Posts Tagged ‘Dante Alighieri’

“Oy!” said Dante…and no parking on the sidewalks.

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014
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“Ahi…”

We visited Robert Pogue Harrison today, and that short tête-à-tête reminded us of the excellent piece he wrote a few months ago, “Dante: The Most Vivid Version” in the New York Review of Books. It was a fascinating essay (read it here), but he had reservations about the Clive James version of the first canto of The Divine Comedy, and compared it unfavorably to Mary Jo Bang‘s translation:

Clive James gives us a much less dramatic version:

At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out….

James omits the all-important pronoun “our,” and his smooth cadence does not suit the emotion of panic nearly as well as Bang’s staccato version. The only reason James tacks on “I found” to the first line, and then tacks on “the way” to the second, is for the sake of a rhyme (James decided to cast his translation in quatrains, and to rhyme them abab). James’s version continues:

 The keening sound
I still make shows how hard it is to say
How harsh and bitter that place felt to me—

To interpolate a “keening sound” here is ludicrous, for at the start of the poem Dante has just returned from the luminous realm of Christian beatitude, so he would not “still” be wailing or shrieking with grief. The distortion seems a high price to pay for the sake of a rhyme.

Antony Shugaar of Charlottesville, Virginia disagreed. His letter was published some time ago, but we just found it today, here, and share it with you today:

Careful.

Careful.

I’m a professional translator from the Italian, and a longtime aficionado of Dante. I therefore read Robert Pogue Harrison’s piece with great interest. I feel that Professor Harrison may have slighted Clive James’s version on one point. “To interpolate a ‘keening sound’ here is ludicrous,” he writes. And yet, there is a keening sound present in Dante’s Italian, unless my eyes deceive me.

The fourth line of The Divine Comedy begins with the word “Ahi,” which represents a sound and a thought that we have in English only at a barely articulated level. It sounds like “eye,” but with a twist: “iyiyi” is one way I’ve seen it written in English. It is a slightly modified version of the sound an Italian might make after hitting himself on the thumb with a hammer. It is, in short, a keening sound. And as you can see, rendering it in English is no simple matter. Thus, James editorialized.

Longfellow rendered it as: “Ah, me.” Not a keening sound, perhaps, but neither is it the sound you’d expect from someone just back from the “luminous realm of Christian beatitude.” Longfellow’s version sounds like a maiden aunt. Dante’s did not, and in fairness to James, he rendered it, clearly and accurately, by editorializing.

It all goes to show the meaning that you can wring out of a careful reading of Dante.

We googled a bit, and found Shugaar on a number of websites. On this one, he explains his philosophy on translating from the Italian. Here’s an excerpt from Publishing World:

Of course, I understand the idea of preserving certain aspects for philological reasons. There is a translation of Machiavelli’s Discourses that intentionally reads as if it were written by a Martian, because it closely follows the sixteenth-century original, to give a perfect mirroring of certain terms. But it’s a pity, because Machiavelli was also a stylist.

But I believe that a translator should have freedom. Obviously, with freedom comes responsibilities. The responsibility to be absolutely faithful to the author’s intent (and that intent can only be found in the words of the original, so those words must be read closely). If you think the author’s intent was to write something weird, awkward, and foreign-sounding, embrace that. But on the whole, I think that if it sounded idiomatic in the original, you’re failing the author if you produce anything less than that in English.

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Translator Shugaar

I’m happy to produce a fully annotated version of anything I translate, showing where every element came from. Occasionally I’ll invent a joke or a pun to account for one that couldn’t come across. But that adheres to the law of the conservation of meaning: meaning can neither be lost nor destroyed in a closed translational system.

William Weaver once said that the hardest word in Italian to translate is “Buongiorno.” First of all, we think of it as two words. Second of all, it doesn’t mean “Good day,” except perhaps to an Australian. I often leave words like that in Italian. Unless, of course, the Italian novel is set in New York with American characters. For instance. Or Paris. Or Tokyo.

