Lecture 12

[Eugenio Montale (1896-1981)]

Week 12:

Lecture 12

Poetry: Precision


This is the last lecture in our series on poetry. It's also the last lecture in the course. It seems like a good time to think about what we've been doing for the past three months, and also to make some general reflections on the subject of creative writing in general.

I've called this last lecture "Precision”. Mark Twain once compiled a list of seven rules for writers. They dovetail interestingly with the rules by George Orwell which I mentioned in the first lecture of this course. Twain informs us that a writer should:
  1. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
  2. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
  3. Eschew surplusage.
  4. Not omit necessary details.
  5. Avoid slovenliness of form.
  6. Use good grammar.
  7. Employ a simple and straightforward style.
That all sounds simple and straightforward enough, but - as you've no doubt found out by now - clarity and precision are generally the hardest things to achieve.

One interesting way of applying these suggestions is through the test of translation. Is what you're saying clear and coherent enough to survive being turned into another language?

Let's take one of the most famous poems in world literature, Catullus's "Odi et amo" [I hate and I love] ...

Masks of Catullus

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

– Gaius Valerius Catullus (c.84-54 BC): Elegy LXXXV

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.
– Richard Lovelace (1618-1657)

I hate and love – ask why – I can’t explain;
I feel ’tis so, and feel it racking pain.
– Charles Lamb (1775-1834)

I hate and love. Why? You may ask but
It beats me. I feel it done to me, and ache.
– Ezra Pound (1885-1972)

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.
– Louis Zukofsky (1904-1978)

[Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema, "Catullus at Lesbia's"]

Montale's Sunflower

Portami il girasole ch’io lo trapianti
Bring me the sunflower so that I can transplant it
nel mio terreno bruciato dal salino,
in my soil burnt by salt air,
e mostri tutto il giorno agli azzurri specchianti
and show all day to the mirroring blues
del cielo l’ansietà del suo volto giallino.
of the sky the anxiety of its yellow face.

Tendono alla chiarità le cose oscure,
Dark things tend towards clarity,
si esauriscono i corpi in un fluire
bodies consume themselves in a flowing
di tinte: queste in musiche. Svanire
of colours: these in music. Vanishing
è dunque la ventura delle venture.
is thus the chance of chances.

Portami tu la pianta che conduce
Bring me the plant that leads
dove sorgono bionde trasparenze
where blonde transparencies arise
e vapora la vita quale essenza;
and life evaporates like spirit;
portami il girasole impazzito di luce.
bring me the sunflower crazed with the light.

- Eugenio Montale, Tutte le Poesie, ed. Giorgio Zampa, 1984 (Milano: Mondadori, 1991): 34.

Bring me the sunflower for me to transplant
to my own ground burnt by the spray of sea,
and show all day to the imaging blues
of sky that golden-faced anxiety.

Things hid in darkness lean towards the clear,
bodies consume themselves in a flowing
of shades: and they in varied music – showing
the chance of chances is to disappear.

So bring me the plant that takes you right
where the blond hazes shimmering rise
and life fumes to air as spirit does;
bring me the sunflower crazy with the light.

- Eugenio Montale, Selected Poems, trans. George Kay, 1964 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969): 25.

Bring me the sunflower, I’ll plant it here
in my patch of ground scorched by salt spume,
where all day long it will lift the craving
of its golden face to the mirroring blue.

Dark things are drawn to brighter,
bodies languish in a flowing
of colors, colors in musics. To vanish,
then, is the venture of ventures.

Bring me the flower that leads us out
where blond transparencies rise
and life evaporates as essence.
Bring me the sunflower crazed with light.

- William Arrowsmith, trans. Cuttlefish Bones (New York: Norton, 1992): 51.

Bring me the sunflower so I can plant it
in my ground burnt as may be with sea salt,
that all day it display to the blue mirror-
wise sky anxious concern of its yellow face.

Obscure things are impelled towards clarity,
bodies exhaust themselves in fluent change
of shades; these, in music. To disappear
is then the chanciest of chances.

Bring me the plant which may lead us
where the fair rise and are translucent,
where life delivers itself into finest spirit:
bring me the sunflower crazed with light.

- Kendrick Smithyman, trans. Campana to Montale: Versions from Italian, 1993 (Auckland: The Writers Group, 2004): 55.

[Vincent Van Gogh: Sunflowers (1888)]

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