The Poem Within (2011)

Kendrick Smithyman: Campana to Montale: Versions from Italian (2010)

The Poem Within:
Kendrick Smithyman the Poet-Translator

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

Translating Poetry

Robert Frost once defined poetry as "what gets left out in translation.” It's hard to deny the truth in that. Translating poetry is, strictly speaking, impossible. Verse forms can be imitated (of course), as can images and conceits, but the essence of any poem is bound up as much with its sound as with its sense. There’s no obvious way of reproducing that in a foreign language.[1]

Vladimir Nabokov was even more cutting:

What is translation? On a platter
A poet’s pale and glaring head,
A parrot’s speech, a monkey’s chatter,
And profanation of the dead.[2]

Having said that, even if a perfect reproduction is an impossibility, then so is a perfect poem. No piece of poetry works for all readers – none stands above all possible criticism. If that’s what you want, then you’ve missed the point.

T.S. Eliot reminds us of what we should be looking for instead:

I suspect that every age has had, and will have, the same illusion concerning translations … When a foreign poet is successfully done into the idiom of our own time, we believe that he has been ‘translated’; we believe that through this translation we really at last get the original.[3]

Actually, he goes on to say, what we're getting is an addition to our own poetic tradition in the guise of a translation: “I predict in three hundred years Pound’s Cathay … will be called (and justly) a ‘magnificent specimen of XXth Century poetry’ rather than a ‘translation’. Each generation must translate for itself.”

Put that way, poetic translation begins to sound like quite a respectable activity after all.

So, whether you prefer to refer to it as translation, adaptation, or imitation, it appears we do have something real to discuss, at least. And where better to start than with Pound himself, the doyen of Modernist translators, and his Homage to Sextus Propertius, first published in 1919?

Annalists will continue to record Roman reputations.
Celebrities from the Trans-Caucasus will belaud Roman celebrities
And expound the distentions of Empire,
But for something to read in normal circumstances?
For a few pages brought down from the forked hill unsullied?[4]

In an essay called “Dr Syntax and Mr Pound,” the more expert Latinist Robert Graves pretended to be a dry-as-dust schoolmaster ticking off his slapdash contemporary. This is the crib Graves provides for ll. 15-18 of Sextus Aurelius Propertius, Elegiarum, III: i:

Multi, Roma, tuas laudes annalibus addent
Many men, O Rome, praises of you to the annals shall add
Qui finem imperii Bactra futura canent.
Who, that your imperial frontier Bactria shall form, prophesy.
Sed, quod pace legas, opus hoc de monte Sororum
But, for thee to read in time of peace, this work from the Sisters’ mountain
Delutit intactâ pagina nostra viâ.
My page has brought down by an untrod path.[5]

In other words, Pound has (it seems) misread “to the annals” (l.1) as “by annalists;” has made Bactria, future frontier of the Empire (l.2) into a group of “Bactrians of the future;” has read the “Sisters’ mountain” (l.3) as “the hill of Soritis” = forked; and has made the pages, rather than the path, “unsullied” (l.4). The essay concludes with the hapless poet-as-public-schoolboy being borne off to his headmaster’s study for caning.

He might seem a curious person to invoke in this context, but Sir Walter Scott once replied to a not dissimilar set of criticisms with the remark: “Be interesting … Dullness and tameness are the only irreparable faults”.[6]

Pound may be inaccurate, but he isn’t dull. What’s more, a moment’s consideration will tell us that whether or not he knows that Propertius is (at least ostensibly) praising the “distention” of Rome’s empire, he doesn’t care. The empire, and the “Celebrities from the Trans-Caucasus” here invoked are as much British as they are Roman – for Propertius read Pound, for Augustus Lloyd George. He adapts the poems he translates to his own purposes, and that’s what gives them life.

There are other, and stranger, ways of adapting and transforming poetry, though, as Louis Zukofsky proved when he published his own 'literal' version of Catullus in 1969.

Odi et amo, quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

O th’hate I move love. Quarry it fact I am, for that’s so re queries.
Nescience, say th’ fiery scent I owe whets crookeder.[7]

What the …? Does this version of Catullus’s Elegy LXXXV convey any meaning whatever to the unwary reader? Louis Zukofsky explained, a little disingenuously, in his introductory note: “This translation of Catullus follows the sound, rhythm, and syntax of his Latin – tries, as is said, to breathe the ‘literal’ meaning with him.” Well might the word “literal” be put in inverted commas!

