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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2010

Open category, commended

Read the judges’ comments
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Mario Petrucci

by Eugenio Montale

History doesn’t bend
like a chain
of uninterrupted rings.
In any case
many rings don’t bind.
History doesn’t contain
the before and after,
has nothing murmuring
on the back burner.
History isn’t manufactured
by those who dwell
on it, nor those who ignore it.
History doesn’t make
tracks, digs in, detests the little
by little, no progression
nor going back: it changes tack,
the course it steers
on no timetable. History
neither defends nor
attacks; history doesn’t do
‘intrinsic’ – it’s beyond
that. History administers
no caress or scourge.
History is master of nothing
we do or care for. Realizing
this doesn’t serve to make it
more true, more fair.

What’s more, history isn’t that
devastating bulldozer it’s cracked up
to be. It leaves subways, crypts, bunkers,
lairs. There are those who survive it.
History is benevolent too: destroys
what it can: if it could go further, surely
that would be better, but history is low
on news, can’t consummate all its vendettas.

History scrapes the depths
like trawl nets, with the odd tear
so that more than a fish escapes. Here
and there you’ll meet some ectoplasmic refugee
– he doesn’t seem especially pleased.
He has no idea he’s out – not a soul has
told him. Those others, in the bag
think themselves more free.

Translated from the Italian by Mario Petrucci

La Storia

La storia non si snoda
come una catena
di anelli ininterrotta.
In ogni caso
molti anelli non tengono.
La storia non contiene
il prima e il dopo,
nulla che in lei borbotti
a lento fuoco.
La storia non è prodotta
da chi la pensa e neppure
da chi l'ignora. La storia
non si fa strada, si ostina,
detesta il poco a poco, non procede
né recede, si sposta di binario
e la sua direzione
non è nell'orario.
La storia non giustifica
e non deplora,
la storia non è intrinseca
perché è fuori.
La storia non somministra
carezze o colpi di frusta.
La storia non è magistra
di niente che ci riguardi.
Accorgersene non serve
a farla più vera e più giusta.

La storia non è poi
la devastante ruspa che si dice.
Lascia sottopassaggi, cripte, buche
e nascondigli. C'è chi sopravvive.
La storia è anche benevola: distrugge
quanto più può: se esagerasse, certo
sarebbe meglio, ma la storia è a corto
di notizie, non compie tutte le sue vendette.

La storia gratta il fondo
come una rete a strascico
con qualche strappo e più di un pesce sfugge.
Qualche volta s'incontra l'ectoplasma
d'uno scampato e non sembra particolarmente felice.
Ignora di essere fuori, nessuno glie n'ha parlato.
Gli altri, nel sacco, si credono
più liberi di lui.

Eugenio Montale

Translation commentary

Poetry has always died
and has always arisen from its ashes.

Eugenio Montale

As Jeremy Reed aptly put it: ‘Montale’s free but controlled verse fits the shape of the century in which it is written.’ I would go further and claim that his verse, at least in literary terms, helped to shape that century. If Montale – in spite of his 1975 Nobel Prize and full-scale apotheosis at the hands of F. R. Leavis – is still insufficiently read in Britain, I do feel implicated. One ought, after all, to contribute to the vigour of translation within one’s own generation. And so, ‘History’ is part of my ongoing attempt to present Montale to a new generation of English readers.

‘History’ is certainly one of Montale’s classic poems, providing testimony to what the author, when referring to the source of ‘all real poetry’, describes as ‘an internal void provisionally filled by the achievement of expression’. The case for much of Montale’s work as poetry of a high order – rather than heightened prose – is strong; but more obviously so in Italian. The canny rhymes and crisp, un-prosaic stitching of vowels are clear enough. Achieving what Leavis described as ‘rightness (that is, decisive inevitability) in relation to rhythm and structure’, Montale’s musicality is unavoidable when reading his poems out loud.

But that twill-like texturing of vowels, that sometimes insistent sonority, does not always fall naturally into contemporary English, either through ear or thesaurus. One can forgive its various shades of abandonment by English translators. Nevertheless, I wanted to capture something of the subtlety, that binding quality, of Montale’s music, and of Italian more generally, whilst remaining true to the poem’s intense, near-conversational tone. In addressing this challenge, I have come to realise – yet again – the sheer suppleness and versatility of the English language.

Mario Petrucci