Esther Cameron




Osip, it has been nearly forty years

since first I read those pages that you wrote

back in the early thirties, well aware

of all that lay around you and ahead,

and yet you knew of no more urgent task

than to set in order your perceptions

of a work written down six centuries

before your time, beneath a different cloud.

And I beneath still other apprehensions

come to such work, though from a different angle.

Lend us your courage – and your laughter, too –

that we may walk wherever we need to go

in your good company, and that of those

who told it like it is, and yet might be.



 Writing on Dante is a little like looking at the sun.


I have written a great deal about Dante – around about him, that is.  In 1973, asked at short notice to teach a course on the Modern Novel, I chose instinctively a group of eight novels that seemed to me somehow to “go together” and to be particularly insightful about the modern world and the modern soul.  It turned out that seven of the eight harked back to Dante.  Each of them tried very hard to create its own world-picture, its own sphere, but somehow the Divine Comedy was present in each, like a picture on the wall.  The result of this was a long manuscript, The Web of What Is Written, in which the Commedia was repeatedly invoked and quoted but was never the main focus.  It will be the main focus here.  I will try to collect my thoughts about it, and ask the reader’s patience if they seem at times still disjunctive.  We shall be walking around the monument, regarding it by turns from different standpoints. 


Above all I shall be contemplating the poem with the eyes of one who has some personal experience of the poetic process, and as a member of the community of poets that has grappled with the influence of this work through some 33 generations (a good Dantean number).   Many of the assumptions and conditions under which poets still operate are inscribed in this work.  And perhaps we have not yet received all of its gifts.


At no time since its composition was the Commedia more on the minds of literati than in the early twentieth century.  Not only Joyce and Proust, but also Pound, Eliot, Mandelstam, and finally and most deeply Paul Celan, were haunted by him.   It was almost as though, from its distant century, the Commedia were speaking especially to those generations.  Not that it received a wholly sympathetic hearing from them.  On the contrary, often it was heard with skepticism, sometimes even with derision.  Few shared the theology it expounded or accorded more respect to its ethical system than to its Ptolemaic astronomy.  The poem’s authority was less that of a spiritual classic than of an artistic masterpiece, a poetic “record” which stubbornly refused to be bettered.


What is it that has secured the Divine Comedy this place – secure and at the same time dubious -- in the Western imagination?  It seems to me that there are two answers.  One is simply the work’s aesthetic quality – its “wholeness, harmony and radiance,” as in the definition of beauty which Stephen Dedalus quotes from Aquinas.  The other is the fundamental question that it asks, the quest that it invites us to join, the quest for the “straight way”, as it says in the first tercet.   It probably is no coincidence that Moshe Chaim Luzzato, a Kabbalist raised in Italy, entitled his most popular ethical work Mesillat Yesharim, which could almost be a translation of “via diritta.”  The two answers are related; it is the poem’s form that gives the reader a feeling of assurance that the quest will end well.


Is it true, as one hears, that no one can write a work like the Commedia today because the intellectual synthesis that was in place in his time has been shattered?  Perhaps.  “’Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,” Donne already lamented.   On the other hand:  what preexisting synthesis can explain a poem which invokes not only the Christian deitie(s), but also – Apollo?!   Perhaps the basis of the poem’s unity is not so much a preexisting synthesis, as the poet’s will to unify the diverse materials with which tradition and experience had supplied him. 


Indeed, one could almost call the Commedia a shotgun wedding of diverse traditions.  Not content with reverting to classical mythology, it also Catholicizes  – or perhaps smuggles into Catholicism – what remained of Provencal love poetry and Albigensian mysticism after the Inquisition had finished.


The poem’s unity is a mystery, not entirely identifiable with the mysteries of the religion it professes. 




One of my college teachers – I wish I could remember his name -- said that the aim of criticism was to get back to the moment of creation.


Could we ever hope to get back to that moment with this work?  How could the Commedia have gotten started, how did it germinate?


I would lay almost any odds that the first line of the poem was the first line written.  Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita.  The whole poem seems to unroll out of that line.


But most likely the plan of the poem had taken shape in the poet’s mind before that line was written.  One day, as he trudged up the hard road of someone else’s stairs, the thought must have popped into his mind that it might be nice to write a poem portraying hell, purgatory and heaven laid out according to, say, Aquinas’ scale of virtues and vices, giving glory to the cosmic structure and the Creator, and incidentally pointing out to the poet’s (former) fellow-citizens just how their behavior illustrated and exemplified various points on the aforesaid scale of values.  To put everyone in his or her precise place.   The idea is there.  And then he must have worked out the formal plan – the division into three canticas and one hundred cantos, the rhyme scheme. And then that first line appears, as the beginning of the execution. 


This apparition of the idea – the idea of writing an epic poem about a journey through the afterworld – could that be what is really signified by the appearance of Virgil as guide in the first canto?  Dante hails him as the one who taught him his  “beautiful style,” but the styles of the two poets are quite different.   Many interpreters have taken Virgil as the representative of human reason, but then wouldn’t he have encountered Aristotle instead?  However, Virgil had  described Aeneas’ descent to the realm of the shades.  And moreover, the sequel to that spirit-journey was the founding of the Roman commonwealth, or rather the ideal image thereof which Virgil wished to project.  (To enter into Dante’s world the reader must leave behind much of what is known of the real Roman empire: the excesses of its emperors, the bloodthirstiness of its populace, the brutality of its soldiers and administrators with their habit of crucifixion.)   These were his real qualifications as Dante’s guide.


I will further speculate that even before the theme and scheme of the poem appeared, Dante must have brooded about the fact that he had reached the mid-life point – the age of 35 – at the turn of a century, a juncture that, as we know, tends to encourage introspection.  In the poet’s mind, a coincidence can often become a seed-crystal.


As it turned out, 35 was not the midpoint of Dante’s own life; he would die at the age of 57, not 70.  But note that he says not “mea vita” but “nostra vita,” the life of man in general, to which the Bible allots a span of 70 years.  The scheme calls on him to be interested in himself not as himself but as a microcosm, a demonstration model. 


Such an account of the poem’s genesis may help us to look again at that distinction between “Dante-the-pilgrim” and  “Dante-the-poet” which critics are fond of drawing.  In his “Conversation about Dante” Mandelstam characterizes “Dante-the-pilgrim” (though the does not use that phrase) as follows: 


One would have to be a blind mole not to notice that throughout the Divina Commedia Dante does not know how to behave, does not know how to act, what to say, how to bow.    I am not imagining this; I take it from the numerous admissions of Alighieri himself, scattered throughout the Divina Commedia.

The inner anxiety and painful, troubled gaucheries which accompany each step of the diffident man, as if his upbringing were somehow insufficient, the man untutored in the ways of applying his inner experience or of objectifying it in etiquette, the tormented and downtrodden man – such are the qualities which both provide the poem with all its charm, with all its drama, and serve as its background source, its psychological foundation. 

If Dante had been sent forth alone, without his dolce padre, without Virgil, scandal would have inevitable erupted at the very start, and we would have had the most grotesque buffoonery rather than a journey amongst the torments and sights of the underworld!


To which I would say:  Hm.  Does the character of Dante Pilgrim really represent Alighieri’s individual personality, or is this character best regarded as a didactic device?  After all, throughout the length of the Divine Comedy Dante is excoriating, preaching to and pleading with an audience whose patience with didacticism was likely greater than our own – not until nearly seven centuries later would the literati get around to banning didacticism -- but who will not have been entirely free of the human tendency to resent correction.   How does Hamlet put it:


                                    Forgive me this my virtue,

                        For in the fatness of these pursy times

                        Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg,

Yea, curb and woo for leave to do him good. 


If Dante portrays himself almost as a buffoon, or at least a little gauche, this may be a way of deflecting his audience’s resentment of the preacher.  At the same time, through his willingness to be corrected, his utter receptivity to instruction, and his oft-expressed delight at the spiritual nourishment he receives, he sets an example for the receptive reader.


And what about Dante the Poet?  Here, I have it on the authority of Cliffnotes, available on the Internet:


Dante the Poet is a stern, moralistic individual who acts as the supreme judge and decides who belongs in Hell and, like Minos the monster judge, decides which circle of Hell each sinner belongs in. This Dante is unswerving in his judgment. He can find little extenuating circumstances, and the sinner is judged by the strictest and harshest standards.


To Dante the Poet, I believe, the world also ascribes Mastery, control over the poetic process.  Certain expressions in the poem itself do indeed provide grounds for this view, as when he speaks of the labor that is required for the composition of the work.  And there’s no question that this composition was preceded by years of study and experiment, allowing scholars to construct a view of “Dante the Maker,” as William Anderson titled his richly-informative biography.


And yet the ultimate claim of the poem is that it is not solely the work of the master-poet – the poet whose mastery has raised up and shamed so many emulators – but is rather a “sacred poem” to which “heaven and earth have set their hand.”  In that invocation to Apollo he asks:  “Come into my breast and breathe there as when thou drewest Marsyas from the scabbard of his limbs.”  It is a violent twist on a violent myth:  the satyr Marsyas challenged Apollo to a singing contest, and Apollo retaliated by flaying him.  A tale of cruel punishment for a challenge to the gods is turned into an expression of willingness for the self to be immolated in order for the vision of Paradise to come through. 


It is this self-abolition that allows all the materials Dante has acquired through study and experience to be melted down and fused and to emerge in the new and integral form of the poem. 

But I have gotten back to something that every poet knows about – that sense that the poem comes about at some point where one has “touched the impersonal,” as Simone Weil put it.  The sense that what is at work in the poem is not one’s own intelligence but some greater mind – the “unconscious” or (to use a term found in the works of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginzburgh), the “superconscious,” that seems to know more than we do and that makes connections we could not have computed consciously.  Poetic form, also, seems to have a mind of its own.  It is quite amazing how the sonnet form, in particular, allows one to wrap up almost any topic in fourteen lines.  Once one has settled on a form, it tends to fill itself out.  The poet lets it have its way.  The journey of “Dante-the-pilgrim” could also be about the poet’s being led from image to image, from scene to scene, by a sense of the whole work.  (It could be said that if Virgil is the poetic precedent, Beatrice is the work that is coming into being.)  The world has constructed a picture of the stern Dante, the master-poet and judge, as though not capable of keeping in mind that it is not the poet who is authoritative but the work, or rather the supernal Intelligence behind it.


One could go farther and say that those who perceive Dante-the-poet as “judgmental” forget that the judgments emanate from the scheme he has adopted – an ethical system derived from Aristotle and the Church theologians, and fairly standard for its time.  Such ethical systems are based on the perception that some actions and dispositions are better, socially and spiritually, than others.  We are free to choose our acts, but we cannot choose their consequences; we can choose to throw a stone into the well, but we cannot choose that it shall not cause ripples.  Once this scheme is adopted as the template of the poem, the actions which the poet has witnessed sort themselves according to it, automatically.  It is, again, this impersonality that people tend to mask from themselves by emphasizing the poet’s subjective severity. 


