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Poet Dana Gioia awarded Laetare Medal

Sarah Mervosh | Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Dana Gioia, poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), will receive the Laetare Medal, during the 2010 Commencement ceremony May 16, the University announced Sunday.

The Medal is the oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics and is awarded annually to a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”

The Medal has not been awarded since 2008, when actor Martin Sheen accepted the honor. Former U.S. Ambassoador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon initially accepted the Laetare Medal last year, but declined the honor after hearing the University would award an honorary degree to President Barack Obama. 

University spokesman Dennis Brown said last year’s events did not affect the selection process this year.

University President Fr. John Jenkins commended Gioia’s commitment to both faith and culture.

“In his vocation as poet and avocation as arts administrator, Dana Gioia has given vivid witness to the mutual flourishing of faith and culture,” Jenkins said in the press release. “By awarding him our University’s highest honor we hope both to celebrate and participate in that witness.”

Gioia is the second poet to receive the Laetare Medal. The University presented poet Phyllis McGinley with the medal in 1964.

Gioia has published three collections of poetry, including “Interrogations at Noon,” which won the 2002 American Book Award. He also published eight smaller collections of poems, two opera libretti and many translations of Latin, Italian and German poetry.

He also has edited over 20 literary anthologies and has written essays and reviews in magazines, such as The New Yorker, The Washington Post Book World, The New York Times Book Review and Slate.

Gioia served as chairman of the NEA from 2003 to 2009. During his tenure, he sought to strengthen bipartisan support for public funding of arts and art education, to champion jazz as a uniquely American art form, to promote Shakespeare readings and performances nationwide and to distribute NEA grants more widely.

In a lecture he delivered in 2000, Gioia said art and Catholicism work together because “the Catholic, literally from birth, when he or she is baptized, is raised in a culture that understands symbols and signs.”

“[Catholicism] also trains you in understanding the relationship between the visible and the invisible,” he said. “Consequently, allegory finds its greatest realization in Catholic artists like Dante.”

A native of Hawthorne, Calif., Gioia graduated from Stanford University in 1973. He earned a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University in 1975 and returned to Stanford for his master’s of business administration in 1977.

The Laetare Medal is named in honor of Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent and the day the University announces its recipient each year. The award was first given in 1883.

Past recipients include operatic tenor John McCormack, President John F. Kennedy, Catholic Worker foundress Dorothy Day and jazz composer Dave Brubeck.