Kendrick Smithyman: Campana to Montale: Versions from Italian, ed. Jack Ross (2004)
A man cannot say ‘I will translate’, any more than he can say ‘I will compose poetry’.
– Helen Waddell, Mediaeval Latin Lyrics (1929)
Mary de Rachewiltz: Discretions (1971)
The catalyst was a dual-text “Italian issue” of Poetry Australia (22/23) from 1968. When Kendrick Smithyman finally got around to reading it 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 on the poems included there, then started to ransack all the other Italian anthologies and single-author translations he (or, after his retirement from the English Department in 1987, his wife Margaret Edgcumbe) could find on the shelves of Auckland University Library.
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 (as he entitled them) shortly after his death in 1995, when Professor D. I. B. Smith lent me his own copy of the typescript.
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 unquestioning confidence. I don’t think I can 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. 
Take Eugenio Montale as a case in point:
The gusts grow stronger, the dark is torn to bits
and the shadow which you cast on fretwork railings
creases and curls. Too late
if you want to be yourself. From a palm tree
a rat catapults, a flash of lightning plays about
about the so very long lashes of your glance.
That’s “Promenade by the Sea,” Smithyman’s version of “Lungomare” (1940):
Il soffio cresce, il buio è rotto a squarci,
e l’ombra che tu mandi sulla fragile
palizzata s’arriccia. Troppo tardi
se vuoi esser te stessa! Dalla palma
tonfa il sorcio, il baleno è sulla miccia,
sui lunghissimi cigli del tuo sguardo.
This “little madrigal” – Montale’s own description – is no standard love lyric. The images intersect in characteristically oblique fashion. What, for example, does “il baleno è sulla miccia” actually mean? Literally, it means “the lightning is on the fuse.” But in context? Nobody ever claimed that Montale was easy …
Let’s turn for pointers to another translation of Montale, the bilingual version of La bufera ed altro [The Storm and Other Things] (1956) – alas, that choice of title already gives us pause – by William Arrowsmith:
The air quickens, the darkness is shreds,
and your shadow falling on the frail
fence curls. Too late
if you want to be yourself! The fieldmouse
plops from the palm, lightning’s at the fuse,
on the long, long lashes of your gaze.
Here we begin to see what the poem is doing – how the coming storm echoes a nascent passion: “lightning’s at the fuse, / on the long, long lashes of your gaze.” I don’t much like “plops from the palm” – too excremental – and while “sorcio” is definitely a mouse rather than a rat, “fieldmouse” sounds a little too cosy. For all that, when I first encountered them, Arrowsmith’s beautiful grey-backed volumes of translations looked like the best Montale could hope for in English.
Back to Smithyman’s version. At first sight, all seems strange. The seascape is there, but the fuse has become the intensely quotidian and concrete “transformer.” Is that really correct? Isn’t the fuse meant to be more abstract? No matter, the clichéd “long lashes of your glance” (so much better than “gaze”) are now justified by the precise details preceding them (the rat catapults – yes!), and by the consciously awkward “so very long lashes.” To put it crudely, Arrowsmith’s is a translation which sends us back to the original with new insights; Smithyman’s is a poem unafraid to depart from that original to give a more vivid sense of this literally electric scene.
Special pleading, do you think? After all, as I mentioned above, Kendrick couldn’t speak Italian, and his typescripts for these translations are consequently a nightmare of industry – each line of the unknown language has been typed out painstakingly with a literal version underneath (dictionary definitions in the margins). A page like this was succeeded by an English text, which was then worked on until it began to find the shaping and line divisions of the poem within.
Paradoxically, I would claim that this very distance from the poets he was interpreting forced him to rely more on his own vision, his own self-expression through the poems.
So much for Montale (my favourite among the Italian moderns). It’s important to stress, however, that Kendrick’s own preference was for Salvatore Quasimodo, a far less urbane figure. In fact, he ended up translating more than half of Quasimodo’s collected works: 132 out of 195 poems. The nearest rivals are Montale and Sandro Penna (26 and 22 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 who 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”
I’ve been amusing myself by drawing up a table of comparisons between Quasimodo and his counterpart in our “remote farflung archipelago:”
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 poets 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 transformed 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 Hermetic 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.” 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.” 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.
“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 mission, 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 at last, perhaps, seem legitimate?
That’s, at any rate, how I interpret the late 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.
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.
We get the sort of poetry we deserve,
all mass-produced stuff, easy to take,
so eager to please! It carries gloves
because scared to shake hands
though dirty enough to upset the censor.
A poetry for unmarried ladies,
also for those who are just a bit butch.
It gets by in an age of rocket launchers
and sudden (or false) alarms.
– Nelo Risi, “Le muse sono stanche”
Kipling said that once you knew how to do something, it was time to try to do something you couldn’t. In many 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 have a tendency to choke us the moment we begin.
Nor, significantly, was that the Italian’s only tone of voice:
You have bent your head, you eye me.
Your dress is white,
one breast flowers from the lace
lying loose from your left shoulder.
The light overcomes me; it trembles,
falling on your naked arms.
Quasimodo, “E la tua vesta è bianca”
You will not find elsewhere in Kendrick Smithyman’s work this direct, lyrical intensity – this shameless celebration of the sensuous and passionate …
“Do you need us, World, to query your answers? / Actually, do you need us” (“Mitimiti and Gaia”). Are they good translations? Yes, I think they are. But more than that, they’re an essential part in the jigsaw puzzle (Atua Wera, Last Poems, Imperial Vistas Family Fictions) which is gradually revealing to us the full extent of the lifework of one of New Zealand’s greatest poets.
Note on the Text
My copytext has remained the typescript Versions from Italian prepared for Auckland University Press (the same text sent subsequently to Carcanet in Manchester) lent to me by Professor D. I. B. Smith in 1995. I have, however, collated it with the fuller set of typescripts owned by Margaret Edgcumbe, his literary executor (now housed in the Special collections department of Auckland University Library), endeavouring in all cases to ascertain the poet’s latest intentions.
This book includes all the Italian poems translated by Kendrick Smithyman from the mid-eighties till (approximately) 1993 – including a few late ones by Quasimodo which presumably postdated the Smith typescript. Wherever possible I have compared them with their Italian originals, adjusting some titles, but have otherwise contenting myself with correcting accidentals and faults of orthography.
The ordering in the first section, Campana to Montale, is entirely Smithyman’s, except that I’ve printed together two originally separated poems by Luciano Erba. In the case of the second section, Quasimodo, I’ve made some slight adjustments in the order to accord with the latest (1995) edition of the poet’s collected works. I’ve also added titles for the various volumes the poems originally came from.
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. Eugenio Montale, Tutte le Poesie, a cura di Giorgio Zampa, 1984 (Milano: Mondadori, 1991) 198.3. Eugenio Montale, The Storm and Other Things, trans. William Arrowsmith (New York: Norton, 1985) 23.4. 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.”5. “ritrovata dignità umana” – Tutte le poesie, xxii.6. Kendrick Smithyman, Auto/Biographies (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1992) 24.7. Kendrick Smithyman, Collected Poems IX: 1985-87 [unpublished] (20.7.85).8. Auto/Biographies, 18.
Kendrick Smithyman. Campana to Montale: Versions from Italian. Edited by Jack Ross. ISBN 0-476-00382-2. [ii} + 190 pp (Auckland: The Writers Group, 2004): 10-17.
Kendrick Smithyman: Campana to Montale (2004)