But perhaps what most impresses the reader about the Commedia is the wholeness of it, the sense of comprehensive and “organic” unity.  The reader gets taken through the most diverse scenes, corresponding to the various possible states of human being and situated in a space that, although imaginary, is precisely related to the real earth and to the heavenly bodies.  Time is told in the Commedia by the stars.  Wherever we are in the poem, we feel ourselves to be at a certain point within this wholeness.  Vivid as are the landscapes and the stories that are woven into this story of one man’s tour of the afterworld, we are never “lost” in any one of them.  We are always conscious of the encompassing whole.  And this cosmic picture is somehow merged with an elaborate “map” of the moral universe, where the damned, the penitent and the blessed are sorted according to the gravity of their offences or faults or the degree of their excellence.  In The Art of Memory, Frances Yates sees in the Commedia an analog to, or example of, the ancient system of memory-training, whereby information to be memorized was mentally placed at some location in an imaginary interior.  The landscapes of the Commedia thus come to serve as a mnemonic for a system of moral and spiritual values.


This cosmic-ethical unity is underpinned by the numeric relations that give the poem its formal unity.  The poem consists of 100 cantos, a number often understood as representing wholeness or perfection.  Of these 100 cantos, 34 are allotted to the Inferno and 33 each to the Purgatorio and the Paradiso.  Each canto consists of three-line stanzas, rhymed aba bcb cdc …, so that the stanzas are interlinked; this form, evidently invented by Dante, is called terza rima.  The number 3 is also repeated thematically throughout the poem: there are three heavenly ladies, three arch-sinners, etc.  Hell and Heaven each have nine circles.  And that apparently just scratches the surface of an elaborate system of numeric correspondences, many of them based on the number three, which is generally understood as a reference to the Trinity, though triads are a universal form of human thought.  But the point is that all numbers are derived from the number One, so that (as in the Kabbala) this constant numeric sorting is above all a reminder of the unitary Source of all being.


And finally, the Commedia possesses a unity -- doubly and triply reinforced -- of time.   Dante was surely familiar with the Aristotelian doctrine of the unities, which required a classical drama to take place within a day.  The action of the Commedia takes about a week; the center of that week is the anniversary of the archetypal event – the “Resurrection” -- on which the Christian faith is based.  Dante's descent and reascent thus parallel the death and resurrection of the Christian messiah, so that the time between the archetypal event and the (fictional) pivotal event in the life of a specific mortal is "collapsed." 


Curiously, this reminds me of the statement in the Passover Haggadah that every Jew is obligated to regard himself as though he himself had gone out of Egypt.  And indeed, the Christian event takes place during Passover and is modeled on the Passover event; hence, at the conclusion of the Purgatorio the saved souls sing the psalm beginning "When Israel went out of Egypt..."  I shall return to this.

Through the timing of Dante's journey, the eternal is reflected in the temporal.    But more than that: for the Christian the event on whose anniversary Dante’s fictive journey takes place is the "midpoint" of that timeline which begins with the Creation (or with Adam's sin, or evenin another of those surprising mythological inclusions, with the voyage of the Argo!) and is to end with the Last Judgment.  The midpoint of Dante's own life, the starting-point of the poem, is thus “grandfathered” into the midpoint of history.  The microcosm seems to contain the macrocosm.   


Through this sleight of mind, the universe appears "miniaturized."  Two lines by Mandelstam come to mind here:  "The vast universe sleeps in the cradle of a tiny eternity". I have also see this effect in Celan’s poetry.  The “miniaturizing” vision promises a world in which we can no longer get lost, which we can almost hold in the palm of our hand. 


It is partly thanks to this “miniaturizing” vision that Dante may fairly claim to be the first person to have viewed the earth from space!  In Canto XXII of the Paradiso:


My eyes returned through all the seven spheres and saw this globe in such a way that smiled at its paltry image: I approve that judgment as the best, which holds this earth to be the least; and he whose thoughts are set elsewhere, can truly be called virtuous. [...] The little threshing floor that so incites our savagery was all — from hills to river mouths—revealed to me while I wheeled with the eternal Twins.


Reading this for the first time in 1972, I saw that image of the earth which in 1970 appeared on posters with the slogan “Your mother needs you.”


Of course, the passage in the Paradiso expresses the conventional Stoic and Christian disdain for earthly life.  But: did Dante really feel the indifference which he “approves”?  The cosmic journey to the afterworld was also a long wrestling for the soul of Florence and of Italy.  And for us, the quoted passage is the predecessor of that image of the earth which in 1970 appeared on posters with the slogan “Your mother needs you.”  The earth appeared to us then not as contemptible but as vulnerable, and inspired thoughts of attempting to protect it.  Could Dante's poetics still help us to do so? 


Beneath the unity of the poem there is a tension between the Christian vision of salvation, which divorces the soul from earthly concerns, and a longing for what the Jewish tradition calls tikkun ha-‘olam (repair of the world).  The desire that drives the poem is not only for personal salvation but for what Black Elk called “the power to make over.”




The unifying devices I have mentioned are all expressions of a unifying impulse, whose Source is viewed at the very end of the poem.  The Divine Comedy is a work that can only be understood starting from its endpoint, from the moment when, after all the sights of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise have passed across the screen and vanished, the poet’s vision merges with the Ultimate.  Here is a translation of those lines (adapted from John Sinclair’s prose version):


I think, from the keenness that I suffered

from the living ray, that I would have been lost [smarrito]

if my eyes had been turned from it. 


And I remember that I was the bolder to sustain it

for that reason, until I had joined

my viewpoint with the supreme value (valore). 


O abundant grace by which I presumed

to fix my gaze on the eternal light

until sight was consumed in it!


Within its depths I saw contained,

bound by love in one volume,

all that is scattered on the pages of the universe:


substances and accidents and their costumes,

conflated together in such a manner

that what I tell is of a simple light.


I think I saw the universal form

of this knot, because in telling of it

I feel my joy expand.


A single point is greater weariness to me

than the twenty-five centuries since that enterprise

which made Neptune admire the shadow of the Argo.


Thus my mind, all suspended,

gazed fixed, immobile and attentive,

and, gazing, was constantly kindled.


At that light, one becomes such

that it is impossible for him ever to consent

to turn from it to any other sight;


because all the good that is the object of the will

is gathered in it; and outside of it

is defective, what within it is perfect.


Now my speech will fall shorter,

even of what I remember, than an infant’s

who still bathes his tongue at the breast.


Not that there was more than one simple semblance

in the living light that I gazed at,

which was always the same as before,


but by my sight which gained strength (s’avvalora)

as I looked, one sole appearance,

as I changed, was for me transformed (si travagliava).


In the profound and clear ground

of the lofty light appeared to me three circles

of three colors and of the same extent;


and one by the other, as rainbow by rainbow,

appeared reflected, and the third seemed a fire

breathed forth equally by the one and the other.


O how short is speech and how inadequate

to my conception!  And this, to what I saw,

is such that it is not enough to say “little.”


O eternal light, that dwells in thyself alone,

that alone understands thyself, and that, understood

and understanding, loves and smiles on thyself!


That circulation which, thus conceived,

appeared in thee as reflected light,

when my eyes had dwelt on it for a time,


seemed to me, within it and in its own color,

painted with our likeness,

for which my sight was wholly given to it.


Like the geometer who sets all his mind

on the squaring of the circle, but for all

his thinking does not find the principle he needs,


such was I on beholding that new sight:

I wished to see how the image

fitted the circle and had its place there;


but for this my own wings were not sufficient:

save that my mind was smitten by a flash

in which its desire arrived.


Here power failed the high imagination;

but already my desire and my will were being turned,

like a wheel that revolves with even motion,


by the love that moves the sun and the other stars.


At the end of his journey, Dante beholds the Divine Unity. Now we realize that it is from this ultimate Unity that the poem’s unity was projected from the start.  Dante says here that had he taken his eyes away from the Divine light, he would have been “lost (smarrito)”; this takes us back to the opening tercet of the poem, the starting point, where “the straight way was lost (smarrita).”  Here he sees the light that has been guiding him all along.


To put it another way, Dante here sees the source of the energy that has created the order of the poem, just as it creates the order of the cosmos.   The term used here for that aspect of the Deity which the poet is enabled to perceive is valore, which means “value” but also “valor,” and is derived from the Latin valere, “to be strong [or even: healthy].”  G-d as Supreme Value is the anchor-point of the scale of values that has informed the poem; G-d as Supreme Valor is the life-giving force. 


Thermodynamics tells us that for order to be created, energy must be fed into a system; a closed system that receives no energy from outside will run down (entropy).   Many religious thinkers have held the belief  that G-d, dwelling beyond time, creates the world at every instant; if G-d were to stop pouring His energy into the universe even for an instant it would vanish.  (I first encountered this belief in Orthodox Judaism; according to Christian Moevs in The Metaphysics of Dante’s Comedy, it was also present in Scholasticism.) 


I think, also, of the final blessing of the Amidah, the Jewish daily prayer:  “Bless us all as one with the light of Your countenance, for in the light of Your countenance you gave us the Torah of life, lovingkindness, righteousness and blessing and compassion and life and peace [or: wholeness].”  A midrash tells us that if Israel had not accepted the Torah at Sinai, the world would have reverted to chaos.  The Divine manifestation creates order. 


This relation between energy and order may explain why Dante includes among his spokesmen for the saints two figures who were creators of social order.  How the conversation might have gone if Dante’s celestial guides had thought to introduce him to Moses, is beyond speculation; as it is, we have Justinian, who codified the Roman laws, and Benedict, the author of the Benedictine rule.  I  think here of Shelley’s much-debated claim, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”  And one may also understand why one of the latest and most-degraded “spinoffs” of the Commedia – Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 – has entropy as its central metaphor.  It describes a world that has lost touch with the Divine energy.


Dante’s final vision is anticipated in Canto XXVIII, where he sees “a point which radiated a light so keen that the eye on which it burns must close for its piercing power; and the star that from here seems the least would seem a moon if put beside it like star with star in conjunction.”  Around this point, like a halo refracted in mist, he sees wheeling the spheres through which he has ascended.  Again, the universe – and the poem -- is a “projection” from the abstract and transcendent point of the Divine.


Dante’s final term for the Divine – or at least its influence – is Love.  But his concept of love is, it seems to me, inseparable from his concept of order.  When Dante describes himself, in the Purgatorio, as “one who goes noting down what Love says,” he is taking notes on the manifestations of Divine order.   This identification of love as the force that produces order rather than chaos, is perhaps the only thing that can help us to understand why the gate of Hell bears the inscription:  “Divine Power made me and supreme Wisdom and primal Love.”  For if there is a Divine order, based on wisdom and love, then the rejection of the same must automatically lead to the place of chaos and darkness.


We should not take leave of this final passage without noting that the last object which the poet sees is “nostra effigie,” inscribed in the circle of the Divine.  This is often taken as a reference to the second person of the Christian trinity.  But it seems to me that one could equally well hear it as a reference to the statement in Genesis that humans were created in the Divine image.   Of this image the Christian messiah is said by Christians to be the ultimate realization, but it is remarkable that this figure is present in the Commedia only in the most abstract possible form.   And moreover, the “nostra” could remind us that according to Genesis 1 both male and female humans were created in the Divine image.  Perhaps, secreted in this word, is the final consummation of the longing that has been the driving force of the poem..


In Judaism, the creation of humans in the Divine image is the basis of the Torah, whose 613 commandments correspond to the articulation of the human physical body.  The order which is articulated in Dante’s hierarchic scheme must also be derived from his sense of the Divine image in us.



Again, the unity and order of the poem is more mysterious than a description of its Aristotelian-Aquinian armature would indicate.  If the poem were simply based on such a scheme, it might well come off as rigid, hieratic, and devoid of spontaneity.  In truth, there are for many readers, including this one, some passages – especially, alas, in the Paradiso – where that kind of hieratic rigidity does set in. (Note: This is partly because an appreciation of the Paradiso, as Dante anticipated in its first canto, depends on some training in scholasticism; Moevs’ expositions begin to open up a play of words and concepts that might well dispel the impression of rigidity for the adept.)


