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Friday, December 20, 2013

Robert Sheppard on The Petrarch Boys: Peter Hughes and Tim Atkins

Here’s poem three from Petrarch’s Canzoniere. We all know about this tradition, don’t we? Anyway, here it is:

Era il giorno ch'al sol si scoloraro
per la pietà del suo factore i rai,
quando i' fui preso, et non me ne guardai,
ché i be' vostr'occhi, donna, mi legaro.

Tempo non mi parea da far riparo
contra colpi d'Amor: però m'andai
secur, senza sospetto; onde i miei guai
nel commune dolor s'incominciaro.

Trovommi Amor del tutto disarmato
et aperta la via per gli occhi al core,
che di lagrime son fatti uscio et varco:

però al mio parer non li fu honore
ferir me de saetta in quello stato,
a voi armata non mostrar pur l'arco.

I don’t read or speak Italian. Of course I can make out the odd word: ‘amor’, ‘honore’, ‘tempo’. And I’ve watched Montelbano (both young and old). But it doesn’t get me far. I have to rely upon translations. No way round that one. It’s tempting to put it into a translation engine. (This is something that Van Valckenborch apparently uses a lot, according to Martin Krol and Anneie Dupuis on the EUOIA website (here)). But I wouldn’t trust people I’ve invented. In 2010 there was internet chatter of a book called Robot Rilke that presented machine translations of Rilke; his deathless line, ‘Du musst dein Leben ändern,’ which is usually translated by humans as something like ‘You must change your life’ appears ‘afresh’ as ‘They must modify your life span.’ (Caldwell: 2010) Announcement of the book may have been a hoax. Caldwell, Edmond. ‘Advance Praise for Robot Rilke’: (accessed December 2013). Google Translate can’t deal with pre-Modern Italian.

That it was the only day you scoloraro
for the piety of his factore the rays,
when 'I was taken, I do not et looked,
because i be 'vostr'occhi woman bound me.

Time does not seem to me to shelter
anti-seizure of Love: but I went confident
secur, without suspicion, so my troubles
Common s'incominciaro in pain.

Love found me all disarmed
and the way open for the eyes to the heart,
that tears are the portal and passageway:

But in my opinion there was no honor
to wound me with his arrow in that state,
armed not shew to you while the arc.

‘Anti-seizure of love’ is rather good, but otherwise it doesn’t work. Anyway, here are two literary translations of poem three, Victorian by the look of them.

'Twas on the morn, when heaven its blessed ray

In pity to its suffering master veil'd,

First did I, Lady, to your beauty yield,

Of your victorious eyes th' unguarded prey.

Ah! little reck'd I that, on such a day,

Needed against Love's arrows any shield;

And trod, securely trod, the fatal field:

Whence, with the world's, began my heart's dismay.

On every side Love found his victim bare,

And through mine eyes transfix'd my throbbing heart;

Those eyes, which now with constant sorrows flow:

But poor the triumph of his boasted art,

Who thus could pierce a naked youth, nor dare

To you in armour mail'd even to display his bow!


'Twas on the blessed morning when the sun

In pity to our Maker hid his light,

That, unawares, the captive I was won,

Lady, of your bright eyes which chain'd me quite;

That seem'd to me no time against the blows

Of love to make defence, to frame relief:

Secure and unsuspecting, thus my woes
Date their commencement from the common grief.

Love found me feeble then and fenceless all,

Open the way and easy to my heart

Through eyes, where since my sorrows ebb and flow:

But therein was, methinks, his triumph small,

On me, in that weak state, to strike his dart,

Yet hide from you so strong his very bow.


I’m less interested in the literary skill of these than in the mutual confirmation that they somehow ‘fix’ the poem, like Trig points. Not sooner am I reading these configurations than I’m attempting my own rough translation, shaped to the Petrachan frame (as I call it) but lightly rhyming.

That pitiful morning when the light of Heaven
Was hidden for our mourning maker’s sake,
I saw you first that day, My Lady, but
Was captured, disarmed, then bound to your stake. 

It didn’t seem the time for shields and armour
Against Love’s arrows, his batters and blows;
So, unsuspecting, I wept with the world,
But that day my heartbreaks began, my woes.

Love stalked me, found me, unarmed and weak,
And opened my eyes, portals of tears, through which
Sorrow flowed from the passage of my heart.

But feeble was Love’s triumph to triumph
With his arrow over one so enfeebled,
And to not even dare to flash you his dart.

