Former Toronto Poet Laureate priest, Father Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, who died of a heart attack last week, had a way of making me believe in things I tend to doubt: most notably, myself.
The first time I heard Pier Giorgio speak, I was half-asleep in the back of a lecture hall at York University. It was 8 am and he jolted me out of my semi-slumber with his stage presence. I couldn’t help but sit up and listen. I had never been so awed by a poet’s words.
Pier Giorgio read his work with what can only be described as gusto, but there was also a humility there that reminds me of Leonard Cohen.
This comparison feels particularly apt when you consider that, like Cohen, Pier Giorgio took a respite from his art, initially in a monastery (Augustinian though, not Buddhist like Cohen). Pier Giorgio then studied to become a priest, not publishing a single poem for more than a decade. He vanished from the scene while at the height of his literary career. Between the late 1970s to 1990, he published a dozen collections of poetry and edited an anthology of Italian-Canadian writers.
Dennis Lee, a champion of Pier Giorgio’s work, wrote of his book The Tough Romance that, “there is nothing in our literature to match this sinewy lyric explosion.”
Once introduced to Pier Giorgio’s work, I made a point of reading several of his books and seeing him recite in Toronto every chance I got. I started out as a fan, but as time went on the relationship blossomed and he became a friend and one of my earliest mentors. Giorgio was very encouraging and supportive in my early days as a poet.
Before he became a priest, much of Giorgio’s early work ran from meditations on romantic love, to poetic rants against the vapidity of mainstream culture, and the Italian diaspora experience in North America. Giorgio was born in Arezzo, Italy and lived in Montreal and Baltimore before settling in Toronto.
As much as I love his earlier works, it was what he wrote during his spiritual period that most resonated with me, a secular Jew. In my favourite collection, The Dark Time Of Angels, he wrote about the struggle we all face (I know I do) to not allow the muck of the material world to turn us into selfish and cruel human beings. He describes the struggle in one poem as feeling “like a choke-hold from the inside.” Giorgio showed up for that fight every day of his life, even if, as is bound to happen, he lost the occasional battle.
Giorgio threw himself full throttle and with love into all his endeavours. As Toronto’s Poet Laureate from 2004-2009, he took his arts advocacy into the realm of the “civic aesthetic,” enlisting the help of municipal officials and architects, among others, to help Torontonians connect through shared creativity in our common spaces. In his book Municipal Mind: Manifestoes For The Creative City, he writes about a “citizenry… incited to action by the eros of mutual care, by having a common object of love – their city.”
Giorgio generously offered his advice to young writers on the craft of poetry. He told me to not fuss for days or weeks over a single poem but to strive to write a poem a day and to practice some detachment from my work. It’s the best advice I’ve ever received. It did not occur to me until now that it was also spiritual advice. In art, as in life, we need to learn to let go sometimes as best we can.
To me, Giorgio also offered advice on the public side of being a writer. I spoke to him fairly often during a time when I felt mistreated by some literary colleagues and wanted to lash out. He strongly discouraged this, speaking to those better angels in me. “Don’t take anything personally,” he said, “except kindness.”
At his funeral last Friday, I saw several poets from Giorgio’s generation, but very few from my own. His later work had not received the same kind of attention as his earlier poems. I found myself thinking that perhaps this is because his later poems were about the joys and challenges of spiritual life, while our literary culture leans heavily on the secular and ironic. The man never quite got his due.
I then noticed that one of my poetry colleagues who I felt mistreated by in attendance. I still begrudged him a little, which I probably had not been all that subtle about. I had planned a polite handshake, but found myself hugging him. I hope he took it personally.
Giorgio is survived by his sister, Anna Aguzzi.
Jacob Scheier is a Governor General’s Award-winning poet.