Ōdī ět ămō” – three long syllables and two short ones – has become “O th’hate I move love” – the dipthong “hate” standing in for the pure vowels “ī ět” in the Latin. I don’t quite see where “move love” comes from: it echoes the single syllable “” in the original, but perhaps Zukofsky lets the long vowel excuse this repetition – dictated, I suspect, more by sense than sound (for once). And so it continues: “quārē ĭd făcĭăm, fŏrtăssě rěquīrĭs” is echoed by the splendidly lucid “Quarry it fact I am, for that’s so re queries.”

“This way madness lies,” muttered Zukofsky’s first readers. Was it some kind of joke? The immense scale on which the enterprise had been conducted forbade them to think so: thousands and thousands of lines, every one that Catullus wrote, Englished in this bizarre fashion. One or two samples could be a jeu d’esprit. This was serious.

Nor could accusations of ignorance or inaccuracy be easily substantiated. On the back cover of the book a page of notes on Elegy LXXXV was displayed, with a perfectly competent crib (by Celia Zukofsky, the poet’s long-suffering wife), comments on grammar and accidence, and even a selection from earlier translations:

Ōdī ět ămō, quārē ĭd făcĭăm, fŏrtăssě rěquīrĭs.
I detest and I love. Why that I may do, perhaps you ask.
Nĕscĭō sěd fĭěrī sěntĭŏ ět ěxcrŭcĭŏr.
I do not know, but to become I sense and I am tortured.

I hate and love; would’st thou the reason know?
I know not, but I burn, and feel it so. [Lovelace]

I hate and love. Why? You may ask but
It beats me. I feel it done to me, and ache. [Pound]

I hate and love – ask why – I can’t explain;
I feel ’tis so, and feel it racking pain. [Lamb]

Clearly, on one level, the point of Zukofsky’s enterprise was to suggest that his reproduction of the sound of the original was no more of a paradox than these rhyming and non-rhyming versions, turning a quantitative Latin elegiac couplet (hexameter plus pentameter) into an accentual English heroic couplet.

Was it just a mind-game, though? The more one stares at Zukofsky’s English, the more strange meanings seem to swim up from underneath the syntax. “O th’hate I move love.” Is “hate” the accusative of “move,” or is it in the vocative case, the subject of the poet’s peroration? “Quarry it fact I am” sounds like compressed Elizabethan word order for “believe it to be a fact that I am [implied: moving love]” – dig out this meaning from my actions – “for that’s so re queries:” that’s the case, and that’s what I’ll reply to questions.

“Nescience, say th’ fiery scent I owe whets crookeder” is a little more baffling, but we might say that the speaker’s unknowing (“nescience”) shapes (“whets”) his ends in ever more perverse directions (“crookeder”), in pursuit of the “fiery scent” to which he “owes” allegiance (presumably, his erring Lesbia). Alternatively, if we read “owe” as “own” – a Shakespearean usage – the fiery scent could be his, the spoor left behind by his simultaneous “moves” towards love and hate.

It isn’t precisely clear, but neither is it entirely unclear or beyond conjecture. It is the genius (or the curse) of English syntax to allow multiple ambiguities, and the Russian-born Zukofsky exploits this ability to the full.

The more one examines Zukofsky’s Catullus, the more admirable seem its originality and cleverness, but so majestic a disregard for readers’ sensibilities and prejudices is still a bit disturbing. It lacks, should we say, immediate sensory appeal. Not so our next author, less well-known as a poet than she deserves to be: the late lamented Kathy Acker.

Days or months or years. At one point Janey fell in love with the Persian slave trader because she had nothing else to feel. She had to write poetry to him.

Since she had no idea how to write poetry, she copied down all she could remember every pukey bit by the Latin poet Sextus Propertius which she had been forced to translate in high school.

On the desire for love

Slave Trader first with his lousy me imprisoned eyes
diseased by no before wants.
Then my strong he threw down the drain individuality
and head forced into the dust LOVE’S feet,
until me he had taught undiseased to be evil,
him evil, and without to live plan.[8]

Kathy’s heroine, Janey, after a series of graphically described (and pictured) sexual adventures, has been sold into white slavery and is living in an apartment in New York, being trained simultaneously in the Persian language and the arts of prostitution. Janey’s choice of Sextus Propertius as a model presumably echoes her creator’s own poetic dependence on Ezra Pound. For a twentieth-century English poet intent on innovation, where else is there to start? Nor is (implicitly) comparing the old Fascist with a Persian slave trader entirely coincidental either, one fears.

