Knight, executive director of the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, Montana, before speaking (at right) to the Montana Arts Council.


Dana Gioia and his family discuss poetry with Douglas Nagel of the Rimrock Opera Company. Pictured at right, Gioia is backstage with his vampire rendition of Count Orlock, at the Alberta Bair Theater.


Gioia wrote the libretto for Nosferatu, an opera about a vampire, which premiered in Billings in October.


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