Montale in English
Baird, Robert P., Chicago Review
Montale in English. Edited by Harry Thomas. New York: Handsel Books, 2005. 247pp. $17
Eugenic Montale once wrote that what interested him most in art was its "second life," by which he meant the moment of "common consumption and misunderstanding" when a poem, painting, or piece of music unmoors itself from its formal aesthetic reception and heads "back into the streets" to become a part of life. On these terms we might think of translation as a particular and peculiar mode of the second life of art, a sort of halfway house between the ballroom and the bar.
It is our good fortune that the second life of Montale's poetry in English has been nearly as long and as happy as its first life in Italian. In 1928, just three years after Montale's Ossi di Seppia appeared in Italy, T.S. Eliot published translations by Mario Praz in the Criterion. (Montale returned the favor by translating three of Eliot's poems for an Italian journal.) In the following decades, his poetry would find important friends in Irma Brandeis, James Merrill, and Bernard Wall, but it was Robert Lowell's inclusion of ten poems in his Imitations (1962) that secured Montale's place in the Anglophone imagination as the Italian poet of the twentieth century, the greatest since Leopardi, if not Petrarch.
In the forty-odd years since Imitations, the efforts of a dedicated and distinguished coterie of Montaliste-William Arrowsmith, Jonathan Galassi, G. Singh, and Charles Wright at their head-have brought nearly the whole of Montale's oeuvre into English. Montale in English, a new anthology of Montale translations brilliantly conceived and executed by Harry Thomas, serves as both a catalogue of these efforts and an object lesson in the art and craft of translation.
Montale in English includes poems from the whole of Montale's career. The poems of the so-called "High Season," which spans Ossi di Seppia (1925), Le occasioni (1939), and La bufera e altro (1956), comprise a whole literature unto themselves. Mythic in scope and metaphysical in concern, these poems never leave behind the low walls, salt air, and harsh sun of the Ligurian coastline. They are addressed throughout to a persistent and enigmatic other, often named Clizia (after Clitie, the forlorn of Apollo), whom critics have identified with Brandeis in life and Beatrice in art; other times, as here, she is simply called "you":
You know: I have to give you up again
and I can't. Each action, every shout
jars me like a perfect shot,
even the salt breeze that floods the wharves,
and breeds the lightless spring
Thomas has also wisely included a number of examples from among the retrobottega, the series of "back of the shop" poems that began, after a 15-year poetic silence, with Satura in 1971 and that continued to the poet's death ten years later. These are the poems-invariably described by critics as dry, ironic, and disillusioned-that Mentale liked to compare to a famous Italian magician's act, at the end of which the audience was invited backstage to see how the tricks were accomplished.
Thomas claims as his principle to "let the reader see much of what there is to see" and this extends to his selection of translators as well as poems. Moniale in English brings together fifty-six poet-translators ranging from Edith Farnsworth and Samuel Beckett to Jeremy Reed and Jorie Graham, proving that if politics makes strange bedfellows, poetry makes them stranger still. And with a diversity of translators comes a diversity of styles. Thomas writes, "I have wanted to represent the range of kinds of poetic translation," and so he has given us everything from lineated trots to Lowell's imitations to Edwin Morgan's inspired Scots rendition of "Upupa":
Peeweet, ye're a blithe-like birdie! …