In Italian settings, you can have odd issues of style, protocol, and engineering. For instance, I remember a short story by Valeria Parrella that talking about someone moving from the road to the sidewalk. But in many places in Italy, the road is made of slabs of stone, and the sidewalk is paved with asphalt. Sort of the reverse of Brooklyn. So you might want to give the reader a tip as to which surface is asphalt, which stone. Or the fact that a sidewalk is where you park your car, now that we’re on the topic (that was a narrative point in a book by Fabio Bartolomei). The best illustration of that point I can think of was a street-cleaning/no-parking sign I saw in Milan many years ago. “Street cleaning next Wednesday, 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. Absolutely NO parking, NOT EVEN ON THE SIDEWALKS.” There you have it.

“It hurts, but you won’t die.” Stanford poet Rodney Koeneke on Dante and omelettes

Sunday, April 20th, 2014
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Purgatorio’s Canto 27: Botticelli’s version

Yesterday’s “Company of Authors” event exceeded expectations – and we can expect a lot. Peter Stansky‘s annual recap of Stanford books was an intellectual shake-up – as he put it afterwards, “I think it is pretty exhilarating to hear what is going on at Stanford in terms of splendid writing.”

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Not jangly at all.

And what of my little panel on “The Power of Poetry,” which I described a few days ago? I must confess that I had a little trepidation about Rodney Koeneke‘s Etruria (Wave Books, 2014). He is an early member of the Flarf Collective, “a group of poets working in loose collaboration on an email listserve, mining the internet for their work, producing jangly, cut-up textures, speediness, and bizarre trajectories,” as I explained at the event. We at the Book Haven try to be avant-garde, really, but still… so imagine my surprise when out of his mouth rolled this lovely meditation about a subject dear to our hearts, Dante Alighieri – echoing Robert Harrison‘s insistence of movement as a theme of the Divine Comedy in general, and of the Purgatorio, in particular, since it’s the only one of the three realms in which time exists – we wrote about that here

The affinity is not happenstance: Rodney said that reading Stanford’s John Freccero and teaching Purgatorio Stanford students years ago were “two sparks for the poem” – then he added, “so it’s nice to have it come home, as it were, to the Haven.”  Our pleasure. Poem below.

As for the panel itself?  Said Rodney: “Only Peter Stanksy could put a scramble of authors together like that and make it an omelette.”

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La Chevy Nova

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One of the great pivots in Christian history
occurs near the end of canto 27 of Dante’s Purgatorio, a
canto that opens with the pilgrim comparing the dying sky
to Christ’s vermillion wounds (note the “sun”
deftly figured here as “son”) and the Ebro
and the Ganges, which are rivers,
are empurpled—made royal—by noon
and a glad angel shows up to sing gladly
about the flame that will burn but also purifies,
which our pilgrim by the end of the canto will have to go through
like the muscles behind or just on top of the knee can burn
at the end of a long run, or perhaps (and here’s the pivot)
like the burning some do when they go from a car
at night’s end in a remote parking lot
where nothing is unseemly or sordid
but does in a fashion burn, but also does it purify
as history considered in its Christian dimension must also purify?

Dante, you’ll remember, has spent the preceding cantiche
skillfully working his personal crotchets
into a gargantuan cosmic structure — “I vividly recalled
the human bodies I had once seen burned” —
with his obduracy not once being softened;
yet he manages to nest this ugly effort
in the larger project of turning his passion for the dead Beatrice
into a redemptive program for himself, for time, the reeling stars,
the fishes, the beestes, the air and everything in it
itself and finally, one might point out, for movement itself
which is seen at the end from its center and revealed as an aspect of love.

Structure is on fire, and tercets are on fire, and process
is on fire, and motion is on fire; while the poem has learned
to preen and turn, pivot on, and no longer hurts, or points
at a world, or even at its status as an internally consistent
verbal object, only at the most tiresome conditions
of its own production.
.  .                                   . But I gaze at you and I burn
with a new vernacular; I see you, and I see vermillion,
your color—vermillion in the stoplights
and the stoplights ranged as stars
like the stars could spell out ‘B-E-A-T-R-I-C-E’
and would if they weren’t so dim and talky, stuck
in their orbits where it’s safe to promise love — “it
hurts, but you won’t die”—and you stew in a tepid
amor amicitiae, Socrates spooning
with Alicibiades, warm under sheets
against philosophy’s cold stars:
“It hurts, but you won’t die.”