To see what she’s done with this rather unpromising material, let’s look at one of the poems in more detail:

To Slave trader

Are you really crazy, doesn’t you my love mean anything to?
Do you think I’m than icy more frigid Illyria?
To you so valuable, whoever she is, does that girl seem
That without me controlled by the winds to go you want?
You hear can the raging of oceans under bridges,
brave? on hard cold floor how to sleep you can know?
You, delicate and scared, survive chills and frost
you can, not used to the slightest snow? (105)

Tunc igitur demens? nec te mea cura moratur?
Are you really crazy, doesn’t you my love mean anything to?
An tibi sum gelida vilior Illyria?
Do you think I’m than icy more frigid Illyria?
Et tibi jam tanti, quicunque est iste, videtur,
To you so valuable, whoever she is, does that girl seem
Ut sine me vento quolibet ire velis?
That without me controlled by the winds to go you want?
Tunc audire potes vesani murmura ponti,
You hear can the raging of oceans under bridges,
Fortis et in dura nave jacere potes?
brave? on hard cold floor how to sleep you can know?
Tu pedibus teneris positas calcare pruinas,
You, delicate and scared, survive chills and frost
Tu potes insolitas, Cynthia, ferre nives?[9]
you can, not used to the slightest snow?

Yes, it’s as simple as that. Those splendid shipboard lines 5-8, so reminiscent of Pound’s “The Seafarer” (1912): “… Coldly afflicted, / My feet were by frost benumbed. / Chill its chains are …/…I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea …” are the serendipitous result of imitating the word order of the original Latin. “You hear can the raging of oceans under bridges, / brave? on hard cold floor how to sleep you can know?”

There is something Anglo-Saxon about it, something simultaneously disturbing and satisfying to the jaded modern ear. It’s a little like those gnomic early Auden invocations: “Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle;” “To ask the hard question is simple.” Of course, it’s also a bit hit-and-miss:

Nam me non ullae poterunt corrumpere [tædæ,]
Me no one will take away from you
Quin ego, vita, tuo limine acerba querar.
but I, life, in front of your house bitter puss will keep screaming
Nec me deficiet nautas rogitare citatos;
and not I may fail every sailor to ask passing-by,
Dicite, quo portu clausa puella mea est?
‘Tell me, in what port in prison my boy is?’
Et dicam: Licet Atraciis considat in oris,
and I will cry, ‘It’s possible on Atracian he’s set down shores
Et licet Eleis, illa futura mea est.
or it’s possible in Hylaeia , he my future is.’

“Me no one will take away from you” is pretty limp, but Kathy sees that too – why else that lovely “bitter puss” for “acerba” (“crabbed fellows” is Lewis and Short’s suggestion for the masculine plural[10])? The litany of strange names, too: Atracian shores, Hylaeia, frigid Illyria, all assist her in her clear aim to systematically derange our senses (and tenses) – any and all familiar expectations, really. Pound’s Propertius was an anti-imperialist; Kathy Acker’s is a bisexual rebel (even the name of her character “Janey” is meant to recall Jean Genet).

Is this a legitimate form of translation, of poetry? What other criterion of judgment can one admit but success? Kathy Acker’s Slave Trader poems have moments of profound poetic seriousness, however disturbing their means of production.

If Pound's less-than-accurate version of Propertius could be described as impressionistic, perhaps a more appropriate term for Zukofsky's transcriptions of Catullus would be phonic. What, then, of Kathy Acker? Syntactic, perhaps.

Walter Benjamin’s view of the translator [was] one who elicits, who conjures up by virtue of unplanned echo a language nearer to the primal unity of speech than is either the original text or the tongue into which he is translating … this is why, says Benjamin, ‘the question of the translatability of certain works would remain open even if they were untranslatable for man’.[11]

Walter Benjamin’s essay on translation concludes by suggesting that the translator, in the act of lifting a work from one set of wording to another, can inhabit momentarily the transcendent realm between languages, repairing the ancient rift of Babel. This may seem a trifle fanciful, but what Pound, Zukofsky, and Kathy Acker all have in common is a sense of where their primary duty lies: to their own poem, not to some fancied ideal of fidelity or literalism.

