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Sunday, 6 April 2014

Leopardi's Canti: The Most Difficult Book of Poems Ever Written?

I’ve been meaning to write about Giacomo Leopardi’s Canti for a good while. Actually I’ve been meaning to write a series on the most difficult books of poetry out there, which was going to include an article about Nikos Kazantzakis' Odyssey. Eventually that idea proved itself too difficult, so I wrote one piece on the latter epic and suspended Leopardi – who was most definitely going to be in there – for a later stage.

Naturally the question behind this article is rhetorical. I’m sure there are collections of experimental and/or ancient verse that are even more impermeable than the Canti. Pound’s homonymous text, for example, may be even harder than old Giacomo’s (though I certainly haven’t read the whole of that, and don’t intend to, unless I get locked in a space prison and the alternative is trying to escape with Christopher Lambert). And I’m sure there are French poets who must have produced especially long and difficult works, because of course that’s what French poets do.

The thing that makes the Canti difficult, however, and which accounts for their relative obscurity (at least by comparison with other poetic masterpieces of international fame), is that their difficulty is deceptive. There is little that is ‘experimental’ about them. They aren’t grammatically disconnected like some works by Eliot, Rimbaud or Mallarmé, where just making sense of a phrase can take away an hour of your reading time (or more, of course – though it’s worth noting that the difficulty of these particular poets I mentioned is allayed by the fact that their works are mercifully brief). The Canti, for all that may be said of them, are straightforward. Upon first touching them, they may look to be easy.

And that’s exactly why this article is worth writing.

For those who are unfamiliar with the text, the Canti represent the collected poetic output of Giacomo Leopardi (1798 – 1837), who can grossly be introduced as Italy’s third greatest poet (after Dante and Petrarch, and on an equal footing, perhaps, with Tasso and Ariosto – I’m leaving the Latins out of this). Leopardi’s work must be read under the lens of his life-story – even for a Romantic poet, the poor man’s health was exceptionally fragile, and his spinal problems turned him into a hunchback long before he could experience any ‘romantic’ (I mean amorous) relation. His outlook became profoundly, cosmically pessimistic, comparable to that of his contemporary Schopenhauer: he was convinced that life is essentially an experience of pain, and all of his poems treat or rotate around this topic.

What makes the Canti so difficult? Not the length of the book, which is considerable but not overwhelming (certainly not near as intimidating as the same guy’s two-thousand page strong collection of philosophical meditations, the Zibaldone). Not the grammar, as you can follow Leopardi’s sentences with relative ease. The subject matter? That certainly plays a part in it, as the idea that all life is shit gets burdensome after a while (not to mention that it seems a bit outdated, philosophically). And the format of the poems isn’t particularly welcoming: other than a few exceptions (especially the legendary The Infinite), they usually go on for several pages, making multiple, elaborated arguments that aren’t always easy to connect to each other. Leopardi sees the poem as more than a lyric; to him, it’s also a philosophical treatise with a complex rhetorical construction, embracing a variety of topics and interests. It takes a lot of effort to read more than one or two Canti at a time, and the book as a whole deters casual reading.

But there is something much more essential than the mere length of the poems. I think the simplest way of putting it is to say that, in my opinion, Leopardi’s Canti are the most difficult text to translate ever written, even topping virtuoso works such as, say, those of Joyce or Mallarmé. It is not that the meaning is hard to render. It is the language itself that is so stylistically unique that I cannot think of how it could be transposed without losing the effect. Leopardi is virtually unreadable in the original language to anyone who does not have the most advanced command of Italian: the vocabulary and the syntax are so archaic that even mother-tongue Italians normally read the poems with a dictionary by their side. What’s tricky is that Leopardi’s archaisms do not belong to Romanticism – it is not language that is archaic because, y’know, it was written two centuries ago. Instead, Leopardi is (very deliberately) being archaic relative to his own time. He is embracing Classicism as a rejection of most of the values that typically define the other Romantics. It is the equivalent of a contemporary poet who uses ‘thou’ and ‘thee’, and not ironically, but as a serious stylistic choice. To a hypothetical reader of the distant future, this archaism may seem congenital to the age (as Leopardi’s archaisms do today), but in reality they grate with it. Such a contemporary poet would be hard to translate in his/her own right – but when it comes to a Romantic, you’d have to repeat (in the target language) the voice of someone from two-hundred years ago who assumes the voice of someone from three- or four-hundred years before him. How the hell do you do that?

The result is that all translations of Leopardi – and I’ve read them in English, in French and in Spanish – sound nothing like the original, however hard they try (and they do try, no argument, they really try). The Canti are exceptionally inaccessible to an international audience.

On top of that, the structure of the book is unwelcoming by necessity. The beauty and the merit of the Canti lies in the way that the book draws and encapsulates a universal lyric trajectory; closing the book after you’ve followed Leopardi from his teenage nationalist fervours to his profound, disillusioned reflections on the universe and the stars leaves one with a sense like you’ve just lived ninety years of life. But this does not change the fact that the best poems are (mostly) contained in the second half of the book, and much of the early content – when deprived of the counterpoint that comes later – seems uninspired, much like the later poems are impoverished if they are not approached as a conclusion to a narrative.

In spite of the fact that the Canti are really meant to be read front to back, the task would take so long that I’d advise new readers against that. My personal opinion is that the book only comes alive when you reach the ninth Canto, called The Last Song of Sappho, and I would recommend newcomers to start from there. The opening is much more accommodating as a Romantic poem:

Placid night, and unsullied ray
of the declining moon, and you who tip
midst the silent woods above the cliff,
messenger of the day…

Beyond that, Leopardi’s Canti require a lot of careful handling, and while the purpose of this article was, to a substantial extent, to throw away an evening cause I’m shit out of weed to promote this masterwork, I find myself closing with a warning rather than a recommendation. There are some poets who make it worth learning a language just to read their work; Leopardi is exactly one such poet, but he is distinct from others like Dante, Baudelaire or Rilke in that the translations are more likely to obscure than to illuminate your understanding of his ultimate book. In order to approach Leopardi, and to unlock the unparalleled lyric heights that he reaches in some of his poems, the investment required is enormous. Even if you can skip the hurdle of the language, there is a lot of wading through philosophy, bitterness, old-world ideas, rambling, and unusual formatting before you begin to sense the incredibly modern and powerful core of this book. You may think that I’m making up excuses but I’m not making up excuses: this is quite simply the most difficult core to access of any book I’ve read, and the reason this book will most likely remain (relatively) obscure in the bookshelves outside of the man’s own country. Still, what a core.

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