Stopped mid-motion in the middle
Of what we call a life, I looked up and saw no sky –
Only a dense cage of leaf, tree, and twig. I was lost.
– Canto I, Inferno (trans. Mary Jo Bang)
I’d heard a bit of the current buzz over Mary Jo Bang‘s new free-verse, free-wheeling translation of Dante‘s Inferno, published by Graywolf Press. The commentary I’ve read to date seemed bemused, mostly admiring. However, Vanity Fair‘s Elissa Schappell warns me that “Bang’s Inferno already has some corduroy-vested academics tugging on their beards with indignation and beetle-browed translators jabbing at their eyes with pencils.” She offers more hepped-up writing than she does insight about the “thrillingly contemporary translation of the first part (the juiciest part) of Alighieri’s 14th century poem…” Why is the Inferno considered “the juiciest part”? Anna Akhmatova kept Doré’s engravings of it on the walls of her Fontanka apartment – but then, she was living in Soviet Russia, a place where the Inferno had a special resonance. I’ve always taken a shine to the hopeful, redemptive, and comparatively underrated Purgatorio.
I also read Alexander Nazaryan‘s “What Fresh Hell is This?” in the New York Daily News. He admits that Bang “does sacrifice some of the musicality of the original,” but defends her choices: “Bang has sacrificed some of the faithfulness to Dante’s rhyming structure (which sounds too much like sing-song in English, anyway) and has ditched many, though not all, of Dante’s allusions, in order to preserve something more important: Dante’s meaning.”
Ummm… A good translation of Dante’s terza rima shouldn’t sound like “sing-song,” and I don’t see why I should be restricted to a bread-and-water poetry because some modern readers can’t handle meter. Poetry, after all, is supposed to be “memorable speech,” and not just because of what the words say, but the means used to say them. And don’t the allusions illustrate the meaning?
Bang’s hell is our culture, the numbing proliferation of texts, images, meanings, interpretations. For her, the perfervid busyness of our culture leads to a deadening akin to spiritual numbness. Hence the allusions to everything from Woody Allen‘s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” to the Boy Scouts to frozen Jell-O to the Hotel California – these are the fragments that have shored up against our ruins, to borrow from T.S. Eliot, who knew a thing or two about Dante, and death, and fittingly appears several times in these pages.
Isn’t “spiritual numbness” the same as deadening and not just “akin”? Editor, please! Also, Eliot knew much more than “a thing or two” about Dante.
Signorelli’s self-portrait. Fra Angelico has the short hair.
Then David Sanders‘s “Poetry News in Review” in Prairie Schooner alerted me to Arlice Davenport‘s thoughtful and provocative review, “A Season in Hell,” in (of all places) The Wichita Eagle. Davenport begins his review in Luca Signorelli‘s (not Luco, as written in the review) Brizio Chapel in the Orvieto Cathedral, with the artist portraying himself at the Apocalypse, “staring back at us, as if to say: Do you understand the meaning of my masterpiece, that I am painting your destiny here, among the damned and the saved?”
Nazaryan’s review begins: “All translation is modernization. Otherwise, we would have only one Homer, one Cervantes. However subtly, the translator is also an interpolator, making a world far away or long ago familiar to contemporary readers.” This of course ignores the translation of our contemporaries – do Italo Calvino or Eugenio Montale need “modernization”? Also, he overlooks the need to triangulate among translations to recapture the achievement of the original. Similarly, Bang writes: “Translation is a method of bringing the past back into the present . . . and sharing what is common to all.”
“No, that is history,” Davenport responds. “Translation is not about making the old new, but about creating a spirited equivalency of a literary work in another language.” He continues:
A great translation must contain the original, to be sure, but it must also reshape it into a fresh, artistically integral whole that speaks to the reader directly, powerfully, profoundly in his or her own language. It must enact, in foreign words, the closest approximation of the original it can muster. It must be beautiful, compelling, ensouled.
Translation doesn’t need contemporary bells and whistles to pull this off. It doesn’t need pragmatic theories of art. It genuinely aspires to the heavenly exchange of language, even if it must descend to Hell to get there.
Anything less leaves us feeling cheated, still lost in a dark wood, facing our fears, facing death, facing eternal punishment, and praying for a luminous guide to come our way.
Davenport asks: Is the spiffy new translation a translation at all? Then he considers other issues:
As with so many knee-jerk postmodernists, Bang’s poetics hinge on the belief that the “distinction between high culture and popular entertainment has all but ceased to exist.” So she’s free to throw in references to John Coltrane, “South Park,” Emily Dickinson, Andy Warhol, John Wayne Gacy, Stephen Colbert and Woody Allen, whenever it suits her purposes. Her Dante dwells in a pluralist’s paradise, even if he is in Hell.
But to say that contemporary culture no longer recognizes the difference between high and low art is not to say that there is no difference. It simply means that our culture has given up making the effort to sustain the difference. It is (again, ironically) a form of sour grapes.
Let’s look a little closer at Bang’s big idea. Doesn’t the fact that she, an award-winning poet, has to dig 700 years into the past to find a poem worth laboring over ultimately indict the vacuity of contemporary poetry?
Doesn’t her need to focus so intensely on Dante simply reinforce the unshakeable distinction between high and low art? Contemporary poets still idolize the author of “The Divine Comedy” because his grand, celestial achievement overreaches the centuries. His aim is sky high and heart deep: Divine Love and human love, reflected in the radiant visage of Virgil, and fulfilled in the heavenly reunion with Beatrice, his beloved.
Art doesn’t get much higher than that.
I worry about how we review poetry nowadays, and how much reviewers know about poetry at all, and what body of knowledge, experience, and understanding they bring to what they write. Or do they simply go by their gut?
Postscript 8/20: From the matchless Jeff Sypeck: “I find it maddening that in 2012, Vanity Fair can’t provide us with a simple link so we know which ‘corduroy-vested academics’ are supposedly ‘tugging on their beards with indignation’ and which ‘beetle-browed translators’ are ‘jabbing at their eyes with pencils.’ It’s summer, and the book’s was out for a only week when the Vanity Fair blog post went live. Few academics, and certainly not the stereotypes who stumbled into Schappell’s article from early 1950s New England, have even read the book yet.”