Psychic rhymes and rhythms in translation:  Walt Whitman and Mark Strand

By Franco Nasi (University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy)


Building on recent works in translation studies, this essay considers what happens in a couple of tentative Italian translations of poems by Walt Whitman and Mark Strand; in particular, what happens to a specific feature of their poetic style, i.e. the rhetorical figure of repetition and its relation to the overall rhythmic and semantic pattern of their work. The essay will consider the challenge of rendering rhythm, a vital feature of a literary text, but one which is nonetheless often considered a marginal element by those who believe that translation is above all an act concerned with a mere passage of information. It will also try to show that apparently "irrational" elements such as friendship, relationship, listening, the other, the feeling of language, opacity, embodiment, silence, and the pulsing of the body and mind in the poetic rhythm, should be seriously considered in every theoretical approach to literary translation.

Keywords: literary translation, poetry, rhythm, Whitman, Strand, Carducci

©inTRAlinea & Franco Nasi (2022).
"Psychic rhymes and rhythms in translation:  Walt Whitman and Mark Strand"
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I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue (Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 21)

In what language do I live? I live in none. I live in you. It is your voice I begin to hear and it has no language. I hear the motions of a spirit and the sound of what is secret becomes, for me, a voice that is your voice speaking to my ear. (Mark Strand, The Monument, 6)

Cathedral, one of Raymond Carver’s best-known short stories, deals with the birth of a friendship. Before facing the problem of the translation of poetic rhythm, I will begin this essay with a brief description of Carver’s short story to emphasize that translating has a lot in common with friendship, and the open, willing commitment established between the Subject and the Other, as Stefano Arduini recently stated in his volume Con gli occhi dell’altro. Tradurre. In this particular kind of relationship, the Other “non viene rifiutato perché incommensurabilmente lontano, non viene annullato annettendolo al proprio universo culturale e concettuale e, infine, non conduce a rinunciare al sé e alla tradizione […], ma viene accolto in un patto di reciprocità[1](Arduini 2020: 44). Similarly Rada Iveković claims that translation “c’est la démarche même de l’asile et signifie réciprocité; c’est dans le meilleur des cas un désir de se relier, de se mêler, de se connaître et de se rapprocher” [2](Iveković 2019: 173). Since translation is first of all a “mediation en acte”, it “fait et défait les istitutions et la sociabilité. […] Elle est donc politiques et méthodes, au pluriel” and “dans un sens élargi, contextuel plutôt que textuel, indiscipliné”[3] (Iveković 2019: 174).

Such an approach to the topic of translation might still alarm and perhaps upset a few colleagues, who look with suspicion at what they consider the undisciplined and unsettled field of Translation Studies. They will be annoyed at having to read another one of those tautological detours or sallies of the mind about translation, child of the useless and self-referential interdisciplinary gossip they see as one of the main causes of the decadence of the Humanities in today’s Academy. After all, what is the real meaning of expressions like “reciprocity agreement”, “friendship”, “other”, “otherness”, “hospitality”, not to mention “indiscipline”? How can such terms be scientifically defined? And what do they have to do with the practice of translation? Such activity, they insist, should instead be rigorous, supervised, validated by a systematic set of choices consciously made and verified, and based on a “model” responding “to the four qualities required in any formal/experimental science: parsimony, generality, predictiveness, and consilience”, as Laura Salmon states in her resolute essay Teoria della traduzione: una “lotta infinita per il rigore interdisciplinare” (Salmon 2020). Of course there is nothing wrong with a theoretical approach to translation as long as the theory is open, non-dogmatic and willing to take into account what the translation experience continuously offers. As is well known, even the French term Traductologie (Traduttologia in Italian), can have quite different meanings, as in Berman, where it is defined as “la reflection sur l’experience a partire da sa nature d’esperience” or in Salmon, who sees traduttologia as the most rigorous and scientific side of the more general Theory of Translation (TT, as she abbreviates it); opposed, if not complementary, to the merely descriptive Translation Studies. But Salmon herself, who is well aware of the complexity of the process of translating and the variety of its products (Salmon 2017: 28), states that

TT non è una fede a cui “credere”, non è ‘esatta’, ‘vera’, ‘immutabile’, è un Sistema di riferimento valido hic et nunc che va regolarmente testato e aggiornato. La teoria è sempre una riflessione sull’esperienza che cerca di formalizzare le procedure generali che rispecchiano postulati chiari ed espliciti e che prevedono situazioni particolari (subroutine delle procedure generali); in altre parole, è una sintesi economica di criteri mirati a ottenere procedure professionali nel minor tempo possibile, riducendo al minimo i rischi di fallimento rispetto al progetto.[4] (Salmon 2020: 57)

Furthermore, she is also well aware that no human message has only one single meaning or, as she writes “contenga esclusivamente un’informazione invariante”[5], since the What, i.e. the invariant of a message, is always connected to the variant of the message, the How it is formulated: “La combinazione del COSA con il COME corrisponde alla specificità linguo-stilistica di un enunciato nel CONTESTO”[6] (Salmon 2020: 58). Such specificity, as she defines it, can be called functional markedness.

