Small Gestures

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“A short poem need not be small.”

-Marvin Bell

20111018-111259.jpgI am tapping this out on my iPhone from Florence, having left the laptop in London. My first time in Italy finds me marveling at so much grand art, and wondering if there is still a place in the post-colonial, post-modern, post-financial-collapse world for the enduring opera magnifica.

Though my nickname in the seminary was “Dante”, my own poems often focus on small moments, coaxing the universal from the quotidian. To attempt to expiate like Milton these days just seems somehow naïve.

Is it true? Has the grand just become grandiloquent? The epic apocryphal? What is left worth having writ large? If Signor Alighieri knows, he isn’t saying so far.

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Seamus Heaney on Dante, Eliot, and Mandelstam

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In Seamus Heaney’s long poem sequence “Station Island,” the speaker, on a pilgrimage, is visited by ghosts who rebuke him in an almost Dickensian fashion. “Part XII”, the final poem of the sequence, rouses me like a bugle call:

Then I knew him in the flesh
out there on the tarmac among the cars,
wintered hard and sharp as a blackthorn bush.

His voice eddying with the vowels of all rivers
came back to me, though he did not speak yet,
a voice like a prosecutor’s or a singer’s,

cunning, narcotic, mimic, definite
as a steel nib’s downstroke, quick and clean,
and suddenly he hit a litter basket

with his stick, saying, ‘your obligation
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you do you must do on your own.

The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night

dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,

so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’

It was as if I had stepped free into space
alone with nothing that I had not known
already. Raindrops blew in my face (Opened Ground, 244-245)

The terza rima structure immediately calls to mind Dante, and in his essay “Envies and Identifications: Dante and the Modern Poet,” Heaney acknowledges this influence directly.

In the first part of this essay, he points out how other poets have written their own poetic projects into their translations of Dante. In the second part, he notes Dante’s influence on Eliot’s “Little Gidding” from Four Quartets, wherein “the poet exchanges intense but oddly neutral words with ‘a familiar compound ghost'” (242) and Heaney concludes “as a matter of literary fact, that the lines are more haunted by the squadrons of Dante’s terza rima than by the squadrons of Hitler’s Luftwaffe” (243) Heaney further points out that a major part of the poetic influence was that “Dante was actually giving Eliot the freedom to surrender to the promptings of his own unconscious.” (249) The parallels here, between Dante’s influence on Eliot, and both Dante and Eliot’s influence (as well as Dante’s influence through Eliot) on Heaney himself, could not be made more clear.
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