Writing in the Margins

On January 27, 1302, when Dante stopped in Siena, on his way home to his native Florence from a political mission, he learned the bad news that his party had been betrayed, the government overthrown, and he himself banished for life upon penalty of death. Though for several years he had been at the center of political life, he now began the life of an exile in Milan, Verona, Ravenna (where he is buried), and other towns, and was never to return. During the next few years he could not accept this turn of events, and even to his last days was plagued by a nostalgia for his home and the bitterness of his party’s defeat. For a while it seems that his brother joined him, and towards the end it seems that his children did, though apparently his wife never did: it was indeed a life lived on the periphery, the margins, of all he loved.

Allegorical Portrait of Dante, c. 1530
(Oil on wood, 127 x 120 cm)
BY Agnolo Bronzino
National Gallery of Art, Washington

For several years he wrote treatises and some canzone, and then he began his great work, The Divine Comedy, which can be read as a poetic structuring of his wandering life, a gradual informing of his life with purpose and direction. Indeed, he begins: “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrova per una selva oscursa” (“Midway on our life’s journey / I found myself within a dark wood”). He accepts as his guide not the popular writers of his day, but Virgil, who leads him out of the dark wood at the very periphery of physical, political and spiritual life, and who finally gives Dante the direction he needed to construct in poetry a world to replace the one he lost and at the same time to savagely satirize his political enemies whom he places grotesquely among the fires of hell for all time. In a sense, he makes a new center of his marginalized situation. “We ourselves and our things come and go, pass and return; nothing belongs to us which does not become alien to us; all things alive eventually become our own,” writes Dante’s near contemporary, Girordano Bruno in Teleology of Heaven and Earth. And Bruno, the scientist burnt at the stake for suggesting the ultimate in peripheral thinking — life on another planet — serves as a reminder to us of how high the stakes are in establishing a periphery, and how alienated this makes the individual thinker.

This double motion, building a new center at the periphery and finding a way to poetically deal with whatever power structure keeps one at the periphery, provides a paradigmatic definition for what we might call the disenfranchised or marginalized writer. And certainly the exiled Dante serves well as the paradigmatic poet of the periphery. And yet what Dante learns in the Commedia, especially through his experiences with the follies of the cheats, gossips and political and literary panderers of his day, is that the poet’s proper place is not in the center but on the circumference. … freedom is at the essence of poetry in every respect, but it is a freedom, as Wallace Stevens says, which pushes against ‘the pressure of reality,’ that fights against the central forces in a society. It is a lesson he might well have learned from many writers before him — writers like Ovid, for example, banished to the Black Sea by the Roman emperor, or like Virgil himself, who was constantly worried about his status under Augustus. This is not to suggest that the poet should, by some grand sacrificial gesture, ostracize himself or herself, or should delight in a life lived on the periphery, but rather to suggest that most good poetry is in fact written from the point of view of an outsider, and that it is the task of the writer to locate him or herself at such a periphery. Certainly, freedom is at the essence of poetry in every respect, but it is a freedom, as Wallace Stevens says, which pushes against “the pressure of reality,” that fights against the central forces in a society. In fact, even Stevens was highly secretive about his own work, and first published, like Williams and Pound, in small, marginal presses. And it is for this reason that so many American writers, the so-called “Lost Generation” of the twenties, for example, and writers like Richard Wright and James Baldwin in the fifties went to France to distance themselves from the center of American literary life, to live their literary careers at some margin. Similar motives certainly played a part in the Beat movement of the fifties and for the language poets of today.

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