Saturday, July 26, 2008

Charles Guenther, an American poet

A great American poet and translator, Charles Guenther, has passed away. A good friend of mine, Ed Steinhardt, knew Charles well and wrote his obituary, which I’m posting below. I never met Charles, but as a writer and a translator myself I cannot feel anything but profound admiration for his many accomplishments.

Le mie condoglianze alla sua famiglia e a quelli che erano i suoi amici.

Poetry’s Prince of Poets,
Charles Guenther, dies at 88

"It is the work, not the prize or the honor,
that matters most. The work endures."
—Charles Guenther

Charles Guenther, 88, who moved in the circles of E.E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, Howard Nemerov, Ezra Pound and many others, died Thursday in St. Louis of cancer. He is survived by his wife Esther, three children, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
His only son, Charles Guenther Jr., told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Friday that "Poetry and his family were his life." Richard Wilbur said Friday that "he had my esteem and admiration."

Guenther, a renowned American translator, poet and critic, was the author of some 10 books, including Moving the Seasons, Phrase/Paraphrase, The Hippopotamus: Selected Translations 1945-1985, The Complete Love Sonnets of Garcilaso de la Vega and the recent Three Faces of Autumn: A Charles Guenther Retrospective.

The St. Louis-born Guenther worked tirelessly to bring foreign poetry into the English language, while at the same time creating original work such as "Missouri Woods," "Snow Country" and "Union Station." He was also well-known for his personal encouragement of new and emerging writers, and was a frequent correspondent.

He was a prolific translator, almost unequaled in his field. The nation of Italy in 1973 bestowed upon Guenther its highest award, (Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, rank of Knight Commander) for his many translations of Italian poetry into English and his "long and valuable work permeating two cultures."

Other awards included election to the Academie d’Alsace, a several decades run as Regional (Midwest) Vice-president of the American Poetry Society (succeeding John G. Neihardt) and the 2002 Emmanuel Robles International Award in Poetry.

Guenther began writing poetry at age 15 while a student at Kirkwood High School in Missouri. In high school he began translating French and then Italian poetry, looking up the words in a dictionary and writing the definitions in the margins. "It’s hard to say why I started," Guenther recalled in 2006. "In a great poem, there is something magic, a haunting spirit. It’s so rare that you keep looking for it."

At age 17 he began work as a copy boy for the St. Louis Star-Times. By adulthood (and the emergence of World War II) Guenther had earned a college degree and went to work for what would become the Aeronautical Chart and Information Center in St. Louis. His translation duties there, while "not as interesting as translating poetry," were critical to the war effort and later flight safety.

Even though Guenther had vowed that he would stop translating by age 25, he wryly admitted he "never did stop." Evenings and weekends he began a relentless enterprise of translation, largely translating from "raw text" or work that had as of yet not been translated into English.

"In 1940, for instance," Guenther recalled, "I read that Superveille was considered the ‘greatest living French poet.’ "I wrote him for permission to translate ‘Les Amis inconnus.’ When he told me I had done a "polishing job" on his poems, I was elated. But I soon realized that one doesn’t "polish" Supervielle; his strength is in his simplicity."

Other luminaries who would become friends included Ezra Pound, who Guenther met in 1951. After sending one of his translations to Pound (while Pound was incarcerated at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital) Guenther received back, "almost immediately, a postcard with this scrawled message, ‘I don’t write letters; I receive them.’ It was the start of a lively correspondence with this fascinating, obstinate poet who had put new vigor into American Literature."

By 1953 Guenther was putting his own vigor into something new: that of reviewing books for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "When that first review appeared," Guenther later recalled, "I considered reviewing a ‘civic honor. I still do."

Guenther’s reviews became a virtual Who’s Who of American Literature. Names such as Stafford, Jarrell, Lowell, Hughes, Van Duyn, Cummings and Eliot graced his newsprint. There were other names, too, like Pablo Neruda, Jean Wahl and Salvatore Quasimodo.

Guenther’s work as reviewer also dove-tailed with his own work as poet and translator. "The Post-Dispatch gave Guenther a wider readership than many poets have," said Jane Henderson, that paper’s book editor. By 2003, with his retirement from the Post-Dispatch, Guenther had amassed an unparalleled half-century of reviews.

Even in retirement, Guenther maintained a tireless regimen of work and an occasional review. His last book, Guardian of Grief, (selected translations of the 19th century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi) will be released in August. In characteristic Guenther-style, he expressed in his introduction to Guardian of Grief his ardent hope that "the poems may bring a renewed interest in, and appreciation of, Leopardi, his life, his times and his work."

"Past and present and future are not disjoined but joined," Walt Whitman wrote. "The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been and is. He drags the dead out of their coffins and stands them again on their feet."

For the work of poets he translated, living or dead, Guenther bestowed a certain element of immortality. "My own pratice," said Guenther, "When translating early poets is to place them in their own time, with a hint of antiquity, avoiding the grossly archaic language of their contemporaries." He summed up the process as, "My purpose is to make a poem from a poem."

