Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

“So under the spell of the reefer I discovered a new analytical way of listening to music. The unheard sounds came through, and each melodic line existed of itself, stood out clearly from all the rest, said its piece, and waited patiently for the other voices to speak. That night I found myself hearing not only in time, but in space as well. I not only entered the music but descended, like Dante, into its depths. And beneath the swiftness of the hot tempo there was a slower tempo and a cave and I entered it and looked around and heard an old woman singing a spiritual as full of Weltschmerz as flamenco, and beneath that lay a still lower level on which I saw a beautiful girl the color of ivory pleading in a voice like my mother’s as she stood before a group of slaveowners who bid for her naked body, and below that I found a lower level and a more rapid tempo and I heard someone shout:

“‘Brothers and sisters, my text this morning is the “Blackness of Blackness.” ’”   –Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

This extract is available to read at Penguin Books.

Edward Smyth Jones, “Harvard Square” (1910)

“I would like to submit one last example of a writer of color who turns to Dante in a moment of personal crisis. Consider the case of Edward Smythe Jones, who ‘in his over-mastering desire to drink at the Harvard fountain of learning tramped out of the Southland up to Cambridge. Arriving travel-worn, friendless, moneyless, hungry, he was preparing to bivouac on the Harvard campus his first night in the University city, when, being misunderstood, and not believed, he was apprehended as a vagabond and thrown into jail. A poem, however, the poem which tells this story, delivered him. The judge was convinced by it… and set him free to return to the academic shades’ (Kerlin 163-64). The poem called ‘Harvard Square’ ends on this note: ‘Cell No. 40, East Cambridge Jail, Cambridge, Massachusetts, July 26, 1910.’ But the familiar scenario of a black man harassed by the police and thrown in jail for no discernible reason is transformed into a magical encounter with the muse. The divine goddess of inspiration comes to the poet’s aid with a brief lesson in literary history in which she compares his fate to Dante’s — ‘I placed great Dante in exile’ — suggesting that she has now done the same to Jones. Dante’s actual banishment from Florence sheds light on the figurative exile of Jones: the Negro in the white man’s world; the southerner in the North; the backwoodsman in the ‘University city’; the autodidact amidst the hypereducated; and the would-be Dante at the very center of Dante’s American home.”   — Dennis Looney, Freedom Readers: The African-American Reception of Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2011), pp. 201-202

An excerpt of the poem “Harvard Square” is printed below. You can access the full poem, in Jones’s collection The Sylvan Cabin, on Project Gutenberg, as well as the volume by Kerlin cited above.

“Weep not, my son, thy way is hard,
Thy weary journey long—
But thus I choose my favorite bard
To sing my sweetest song.
I’ll strike the key-note of my art
And guide with tend’rest care,
And breathe a song into thy heart
To honor Harvard Square.

“I called old Homer long ago,
And made him beg his bread
Through seven cities, ye all know,
His body fought for, dead.
Spurn not oppression’s blighting sting,
Nor scorn thy lowly fare;
By them I’ll teach thy soul to sing
The songs of Harvard Square.

“I placed great Dante in exile,
And Byron had his turns;
Then Keats and Shelley smote the while,
And my immortal Burns!
But thee I’ll build a sacred shrine,
A store of all my ware;
By them I’ll teach thy soul to sing
A place in Harvard Square.”   — Edward Smyth Jones, “Harvard Square” (1910)

Dante Micheaux wins 2019 Four Quartets Poetry Prize for Circus

“Congratulations to Dante Micheaux who has been awarded the prestigious Four Quartets Poetry Prize for his 2018 collection, Circus.

[. . .]

“Circus was selected as the winner by judges Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Carmen Giménez Smith, and Rosanna Warren, whose citation reads: ‘How right that this poet’s first name should be Dante. For his Circus is a Comedy: a savage comedy, lacerating dialects, fingering wounds, looking for loves right and wrong in the crevices of history and of humiliated bodes. And yet, and yet. His language exults, triumphs, and freely rummages in the treasuries of the Bible, Baudelaire, Whitman, Eliot, Baraka, and Mahalia Jackson, taking what it needs, making it his sovereign own, a wrested blessing. Congratulations, Dante Micheaux, on your astonishing Circus.'”   — Dan Sheehan, Lit Hub (May 1, 2019)

Ocean Vuong, “Seventh Circle of Earth” (2016)

“I wrote ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ [from Vuong’s 2016 collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds] shortly after hearing the news of two gay men being murdered by immolation in Dallas, TX. I originally wrote the poem in tercets, echoing Dante’s terza rima format. In the Inferno, the stanzas work as a network of rooms the speaker moves through as he descends through the circles of hell. In ‘Seventh Circle of Earth,’ however, this grouping felt off, even fraudulent, to me. A persona poem at its core, it takes on the voice of one of the men speaking to his partner. And in the midst of that fraught position, a poem in tercets, or, in other words, a ‘traditional’ poem, felt like a diluted, forced recasting of a horrific event. I ultimately abandoned the poem.

“It was not until three years later, while reading a critical work on violence and scholarship, did I see, more clearly, the footnotes on the bottom of the page. I found myself slipping right to the notes as I progressed, reading them first. They possessed, in that reading, an urgency that began to stitch itself into a fabric of broken utterances fused together by parataxis. It was, in a way, found poetry. That gave me the idea to re-work ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ into a piece written entirely in the footnote. This time, the vast and utter emptiness one confronts on the page felt more faithful to the violent erasure of the two murdered men. It felt right to begin the poem with its own vanishing.” [. . .]  — Ocean Vuong on “Seventh Circle of Earth” for Poetry School

Read the rest of Vuong’s comments and the poem at poetryschool.com.

