The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

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MAY 2012 Issue
Books In Conversation

JONATHAN GALASSI with Adam Fitzgerald

Since the late 1980s Jonathan Galassi has been editor-in-chief, President, and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, one of the premier publishing houses based in New York City. But Galassi’s life in letters is even more storied and accomplished. In 1998, he published a tome of Eugenio Montale’s poetry in translation, Collected Poems, 1920-1954, which has been hailed rightfully as a landmark work of translation as well as the definitive edition. In 2010, Galassi’s lifelong devotion to Italian letters brought about yet another encyclopedic and inescapable work: Canti, by Giacomo Leopardi a poet who has defined lyric poetry in Italy and Europe much in the way Wordsworth, Baudelaire, and Whitman also had for the 19th century and after. Finally, this past March, a new book of Galassi’s poems, Left-handed (Knopf, 2012) was released, proving Galassi continues to be one of the most productive of writers: as poet, translator, and editor. I had the pleasure to sit down with Galassi late last year and discuss his work with Leopardi, but soon our conversation drifted along the waters of many interrelated projects and passions he has had nearly his whole life. At the time, he was working on revisions for his Montale opus which has also been recently released.

Adam Fitzgerald (Rail): What have you been reading?

Jonathan Galassi: Well, I went on a trip recently and finished a few things. One was The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt’s new title about Lucretius. According to Greenblatt, modern humanism is a Lucretian construction! I read another work called Poets in a Landscape by Gilbert Highet, which is about Latin poets and their relationship to place—it wasn’t great but interesting for an Italophile and a fan of Horace. And I read The Immoralist by Gide. I’d never read that before.

Rail: It’s a favorite of mine—a scary book. Speaking of which, right before going to Italy this summer, I read Death in Venice finally. They’re really two of a kind.

Galassi: Actually, I thought you could teach a great course that would compare those two. It struck me, too, that the so-called modernist novelists Gide, Proust, and Mann, they’re all gay! Well, everyone but Joyce, that is.

Rail: Yes, Genet writes in his letters somewhere about how annoying it was that the only gay writers he could turn to as precedents, Proust and Gide, always had to re-gender the narrative. But yes, that would be a great class! You could read Nietzsche as a way to begin and then see kind of how these two gay writers handle the modern myth of biological health, post-Nietzsche. Apropos talking of such literary internationalism, tell me, when did you start translating?

Galassi: I started translating after I first went to Italy, I think, in the summer of 1972. I had a Marshall Scholarship at Cambridge and we had all these wonderful long vacations and I went to Rome on the second one—that was in the spring of ’72—and I was just blown away by how amazingly beautiful it was, how rich. And because I’m partly Italian I thought, “Well, this is mine.” So I decided I would go back that summer and I went to Perugia and studied Italian and lived with an Italian family, and I learned enough to start to be able to speak. And I started to read, and when I went back to Cambridge I read Dante and then I came home the following summer and began looking for work. Frank Bidart actually was the one who got me started—he was doing an issue of Ploughshares and he asked me to translate Montale’s “Xenia” poems, elegies for his wife Mosca. So I started doing that. And I translated “L’infinito” of Leopardi at that time. And actually, I used that version in my translation of the Canti, and only changed a few words.

Rail: Wow!

Galassi: Yes, it was written when he was very young, and it’s one of the first things I ever translated, when I was more or less his age——

Rail: I marked that lyric because every time I would reread it, I said to myself, “What a great poem.”

Galassi: It is. It’s an amazing poem and one of his most accessible. So, actually it’s a coming full circle for me.

Rail: So the Montale project kind of went for how long?

Galassi: Well, let’s see. I worked on the edition of his first three books, Collected Poems 1926-1954, for 13 years and it was published in 1998, so I started that in the ’80s. We’re just publishing a newly revised edition of it, in fact. But I started translating Montale in the early ’70s, with the “Xenia,” and then I started working on his essays, which are wonderfully fresh and astute and unfussy. I did that book for Dan Halpern at Ecco in 1982, soon after Montale’s death in 1981; it’s called The Second Life of Art. Then I translated Altri versi, his last book, when I was at Random House in the mid-’80s. And then I decided—I knew Bill Arrowsmith, and we even talked about translating Montale together, but that never happened—I decided I was going to try to translate his major poetry. I sort of backed into it, which is what I often do——

Rail: With a large-scale project like that?