A poem by Jose Agustin Goytisolo (entitled "The Difficult Poem"), which Guenther translated and is the last selection in The Hippopatamus, (1986) seems to sum-up the translation process.

The poem is inside
and doesn’t want to get out.

It pounds in my head
and doesn’t want to get out.

I shout, I tremble,
and it doesn’t want to get out.

I call it by name
and it doesn’t want to get out.

Later down the street
it stands before me.

Edward Steinhardt

Friday, July 25, 2008

Che ti dice la patria?

Hard times in “Il Bel Paese.” This morning I read an article in the Corriere della Sera, which said that the Italian government has now declared a national “State of Emergency” because of illegal immigration. The official communiqué from the Council of Ministers explains the decision as an attempt to deal with the “persistent and exceptional inflow of non-EU citizens”, most of whom have been washing up on the shores of southern Italian beaches, some alive but many of them dead.

Illegal immigrants in a boat off the Italian coast

Of course, without knowing anything about Italy or its present government a reader might think, “well, yes, that is a problem.” Every country has a right to its own immigration policy and rules are rules. You can’t just float up on a beach, half dead from the sun and the salt, and perhaps even after having seen your friends and family drown and expect to be welcomed by the local authorities. Bruttissima figura (very bad form) as the Italians would say.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi

Order will be maintained and Silvio Berlusconi, being the savvy politician that he is, knows that in economically difficult times one of the best ways to distract voters and keep them in a state of fear is to persecute those who are different or disadvantaged. It works in the USA, where we’re building a reinforced concrete wall between ourselves and Mexico, and it’ll work in Italy, too. In fact, not only has the government decided to zero in on illegal immigration, they’ve also singled out the Rom or “gypsies” for special attention. Another government law, this one from the 11th of July, decreed that there would be a national census of all the Rom, children included, living in the outskirts of major Italian cities. This decree, according to the Berlusconi government would finally deal with the “gypsy question”, enhancing the security of all of Italy’s citizens.

The fact that at least a quarter of the Rom in Italy are Italian citizens, and have been for generations, and as such have the right to go wherever they please in the country doesn’t seem to bother anyone in the government. The equation, gypsy = thief (or worse) has been not so subtly reinforced in people’s minds and that’s all that matters. A convenient scapegoat has been found, and if the cost of living in Italy is sky high and families are finding it harder and harder to save or even make it to the end of the month, well, then at least they know that there’s someone below them in the social pecking order.

Having lived and worked in Italy for over twenty years, I am sad to see this happening, but it's not totally unexpected. Berlusconi’s pogrom against i diversi (the different) is a part of a worldwide trend, a planetary disease pitting the rich against the poor.

Of course, you could say that this isn’t the first time that the Italians have led the rest of the planet boldly into the future. Back in the 1920’s they were at the forefront of another social trend, but then history never repeats itself, right?

Carnage and Mayhem

Perhaps not everyone caught the recent video clip of the President where, in an effort to explain America’s current economic doldrums, he says that “Wall Street got drunk and now it has a hangover.” As yet another example of Bush’s finesse and intellect in dealing with complex problems it’s not bad. Millions of people are being kicked out of their homes, the cost of everything from gasoline to food is skyrocketing and this guy just laughs.

WPA poster from 1930's

My grandfather used to complain about FDR back in the 1930’s, saying that Roosevelt was destroying Key West and turning it into a tourist trap with his “Work Progress Administration,” but I can’t even imagine what he’d have to say about Bush. FDR may have hastened the island’s demise, in Ernest’s eyes, as a good place to live, but most historians view Roosevelt as a man who strengthened America, not weakened it.

Yet, were my grandfather alive today, who would he vote for? Side with John McCain (who is apparently quite a fan of Ernest) and you get “another 100 years” of war in Iraq, and Ernest, in spite of his experiences on the Italian front in WWI and his work as a correspondent in Spain during the Civil War and later on in France, was not a fan of genocide. He hated it, as anyone who’s ever read his dispatches from Anatolia for the Toronto Star can attest.

Senator Obama, however, is hardly what you could call a “peace” candidate. It’s true that he wants to pull out most combat troops from Iraq, but only to “better” use them fighting terrorism in Afghanistan. But no western power has ever managed to completely subdue the tribes in Afghanistan. The British Empire couldn’t do it, nor could the Soviets, who were literally kicked out of the country, and I doubt that Obama will be able to do it either. Once elected (and I don’t think that there’s any doubt that he will be the next US president) he’ll continue to spend billions of dollars (that in truth America doesn’t have) on a war that can’t be won. Thousands of soldiers on both sides will die, along with an even greater number of civilians and for what? What will we have accomplished in the end? Carnage and mayhem or untold suffering, what kind of choice is that?