That even a wound, even now, could make things pure
is enough to count me bitten
returned to the pivoting folds of this world:
count me hurt, count me bitten
Gulls distribute themselves over Oakland’s industrial center
like I leave you, come back to be near you
where I hear their glad song, or watch them scatter gladly
over the beautiful chords of this world;
and beautiful are the chords of this world
with you and everything in it;
Beautiful the Ebro above the phone lines
emitting its fine vermillion into morning
so pleasing to mine and to everybody’s eyes.
So do I live to look at you and so
does everyone: It hurts, but I won’t die —
a little sun, a little wound
“but through that little space I saw the stars.”

Medieval plays in modern times: Dickens, Dante, and La Pastorela

Friday, December 20th, 2013
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El Teatro Campesino’s “La Pastorela” (Photo: Lora Schraft/Morgan Hill Times)

Once a year our family, or various subsets of it, makes the trek to the town of San Juan Bautista to see El Teatro Campesino’s annual Christmas play. This year it was La Pastorela. Here’s the cool part:  it’s part of an ancient tradition of pastorelas, or shepherds’ plays, introduced into Mexico by Spanish monks centuries ago.  The program notes described its relationship vis-à-vis the medieval morality plays: “there are vague similarities betwen the Mexican and old English traditions, the Wakefield master’s version is more decidedly irreverant.”

The ghost of Christmas forever.

The first production took place in 1966, when the company, which was born in Cesar Chavez‘s historic grape strike, improvised before a live audience in a Christmas Eve performance with farm-workers as performers. Then, in 1976, after artistic director Luis Valedez relocated the group to the mission town south of San Jose, the company received an old dog-eared typed manuscript of La Pastorela from the mother of one of the young performers. Longina Montoya offered the company the script she had performed as a girl in her hometown of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, and she sang all the songs a cappella into a portable tape recorder. A tradition was reborn (see photos here). So now in Silicon Valley we have an opportunity to taste the medieval, via these old morality plays, often bawdy and funny, where good meets evil and good inevitably triumphs. Could there be more?  Yes!

I’ve never seen anyone link Dante and Charles Dickens  before, but over at the blog “Through a Glass Brightly,” blogger Kathryn (she doesn’t seem to have a last name)  finds a few parallels. Did Dickens, in fact, write a medieval morality play?  And was he inspired by Dante?  The evidence is intriguing.  Dickens may have written A Christmas Carol while he was touring Italy, where the Florentine poet is inescapable. She pulls together a few parallels:

First of all, both main characters begin in a dark wood—vividly illustrated as such in the Comedy and similarly rendered in chimney tops, alleyways, and dense fog in the Carol. The Pilgrim and the Miser have lost their way. Hence, they are taken on a mystical journey for the sake of their reclamation: Dante through Hell, Purgatory, & Heaven; Scrooge through the Past, Present, and Future. The three beasts that Dante meets before his journey begins (leopard, lion, and wolf) function similarly to the omens that Scrooge encounters on Christmas Eve: the hearse, the transformed door-knocker, the ringing bell. And when Dante first meets Virgil, the lines run,

dickensAnd when I saw him standing in this wasteland, “Have pity on my soul,” I cried to him, “whichever you are, shade or living man!” “No longer living man, though once I was,” [...]

Virgil explains to Dante:

“But you must journey down another road,” he answered, when he saw me lost in tears, “if ever you hope to leave this wilderness; [...]“

Likewise (though in the third person), Marley’s visit to Scrooge goes,

“How now!” said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever. “What do you want with me?” “Much!” — Marley’s voice, no doubt about it. “Who are you?” “Ask me who I was.” “Who were you then?”  said Scrooge, raising his voice.  “You’re particular, for a shade.”

Her conclusion finds inevitable differences in the spirit of medieval Italy and the spirit of Victorian England: “The Comedy is headed for brightness, aiming at ecstasy—much like the natural world does as it blossoms into spring at Easter. But the Carol turns in from the cold, burrows into warm hearth and good wine and loud laughter.”  Read the rest here. Meanwhile, the BBC offers another possibility for the origins of A Christmas Carol in one of Dickens’s least-read books, The Uncommercial Traveller:

marley“There was a man who, though not more than thirty, had seen the world in divers irreconcilable capacities – had been an officer in a South American regiment among other odd things – but had not achieved much in any way of life, and was in debt, and in hiding. He occupied chambers of the dreariest nature in Lyons Inn; his name, however, was not up on the door, or door-post, but in lieu of it stood the name of a friend who had died in the chambers, and had given him the furniture. The story arose out of the furniture… “

The story Dickens goes on to tell recounts how the failed adventurer finds a heap of old furniture in the cellar of his lodgings. Finding his rooms bare and cheerless, he borrows a writing-table, then a bookcase, then a couch and a rug, and soon has all of the furniture in his chambers. Some years later there is a knock on his door. A tall, red-nosed shabby-genteel man in a threadbare black coat enters the room and, pointing to each item of furniture, mutters: “Mine”.

