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The Poets' Dante: Twentieth-Century Responses Hardcover – April, 2001
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From Publishers Weekly
If that's not enough, The Poets' Dante: Essays on Dante by Twentieth-Century Poets brings together in one volume many of the most engaging essays on Dante by the (mostly American) poets who have found him inescapable. A brief but excellent introduction by editors Peter S. Hawkins and Rachel Jacoff provides an overview of Dante's influence and reception in the English-speaking world, while the 28 essays are divided into two groups, the great (white male) dead including Pound, Eliot, Auden, Borges and Montale, and the venerable living, including Seamus Heaney, Charles Wright, W.S. Merwin, Robert Pinsky, Geoffrey Hill and C.K. Williams. Feb.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
Either indirectly, through the impact of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, or directly, Dante remains a profound influence on modern poets and poetry. Hawkins (religion, Boston Univ.) and Jacoff (Italian, Wellesley Coll.) bring together 28 essays and excerpts of writing by modern poets that reflect on Dante. The first part presents 13 classic pieces published earlier in various forms, including Pound's comparison of Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare from The Spirit of Romance and Eliot's "What Dante Means to Me" to pieces by Osip Mandelstam, Robert Lowell, and Howard Nemerov. The second part presents 15 essays commissioned for this book and includes appreciations by Seamus Heaney, Charles Wright, and Jacqueline Osherow. While many of these pieces record personal encounters, others, such as Geoffrey Hill's "Between Politics and Eternity," a reading of the Divine Comedy in terms of the Monarchia, offer penetrating analyses. Highly recommended.DT.L. Cooksey, Armstrong Atlantic State Univ., Savannah, GA
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
Jorge Luis Borges fondly recalls how he learned his limited Italian from its expansive practitioner, Dante. Robert Fitzgerald approves Lawrence Binyon's valiant adaptation of an archaic, antiquated medieval phrasing which also tries to reproduce an echo of the effect of the terza rima itself, a difficult feat in English, as word order locks down in our language what had greater liberty when Dante manipulated and invented so much of his own Tuscan vernacular. As T.S. Eliot reminds us, the breath is crucial, and in the middle of the line, patterns in the syntax appear which defy imitation in our vernacular, for Dante "thought in terza rima." Packed energy accelerates this pace. Inevitably, renderings of it in English cannot repeat its diversions. Nor can it duplicate its compression into phrases which dart in and out as inversions. Perhaps like no other, the original poem propels you.
Dante's words may find equivalents, but his meaning lies deeper, in the characters, settings, allusions, and contexts Dante lived in and integrated, and which we struggle to comprehend. The editors, Peter S. Hawkins and Rachel Jacoff, suggest that the epic's meaning, notably in Paradiso, lies for modern readers who may lack the author's faith (and I reckon nearly all of us lack his longing for imperial rule shared with the Papacy, although Seamus Heaney reckons Eliot might have practically cheered on the Holy Roman Empire, somehow, in his High Church phase) in the emphasis on growing luminosity, illumination of what one longs to discover, and eager conversations with the dead.
This book's second half features newly commissioned essays. Some who have translated cantos weigh in: Heaney, Robert Pinsky, W.S. Merwin. Howard Nemerov's submission floats all over like the "dream" he opens it with. But, in American vernacular, his reflections pinpoint a key distinction. "So Dante's cosmos does indeed look silly, but only until I try to contemplate my own and learn that I don't effectively have one." (216) That is, we strain to even see the stars through smog and streetlights. Dante's epic gives us the "illusion of plenitude" from a medieval concept of the universe as complete. "The inside exactly fills up the outside." (220) It is closed in space and time, compared to our own, which expands infinitely but leaves us on the edge of a minor galaxy, adrift if very aware.
Merrill agrees: "The figure has finite volume but no boundary: 'every point is interior.'" (232) He takes on a challenging scene where Dante gets his first glimpse of God as seen in Beatrice's eyes. Somehow the poet anticipates what we may consider in models in the age of Einstein, Merrill hints. A tiny point upon which all creation centers and emanates, four dimensions, the observer seeing a cosmos where he includes the sight of himself seeing the same scene: the mind does reel at this view.
Merrill takes up a resonant theme. Dante offers us no padding. Used to avant-garde images on screens, and patchy soundtracks to entertain us, when we open the poem, we must strain to keep up. Averaging 140 lines per canto, the Commedia keeps moving, introducing new settings or characters rapidly, and then settling in for a few dozen lines before veering off or bearing down. The direction decelerates as Dante and Virgil descend into ice; as J.D. McClatchy also elucidates, they are then upended as they traverse the "absolute zero" as Pinsky puts it, and this may be Satan's nether parts precisely. Out of such exactitude, for all in this poem is mapped such, a flip turns the pilgrim and his guide towards the light, where back on earth, as Merwin shows, Mount Purgatory has been created for ascent into the eternal radiance. However, the final destination of paradise may not please all here.
