by James Sale

Alessio Zanelli is a fascinating poet, and probably a fascinating man as well. This is his sixth collection of poems and part of his well-publicised and unique charm is that he is an Italian who writes creatively in the English language. This is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do, and I cannot, off-hand, think of one major poet who has done this in English. Joseph Conrad is, perhaps, the nearest in his Heart of Darkness, one of the greatest novels of the 20th century and virtually a prose poem, so rhythmical and beautiful are its cadences—yet still, not poetry. So Zanelli is not lacking in ambition.

His collection, The Secrets of Archery, contains some 50 poems, half perhaps of Dante’s 100 Cantos, and a clue to what this is about is contained in the epigraph: “Fundamentally the marksman aims at himself,” from Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki. Suzuki, of course, was the author of many books, but perhaps most famously, his Manual of Zen Buddhism is a classic of its type. And so we come across two related points here: first, that the secret of the archery is directed at oneself; second, that not only has Zanelli abandoned the Italian language for his creative work, but it would appear—from reading the book—that he has abandoned his native religion too. For his poetry is suffused with a sort of Zen Buddhist style—like extended haikus—of writing; there is a gnomic, understated quality about much of it that seems very Eastern in its tone and feel.

That is not to say, of course, that Zanelli eschews meter and rhyme and the technical stuff so beloved of SCP readers. Indeed, Zanelli is a highly technical writer; perhaps a grammatical and linguistic perfectionist. I was extremely impressed by his use of the subjunctive, which I thought beyond many English writers, and this technical ability comes most to the fore when he writes in a formal way. Here, for example, is a rather brilliant example of his deploying active and passive verb forms:

Culloden Moor

At last they met. No sound. Arrays deployed.
It was the perfect day—no haze, no shine.
Long minutes lapsed before the bagpipes trilled.

By noon it all ran smooth. Forlorn and void.
No banner waved. No circle stood. No line.
With peace and level smoke the field was filled.

Culloden Moor was where in 1745 the English army destroyed the Scottish army and the hopes of the House of Stewart—the Pretenders, Bonnie Prince Charlie—from ever gaining access to the British throne. But notice the metrical weaving and the way the rhymes cut across the stanzas; this is very skillful. But more than that: note how the first stanza ends on an active verb, “trilled,” but the second, when all the devastation has been done and peace only remains, changes to a passive verb, “was filled.” It’s a small point, but it’s a form of mimesis; this is really high level writing.

But that said, and there are other finely written formal poems, but for my tastes there are too many of the formless, rhyme-less sort of modern poems where we get the “Buddhist” observation leading to some apercu which poses as closure. The poetry is full of ‘minor events and little things’ but this is not a virtue.

Take, “Nightcap at Bolsterstone.” Bolsterstone is a village in South Yorkshire. The poem starts:

Between the pitch-black outline of the hills
and the slate-indigo bank of stratocumuli
there is room for a band of clear sky,
ranging from citron yellow to cherry red
through hues of golden and orange.

The question I ask myself—after we have done with all the fanfare of precise and accurate and so on—is: is this poetry? And my answer is that it is not: it is description. Not only is it just description, but I find myself bored by it: do I care if it’s pitch-black or salt white, slate-indigo or peacock purple, and other alternatives for all the colours? And here we come to the crunch point about what poetry is. If we take Zanelli’s word “golden” (and for our purpose here I regard gold and golden as interchangeable) and ask, what does “golden” mean? The answer is it means “golden,” and that’s all it means.

But let’s consider one line of real poetry to feel and see a difference: Robert Frost’s, “Nature’s first green is gold.” What does “gold” mean here? Wow—so much more than a mere colour: it’s symbolic and it’s metaphorical, and so it’s charged with poetry. Large swathes of Zanelli’s work are not so charged, for all their technical excellence; observations are going on, but really there is no reason to care about them particularly.

Indeed, the last eight lines of this poem show signs of strain in terms of making the narrative interesting: there are “blankly cheery faces … politely saying goodbye … and gone completely dark.” For the poet in English overuse of the –ly adverbs is a sure fire sign that the language isn’t working as poetry, and so needs beefing up with these signifiers; the power of language is in verbs, not in adverbs.

I feel, therefore, that much of the poetry is a kind of solipsism, and that the image of the archery is somewhat pretentious; furthermore, the Buddhist style of writing creates a kind of detachment in which one asks, does one care? One poem is called “What’s Become of the Peanut-Eyed Snowman?” Exactly—do I care?

