Thursday, July 24, 2014

Book-A-Day #24: A book that reminds you of your English teacher

translator: ROBERT PINSKY

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
$21.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: This widely praised version of Dante's masterpiece, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award of the Academy of American Poets, is more idiomatic and approachable than its many predecessors. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Pinsky employs slant rhyme and near rhyme to preserve Dante's terza rima form without distorting the flow of English idiom. The result is a clear and vigorous translation that is also unique, student-friendly, and faithful to the original: "A brilliant success," as Bernard Knox wrote in The New York Review of Books.

My Review: The Doubleday UK meme, a book a day for July 2014, is the goad I'm using to get through my snit-based unwritten reviews. Today's prompt is the twenty-fourth, a book that reminds you of your English teacher.

Ninth grade, or freshman high school year, was The Odyssey, and tenth was The Inferno. We used, in 1974, the then-newish Ciardi translation, made in 1954; it was quite an event, since Ciardi (a poet of some renown) translated it as poetry instead of as Italian-to-English words.

Pinsky's translation attempts the damn-near impossible feat of preserving the terza rima (aba, bcb, cdc, etc.) rhyme scheme invented by Dante for this cycle of poems. The result is a noble experiment, one marked by many successes. There are some weird things like quotes flowing over multiple stanzas, and there are some...odd...rhymes. But hell, the man tried a damned near impossible feat! Italian is a language in which it's harder *not* to rhyme than otherwise, and English resists rhyme with all its might and main.

So what is any reviewer to say about a 700-year-old poem? Nothing hasn't been said by now. I am anti-christian. The theology behind the entire Divine Comedy appalls and repulses me. I speak rudimentary Italian. Pinsky's efforts to reproduce terza rima are, to my ears, clunky and unnecessary. But in the end, rating a book like this is about what the take-away is for the reader. I take away a sense of Dante as an intelligent, desperately lonely man, attempting to make a Universe in which his existence matters and is of some moment. I stand in awed amazement at his gloriously baroque imagination. I am gobsmacked by the sheer audacity of a medieval poet writing in the vernacular. If Dante was alive today, he'd be writing raps.

Ugh. Horrible thought.

But nonetheless, I am wowed at a root level by the joyous, exuberant viciousness and the unapologetic cruelty of Dante's score-settling fates for his enemies. What a guy! Those raps he'd be writing today? They'd inspire Wes Craven to make movies and Clive Barker to write gore-fests!

Try this exercise: Imagine a beat-box under the terza rima stanzas. Read a piece aloud imagining hand-claps at the end of each stanza. This is what I think we, in this relativistic age, should strive for: to interpret the classics of literature and poetry by standards relevant to today, in addition to the standards that we know were applied at the time of the work's creation.

Many more layers to this work that way. After all, a literary classic is a work that's never finished saying what it has to say.

And here one is.

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