Galassi: Yes, I backed into writing poetry, backed into being an editor, and many other things in life. Backed into being gay [laughs].

Rail: Right!

Galassi: I think I decided I was going to try to do it by a kind of process of elimination. It was a very, very daunting project, but I loved every minute of it. And I still haven’t gotten him out of my system. I’m actually now returning to Montale yet again. I’m going to do his later work now. And I hope not to spend that much time on it [laughs] because I’ve got other things to do, and time is getting short. Still, it was the greatest and most rewarding experience I’ve had as a writer.

Rail: So the new project will be mid-’50s on?

Galassi: Yes. The book I’m doing starts with Satura which was published in the early ’60s. It’s everything after La Bufera—what Montale called the “retrobottega,” the back of the shop. I’ve already done some of it, but there’s still a lot to do. And a lot of people think, with some reason, that it’s his less interesting poetry. But everything Montale does is interesting. I haven’t lost my fascination with him after all these years.

Rail: So when did you decide, after finishing Montale, “Okay, time to go back to the Italian literature of the 19th century”?

Galassi: When I finished the big Montale project, I told myself I was done with him. But I wanted to keep translating.

Rail: Can you elaborate on that? Why keep translating? Because it was the most enjoyable writing experience of your life?

Galassi: Well, I don’t know if it was the most enjoyable, but certainly the most rewarding. Actually, I’m not sure I still feel that because I have a new book of my own called Left-Handed coming out soon from Knopf that I’m excited about. But I loved translating Montale because it involved such a deep engagement with a great writer. It meant trying to make sense of what he says, which a lot of people tell you is obscure. So I went through each poem word by word and annotated it and did a huge amount of reading. And, it’s actually, I think, a more thoroughly annotated edition than exists in Italy of those books so far. I called it my Ph.D. because of all I learned—but, fundamentally it’s not just a scholarly thing, though I find scholarship fun. It’s about writing, it’s a way of doing poetry. It’s a very special kind of making poetry because instead of being wholly open-ended it’s partly closed-ended, if you will. There’s one open end, which is your own expression, and one closed end, which is the poet’s ineluctable words. I was actually experiencing that paradox with great intensity today, working on my corrections, because it’s not just about conveying the poet’s meaning but trying to make good English too. And I find that very, very exciting—as well as frustrating.

Rail: And having that tension of both things operating. A kind of scholarly attention—annotative and critical—but also the writerly incentive to be as embodied in one’s own language as possible?

Galassi: Yes, to try to approach being as supple and various as he is, somehow. After all, English has much more at its command than Italian. There are more words, there’s more variety. And actually that’s a problem sometimes, because Italian can be vague where we’re not. Sometimes Montale sort of goes vague on me and I don’t really know exactly what he means and I have to try to pick him apart.

Rail: Is there a temptation to pin it down too much in English? Or, on the other hand even, to succumb to a vagueness that wouldn’t be appropriate in translation?

Galassi: I’m not attracted by either of those options. It’s more, “What did he actually mean?” Sometimes he’s ambiguous on purpose, but when he is, you know it. It’s when he’s describing an action or something technical that sometimes I haven’t always right away known exactly what he meant. And because so much of the work hadn’t been explicated it was a kind of virgin territory. That wasn’t true with Leopardi because Leopardi has been edited up the wazoo. He’s one of the fundamental writers in Italian. There are no obscurities in Leopardi. I don’t think there’s anything where anyone doesn’t know what he meant, or have opinions about what he meant.

Rail: So, just to talk more for a second about your life as a translator. Your goal is to make a poem that lives and breathes in English?