However, one place where I do care is in his poem to his wife, “Jane, If One Day.” This is metrically irregular, but the conceit—of wind and doe—is so powerful and beautiful that suddenly we do. Almost unguardedly Zanelli reveals himself because of his love for his wife and this is definitely a real poem and the best in the collection. Would they all had this passion!

I reach an awkward conclusion, then, in reviewing this collection. Keats observed in his revised Hyperion that:

Since every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions, and would speak, if he had loved
And been well nurtured in his mother tongue.

The poet is somebody “well nurtured in his mother tongue,” in his lingua madre. There is something very technically correct about Zanelli’s work, but I am not convinced it creates much poetry. It’s like knowing the words intellectually, but one doesn’t feel them because they don’t come from one’s mother or mother tongue. If he were to say, “I love you” to Jane in English, then that is one thing; but to say “ti amo” in Italian will have a thousand resonances which I, as an English speaker, really won’t get. Dante knew this which is why he declined to write his masterpiece in Latin, and chose his mother language. Imagine, would we still be reading his Divine Comedy now if it had been done in Latin? Could even he had got that “feeling” into the verse in Latin? I doubt it.

So the awkward advice—sure to be rejected—is: write Italian poetry! Zanelli is extremely skilled, but it’s not enough in English. However, in Italian it might be just the ticket and release a vein of feeling and power that really might achieve a fresh greatness. I hope so. As I said, Zanelli is a very interesting man.



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22 Responses

  1. Sathyanarayana

    A very good review. Great analysis on points of language, technique and concept. I loved thise quoted poems.
    “At last they met. No sound. Arrays deployed.
    It was the perfect day—no haze, no shine… ”
    these lines with small sentences, are pithy and striking show the action in quick succession. Great.

  2. Peter Hartley

    An interesting review about a poet I have never hitherto encountered. – However the battle of Culloden Moor was fought in 1746.

    • James Sale

      Thanks Peter – you are quite right; the uprising was in 1745 but its climax – the defeat of the Pretender at Culloden – was, as you say, in 1746. Thanks for correcting me on that.

  3. Leo Zoutewelle

    Hi James,
    A very interesting piece. There was much I did not understand, but I am not through studying it. Even so, your last paragraph hit me straight on. It related to an idea I was given some time ago by a professional linguist: seriously trying to translate poetry from one language to another is “deathly dangerous”, in as much as there are so many different possibilities of missing or misunderstanding lingual nuances of various kinds that it might be said to be impossible for the translator to be aware of them all. This idea and your whole essay are of great interest to me as my lingua madre happens to be Dutch.
    Thank you, James,

    • James Sale

      Yes, thanks for this Leo, I appreciate it. It is a difficult question: in my review I think I have made it plain that Zanelli is in one sense – very technical – a fine poet, but there is something missing I feel in his use of language which relates to being a native speaker; and this is to do with how one ‘feels’ words. I am of the opinion that Shakespeare can only have been so great a poet because his mother nursed him in words and nursery rhymes – his soul heard the music in the sounds of his native language, and with that as his starting point, the full expressive power of language was possible for him. But without wishing to say it cannot be done, since human beings are capable of so much more than we think, I think being a poet in your non-lingua madre is almost impossible especially when we consider how difficult it is for native speakers! On this topic I have quoted before Lord Chesterfield’s comment: ‘I am very sure that any man of common understanding may, by culture, care, attention, and labor, make himself whatever he pleases, except a great poet.’ We must aspire to be poets – under heaven – but understand it is not for everyone. The trouble nowadays is that so much verse is free – as is much of Zanelli’s collection – so that the obvious lack of form does not overtly seem to contradict the question of whether it actually is poetry. That said, I would still encourage anyone to write poetry, or attempt to write it, since the writing itself is therapeutic whatever the outcome.

      • Leo Zoutewelle

        Come to think of it, actually we have to address two sides, one in case of a non-English raised person writing English poetry and one where any person attempts to translate a poem written in a non-English language into English. I think there is a significant difference. In any case, I tend to think much along the same lines as what you have written here – at least to the extent that I understand it. A fascinating subject!! Thanks, James.

  4. Leo Zoutewelle

    Actually, we have two possible situations here. One, where a non-English educated person tries to write English poetry and one where a person tries to translate a non-English poem into English. I think there is a rather significant difference between the two.
    All in all, I feel that I tend to agree with your point of view — at least the parts I think I understand. I certainly agree that, regardless, someone trying to write poetry benefits from the exercise, whether he is successful or not. Fascinating!

