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Friday event to celebrate poet Mariani

  • A portrait of Paul Mariani by Barry Mosher. ​​​​​​CONTRIBUTE PHOTO

  • Paul Mariani portrait by Barry Moser. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO



Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 07, 2018

MONTAGUE – Paul Mariani has received the John Ciardi Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry, along with fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and and the Guggenheim Foundation. But now, the 78-year-old poet, who is working on his eighth book of poetry and his 12th book of essays, commentary and biography on poets and poetry, is about to be celebrated in a big way locally.

As self-effacing as ever, Mariani says the celebration, planned for Friday from 6 to 8 p.m. at R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, “is about us, the community. I’ll just be one voice, among many voices.”

But gallery owner and poet Richard Michelson, who along with poet Martin Espada and artist Barry Moser, planned the “evening of poetry, music, art in celebration of this beloved poet, scholar and teacher,” insists, “It is definitely a celebration of Paul.”  

Mariani, a Boston College emeritus professor, who from 1968 to 2000 taught English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he was a distinguished university professor, is “a major voice,” says Michaelson.

While Mariani is known for biographies of Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Lowell, John Berryman and William Carlos Williams, says Michelson, “His own poetry, as important as it is, is often overlooked. His poetry is quite moving. It wrestles with religious questions, as well as the personal and political.”

Like many of those participating and expected to attend, Michelson was among those whose work was encouraged by the Montague poet.

“One of the things I’ve tried to do in my poetry is to speak as directly as possible to my audience,” says Mariani. “I hope the music of the words, plus the narrative, will speak to the lives of the readers. I come from a working-class background; this isn’t highfalutin stuff. But having taught English and poetry for over half a century, I was obviously hungry to learn everything I could. So that gets into the poetry, as well.”

Mariani, who studied in the seminary before earning degrees from Manhattan College, Colgate University and City University of New York, said, “Ecumenically, my religion is very important to me. My poetry gets into the deeper questions: What’s the meaning of life? What is death? How do you reach out to others? Without being preachy, I hope.”

About his own work, Mariani says, “I try to capture the idiom, in which I’m speaking to you directly in the language you understand, but there is a music going on, as well. There’s immediate accessibility, I hope, but also there’s more and more there — a mystery, a sense of ‘What can I learn from this?”

Espada, an English professor at UMass who has known Mariani since he arrived at the university 25 years ago, says, “There are giants living among us, and yet rarely do we notice them or give them their due. Paul’s due is overdue.”

As a poet, Espada says, Mariani is, “Truly erudite, yet on the other hand, a tough-minded, working-class poet who’s spoken about what it was like to grow up hard-core working class. He’s a wonderful narrative poet who has an extraordinary gift for imagery, and his poetry is so honest. So many of his poems have this wonderful clarity of vision and image, an image that’s based on his faith, on human decency. … His integrity stretches for miles.”

Like other poet participants in the celebration, including Espada’s partner, Lauren Schmidt, Michelson, Doug Anderson and Suzanne Matson, along with Montague neighbor Mariana Goldman, Espada will read from Mariani’s work, as well as his own.

Also participating will be New Salem composer-pianist Steven Schoenberg, who will share his setting of one of Mariani’s poems, along with “Mother’s Waltz,” one of the songs from the semi-biographical musical theater piece, which had two staged readings in New York’s City Center. Also part of the celebration will be portraits and other art works by Hatfield artist Barry Moser, another longtime friend and collaborator of Mariani.

“He has a depth that not many poets achieve, to my mind,” says Moser. “His poems work on so many levels. On the surface, they’re often familial, but underneath that, there are all manners of illusions — to Dante, to the Bible, to current events. Paul’s poems are haunted by the injustices, the inequalities, the horrors perpetrated by the political forces of the world we live in. And his poems are enormously accessible.”

And yet, Mariani insists, “This is not about me; it’s about us. It’s about the community. I just want to be one more voice among many voices to celebrate with an audience that might be willing to spend an evening listening and enjoying poetry and music.”