If a good theory is not top down but bottom up, in our essay we will try to see what happens in a couple of tentative Italian translations of poems by Walt Whitman and Mark Strand. In particular, what happens to a specific feature of their poetic style, or functional markedness, in terms of the rhetorical figure of repetition in its bound relation to the overall rhythmic and semantic pattern of their work. We will consider the challenge of rendering rhythm, a vital feature of a literary text but one which is nonetheless often considered a marginal element by those who believe that translation is above all an act concerned with mere transfer of information. When the few translators still faithful to the chauvinist motto “meaning first” try to say the same thing or almost the same thing in another language (Eco 2003), they tend to overshadow the rhythm, or to find in the target literary tradition a supposed equivalent or analogous metric pattern that can make that rhythm agreeable to the ears of the new reader. The thesis of this paper is that if we do not also consider such "irrational" elements as friendship, listening, the other, the feeling of language, relationship, opacity, but also embodiment, silence, the pulsing of the body and mind in the poetic rhythm— that is, if we pursue a closed theory of translation solely concerned with predictiveness and regularity; if such theory will remain oblivious to the variant notions of translation over time and space, and therefore to life itself, in its complexity and temporariness (Mattioli 2001: 39), the result will be nothing but another abstract construction destined to last the span of an academic career, or little more.


There are three main characters in Carver’s Cathedral: a couple, husband and wife, and Robert, the wife’s friend and former co-worker. Robert has been blind since birth. Ten years after the wife and Robert last worked together, the blind man pays a visit to the woman and meets her husband for the first time. The husband is detached and embarrassed, doesn't know how to talk to Robert and how to deal with a blind person, to the point that he tends to avoid interaction. The two get to know each other a little at a time. After dinner they drink whiskey in front of the television. There is a program about a cathedral in Lisbon. The husband asks Robert if he has any idea of what cathedrals are like. Robert replies that he only knows a few things about them, and asks his guest to describe what is shown in the TV program. Through the voice of his interlocutor, Robert is thus able to imagine the cathedral. But words are not sufficiently precise. So Robert — this is an unexpected turn in Carver's story — asks the man to take a sheet of heavy paper and a pen and draw the cathedral together with him:

“He found my hand, the hand with the pen. He closed his hand over my hand.  ‘Go ahead, bub, draw'. He said” (Carver 1983: 226).

They go on in this way until the cathedral is outlined on the paper. At this point Robert asks the husband to close his eyes and continue drawing, but now with the blind man guiding the movement.

“His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now. […] My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything” (Carver 1983: 228).

This is where the story ends and a friendship is born – an adjustment towards the Other that is not annexation, but a relationship, in this case also tactile; a relationship that leads to the creation of something new. The husband who saw the cathedral on television translates it onto paper for Robert, then Robert in turn leads the husband into a world where things are seen and told not through the eyes, but by a movement of the hand, of the body. This friendship allows the husband to leave his home while remaining at home, to leave his own border and meet the other in a third space (Bhabha 1994).

Translating is in itself an act of domestication and cannot be otherwise (Venuti 2019). And yet the translator should try to leave home while remaining at home, to experience the otherness fully, to see the world through the other’s eyes or senses. Unfortunately, literary institutions or strong aesthetic principles that determine the re-elaboration of the text in another culture can turn into blinders, limiting the gaze and the translation choices. They can become a kind of cage or prison constraining a text that instead is pulsing with life, a text that originally was a discourse (Meschonnic 1982: 217), an inseparable continuity of meanings and signifiers.

To write well implies the courage to look where others do not usually look, to overcome or challenge the cliché. When engaged in the translation of a well-written text, a translator should have the same courage. Ortega Y Gasset clearly states this in a famous passage of his 1937 essay Miseria y esplendor de la traducción:

Escribir bien consiste en hacer continuamente pequeñas erosiones a la gramática, al uso establecido, a la norma vigente de la lengua. Es un acto de rebeldía permanente contra el contorno social, una subvención. Escribir bien implica cierto radical denuedo. Ahora bien; el traductor suele ser un personaje apocado. Por timidez ha escogido tal ocupación, la mínima. Se encuentra ante el enorme aparato policíaco que son la gramática y el uso mostrenco. […] Vencerá en él la pusilanimidad y en vez de contravenir los bandos gramaticales hará todo lo contrario: meterá al escritor traducido en la prisión del lenguaje normal, es decir, que le traicionará.[7] (Ortega Y Gassett 1947: 430)

The translator should act like the husband in Carver’s story, trusting the Other and relying on the new relation, so as to experience and live a new linguistic and rhetorical space.