‘Versioning’ it got me right inside the poem, not so much formally, as I’d thought; it took the frame as granted and dangled the English through it. Petrarch makes each stanza of the poem (as he may have thought of them) a complete sentence, and I do that too. The ‘pitiful morning when the light of Heaven/ Was hidden for our mourning maker’s sake’ is Good Friday and it was while the narrator ‘wept with the world’, participating in the general mourning, that he is struck by Cupid’s arrows. He was caught off-guard, like an ill-prepared soldier, because ‘It didn’t seem the time for shields and armour/ Against Love’s arrows, his batters and blows’. Who would expect love to strike at such a grim time, but that is indeed when Petrarch (of the sonnets) first sees Laura in 1327. But the result is extreme:

Love stalked me, found me, unarmed and weak,
And opened my eyes, portals of tears, through which
Sorrow flowed from the passage of my heart.

However they are translated, these three lines present the central emotive event of the poem. Only the composure of the final three lines tries to recover some dignity for the narrator. It was no victory at all to capture somebody so weak. I’ve gone in for a little word-play to emphasise this sophistry (or that’s what I’m saying now. I don’t remember what I thought as I composed it; I was just surprised that it came so quickly): the repeated ‘feeble’ and ‘triumph’. But the final line accuses stupid Cupid of real cowardice (not the narrator’s with his defencelessness, his tears, his complete and un-resistant surrender): he smote the narrator but did not dare to show his bow and arrows to the beloved (Laura is not named until about sonnet 5). In the original poem Love shows his bow but ‘dart’ was chosen to rhyme with ‘heart’ in my version (a decision that was to have consequences, as you will see). The poem is rhetorical, its argument following the sonnet frame, its language colloquial but with heightened emotion at its core, though of course such a capitulation to unrequited love is common to the tradition. Note that the poem is addressed to the Lady, but she does not act in it. The only agency in the poem is invested in Love.   

Why have I picked this sonnet? Because I want to be able to say something – and say something comparative – about the two versions of Petrarch being undertaken by Peter Hughes and Tim Atkins, both of whom I have seen reading within the last couple of years and both (let’s get evaluative) offering excellent texts. They have both done the lot (though Peter Hughes may still be at his). Neither of these are ‘translations’ in the sense that the above are translations, or even in the sense that an e-translation is. (I can talk, of course, with the Van Valckenborch oeuvres, but I didn’t have ‘originals’.) These are ‘versions’ in the terminology of translators and there’s a lot of it about. When Pound dropped a startling anachronism in Homage to Sextus Propertius (1917) by mentioning the ‘Wordsworthian’ poetics of one of Propertius’ rivals, (Pound 1975: 97) or when Bunting cuts off one of his translations (which he called ‘Overdrafts’ as if the debt to the original is a burden perhaps never to be redeemed) with the words, ‘- and why Catullus bothered to write pages and pages of this drivel mystifies me’, they set something off. (Bunting 1968: 139) This method is carried into our own times, for example, in the re-workings of The Iliad that Christopher Logue published finally as War Music in 2001. Lack of competence in the original tongue seems not to be an impediment as cribs and previous translations are plundered as guidance for the production of a newly formed equivalent to the original. (That’s how I wrote my version, of course.)
Zukofsky found more in Catullus than Bunting did and initiated the now rather over-used form of homophonic translation (imitation by sound similarity to the original), best represented in recent years by David Melnick’s Men in Aida (1983) which follows the text of The Iliad (I think) to emphasise gay undertones or (perhaps more accurately) to translate into gay argot: ‘Allow men in, emery Archians. All gay ethic, eh?’ runs line two. (Melnick 1986: 94) In Britain John James’ brilliant ‘Letters to Sarah’ from 1973 use the poems of Tristan Tzara as a springboard for a serial poem. (James 2002) Barry MacSweeney, in Horses in Boiling Blood (2004), a late ‘collaboration/ … celebration’, ventriloquises Apollinaire through MacSweeney’s morbid set of obsessions. (MacSweeney 2004: 3) ‘Inventive reworkings’ might be a weak term for these texts where ‘translation’ involves multiple possibilities of transformation in ways that far outstrip modernist practice. We find Philip Terry (whose ‘Shakespeare’s sonnets’ are kinds of translation, of course) taking on Dante’s Inferno (2011) setting the poem on the campus of Essex University with the ghost of Berrigan playing the part of Virgil. Tim Atkins himself has previously ‘translated’ Horace’s ‘Odes’ and ‘Epodes’ as Horace (2007) in a mode capable of referencing Mein Kampf or Robert Lowell’s widow. Sean Bonney’s Baudelaire in English (2008) combines formal visual poetry (utilising an ancient typewriter) with fragments and versions of Baudelaire poems. Perhaps the nearest I’ve got to these models is Van Valckenborch’s ‘Ode to Orbit’, which alludes to both Alvaro de Campos’ ‘Marine Ode’ and Blaise Cendras’ ‘Prose of the Transiberian Railway’, that is, a poem by a man who was made up and a poem by a man who made himself up! (But I’d like to attempt another text like that in my own voice; the attempt to ‘write through’ Milton’s sonnets didn’t get far, but then I’ve had enough of sonnets and it was (ironically since I’m writing this) his Italian sonnets that stumbled me (though I have one good poem out of it, and it’s appropriately dedicated to Tim Atkins but I keep forgetting to send it to him).