Galassi: Yes, exactly. It’s a particular type of poem, which tries to be a faithful rendering of the original, but yes, I hope that it isn’t just a literal transcription, that it has some independent life in our language.

Rail: I mean, because translation, I guess, can be more faithful or more performative. Something like Lowell’s Imitations, for example, are meant to be heavily interpreted departures.

Galassi: That’s the locus classicus for discussing translation. Elizabeth Bishop was highly critical of his Imitations. If you look at her translations they’re very, very close to the originals. She wanted to be accurate, just as she tried to be accurate in describing things in her own poems and letters. He wasn’t translating, he was taking off, and he got a lot of things wrong in the process. His versions became infusions of Lowell, but they’re not very useful as translations. Imitations is another book of Lowell’s poetry, as Edmund Wilson said.

Rail: So where do you situate yourself between those two?

Galassi: Well, she was my teacher, you know. Actually, he was, too, but not in the same way. She, to me, represents the ideal of expressive integrity. And, she was so good, so natural a writer that everything she writes feels natural.

Rail: And when did you kind of come upon her translations? Did you think of them as integral to her canonical works or as a side project? With a poet like Ashbery or Merrill, I find myself making demarcations between what they write and what they translate, superb though they are. But there are writers where the translation feels like a true extension of their own body of work.

Galassi: You mean like who? Like Merwin?

Rail: Yes, Merwin’s a great example.

Galassi: Well, I think that Bishop only really translated poets that meant something to her. She was in Brazil—I don’t know much actually about why she did her translations—she was commissioned by Wesleyan University Press to edit an anthology, with Emanuel Brasil—but she knew many of the poets personally. Or take her Octavio Paz translations; he was a friend of hers.

Rail: Did she talk about the importance of translating as a teacher?

Galassi: Not so much, but her Complete Poems had been published just before I took her class and there was a lot of translated work in it. And she had us do translations in the class. She had us do translations from prose into poetry and other kinds of exercises, too, so I think the idea of moving something from one medium into another was interesting to her. But I would say that the limpidity of her own writing comes through in her translations really very beautifully. It’s like seeing something through very clear water.

Rail: Yeah, I’ve always envied that about her.

Galassi: What?

Rail: Just her hymn-like pellucidity. I remember Bishop somewhere listing the three cardinal virtues of a poet—accuracy, mystery, and something I forget. [Laughs.] My point, however, is that I’ve often wondered to what degree accuracy can be an antagonist and ultimately a killer of mystery. With Bishop, her transparency, if it’s transparent, it’s like a transparency of objects with darker backgrounds. It’s clear, and yet it’s not something entirely given. Maybe it’s her masterful reticence, what’s between the lines so to speak. Are there particular—and not that I’m asking for specific names, whether living or dead, but feel free—but are there particular types of translations or ways of thinking about translation that you’re not interested in or find antithetical to your approach?

Galassi: Iowa Review recently did a sort of symposium online about translation. Larry Venuti, who is a friend of mine, put out a polemical statement calling for more attention to the theory of translation and how it doesn’t get enough credit; I’m afraid I’m not very interested in the theoretical aspects of translation. I think that it’s really a hands-on artistic practice—of course there’s the business of translation, the economic business of it, but that doesn’t really enter into what we’re talking about. We’re talking about vocational work here—the extension of the poet’s work via an engagement with another writer in another language. And it’s a really interesting question you’re asking me. I think Mark Strand is a very wonderful translator. He has some of the same ability that Bishop has. His style is so cool that again, it’s like looking through water. And his own suppleness, the suppleness of his English, makes for his translations’ great elegance. I think Merwin is a really good translator. I think his Mandelstam versions, done with Clarence Brown, are fantastic, for instance. I love Charles Wright’s translation of Dino Campana. You know, I have to say, there are a lot of translations that I love. There have been numerous translations of Cavafy, for instance. All of them are interesting—he’s a surprisingly “translatable” poet, but I think one of the first, by Rae Dalven, is still the best. Just as, in many ways, I still love the Spender/Leishman Duino Elegies, for all their awkwardness—or maybe even because of it.