Are they accordingly traitors to the originals they purport to translate? No, because (as Walter Benjamin reminds us), in the process of translation those poems have had to revisit the zone beyond language where creation begins. Like our thoughts, our dreams, poems are translated into language rather than originating in it. Kathy Acker’s Janey learns how to write poetry by imitating Propertius as blindly as possible – Zukofsky achieves the strangeness and dislocation he seeks by defamiliarising the sound-systems we so complacently inhabit – Pound moulds Propertius’s text to express what he himself would mean were he to write such a poem. Each, in the process, is forced to construct a new self … or significantly enlarge the old one.

Was that also the case with Kendrick Smithyman? The reason for his late self-immersion in the poetry of the Italian modernists?

Kendrick Smithyman
(photograph: Robert Cross)]

Smithyman in Italian

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.[12]

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 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]

let's 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
a transformer,
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.[14]

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.”[15] 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.”[16] 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.[17]

“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.[18]

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
Smithyman, “Mitimiti and Gaia”[19]

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, and now the magnificent online edition of Collected Poems 1943-1995[20] - which is gradually revealing to us the true extent of the lifework of one of New Zealand’s greatest poets.

[Eugenio Montale, "The Eel" (Anguilla),
translated by Kendrick Smithyman (1993)]

A Note on the Text

My copytext remains 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.

I’ve taken advantage of this reprint to correct all the misprints recorded on the errata slip included with the original edition (as well as a few others which have been detected since). I’ve also had the benefit of the advice and good offices of Marco Sonzogni of the Italian Department of Victoria University Wellington while making final decisions about the layout and formatting of the text. It’s at his suggestion that I’ve included some facsimiles of the original typescript on pp. xii, xxiii & 171.

Finally, I’d like to acknowledge gratefully the financial assistance given by Massey University’s School of Social and Cultural Studies towards the publication of this revised version of my original (sold-out) Writers Group edition of Campana to Montale. Without their timely intervention, this book might not have been possible at all.


1. Portions of this introduction originally appeared, in significantly different form, as "Translating Poetry", in Poetry NZ 23 (2001): 125-34); "Smithyman in Italian," in Landfall 197 (1999): 70-73, and "Smithyman / Quasimodo," in Glottis: New Writing 8 (2003): 91-96.
2. Vladimir Nabokov, “On Translating ‘Eugene Onegin,’” Poems and Problems, 1970 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972) 175.
3. T. S. Eliot, Introduction to Ezra Pound, Selected Poems, 1928 (London: Faber, 1971) 14.
4. Ezra Pound, Selected Poems 1908-1959, 1975 (London: Faber, 1984) 79.
5. Robert Graves, “Dr Syntax and Mr Pound,” in The Crowning Privilege: Collected Essays on Poetry, 1955 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959) 242-44.
6. Quoted in Edgar Johnson, Sir Walter Scott: The Great Unknown, 2 vols (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1970) 1: 403.
7. Celia and Louis Zukofsky, trans., Catullus (Gai Valeri Catulli Veronensis Liber) (London: Cape Goliard, 1969) n.p.
8. Kathy Acker, Blood and Guts in High School, 1978 (London: Picador, 1984) 101.
9. Sex. Aurelii Propertii, Elegiarum, I: VIII. – Ad Cynthiam; 1-26, in Gulielmus Sidney Walker, ed., Corpus Poetarum Latinorum, 1827 (Londini: Apud C. Knight, 1835) 210.
10. Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary; Founded on Andrews’ Edition of Freund’s Latin Dictionary, 1879 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975) 21.
11. George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1976) 318.
12. 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).
13. Eugenio Montale, Tutte le Poesie, a cura di Giorgio Zampa, 1984 (Milano: Mondadori, 1991) 198.
14. Eugenio Montale, The Storm and Other Things, trans. William Arrowsmith (New York: Norton, 1985) 23.
15. 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.”
16. “ritrovata dignità umana” – Tutte le poesie, xxii.
17. Kendrick Smithyman, Auto/Biographies (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1992) 24.
18. Kendrick Smithyman, Collected Poems IX: 1985-87 (20.7.85) [available online here].
19. Auto/Biographies, 18.
20. Kendrick Smithyman, Smithyman Online: Collected Poems 1943-1995, ed. Margaret Edgcumbe & Peter Simpson (Auckland: Mudflat Webworks, 2004).


Kendrick Smithyman, Campana to Montale: Versions from Italian. 2004. Edited by Jack Ross & Marco Sonzogni. ISBN-13: 978-88-7536-264-5. Transference Series. Ed. Erminia Passannanti (Novi Ligure: Edizioni Joker, 2010): 23-39.

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