Poetry Sunday: Poems by Lee Harlin Bahan

Poet’s Note

According to John Fuller’s The Sonnet, the first poets to use this form were Lentino in the early 1200s and then Cavalcanti and Dante. But 14th-century Italian poet Petrarch’s sonnet-heavy masterpiece, the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (hereafter Rvf), institutionalized the form as a vehicle for writing about love and set up certain conventions regarding its use. Translated into English by Chaucer, Wyatt, and Surrey, and transformed and criticized by Shakespeare, the Petrarchan sonnet was, in my opinion, key to Elizabethan literary achievement and informs Western popular song to this day.
This being the case, I decided after receiving my MFA that translating Petrarch’s sonnets would make me a better sonnet writer. Translating his language, I soon discovered, was like picking my way through a minefield of exploding meanings. I noticed that past translators, unwilling or unable to include the lovely, dark sides of Petrarch’s double entendres, largely presented the beautiful surfaces that put women on pedestals. This accentuation of the “positive” somewhat misrepresents Petrarch, who admits in Rvf 311, for example, to having drunk courtly love’s Kool-Aid; I use word play when I can to foreground his ability, born of deep, inner conflict, to talk out of both sides of his mouth.
After twenty years of periodically and randomly translating Petrarch’s sonnets, I read Thomas Roche’s essay, “The Calendrical Structure of Petrarch’s Canzoniere.” (Canzoniere is an Italian title of Rvf and means “songbook.”) Roche says that Rvf’s lyric account of its speaker’s frustrated love for a God-fearing, married woman named Laura during her life and long after her death is structured around the Christian calendar, with the 366 poems corresponding to the number of days in a leap year. Roche pairs Rvf 271 with January 1, suggesting that poems 271-322 stand for fifty-two days leading to Lent and “symbolically…form a year of mourning.” Inspired by Roche, I decided to translate the sonnets in question, in order. Three years later I completed A Year of Mourning.
Poet’s Translation Notes on Sonnet 272
When I can copy Petrarch’s rhyme scheme I do. This poem shows the importance of establishing metaphoric dramatic situation; only by knowing how sonnet parts are supposed to work could I gauge what Petrarch intended (replicate in English the first tercet I cannot, Skywalker). For something that translates as a “life-refugee” speaker to be saved by a “heart-vessel” and a “mind-pilot,” I figured that the speaker must have to deal with a shattering event.
In the original, the second quatrain includes elements of rocking the boat, a sea of troubles, and suicide; “smells like Hamlet” was my thought. It also includes the idea of a “break,” both as snapped connection and as time to get over the gut-punch of loss. The term “make for” in the last line drives from the “aim at” meaning of mirare, not only “steer” but also “wrote poems for” and the general Petrarchan notion that recovery requires taking responsibility for behavior. On a nuts-and-bolts note, I chose “fabric, flapping” in lieu of the word I preferred—“shrouds”—because I had already used “shroud” in another translation. Petrarch is big on fiber arts, which is good for me.  [Editor’s Note: Bahan is also an accomplished quilter. To see examples of her textile work, other poems, and an interview, see “Engaging Tradition: The Poetry and Translations of Lee Harlin Bahan,” November 2017, here.
I could have chosen the title Richie after Lionel Richie’s song “Sail On,” telling an old flame to go on with their own life, but thought I’d set up the notion of the Summer of Love instead. “Puts sailing on in doubt” is a fairly literal re-creation of the dramatic situation in the original 272 text, but the title chosen, “Bad Trip,” adds a dimension with which contemporary readers are familiar, an example of how the song references in my titles are meant to work. The nightmarish end is related to Laura being grammatically “confused” with Death, female in Italian, in other Scary Laura poems (see commentary on 289 below).
Poet’s Translation Notes on Sonnet 289

