Perhaps it was seeing an illustration of Henry Holiday’s painting, ‘Dante and Beatrice’, in a history text book at school in Jamaica that started my fascination with the Divine Comedy; for I remember that I had a premonition that this poet and whatever primal force it was that rendered him so undone by the sight of this woman, was destined to play a part in my life. At the time I was busy burning all my poems because I was terrified of what poetry would demand from me. This poet was demanding that I go with him through hell. I did not want to go.
I trained as a painter, but I could not escape Dante. He kept turning up in my art history books. That portrait of him in red, by Giotto, somehow always brings me to tears. I do not know why. I was constantly being reminded of him through artists like his namesake, the Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti and by the pure-in-heart William Blake. Dante manifested in the work of every major poet and writer I ever read. I saw how Derek Walcott, Kamau Braithwaite, Seamus Heaney, and Thomas Merton, writers I leaned on for support and nourishment, leaned on him.
Then literally midway through the journey of my life, in the midst of a dismantling brought on by hurricanes within and without, I turned to really reading the Divine Comedy. I began to understand why I always had a sure appointment with this poet: uncompromising as an old testament prophet, stern as a Rastafarian elder, and loving and compassionate as my own and the divine mother. This poet and his monumental work guided me through my own version of Inferno and Purgatorio, and gave me permission to contemplate Paradiso.
In 2000, I was invited by the South Bank Center to do a rendering of one of the cantos from the Inferno. I chose canto 15- Brunetto Latini; and in this talk I will speak about the writing of it and of other cantos from the Divine Comedy that I have attempted since then, setting them in Jamaica and employing Jamaican vernacular. I will also read some of my own poems that have come under his influence.
Lorna Goodison is a major figure in world literature, she was the Poet Laureate of Jamaica (2017–2020), and in 2019 she was awarded the 2019 Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. Goodison has won many other awards for her work, including the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize for Poetry from Yale University, the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, the Musgrave Gold Medal from Jamaica, the Henry Russel Award and the Shirley Verett award for Exceptional Creative Work from the University of Michigan, and one of Canada’s largest literary prizes, the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction for From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People (2007). Her Collected Poems was published in 2017. She is the author of twelve books of poetry, three collections of short stories, an award winning memoir and a recent collection of essays, and her poems have been included in major anthologies and collections of contemporary poetry such as the Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, the HarperCollins World Reader, the Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry, the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, and Longman Masters of British Literature. Her work has also been translated into many languages, with individual collections of poetry in German, French, and Spanish. Lorna Goodison is Professor Emerita at University of Michigan, where she was the Lemuel A. Johnson Professor of English and African and Afroamerican Studies. She lives in Halfmoon Bay, British Columbia, with her husband Ted Chamberlin.
A lecture on the occasion of the publication of The Oxford Handbook of Dante in cooperation with Équipe littérature et culture italiennes (Sorbonne Université) and Bard College Berlin
Moderated by Jason Allen-Paisant, Francesco Giusti, and Laura Scuriatti