Later twentieth-century poets included (with the exception of Rosanna Warren) seem to agree that while they lack Dante's beliefs, they can still learn from his focus, his imagery, and his devotion to craft. Closest to today, the contributors start to grouse. Many incorporate references to the death camps and similar horrors from the near past and present, which resemble or, worse, fail to match, barbarity inflicted in the name of ideology and revenge as "justice." Mark Doty resents Dante's "outing" of Brunetto Latini and winds up "rooting for the damned." Mary Blaine Campbell concurs. "Wrath, Order, Paradise" speaks for skeptics and apostates, nonbelievers and humanists. "For there is no God, no Afterlife, no three-ring circus of fixed destinies on display. There is only the rhetorician, Dante, and his grand design-- a design that includes a suffering subject through whom we can feel the horrors and injustices of Justice, and a thousand objects in whom we can see ourselves--truly dead, like specimens-- from the perspective of Justice." She asks: "Is the Comedy a cri de coeur, rather than an encyclopedia of the cosmos?" She concludes, as a dissenter, that resistance is futile in Dante's "finished, perfected world". Her essay tackles tough themes, and her reaction provokes our own.
Whatever the obstacles the original poet faced over the decades writing his epic, what we have shows consistency and an immensely complicated system that pays homage to Dante's control. Jacqueline Osherow suggests (271) that a steady movement embeds itself in the triple rhyme pattern. The first suggestively tips into a next line; the second rhyme repeated then advances the theme; the third and final recurrence of the end-rhyme may signal Dante's most eloquent tropes and sublime reflections.
Welcome would have been notes on contributors, as all are not as famous as Eliot or Pound. Endnotes list "permissions" for entries published before, but if part one covers these, why is Heaney's 1985 academic article included as the opening to part two's "commissioned" pieces? On a related note, context on the poets and the original circumstances the entries were given (some are lectures) is needed, as well as dates for all entries. Some have these, and some like Merrill or Nemerov do not.
The quality of some entries varies. Eugenio Montale's may be so comprehensive it now prefaces the Allen Mandelbaum one-volume Everyman edition (a handsome one), but it feels fusty. Yeats' excerpt from A Vision baffles; I liked what Auden has to say in barbed and knowing tones about eros, but this essay takes a long time to treat Beatrice and Dante in its last paragraphs.While Charles Williams' earnest and once-influential interpretation of Beatrice for me seems too hermetic, it influences Robert Duncan's accessible considerations. Similarly, the range of part one's contributors and their stature allows those in part two to comment. Eliot and Mandelstam direct Heaney's responses and his own poems. Fitzgerald on Pound via Binyon foreshadows essays by later translators who reject terza rima for free, blank, or unrhymed verse to convey Dante's flow and force. Charles Wright appreciates Pound's stimulation, and Geoffrey Hill favors Antonio Gramsci over Eliot as Dante's better critic.
Edward Hirsch concludes by acknowledging Dante's "ferocious intensity" and his mode of "transformational thinking." Even if we may sympathize more with doomed readers Francesca and Paola than Dante intended, we like Hirsch find the poet's power convincing, and still memorable.
Nemerov can say plenty and say it well and I would tend to enjoy anything he wrote on any subject. He is a fine essayist.
But his point is valid. There is little here that is new or even very interesting, though the line-up of contributors is stellar, from the standards whose commentary is now classic--Pound, Eliot, Singleton, Yeats, Auden, etc.--to new essays commissioned for this volume--Heaney, McClatchy, Hirsch, Williamson, Charles Wright, and others.
The problem: Dante truly does defeat us all. His imagination and genius make commentary superfluous. And most disappointing are the new essays--they truly fail to impart their passion for the poet.
It is true that there are good pieces here: by Borges (collected in Seven Nights--go buy that!) and Nemerov in particular.
And my favorite gave me exactly what I was looking for--the sense of a poet involved in poetry and involved in the moment. Robert Fitzgerald discusses the work of a sadly forgotten translator, Laurence Binyon. Fitzgerald reproduces letters between Pound and Binyon about the work that Binyon was doing. Pound's enthusiasm is infectious (as well as Fitzgerald's) and one wants his translation immediately in front of one. I fear one may have to look for it in used bookstores
This seems a good idea, but in the end it is disappointing.