The Ciardi Translation

I received a kind email from a poet-friend yesterday evening. Despite a long and difficult day of teaching, she still made time to send a note of congratulations: Praise Nothing was named a finalist for the 2011 John Ciardi Poetry Prize.

I knew the winner’s name had been released (congrats to Karen Holmberg for winning the prize), but I hadn’t yet received any notification. What a happy surprise! Before this email, I figured any note from the contest organizers was lost or, more likely, not coming since the winner had already been chosen. But this finalist status is, hopefully, an indicator that acceptance is truly a matter of the manuscript finding the right readers at the right time.

This same friend who emailed also recently encouraged me to NOT overhaul the manuscript if publication doesn’t happen this round. Her advice is yet another reason why I am so thankful to have the online poetry community with whom to share news, both good and bad. People who will drop you a line out of nowhere just to encourage you: these are my kind of people. As I said to her in an email reply, “Genuine belief and support within a community: I'd be lost without it.”
Last January, I plunked down the $25 Ciardi Prize entrance fee for a few reasons: I admire Steve Gehrke’s Resurrection Machine which BkMk published; a colleague introduced me to the fine people at BkMk at the last AWP and they were quite nice, really seemed to support and believe in their authors; BkMk is in Kansas City; and they publish good books (see Megan Harlan’s Mapmaking which I bought at AWP). The underlying reason for submitting there, however, was the name: Ciardi.

I often say that Milton was the first poet that blew my mind. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “Milton? Really?” And this statement, for some out there, probably lumps me in with various accusations of sadism, misogyny, or some kind of orthodox authoritarianism. Well, it’s true about the mind blowing. Mostly. Just ask me the next time we see each other. It’s not really an uncommon story, I think. In early high school, Satan rocked my world. But I digress…

Speaking of Satan and my underlying reason for submitting (to the contest), in some respects I think it is fair to say that before my somewhat more complex feelings of sympathy for Milton's shape- and size-shifting Satan, and before the ensuing theological confusion that caused me so much consternation, there was Dante's ice-encased, bat-winged, three-headed horror show version which seemed right out of a nightmare or a movie I'd never be given permission to see. Looking at these interpretations, though, I'm not sure which is really more horrific. Blake's, I think. Certainly it's more energetic and enticing...

Milton's Satan interpreted by William Blake
via Phil Coppins

Dante's Satan interpreted by Gustave Dore
via Wikipedia

My love of Divine Comedy all goes back to eighth grade and checking out Ciardi’s translation of Inferno from the school library. I never checked books out from the library unless I had to for a report of some sort, and so I think I must have heard of this title from a movie or television. Not sure what would have triggered the idea otherwise. But there was danger in this book. As well as something daring. Frightening. Even something about this book that made it seem bad for me. (Picture Jerry and George reading Tropic of Cancer. That was me, but with a 14th-century Italian epic poem. Same deal.) I doubt I even knew it was poetry, but I decided that I would read the entire darn thing. Every word. And I did.

The cover. via
I know that I liked it, but don’t really remember a whole lot. I have strong sensory memories of the edition’s cover, and remember feeling sickened by some of the descriptions of Hell, and I vaguely remember Ciardi’s vision of Satan and thinking that he must have it wrong. Ciardi, I mean. I’m not sure why I thought that, but then I didn’t have enough sense to know the book wasn’t written by John Ciardi and the title of the book wasn’t "Dante’s Inferno."

Over the years I’ve read many translations of the Inferno, and only a few of the whole Divine Comedy. I prefer the John Sinclair prose translations which, while earning my MFA, Garrett Hongo insisted I read. I dutifully complied, and didn’t look back. I frequently reread portions of Purgatorio. Still, not so much for Paradiso, though maybe it's an acquired taste, or maybe it gets better with age. Hell, I should probably give it a try now. I am, after all, acquiring age, if not taste.

This fall, my poetry students will start off reading four different translations of “Canto 1”: Ciardi and Pinsky’s different verse translations, Sinclair’s prose, and the Birk & Sanders free verse. They’re going to write about their own poetics and incorporate their translation preferences. It’s a short writing assignment, but students almost always exceed the word count on this one. There’s something about Dante that really sinks his hooks in you. (Obviously.) For me, anyway, that process started early and with Ciardi, and I’m happy to remember that this morning, and happy to celebrate community, legacy, and poetry.