115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Islands in the Mind: Dante, Walcott, Merwin

Akash Kumar, University of California, Santa Cruz

This paper proposes a reading of Dante's purgatorial and oceanic poetry, as taken in by the contemporary poets Derek Walcott and W.S. Merwin. Particular attention is paid to Dante's poetry of nature and the sea in his Purgatorio, how such aspects are highlighted in poetic reception and translation, and what the stakes are for such a mode of reading across time, space, and cultures.

Proposal: 

This paper proposes a reading of Dante’s purgatorial and oceanic poetry, as taken in by the contemporary poets Derek Walcott and W.S. Merwin. A less regarded aspect of Dante’s medieval vision, the lyric fashioning of the island of Purgatory finds apt resonance in island poetry of Walcott and Merwin as a mode of embodying time, the rhythm of the sea, and provoking an immersion in the natural world. Where Dante’s is a lyric island, Walcott’s Caribbean home of St. Lucia and Merwin’s long sojourn on the island of Maui provide real world counterparts to the 14th-century vision. It is by no means coincidental that Merwin translated Purgatorio into English in 2000, and this paper will consider how that act of translation might inflect a reading of both poets. So too, Walcott’s magnum opus Omeros bears a variety of engagements with the poetry of the Commedia, such as the explicit Dantean signature of an adaptation of terza rima, the meter Dante invented for the writing of his own magnum opus, but this paper will also delve into Walcott’s later poetic output as continually engaging with the lyric Dante. Taken together, these moments of engagement might constitute a different sort of medievalism, a way of reading and apprehending Dante’s verse that departs from the conventional and essentializing.

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