But there is something in the Commedia that runs counter to the impression of imposed order, so that, for all the strictness of its form, can also come off as an improvised performance, with one surprise after another.  It is on this aspect that Osip Mandelstam's dwells in his Conversation about Dante.  Grafting his own imagination on Dante’s, Mandelstam writes:


“Dante’s thinking in images, as is the case in all genuine poetry, exists with the aid of a peculiarity of poetic material which I propose to call its convertibility or transmutability.  Only in accord with convention is the development of an image called its development.  And indeed, just imagine an airplane (ignoring the technical impossibility) which in full flight constructs and launches another machine.  Furthermore, in the same way, this flying machine, while fully absorbed in its own flight, still manages to assemble and launch yet a third machine.  To make my proposed comparison more precise and helpful, I will add that the production and launching of these technically unthinkable new machines which are tossed off in mid-flight are not secondary or extraneous functions of the plane which is in motion, but rather comprise a most essential attribute and part of the flight itself, while assuring its feasibility and safety to no less a degree than its properly operating rudder or the regular functioning of its engine.”


Indeed, Mandelstam’s essay makes all that I wrote above about the unity of the poem and its lucid structure look like Bœotian commonplaces, no less deceptive than simplistic.  Here is Mandelstam’s vision of the poem’s unity: 


“Examining the structure of the Divina Commedia as best I can, I come to the conclusion that the entire poem is but one single and indivisible stanza.  Rather, it is not a stanza, but a  crystallographic figure, that is, a body.  Some incessant craving for the creation of form penetrates the entire poem.  It is strictly a stereometric body, one continuous development of the crystallographic theme.  It is inconceivable that anyone could grasp with the eye alone or even visually imagine to oneself this form of thirteen thousand facets, so monstrous in its exactitude.  My lack of even the most obvious information about crystallography, an ignorance in this field as in many others common in my circle, deprives me of the pleasure of grasping the true structure of the Divina Commedia, but such is the marvelously stimulating power of Dante that he has awakened in me a concrete interest in crystallography […].”


One almost feels that it would be a faux pas to mention “hendecasyllabic line” and “aba cdc ded…” in Mandelstam’s presence.   (Though Mandelstam himself used rhyme and meter in nearly all his poems.)  The unity Mandelstam perceives could seem to have nothing to do with this form.  It has to do rather with the existence of an interlocking, evidently preexisting structure or web of meanings, which the progress of the poem brings to life, perhaps somewhat as (you, Osip, could not object to this simile!) the cursor hovering in turn over graphic elements on the screen may cause them to wink and jiggle and change color, or give way as “links” to a new screen altogether.  In short, it has to do with some preexisting spiritual analog of the Internet!  Well, Jonathan Rosen has a book called The Talmud and the Internet.  And I gather that the term “intertextuality” was coined in 1966, and already in 1974 The Web of What Is Written was abbreviated WWW. 


“Any given word is a bundle, and meaning sticks out of it in various directions, not aspiring toward any single official point.  In pronouncing the word ‘sun,’ we are, as it were, undertaking an enormous journey to which we are so accustomed that we travel in our sleep.  What distinguishes poetry from automatic speech is that it rouses us and shakes us into wakefulness in the middle of a word.  Then it turns out that the word is much longer than we thought, and we remember that to speak means to be forever on the road.”


Far from being self-enclosed, the world of the poem is infinitely open. 


“A quotation is not an excerpt.  A quotation is a cicada.  Its natural state is that of unceasing sound.  Having once seized hold of the air, it will not let it go.  […]

“By this I mean that a composition is formed not as a result of accumulated particulars, but due to the fact that one detail after another is torn away from the object, leaves it, darts out, or is chipped away from the system to go out into a new functional space or dimension, but each time at a strictly regulated moment and under circumstances which are sufficiently ripe and unique.”


Again, the quotation is a “link.”  This view is at right angles to the compartmentalized Aristotelian logic of the poem’s external armature. 


“The force of a Dantean simile, strange as it may seem, operates in direct proportion to our ability to do without it.  It is never dictated by some beggarly logical necessity.  Tell me, if you can, what necessitated Dante’s comparing the poem as it was being concluded with part of a donna’s attire […] or comparing himself with a tailor who had, excuse the expression, exhausted his material?”


Mandelstam gives the poem’s traditional theology no less short shrift than its traditional logic.


“And if we approach Dante from this point of view, it will appear that he saw in Biblical tradition not so much its sacred, dazzling aspects as subject matter which, with the help of zealous reporting and passionate experimentation, could be turned to his advantage.”


Among French poets, Rimbaud is closest to Dante as one who “shakes up meaning and destroys the integrity of the image.”  As against the “classical” view of Dante, which ascribes to him a “sculptural” quality, Mandelstam sees the Commedia as ceaseless motion.


“… in all seriousness the question arises: how many shoe soles, how many oxhide soles, how many sandals did Alighieri wear out during the course of his poetic work, wandering the goat paths of Italy.”

“Both the Inferno and, in particular, the Purgatorio glorify the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking the footstep and its form.  The step, linked with breathing and saturated with thought, Dante understood as the beginning of prosody. […]

“In Dante philosophy and poetry are constantly on the go, perpetually on their feet.”


It would seem then that the reader, too, must be in motion, following the constant centrifugal flight of meaning.


“Education is schooling in the swiftest possible associations.  You grasp them on the wing, you are sensitive to allusions – therein lies Dante’s favorite form of praise.”


And here some statements come to mind which are not from Mandelstam’s essay. “The poem is solitary and on the way.”  “Attention is the natural prayer of the soul.”   These statements are from texts by Paul Celan, a student of Mandelstam, of whose poetics the “Conversation about Dante” often seems uncannily prescient.   There is “influence” here, certainly, but influence based on such a profound affinity that the speaker of the “Conversation about Dante” and the persona of The No-Man’s Rose – a collection dedicated to Mandelstam’s memory – seem almost identical.  




But after all, Dante is not Rimbaud!  Backing away from the poem, the reader carries away the impression both of the spontaneity and of the poem’s form – the cantos composed of hendecasyllabic lines rhymed aba bcb…, the – yes—three-dimensional world, the cosmic memory-house.  Stasis and motion, impossibly combined. 


And if one entirely replaces the “classical” view of the poem with Mandelstam’s  iconoclastic view, what becomes of the poem’s final resolution, the “love which moves the sun and the other stars”?   Love, after all, is a centripetal force, not a centrifugal one.  It must ultimately make things hold together, not fly apart.  And in the memory of the reader the Commedia does hold together. 


One key to this paradox – or at any rate, a figure suspended like a holograph in the vacant space between the poem as artifact and as process – may be the figure whom Mandelstam looks past, perhaps because she was so much in the spotlight for the Romantics whose sloppy approach to the poem he disdains.  That “heroine” who, unlike any other literary heroine I can think of, neither acts nor suffers, unless her initial distress at Dante’s plight, her descent to Limbo to summon Virgil, her rebuke to Dante and subsequent play of expression in response to his understanding and failures to understand, constitute action and suffering.  In all this she is, unlike any other heroine I can think of, not at risk.  “The flame of this furnace does not assail me,” she tells Virgil.  She acts as a feedback mechanism for Dante, but her real emotional life is subsumed in the eternal bliss of the saints who contemplate the One.  She is the channel through which Divine love and compassion reach Dante; he is her special charge; yet she seems without partiality towards him.  One could also say that she is the channel through which Dante’s love is finally directed to the Source of being, which he contemplates at the end, after her image, last seen in the Rose, has finally slid off the screen. 


But it is the first epithet by which she is addressed in the poem that reveals her nature and function more clearly than terms like “love” and “compassion.”  Virgil addresses her:


            'O donna di virtù sola per cui

            l'umana spezie eccede ogne contento

            di quel ciel c'ha minor li cerchi sui,


O lady of virtue, by which (or: through whom) alone the human species exceeds all that is contained in the heaven that has the smallest circles [i.e., the sublunary world].


Note the two alternatives for that first line:  the pronoun “cui” admits either.  If we translate “whom,” we treat her either as a “mediator” whose personal existence (like that of the Christian messiah, as many commentators have noted) somehow enables others to rise above contingency.  (Perhaps any person of faith can think of some individual s/he has known who has strengthened that faith.)  If we translate “which,” then we treat the lady as an allegorical figure, like the Statue of Liberty, or those Virtues and Vices Giotto portrayed as ladies with various attributes.  She would then be a symbol or representation of some faculty that does the enabling.  Proof texts can be found for both interpretations.  In Purgatorio XXXI Beatrice speaks for all the world like the ghost of a woman the poet once loved:  “Never did nature or art set before thee beauty so great as the fair members in which I was enclosed, and they are crumbled in the dust.”  But in Paradiso X Dante, finding himself insensibly transported into the sphere of the sun, comments:   “”I […] was not aware of the ascent any more than one is aware of the beginning of a thought before it comes.  It is Beatrice who thus leads us from good to better so instantly that her action has no measurement in time.”  Here an interpretation of Beatrice as “philosophy” or “Theology” or even “Truth” would be far too concrete!  She seems to stand here for the power of thought itself.  Thus it does not seem too far-fetched to say that in Virgil’s first address to her she personifies the act-of-going-out, the act that makes possible the poet’s “Archimedean” vision and hence the poem. 


Not by chance does Dante, in demonstrating to Can Grande the different levels of meaning in the poem, take as example the verse: “When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a barbarous people, Judea was made his sanctuary, Israel his dominion” (Psalm 113.2) Dante gives his verse four interpretations – literal (the Biblical exodus), allegorical (the Christian concept of salvation), moral (“the conversion of the soul from the struggle and misery of sin to the status of grace) and anagogical (death as liberation from the slavery of “this corruption” to the freedom of eternal life).  Here I would interpolate that in Jewish tradition a standard symbolic interpretation of the Exodus is the overcoming of materialistic determinism.  The kingdom of materialistic determinism is Egypt.  And the Sabbath and holidays, which suspend work in the material world, are referred to in their rituals as “the going forth from Egypt.”  Again it seems to me that this interpretation of the Exodus is truer to the thrust of Dante’s poem than any of the three symbolic interpretations which he mentions.  For the Commedia is written against the blind workings of materialistic forces that corrupt the political life of Italy, the tangle of power relations in which he had unavailingly attempted to act.


And to a poet, the concept of “exodus” can have still a fifth level of meaning, referring to a kind of “exodic” moment by which poetic composition is often initiated.  Perhaps Emily Dickinson has described it best:


I saw no Way — The Heavens were stitched —
I felt the Columns close —
The Earth reversed her Hemispheres —
I touched the Universe —

And back it slid — and I alone —
A Speck upon a Ball —
Went out upon Circumference —
Beyond the Dip of Bell —


Mandelstam seems to me also to have described it in the following poem:


Your image, the racking and vague

I could not make out in the fog.

Lord!  I said by mistake,

not even intending to say that.