Rail: You seem to be drawn to the more neoclassical, intense craftliness of translation work, but at the same time you want it to be a passionate, even personal, expression.

Galassi: I guess I would say, to contradict myself a bit, that the number of really, really great translations is few. One that struck me as being really great though, when I was reading Greenblatt’s book about Lucretius, The Swerve, is Dryden’s translation. He made me want to go read the whole thing. I thought it was fantastic.

Rail: Lydia Davis said that in the process of rendering these baroque, unfolding sentences, Proust forced her to compensate and assert her individuality by writing shorter and shorter stories of her own.  Did you notice any similar effects, in way of unconscious imitation or willful evasion?

Galassi: I definitely absorbed a lot into my own work. In my second book, North Street, a lot of the poems took off in one way or another from Montalean rhetoric. I learned that, yes, I suppose I couldn’t help myself! I wrote through those poems a lot. I was living in them, through them. And I think my new book is probably very influenced by Leopardi. It’s very different from the last one. It’s much more personal, more melancholic, and it was written while I was working on this——

Rail: You didn’t find either process blocking the other?

Galassi: Well, I don’t think it was a conscious process. I think that it infected me insidiously. I don’t think I was sitting there trying to imitate Leopardi. I’ve never thought that the other work I do, whether it be publishing work, editing, or translating, has prevented me from writing poems. If anything it’s been the opposite. I’m not a fast writer, but I think it’s all one project, it’s all one thing. I read people’s writing all day, I respond to it, and I like it, I dislike it, I have comments about it, I reject it, I publish it. And then I’m also working with somebody’s words and their thoughts and trying to bring that into our own language. And I’m also trying to pull something out of myself. But they’re all using this one medium. And the more you use it, it’s like muscle fiber, the more you exercise your muscles, the more you’re able to do.

Rail: So your work as a publisher has been even an advantage not just to your own writing but to your life as a translator?

Galassi: Oh, definitely, because, first of all, it exposes me to so much. I mean, I commission translation projects of poets and other writers all the time. And I have opinions about the translations, so I engage with other translators a lot. And that’s a great privilege and fascinating. Actually, what popped into my head right now is that we haven’t talked about the greatest modern translator, Pound. Pound is someone who definitely made poems that were derived from other poets’ work.

Rail: But, why Leopardi now? You know, it’s a very interesting switch from Montale’s urbanity, in the vein of Eliot, to the arch romanticism of Leopardi.

Galassi: Well, I started to say, I got waylaid. I finished the big Montale project, which I thought was going to be the end as far as he was concerned. I wanted to keep translating, for the reasons that we discussed. But other contemporary poets didn’t interest me as much, or the moderns. So I looked backward, and——

Rail: Who did you look at?

Galassi: There aren’t that many. There’s D’Annunzio, who’s a really wonderful poet, but very problematic in a lot of ways. Then there’s Pascoli, but he didn’t have enough for me to grab onto. And then there was Leopardi, and I didn’t really know him very well, and I didn’t like the translations very much that I sampled—so I foolishly decided I was going to do Leopardi. And you know, everyone said, “Oh, he’s so difficult,” and I said, “Yeah, yeah, I know.” But of course I had no idea how difficult. [Laughs.] And how impossible. And it was very, very hard. A lot of it just wasn’t—wasn’t fun at a certain stage. But even the poems that I found most difficult, after a certain tipping point, you start driving downhill, I got much more interested in, and began feeling I could make a stab at dealing with them on their own terms, and that was a sign that something was working for me. So, I earned my second Ph.D. Leopardi is such a learned poet, such a classically formed writer—he really comes out of Greek poetry in a lot of ways. He’s balancing two modes, the pastoral and the historical, civic mode. But there’s another way of looking at it. You could say Montale is the dominant poet of the 20th century and Leopardi is the dominant poet of the 19th century. And actually, Leopardi doesn’t appear all that much in Montale. He’s there, but he’s occulted, as it were.

