How to Be a Great Poet, Part One – by Sparrow, Guest Blogger

Would you like to become a great poet? All right, I’ll tell you how. Find a bilingual edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and read three lines a day aloud IN ITALIAN. (Of course, this is medieval Italian, which is no longer spoken.)

Believe it or not, each of these three-line segments is called a “tercet” — or more specifically an “enclosed tercet,” since the two outer lines rhyme, and the inner one doesn’t.

But don’t worry! The inner line will rhyme with the first line of the NEXT tercet. (The whole structure is called “terza rima.”) I described this rhyme-form to my daughter’s Hebrew teacher, Karen Levine, who remarked: “It’s like weaving!”

Dante was, I suspect, the greatest poet in history, but he is untranslatable (like all poetry, but even worse). Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) rendered  Divine Comedy into English, in terza rima! She also wrote the book Are Women Human? (1971).

But no matter how much you read Dante in English, you’re only reading English. It’s like listening to a Princeton musicologist explain Charlie Parker — it’s not Bird!

The next stage is to buy Mondadori’s Pocket Italian-English English-Italian Dictionary (also known as the “Dizionario Mondadori Tascabile Italiano-Inglese Inglese-Italiano”) — or find an apparently-rich woman named Marilyn to present you with the book as a LONG-TERM LOAN (as I did). Read the section entitled “Italian Pronunciation” (pages xi-xii) and study the rules of spoken Italian. (Note: You’re not learning the Italian language, just how the words sound.)

Then begin reading, from the beginning!

Here’s the section I read today:

A cigner lui qual che fosse ‘l maestro,
non so io dir, ma el tenea soccinto
dinanzi l’altro e dietro il braccio destro

Rendered into English by Allen Mandelbaum as:

Who was the master who had tied him so,
I cannot say, but his left arm was bent
behind him and his right was bent in front,

Come on, try it! Read this tercet aloud (remembering that “che” is pronounced “Kay”; in fact, this word is so common in Dante that you can view the entire epic as a tribute to Che Guevara!)

Postscript: Remember, this method may not work immediately.  We’re discussing poetry here, not antiperspirant!  You may have to read every day for six years before you become a Master of the Poetical Word.  But don’t worry, you have time.  Ars longa, bloga brevis.  (That means: “Art is long, but blogs are short.”)

Sparrow lives in a suburb of New York City, with his wife and daughter.  He plays ocarina in the anti-snorkeling band Foamola.

Note: the Poetry Project invites our Guest bloggers to post once a week for one month. Check back for more advice from Sparrow.