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To hell and back with Robert Pinsky

In an exercise of hope that would make the poet Dante Alighieri proud, members of the Romance Languages and Literatures Department have embarked on a public reading of the Divine Comedy that will continue, at the rate of seven cantos a year, into the year 2016. The program has drawn readers and listeners from other Boston-area campuses, as well as from the local Italian-American community, according to associate professor Laurie Shepard. On March 11, in conjunction with the Lowell Lecture Series, former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky took a turn at the lectern.

Pinsky read with brio from his own 1964 translation of the Inferno's 13th Canto, set in the circle of the violent in the woods of the suicides ("the boughs not smooth, knotted and crooked-forked"). Questions from the standing-room-only audience followed. Does it matter that Dante and Virgil are both poets? "Poet is a Greek word that means maker--the opposite of despair--action." And what of his personal experience as translator? "It was similar to that of a kid with a video game: There was a technical thrill to it." Is there anybody as bad as Shakespeare's Iago in the Inferno? A voice in the audience nominates the traitor Archbishop Ruggieri, but Pinsky demurs: "He's not kinetic and dynamic the way Iago is. In Shakespeare, the characters are like chemicals in a process. In the Inferno, it's a different kind of machinery. There are wonderful conversations, but not really personalities."

Pinsky read on the first Monday night after spring break, and students, many ruddy and tanned, seemed invigorated. As the crowd shuffled out the doors, one said to the group at large, "So, is your brain sweating?"

Anna Marie Murphy

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