Read the rest here.

christmas-carolPostscript:  And here’s yet another unusual take on A Christmas Carol, by the remarkable Morgan Meis, writing in The Smart Set a few years back.  He contends “A Christmas Carol isn’t great because it’s a great story. In fact, A Christmas Carol is a flimsy story. The characters are mostly clichés.” He argues for a different assessment of its greatness: “Later in the story, at the appearance of the first spirit, Dickens describes what happens as the ghost approaches Scrooge in his bed. ‘The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.’ The remarkable thing here is not so much that a ghost appeared to Scrooge but that Dickens himself is a ghost appearing to us. Dickens’ authorial voice does come directly into our heads at that moment. In this, the joy of writing becomes the very substance and content of the story. Almost no writer gets away with this kind of playfulness very often. Dickens gets away with it all the time. And A Christmas Carol is utterly charmless without that extra element, without Dickens constantly nipping at the heels of his own story. It makes me think that we ought to reconsider Dickens, to see him more in the light of a Lawrence Sterne than in the light of the straight shooters of 19th-century novel writing.” Read the whole thing here.

Happy 256th birthday, William Blake!

Thursday, November 28th, 2013
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William_BlakeIt’s Thanksgiving, and Hannukah… but who remembers that on this day 256 years ago, William Blake (1757-1827) was born on Broadwick Street in Soho?

A few of us do, and we thought it would be fun to celebrate with a few lesser known images, since he was recognized as an artist and engraver long before he was known as a poet.  We’ll begin with the 1820 portrait at left, by his friend John Linnell.

We continue below with Blake’s illustration for Canto I of Dante‘s Inferno.  Why?  Because we like Dante (see here and here, for starters) and, well, we also like lions.  We also include his illustration of “David Delivered out of Many Waters,” because it’s fantastic, in the literal sense of the word, and also because we like seraphims, with two of their six wings crossed underneath them like they’re waiting on a street corner for a bus.  (Blake seems to think they are cherubim, but we know better.)

Meanwhile, Time Out in London hasn’t forgotten the anniversary. Volunteers of Southbank Mosaics artisan studio have created 28 mosaics in tribute to the poet, which visitors can see on Centaur Street in Lambeth. The mosaics, under the tunnels near Waterloo station, show ten years’ worth of Blake’s output, created while he lived on nearby Hercules Road.  Check it out here.

Now go back to your Thanksgiving drinking and eating and belching – but spare a few thoughts, anyway, for the ur-poet of the Industrial Revolution, who, through words and images, showed us the new horrors and timeless possibilities for man in a bold new era.

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David Delivered out of Many Waters circa 1805 by William Blake 1757-1827

Hell’s future is bright (and hot), thanks to a new circle

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013
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You are here. (See yellow ring.)

I’ve long had a fantasy of rewriting Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, casting the three realms with characters from our own era.  I have the imagination – all I need is Dante’s genius.  But I had not envisioned adding a new circle, to accommodate hell’s population explosion.

Someone else beat me to it:  “After nearly four years of construction at an estimated cost of 750 million souls, Corpadverticus, the new 10th circle of Hell, finally opened its doors Monday.”  According to Inferno Antedeus, in recent years  a majority of the new arrivals possessed souls far more evil than the original nine circles could handle. “Demographers, advertising executives, tobacco lobbyists, monopoly-law experts retained by major corporations, and creators of office-based sitcoms–these new arrivals represent a wave of spiritual decay and horror the likes of which Hell has never before seen,” Antedeus said.

Frigax The Vile, one of the most vocal supporters of the new circle, agreed:  “In the past, the underworld was ill-equipped to handle the new breed of sinners flooding our gates–downsizing CEOs, focus-group coordinators, telemarketing sales representatives, and vast hordes of pony-tailed entertainment-industry executives rollerblading and talking on miniaturized cell-phones at the same time. But now, we’ve finally got the sort of top-notch Pits of Doom necessary to give such repellent abominations the quality boilings they deserve.”