Rail: You said one of the difficulties with Montale was this question of vagueness.

Galassi: Occasionally. I wouldn’t say that’s the major issue.

Rail: And his work hasn’t been as digested and saturated by analysis and scholarship.

Galassi: Yes, it’s relatively new, though much-studied.

Rail: So, if that wasn’t a kind of problem in Leopardi, what was?

Galassi: What’s difficult in Leopardi is, first of all, that he’s not just a lyric poet. We know Leopardi because of “L’Infinito” or “Saturday Night in the Village” or “Broom,” but he wrote many kinds of poems. You could divide them up into poems that are ostensibly about his personal life and his anguish and loneliness and alienation, and those are where modern poetry starts, in a lot of ways. And, you could say on the other hand, there’s the poetry that is about politics, about Italian history, in which he exhorts Italians to cast off their servitude, to meet the challenge of their heroic past. There are a number of poems that are anti-progressive, that are saying that there’s this foolish modern credulousness about amelioration, calling people to the classical, Epicurean truth about death, and the illusion of an afterlife (hence my reading Greenblatt). Actually, though, there’s a lot on both sides about illusions. He’s saying progress is an illusion, that man is really born in pain and dies in pain, always has and always will. But he’s also saying that illusions are the only things that make life worth living—the illusions of love and happiness. So, he writes very different kinds of poems, with different rhetorical registers. His book, the Canti, is really a series of experiments in all these different ways of making poetry. He said, at one point, “You know, I never finished anything. I just began a lot of things.” And he’s always experimenting. The first poems in the book are the “canzoni,” political odes, historically-based poems. Then there are the idylls, which are the personal, anguished, deeply painful ones. And there are Horatian-style epistles, philosophical poems, neo-Platonic poems. So there are many very different rhetorical approaches—and they’re written at different stages of his short life—and so finding one voice that is accommodating to all these approaches is very tough. It’s relatively easy to translate the idylls, the personal poems, because they are lyric, and they’re fundamentally complaints. We’re used to that, we like that, we know how to do it. But some of these other types of poems, we don’t do. With the exception of a few poets like Auden and Frost, we haven’t been writing civic poetry since the 18th century. In a way, Leopardi has one foot in the 18th century and one foot in the 20th—or 21st.

Rail: Canti evolved like Leaves of Grass. It kept being reshuffled and re-put together over a series of years, the types of poems and their thematic progression.

Galassi: It’s basically chronological, but he moves a few things around to thematize the book a little bit. Basically, he wrote the historical canzoni at the same time that he was writing the next group, the idylls. They’re more or less interweaved. And then he has a period where he really doesn’t write poetry at all because he’s working on the Operette morali.

Rail: Which are amazing.

Galassi: And then he goes back to a sort of second set of idyllic poems that are more memory-obsessed, and then he moves onto more abstract work. And then he dies. After all, he was only——

Rail: 38.

Galassi: He started writing “mature” work about the time he was 19—so 19 years. That’s one of the things about his book that’s so intriguing, that’s very modern about it, is that he’s restless, he’s incomplete, he’s experimental, he’s always trying things, some of the things in my book are drafts of things that weren’t published because they were left unfinished—as was his Zibaldone which is his enormous notebook, or “hodgepodge” as Bloom calls it, which many people think is his greatest achievement—and which Farrar, Straus and Giroux is publishing the first complete English translation of next year. So there’s this non-finito quality that they talk about in modern, in contemporary art, in Leopardi, too.

Rail: And such a perfectionist at the same time!

Galassi: Oh, yes. Absolutely. But he was such a perfectionist that many things went unperfected. They sort of go hand in hand, in a way. This reminds me about the debate about Elizabeth Bishop—should we have published her unfinished manuscripts, because she was such a perfectionist. People are still arguing about this. That’s like saying should the unfinished Aeneid not have been published because Virgil wanted it destroyed? No, his work is essential. We need to know everything we possibly can about great writers.

Rail: So, in the process of translating the Canti, how often did you find yourself referring to his philosophic and other writings?

