At the End of Things: The Work of Paul Mariani

Mariani’s writings display a love, devotion, and faith that redeems Robert Lowell’s interesting but questionable practices by restoring them to their proper, Augustinian purpose.

Poet and biographer Paul Mariani is the author of several works, including the recently published "Ordinary Time: Poems" and "The Mystery of It All: The Vocation of Poetry in the Twilight of Modernity". (Image: bc.academia.edu)

Paul Mariani is in the most admirable sense a confessional poet. For more than fifty years, he taught modern poetry at various colleges, including the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and then, Boston College. He authored six major biographies of modern American poets, including those of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Lowell. Beginning in the mid-1970s, he published significant poems of his own, lyrics of a frank, direct voice, the idiom of mid-century New York studded with the occasional gemlike word burning with connotation from literary history. As is the case with every writer, but especially one who comes to his art only after decades of studying the work of his masters, it seems impossible to discuss Mariani’s work, even this latest book of poems and final, “twilit” book of essays, without describing first the sources of his art in the poets he loves. One might begin with Hopkins; Mariani repeatedly states that the great convert and Jesuit poet was the one “who changed everything for me.”1 To understand Mariani’s work in its most prominent features, however, it is probably best to start with some mention of Lowell.

Kinds of Confession

When the lapsed Catholic convert Robert Lowell published Life Studies, in 1959, it was soon declared the prototype of “confessional poetry,” with more of the stuff soon to follow from Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and W.D. Snodgrass, until it seemed a revolution had come and gone and become an enduring fashion. A few years earlier, Lowell had encountered the “raw” poetry of the Beats and the San Francisco renaissance, whose simple, sometimes incompetent, rhetoric nonetheless leant itself to public performance. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl begins thus, as if poetry were to be attained purely by a multiplication of adjectives:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

You couldn’t necessarily read it, but you could definitely speak it. Lowell’s own apprenticeship in the art had been under Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, however: poets who prized a leaping and associative wit, intellectual complexity, a showy metrical rigor, and beneath it all a Christian humanist vision of the art work as a well ordered perception of the order of things.

Confession was Lowell’s answer to the Beats. His poetry retained much of the density and intricacy of his masters and his own early work, but his treatment of his subjects became more direct and prosaic. Furthermore, his subject became more explicitly and clearly his own self, his memory, his frequently troubled psychological and marital conditions. Confessional poetry as it came to pass, therefore, most obviously owes its name to the Swiss philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose Confessions (1782-1789) was the first modern autobiography conspicuous for its interest in Rousseau’s life for its own sake.

Rousseau’s book is secular and self-regarding in comparison with that earlier Confessions, those of Saint Augustine, which was indeed no autobiography but a great prayer to God. Augustine discusses himself only insofar as his life was a search for God; when he discovers that God is not primarily to be found in the outward details of his life, but in the interior mystery of the memory, which is illuminated through Scripture, he turns inward but also away from himself to God alone. Rousseau, in contrast, writes of his own feelings as ends in themselves to be savored for their own sake.

For Lowell, the word confession must be applied with a certain ambiguity. Some of his later work is embarrassing, even shameful, in its exhibitionism and narcissism, and yet one senses that confession is the one sacrament that remains to a man who has not lost his Christian faith but who has left the Church. In Life Studies’ opening poem, “Beyond the Alps,” we get a clear sense that Lowell has turned to the study of himself in search of something he can credit as viscerally and genuinely as he had once trusted the supernatural doctrines of the Church. He writes, “When the Vatican made Mary’s Assumption dogma, / the crowds at San Pietro screamed Papá.” Lowell considers the meaning of the Church’s definition and then remarks, “But who believed this? Who could understand?”2

Mariani as a poet picks up where Lowell left off. Poetry is a means of confession, but no longer a substitute for the sacrament. Rather, Mariani’s work displays a love, devotion, and faith that redeems Lowell’s interesting but questionable practices by restoring them to their proper, Augustinian purpose. Because Lowell had established confessional self-scrutiny as a standard element of modern poetic practice, Mariani’s work found an easy reception in the typically secular world of contemporary American letters. One does not have to read very far into his work, however, to see the spiritual depth after which he is striving and the way in which his poems return confession to its sacramental origins.