The Divine Name, like a great bird,

flew out of my chest;

ahead the dense fog swirls,

behind – an empty cage,]


This sort of moment is, I believe, a universal, rooted in the constitution of the bard who is charged with obtaining vision for the tribe.  The moment of going-forth has been surrounded by various types of external and internal theater and narrative – the spirit-journeys of shamans like Black Elk, Orpheus’ descent to the underworld – but it can be quite unobtrusive, it need not even be situated in time.  Did Dickinson and Mandelstam “have” this experience, or did they just compose the verse about it and, reading what they had written, remember having it?   I say this because the latter way is the way some of my own poems have worked; only by reading them did I know I had been Outside.  


This mental phenomenon can, I think, help us to see in what sense Dante speaks the truth when he situates his experience at the turn of a century, midway through his life, on the aforesaid anniversary.  If we could rewind the tape to that actual historical week, we would doubtless see Dante walking around Florence in an ordinary state of mind, profoundly unaware of the decree of exile that would strike him two years later, or the inspiration that would visit him a some years after that.  But from the standpoint of imagination, that point in time was the appropriate launching-pad for the otherworldly excursion, the poetic exodus.   The poem unfolds, starting from the premise of its having occurred then, into a time which it projects. 


Returning to our initial impression, we can now see that the sort of wholeness, the miniaturized comprehensiveness, of the Commedia is not solely due to the construction of the memory-house, the coherent design.  It is also an effect made possible by the exodus which enables the poet to see the world from an Archimedean distance.   (“A loving distance”: that phrase of Celan’s comes to mind, though at times it is an extremely “tough” love.)  If the poetic exodus is not only from space but from time, this would explain the paradoxical effect of stasis and dynamism which the poem produces.   If there is a point outside time, then from it all time would appear equally present, frozen in motion.  Curiously, this perception, to those who to have approached that point, seems compatible with a belief in freedom and the possibility of influencing the future.  “Everything is foreseen, and freedom is given,” as it says in the Talmudic Ethics of the Fathers.  The work of Paul Celan – especially the “Meridian” speech – can also produce such an impression.


The fact that Celan’s work can remind us of Dante’s in this respect is significant given that Celan in no way intends to refer to Dante’s particular theological structure.  In Par. IV, Beatrice as much as tells Dante not to take anything he sees literally; what he is seeing is an analogy of truths that cannot be shown to mortal eyes.  If one assumes that Dante meant this statement – and the statement to Can Grande that the poem’s claim to reveal the state of souls after death is “poetic and fictive” – then the whole theological armature of the Divine Comedy is an enormous metaphor, pointing to a reality that is perhaps only glimpsed at the end, in a point smaller than a star through which the creative energy pours into this fictional world, projecting its structures.


But if it is from this extratemporal point that the structures of the poem are projected, on the other hand it also sometimes seems as if the acceptance of the structure makes the exodic moment possible!  I think here of an essay on rhyme by the late Richard Moore, who asserts that conforming to the requirements of rhyme and meter actually liberates the poetic imagination:  while the conscious mind is distracted with these requirements, the unconscious is freer to operate.  Again, structure and dynamism, rigidity and freedom, appear as opposites that, far from excluding, actually depend on each other.  Of course this is also familiar from a Jewish standpoint.  The Exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea are both conditioned on the giving of the commandments at Sinai.  The Law is the basis of freedom.


And finally, in talking about the “exodic” act on inevitably thinks of Dante’s oft-invoked political exile.  In 1976 I heard a lecture by John Freccero, who pointed out that Dante’s exile was essential to the composition of the poem, because it provided a “closure” that enabled him to look back at Florence as a finite world with which he was no longer entangled.  Undoubtedly, the poem owes its existence to this misfortune, which undergirded the exodic act with a powerful concrete metaphor.  Yet it should be remembered that the shamanic journey was always taken with the intent of bringing something back for the world.  It appears that Dante hoped that his poem would procure his pardon and his return to Florence (see the beginning of Par. XXV). 


This wish was not fulfilled; Dante died in exile in 1321.  Yet his work has left many very traceable footprints in the real world.  In a memoir, Soul’s Evidence, I wrote about the way his poem affected my life, and that is only one example.  A few years ago I received in succession a book about the Medici (this seems to have disappeared, and the author’s name I have unfortunately forgotten) and Florence Nightingale, a biography by Cecil Woodham-Smith.  The Medici book made a case for a view of the Medicis, who arose in Florence in the late 14th century as better-than-average rulers of their time, and emphasized their breadth of vision and encouragement of the arts, which ended by making Florence an artistic showplace.  Reading it, I wondered if all this would have happened without a self-consciousness that must have sprung up in Florence under Dante’s burning-glass.  Florence Nightingale was born in Florence and was the first person named for the city.  She was a lifelong reader of Dante.  She had a gift, not so much for hands-on nursing as for organization; her work was based on an elaborate system.  Again it sounded to me as though, through her, the energy of the poem had worked for order.  It cannot be said that the Commedia made nothing happen.




Among the things that the Commedia made happen, or at least helped to happen, are a number of other literary works.  The (somewhat Dante-influenced) poet Laura (Riding) Jackson once wrote that her influence had been “extensive and wasted.”  The history of the Divine Comedy has certainly been extensive; whether wasted, is perhaps still in question.


In 1973, just before teaching the course that gave rise to The Web Of What Is Written, I noticed an advertisement for Harold Bloom’s book The Anxiety of Influence, a title that spoke volumes.  The book’s exposition is often perverse (I fear the author would not even take that as a reproof), and its exposition tortuous.  But this book has undoubtedly hit a certain nail on the head, and particularly with respect to Dante’s history of influence, even though it does not focus on Dante as the source of influence; from reading Bloom you would not guess the centrality of the Commedia to the tradition he discusses.


In his introduction, Bloom writes:


Poetic history, in this book’s argument, is held to be indistinguishable from poetic influence, since strong poets make that history by misreading one another, so as to clear imaginative space for themselves.


And couple of pages later:  “Poetic influence, or as I shall more frequently term it, poetic misprision…”  Such misprision, of course, thwarts the basic aim of the Commedia, which, as Moevs points out, is to get people to see. 


Does influence really, necessarily, imply distortion?  It seems to me that influence can be simply a matter of receiving abundance from another and supplementing it with one’s own, to create something that can be new without denying its parents.  For instance, it would not surprise me to learn that a day or so before writing “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats had been reading, say, Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”  The “Ode” is no primitive chant, no wild growth, but one of the choicest fruits of a long-cultivated tradition.  But Keats had something of his own to write about: the reflections brought on by the nocturnal scene and his own fatal illness.  His predecessors merely furnished him with the instruments of his eloquence, and he had no reason to disguise his recourse to them.  


Bloom is evidently aware of such objections, to which he responds:  “That even the strongest poets are subject to influences not poetic is obvious even to me, but again my concern is only with the poet in a poet, or the aboriginal poetic self.”   That “aboriginal” self, Bloom sees as the protagonist of an Oedipal struggle:  “Battle between strong equals, father and son as mighty opposites, Laius and Oedipus at the crossroads; only this is my subject here.”  


As a poet I would say that here Bloom seems to me to be talking not so much about the “aboriginal” poet as about the eternal graduate student (I’ve been that too) commanded to write an “original” seminar paper on a classic already annotated by a regiment of commentators.   Granted, I am not a “strong” poet. But think back, dear reader, to Mandelstam’s observations about Dante.   Poetic rivals or predecessors must have been the last thing on Dante’s mind when he concocted the hallucinogenic fugue of imagery in Canto XVII of the Inferno, which Mandelstam follows with such finesse – concocted it or watched it unfold, as if of itself, the way these things happen.  Even an athlete, it seems (see Alfie Kohn’s important book No Contest), cannot afford to think of his rivals at the moment of performance, for that would take him out of his center.  At times Bloom’s theory seems scarcely more than an academic’s revenge on those to whom the creative gift, denied to him, has been given.  (It does fit, all too well, the kind of contemporary poet whom the academics like -- poets like Ammons and Ashbery who make a career of being “original” while having nothing urgent to say, and whose voice is the enormous yawn of the void.)


And yet Bloom’s work does have something to us, if not about the essence of poetry, then about what vitiates it and renders it futile – its internal enemy, so to speak.  Bloom writes:


“Everything that makes up this book  […] intends to be part of a unified meditation on the melancholy of the creative mind’s desperate insistence upon priority.  Vico, who read all creation as a severe poem, understood that priority in the natural order and authority in the spiritual order had been one and had to remain one, for poets, because only this harshness constituted Poetic Wisdom.  Vico reduced both natural priority and spiritual authority to property, a Hermetic reduction that I recognize as the Ananke, the dreadful necessity still governing the Western imagination.”


With due deductions for inflated rhetoric, Bloom’s perception is that in the Western tradition inspiration is treated as a form of property.  Whether this treatment constitutes “Poetic Wisdom” is, however, a different matter.  There have been objections to this “necessity.”  Hölderlin:  “Of the common spirit are thoughts,/ Quietly ending in the soul of the poet.”  And Shelley: “…that great poem, which all poets, like the co-operating thoughts of one great mind, have built up since the beginning of the world.”  But (Bloom responds to Shelley) the productions of “all poets” do not give the impression of a harmonious whole, because of the failures of poets as readers:


“But poets, or at least the strongest among them, do not read necessarily as even the strongest of critics read.  Poets are neither ideal nor common readers, neither Arnoldian nor Johnsonian.  They tend not to think, as they read:  ‘This is dead, this is living, in the poetry of X.’  Poets, by the time they have grown strong, do not read the poetry of X, for really strong poets can read only themselves.  For them, to be judicious is to be weak, and to compare, exactly and fairly, is to be not elect.  Milton’s Satan, archetype of the modern poet at his strongest, becomes weak when he reasons and compares, on Mount Niphates[.]”


Again one may ask: who exactly is he talking about?  Not me, I hope.  Certainly not Dante or Celan, both of whom did read in a judicious manner.  But he could, admittedly, invoke Petrarch, who wrote to Boccaccio that as a young man he avoided reading Dante so as not to be influenced by him.  


But Bloom’s prototypical “strong poet” is Milton’s Satan, and it is here that I believe he both touches on and misses the central problem of Dantean influence.


“Satan is that modern poet, while God is his dead but still embarrassingly potent and present ancestor, or rather, ancestral poet. […]

“[Satan] chooses the heroic, to know damnation and to explore the limits of the possible within it.  The alternative is to repent, to accept a God altogether other than the self, wholly external to the possible.  This God is cultural history, the dead poets, the embarrassments of a tradition grown too wealthy to need anything more.” 


It seems to me there is a valid point here, if one can see it for the nonsense.  It is, of course, nonsense to say the tradition needs nothing more.  Only to the nonpoet, or the poet in a dry spell, does it seem as if everything has been said.  There is always some new configuration to be described, and the poem is always the unexpected.  The decline of poetry in our time has nothing to do with its traditional “wealth,” and everything to do with the capture of the common reader, once the referee among poets, by the degrading media.  In the absence of the common reader, poets are helpless against their impulses to rivalry -- unless they can recognize this problem and agree to be common readers to each other.   And it is still worse nonsense to imply that in order to explore the possible, it is necessary to “know damnation.”  Isn’t the Creator the Source of the possible, and doesn’t the authentic poet describe reality by some light from the Source?   The valid point of Bloom’s paragraph could perhaps be rephrased as follows:  Satan does not want to live in the world created by the Creator, and therefore “creates” his own world.  But since he is but a limited creature, he can create only an inferior world, a hell. 


