Monday, February 9, 2015

O poetry poetry poetry - some stuff about Dino Campana

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.


  1. I think Whitman's reception in Europe was pretty complicated. One of his most ardent disciples was Valery Larbaud, who imitated and parodied him in poems by his alter ego, A. O. Barnabooth. He also translated him, as did Gide and Laforgue.

    Apollinaire both learned from him ("Zone" seems unthinkable without Whitman) and denounced him as old-fashioned. He wrote a famous burlesque account of Whitman's funeral, in which the coffin is carried through the streets to a circus tent, where he was celebrated with brass bands, barbecue, and beer.

    That's some of the reaction in France, at least. Complicated!

  2. "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."

    What an amazing life!

  3. Again I am fascinated by the range of your reading. You shine a light on authors that have remained in the darkness of ignorance. And I call myself a teacher of literature! I am embarrassed.

  4. CORRECTION: make that "the darkness of my ignorance." Stupid keyboard, stupid fingers, and stupid me.

  5. Campana's biography is nuts, worthy of Rimbaud, with whom he is often compared. I wonder if some of it is mythologized. I mean, "played the triangle in an orchestra," c'mon! A little too perfect.

    The book came out when he was 29. Then he joined the ranks of the mad poets.

    RT, I doubt many teachers of American literature know Campana, not unless they are particularly interested in City Lights. As for my range, I said I was going to read Italian literature and I'm a-readin' it. That's all.

    Doug, thanks, that helps. The connections with Laforgue and Apollinaire seem like something I should have known. I am looking at "Zone" now - was I blind?

  6. Here are six of Larbaud's Barnabooth poems, in what look like good translations. Barnabooth was an American millionaire who wrote like Whitman, somewhat of a weird premise. Larbaud also suggested, maybe seriously, that Whitman was actually a solitary bookworm whose life was nothing like his poems. A funny idea, at least.

  7. Sorry, that link showed up twice. I don't know how to fix it.

  8. " 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. "
    One guide to Whitman's importance in England was the amount of music inspired by his works: Parry, Delius, Vaughan Williams, Holst all composed major settings of Whitman.

  9. Those Larbaud poems are good. I thought they would be more overtly comic. No, they are plausible. The idea of "The Gift of Oneself," that is common.

    Roger - thanks! It has been 20 years since I heard the Sea symphony. I seem to have forgotten it existed. The others are news to me, even the Delius. You have sent me looking for other European Whitman settings - Hindemith! Weill! - and reading the available pages about Whitman in a book titled New World Symphonies: How American Culture Changed European Music by Jack Sullivan.

  10. The book's emphasis on Whitman's importance as a prophet of democracy in English eyes is right. Parry's advice to his pupil was RVW was "Write choral music, my boy, as befits an Englishman and a democrat".

  11. I wonder if it would be too far beyond my abilities to spend some time with some Whitman settings and write about them. I will spend some time with them first - that part I can do.

  12. Good to learn about this poet; I'll try out one of the translations you note here. Though they were contemporaries born around the same time, and I doubt they knew of one another, there seems to be something of St. John Perse in those lines from Voyage to Montevideo (and of course there's something of Whitman in Perse, who was born on Whitman's birthday).