The son of a Catholic father and devout Lutheran mother, Mariani initially discerned a vocation to the priesthood. Pumping gas at his father’s station, during his youth, he would show real talent at his school work and so become the first member of his family to attend college. Studying under the Christian Brothers at Manhattan College, a world of learning was offered to him:

Here is what we will learn, Brother explains. We will study ancient cultures . . . We will read Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, then move on to Hesiod and Sappho and the pre-Socratics, followed by Plato and Aristotle . . . We will study the Four Evangelists . . . We will study St. Paul as he fans out from Antioch to Jerusalem into Galatia and Philippi and Corinth and Ephesus and—finally—Rome.3

Mariani tells us, “I can still remember my head soaring and singing on the subway ride home, as the treasure box of World Culture for a moment opened, all that gold glimmering against the shadows.”4 This great treasury was not to be received only to be rejected; Mariani has remained largely true to the promise that the Christian Brother first made possible. To read his poems over these last four decades is therefore to enter into his own life-study as he tries to understand the mystery of his hardscrabble youth, the almost unaccountable blessing of the life of learning and the sense of responsibility it entails, and, finally, his life’s journey into the Church, somewhat out of it by way of youthful rebellion and middle-aged infidelity, and back into it in ways and to a depth that he could never have anticipated.

In some of his most compelling poems, Mariani frankly takes us through the conundrums he has faced as he struggles to remain faithful to four great loves: the love of his working-class family; the life of learning; the great poets he has spent his life studying; and the Church toward which each of these other loves has individually led him.

In the title poem from Primer Mover (1985), for instance, Mariani describes the Christian vision of the cosmos with its “celestial concerts” as “God’s word once sang / the world into being.”5 All his vivid phrases drawn from the tradition, however, are couched in the scare quotes of phrases like “as if” and it “is said,” the poet himself remaining cagey about how the “post- / Holocaust, post-Hiroshima void” really looks to him.6 “The Eastern Point Meditations,” near the conclusion of that volume, is a confessional poem of the fallout from adultery, but one that takes place on a Jesuit retreat and culminates in the sacrament of confession as the redemption, and so the escape from, a spoiled self.

In a later poem, “Eurydice,” he recalls his time teaching nightschool students at Hunter college, while trying to finish his doctorate and support a young family. One evening, the lesson is Thomas Hardy, and the young professor waxes rapturous on the beautiful music Hardy made out of a vision of the world with “no grand design, no God or gods, no anything / but a rolling of blind dice.”7 The students seem an indifferent bunch, but he clearly takes joy in the occasion they provide for him to enter into the spirit of the great poet. But, as the assembled shuffle out and the professor packs up his books, a woman student approaches him, “shaken,” and says, “You’re a good man . . . Tell me you believe / there is a God.8

Mariani waves her off: it’s just a lesson. He leaves. Down in the netherworld of the subway, she approaches him, like Eurydice in Hades, asking him again to tell her he believes. “I do believe. O.K.? I do.” This satisfies her enough to get her to smile and leave, but the callow young professor is left on the subway train staring at “a skull dangling from a strap across the aisle,” guilty for having taken one good thing so seriously that it led him to dismiss a far more sacred mystery as if it were embarrassing and naïve.9

In another poem, “Quid Pro Quo,” the young husband is studying with a “budding Joyce scholar,” in the days after Mariani’s wife has had a second miscarriage in a short span. Asked by the Joycean what he “thought now / of God’s ways toward man,” Mariani surprises himself by raising “my middle finger up to heaven, quid pro quo,” he says.10 He has had enough of God’s ways.

The scene changes. In a cabin, on a mild summer night, his wife conceives a son. And, “nine months later,” he holds his son, “a little Buddha-bellied, / rumpelstiltskin runt of a man who burned / to face the sun.”11 That is not the end. Years later, “this same son” will kneel before “a marble altar to vow / everything he had to the same God I had had my own / erstwhile dealings with.”12 Paul, Jr. becomes a Jesuit. Mariani himself has long since come to practice Jesuit spirituality. Like Augustine before him, sometimes he mistakes a created good for what is absolute and must be rebuked, while at other times, he thinks he is far away from God, when in truth, God has just begun to twitch the thread that will bring an errant son back home.

Perhaps Mariani’s best single book of poems is Deaths & Transfigurations (2005), where the loss and gain of this life is brilliantly acted out alongside a number of poems such as “Exile” that draw our imaginations beyond Mariani’s life story into the life of the Holy Family. The book as a whole reflects on those in Mariani’s life who have begun to die and so seems itself a kind of preparation for death. So much the more appropriate that his next book should be Epitaphs for the Journey: New, Selected, and Revised Poems (2012). The poems collected there are ordered so as to make visible to us the trail of spiritual pilgrimage the poet has long been following.

