from The Violent Sounds of Night
O poetry poetry poetry
Rise rise rise up
From the electric fever of the pavement at night. (tr. I. L. Salomon)
Reading Dino Campana, author of Orphic Songs (1914), I was surprised to find myself in the presence of a poet deeply influenced by Walt Whitman. I can hear Whitman in the beginning of the above poem. That third line is not so bad in Italian (“Su dalla febbre elettrica del selciato notturno”).
Soon enough Whitman drops away – “At the crossroads a depraved whore screams / Because a fop stole her puppy” or “In a mantle of ogling velvety blood / Silence again.” But traces appear again and again. I do not know much about how Whitman was received in Europe, aside from Swinburne’s respect and the deep, complex use Fernando Pessoa made of him. Campana is not so deep. He was the kind of poet who hopped from movement to movement, trying out the role of Decadent and Futurist and several others. Like many American poets, Campana somehow needed Whitman’s example to free himself from Italian poetry.
from Voyage to Montevideo
And I saw the dunes
Like dizzying mares that melted away
Into the endlessness of the grasslands
Deserted without a single human house
And we turned away fleeing the dunes where there appeared
On a yellow sea created by the prodigious abundance of the river,
The marine capital of the new continent. (tr. Charles Wright)
Campana almost became an American poet. Like so many of his countrymen, he emigrated, in his case to Argentina (the “marine capital” is Buenos Aires). He could have joined the Argentinean Literature of Doom. He would have fit right in.
In the Argentine he worked as a gaucho, miner, stoker, fireman with police duties. He became a tumbler in a circus and its janitor. In the maritime provinces, he tempered steel, played the triangle in an orchestra, groomed horses, cranked a barrel-organ. He was also a pianist in a nightclub. (Salomon’s Preface, p. xviii)
But he did not stay. He hoboed around Europe, ending up in a jail a couple of times before getting back home, the mountains northeast of Florence, where he wrote his radical Orphic Songs, the manuscript of which was soon lost by a magazine editor. Campana rewrote the book from scratch and published it himself. This was in 1914, bad timing, or perhaps a stroke of luck, since a few years later Campana found himself in the insane asylum where he would die. He had stopped writing poems.
A poet named Rei Terada has a biographical poem in the June 1996 Poetry titled “Dino Campana” that says all of the above and more:
I was a poet fine as you could find,
but had to stop, being of unsound mind.
A Whitman-quoting, circus-tumbling, piano-playing hobo poet: Campana is often compared to Rimbaud, but the more I got to know him, the more I thought of him as a Beat writing forty years early and in a prettier language.
The Salomon translations and Wright translations are from separate volumes titled Orphic Songs. Wright’s are better; Salomon’s have facing-page Italian. The latter is a City Lights book, a subtle clue that Campana might have some interest to Beat poets.