The eldest of seven children in a working-class family, Paul Mariani grew up on Long Island. At the age of sixteen, he briefly attended a religious school in preparation for entering a seminary, but he ultimately decided against becoming a priest. Nevertheless, he continued his religious education over the years, initially studying subjects such as church history and ethics at Manhattan College in New York. Mariani wrote his doctoral dissertation on the work of poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, a study that was subsequently published as A Commentary on the Complete Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1970). In 1968 he began teaching English at the University of Massachusetts, where he remained for three decades. Mariani also gained recognition as a biographer, writing on the lives of such esteemed poets as William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell, and Hart Crane. After a religious experience that took place while he was attending a Jesuit retreat in 1999, Mariani accepted a professorship at Boston College, a Catholic university. The Great Wheel is his fifth volume of poetry.
Mariani achieved the courage to write poetry through prayer, publishing his first collection, Timing Devices, in 1977. As a poem in The Great Wheel reveals, he had believed even as a youth that life offered him a significant opportunity to achieve. “The Great Assembly” describes the way in which shafts of sunlight illuminate the hall where Mariani and his classmates gathered, not long after the end of World War II, to sing the national anthem. The nearby the Statue of Liberty symbolizes opportunity for immigrants even as it once welcomed the poet’s grandparents. Unfortunately the young Mariani also knows that later in the day he will have to flee members of a violent German-Irish gang, the same group that has recently hung a swastika near a synagogue. Although the neighborhood is plagued by such cruelties, the boy retains his faith that there is a grand design in which he will play a role, a design as vibrant and compelling as the music and sunlight of “The Great Assembly.”
Although the poems in The Great Wheel seldom refer...
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