The Grace of the Ordinary

In 2017, Mariani had his own brush with death. He was diagnosed with brain cancer and went under extensive and successful treatment.13 Approaching eighty, his two new books, Ordinary Time and The Mystery of It All are in different ways acts of summing up, of bringing to a conclusion a long literary career spent studying the work of modern American poets and writing distinguished poems that are, again and again, memoirs of self-scrutiny, where the poetic imagination stands before the judgment of God:

He was coming back it was a long way yet
And the narrow passage was dark
But there was a light dim and hovering ahead
He knew what being on the edge of life
Was like now and he wanted life14

Ordinary Time does not speak of this return to light and life until its second half, but its shadow hangs over all. The book begins with a recollection of other poets and artists as they stare into the abyss of “an empty canvas,” literally and figuratively, and feel the urge to imitate the Creator of all things, an agony of boldness to be repeated by a separate agony: after one canvas is filled, there’s always another staring out at you.15 On his own blank page, Mariani inscribes poems to the moon, whose history of appearing in poems across literary history is outdone in its reliability only by Mariani’s wife, Eileen, who has faithfully accompanied him “for fifty years / and more, constant companion.”16 Mariani’s sons have sometimes featured in his poems and essays, but now we get poems for Julianna, Sophia, and Gavin, his grandchildren.

To these poems of thanksgiving, Mariani adds poems of loss. The disappearance of the rough New York City of his childhood, and the broken home he had within it. What is fading away is not always a cause of joy. “Johnnie Walker Black” describes young Mariani and his brother Walter rescuing a “box of stale cupcakes” from the grocer’s trash. When Walter asks for some,

his brother grabs an empty
whiskey bottle from the grail and brings it
hard down across his mouth and then blood
is gushing out and there’s a black gap
where Walter’s front teeth were.17

They joke about it now, while drinking Johnnie Walker, this episode of unaccountable and early violence.

More powerful still is the poem that follows, “In the Realm of the Kings and Queens.” Mariani and his brother are in the back seat of the car, as their mother drives into Long Island City. A truck muscles in and chews up the side of the car. The truck driver threatens her, “he ain’t taking no blame.”18 There are no police; he takes off, and they head home,

to greet our father, who, when he sees the damage done,
makes it clear he’s pissed. And there’s the lesson, son,
you’ve learned: that it’s a man’s world, you understand?

It’s men who make the rules by which we’re bound
and by which the world turns: a wheel roaring up on
you, as it just goes grinding round and round. And round.19

This sense of the absence of justice in the world, the inability to make an appeal to anyone, and yet still sensing the need to give an account, to be responsible to something greater than the arbitrary rules of the turning world, justifies Mariani’s poetry. By confessing, now and throughout his career, he obliges his life not, as Lowell sought, to be the song of his self, but to stand before God with both fear and hope. Several of his books end with songs of joy, including those of gratitude for the life his wife has made possible. This one ends with an earlier moment of communion, the appearance of Christ after the resurrection. “And now here he was,” the disciple confesses, “Here in the room with us.” And then,

“Peace” was what he said,
as a peace like no other pierced the gloom
and descended on the room.20

Final Testaments

The Mystery of It All merely extends such songs of joy into prose chapters. The preface (from which I quoted above) states bluntly how grateful and, so, how obliged Mariani is for his education. In Ordinary Time, one poem describes the shame Mariani’s father expressed, when he learned his son was writing poems; in another, his mother defiantly insists that sixteen-year-old Paul be allowed to continue his studies, rather than go to work fulltime at his father’s station.21

The preface makes clear that Mariani knows how fortunate and even blessed he was to be able to study the great authors of the West. He was doubly fortunate, for he came of age at a time when young men of his background could study the tradition and even dare to become a part of it. It was a more democratic age than ours insofar as the masses were being invited to participate in the achievements of culture, rather than culture’s being torn down to suit the current tastes of the masses. The constant grinding of high literary language and learned allusions to the great paintings and poems of the past against Mariani’s frank New York idiom, in his poetry, alerts us to his sense of filial love for the tradition and his masters that coexists with a sense of being a humble newcomer, one who has a responsibility not to forget his origins.

The rest of the book reflects on that condition and in three ways. In “The Vocation of the Catholic Poet Today,” Mariani defines at last what it has meant for him to be a confessional poet across the decades. Not Rousseau, not even Augustine is his predecessor, but Saint Paul. Mariani retells in an unusual fashion the story of Paul at the Aeropagus. Paul attempts to impress the Greek intellectual world with his mastery of their philosophy and literature, his refinement of language and argument, by explaining in their terms the great Mystery of Christ’s “passion, death, and resurrection.”22 Like young Mariani, Paul wants to join a venerable and humane tradition. It does not work. They mock him.