I have long harbored the suspicion that the real subject of Paradise Lost is Milton’s attempt to write a work that could rival the Commedia.  Crudely put, it is the tragedy of the poet driven by ambition to challenge a work that was inspired by a more generous vision.  Ambition then creates a self-consciousness which blocks out vision.  This blockage shows up most blatantly in the fact that Milton, unlike Dante, makes the Creator into a character. Unfortunately, by the operation of poetic justice, that character comes off as a monstrous projection of ego.  The reader’s instinctive response to said character already prefigures Satan’s rebellion.  And hence with the portrayal of the devil, too, things go radically wrong.  Dante’s devil is sordid, revolting, mechanical – and silent; Milton’s has the best lines in his poem.  Like Dante, Milton leads the reader on a tour of the universe – but in the footsteps of Satan!  And how ponderous and arbitrary are Milton’s imaginings in comparison to Dante’s.    None of Milton’s three domains has any systematic organization, any organic life of its own; one is ever conscious of the imagination-engine laboring full time to keep on producing spectacles.  Finally – and centrally – there is no real articulation of man’s moral organization.  Milton’s narration of the Fall reduces the exploration of our flawed nature to a domestic vendetta, leading this reader to wonder whether Milton’s grudge against Dante was chiefly poetic jealousy, or a misogynist reaction to Dante’s employment of a female mentor, his recognition of the female counterpart.  The sages say that Eve was created as an “ezer kenegdo” (a help opposite him) so that “if he does right she will help him, if he does wrong she will oppose him.”  Milton makes Eve mindless and morally feeble, evidently hoping that men will be inspired to set a stern control on their susceptibilities.   But just because this Eve is without spiritual autonomy – can offer no valid “opposition” – she is exceedingly seductive (and is lushly described as such).  Between them, Milton’s Satan and Eve had a good deal to do with that Romantic rebellion against morality which continues to this day.  


With Faust, the Romantic rebellion breaks out in full force.  At the outset, the poem promises to take the reader “from Heaven through the world to Hell.”  Note the inverse direction.  And still less than Paradise Lost does Faust portray a coherent universe.  A scene in a student hangout, a seduction drama, the spectacles of the first and second Walpurgisnacht, Faust’s adventures as general, artist and civil-engineer-cum-dictator – all this does not add up to a comprehensive portrayal of human life.   The flames of Hell, briefly glimpsed, are taken about as seriously as in a comic strip; while Heaven (complete with a “old guy” Deity at whom the urbane and sophisticated devil thumbs his nose) is but the self-serving reflection of a middle world where the amoral have their way.  Unlike Dante’s journey, Faust’s is the opposite of instructive.  At the end the hero has destroyed the world and learned nothing, the angels confuse his ruthlessness with aspiration; and the author himself seems to have unlearned whatever awareness of right and wrong he may have had at the outset.   The final scene of Faust appears meant to contradict the scene at the summit of Purgatory where Beatrice insists on confronting Dante with his peccadilloes:  “A high law of G-d would be broken if Lethe were passed and such food tasted without some toll of remorse that sheds tears.”  Faust does not have to say he is sorry; enters heaven in the company of unborn children, consciousness and conscience are effaced.   The Israeli scholar Rivkah Schechter is, I believe, right in seeing Faust as the prelude to Auschwitz.  


After Faust, the rivals of Dante wrote not poems but novels, beginning with Balzac’s mega-opus, The Human Comedy, which, like Faust, portrays a world ruled by human passions alone, without any expectation of justice or much sense of it.  And with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the modern novel as such begins, in which the characters are mercilessly ground down by a “creator” who sees to it that no ray of wisdom or benevolence ever reaches the surface of their unhappy little world.  Needless to say, the creators of these worlds themselves learn nothing, and likewise disclaim all intention of teaching.  In the modern literary world Dante’s bitterest comment -- “Virtue is fled by all, like a snake” -- becomes sadly, literally true.  Perhaps this tradition’s supreme act of impudence is Joyce/Stephen’s self-“exile” from Dublin, which he talks himself into by portraying as dull and lifeless what was actually one of the more vibrant literary communities of Europe.  Joyce’s work is a descent into unintelligibility; his disciple Beckett is the ultimate poet of entropy , the scribe of a world in no spark of constructive energy remains.


It is time to bring in the phoenix.




After the Commedia had been completed and was circulating in Italy, it was attacked in a sonnet which is attributed, with some doubt, to one Cino da Pistoia.   This sonnet may be translated as follows:


Among the other defects of the book

which shows Dante as the master of all rhymes

are two so great, that it may be rightly esteemed

that because of them his soul may have a less beautiful place.

One is: that, reasoning with Sordello

and with many others of the learned sort,

he did not address a word to Onesto di Boncima,

who was near Arnaut Daniel.

The other is: according to what his song says,

he then passed into the beautiful divine chorus

where he saw his Beatrice.

And when he gazed into the bosom of Avraham

he did not recognize the single (unica) phoenix

who joined the Apennines with Zion. 


I won’t try to answer all the questions about this sonnet, such as: who in – Purgatory was Onesto di Boncima?!  (Arnaut Daniel, with whom Dante converses on the last terrace of Purgatory, was a Provençal poet.)  Obviously, as an attack on a literary masterpiece this is no more than a fleabite.  But the point for us is in the last two lines, which were already italicized in the book where I encountered this poem, Luigi Valli’s Il Linguaggio segreto di Dante e dei ‘Fedele d’Amore.’”


Valli’s thesis is that Dante’s earliest work, the Vita Nuova, records not an infatuation for a woman of flesh and blood, but the poet’s participation in a heretical mystical sect, the “Fedeli d’Amore.”  The sect was related to the Albigensian heresy that had been bloodily stamped out in Provence a few generations before.  In order to escape the attention of the Inquisition, the members of the sect disguised the accounts of their spiritual experiences as love poems.  Each poet gave a different name to his lady, and may have drawn a bit of inspiration from some flesh-and-blood attraction; but the poems of all the poets were ultimately meant for one and the same “object” (I believe the above sonnet uses the word “unica” in this sense).  That object is Divine Wisdom, the first creation of the Creator, as portrayed in the Gnostic and Neoplatonic tradition.  (See Prov. 7:22-9:12, also the source of much in Kabbala.)  The Fedeli d’Amore are referred to as a “phoenix” (not only in this sonnet, but in another quoted by Valli) because they were seeking to revive a way of thinking that had been suppressed by fire and sword. 


Valli cites extensively from the work of Dante’s contemporaries, deciphering a “mystical jargon” (gergo) in which a number of poets conversed.  Their poems were not intended only as artistic productions, though evidently they aimed at aesthetic perfection.  These poems were part of a conversation on various topics – including political ones – in the light of their common mystical vision. 


It is an unsettling way of looking at Dante; and it is perhaps not surprising that Valli is not quoted by Moevs and Freccero, who interpret Dante in the light of the mainstream theology of his time.  (I found Valli on a walk through the library stacks; the title on the book’s spine caught my eye.  But some generous soul has now posted the entire text of Il Linguaggio segreto di Dante e dei ‘Fedele d’Amore on the Internet!)  To what extent Valli is right or may exaggerate in finding this heterodox mysticism in the works of various writers, I am not competent to judge.  Valli’s conjectures would be consistent with the thesis of Leo Strauss, who in Persecution and the Art of Writing demonstrates that medieval thinkers developed elaborate techniques which allowed them to hint at unconventional ideas while maintaining a conventional façade, so as to communicate under the noses of the religious authorities.  But in any event, the existence of a conversation among a group of poets known as the Fedeli d’Amore is not in doubt; and Cino da Pistoia’s “phoenix” sonnet confirms that the group was not just a literary cénacle but had a religious purpose -- “joined the Apennines with Zion”.  “Apennines” is subversive: for the orthodox Catholic Rome is the link between the faithful and “Zion,” the true source of faith.  In contrast, the naming of this mountain chain that runs down the length of Italy evokes a community that, though unified by a single spiritual vision, is decentralized and nonhierarchical, taking refuge in the hills, so to speak, from the centers of power. 


It is evident that Dante acquired the status of “master of all rhymes” at the price of making his peace with Rome.  (Joyce held this against him.)  He might put prelates in hell, he might preach the separation of Church and state (a Catharist principle), he might exemplify the independence of individual conscience and judgment, he might refine the Christian messiah to a mathematical function while pushing the exaltation of his Wisdom figure to the borders of idolatry.  But he had to let himself be catechized by the Church doctors; and probably he could not have avoided shaking hands in Paradise with Folco, the troubadour-turned-bishop who spearheaded the massacre of the Albigensians.  Perhaps nothing less would have gotten the Commedia, with its troubadourish background, past the Inquisition.  But the reproach cannot be dismissed that this concession puts the poem back in hock to those same deterministic powers of history from which Dante wanted to liberate us.  If the aim of the Commedia was (as Moevs summarizes the letter to Can Grande) “the redemption of humanity by leading it to the direct experience of the Divine,” surely flattery of temporal powers undermines that aim.  One can thus understand that, in another sonnet from the Fedeli d’amore circle, Dante is accused of “fede poca.”


Of course, Dante’s reconciliation with the church cannot have been just a concession to force.  The Church was for Dante not only a set of doctrines enforced by corrupt officials.  It was also his native community (‘the fair sheepfold where I was a lamb”); it was a vast community of believers united by ritual; and it was also the preserver and matrix of a whole tradition of inquiry, of a science of spirituality which was as real to Dante as physical science is to us today.  True, this science was not just the property of the Church; it was the work of a transdenominational intellectual elite, awareness of which made Dante visibly uncomfortable with the Church’s exclusivism.  The court of his patron Can Grande was a cosmopolitan scene where he seems to have encountered, among others, that “Manoello the Jew” (the Hebrew poet Immanuel of Rome) with whom one of his former colleagues consigned him, in another sonnet against the Commedia, to the infernal realms.   But in the end, perhaps he needed the Church most of all as an “objective correlative.”  The structure of the Church, like that of an idealized, Virgilian Roman empire, parallels the armature of the tercets, the cantos, the canticas.  The poet of the Commedia could not afford to reject large-scale organization. 


But Cino’s sonnet reminds us that the coin of Dante’s greatness has two sides.


There is this incredible, truly miraculous work, which, in Moevs’ phrase, delivers “the shock of beauty” to the world and which has been one of its main sources of idealism and inspiration, and a unitary point of reference in an otherwise fragmented literary world. 


But on the other hand, there is the shift of focus from the conversation of poetry to the work in isolation, a focus that has become more ominous as the audience for poetry has contracted.  In reading Cino da Pistoia’s sonnet, it is easy to laugh at the minor poet consigning the soul of the major one to “a less beautiful place”.  But in tracing the line of “strong” poets from Milton through Beckett (and a similar analysis could be carried out for the lyric), the seemingly-inevitable degradation of poetic energy and progressive isolation of the poetic subject, we have seen that there is reason to take damnation seriously.   In his essay “The March of Literature” (The Ford Madox Ford Reader, ed.. Sondra Stang, p. 277), Ford Madox Ford makes a curious remark:  “But, as a general rule, when you have great literary figures, literature will be in abeyance, whereas where you have a very high level of literature a great figure will be absent.”  The inverse relation does not always hold true, of course.  Today we have no great literary figures, but it cannot be said that we have a very high level of literature.  We have only the cult of the isolate work.


Still another of the Fedeli d’amore wrote:


            Truly this book of Dante’s

            is a fine schism of poets

            which with elegant and attractive consonance

            draws others’ things into its net.