Contributed by Su Ertekin-Taner (The Bolles School ’22)

“I Have Wasted My Life,” Justin Phillip Reed (2020)

The poem “I Have Wasted My Life” by American poet and essayist Justin Phillip Reed invents the neologism “alighieried”: “No, / I alighieried down this sunken navel / to also cape for waste.” Read the full poem on Poetry Daily here (featured on January 23, 2020).

Contributed by Silvia Valisa (Florida State University)

“Why Roberto Bolaño Haunts Latin Literature”

“A frustrated poet, he turned to prose in his 30s to pay his bills—and shone. Many of his novels may seem facile, packed with talky introspection and postpubescent brooding, but in fact are densely layered tales, with scores of narrators, soaked in erudition and mordant social comment. A ferocious reader, Bolaño wrote with Cervantes, Dante, and Homer looking over his shoulder.”    –Mac Margolis, Newsweek, April 16, 2012

All That Man Is (2017) by David Szalay

David Szalay’s All That Man Is, published in 2017 by Vintage, tells the stories of nine different men at varying stages of life, and explores the issues and psych of the 21st century man. The book was a finalist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, and the winner of the 2016 Paris Review Plimpton Prize for Fiction. The fourth story of the novel cites the first three lines of the Inferno, as the story’s protagonist, a medieval scholar in crisis, drives into a pine forest.

“Pine forests on hillsides start to envelop them on the east side of the Main. And fog.

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
Ché la diritta via era smarrita

“Well, here it is. Dark pine forests, hemming the motorway. Shapes of fog throw themselves at the windscreen.” [. . .]    –David Szalay, All That Man Is (p. 146).

You can purchase Szalay’s book here.

Reviewed: Dante’s Divine Comedy by Ian Thomson

“Ian Thomson’s eclectic and erudite romp through the work of Dante Alighieri – born in Florence in 1265, died in Ravenna in 1321 – features sharp observations and piquant elucidations concerning Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) and its author.

“Thomson sets the tone from the off, beginning with an amusing epigraph which ran in Private Eye in December 2017, a `Very Late News’ about how the 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri and how he would be glad to see the back of that year, saying  ‘Phew, I’ve been trapped in this circle of hell for so long, I can’t wait to get out of it.’

“As for the matter in hand, this welcome book – whose subtitle is A Journey Without End  – is no skit, despite the Private Eye reference. Dorothy L Sayers offers a more relevant reflection on the work of the great Florentine in another epigraph to the work. ‘To understand Dante is not, of course, necessary to believe what he believed, but it is, I think, necessary to understand what he believed.’

“There have been myriad translations in English of Divina Commedia including a recent offering from Clive James, which appears to have won some and lost some fans – a quote from Ciaran Carson’s version is favoured instead for the back cover.” […]    –Paddy Kehoe, RTE, January 14, 2019

For more, consult the reviews of Thomson’s work in The Guardian, The Spectator, and Church Times.

A Profound Meditation on Hell

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way, I found myself within a shadowed forest, for I had lost the path that does not stray …’

“So opens the 14th-century poem Divina Comedia (The Divine Comedy) by Dante Alighieri.

“The blurb on the back cover of a new book, Spiritual Direction From Dante: Avoiding the Infernoby Oratorian Father Paul Pearson, tells its readers that no prior knowledge of the celebrated text is necessary to appreciate or enjoy its riches: “Reading Dante not required!” That is because Father Pearson gives an excellent explanation of the poem, and both its cultural and spiritual significance, in just over 300 pages.

“Fusing practical advice about how to live one’s Christian vocation with a piece of high art from the Middle Ages is not an easy thing to do. Father Pearson carries it off superbly, and while doing so, he gives the reader a fresh appreciation of Divina Comedia.

“The structure of the book is a straightforward journey through the 34 cantos that make up the first part of the poem, namely, Inferno (hell). For anyone unfamiliar with Divina Comedia, this epic poem recounts how Dante, accompanied by the pagan poet Virgil, journeys through the many circles of hell, purgatory and then heaven.” […]    –K.V. Turley, National Catholic Register, June 8, 2019

Tina Turner: By the Book

“What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?

‘In 2017, my kidneys were failing and I went through a prolonged period of dialysis. Every time I went to the clinic, I brought the same three books with me: The Book of Secrets, by Deepak Chopra, The Divine Comedy, by Dante, and a book of photography by the extraordinary Horst P. Horst. I needed something for the spirit, something for the intellect and something for the senses, and the ritual of studying the same books while I was undergoing treatment was comforting to me because it imposed order on a situation I couldn’t otherwise control.’

“You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?

‘I like a dinner party to be a lively mixture of different kinds of people — young, old and everything in between. So my first choice would be Dante — after all my years of studying The Divine Comedy, I need to ask him a lot of questions! I could be his Beatrice! Since I can’t choose between Anne Rice and Stephen King, I’d set places for both of them. Their books have kept me awake for many a night because there’s nothing I enjoy more than a good scare! And I’d definitely serve Thai food, because I like things spicy.’ ” […]    –Jillian Tamaki, The New York Times, October 18, 2018