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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page BW12

A wonderful book just published by Handsel Books is Montale in English, an anthology of translations by many hands. Eugenio Montale (1896-1981) has exerted a continuing, large influence on poetry in English. This book, edited by Harry Thomas, presents the range and depth of the great Italian modernist's attraction for those who write in English.

Poetry in translation has had an especially great appeal for American poets and readers in the decades since the deaths of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Williams and Frost. Among modernist poets from other countries, Montale's contemporary Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) has in some ways provided a hero of the explicit and the inclusive. In contrast, Montale during the same period has been for American poetry something like a hero of the implicit and the suggestive.

In other words, Montale is a great poet of the ineffable, tracing spiritual longings and forces that have no ready label, feelings that are powerful yet glancing.

Here is Montale's "Delta" -- an ode to transitions, on some abstract level, and an evocation of the river delta, more concretely -- as translated by Samuel Beckett:


To thee

I have willed the life drained

in secret transfusions, the life chained

in a coil of restlessness, unaware, self-angry.

When time leans on his dykes

then thine

be his allconsciousness

and memory flower forth in a flame

from the dark sanctuary, and shine

more brightly, as now, the rain over, the dragon's-blood

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