“Psalm of the Heights” by Dana Gioia

Dana Gioia



You don’t fall in love with Los Angeles
Until you’ve seen it from a distance after dark.

Up in the heights of the Hollywood Hills
You can mute the sounds and find perspective.

The pulsing anger of the traffic dissipates,
And our swank unmanageable metropolis 

Dissolves with all its signage and its sewage— 
Until only the radiance remains. 

That’s when the City of Angels appears,
Silent and weightless as a dancer’s dream.    

The boulevards unfold in brilliant lines.
The freeways flow like shining rivers. 

The moving lights stretch into vast
And secret shapes, invisible at street level.

At the horizon, the city rises into sky,
Our demi-galaxy brighter than the zodiac.



Surely our destinies are written in this zodiac,
Whose courses and conjunctions govern us.

Look down and name our starry constellations—
Wilshire, Olympic, Santa Monica.

In speeding Comets or sleek Thunderbirds,
We traveled the twelve Houses of the Heavens

Ascending Crenshaw, Sunset, or Imperial,
Locked in our private worlds of lust or laughter.

Who will cast the charts of our radiant sorrow,
Or trace the secret transits of our joy?

The traffic shimmers in its fixed trajectories,
Dense and indifferent as nebulae.

Though you resist the gaudy spectacle,
You can’t escape the city’s sortilege.



Move away, if you wish, to the white Sierras,
Or huddle in the smoky canyons of Manhattan.

You’ll miss the juvenescent rapture of LA
Where ecstasy cohabits with despair, 

Lascivious and fitful as a pair of lovers.
Let someone else play grown-up.  

Here the soul sings like a car radio, and no one
Asks your age because we’re all immortal. 

Inhale the spices of the midnight air 
Drifting from Thai Town and Little Armenia.

Here on the hilltop, the city whispers to you,
“Come down and play in the traffic.

Merge into the moving lights, our myriad,
The luminous multitudes that surround you.

Join their fiery orbit. Shine with us tonight.
Where else can you become a star?”

from Rattle #70, Winter 2020


Dana Gioia: “I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I still live there part of each year. It is the urban and cultural world that formed my imagination. Yet I’ve always found LA hard to capture in poetry; it is so huge, various, and volatile. Los Angeles inspires passionate feelings—most of them mixed. Snapshots can’t do it justice. It needs a panorama. I have just written a sequence of three wide-screen poems about LA. ‘Psalm of the Heights’ is the central section. The poem takes place in the mind of a person standing, late at night, high in the Hollywood Hills, looking down on the expanse of the city. The poem is written in free verse couplets haunted, to use Eliot’s term, by ‘the ghost’ of meter. I wanted the language, like the nocturnal city it describes, to have a secret identity.” (web)


Dana Gioia was the guest on Rattlecast #77. Click here to watch …

Rattle Logo