As part of an off-hand remark captured on video, Giuseppe Mazzotta, Yale’s professor of Italian literature and culture, said that poetry invents the world.
The remark was part of his lecture series on Dante that is available on You Tube. Like some of the students in the lecture hall, my mind had wandered. His statement brought me back.
One would think that the world has already been invented, either by supernatural means or by a series of incidents going back to the Big Bang, and that it only needs to be discovered by the kind of pious but inwardly tormented seeker that Dante imagined to be himself when he wrote the Comedia, which, Mazzotta repeated, was both linear (a journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise) and circular (the pilgrim ends up where he started, alone, but changed by his experience of a spiritual reality).
Toward the end, Dante realized that everything he saw in Paradise was an illusion for his benefit, and that by transforming his experience into words, he was using poetry to build a new world that included Dante, an exile, and his reader.
This practice has a name: cosmopoiesis.
Many times in my life I’ve wanted to inhabit a world that was better, simpler and more exciting than my own. Walking home from school, I wanted to be in a spaceship soaring over an exotic planet. Alone in a hotel room on New Years Eve, I imagined myself in a space station looking down on the earth. Having been lost in the gardens of Versailles, I took cover in a landscaped grotto when rain threatened and hoped that this shelter would lead to an underworld where, maybe, the science fiction and fantasy writers who had inspired me, lived in an Elysium that would one day welcome me.
What came first–the fantasy, or the words that defined it? Genesis begins with God’s famous command. A careful reading of the Old Testament shows that God wasn’t quite the master planner that we would wish. Some passages suggest, ever so subtly, that God makes mistakes.
I find myself living now in a most enjoyable and largely peaceful world. The terrible events in my daily newspapers are far away.
A snow storm moved in last night and the sky is icy gray. School has been canceled and kids slide down frosted slopes. My wife is home. The dog is happy. Snow rounds edges, covers sidewalks and paths, turns the sharp curves and flashy chrome of automobiles into small, soft clouds that hover over white earth.
What words do you use when you don’t want anything to change?