As Valli notes, as an accusation of plagiarism in the usual sense the fourth line would be unjust.  (And perhaps it was meant unjustly, too; one must always reckon with poetic jealousy.)  But it might not be unjust to say that the Commedia owes much to the poetic conversation which it obscures.


Obscures in a way, and yet evidences.  The Commedia is a work of conversation!  All along the road through Hell and Purgatory and up to the very Empyrean, almost everyone who is sighted has a word to say to the poet, and he has a word to say in reply.  It is out of these exchanges that the consciousness of the poet and the reader builds itself. The poet-and-reader enters into other minds, and this entering into other minds is what prepares the expansion of his consciousness to receive the Divine fullness. The sort of exaltation which I for one can sometimes feel as a reader of this poem is familiar to me from only one other context – that of the exchange with other living poets.  A saying by Goethe comes to mind: “What is more splendid than gold?  Light.  And what is more refreshing than light?  Conversation.” 


In 1998, I posted the following to an online poetry workshop:



                                    (take it from one who knows)


                        There is no love

                        like that of words

                        for one another.


                        Woe to the poets,

                        they're caught in the middle.

                        The words never really mean them.

                        They have to accept that.


                        To stand still

                        and allow the words to pass



I think that the feeling I was trying to express here has something to do with the exaltation of Dante’s saints in Paradise, whose love for one another is based on a common act of yielding the limited perspective of the self to the Divine fulness.  It is again the act of self-abolition, the exodic moment.  (And from Christian Moevs’ exposition it appears to me that Dante makes the crucifixion, too, into a symbol of that moment.)   And this experience is undergirded in each person by the sense of others also taking this “step.”  (Here I am reverting to the terminology of Celan’s “Meridian” speech.). 


I do not mean for a moment to ignore the truth of a remark someone once quoted in the name of Zola: “Dante, not having lived among writers, had an insufficient knowledge of Hell.”  On this, anyone with experience of the current literary world can feelingly enlarge.  Really to allow another’s spirit expression is a skill not taught in workshops or in schools for editors (no one ever talks of setting guidelines for them); on the contrary.  And there is all that history of “anxiety of influence” and “invent[ion] of difference,” in Jackson’s phrase.


But all these things are marks of a flaw in something potentially whole: in a potential co-creation, or shared revelation.  This, I believe, is one possible meaning of the Rose, in which, at the end of the poem, Dante shows us the union of many consciousnesses.  The Rose (a symbol, derived from the Song of Songs, beloved by the Cathars and the Fedeli d’amore, and found also in Celan’s poetry) appears at the end the Commedia as the joining of numerous consciousnesses to receive the light of the Infinite. 


However, from Dante’s conclusion, only a poet would venture to guess that this enlightenment had anything to do with the poetic conversation!  The Rose is not peopled with poets but with the saints of the Church (and the patriarchs and matriarchs and prophets as the Church has kindly adopted them).  The contemporary poets are are still in Purgatory. 


Leaving aside the question which of those poets would have qualified for sainthood, this could not, given Dante’s reconciliation with the Church, have been otherwise.  But the consequence was that although Dante hoped to call down the Divine light to repair the world, he could offer to that light only the vessels of a corrupt hierarchy.  He hoped, it appears, that his work would inspire a great political leader  who would restore the Roman empire (or, again, what he imagined that entity to have been) and put the corrupt Church leaders in their place.  But in the absence of such fulfilment, what is attained at the end is allegedly a personal “salvation,” and certainly an artistic masterpiece.  In his conclusion, Valli notes that in succeeding centuries the political, intellectual and artistic strivings that united for a moment in the Commedia found diverse channels: movements of Church reform, philosophical traditions that became increasing secularized, and “art for art’s sake.”


In this sense, the wholeness and reliability of the cosmos in which Dante seeks to orient the reader is flawed and deceptive.  Perhaps any appearance of perfection in this world must be unreliable.  And yet the vision of a perfected world remains.




Over the years I have tried to address the question:  how, in the light of this history, could what we take to have been the essential Dantean enterprise be renewed?  That is, how could contemporary poets a) create a sense of a cosmic wholeness and b) point out an orientation and a path within it? 


We certainly cannot offer readers the comforting image of nested planetary spheres “surrounded” by an Empyrean.  (Though Christian Moevs helps us to see the Empyrean as outside space, as the Divine Intelligence through which all things exist.)  Nor can we restore the state in which people commonly told time by the positions of the sun and the stars.  Nor can the world of nature, largely replaced now by a world of artificial devices whose names and shapes are constantly changing, offer much of an “objective correlative” to any inner certainty we might find.  (I have not even tried to do justice to the “nature poetry” which the Commedia incorporates,  or rather does not yet separate out as “nature poetry” from the vision of the human and the Divine.)  We live, as Celan said in one of his speeches, “under stars of human manufacture.”


One thing that we do have is – literary history. 


By retracing the path from the genesis of the Commedia down to the present, we have at least a coherent genealogy of our current situation.  Through that history the essential works of the past are knitted to a larger work, within which every past author has his or her individuality, and every present poet can find his or her affinities.  The influence-history of the Commedia furnishes us with a key to “that great poem, which all poets, like the co-operating thoughts of one great mind, have built up since the beginning of the world,” again in Shelley’s phrase.


And through that history, we can also begin to see where things went “wrong,” and how they might be rectified.  We saw that the beginning of dissolution was inherent, paradoxically, in the formation of the masterwork and its detachment from the poetic conversation, and then in the forgetting of the poetic conversation and the attempts of poets to repeat the feat of the master-poet, at the price of mutual understanding.  This flaw, any one of us could begin to remedy, by becoming a listener for other poets, and by urging the formation of a poetic circle dedicated to the visionary exchange.  In various works, for instance in the essay entitled “Shelley’s Defense Today,” I have tried to suggest how an order of such circles might look.


Second, we have the vision of the Divine image, the vision of human wholeness in which the valid order of human existence is implied.  We have the task of affirming that order, or constantly refreshing the vision of it, in the face of materialism.   Again we cannot do this unless we recognize the Divine Image in one another, cultivate an appreciation of one another’s gifts and eternal essence.  


This would require a certain collective spiritual discipline.  As that little poem of mine, “Dichterliebe,” suggests, the poetic exchange is charged with a special energy.  This energy, I have found,  can easily become explosive unless contained by a steadfast resolution.  I have often been reminded of the Kabbalistic legend of the “breaking of the vessels” and the scattering of the light.  Many of the sayings in the Talmudic tractate Avot (often translated “Ethics of the Fathers,” but it could also be translated simply “Principles”) seem to me possibly helpful in build “vessels” that could contain the energy of the poetic exchange without breaking.  


Third – and of course I mean first – we have the Source of all our inspiration and of all energy for renewal, toward which we strive through the “exodic” act of poiesis.  We have, if we wish to accept it, the aid of Providence.  (Of this I have tried to speak in Soul’s Evidence.)


And finally, we have the task, not of producing “art” only, but of furthering the tikkun ‘olam, the repair of the world.  If the renewal of poetry must go hand in hand with the reaffirmation of the spirit in the face of materialist science, this would surely mean a reformation of many intellectual disciplines, such as law, sociology and economics.  There is also the task of creating channels of communication that can enlighten rather than manipulating.   All these are enterprises with which poetry should be associated, as an affirmation of human integrity.


Perhaps at some point the enterprise so adumbrated would also succeed in putting the natural sciences back into perspective.  If the universe is the projection of a Divine intellect not situated in time and space, then we need not be overawed by the dimensions of time and space.  We can return the human being to the center of the universe, not on the basis of an astrophysical fiction, but simply because in the world of time and space we are the only ones to and for whom the universe is there, the only ones to whom it matters.    Part of the refutation of materialism (or reductionism) would consist in the redevelopment of a science, or a humanism if you will,  rooted in the acknowledgment rather than the denial of the Divine image.  Such development redress the current imbalance of an immense elaboration of material science on the one side, and a chaos of simplistic concepts on the other.


It cannot be denied that we shall continue to miss the concentric world of Dante – even if he did not mean his cosmic orrery to be taken literally, even though he turns his spatial metaphor inside out in Par. XXVIII.  But there are things we can do to replace it.  The actual image of the earth as seen from space can become an aid to meditation on the wholeness of the Creation.  And it is partly out of a sense of this need that I keep on coming back to the organizational plan I have proposed many times, the plan based on the proposal which Jethro makes to Moses in Exodus 18: the formation of groups of ten, each of which will delegate one member to meet with the representatives of nine other groups, and so on, up to a council of central coordinators.  It is not only that this is the only plan I know that promises to establish reliable channels of communication.  It is also because the exchange of poets, like the poem itself, requires a form, one that can unite and inspire us and deliver the “shock of beauty” to the world at large.




I cannot close this essay without speaking of something that may seem to be a different topic, but for me is not.  It concerns the future of the Dantean legacy.  I pray you, lend me your attention for a little longer.


Throughout this essay I have been accompanied by a consciousness that the great poet and I glare at each other from the firmaments of two religions that have generally been at loggerheads.  The sonneteer who celebrated the linking, through the phoenix, of “the Appennines with Zion,” was not anticipating Zionism.  Nor, despite Immanuel of Rome, did Dante anticipate it.


Dante’s vision did not tell him that after some seven centuries his last poetic descendant would be a Jewish Holocaust survivor who would, in turn, “tag” a Gentile woman who happened to bear the name of Dante’s muse, and who would be drawn towards Judaism, without being able entirely to detach herself from the Western literary tradition.  As related in Soul’s Evidence, this encounter was accompanied by a barrage of “coincidences” that would have gotten my attention had I been a boulder.  That much the energy of the Commedia could still, after all those centuries, achieve.


Of course, it is a small thing, on the scale of world events.  But among the fundamentals of Judaism – and perhaps of Christianity too – is perception of the importance of small crises.  The collective exodus from Egypt was preceded and prefigured by the departure of Abraham from his native city.  When you read Psalms you often don’t know whether the Psalmist is talking about the individual or the national predicament.  In Psalm 118, which is sung at the Passover seder, there is a line (“from constriction I called to the Lord, and the Lord answered me with enlargement”) which I hear echoed in Celan’s directions to the poet (“go with Art into your ownmost constriction, and set yourself free”).   It’s just when hardest beset by the constrictions of its limited existence (the Hebrew word “meitsar” means both “constriction” and “Egypt”) that the human spirit is sometimes able to call on something Outside, and receive an answer.  The answer – the “enlargement” – can come, it seems, in any of several ways.  It can manifest itself as the crystallization of a poem.  But sometimes the answer is one of those coincidences which remind us that the world is something more than “particle-flurries,” as Celan put it.  And sometimes it is an access of strength, or a fortunate turn of external events that makes survival possible. 


The remarkable thing about the Jewish people is that they are the one nation whose existence is based on this kind of “exodic” act, and constitutes an agelong prayer for the prevalence in this world of some order besides the law of the jungle.  At the moment of writing this struggle is very much focused on Zion, the literal Zion of the Judaean hills, which, unlike the funnel of the Inferno or the mount of Purgatory, exists, as the capital of a country which is small in relation to the huge populations that are concerned about it, and yet the key to their destinies too.  Unless Jerusalem can be held, the consequences for the Western world don’t bear thinking about.  So much, then, for the legacy of Dante, Shakespeare, Shelley, Celan and our humble selves.  And Rembrandt, and Mozart, and the Tao, and whatever else may have caused you to think the human enterprise worthwhile.