It seems to be working:

“In life, I was a Salomon Brothers investment banker,” one flame-blackened shade told reporters. “When I arrived here, they didn’t know what to do with me. They put me in with those condemned to walk backwards with their heads turned all the way around on their necks, for the crime of attempting to see the future. But then I sent a couple of fruit baskets to the right people, and in no time flat, I secured a cushy spot for myself in the first circle of the Virtuous Unbaptized. Now that was a sweet deal. But before long, they caught on to my game and transferred me here to the realm of Total Bastards. I’ve been shrieking for mercy like a goddamn woman ever since.”

birthday cakeRead the rest here.

Postscript:  This post is a birthday present for fellow Dante-lover, Chris Bunje Lowenstein.  Read about her magic deck of Dante cards here.  Meanwhile, we’ve baked her a little cake.

 

Our birthday card for Petrarch: “his deepest torments are shockingly foreign”

Saturday, July 20th, 2013
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Where would we be without both of them?

sainte-claire-avignon

Met and buried here.

Happy birthday, Francesco Petrarca (a.k.a. Petrarch), born this day in 1304. What better way to celebrate the Tuscan poet’s birthday today than with this Venetian painting, circa 1510, which portrays him with the lady who rejected him in life, Laura de Noves? She rebuffed him for good reason; she was married with children at the time of their first meeting.  As Samuel Maio writes in his foreword to A.M. Justers translations, published by Birch Brook Press (2001), it was “a longing intensified by the cultural, religious, and moral fates that have deemed her unreachable. Perhaps this is the reason for our age’s attraction to Petrarch, that his deepest torments are shockingly foreign and mysteriously antiquated compared to our culture’s insistence on immediate (if not satisfactory) gratification of our every whim and concupiscent impulse.”

But I have become intrigued with both figures for other reasons, for I am in love with Avignon.

That small Provençal city is where the poet first encountered Laura.  She was born in Avignon during the Babylonian Captivity, when the city was the hub of Western Christendom.  Petrarch summed their relationship this way:

Laura, illustrated by her virtues and well-celebrated in my verse, appeared to me for the first time during my youth in 1327, on April 6, in the Church of Saint Claire in Avignon, in the first hour of the day; and in the same city, in the same month, on the same sixth day at the same first hour in the year of 1348, withdrew from life, while I was at Verona, unconscious of my loss…. Her chaste and lovely body was interred on the evening of the same day in the church of the Minorites: her soul, as I believe, returned to heaven, whence it came.

Plaque_dépossée_sur_la_façade_du_Couvent_Sainte-Claire_Avignon_by_JM_RosierOr, as he expressed it in his Canzioniere, in Juster’s translations:

Love, just when hope,
the yield from all my faith, had bloomed,
I lost the one whose mercy I assumed.

She died at the age of 38 in the year 1348, on April 6th, another Good Friday, and 21 years to the hour that Petrarch first saw her.  One biographer wrote that we know little about her except that she possessed great beauty. I rather doubt we know even that. I’ve known too many men to see extraordinary charm in ordinary faces, and enough of a Jungian to know that we project much of ourselves into the beloved. I suspect he saw in her, as his father’s chum Dante saw in another woman: grace and dignity and proportion and (let’s hope) a profound spiritual dimension that made her worthy of attention, though not inclined to be silly if she was ever aware of the rapture she had inspired. 

Recalling, perhaps, the Paschal associations with their meeting and her death, Petrarch wrote:

justerHe did not grace Rome when he came to Earth,
but chose Judea, for above all traits
it pleased Him to exalt humanity.

And so to show that He appreciates
both nature and my Lady’s place of birth,
a village sun becomes his legacy.

So let us celebrate both today, in the remaining hours of the day.  Were it not for her, we would not have Petrarch’s Canzoniere – and without the Canzoniere, I doubt we would be remembering this day with quite so much veneration.

