The Complete Poems of MICHAELANGELO

The Complete Poems of MICHAELANGELO

Ronald L. Martinez

A liberal translation of the poetry of Michelangelo gives the artist’s voice a contemporary, if often rather brusque, quality — like `stagings of Mozart operas in motorcycle leathers.’

For Italian readers, the stature of Michelangelo as a poet remains subject to debate. Anglo-American readers never have had any doubts, and the last decade of the millennium has seen four complete translations of the artist’s poetry into English. Only the most recent, The Complete Poems of Michelangelo (University of Chicago Press, 183 pp) by John Frederick Nims, is the work of an established poet. With eight volumes of his own poetry to his credit, Nims also has done numerous translations, including one of the poetry of St. John of the Cross.

Nims’ collection adopts the standard chronological ordering of Michelangelo’s poems and fragments set by Enzo Noe Girardi’s 1960 Italian edition. Useful background is furnished with short prose sections that divide the artist’s poetic life into three phases: “The Long Beginning, 1475-1532” (poems 1-57); “Three Loves, 1532-47” (poems 58-266); and “The Four Last Things, 1547-1564” (poems 267-302). Afterwords on the text and translation, brief but well-focused notes and a minimal bibliography round out the volume.

Where academics James Saslow (The Poetry of Michelangelo, 1991) and Christopher Ryan (Michelangelo: The Poems, 1996) are content to furnish literal prose versions as bridges to the often difficult, sometimes undeniably awkward Italian originals, Nims’ credo requires that he restore, or perhaps reinvent, some of the poetry normally lost in translation. Like Ezra Pound and W.S. Merwin, Nims is driven by the urge to “make it new.” And he keeps faith: His versions are by any measure the most highly charged of the decade’s bumper crop, certainly the only ones that rise to the name of poetry. But so strong is Nims’ poetic personality that his versions raise the question of whether they are translations at all — or rather “imitations” as Robert Lowell titled his excursions into translation.

In homage to Michelangelo’s own respect for the poetic conventions of his day, Nims measures out his line lengths and maintains a high incidence of formal closure through rhyme — sonnets and madrigals come through recognizably as such. But he takes greater liberties with diction, tone, syntax and, as a result, with level of style, or what used to be called decorum. These liberties give a contemporary if brusque quality to Michelangelo’s voice. A rough analogy might be Peter Sellars’ stagings of Mozart operas in motorcycle leathers.

When Nims restrains his inclination to enrich the linguistic texture and jazz up the tone, he can deliver stunning English accounts of Michelangelo’s lines, which despite surface elaboration are fundamentally simple. Take, for example, poem 63, a sonnet that develops a complex conceit: Flint and steel produce fire, which in turn reduces the flint to a powder that forms enduring mortar. The “golden glance” in the tercet below refers to the striking looks of the handsome aristocrat Tommaso Cavalieri:

For, charred to cinder and smoke, confirmed in fire/still alive, I live forever: immortal flame/struck not by glancing steel, but a glance more golden.

Nims is not always content with turning out satisfying renditions. Michelangelo worked with the various levels of style and diction but generally did not mix his genres. Nims, however, allows the informal or colloquial voice to erupt into any poem, regardless of subject.

One of Michelangelo’s most famous lyrics, poem 152, speaks of the poet’s desire that his better parts be drawn forth by the improving influence of his lady and compares this action to the disclosure, by the sculptor’s chisel, of the figure latent in the block. Where the original finishes with an orthodox Petrarchan pairing of “will” and “strength” (voler and forza, respectively, in the original), in Nims’ version the madrigal ends thus:

— in my state, now I’ve got neither grit nor gumption of my own.

The guttural and homely pair of terms gives the poem a final lift and streaks it with verbal color, but this seems scarcely appropriate, as the original poem ends with exhaustion and resignation. And which is grit — will or strength? Which gumption? Where Michelangelo’s terms are polarized, the meaning of the alliterating Americanisms converges.

Poem 5, the artist’s only poem about an identifiable extant work — the Sistine ceiling — is in the burlesque mode, full of self-mocking depiction of the painter’s discomfort. Nims is right at home and turns in a virtuoso performance, but one that as translation succeeds only so far. In this rare “tailed sonnet” to someone called Giovanni (probably Giovanni da Prato), the six lines added to the canonical 14 provide a shift in tone, and the humor turns into a heartfelt petition that Giovanni defend his “dead” painting. For Nims, however, the fun goes on:

Who’s a painter? Me? No way! They’ve got me wrong!

Nims often seems to posit a Michelangelo capable of a wry, ironic stance before his troubles — which is at odds with almost everything we know about his character (Raphael painted him in the Vatican Stanze as a melancholy Heraclitus, the “weeping philosopher”). Ventilating the poet’s psyche in this way can produce vivid effects and does make for a more contemporary voice, but it seems to take us away from Michelangelo, not toward him.

One can’t help thinking, somewhat ungenerously, of Michelangelo’s namesake, his grandnephew Michelangelo Buonarroti, who in the early 17th century published some of the poems in versions both censored and “improved” according to contemporary taste. That there may be room for such improvement, though not the censorship, makes the whole issue more complex.

Two cheers, then, for Nims’ vivid reinventions. These surely are the most compelling translations of Michelangelo available in English, but their lustre is problematic and they are best consulted along with one of the literal versions that also supply the Italian text.

RELATED ARTICLE: Poetic Excavations

W.B. Yeats passed away in January 1939; less than four months later, Seamus Heaney was born in County Derry, destined to become the next Irish poet to win the Nobel Prize (Yeats won in 1923, Heaney in 1995).

Like Yeats, Heaney has become the international face of Irish literature, with teaching tours at Oxford, Harvard and Berkeley, in addition to thronged appearances on the worldwide reading circuit. With such a high profile, it was perhaps inevitable that he would become something of a poetic protagonist. Indeed, as critic Helen Vendler writes in her new study, Seamus Heaney (Harvard University Press, 224 pp), his is “an oeuvre of strong social engagement, looking steadily and with stunning poetic force at what it means to be a contemporary citizen in Northern Ireland — at the intolerable stresses put on the population by conflict, fear, betrayals, murders.”

That much will become clear even to the most casual peruser of Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 43 pp), the latest edition of the poet’s selected poems. From the very first poem, the muchanthologized “Digging,” Heaney’s awareness of violence infusing the Northern Irish landscape is apparent. As Vendler points out, Heaney reminds the reader that “the Irish Catholic child grew up between offers of two instruments: the spade and the gun.”

It would be an error, however, to assume that Heaney’s poetry deals only with the Northern Irish Troubles. Opened Ground is broad in its formal and thematic range. Those approaching the poet’s work for the first time will find a capable guide in Vendler. Though her book is geared to the academic reader, the intrepid generalist will be rewarded.

By Kevin Driscoll

Ronald L. Martinez is professor of Italian at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and the coauthor of a translation of Dante’s Inferno, among other books.

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