Poetry: ‘Tom in Rome’, by Jonathan Galassi.

This is one my favourite poems, and I felt like sharing snippets of this with the world – now, I have had great difficulty in finding poetry-collection books by Jonathan Galassi, but they do exist. This poem, called ‘Tom in Rome’, is from a recently-published collection by him called Left-handed (Knopf, 2012). (I was intending to reproduce the whole poem, which is quite short – however, I wonder if this is legal? It’s a pity, because it should be, but — I can’t be bothered to find out the hard way. So only my favourite snippet from it.)

Tom In Rome (snippet)

You are toffee, you are sand in sunlight,

you are handsome, winsome, bright, and lithe:

chaste Carrara, blue-veined Parian,

hand-warmed Pentelic when you buck and writhe

more contorted than Laocoön,

diminutive fine subtle lordship, master-

work surpassing alabaster,

as I am tufa to your travertine.

The cadence of this poem is gorgeous, and Galassi obviously has an acute ear for reproducing poetic lilts, because reading this poem out loud to myself makes me feel like I’m reading something deliciously old and Italian. I’m not sure why I associate the sound this poem makes with Italian poetry, but I do – and in some sense, that’s probably the aim of the poem too. Galassi is a renowned translator of Italian poetry, and his understanding of a culture-specific sound is translated well into English. And then there’s that little break with the more complicated ‘Romance-language’ cadence – simple, sweet, and utterly charming, almost like a little nursery rhyme lisped to some lover-or-other: “You are toffee, you are sand in sunlight, / You are handsome, winsome, bright, and lithe:”. I love it. It’s my favourite part of the poem, and hence reproduced in this post three times over (heh). People interested in Galassi’s poetry can find a few more snippets from his collection here, in the New York Times.

It makes me want to be able to translate foreign-language poetry better, so that I can play around with the sound of English too.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that I’m finding translating the most effective way to improve my French – which is true. I find it hard to engage and really live a language all cloistered up away from French-speakers I can practice on, whereas reading makes it much more real for me. It’s also much more interesting than just copying out grammar notes and trying to memorize them without any imperative to actually employ them. When I’m trying to translate something, I find myself recalling and using a whole repository of vocabulary and grammar I never knew I had. But — I’m very undisciplined, and I get stumped an awful lot at particularly difficult uses of tense and whatnot. So it is slow-going.

Has anyone out there ever tried to self-study a language, and how did you go about it? Sharing tips and tricks would be so much appreciated.


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