(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Berggren, Kris. “An American Idiom Infuses Poems of Ordinary Life.” Review of Deaths and Transfigurations, by Paul Mariani. National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 2005, pp. 2a-3a. Review evaluates the poet’s achievement within the American tradition.

Ingebretsen, Edward J. “Poetry Roundup.” America 175, no. 12 (October 26, 1996): 24. Reviews The Great Wheel and other volumes of poetry released within the same period of time and featuring similar religious concerns.

Mariani, Paul. “Confirmation.” In Signatures of Grace: Catholic Writers on the Sacraments, edited by Thomas Grady and Paula Huston. New York: Dutton, 2000. Mariani describes his childhood confirmation, the role of religion in his life, and the importance of a Pentecostal experience he had as an adult.

Mariani, Paul. God and the Imagination: On Poets, Poetry, and the Ineffable. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002. A valuable collection of essays providing a biographical account of Mariani’s writing life and including description of similar struggles affecting other poets.

Ratner, Rochelle. Review of The Great Wheel. Library Journal 121 (March 15, 1996): 74-75. Review discussing Mariani’s craftsmanship as a poet, praising particular poems and discounting others.