I must admit that for many years I had trouble with the concept of a Holy Land and of a Chosen People.  Despite all the experiences I have had, it was not easy for me to become a person of faith; I remained a geologist’s daughter.   It was during the Gaza withdrawal that it came to me that since the future of the world is wrapped up in the land of Israel, that land is necessarily holy!  I felt as though I was looking at time in a different way, where everything in the past appeared as shadows cast backward from this crisis, which is present, as the exodic moment is always present.


What does this have to do with Dante, apart from the fact that, as said, it is a question of the survival of his work?  It has to do, I think, with symbolic systems.  With the recognition of the sacred, of what must be held onto.  Hopefully everyone reading this can think of such things in his or her life.  Every life, every faith is an arrangement of such things.  But the present crisis makes the arrangement of which Jerusalem is the center into the central arrangement, the one which all the others need to accommodate if we are to make it through this.  For the function of the things we recognize as sacred is to focus our spiritual energies, and to precipitate, when we see them threatened, a crisis in which we can call on a strength beyond us.


I always worry, when the conversation reaches this point, that I may be seen as trying to proselytize – something Jews are not supposed to do.  Judaism doesn't aim to make others Jewish.  But it does pray that they will recognize the centrality of Israel and abide by the seven “Noachide laws,” the universal moral code which the midrash sees as embedded in Genesis 9.  Some knowledge of the Noachide laws inspired the Enlightenment, the founding of the United States, even the United Nations before that organization was hijacked.   And it seems to me that an intuitive understanding of the Noachide Laws is part of the Western poetic consciousness, including Dante’s; it is related to that discomfort with the Church’s exclusivism that surfaces at various points in the Commedia.


In the foregoing pages I have tried to suggest the formation of an association of poets dedicated to affirming life and upholding the moral-and-aesthetic order against the various kind of death-cults that rage in the world today.  I believe it would be helpful if this order could be identified, in in the minds of poets at least, with the Noachide laws.  It would enable coordination with those who are struggling for Zion (for all of us) on so many levels.  It would focus our thoughts and our prayers. 


I am dreaming this alone, here.   But as I come to the end of this exposition I have a glimpse in my mind’s eye of the formidable Florentine, sitting in some council chamber in the sky, along with Mandelstam, and of course Celan and Shelley must be there too.  I imagine that they have been following this on their screens, and that now, with lips pressed perhaps somewhat grimly together, they nod their heads.


What whore that must paint, and must put on false locks,
And counterfeit joy in the pangs of the pox?
What beggar’s wife’s nephew, now starved, and now beaten,
Who, wanting to eat, fears himself shall be eaten?
What porter, what turnspit, can deem his case hard?
Or what Dun boast of patience that thinks of a bard?
-- William Shenstone, “The Poet and the Dun”

Neither to laugh nor to weep, but to understand
-- Baruch Spinoza

Like most poets, or so I imagine, I spend a good deal of time thinking about what it means to be a poet. For surely the condition of homo poeticus must provoke introspection. From an objective standpoint, poetry (to paraphrase Heine’s remark about Judaism) seems to be more of an affliction than a vocation. Someone has defined a vocation as the convergence of one’s own deepest desire with the world’s deepest need; but at present the world does not acknowledge the need. Could our sense of vocation, then, be pure self-deception?

     A few decades ago it was in fact common to treat the compulsion to write poetry as a neurosis, an effect of repression or otherwise faulty upbringing. In reaction to this position I asserted for many years that on the contrary, the desire to write poetry is not the effect of repression of other desires but a primary and healthy desire, and if society rejects poetry then society is neurotic. But whatever be the absolute Platonic standard of sanity, in this world it remains true that “‘Tis the majority In this, as all, prevail -- Assent -- and you are sane -- Demur -- you’re straightway dangerous -- And handled with a Chain.”

     Besides, I now think that most of us poets really are neurotic. It is not that poetry itself is a neurotic sympton, rather that neurosis can be induced in poets, as in dogs, by repeatedly inflicted trauma. Consider the following description by Leonard Borenstein, in his “Simple Proposal to the Formalist Community,” of a poetry reading in the great city of New York:

where a poet, whose name you'd all recognize, standing up to introduce the speaker, looked out on the audience of about 25 and said how wonderful it was to see so many people come out on a Saturday afternoon when everyone present surely could have done so many other things--and didn't it prove the power of poetry etc. etc.? And I thought to myself: is he mad?

     I think most poets prefer not to acknowledge, most of the time, just how bad the situation is. When things appear quite hopeless, to pretend they are otherwise is a survival strategy. An insistence on facing the worst is only justified on the assumption that every problem has a potential solution -- an assumption which, due to science’s recent success in solving a certain kind of problem, has today a somewhat better reputation than it perhaps deserves. I happen to come from a scientific family... But it is not just the hope of finding solutions that motivates the scientist. It is a feeling that things as they are are interesting.

     My own take on this at present is thoroughly Marxist and sociobiological. We poets may well represent the first group of downsized employes. About four thousand years ago, when humans learned to record information in marks on external surfaces, we all lost our jobs.

     Now it is known that job loss is a devastating trauma. I once suffered through three years of law school, including a course on labor law. We studied one case where judgment was given against a company for unfairly discharging several employees. I noticed that about half the successful plaintiffs were deceased at the time judgment was given. The professor said yes, that happens a lot. Loss of a job is a terrific blow, and many workers die of it.

     Moreover, for poets it is not a question of losing a job for which one was trained and in which one has acquired experience, investing the most productive years of one’s life. The job of poet is one for which, I am now convinced, we were formed in the womb, in the zygote. The poet, as a human subtype, is a product of evolution. In evolution nothing comes into being that is useless at the time. And poets were at one time very useful.

     The salient feature of the human species, after all, is that its behavior is governed not only by instinct, but by culture transmitted from individual to individual, from generation to generation, from group to group, through the use of verbal language. Among other things this verbally transmitted culture made possible the development of complex tools, but this was a relatively late development, a road not taken by all human groups. The most complex thing about most primitive cultures is and was the system of verbal transmission, the stock of myths, genealogies, laws, incantations, proverbs, all of which had to be remembered. In order to be remembered, the lore of the tribe had to be couched in well-formed formulas, internally coherent and appealing to the senses. That is, there had to be poetry.

     I suspect that the ability to make poetry is more widely distributed than most people imagine. If the climate again became favorable, poetry would spring up everywhere, like the rainforest on the savanna at Gaviotas. There have been whole societies where everybody wrote poetry on some occasion or other. Japanese and Chinese courtiers and courtesans. Native American warriors who felt obliged to meet death with a self-composed “death song.” There must always have been a certain amount of “occasional poetry” written by nonprofessionals at crises or turning-points. Today poets tend to look down on “amateur” poetry. But in the past some poems by amateurs, like the words to “Amazing Grace” or Chidiock Tichbourne’s “Elegy,” have entered the tradition and secured themselves a special place, no doubt because of the intensity of human feeling that brought forth these utterances from ordinarily “unpoetic” souls. I myself have collected two poems by amateurs which I consider quite exquisite. Poetry may be a response available to the human organism generally at moments when it needs to reassert its identity and continuity.

     But besides this widespread poetic ability which makes poetry the most democratic of arts, it must have been advantageous for each group to contain a few individuals who were genetically programmed to go about turning words over in their minds and fashioning them into things. Hence us. The prototypical poet may well not be good for much else besides this activity. It takes so much concentration and energy. It means placing oneself, deliberately, at the crisis-point where one’s existence is called into question, because that seems, for us as for the amateur, to be the point at which poems take shape. At the most intense moments of composition I have sometimes thought to myself, “Drowning must feel like this.” Who would do this voluntarily and on a regular basis if they were not obsessed? By doing most of the work of formulation for oral transmission, the poet freed the rest of the tribe for the concrete tasks of hunting, warfare, food-gathering, child-care, the manufacture of clothing and shelter and utensils. Nowadays it seems we spend half our time being yelled at for not thinking about things which our fellow-humans consider useful, instead of our now-useless poetry. The fortunate among us are those who have other talents and skills, and we are always encouraging one other to develop them -- to become successful computer analysts, for instance, in preference to deepening our knowledge of prosody. No doubt experience in other fields can feed poetry, and a poet must try to know as much about the world as possible. But sometimes it does come to a choice between immersing oneself in some other discipline to the extent demanded today for success in it, and continuing to function as a poet.

     So here we are with this inborn skill and this inborn compulsion to exercise it, this inborn belief that it is of vital importance, that by exercising it we are holding the world together. A belief which, like many forms of faith, is strong enough to persist in the teeth of a total absence of external confirmation. Like the fly against the windowpane we seem programmed to bash ourselves against newly-invented realities, again and again, till we are found on the sill, black and dry, with our little legs turned up.

     But it seems to me that even the uselessness of our calling in the age of externally recorded information -- and still more in the age of commercially manufactured entertainment -- does not entirely account for our wretched condition. After all, in advanced societies the skills of physical combat, so glorious in the days of Homer, are now equally superfluous. But the warriors have not simply faded away; instead, they seem to have become athletes, and as such their stylized performances are exceedingly, even increasingly popular and profitable.

      Am I being unimaginative, looking for the continuation of the ancient bardic role in the wrong places? I still have this image of the Druids in mind, wise wights of both genders sitting around in council and passing the harp. Or lying down in darkened rooms with heavy stones on their stomachs (now how did the stone help? must try that sometime), repeating and composing. It is not as if verbal skills were not being practiced today; look at all the people who do the daily crossword puzzle. All right, there is no money in crossword puzzles, but what about advertising and the legal profession? There the invention and manipulation of verbal formulas does pay (though the verbal component of advertising is of diminishing importance, as the industry prefers more and more to manipulate images directly). Perhaps Shelley just had it backwards: not that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but that lawyers are the real poets of the age. In law school I met a number of other poets. And if you object that advertisers and lawyers sell their souls, hey, there’s nothing new in that. What did a large portion of the repertory of many oral bards consist of? Praise songs, right?

      But the praise song is only one outcome of the struggle between poetry and authority which probably was ongoing since the rhythmic gruntings of the hominid first modulated into measured speech. Western literature begins, in the Iliad, with a clash between the ruler and the diviner (one of the functions of a bard). To remember and to fit words together is, inevitably, also to judge, and judgmental types are not popular with rulers (nor with the submissive). As soon as an alternative way of keeping track of things became available, the ruler types and their intellectual henchmen dispensed with the poets and, at the same time, with the language of poetry, in which things have to fit together. That is the crucial difference between the bard of the praise songs and the advertiser or lawyer; the latter is not only employing his or her skills to say the thing which is not, but is working in a language created specifically for that purpose and thus devoid of beauty. The poet’s gorge rises at it. We who still call ourselves poets, whatever our sins, represent some last bastion of human integrity and freedom.

     But there is the matter of what we do to each other. Zola is supposed to have said that Dante, not having lived among writers, did not know enough about hell.

     Actually, Zola’s statement is not quite true. In his youth Dante did belong to a writers’ group called the Fedeli d’amore, and it appears that the poems of the Vita Nova represent his contributions to the group. Eventually the group broke up despite Dante’s efforts to hold it together, possibly because of the defection of its original leader, Guido Cavalcanti, who professed disaffection with the group’s mystical doctrine (was there, perhaps, also an element of pique at being outshone by the younger poet he had invited to join)? Dante’s disappointment with Cavalcanti is reflected in the Inferno, where he meets Cavalcanti’s father and refers to Guido’s “disdain”; Guido was still living at the purported moment of Dante’s vision, but was soon to die of a fever contracted in an exile to which the governing body of Florence, of which Dante was a member, had condemned him. Hm. Material for a tragedy perhaps.

