Smithyman / Quasimodo (2003)

Richard Reeve & Nick Ascroft, ed.: Glottis: New Writing 8 (2003)

Smithyman / Quasimodo

A man cannot say ‘I will translate’, any more than he can say ‘I will compose poetry’.
– Helen Waddell, Mediaeval Latin Lyrics (1929)

Salvatore Quasimodo (1901-1968)

The catalyst was a dual-text “Italian issue” of Poetry Australia (22/23) from 1968. When Kendrick Smithyman finally got around to reading it sometime in the early eighties, his response to some rather clumsy literal versions by Mary and Walter de Rachewiltz – Ezra Pound’s daughter and son-in-law – was to growl: “I could do better.”

He proceeded to prove his point using the poems included there, then went on to ransack all the other Italian anthologies and single-author translations he (or, after his retirement from Auckland English Department in 1987, his wife Margaret Edgcumbe) could find on the shelves of the University Library.[1]

The result was a massive collection of 211 poems, translated from 15 different Italian modernists, ranging in time from Dino Campana (1885-1932) to the still active Eglio Pagliarani (1927-?). The scope of this enterprise still seems astonishing, especially when one considers that he spoke little or no Italian, and therefore had to work from the half-truths of “literal” versions – and other translators.

By 1993, he was ready to submit the collection for publication – first to Auckland University Press, then Carcanet in Manchester. Neither proved able to take it. I first found out about these Versions from Italian shortly after his death in 1995, when Professor Don Smith lent me his own copy of the typescript prepared for the two publishers.

So what are the poems like? Sheer bulk is no guarantee of success, and the nowadays-not-infrequent practice of translating from languages one doesn’t know could hardly be said to inspire an unquestioned confidence. I don’t think I can really improve here on what I said about them in my essay “Smithyman in Italian,” published in Landfall 197 (1999):

I feel that [these translations] liberated a side of Smithyman which was at times obscured by the conscious artifice, the ironic masks of so much of his poetry. They are, I would suggest, best read thus – as a substantial addition to the canon of his own work, rather than a window on the Italians. (73)

I only had space there to talk about the versions from Montale. I couldn’t do more than touch on his engagement with the poet Salvatore Quasimodo (1901-1968), who seems to have appealed to him far more. In fact, he ended up translating more than half of Quasimodo’s collected works: 132 out of 195 poems. The nearest rivals in the collection are Sandro Penna and Eugenio Montale (22 and 26 poems, respectively).

So why Quasimodo? What was it about him that spoke to Smithyman particularly? If what Helen Waddell says in the quotation above is true, then a poet’s choice of poets to translate ought to say a good deal about both of them.

Christ’s lice! What do you expect?
Nothing in the world changes, and Man
proclaiming love and discord still shrugs
his raven wings closer together
against the rain. From the beginning
you’ve never wanted for blood. Only a sheep
with scruffy head and salt-packed eyes
turned round on the way back.
But nothing happens. Moss on its walls
is firstcome chronicle of a city
of some remote farflung archipelago.
– Quasimodo “Altra risposta” (1958)

I’ve been amusing myself by drawing up a table of comparisons between Quasimodo and his counterpart in our “remote farflung archipelago:”

Kendrick Smithyman (1922-1995)

Salvatore Quasimodo / Kendrick Smithyman

Q: Born in Modica (near Ragusa) in 1901, but moves to Sicily at the age of seven. /
S: Born in Te Kopuru (near Dargaville) in 1922,
but moves to Auckland at the age of ten

Q: After studying in Rome, lives most of his life in Milan, with brief intervals away. /
S: After studying in Auckland,
lives most of his life there, with brief intervals away

Q: Doesn’t join the Resistance during the Second World War, though he espouses anti-fascist attitudes. /
S: Joins the army during the Second World War,
but is stationed at home and on Norfolk Island

Q: Early, lyrical love poems give way to tortured asceticism, then a resonant political identification with the Italian people during the war. /
S: Early, self-doubting love poems give way to daunting intellectualism,
then an increasingly relaxed sense of place and people from the sixties onwards

Some similarities at once stand out. Both came from the backblocks (Sicily; Te Kopuru) to the metropolis, and for both this remained a dominant theme. Both had rather muted war service, apparently preferring the role of spokesperson to Byronic (d’Annunzio-esque) man-of-action. Despite some striking successes in that genre, both found the role of love poet difficult to sustain. The differences, though, are even more striking:

Quasimodo is a poet apotheosised by crisis. His early work, collected in Ed è subito sera [Suddenly, Evening] (1942), was fierce enough. The indignation of these poems at the fact of death: death of love, destruction of the natural world, immediately distinguished him from his more urbane contemporaries. However, it was the Second World War which really defined him. The editor of his complete poems remarks: “While remaining antifascist, he [didn’t] take an active part in the resistance.”[2] All that changed in 1946-47, with the issue of his collection of war poems Giorno dopo giorno [Day after day], welcomed for its assertion of a “reclaimed human dignity.”[3] It won him a Nobel Prize in 1959.

