Text, artefact, and the creative process: The ‘Sad, bewildered quills’ of Guido Cavalcanti

This is a link to an article I wrote about one of my favourite Cavalcanti poems, ‘Noi sìan le triste penne isbigottite’ [We are the sad, bewildered quills] (Yes, penne the pasta means quill pens).
I find this poem so fascinating because the poet’s voice disappears almost entirely, to be replaced by his writing tools – the quill pens, the clippers, and knife (used by scribes to sharpen their quills during).
These writing implements talk directly to the reader, creating an intriguing and rather modern atmosphere. In fact, Italo Calvino, writing in the 1980s, thought Cavalcanti had written, with ‘Noi sìan le triste penne…’, the first truly modern poem.
The article contains my original translations of some of Cavalcanti’s poetry, as well as my thoughts on the poem and its context. I hope you’ll have a read, and do let me know what you think in the comments!

It’s been a while, so here’s some (translated) Petrarch!

A few friends, colleagues and students are getting together to sing musical settings of Petrarch’s poetry in St. John’s College, Oxford, on Thursday. For the occasion we’ve produced our own new translations of the poems we’ll be singing to go in the programme. I drew the not un-daunting lot of translating RVF 1, the first poem of Petrarch’s Canzoniere – his mission statement, if you will.

Here’s my attempt:

You, listening in scattered poems to the sound
of those sighs with which I nourished my heart
in my first flush of straying youth
when I was, in part, a different man than I am now,

for varied styles in which I weep and work out words
between vain hopes and pointless pain,
I hope I may find pity, forgiveness even,
in those who know love by ordeal.

But I can see clearly now how I’ve become
a long-told tale with folk at large
for which I am ashamed of me, myself;
and shame is the fruit of my meandering,
and regret, and clear bright understanding
that things which please the world are fleeting dreams.

And Petrarch’s original text:


A portrait of Petrarch from Padova

Voi ch’ascoltate in rime sparse il suono
di quei sospiri ond’io nudriva ‘l core
in sul mio primo giovenile errore
quand’era in parte altr’uom da quel ch’i’ sono,

del vario stile in ch’io piango et ragiono
fra le vane speranze e ‘l van dolore,
ove sia chi per prova intenda amore,
spero trovar pietà, nonché perdono.

Ma ben veggio or sí come al popol tutto
favola fui gran tempo, onde sovente
di me mesdesmo meco mi vergogno;

et del mio vaneggiar vergogna è ‘l frutto,
e ‘l pentersi, e ‘l conoscer chiaramente
che quanto piace al mondo è breve sogno.

I’ve tried to maintain, as much as the sense, the “mouthfeel” of the poem. The borrowing of this term from the language of coffee reviews perhaps reveals my other major vice apart from medieval Italian poetry…

What I mean is this: when I read a poem I get a certain subjective sensation of what it feels like to pronounce the words and I wanted to recreate that in my English version. I’m sure this is a common phenomenon. This sensation ties in with the sonic qualities of the text, the alliterations and assonances, the placement of plosives and nasals to put it in phonetic terms. So at heart, what I’ve aimed for in this version of RVF 1 is a phonic recreation, a sound translation as well as a sense translation. I hope you like it, and please to leave any thoughts, comments of responses below, I’d love to read them.

Radio, what’s new?

So, I know I promised to say things about my trip to Leeds, and I certainly will, soon, I promise.
But in the interim… whattaya know? An adaptation of the Divine Comedy is the Classic Serial on BBC Radio 4 at the moment!

It’s got even got John Hurt for Who fans (playing the ‘older Dante’ by which I guess they mean the narratorial voice?)
Either way, it should be interesting and there’s also a short documentary on the making of the recording. They take a delightfully old school, radiophonic workshop approach to sound effects, which is interesting. Look out for the rice pudding!
Now, this isn’t entirely irrelevant to my Leeds Centre for Dante Studies visit, as I tried my hand at a bit of podcasting on a few poets, of which more later.
I will leave you now to have a bit of a listen!

Live Canon Poetry Prize 2013

Yesterday I received the lovely news that I’ve been short-listed for this year’s Live Canon Poetry Prize for a poem I wrote called Golem.

