A chorus of voices unites to sing the praises of l’altissimo poeta—Dante.
Hawkins and Jacoff present the homages of 28 poets, living and dead, to their great 14th-century Italian forebear. In an interesting editorial choice, the collection is divided between the odes of poets living and poets dead. The dead speak first, and their voices include such luminaries as Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Jorge Luis Borges, W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell, and Howard Nemerov; the living, whose voices have been commissioned to speak, include Seamus Heaney, Charles Wright, W.S. Merwin, Robert Pinsky, Rosanna Warren, Mary Baine Campbell, and Edward Hirsch. Given the multiplicity of poetic styles, periods, and themes that these poets address, reading their reactions to Dante provides revealing insights into a long and twisting poetic lineage that reaches from the medieval to the postmodern, as well as highlighting the ways in which Dante speaks to contemporary social issues. Auden, for example, ponders the meaning of Dante’s love for Beatrice in order to consider questions of human sexuality and the ephemeral beauty of Miss America. The consistent theme throughout is the intensely personal reaction that these 20th-century poets feel for Dante: T.S. Eliot’s introspective “What Dante Means to Me,” Daniel Halpern’s discovery of Dante in a youth hostel in France, and Jacqueline Osherow’s “She’s Come Undone: An American Jew Looks at Dante” all describe the ways in which Dante speaks to modern readers on an individual basis. The collection succeeds in capturing Dante’s genius by limning both the universality and the singularity of his appeal.
Given Dante’s own fascination with the relationship of poets to one another, this exuberantly showcases a vivacious dialogue between the living, the dead, and their Dante.