It's not every professor who's taken his wife on double dates with former student Frank Serpico. (Serpico is the subject of the Al Pacino film of the same name, the cop who famously testified about corruption in the New York Police Department and may have been set up to get shot for his trouble.) But Valley resident and Boston College and former UMass-Amherst professor Paul Mariani often defies expectation.
As a grad student at UMass some years ago, I had a startling experience in Mariani's modern poetry class. I had long taken Wallace Stevens' poetry to be a difficult tangle. But in the space of one class, the professor's no-nonsense reading approach opened wide the door to Stevens.
The key, perhaps, was Mariani's combination of patient consideration and warm engagement with the material. It's easy to tell that he truly values poetry when he reads aloud. He almost gravely intoned Stevens' towering lines and his high church syntax, then switched gears and explained them as if their meaning was perfectly straightforward.
He's got a clear notion of how to approach poetry in the classroom. "I can give you all the facts about someone and it still doesn't bring you any closer to the poem," he says. "You still have to get into the poem; if possible, read it [aloud] so that a person can hear a living voice saying it, speaking it, voicing it."
Then Mariani slips into a distinctly professorial delivery, his voice shifting to an excited cadence, his eyes narrowing as if he sees some half-realized concept in need of shepherding into daylight. "Then just go over it—it doesn't have to be line by line, but you have to pick up the nuances. Are there any problems with place names? Are there any problems with the dating? The fact that the poem was written in 1920 as opposed to 1970—does that make a difference? What's a little bit of the background?"
He chooses an example, and keeps going. "What's Berryman saying here when he brings up Alice in Wonderland? Why is he doing that and then comparing it to Vietnam? Once you see that there's a kind of Never-Never Land, then you look at, say, political strategy toward a place that we really don't know, you can see what Berryman is doing."
Mariani makes it sound simple to approach even the headiest of material, and as the biographer of some of the most influential poets of the 20th century—William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, John Berryman—he knows what he's doing. Even the florid syntax of Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (the subject of Mariani's most recent biography) starts to untangle itself when looked at this way, even though it can be tempting to throw one's hands up in despair when faced with such complexity.
"The thing is to make it a living text, okay?" continues Mariani. "I'm not teaching history. I'm not teaching cultural studies. I'm teaching a living voice and a living text, and I think that appeals to students... because then they say, 'Okay, here I am living in 2010 in Western Massachusetts. What do I see around me?'"
Despite the challenges of the classroom, Mariani, who's almost 70, likes being there. It's clear that a life of ease in Bermuda shorts isn't on his agenda: "Golf, to me, is like playing in hell. I don't know what else I'd do at this point if I couldn't get up and think that I was going to a classroom."
In addition to teaching people how to read poetry, Mariani is himself a poet of considerable talent and has published several volumes of his work, most recently Deaths & Transfigurations, designed and with engravings by Valley-based artist Barry Moser. As a poet, he manages a trick that few contemporary writers seem capable of—he employs diction that sometimes echoes the poets of many decades ago but does so in a way that feels decidedly contemporary.
In "Ghost," for instance, what begins in a highflown style turns quickly to earthier language:
After so much time you think
you'd have it netted
in the mesh of language. But again
it reconfigures, slick as Proteus.
You're in the kitchen talking
with your ex-Navy brother, his two kids
snaking over his tattooed arms, as he goes on
& on about being out of work again.
That second strain of language seems especially important to Mariani. "I come from a working class background. I'm the oldest of seven kids. I wanted to pay homage to the working class, like [poet] Phil Levine," he says. "I needed to get that sense of the language as you can hear it actually spoken. If you read it out loud to an audience, you're having mercy on them, because they can follow what you're saying. I've been to so many readings where it's almost a narcissistic yank job, where they're talking to themselves."
The first, more highflown stanza in "Ghost" points not only to Mariani's affinity for some poets who employ sophisticated language, but also to the deep well of scholarly knowledge he draws from. His is the kind of conversation you know will resonate on many levels. Yet that working class background makes speaking to him a comfortably homespun experience—sitting at his kitchen table, he offered crumb cake and coffee between references to Hopkins, T.S. Eliot and the "sacramental imagination."
Beyond the concerns of scholarly study and the writing of poetry, another matter is central to Mariani. He is a believer whose Catholic religion suffuses his work in ways both subtle and grand.
In 2002, he wrote a book called Thirty Days, a highly personal recounting of his experiences with the 500-year old spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. In much the same fashion as his poetry, Thirty Days mixes everyday and eternal concerns, focusing on the choice of a jacket to match the weather one moment, the difficulties of grasping God, Darwin, Hegel and Freud the next.
The mixture of orthodox religion and literary academia isn't always a comfortable one. An attitude of skepticism or even animosity toward religion can be found in the halls of the ivory tower, a phenomenon Mariani has encountered.