Galassi: That’s the other main point, I think, about his poetry. Even his lyric poems are—I started to allude to this earlier—they’re not just lyrics. They’re exempla of his ideas. He uses a poem to illustrate his philosophical convictions. And he makes classically-inspired philosophical sententiae, assertions, conclusions: this is what life gets us. The poems are little parables of his thoughts. They’re always really philosophical poems.

Rail: Would the Rilke of Duino Elegies be appropriately analogous?

Galassi: I think Rilke envelops his ideas in mini-dramas. He dramatizes these things in a more articulated way. Leopardi’s much more naked about it, he’s much more direct in what he says. “A Silvia” is all about death, that there is no love, no salvation, no afterlife. The women are embodiments of these ideas, the figures in these poems become symbolic. There is an affinity, but in Rilke there’s a lot more costuming.

Rail: What poets did you find yourself reading outside of Leopardi to perhaps help tune your sense of bringing this poet into English?

Galassi: Well, one poet that a lot of people compare to Leopardi is Wordsworth.

Rail: Who I know Mark Strand sees as the closest equivalent in the English lyric tradition, tonally.

Galassi: He’s a philosophical poet, too. He engages with nature to explore consciousness. Leopardi by contrast is really a library poet. [Laughs.] Nature is a big capital N, a big idea. He wouldn’t be living in the Lake District, you know, he’s urban—he’s not a Romantic that way, though he is a Romantic poet, I think. He wouldn’t have called himself a Romantic but we should, I think. So I would say that Wordsworth and Keats are Leopardi’s counterparts, really. Foscolo was a poet who came before him and influenced him, but I don’t know a great deal about him. And there’s a lot of reference to Virgil, Horace, the Greek poets—and Petrach and Dante, needless to say. But I would say Wordsworth is the most important analog.

Rail: So did you find yourself going back to Wordsworth?

Galassi: Well, a little bit. What I was most concerned about was trying to find a tone that was my own, that would be sober enough but also have a little lilt, trying to make it poetic, contemporary. Plain and poetic at the same time. I would say that some people think that my translation is too flat, but others I think hear something in it that lifts. I just revised it, in fact, for the paperback, just as I revised Montale——

Rail: Your revisions between editions?

Galassi: Well, I can show you. [Takes something out.] It’s just word choice here and there. You know that a translation, like a poem, is never finished.

Rail: And I’m assuming, part of what Leopardi is—as you’re saying, many people consider his Canti his greatest work—but clearly what must be so intimidating about this poet, aside from even his erudition, is the hefty philosophical muscle of his prose-thinking, how it both distinguishes and marries his verse. Is it important for a translator to try to philosophically comprehend his attitude toward existence?

Galassi: Well, I think I would say that my approach to doing these things is to just dive in and do them. It means doing many, many drafts over many years, and my experience is that applying external pressure, or external information doesn’t really help. It’s something that gets absorbed slowly, and eventually the style, the manner of the translation emerges. I think by the time I was finished with the book I understood Leopardi very well, partly through annotating and then, you know, creating the notes which show the great deal he quotes from his other writings. Because he says the same things in other places; that’s what I mean when I say his poems are exempla.

Rail: Was there a series of poems or a poem that you found the hardest to translate or gave you the most difficulty?

Galassi: I think the early ones, the canzoni, or historical odes, were the hardest. They’re the most rhetorical, the most 18th century, the most aulic.

Rail: Because in a way they feel so distant?

Galassi: Well, they’re difficult Italian for one thing. They draw on a tradition of high rhetoric that is very highly artificial and nobody writes that way today. Leopardi is really the last person to write that way. He was a beautiful, beautiful writer, so he managed to condense things and make them obsidian-like——

Rail: Kind of a Miltonic-like density?

Galassi: Yes, exactly. There’s very little prettification. Very little metaphor, very little decoration in Leopardi’s poetry. What’s beautiful is how it sounds. There’s your big problem for a translator right there. There’s not a lot of imagery to——

Rail: And Montale is so figurative.