    • James Sale

      Thanks Leo, yes, there are two different scenarios; the most difficult is the one we have already discussed: namely, writing poetry in English when English is not your lingua madre. It is, I think though, entirely possible to write outstanding verse in English even if English is not your first language, since the forms enable a greater expressivity. But full poetry (if I may make that distinction between poetry and verse) requires that deeper feeling for the language. Regarding your second challenge, translating from a foreign language into English, all depends upon the original intention: are we intending to translate in order to understand what the poet wrote, at one level, or are we attempting to re-create a new poem in the new language? The latter, of course, is far more difficult and may create meanings in the new text that are not in the original. Actually, this happens with film adaptations: Peter Jackson’s adaptations of Lord of the Rings is brilliant because he doesn’t try to literally follow the books; whereas, the Harry Potter films are generally dull because JK Rowling insisted that they were so followed! If we take the first stanza of Dante’s Divine Comedy, we have the accurate translation of Mark Musa: Midway along the journey of our life/ I woke to find myself in a dark wood,/ for I had wandered off from the straight path. On the other hand, we have the much derided (by academics) Dorothy L Sayers poetry version of the same: Midway this way we’re bound upon,/ I woke to find myself in a dark wood,/ Where the right road was wholly lost and gone. I like both, but I prefer the DLS because it is poetry – the metrical pulse, the rhyme, and the diction – compare ‘right road’ with ‘straight path’. To some degree this is inevitably subjective, but as Sayers progresses, given the scale of Dante’s work, she inevitable makes mistakes and has to force some meanings in order to get her terza rima complete. But it is worth it, in my opinion. Hope this is a helpful sort of comment.

  5. James Sale

    Ooops – that should be: Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,/ I woke to find myself in a dark wood,/ Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.

  6. Joseph S. Salemi

    Concerning the point Mr. Zoutewelle raised about the possibilities of translation, something important needs to be noted.

    In the past, no one doubted (or even questioned) whether translation of a text from one language to another was possible. In fact, translations were done regularly and without any fuss, by people everywhere. This was true not just for simple prose, but also for poetry of all types. Some translations were better than others, but what else is new? That’s the case with all human endeavors. The main point is that nobody approached the task of translation with some sort of bogus philosophical problem, or any psychological fear and trembling.

    So why all of a sudden do we now have all these doubts and hesitations and uncertainties about the process? The answer is very simple.

    When poetry was traditional (or “classical,” as we say around here), it was assumed without question that it presented to the reader a coherent and verbally graspable meaning. There was no pretentious mystification, no deliberate obscurity, not stifling vagueness or bewildering unidiomatic structures, weird syntax, or ungrammatical garbage. In short, we did not live in the backwash of a modernist tidal wave.

    We also did not have the silly Romantic notion that the poet was some sort of special genius, expressing his unique and idiosyncratic “message” (or worse, his personal psychological fantasies),that could never possibly be fully grasped by anybody else.

    When those poisonous ideas infect our thinking, then we naturally start to think that genuine translation is impossible. It’s assumed that we “cannot capture the essence” of a poet.

    But these poisonous ideas are absurd. All you really need to translate is to know both languages very well, and to be a writer of some experience and skill. We now live in a world where competent translation is done widely, all over the planet, and nobody has a damned problem with it! So why should “poetry” be considered somehow exempt?

    I say this as a translator of long standing, having Englished work from Latin, Greek, Italian, French, Sicilian, Provencal, and Romanesco. But all of the material I translated is from the pre-modernist era. There was no trouble whatsoever in doing the job. If anyone wanted to translate John Ashbery (I don’t know why they would bother), it would no doubt be a different story.

  7. C.B. Anderson

    Telling points you made, J.S.S., and points I can take on face value only from someone with great experience in translating into English works from other languages. If somehow nuances be lost from the language of origin (or resonances go missing due to adoption of a language other than the “lingua madre,” this is likely the result of a writer’s lack of prosodic skill or insufficient fluency in either of the two languages involved. Leo Yankevich, as I recall, was deficient in neither of these two aspects of moving from one language to another. Anything that’s lost is probably made up for by the natural or earned talent of the translator/writer.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      It’s true — much depends on the skill of the translator in HIS OWN NATIVE LANGUAGE. If he has a wide command of vocabulary and idiom, he will be much better able to produce a faithful and pleasing version of the text being translated.

      The problem in translation is almost never about the meaning or basic gist of what the original text says (unless it is a modernist-influenced text that is deliberately trying to be obscure, vague, and imprecise). Once the meaning is ascertained, the translator’s job is to render it into felicitous and precise English that adheres as closely as possible to the style and tone of the original. Nuances don’t have to be lost. All the translator has to do is find ways to express those nuances in English.