I thought about Ortega’s prison and our fear to venture into unfamiliar poetics and stylistic territories when I happened to read Giosue Carducci’s letter of August 26, 1881, written to his lifelong friend Enrico Nencioni, an influential literary critic and translator, who first introduced Walt Whitman’s poetry to Italy between 1879 and 1881 (Nasi 2019: 32–38). 

Carducci was very impressed by the novelty of Whitman’s poetry, and by its ability to depict America, its nature and daily life, to the point that he referred to Whitman as the “Courbet of poetry”. He was so inspired that he tried to translate into Italian Our Old Feuillage, a poem mentioned by Nencioni in one of his articles. This is a passage from Carducci’s letter:

Sai che il ‘Fogliame’ americano io l’ho letto e tradotto a lettera tre volte con il mio maestro di inglese, un italiano che scappò in America a 17 anni e ci è stato 23 anni, e ha fatto il capitano al servizio della Repubblica nella guerra di secessione contro gli Stati del Sud? È una bestia, sempre ubriaco; ma sente e respira l’America; e non sa quasi più nulla d’italiano; e me lo commentava facendo gesti e urli feroci.

E mi venne subito la voglia di tradurlo in esametri omerici. Tutti quei nomi a catalogo! quelle enumerazioni, successioni, quella serie di paesaggi, di sentimenti, di figure straordinarie e vere! Io ne rimasi e ne sono rapito! Dopo i grandissimi poeti colossali, Omero, Shakespeare, Dante ecc., ci sarà del più pensato, del più profondo, del più perfetto, ma nulla così immediato e originale. Peccato e dannazione che io d’inglese capisco poco, e la prosa; ma la poesia mi è molto difficile. [8](Carducci 1951: 172–73)

The description of Hannibal Ferrari, the language teacher, a former Union Army captain during the American Civil War (Barbieri 1977), completely lost in a passionate reading of the poem, is hilarious in itself. We can easily imagine the performance staged by the teacher, who enthusiastically “feels and breathes America”, if we read just a few lines from the beginning of the long poem, published for the first time in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. Used as we are to the “fixed poetic forms”, the spatial regularity of 19th century poetic texts, we might be caught by surprise by the irregular shape of the poem and the impetuous length of most of the lines. But if we pay more attention to repetitions within the text, which might be taken to establish a rhythmical beat, we can give Whitman’s poem a different graphic form highlighting the cadence suggested by the repetitions, which distinctly denote the rhythm of the poem. It is easier to imagine the performance of Carducci’s teacher with the following rewriting of the form of the poem as a sort of musical-theatrical score:

ALWAYS our old feuillage!

Always Florida's green peninsula—
always the priceless delta of Louisiana—
always the cotton-fields of Alabama and Texas,
Always California's golden hills and hollows, and the silver mountains of New Mexico—
always soft-breath'd Cuba,
Always the vast slope drain'd by the Southern sea,
inseparable with the slopes drain'd by the Eastern and Western seas,

The area
the eighty-third year of these States,
the three and a half millions of square miles,
The eighteen thousand miles of sea-coast and bay-coast on the main,
the thirty thousand miles of river navigation,
The seven millions of distinct families and the same number of dwellings—

always these, and more, branching forth into numberless branches,
Always the free range and diversity—
always the continent of Democracy;
Always the prairies, pastures, forests, vast cities, travelers, Kanada, the snows;
Always these compact lands tied at the hips
with the belt stringing the huge oval lakes;
Always the West
with strong native persons, the increasing density there, the habitans, friendly, threatening, ironical, scorning invaders;

All sights, South, North, East—
all deeds, promiscuously done at all times,
All characters, movements, growths, a few noticed, myriads unnoticed,

Through Mannahatta's streets I walking, these things gathering […] (Whitman 2017: 394–6)

We are overwhelmed by this endless list of places and objects, by the cadence stressed by symmetrical and balanced anaphoras and repetitions, but we are also waiting for something to happen, suspended by the syntax until the closing line, when the “I”, the maker of this waterfall of dreamed images, finally appears. He is walking the streets of Manhattan, gathering and ordering all “these things”, these figments of imagination as he walks, as if the rhythms of his thought and the words transmuting mental images into sounds were guided by his physical movement.


