CH Sisson translating Dante’s Purgatorio

I used to think highly of Sisson’s poetry; I can remember being excited when Anchises and Exactions came out in the late seventies. I don’t know how I’d find his own poems if I read them again now, but I’ve just read his translation of Dante’s Purgatorio and was deeply disappointed. I did it because I wanted a more continuous reading process than you can get from the John Sinclair parallel text, which involves constant movement between the languages and interruption by the pages of commentary after each canto. What startled me in Sisson’s version was how heavily the line endings fell, and how perversely they cut through the living sinews of the syntax. This seemed particularly ironic in view of the importance Sisson attached to rhythm as the life force of poetry and the ultimate test of a particular poem’s merit. Perhaps the prodigious bulk of Sisson’s translations meant that he approached them in a much more mechanical spirit than he did his personal writing. At any rate I’ll certainly be going back to Sinclair.

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