Smithyman, on the other hand, is a poet bound up by landscape (particularly the Northland he grew up in and continually revisited), and language (the convolutions and ambiguities of English syntax) – a writer intensely suspicious of grand attitudes and romantic self-aggrandisement. No Nobel prize for him. No activist posturing during the Vietnam war. And yet, it’s interesting to contrast the Quasimodo poem quoted above with Smithyman’s “Ambush:”

It happens like that, you are not prepared
bursts of automatic fire dadadida,
then a single shot da from unseen marksmen
kingfishers, targeting. It happens
like that, as suddenly, a bagatelle and no
one is to blame if fear is all
mixed up with loving.
(Auto/biographies, 24)

“Fear is all / mixed up with loving.” The sheep, the lice, the raven in Quasimodo are props – bits of realia brought in to illustrate a point. The “kingfishers, targetting” in Smithyman seem more tangible than his bullets.

What the two poets have in common is a sense of drama, of intensity. Quasimodo, however, has what Smithyman lacks – a belief in his own historical consequence, which enables him to transform particularities into a larger set of parables about love and death and war. It would be pompous for Smithyman to assert such grandiosity. Ventriloquising Quasimodo, could it perhaps seem legitimate?

That’s how I interpret the late (unpublished) poem “Reading Quasimodo:”

remembering (thinking I remembered?)
(I’d been reading Quasimodo) reading about
night, when bombers came.

Gunfire downriver announced:
noise, in what folk formerly called
“the Heavens”, as though it were all
an oldfashioned playhouse, open to
elements. We waited moonrise, the moon rose
flowering past cross stations, beyond simile.
It was the moon. It did not flower.

The bombers came. They were bombers
not monotone birds. They’d no fine feathers.
They let fall neither eggs nor untimely dung.
They were searching the river, they found
the river. They looked for docks, ware
houses, power plants. In their foreign language
they droned, tediously debating.

We burned angrily. That was the night
the sugar refinery flared, and ran.
Tenders, men with hoses, trapped
in floods of toffee, baked, charred,
glazed, innocent of carnival.

Incendiaries fell in course.
Some wasted among park trees, some in roosts
on storage depots, factories, wharf sheds,
fragmented. Flocks shocked by noise dazed
by lights caught fire, rose and flew.
Sparks did not fly like birds, they were birds.

Truly, we did this, we saw that? Truly, we did.
Collected Poems IX: 1985-87 (20.7.85)

The poem is a maze of contradictions, of memories cancelling each other out. “the moon rose / flowering past cross stations, beyond simile. / It was the moon. It did not flower.” Did the moon rise flowering? No, of course it didn’t. It was the moon. Moons don’t “flower.” “The bombers came. They were bombers / not monotone birds.” They weren’t birds, they had no feathers, they didn’t lay eggs or “untimely dung” – they were bombers. They dropped bombs.

“Beyond simile” is the key phrase here. When experience becomes ungraspable, unbelievable, it becomes pointless to look for analogies. How can one define the indefinable? How can one believe that such things happened? “Truly, we did this, we saw that?” They did. “Truly, we did.” They do.

The sparks “did not fly like birds,” they were birds.

Kipling once said that when you knew how to do something, it was time to do something you couldn’t. In some ways, late Smithyman was in his most experimental phase, most anxious to attempt the peaks he’d never managed before. Quasimodo, then, can be seen as one of the vehicles he employed to express the hitherto inexpressible: moral indignation, rage against pain and injustice – those things we want so desperately to say but which tend to choke us the moment we begin.

Is it a good translation? Yes, I think it is. But more than that, it’s an essential part in the jigsaw puzzle (Atua Wera, Last Poems, Imperial Vistas Family Fictions) which is gradually revealing to us the work of one of New Zealand’s greatest poets.


1. Among others: Contemporary Italian Poetry: An Anthology, ed. Carlo L. Golino (Berkeley: U of California P, 1962); Eugenio Montale, It Depends: A Poet’s Notebook, trans. G. Singh (New York: New Directions, 1980); The Selected Writings of Salvatore Quasimodo, ed. Allen Mandelbaum (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1960); This Strange Joy: Selected Poems of Sandro Penna, trans. W. S. Di Piero (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1982).
2. Salvatore Quasimodo, Tutte le poesie, ed. Gilberto Finzi (Milano: Mondadori, 1995) xxii: “Pur essendo antifascista, non prende parte attiva alla Resistenza. Tuttavia, nel ‘44, viene denunciato da una nota spia fascista.”
3. “ritrovata dignità umana” – Tutte le poesie, xxii.

Works Cited:

  • Quasimodo, Salvatore. Tutte le Poesie. A cura di Gilberto Finzi. 1995. Milano: Mondadori, 1998.
  • Ross, Jack. “Smithyman in Italian.” Landfall 197 (1999): 70-73.
  • Smithyman, Kendrick. Auto/Biographies. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1992.
  • Smithyman, Kendrick. [Unpublished]. Collected Poems IX: 1985-87.
  • Smithyman, Kendrick. [Unpublished]. Versions from Italian (Quasimodo; Campana to Montale). (134 & 83 poems, respectively).


Glottis: New Writing 8 (2003): 91-96.

[1558 wds]

Glottis 8 (2003)

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