He doesn't seem to mind those attitudes: "Well, first of all, I have tenure! I've got the job and there's nothing they can do to me. And, believe me, it's still there, even at [Catholic-affiliated] Boston College sometimes. Not among the Jesuits, but among colleagues.
"I've had no problem—not that I haven't been hit for it in terms of reviews," Mariani says. "Remember in the Bible where Christ says, 'If you're ashamed of me, I will be ashamed of you'? You know, that's what I've got to face in the long run. Not the dean! Not the guy that writes for the New Yorker. I've got to face the big guy."
Mariani is far from alone in his spiritual concerns. "Did you ever hear of a novelist named Ron Hansen? The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford—he wrote that. He's a good friend of mine, and I remember him getting up 10, maybe 20 years ago and reading from a manuscript that he had—the novel Mariette in Ecstasy, which is based on the life of Therese of Lisieux, this nun who died young of tuberculosis. But in this novel, he gives her the stigmata, and the whole community doesn't know what to make of it," says Mariani.
"I remember him reading that passage and I remember the people, the hundreds of students there, a lot of them scratching their heads. They liked the prose, but they'd never heard anyone get up there and read about a religious subject before. You could talk about pederasty... but you couldn't talk about a religious sensibility.
"And I said to myself, 'That took real guts. That's where I want to go.' We support each other on that. ...A lot of people have some sense of a deeper reality, and if you cut that out from under them, you're taking away part of their complexity as human beings. If you say that doesn't matter or it's not there, well, that's like erasing a whole third dimension to the human condition."
Mariani's spiritual concerns have guided much of his writing, including his choice of biographical subjects. So why explore poets whose dark visions ended in suicide?
"Berryman wrote a poem just before he died in which he talks about falling—and that's what he did; he leapt off the bridge over the Mississippi up in Minnesota—and he sees angels holding him up," says Mariani. "In other words, as dark as it gets, there's always what Hopkins calls 'the last cry penitent.' I wanted to follow those lives to see why they went in the direction they went. I found that, in every one of the poets I did, there was a religious sensibility that manifested itself in different ways, and I was interested very much in how that manifested itself."
That religious sensibility was quite overt in Mariani's most recent subject, poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was a Jesuit priest. "Following Dante, I've done Hell and I've done Purgatory, and I'm going to do the Paradiso. I chose Hopkins. The funny thing is, from the outside, he looks like the biggest failure of them all in many ways, dying at 44 of typhoid, alone. But those last words of his, 'I am so happy, I am so happy.' What do they mean?"
In much of Hopkins' work, the echo of Christian belief is central. "Hopkins said if you prepare yourself, you can actually feel the fingerprint of God in everything... and he said also that if you look in the faces of others you can sometimes feel the presence of divinity," says Mariani. "Even language—words are more than just chips or granite blocks. They have a life in them, an organic life, an energy. You read a Hopkins poem, you can feel that kind of energetic charge."
Again, Mariani turns to the everyday to make the grander point. "Do you know a novelist named Andre Dubus? He's got a great essay on the sandwich as sacrament. He was crippled in a car accident trying to help somebody else, and he's divorced and he's got his kids over to the house and he's trying to make them sandwiches. He's stumbling. He wants to make that sandwich to feed them, and it's worth the agony—he's in a wheelchair in a very narrow kitchen—because it would be a gesture of love."
These days, in addition to teaching at BC, Mariani is embarking on two prose projects while continuing to write poetry. He has put in primary position a story he's uniquely qualified to tell. "I want to do a kind of—I call it a memoir, but it's really about growing up in New York City, on the streets of New York in the 1940s. I'm very much interested in trying to recapture a New York which no longer exists."
Mariani is also considering adding a sixth subject to the list of poets whose biographies he's written, the very poet whose words he's so good at bringing to life in the classroom.
"I want to do Wallace Stevens. In fact, I almost signed on to do it last summer. A contract went out to bid. At the last minute I got cold feet. I'm almost 70 years old. It takes about five years to do a biography. What do I want to do in those five years? Because, you know, time gets short, right?," says Mariani. "I decided not to sign on for Stevens and just do it, just write it without the obligation of having it done in four or five years.
"Stevens takes the language to the next notch, which I just find absolutely fascinating. He has the ability to speak directly to, say, an agnostic and a person of faith—in the same poem—and both people are going to get something out of it, something deep. There's not many people who can do that."
Between crumbcake and sacrament, Mariani again turned to the everyday to explain in simple fashion the difference in vision between poets of purely secular concerns and poets with religious sensibilities: "It's a beautiful day, but tomorrow a storm is coming. Well, okay, yes, that's true, but—we have a beautiful day! And we have a storm, but guess what? After the storm, there could very possibly be another beautiful day."