Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, July 31, 2005

"I find poetry difficult," some people say. My response to this remark is: "Yes. And that is only one of the good things about it." Difficulty, after all, is magnetic, much desired: hence the video game, the crossword puzzle, golf. They are reliable, packaged forms of difficulty.

Finding a worthy difficulty appears to be a great human goal, perhaps more central than success. And oddly enough, that worthy difficulty does not necessarily give pleasure. Sometimes we complain about it, as Michelangelo Buonarotti does in this poem. It has often been translated into English but never so powerfully as in Gail Mazur's brilliant, unforgettable rendering:

Michelangelo: To Giovanni da Pistoia When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel --1509

I've already grown a goiter from this torture,

hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy

(or anywhere else where the stagnant water's poison).

My stomach's squashed under my chin, my beard's

pointing at heaven, my brain's crushed in a casket,

my breast twists like a harpy's. My brush,

above me all the time, dribbles paint

so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

My haunches are grinding into my guts,

my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,


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