Galassi: Yes, exactly.

Rail: Also, I hear a beautiful sonority from the work.

Galassi: A very different sound. Leopardi is very musical and very archaic, but very melodic, and Montale is famously harsh-sounding to Italians, though less so to us. But I think that therefore, because you don’t have a lot of decoration, you don’t have many veils of imagery, that makes the challenge of making your own language correspondingly supple all the more imperative—and daunting. There’s not a lot to hide behind. And English is not as mellifluous as Italian. Its beauties are different.

Rail: How much did you want to know about his life?

Galassi: Oh, I read several biographies. He’s very autobiographical.

Rail: And what do you think about him as a—his life seems, one can’t help feeling, there’s a kind of ongoing tragedy to it.

Galassi: There’s an undeveloped quality to it. He had a lot of physical ailments.

Rail: One thinks of Pope, a crumpled little beetle of a man who could somehow write with an iron pen.

Galassi: Somebody called Leopardi an implacable innocent. He was a willful adolescent all his life. We think he was young at 39, but in those days that wasn’t young. But he’s a young old man—Montale was, too. He was that way. He says that. He says, “I’m wasting the springtime of my life hiding out in the countyryside”—“I’m afraid of people,” basically. And “I’m wasting my youth.” And that’s one of his main stances, is that youth will be gone tomorrow and I’ve wasted mine, and there’s nothing left in life. Even Shirley Hazzard who was very helpful and encouraging to me in doing this project, and who knows Leopardi by heart and adores him, could get rather fed up with his obsessional melancholy.

Rail: His doom-mindedness reads sometimes like Hardy’s, imposed on the poetry more than arrived at through it.

Galassi: He argued about this vehemently. A lot of people said, he’s unhappy because of his own situation and he’s turned his personal difficulty into a philosophy. But he always denied that.

Rail: You write in the introduction: “Cyril Connolly wrote in The Unquiet Grave (1945) Pascal and Leopardi are ‘the Grand Inquisitors who break down our alibis of health and happiness. Are they pessimistic because they are ill? Or does their illness act as a short cut to reality—which is intrinsically tragic?’” And I thought that was a really interesting tension in Leopardi. At what point do these tonalities become mechanical?

Galassi: I agree in the sense that there’s something that becomes monotone about him, and yet, there’s something else that’s going on all the time which is that he’s always saying that love is the only thing that makes life worth living, this illusion of love, and that’s really—he’s saying life is horrible but there’s this thing that is so wonderful that somehow denies my pessimism—and in a way I think he’s talking about poetry itself. I also think his writings about love are really amazing.

Rail: And when will the Zibaldone come out?

Galassi: In 2013. It’s done. It’s being edited by the folks at the Leopardi Study Centre in Birmingham. They’re the ones who organized the translation. It’s going be something like a 2,500-page book. It’ll be in one volume since there’s no point in doing it in two volumes. I guess the thing that I’m interested in now is what effect having Leopardi available in these new translations is going to have. With the Montale book there was an effect—a lot of people were reading Montale, and still are. It wasn’t just because of me, certainly, but that book did have an influence. So I’ll be interested to see how this book, too, is absorbed.

Rail: What do you hope a young poet could learn from Leopardi most of all?

Galassi: I think the great thing about Leopardi was that his whole life was devoted to writing, and using his gift to understand the world. His poetry and his philosophical enterprise were all the same thing, as I keep saying. I think that’s one thing that people can learn about Leopardi—Heidegger called it pensier poetante, thinking in poetry—it’s a mode of considering, a mode of engagement with the world. A lot of poetry today is—well, really, thought doesn’t quite enter into it. We haven’t really had a poet since Auden really who used ideas as rigorously in poetry as Leopardi did. I think it’s the unity of his work, and the way he used everything he read. Everything flowed into his amazing mind. I think he’s one of the people that shows that poetry is among the highest of human activities. I hope young writers can come to see this about Leopardi, and how deeply engaged with his world he was, how important it all was.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

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