Digging history

Saturday, July 6th, 2013
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The problem with most of my gardening efforts is that when I get excited about growing flowers or herbs, I go out and buy some books about the subject, and that satisfies the impulse entirely, and soon it goes away. I rarely get to the messy business of actually digging around in the dirt with my fingernails, what with worms and bugs and all.

belfryThis time I’ve gone so far as to actually get some seeds, thanks to Nora Munro over at The Belfry.  I met Nora through one of my favorite medievalists, Jeff Sypeck, over at Quid Plura.  His link to “où dort la mélancolie” enchanted and intrigued me. Nora is trying to grow as many authentically medieval plants as she can – but the mid-Atlantic weather isn’t helping.  ”I still love the flowery fields in mediaeval paintings, and it pleases more than is probably reasonable that this columbine is exactly the same as the ones in Hugo van der Goes‘ Portinari altarpiece of 1476,” she wrote.  Yes, it’s that Portinari family.  The altarpiece was commissioned by Tommaso Portinari, an agent for the Medici bank in Bruges, and he’s somehow related to Dante‘s beloved Beatrice.

Can you see the flowers in the altarpiece above?  I thought you wouldn’t.  Try looking at the photograph from Nora’s garden left.  Then compare with the enlargement from the Portinari altarpiece at right.  Pretty cool.  So I was thrilled when the envelope arrived from Annapolis a few hours ago with … my own seeds.

columbinesNow, I had thought columbines are supposed to symbolize folly, as in the “Columbine” character in commedia dell’arte.  But Nora corrects me: “During the Middle Ages, the flower was associated with the Holy Spirit (columbine < L. columba, dove).  In the Portinari Altarpiece, the detail I linked above with the columbines is in the central panel, as part of a depiction of the nativity, with lilies and irises, both of which were associated with the Virgin.”

The Enclopedia Britannica has yet another version: “The scattered violets indicate Christ’s humility; the columbine flowers represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit with which Christ was endowed at birth. The flowers in the albarello (pottery jar) are in royal colours, for Christ was of the royal line of the Israelite King David.”

But the big queston is: will they grow?  I’ll let you know how it goes…

“Corduroy-vested academics” and others consider Mary Jo Bang’s Inferno

Sunday, August 19th, 2012
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Luca Signorelli's masterpiece in Orvieto Cathedral

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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?

He continues:

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.”

When literary tête-à-têtes ends in fisticuffs…

Monday, March 26th, 2012
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The subject of the fistfight: Lewis and Tolkien

It’s not often that two guys having a literary discussion end up by hauling off and whacking each other. And yet  it happened in the city of my alma mater, after several hours of serious drinking:

A 34-year-old Ann Arbor man was sent to the hospital with a head injury after another man punched him on Saturday during a literary argument, according to police. … the man was sitting on the porch with some people he had just met, talking about books and authors.

The 34-year-old man was then approached by another party guest, who started speaking to him in a condescending manner. An argument ensued and the man was suddenly struck in the side of the head, suffering a cut to his left ear …

The injured man – who was smacked so hard his glasses flew off and a lens popped out – was treated at a local hospital.

The story jumped from Ann Arbor to The Guardian, whose blogger, Sam Jordison, telephoned Michigan to get the scoop:  “The details remain sketchy, but the prominent rumour around town is that the men were disputing the relative merits of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.”

Virgil says: Don't watch. Don't listen.

Then Jordison shares his own self-satisfaction and his derision of his betters (Henry James, for example, is “the old windbag”) – apparently, he never loses a fight and is always right, just like the rest of us.  (It is the one thing we all have in common.) Then he asks a question:

But all this does make me wonder whether anyone else has experienced book-based violence. Have you had a literary argument so heated that you’ve only been able to resolve it with blows? Or could you imagine doing so – or at least losing your cool? And what’s your tipping point? If, for example, I were to inform you that J.M. Coetzee‘s Disgrace is a clever book for people who don’t like to think, would you hold it against me? And how do you like to annoy other book-lovers?

Here’s a few.

Mailer, Gore

Mad men: Mailer, Gore

There’s the time Norman Mailer punched Gore Vidal. “As usual, words failed him,” quipped Vidal.

And two Nobel laureates ended a friendship when Mario Vargas Llosa socked Gabriel García Márquez – story recounted here and here.