It’s only the second time I’ve had something short-listed for an (inter)national prize, and I’m really chuffed. The really interesting this about this, is that in addition to being printed in the Live Canon anthology (wheee!) the poem will be performed by a member of the Live Canon troupe of actors at the Greenwich Theatre on the 24th of November. I’m really looking forward to this event for a a couple of reasons: first off, other short-listed poets (Mark Cooper and Isabel Rogers) have already been in touch on twitter and seem lovely and interesting; the other thing is that I have no idea what it’ll be like to hear the words I wrote performed.

I’m excited and a little nervous. There’s a letting go I’ll have to do in a much more conscious way than when you send something off in the hope it might get printed. With printed poems you can still pretend to a bit of control. They are words on page which you have effected and inflected in a way that feels like binding them somehow, pushing them off into the world with their hands tied behind their backs.

It’s an illusion of course. Anyone will read them in any way they like and I’m intrigued to see what it will feel like to see that first hand. I wonder, as a reader of poetry, both for pleasure and profit, if it will affect how I approach texts or how I write them.

Here’s to finding out!

Fragments of Blue

The Red Field's installation in the abbey ruins

The Red Field’s installation in the abbey ruins

I’ve mentioned my first experience of singing with the Fragments Project in Hawick and now it’s time to continue cataloguing my more recent collaboration with it in Jedburgh, through the mixed medium of preamble and poem!

(This is a digression: Actually, just typing that makes me realise the effect my research on Dante has seeped into my blogging enterprise… Both his Vita Nuova – the narrative of his love for Beatrice – and his Convivioa philosophical treatise – are constructed from prose stories and commentaries around poems. That literary model is called prosimetrum and I appear to have accidentally slipped into it. Anyway, back to the preamble).


I was taking part in the first performance of Seán Doherty‘s ‘Et clamabant’, a piece written in response to the music in the Hawick Missal, at an event in Jedburgh Old and Trinity Church and in the ruins of Jedburgh Abbey. I’ve written a longer piece about the experience for the project blog, but for now, here’s a poem that came out of the evening:

A tea break during rehearsals at Jedburgh

A tea break during rehearsals at Jedburgh


Jedburgh Abbey

glass fallen from the windows

ground by weather

allowed now

in through emptinesses

unglazed with everchanging stain

a membrane hard not to imagine

and outside remains




if only in the persistence of window frames


if only in the voices


passed between the pillars


if only in the north wall

which half remembers holding back

the crush of sweating life

of trade and cattle profane chatter

of courting and wedding and begetting


if only in the song


if only in perception

unconvinced by the openness to atmosphere

reminding the wallstones that they belong

to the water

to the winds

to the gentle corruptions of time

to the still resounding sky

On chanting from the Hawick Missal

one side of the Hawick Missal fragment

one side of the Hawick Missal fragment

A little context: not long ago a fragment of a 12th century manuscript missal (a book containing instructions for carrying out the mass) was found in an archive in the Scottish borders. It inspired a project which has involved performances, audio-visual art, installations and new compositions.


I’ve sung in two of these events, performing plainsong chants from the manuscript and a new composition by Seán Doherty responding to its contents. While practicing and performing for these events, I’ve been prodded by the experience to write poems, the first of which (written in November 2012 at an event in Hawick itself) is here:


You want to see a soul?

A near immortal something,

a life

that sings on in a resonance of ink

nibbed to each page

with extraordinary care;

words on skin in skin, fragmented,


now exhumed and rising

word on note on tongue

from lungs expelling songs of other times

and people

and geographies

and realms entirely;

so old they’re new,

so strange they hang in air

unbound, aloud, beyond

Review: Fabian Alfie, Dante’s Tenzone with Forese Donati: The Reprehension of Vice

“This study provides a useful contribution to the discussion surrounding Dante’s poetic praxis and legacy, revealing the significance of a previously neglected series of texts, which represent not a literary aberration to be dismissed along with a period of waywardness but rather an important and lasting aspect of Dante’s thought and writing.”
You’ll need Athens or institutional access to read it.