     But whatever happened at the end between Cavalcanti and Alighieri, I for one suspect that the short happy life of the Fedeli d’amore was the source of whatever knowledge Dante may have had of Paradise. Most of us I hope have some memory of a period when we knew other poets and exchanged poems with them just for the sheer fun of it, like jazzmen reacting off each other, intertwining their solos in a collective work that was unrepeatable (at least until the musicologists showed up with their tape recorders). Everyone knew that this interchange, and not any of the solos comprising it, was the aim of all, the summit of human happiness.

     I hope most of us can remember something like that. I suspect, however, that few such memories are acquired in creative writing classes or workshops. To be fair, I can remember one or two experiences where the workshop was led by a cultivated, civilized, broadly educated person, open to a variety of perspectives, careful to acknowledge and appreciate before criticizing, capable of enjoying what someone else was doing and free from the belief that he was called on to correct the errors of instinct and enforce the dictates of fashion. On the other hand I’ve known some creative writing teachers who had many soul-murders on their consciences. And where the group is leaderless -- but on this subject let my one exercise in gothic horror speak for me:


The soul is naked among enemies,
  And nowhere does it take more grievous wounds
    Than where "well-meaning" poets hack away
      At one another's poems. Merciless

As angels of the IRS, they pounce
  On any word that each rules not OK,
    Seldom standing still to gaze and guess
      At the moving shape on the poem's horizon

Or hear the word the poem cannot quite say.
  The poet, on his knees, starts to confess
     His errors as they're fingered one by one.
      Soon from his comrades' hands he takes the knife,

Cuts the poem's tie to his own breath
  And does the rest of what the pack wants done.
    Its maker's eyes lit with thirst for its life-
      Blood are the last thing the poem sees.

The corpses clog the litmags by the ton.

     Of course, self-hatred and mutual hostility are problems for all disadvantaged or disparaged groups. A social phobia against any group is inevitably reflected in the attitudes of the group itself. And in our society there is such a thing as POETOPHOBIA. As the saying goes, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”

     Have you ever read Baudelaire’s “The Benediction?” It’s one of his longer poems, placed near the beginning of The Flowers of Evil, and it talks about what poets can expect from their fellow-humans. On first reading it, in high school, I was offended by the misogyny which distracts from the poem’s main point, and thought the main point was exaggerated. And yet I had already encountered poetophobia in its pure form. When I was nine my brother picked out a record at the supermarket that related the deprogramming of one Daffy Duck, who confessed as follows:

Some children like to play or sit on Daddy’s knee,
But all I want to do is write some poh-wuh-try.

Needless to say, though I forget just how, the misguided anatid was eventually cured of writing poh-wuh-try. I got my mother to throw the record out; perhaps I should have had it put away as documentation. As a poet one gets the shaft in so many subtle ways, and one cannot document the way an interviewer’s eyes glaze over if one once lets slip that one has this proclivity. But the one couplet hints, to the extent possible in a record made for children, at that indescribable quality of vulgarity that one finds in Nazi jingles about Jews, in those awful anti-Semitic lapses of Eliot and Cummings, in racist and homophobic jokes as well as in the misogynist humor everyone is so used to. The grimace of the hominid that does not want to become human. And that seems today, strangely enough, to have enlisted so much advanced technology on its side.

     I see a lot of today’s poetic shibboleths as ways in which we execute the decrees of Poetophobia on one another. No rhyme, no meter, no archaism, no poetic language or “noble” tone, no love poems, no nature poems, no didactic poems, no religious poems -- “What (Verbatim) Poetry Editors Don’t Want”, as Clifford E. Landers titled a poem in The Minnesota Review, makes forbidding and depressing reading. Best to stick to poems about cleaning the refrigerator, and try to sound like you are talking to the person on the next stool at a bar. And these editors are (mostly) poets, right? They’re us.

     Yes, they’re us. And we’re them. But an editor is not necessarily a poet at the moment of making editorial choices. Nor is the editor necessarily a reader, hardly ever the poet’s Implied Reader (relaxed, receptive, willing to be pleased). The editor is someone under pressure to eliminate, someone with the power of life and death over another’s word -- and everyone knows what the possession of even the teeniest bit of power will do to almost anyone. (Especially when the exercise of power necessarily involves an act of cruelty, like killing animals at a meat packing plant -- or rejecting poems. It has been repeatedly shown that a person compelled to perform cruel acts becomes either desensitized or sadistic.) At the same time, the editor is aware of hypothetical readers, persons whose faces are hidden from the editor as the editor’s face is hidden from the poet, and who represent a society in which, as noted, Poetophobia is rampant. In this situation, anxiety is bound to arise. If I make a wrong choice -- if for instance I choose something that is (gasp) sentimental -- will they make fun of me? Better play it safe. The editor does not have the poet’s motives for risk-taking (the poem’s insistence on itself, the maker’s identification with the product). Of course, when poets start to write for editors (as they are trained to do in most “creative” writing courses), the poetophobia of the surrounding society is reflected into the creative process itself. The result is much poetry that virtually no one reads -- it is unreadable -- it is only good for the accumulation of publication credits. And then once a year there is that thirty-day memorial service known as Poetry Month.

     I hope it’s clear that I don’t mean this personally. It’s the mechanics of the thing, it’s the way the system works. The framers of the U.S. Constitution understood that a just society can’t depend entirely on pure good intentions; they understood that justice is also mechanical. Hence all those checks and balances. It is no particular person’s fault that the system of publication which over the last couple of hundred years has evolved in the process of taking over from the vanishing community, is a kind of machine for the suppression of poetry.

     They talk a lot about abuse these days. Including psychological abuse. Well, what is it but abuse when we are told that when we have labored to give our deepest thoughts and feelings a beautiful and dignified form, the only thing to do with this object is to submit it (that word!), again and again and yet again and again and again, to editors who nine times out of ten, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, will, indeed must, send it back with a more or less polite printed note? (“We receive 3,000 submissions a year, accept 35-50.”) One doesn’t, these days, read books advising battered wives to go back for more. In psychology textbooks the effects of rejection on the rejectee (also on the rejector) are described. I have never heard it suggested that repeated rejection caused a person to become more open to the beauty of the world, wiser, more generous, or more creative. There is no reason to think that these effects are different when the principals are poets; no reason to think that the steady pummeling of rejection does anything different to the poet (and his or her poetry) from what it does to anyone else. Yet we are adjured, by teachers, colleagues, and a legion of more or less legal con persons who stand to make money off our hopeless obsession: “Never give up!”

     What’s to be done? Can anything be done? I revert to my initial observation that poetry in the present-day world is not a vocation but an affliction. We who are afflicted with the compulsion to write poh-wuh-try should face the fact that with respect to advanced technological society this compulsion is a disability. It may also be considered as an orientation, a love for what one is not supposed to love (in this case, human language).

     Once having admitted this, we might perhaps stop trampling each other for the ridiculous prizes which a poetophobic society keeps dangling in front of our noses. We might then think of organizing the way other disabled and minority groups do: to affirm what we are, to support one another in our struggles with society, and to petition society for respect and accommodation.

     This, then, is my modest proposal: that we think of ourselves not as more or less talented, but as “differently abled” and differently oriented. This of course sacrifices our pride, the delusion we all cherish that my poems will be the ones to survive the debacle of this era, that my name will join the roll of poets’ names that are remembered (how many hundreds for the many millions who have lived, breathed and sung since Word One). But it frees us to become a group of people who need each other, for whom numbers are an advantage rather than a disadvantage.

     Let me mention just a few of the things that we could do, in order to pursue the three aims enumerated above: affirmation of what we are, support of one another in our struggles with society, and petitioning society for respect and accommodation.

     Affirmation of what we are means first of all meeting as often as possible to hear one another, not to criticize but to enjoy and understand. (In my experience criticism is more often harmful than helpful; under present circumstances, we could use at least a rest from it.) It could also mean an effort to better understand this peculiar tendency that we share. Are there other traits with which it tends to be associated? Could an objective test for it be devised? What special needs does the compulsion to write poetry create? There is a lot of folk wisdom on these questions, and objective research would probably substantiate at least some of it. Such objective knowledge would help to give us a solider existence in this very objective-minded society, and could serve as a basis for requests for accommodations. At the least, an objective test for poetic ability would help us to identify, from an early age, those who share our peculiarity. We could then encourage them to identify with us, to “come out” as poets, rather than putting them through a decades-long ordeal of rejection before the survivors are finally admitted to the ranks.

      Once having developed, in short, some solidarity, we could put it to other groups with an interest in one aspect or other of justice, conservation or spirituality, that they need us as advocates, as proponents of a broad vision of justice. (The name “Eurydice” means “wide justice,” did you know that?)

     Further, in the interests of our own self-defense, we could try to develop methods of breaking the spell of a “popular” “culture” devised for the corruption and exploitation of the people. There are quite a few people now who feel some concern about what this culture is doing to the human being. We poets should be saying loudly, clearly and unanimously to these people that they need us. To get this across we would have to drop some of the snobbish attitudes by which poets have compensated themselves for their powerlessness. No more making ourselves feel superior by sneering at Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.” (We haven’t made a tree yet, have we?) We need to stop putting down what is well meant if perhaps inept -- save our putdowns for what is not well meant.

     I think we could also start setting down and sorting out our feelings and perceptions about the law. Indeed, it is hard to see the limit to the possibilities if we could just once more rehabilitate poetry as a language of discourse, a language in which it is possible to say things.

     I’m not suggesting that we should take to organizing instead of writing poems. A lot of the work of organization would consist in writing poems to people. Both the fun-work and the grunt-work could be done in the time presently wasted on the Sisyphean slavery of “submission.” Just think of the stupendous waste of time, of paper, of toner, of postage. Think of the concentration that goes into the composition of cover letters. If every poet in the United States were to STOP ALL THAT RIGHT NOW and resolve to write only to those to whom they have something specific to say, and from whom they can reasonably expect a sensible answer, there’d be explosion of creative energy like nothing ever before.

To any editor who may be reading this: with some imagination, the transformation I’m suggesting need not put anyone out of work. Editors could in fact encourage and facilitate the transformation by attaching themselves to the local Poets’ Union, taking part in its exchanges and eventually printing the poems they had found most meaningful in the context of these exchanges. I don’t believe editors would lose by limiting their contributors’ pool to local poets and their correspondents (who could be world-wide). If the excellence of a literary corpus were proportional to the volume from which it is selected, then the back volumes of any one of our leading literary magazines should contain vaster treasures of poetry than those bequeathed to us by the Athenians or the Elizabethans. But such is not the case. It seems that most significant poetry has been produced by relatively small groups of people amongst whom, for some reason or other, something significant was happening. Furthermore, it is more than dubious whether being overwhelmed with material to choose from really facilitates the identification of what is worthwhile. “The better is the enemy of the good.” The poems that stand out in a field of 2000 may not be good for anything except for catching the eye. Like the billboards along an eight-lane highway. And finally, what with rising printing and mailing costs and dwindling readerships and funding sources, many editors today are in the market for alternatives.

     Right beside this window at which we keep hurling ourselves, there is an open door. Will we see it in time?

First Published in Mind Matters Review