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Journal, Day Two
When I’m not working on work work, which could be all the time every day if I let it (like everyone else), I’m often absorbed in a translation project. I started working on translations in my mid-twenties when a friend asked me to try to do a version of the great Italian poet Eugenio Montale’s “Xenia,” a series of poems that constitute an elegy for his wife. . . .
That challenge led me to twenty-five years of involvement with Montale’s work and four books of translations, culminating in a Collected Poems 1920-1954, which gathered together the major phase of his poetry. Doing that book—it took me thirteen years of off-and-on work—was the most rewarding aesthetic and intellectual experience of my life: applying myself to the poems one by one, but also trying to understand what was behind them, what they really said, which involved a large and long investigation both of Italian modernism and the Italian lyric tradition, which you could say Montale brought to its (current) fruition. I call the book my Ph.D., because I learned so much in the process. But what I learned most of all was about writing, pure and simple. Montale’s work inevitably grew and deepened through the years of his writing; and my own understanding of it and ability to confront it necessarily did as well. It’s always useful to have other translations to look at, to work against, and even to steal from on occasion. I was lucky in having several provocative antagonists—particularly William Arrowsmith and, more dauntingly, Robert Lowell. Would I like to redo the whole thing? Well, yes, and no. Life is too short, I guess, but I’m sure there are better solutions to many of the intractable problems the poems present. If poems are never finished, only abandoned, this is ten times true of translations.
For the past several years, I’ve been applying myself to the poems of Giacomo Leopardi. After Montale, I couldn’t see going forward; I wanted to try something truly different, and so now I’ve gone and bitten off much more than I can chew. Leopardi (1798-1837) is the father of the modern European lyric. In poems like “L’infinito,” “A Silvia,” and ”Il passero solitario” he definitively sets the terms for the modern poet’s presentation of self. That’s the easy part. What’s much more difficult are the many other things that Leopardi is up to in his inventive, restless, always experimental work: political exhortation, philosophical investigation, harsh criticism of the present and the notion of progress. He was a gifted classical scholar and arguably the best writer of Italian prose as well; his several-thousand-page notebook, the Zibaldone, is one of the greatest works in Italian literature. Leopardi included only 41 poems in his Canti, the collection I’m trying to translate, but the variety of styles and themes is stunning. Often, it feels way over my head. But I have some ideas about how to proceed, and I hope before too long to come out from under Leopardi’s shadow. Then maybe I’ll be ready to turn to Montale’s later poetry. God knows I’ll be an old man myself by then . . .