      Examples of excellent translation in this manner are Richmond Lattimore’s translations from ancient Greek, or Richard Wilbur’s translations from French drama.

      • James Sale

        Hi Joe

        Thanks for your contribution to this. Regarding John Ashbery, of course, we are in a paradoxical situation: on the one hand, it is impossible to translate him since his poetry doesn’t mean anything anyway; but on the other, it must be as easy as ice cream because one only needs to insert the nearest equivalent nouns, verbs and adjectives in the other language and one has replicated the meaninglessness virtually perfectly! But as to more important matters: this thread was more preoccupied – till Leo Z raised his interesting sidebar – in whether one could write poetry (not versify) in one’s non-lingua madre? I could not immediately think of an example of someone who’d managed this in English. On reflection the nearest I can get to someone(s) are the Rossettis (DG and Christina) – their household spoke Italian but they were brought up in England, in London in fact, so maybe they were genuinely bilingual in that full sense of having two native languages. What do you think?

        On the sidebar issue that Leo Z raised and you eloquently comment on: yes, I agree – one mustn’t get precious about translation, and all things are translatable, and you have spent a lifetime doing such work. But there is still a question: namely, because one translates Dante, say, does that mean that the translation is also a poem in the full sense of that word? In one sense, in translating a poem, the work of its being a poem is done for one; but that said, there are some god-awful translations which barely merit the term translation, much less the word poem. I can translate a little of Dante but it will never be poetry! The Latimer translation, by the way, I agree with you, is sublime. But the situation is, I think, that we have 3 levels (4 if we include ‘prose’ as a category, which is the ‘not-poetry’ category) of poetry, and so of translation of it: to wit, there is poetry at the high end, there is verse in the middle, and there is doggerel at the bottom. Put another way, because someone rhymes (e.g. McGonagall) or uses meter doesn’t mean we have poetry. So there, really, is the challenge. However, I will defer to you on translation since it is not something I feel an expert on, but as Dr Johnson observed in another context – we don’t need to be able to make a table in order to judge whether any specific table is any good!

        Thanks again – and happy Christmas to you, Evan and all SCP readers and contributors.

  8. Joseph S. Salemi

    Quite so, James — there are levels of difficulty in translation. For example, it is utterly impossible to translate a limerick into another language, because limericks depend almost wholly on their peculiar metrics and their catchy rhyme scheme. It is also very difficult to put rhymed poetry into a rhymed translation, and in some cases it is impossible to do so with any semantic accuracy. For example, when my wife Helen Palma did her selected translations from Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal, she only chose about thirty-five to do, because she could put those few into an English that followed Baudelaire’s original rhyme scheme and his meaning, whereas other poems in Baudelaire’s book simply could not be translated with that sort of faithfulness, and Helen didn’t want to mess with the text’s meaning just to get a rhyme in English.

    Translating Dante presents the further difficulty that one needs to know not just Italian but also medieval Italian, and be aware of idioms and references that may now be opaque to most readers. Add to this the hurdle of putting one’s English into terza rima, and one sees the tremendous burden that translating Dante places on a poet. And yet it has been done many times, and some of those translations are excellent. Dorothy Sayers did a fantastic job, and her notes and commentary are a godsend to all readers. John Ciardi’s version of the Inferno is the one I use when teaching, and it is truly great.

    Is a translation of a poem also a poem in its own right? Well, that depends. If the translator has been faithful to the original text’s meaning, and if he has maintained the original rhyme scheme and meter, and if he has put it into pleasant and felicitous English, and if he shows verve and skill in his diction and idioms and syntax, then yes, of course his translation is a poem. But some translations don’t quite accomplish all of this, and they can be nevertheless useful and perhaps even gratifying in their expression. Even a simple “trot” or a “crib” has its value, especially with ancient texts that are difficult to understand fully without a word-for-word rendering by a scholar.

    Concerning Ashbery and other who employ an occult form of speech, I can mention one relevant thing that I have found out over the years. Poets from small countries, where the spoken languages are not well known outside their borders (say Hungary, or Slovakia, or Ireland) are almost all in favor of free verse. Why? Very simple — they know that no translators will take on the task of translating foreign work for a wider audience unless they have the easy task of simply translating without the need to deal with meter, rhyme, or the traditional tropes and figures. And since free verse eschews all of these things, translation of it is fairly straightforward compared to what one has to do with formal poetry. This has a culturally deleterious effect, for young poets in small countries will not bother to learn whatever forms and traditions and literary practices are intrinsic to Hungarian, or Slovak, or Gaelic poetry. They just keep grinding out free-verse drivel, in the hopes that they’ll quickly get published in French or English or German.