Then there’s the fistfight between Ernest Hemingway and Wallace Stevens, confirmed by others but recounted by Hemingway in a February 1936 letter:

"Nice Mr. Stevens" and Hemingway

Nice Mr. Stevens. This year he came again pleasant like the cholera and first I knew of it my nice sister Ura was coming into the house crying because she had been at a cocktail party at which Mr. Stevens had made her cry by telling her forcefully what a sap I was, no man, etc. So I said, this was a week ago, ‘All right, that’s the third time we’ve had enough of Mr. Stevens.’ So headed out into the rainy past twilight and met Mr. Stevens who was just issuing from the door having just said, I learned later, ‘By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now I’d knock him out with a single punch.’

So who should show up but poor old Papa and Mr. Stevens swung that same fabled punch but fertunatly missed and I knocked all of him down several times and gave him a good beating. Only trouble was that first three times put him down I still had my glasses on. Then took them off at the insistence of the judge who wanted to see a good clean fight without glasses in it and after I took them off Mr. Stevens hit me flush on the jaw with his Sunday punch bam like that. And this is very funny. Broke his hand in two places. Didn’t harm my jaw at all and so put him down again and then fixed him good so he was in his room for five days with a nurse and Dr. working on him. But you mustn’t tell this to anybody.

The winners

Then there’s the time that Desmond Leslie punched journalist and theater critic Bernard Levin in front of 11 million viewers over an article Levin had written about his wife, the actress Agnes Bernelle. The incident occurred the TV show That Was The Week That Was in 1962.

I am forced to come to the conclusion that book-lovers are a quarrelsome lot, not so much from these incidents as from some of the unsupported character assassination in the reader replies (though they did tip me off about where to find the best fights). Basta! What is it in us that likes to watch a fight?  As Virgil says to Dante in the Inferno: “To hear such wrangling is a joy for vulgar minds.” It’s one reason the Inferno has always been more popular than the Purgatorio or the Paradiso. Something to remember when one indulges in the “Comments” sections.

The two who come out best from the whole mess are … those two tweedy Oxford dons, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  Lewis, in particular, was generous and self-sacrificing to an extreme, and though the two men disagreed, they remained gentlemen and friends.

W.H. Auden’s prose, and why art matters

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011
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If you haven’t already read it, I recommend Michael Wood‘s “I Really Mean Like” in one of last summer’s issues of the London Review of Books. He discusses The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose Vol. IV, 1956-62, edited by Edward Mendelson.

From Wood’s review:

Marianne Moore says of poetry that she too dislikes it; Eliot tells us that it doesn’t matter; Auden says it makes nothing happen. In fact, none of these propositions represents anything like the whole story for any of these poets, but there’s an element of affectation here all the same, an unseemly wooing of the philistine. Neither Mallarmé nor Valéry ever expressed any interest in a muse who didn’t bother to read poetry – they knew that the world was already full of people saying that it didn’t matter, and saw no reason to join the chorus, even out of strategy.

I wonder if it’s the difference between the French and the English – it’s so easy to sound hysterical in English. In French and Italian,  it doesn’t seem to matter.  Perhaps they are hysterical all the time, so it doesn’t count.

I like this:

… when Auden wants to evoke ‘a parable of agape’, or ‘Holy Love’, he talks about Bertie Wooster’s relation to Jeeves. Bertie in his blithering is a comic model of humility, and his reward is Jeeves’s immaculate and unfailing allegiance. There is also an appealing moment when Auden, suggesting that popular art is dead and that ‘the only art today is “highbrow”,’ suddenly remembers he has to make an exception: ‘aside from a few comedians’. He says he learned long ago that ‘poetry does not have to be great or even serious to be good, and that one does not have to be ashamed of moods in which one feels no desire whatsoever to read The Divine Comedy.’

Forget it.

Note to self:  Go back to The Dyer’s Hand, although Auden makes one weep with envy, not least of all for his aphorisms, like this one:

We enjoy caricatures of our friends because we do not want to think of their changing, above all, of their dying; we enjoy caricatures of our enemies because we do not want to consider the possibility of their having a change of heart so that we would have to forgive them.

Or these: “he says that ‘every good poem is very nearly a Utopia,’ and ‘every beautiful poem presents an analogy to the forgiveness of sins.’ And again, shifting to music but not exactly leaving the other arts behind: ‘Every high C accurately struck demolishes the theory that we are the irresponsible puppets of fate or chance.’”

Can poetry matter?  Wood answers:  “Art can’t redeem the world, and that is why we must be modest about it. But it can show us what redemption would look like, and this is why it matters.”