John Taylor was honored on October 25, 2013 at the Poet’s Forum in New York City as the recipient of the 2013 Raiziss/de Palchi Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets for his work on the translation of Selected Poems by Lorenzo Calogero.
He is the author of two poetry collections: If Night Is Falling (Bitter Oleander Press, 2012) and The Apocalypse Tapestries (Xenos Books, 2004). His other published works include books of short stories and prose. Also a translator, Taylor wrote the critically acclaimed, three-volume Paths to Contemporary French Literature (2004, 2007, 2011) and Into the Heart of European Poetry (2008)—all four books published by Transaction. He lives in Saint-Barthélemy d’Anjou, France.
A critic of contemporary European writing for Anglo-American readers, Taylor has long been a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement. He has written the “Poetry Today” column in the Antioch Review since 2005. We asked John some questions about receiving the 2013 Paiziss/de Palchi Fellowship. His responses follow.
Antioch Review: You have translated several French poets, including Philippe Jaccottet and Jacques Dupin, but the 2013 Raiziss-de Palchi Fellowship has been awarded to you, by the Academy of American Poets, for your proposal to translate work by the Italian poet Lorenzo Calogero. A new departure?
John Taylor: I have lived in France since 1977 and, indeed, much of my time has been devoted to writing about and translating contemporary French literature. However, I have always been interested in Italian and in Italian poetry as well. This is an old affection going back to an Italian grocery store in Des Moines, where I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. I’m being serious. The store represented my first contact with Italian culture and with words from that language. Looking back at my Des Moines childhood, I can see clearly that I was often spontaneously attracted to what was different from me. Perhaps even back then, without knowing any foreign languages, I was already becoming a translator. To return to Italian literature, one of my most cherished mentors has long been Petrarch, both the poet and the prose writer, and he appears as a tutelary figure in my book The Apocalypse Tapestries. The longest chapter in my collection of essays, Into the Heart of European Poetry, is about Italian poets. As I explained in my essay “Meeting up with Lorenzo Calogero in Florence,” which was published as one of my “Poetry Today” columns in The Antioch Review, a single book written by this fascinating overlooked modernist poet convinced me to take the leap and try to translate him.
AR: What you will be working on specifically?
J.T.: Quite a lot of Lorenzo Calogero’s poetry is available in the selection Poesie (Rubbettino, 1986), as well as in the recently reissued early poems included in Parole del tempo (Donzelli, 2010) and in Poco suono (Nuove Edizioni Barbaro, 2011). I have been making my own selection from these books, as well as from his out-of-print, two-volume, collected works (Opere poetiche, Lerici, 1962, 1966) and from previously unpublished poems that can be consulted on the Calogero website. His poems from the final period of his life (1910-1961), which was often spent in mental asylums and ended in suicide, are particularly stunning. Some lines in these poems are cryptic upon a first reading, but one must persist, for the poet expresses deep truths about amorous yearning and about what he evokes, in various ways, as his “divided self.” One of his late collections is characteristically called Come in dittici (As in Diptyches, 1954-1956). His poems allude constantly to dualities of various kinds, and his favorite conjunction is “or.” Such poems are not just existential, but ontological and metaphysical in scope. A comparison can be made to the insights of Friedrich Hölderlin’s late fragmentary poems or to Robert Walser’s “micrograms”.
AR: What is Calogero’s place in modern Italian poetry?
J.T.: During his lifetime, Calogero’s work was especially praised by two key contemporaneous poets, Carlo Betocchi and Leonardo Sinisgalli, but despite their advocacy, he struggled to find publishers for his poetry. After his death, other Hermetic poets, such as Eugenio Montale, Giuseppe Ungaretti, and Mario Luzi, also commented favorably on Calogero’s verse. But Calogero would never know that younger poets from the next generation—one thinks of Amelia Rosselli—later wrote admirably about his work. In recent years, there has been a remarkable revival of interest in his work. I hope to contribute to this long-deserved revival through my translations.
AR: How would you sum up this poetry?
J. T.: To define him quickly, Calogero is a post-Romantic whose stylistic modernism places him among his Hermetic peers. At the same time, his acute psychological and philosophical focus on dualities gives his verse a unique atmosphere. Moreover, nearly every poem emphasizes negation in various grammatical ways, usually stating something that poet “does not know” or that “no longer” exists. The quest for “lightness” or “levity”—“lievità” —crops up constantly, as does the same search for calm, quietude, or silence. Geometry is present through references to circles, squares, concave curves, perpendicularity, and straight lines. Such elements make Calogero’s poems express something much more incisive than Romantic existential weariness.
AR: What are the special challenges of this translation project?
J. T.: The challenge to any translator of Italian poetry is syntax, since Italian is much freer in this respect than English. The crucial chore is to appraise this freedom for every line of verse: to what extent has the Italian poet departed from even the relatively loose norms of Italian word order and, in this sense, has become creative stylistically? In Calogero’s late poems especially, this problem is exacerbated in that significant syntactic ruptures occur. Sometimes transitions and standard punctuation disappear, even when they were present higher up in the poem. But these ruptures and unsettling juxtapositions also reflect his poetic sensibility and, beyond that, his philosophical vision; they bear meaning that must be taken into account. Mirroring his word order is rarely possible because the English becomes too entangled to follow; on the other hand, “smoothing out” Calogero’s syntax would blunt his originality, not to mention his sharp, startling imagery. For nearly every poem, this is the translator’s juggling act! To an extent unrivalled by other poetry that I have rendered, the deep meanings of Calogero’s poetry sometimes demand prolonged analysis or, rather, meditation. Yet this kind of meditation on half-hidden meaning can take place only when I am in the act of translating. Translation—the confrontation with another language—can help root out meaning in the source language; but once again, as with the special case of Italian vs. English syntax, the translator’s role is not to “explain” or to “paraphrase,” but rather to find adequate equivalents, even for puzzles.
AR: What does it mean to you to have received this Fellowship?
J. T.: As a critic and a translator, I have often sought to recover European poets and writers from unjust neglect in the English-reading world and to highlight their oeuvres either through critical presentations or through translations. Like Valery Larbaud, who is one of my literary heroes, I try to be what the French call a “passeur,” that is a ferryman who brings foreign writing across the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. I’m deeply grateful to the Academy of American Poets and to the Raiziss-de Palchi Fellowship for providing the material conditions enabling me to transport such an unusual and deep-probing Italian poet into our language. My first efforts have started to appear in reviews: The Bitter Oleander, The Journal of Italian Translation, and American Poet; and other translated poems are now available on the Calogero website and on the Italian blog “Imperfetta Ellisse”. This blog, run by the poet Giacomo Cerrai, has published a trilingual presentation in which the translator Valérie Brantôme provides French versions of the same three poems by Calogero that I have rendered into English. I have translated about sixty poems now and intend to add at least that many to my projected “Selected Poems by Lorenzo Calogero.”