    A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you, and to all here at the SCP.

  9. James Sale

    Thanks for this Joe – great insights; and as I wind down for Christmas, I just have to add that like you I love the DL Sayers’ version and the commentary she provides, which is incredibly useful. Also, you are absolutely spot-on with the poetry from ‘small countries’. It seems to me that in the late 80s and 90s we were plagued with so much ‘free verse’ imports and claims of major status for really non-poets; the only thing that was distinctive was their exotic origin and, add to this, that as the Berlin Wall was going down, promoting them was seen as a political act of solidarity. That it may well have been, but poetry? Not so convinced! Enjoy that Christmas – and here’s to 2020!

  10. Mark F. Stone

    James, I enjoyed reading the thoughtful and incisive analysis in your essay. Mark

    • James Sale

      Thanks Mark. I may be wrong overall, since there are several gushing reviews of this book that I have read, and in a sense I am contradicting them through the reservations I express. But I have tried to be clear about these reservations, and the central one, which is about ‘feeling states’ that may only be linguistically possible in one’s native language. I appreciate your commenting. Happy Christmas and hope we meet up in 2020!

  11. Alessio Zanelli

    Hi James,
    Happy New Year!
    I’m really grateful to you for having taken the trouble to write a review of my collection, a REAL review, which leaves no doubt about the fact that the reviewer has actually read the entire book. Thank you.
    Also, I appreciate your analysis, both the positive and the (so to speak) sceptic remarks, even though at times they seem to conflict with each other.
    You’re certainly right about a very specific criticism: when you don’t write in a second language, it’s very difficult (virtually impossible), especially in poetry, to reach the same “depth” you would achieve by using your mother tongue.
    That said, I’ve never had the ambition to rival any other poet, either in the English or in the Italian language, there are so many good ones, from the ancient times through today, that every attempt would just appear ridiculous.
    I chose English simply because I like it, and started studying it when I was a teenager, fond of rock music whose lyrics I could hardly understand (Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Genesis, and others). Such lack of comprehension spurred me on to learn English by myself, so that we can well say that “Smoke on the Water” led me to Blake, Dickinson, Williams, Auden, Armitage, you name it…
    Actually, I started “to try” to write English poetry in the 80’s but I didn’t submit anything to magazines till year 2000. So, it came to me as a big surprise when, shortly after, some small journals from different English-speaking countries accepted my work. It’s taken me over 10 years to see my poetry published in some renowned reviews (Italian Americana, World Literature Today, Poetry News, Poetry New Zealand, Vallum, and several others), and I’ve actually learned a lot from my submitting activity, nearly as much as from reading a huge amount of English poetry, written by very famous authors as well as almost unknown ones.
    So, I know my limits, nonetheless I still aspire to improve my writing, never illuding myself that I can become “famous” or “rich” through poetry. I do it, in English, basically because it amuses me and enriches my literary skills and sensibility anyway (in any language I could possibly resort to).
    And I never forget that there are examples of excellent English poetry written by authors born into a different language (above all Fernando Pessoa).
    Thanks again for your review.

    • Alessio Zanelli

      In lines 10-11 there’s a wrong “don’t”, I obviously mean “when you write in a second language”. Sorry for the “svista”.
      I forgot to say, your review originated a long thread of comments, about my book and poetry in general, which is really positive and shows that the collection is of some interest anyway.
      As to my insisting in writing in your mother tongue, please bear with me, “tentar non nuoce”.

      • James Sale

        Yes, we must try, all of us – and there is great benefit in doing so, as you have found – as we all find as we extend ourselves. And also, you are right about this thread: a lot of people have become specifically aware of your work as a result of it, and it has generated an unusual number of comments compared with most reviews. Sadly, my last review of a very fine collection (too) only garnered 4 comments, so let’s hope this review results in more sales of your book. Of course, on the subject of writing in English as opposed to Italian, have you considered translating English into Italian, as in Italian poetry? Well, if you ever do, try a few stanzas from my Canto 9 extract which is on this site and send it over to me – we will certainly post it up on our English cantos website, since we have some Italian translations already up there and we are building a testament to celebrate Dante’s 700th anniversary in 2021 – go All the best – James

    • James Sale

      Thanks Alessio for your generous, big-hearted and mature response to my review, which is a tonic in itself. I admire your tenacity too, and hard work, in studying English and English poetry, and as I have made clear in my review you do reach some great results in certain poems. I think overall that tight forms suit you best, and bring out your technical resourcefulness more effectively, though I cannot also deny that your love poem to your wife is my favourite, for it truly engages your heart! All the best in your writings – look forward to reading more in 2020!


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