            Let’s examine Peter Hughes’ sonnet 3:

it was on an Easter day-trip
when the dark heavens opened
& I was swept away on the surge
of a glance from your mesmeric eyes

The use of ‘day-trip’ immediately modernises, even trivialises and humanises, the Eastertide setting of the original. The heavens simply open, whereas in the original they are closed to allow God to hide during the most auspicious, awesome, moments of the Christian calendar. The references to armour are replaced by references to modern but unlikely impedimenta. Imagine a deep-sea helmet being used to deflect a glance from the beloved’s eyes. It’s certainly a turn-off, curiously loyal to the poem but betraying its martial imagery and its passion. The narrator passes onwards in the original (I had trouble with that sense and hoped it was encoded in the word ‘stalk’, which implies the narrator is on the move) and is now simply driving (though dangerously, blinded as he is by love, not a situation directly mentioned as part of the disarming in the Petrarch poem):

unequipped with a deep-sea helmet
or welder’s mask – not so much
as a pair of discount shades –
I just drove into oncoming traffic

The emotional core, as I think it, is realised through a set of metaphors that comically recast the image of the sorrows of the heart channelled as tears through the eyes into the common (but near-rhyming) irritant of ‘pests’ and ‘nest’. The disarming of the lover is related in terms of forgetting the armour of the modern holiday-maker:

I’d forgotten the sun-block & fly-swat
& each of love’s pests wriggled inside
to make a swarming nest of my heart

‘Swarming’ is an accurate correlative to the flowing sorrow of the original. The poem ends by personifying ‘Love’ (although all poets in English from Wyatt onwards have had the problem of Love not clearly enough appearing as the god Cupid by the use of the word. ‘Amore’ in Italian does the job neatly in a way that English cannot). Nevertheless:

Love has you by the balls: iron fist
in a lacy French glove
touched by the breeze through these windows

Hughes completely removes the rhetorical counterattack that Petrarch issues at this point. There is no pyrrhic victory for our lover. Like James Joyce before him, Hughes’ narrator, on being presented the ‘heart’ as the site of the emotions, issues the corrective that ‘the seat of the affections is somewhat lower’. If not the dart, then the balls, we might say. The iron fist in the glove, though, does capture the martial imagery that is used to describe Love/Cupid’s ‘triumph’ over the lover in the Petrarch, but the breeze through the window (a little incongruous to the dark Heavens of the first quatrain, not to mention the glowering, hiding, mourning skies of Petrarch’s Easter) is an added detail, a post-imagist epiphany, erotically charged and dangerous (and thus distantly equivalent to Petrarch’s closure. (Perhaps my word ‘dart’ also sexualises the poem where it is not in the original. Google Translate saw it before I did.) Like Philip Terry’s versions of Shakespeare’s sonnets, however altered they may be, they retain the originals’ obsessions with beauty and time, for example, similarly ‘distantly equivalent’). As Peter Riley notes of the sequence as a whole on the blurb of the Like This Press edition of the Canzoniere 1-28 entitled Quite Frankly and carefully subtitled After Petrarch, from which number 3 is drawn, ‘For all the ironic modernisation and free-play it enters deeper and deeper into a sincere realisation of the modern love-poem.’ (Riley 2103) That process, which is observed across the sequence, is perfectly rendered in those last three lines:

Love has you by the balls: iron fist
in a lacy French glove
touched by the breeze through these windows

Beyond the irony (partly if not wholly derived from reading the poem against the original (or our knowledge of its conventions)) this is a well-constructed description of obsessive love and its effects and after-effects: the testicular grip of iron-strength, the erotic touching of both lace and breeze (a ‘French’ glove seems peculiarly suggestive). Traffic is one-way through these windows, all moving towards acts of arousal.