From now on, [Paul] realized, another way would have to be found to approach the profound and contradictory sign of the Cross. Talk, however polished, could only take one so far.23

Only in confessing his own salvation and by pledging to know only one thing, to know only “the crucified Christ,” could Paul hope to convince the world. Not by wit and ingenuity, but raw testimony, a self-renouncing offering of the self as sole evidence.24 How well this explains Mariani’s poems, with their glimmers of the tradition and admiration for it, but also acknowledgment that he has only his own experience to give to us.

Mariani’s six biographies of his most beloved poets are austere in character. They deliver just a bare tissue of chronological facts, resisting every temptation to scrutinize or comment on the narrative beyond what is absolutely necessary. Mariani is no mere historian, however. Careful attention to the form of his biographies reveals that he is concerned most with how the poets responded to the great mystery of Christ crucified. In the case of Hopkins, the Catholic convert, disciple of Saint John Henry Newman, and Jesuit priest, no other theme could possibly explain the life. But, in the case of Lowell, John Berryman, and especially Wallace Stevens, their early apostasies and vexed, often hostile, relationship to Christianity is allowed to shape the tale in ways that most other biographers have disallowed. Mariani’s responsibility is simply to tell us what happened, but he keeps his biographer’s silent eye attentive to what Mariani himself, the student, the poet, and the Catholic most needs to learn from his masters. The biographical art winds up being a matter of subtlety and silence.

His biographies done, the time for subtlety has passed. The middle sections of Mystery comprise essays on these same poets, but essays where Mariani again and again allows himself, at last, to state why he loves these poets so much, why he thinks their lives worth telling, why he has given his life over to theirs in more way than one.

The final section of the volume gathers together Mariani’s short papers on the mission of the Catholic university and of Christian literature. He sees, as do we all, that the kind of education the son of a filling station owner could get from the Christian Brothers, sixty years ago, has almost vanished in our day. He came to Boston College, after thirty years in Amherst, to offer just such an education, but found that even the contemporary Catholic academy had lost its joy in the mystery and beauty of the tradition.

Attentive to the clamor for justice such that his own mother was denied, he understands why the old ways have been challenged. But, nonetheless, he protests. His first encounter with Hopkins, which in fact set him on the path of the literary life, and his later study of Dante, who made the greatest, most comprehensive religious confession in all of literature, reminds him that more than justice is at stake. Aristotle tells us that friendship has no need of justice. For Mariani, liberal studies has always been an act of becoming a son, a student, an apprentice, and finally a friend of the great poets. It is, alas, a violation of justice to allow, in the name of justice, those sorts of friendship by way of books and across generations to be lost to the academy. This, I think, is finally the one thing that Mariani has to confess, whether in verse or prose: his astonished sense of being the undeserving beneficiary of the tough words and great beauty of poetry. It is all that he has ever wanted to share with us.

Ordinary Time: Poems
by Paul Mariani
Slant Books, 2019

The Mystery of It All: The Vocation of Poetry in the Twilight of Modernity
by Paul Mariani
Paraclete Press, 2019

Endnotes:

1 Mariani, The Mystery of It All, 12.

2 Robert Lowell, Selected Poems, 55.

3 Paul Mariani, The Mystery of It All, 17.

4 Mariani, The Mystery of It All, 17.

5 Paul Mariani, Prime Mover, 78-79.

6 Mariani, Prime Mover, 79.

7 Paul Mariani, Epitaphs for the Journey, 83.

8 Mariani, Epitaphs for the Journey, 84.

9 Mariani, Epitaphs for the Journey, 86.

10 Mariani, Epitaphs for the Journey, 81.

11 Mariani, Epitaphs for the Journey, 82.

12 Mariani, Epitaphs for the Journey, 82.

13 Mariani, The Mystery of It All, 229.

14 Mariani, Ordinary Time, 49.

15 Mariani, Ordinary Time, 4.

16 Mariani, Ordinary Time, 7.

17 Mariani, Ordinary Time, 29-30.

18 Mariani, Ordinary Time, 32.

19 Mariani, Ordinary Time, 32.

20 Mariani, Ordinary Time, 69.

21 Mariani, Ordinary Time, 35-37.

22 Mariani, The Mystery of It All, 31.

23 Mariani, The Mystery of It All, 31.

24 Mariani, The Mystery of It All, 31.


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About James Matthew Wilson 13 Articles
James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor of Religion and Literature in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. He has published seven books, including The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition (CUA, 2017), the major critical study, The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking (Wiseblood, 2015), a collection of poems, Some Permanent Things, and a monograph, The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry (both Wiseblood Books, 2014). Wilson is the Poetry Editor of Modern Age magazine, and also serves on the boards of several learned journals and societies.

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