What I especially remember about doing this translation was an overwhelming impression of how Castiglione, author of The Courtier (1528), came up with the idea of sprezzatura, a term introduced to me by my high school English and journalism teacher, Mrs. Swisher. On the back cover of my Penguin Classics copy, George Bull, says the term involves “discretion and decorum, nonchalance and gracefulness.” “Courtly” and “graceful” in the literal translation above support my link to Castiglione and title for this translation. The idea that the stars are high and worthy of Laura and that she’s too good for earth is either praise or an example of Petrarch’s passive aggression—probably both. Sdegni, “disdain,” is a synonym for sprezzo, so Petrarch is exploring shades of meaning here.
The last word in the poem, “good,” is a contemporary informal diction word chosen in part to remind the reader that Petrarch was writing in Italian, the language of the common people, instead of in Latin, the language of high culture. The word “good” also has a range of meanings that helped me represent the double-ness of virtue in the original. In sum, it’s a matter of when English words need to be specific and when they should be ambiguous.
In Sonnet 289, the speaker tries decorum—saying, feeling, and thinking what is appropriate—and the double entendres pop up like poison mushrooms. His natural self is not convinced. Fella isn’t in my English/Italian dictionary, but the consensus among translators seems to relate it to fell, “deadly,” though most soft-soap it. Is she deadly as in the country lyric, “killing me in that mini-skirt?” Or is this “if looks could kill?” I somewhat punt on this one, softening Laura’s dangerousness into “stern.” But I hope the ambiguity of whether Petrarch’s well-being depends on saving his soul still comes across. Laura is “stern” because Petrarch obviously is being inappropriate and indiscreet. Based on my translations of previous poems, I decided to go with “words” instead of “tongue” so as to skew that “good” at the end toward the meaning of becoming a skilled writer. That the speaker is becoming a more skilled seducer of women by pitting himself against Laura’s moral toughness isn’t far below the surface, though. Those who want to think good means pious or “well-behaved” may do so, too.
If you look at the literal translation, you’ll see references to eyelashes and eyebrows. Eyelash batting is flirting and in Laura would be highly inappropriate, one reason traditional translations have a lot of modest maidens casting their eyes fringed-with-long-lashes at the ground. Here is another instance of the importance of the context/order of poems with respect to determining meaning and word choice; by the time I was translating this sonnet I had a sense of what Laura might really do or not do and was thinking that how some moms can control kids with that eyebrow could be a way to show the extent of Laura’s power over the speaker.
Poet’s Translation Notes on Sonnet 321
The italicized title of this sonnet parodies a parody (“Judy in Disguise with Glasses”) of a pop song title (“Lucy in the Skies with Diamonds”). The last tercet literally goes:

seeing dark night around the hills
where you took your final flight to heaven
and where your eyes used to make day.

Many rightfully would criticize that I have not captured Petrarch’s stark simplicity here. Line 5 was the devil to translate, and other translators are all over the place in their interpretations.  The syntax is impossible:

O del dolce mio mal prima radice     O of sweet my bad first/primal root

So, we’ve got Tree of Good and Evil as well as original sin, referenced in other Petrarchan sonnets. What I managed to leave ambiguous in Line 5 is what made Petrarch sick: his own greed/lust/gluttony, Laura’s indifference, or the religious constructs that kept them apart. Petrarch knew how to camouflage possible heretical statements; his double-ness reflects the truth that joy and pain are inseparable and also serves a political function of protecting him from the Inquisition. How interesting that in our secular age, blaming corruption in organized religion might feel safer or find more sympathy than blaming Laura!

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  • Ivette February 25, 2018 at 8:46 am

    Hi, love reading these amazing poems which describes so much of each writer. I am not a poet yet I love to express my inner most feeling in writing and just yesterday I wrote a few lines that cam from my heart as a poet. Am I a poet? I don’t know.
    Where can I post some of what I wrote and can someone tell me if they constitute as poetry?

  • Ivette February 25, 2018 at 8:46 am

    Hi, love reading these amazing poems which describes so much of each writer. I am not a poet yet I love to express my inner most feeling in writing and just yesterday I wrote a few lines that cam from my heart as a poet. Am I a poet? I don’t know.
    Where can I post some of what I wrote and can someone tell me if they constitute as poetry?