Here is Tim Atkins’ sonnet 3, drawn from his 2011 Barque Press book Petrarch. It is impossible to use Petrarch’s and Hughes’ stanza division as a unit of reading. We face 14 undivided lines and the subject matter seems initially alien to the original. This is poem 3 transformed nearly beyond recognition, but that ‘nearly’ is important. The poem is a ‘love’ poem; at least it can be read as one if it opens on that word: ‘Love of the welfare state/ Did not prepare me for its or my own extinction[.]’ Love of an institution is evoked only to suggest its negatives. If I say that this is like the church at Easter in the Petrarch poem am I making a valid point, and even if I am, am I explicating the poem, unravelling its analogies, or am I making them because I know that this is poem 3 at some level? Then it must be asked: is that an illegitimate move or one that the poem actively fosters by providing the link, as in a computer link, to the Canzoniere? Likewise if I note that death is often a theme of this love tradition, am I reading the poem, reading the tradition, or reading the distance between Atkins’ poem and Petrarch (in Hughes’ case we read the difference with Petrarch). If I notice that the next line, ‘All the I’s     in one book’ is a line (number 3) for which all the English translations have the personal pronoun ‘I’, am I indeed reading ‘All the I’s     in one book’? If I then note that the Italian line ‘quando i' fui preso, et non me ne guardai’ also has an isolated ‘i’ in it, am I unravelling a method, or not? (I know that the translations demonstrate seven types of translation, in Atkins’ terms.) ‘Not reading the road map right at the fork’ suggests the process of writing these ‘distant’ poems but does not seem to refer to the Petrarch. The passage

A cowboy’s life does not extend much
Beyond rimming & riding
Like an arrow does    through the eyes
To the millions of past lives
It must have taken      to commute
Body fat into amorousness

uses two images from Petrarch: the arrow and the passage ‘through the eyes’ of ‘portals of tears, through which / Sorrow flowed from the passage of my heart’, though the peripatetic cowboys suggest the ‘arrows’ here belong to the Red Indians of the Western film genre. Nevertheless the process is quite different, not at all personal, and in this respect (only) like the opening lines. The narrow life of the cowboys is like an arrow which seems to have shot through evolutionary history until we end up with the truly corporeal ‘commute’ to, or translation of ‘Body fat into amorousness’. Thus we arrive back at Love, our opening word, but emphatically embodied in bodily process. ‘Rimming & riding’ suggest sexual activities of their own, so the cowboys are the equivalent of the disarmed unarmed narrator of the Petrarch poem, but they seem to get on with it, making use of one another’s impoverished but local ‘body fat’/ ‘amourousness’. The sonnet does have a volta, an abrupt change of tone, mood, or argument. Lerici takes us to Italy, not to Petrarch’s Florence but perhaps to Shelley’s Lerici. The revelation may be Shelley’s (his late infatuation with Jane somebody or other?) but the sentiment is Petrarch’s, and straight out of poem 3: ‘One day … I saw a woman’. This is the plot of the poem (perhaps of the whole Canzoniere) though transposed to Romantic poetry, and abruptly curtailed with a ‘etc’, as though this is too tiresome a conventional poetic gesture or textual detail. The cut up method of the text, the space-punctuation, makes cohesion uncertain, but ‘her passport & her chair’ suggest foreignness and domesticity (a hotel perhaps):

One day on a rock at Lerici
I saw a woman   etc   her passport & her chair
3 fingers’ width away   from the stars
Light    their fierce scrutiny & Italian cars

The poem ends with a rhyme: the celestial star-gazing (perhaps through spread fingers, measuring the distant stars against the proximate digits like a child) is equated with Italian cars (Italy, again, but modern now). Light from the stars, like Hughes’ breeze from the window, offers a radically different ending to the poem from Petrarch. My ‘flash you his dart’ contains poetic license and is not a direct response to Petrarch’s rhetoric concerning Cupid’s bow. Again, this poem is not different to the Petrarch; it is distant. Far from re-stating Petrarch’s great theme of love, this poem (and many of the others in the sequence) floats free, transforming the Italian poem so completely there is little left. But it leaves just enough for identification. Then it is ironically free to do what it likes with itself, and in the event revivifies the sonnet tradition.


I tried, as an experiment to machine translate (a slightly earlier version of) my ‘translation’ into Italian and then back again into English. The result is worth considering. The sting is in its tail.

That morning pitiful when the light of heaven
It was well hidden by our creator of mourning,
I've seen you before that day, My Lady, but
He was captured, disarmed, and then tied to the pole.

I do not think the time of shields and armor
Against the arrows of Cupid, his hitters and strokes;
So, unaware, I cried with the world,
But that day began my heartbreaks, my troubles.

Love chased me, he found me, unarmed and weak,
It opened my eyes, tears of portals through which
Sorrow flowed from the passage of my heart.

But weakness was the triumph of love to triumph
With its arrow in more than one way weakened,
Yet even dare to flash his dick.

December 2013

See the related posts to dry-runs and beginnings of my work The Meaning of Form here. And look at my later additions to my readings, written once both of these extraordinary sequences had been published in full, here.

You can read about my own recent poetry here and here, and follow the links to points of online purchase.

'Petrarch 3' is now in print, see here and here, though there are accounts of my reading it, with set lists and summaries here and here, and one version, 'Pet', narrated by a dog (!), here. Four of the 'symboliste' variations may be read on Card Alpha 1: here.

And you can watch me read some of my 'Petrarch' variations here.

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places