Sunday, April 26, 2015

Can Poetry Save Lives?

The power of poetry to speak the truth, to be the voice of reason in an irrational world, is ancient and is still part of the culture in Eastern Europe, including Russia.  In America, poetry has generally been a marginalized occupation, practiced by many but read by few. As the Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden famously wrote, "poetry makes nothing happen."  It just is.

But even in the world of productivity and profit, it's possible that a great poem can move hearts, even change lives.  When I saw the book, "How Dante Can Save Your Life," I had to sit down and read it because, first of all, it is the title of a book I once imagined writing, having taught the great medieval poem, known as the Divine Comedy for some years, and having explained that it's much more than a journey to Hell (since "Inferno" is only the first of three parts of the epic).

I was unfamiliar with the author: Rod Dreher, a conservative American journalist whose roots as a Methodist in small-town Louisiana hardly prepared him for Catholicism, to which he converted, or for the greatest piece of Catholic poetry, completed by Dante c. 1321. Like Dante the character in the poem, he found himself in a dark wood of middle-age depression, and he found in his reading of Dante's poem life-changing wisdom.

The result is a clearly stated, accessible memoir that combines the essence of Dante's complex vision with Dreher's own life journey.  This is an achievement since explaining a medieval Italian classic to 21st century readers is no simple task. Yet Dreher is hardly alone in finding his own life journey mirrored in Dante's.

He makes it clear that one need not be Catholic or Christian to be, as he was, deeply affected and changed by Dante's story of loss and restoration since the poet speaks to readers who have lived long enough to have lost faith in society, politics, family, and love.  I wish my young students, often confused by the poem's mythology, theology, and Florentine politics, could see as clearly as Dreher that the dark wood is not all there is.

And that a poem about love and justice can indeed transform, or help transform, one's life by putting the reader on the cosmic journey of life from darkness to light in search of meaning. That's what T. S. Eliot found in 1922 when his marital breakdown and spiritual wasteland led him to read Dante as a way out of his own crisis of faith. And, for me, it was reading and teaching Eliot that told me, thirty years ago, that I must study Dante and master his epic.

I learned that this most amazing and daring poem is probably the greatest work of literature in the Western world: it is personal as well as universal, political as well as philosophical and mystical.  The Comedy, as Dante called his poem, speaks to non-Christian readers because the supernatural meaning doesn't cancel out the human, spiritual and moral lesson we still need to learn: hatred, selfishness, and greed will always cripple our lives as long as we fail to work for the common good. Without loving others, social justice is impossible, and man will continue to fail on the personal, social, and political levels.

So the poem is a great love story, one full of hope. It shows the reader that he or she is not alone in feeling confused and alienated.

If we feel hopeless, as Alan Jones once wrote, if we have been sorry for mistakes we have made and want to make a new start, we can identify with Dante's afterlife, even if we don't believe in his idea of Hell, Purgatory or Heaven.  Dante's cosmic journey depicts in vivid detail what loss and alienation mean and how they can be turned into a test of character that leads to illumination.

Dante, through love, discovered how loss and failure can be reversed. Rod Dreher has been able to see this essential theme in the medieval classic, showing that, indeed, a poem can change lives, maybe save some people from despair. It can make something happen.

I hope his new book leads more readers to discover their own wisdom in the many fine modern translations (like those of Robert Hollander) of Dante.

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