The image of Whitman walking and versifying is wonderfully depicted by Wallace Stevens in one of his poems:

In the far South the sun of autumn is passing
Like Walt Whitman walking along a ruddy shore.
He is singing and chanting the things that are part of him,
The worlds that were and will be, death and day. (Stevens 2015: 252–3)

Reading and composing poetry outdoors, lost in nature, is a recurrent image in American Transcendentalism and Romanticism in general (from Thoreau to Wordsworth), but also in many contemporary poets (Gary Snyder among many others), as if the rhythm and pace of a walk could move the poet’s poetic imagination. As American poet Edward Hirsch writes:

Poetry is written from the body as well as the mind […]. A walk is a way of entering the body, and also of leaving it: I am both here and there, betwixt and between, strolling along, observing things, thinking of something else. I recognize that walking often quickens my thoughts, inducing a flow of ideas, and that, as Paul Valéry puts it in Poetry and Abstract Thought, “there is a certain reciprocity between my pace and my thoughts – my thoughts modify my pace: my pace provokes my thoughts”. (Hirsch 2011: 5)

In a passage of his 1888 biographical essay A Backward Glance o’er Travel’d Roads, Whitman describes with passion his long poetic journey and literary education, which did not take place in an Ivy League university classroom but in the open air, reading Shakespeare and Dante, Homer and the old German Nibelungen, “in the full presence of Nature, under the sun, with the far-spreading landscape and vistas, or the sea rolling in” (Whitman 2017: 1285). The rhythm of the pace of a pleasant, loose-limbed hike and the rhythm of the waves rolling in are apparently predictable but never really the same, never precise and cold as the regular recurring ticks of a metronome.  A similar rhythm, reassuring but not mechanical, guides the 83 long cadenced and mesmerizing free verses of Our old feulliage, and is the dominant feature of this wonderful musical texture: the waves crash at the hammering, unmetered rhythm of the recurring anaphoras, following the poet’s breathing, that can stretch or shrink the musical phrasing as it pleases or as the syntax requires.


What is astounding and a little shocking is the idea that Carducci was thinking of caging or boxing the flow of the list of images into a Homeric hexameter, as if a free-jazz improvisation were to be performed in an obsessive and unrelated waltz rhythm. No doubt Carducci wished to pay tribute to Whitman by rewriting his poem in Homeric lines, elevating that American “barbaric” cadence to the more conventional meter of our celebrated epic tradition; nonetheless, the whole project looks more like an aseptic transport of something valuable into a new cage-verse. But as Emerson wrote:

The difference between poetry and stock poetry is this, that in the latter the rhythm is given and the sense adapted to it; while in the former the sense dictates the rhythm. I might even say that the rhyme is there in the theme, thought, and image themselves. Ask the fact for the form. For a verse is not a vehicle to carry a sentence as a jewel is carried in a case: the verse must be alive, and inseparable from its contents, as the soul of man inspires and directs the body, and we measure the inspiration by the music. (Emerson 2010: 29)

Nencioni himself remarked in his articles on the “penetrante efficacia” of Whitman’s stanzas, made of “grandiose e musicali”[9] (1883: 1) syntactical structures, with neither regular rhymes nor regular meter, “veri canti orfici senza tradizione” [10](1879: 1), as he wonderfully defines Whitman’s poetic work.  

Many other critics of the era valued Whitman’s poetry without fully comprehending the formal novelty of his work. It is bizarre that the most well-known poem by Whitman in the 19th century (and probably even today), O Captain! My Captain!, is one of only three poems in the entire Leaves composed in an almost regular verse form. Jannaccone, who at the end of the 19th century wrote, with an empirical positivistic approach, a meticulous analysis of the rhythmic forms of Leaves, stated that O Captain was definitively the most celebrated poem in the book, whereas the other compositions were considered more like weird experiments:

Il breve poema “O Captain! my Captain!” (…) è citato da molti critici come l’unica gemma dell’opera Whitmaniana, gemma lucida e polita tra un’informe, impura e rozza massa di minerale. Molti credettero di poter intuire da esso la grande altezza alla quale, con la maestria della forma, il poeta avrebbe potuto levarsi, e gli posposero ogni altra cosa, financo la rapsodia in morte di Lincoln When lilacs last.[11] (Jannaccone 1897: 24)

That poem was the only one to be included in an anthology of poetry published before Whitman’s death (Kaplan 1979: 309). The poet read it several times at the end of his lectures on Lincoln, probably only because O Captain!, with its rhymes and regular beat, met  the horizon of expectation of the audience, and not because Whitman was particularly fond of a poem so conventional, respectful of poetic diction, and eccentric in comparison with the rest of his production. A passage in With Walt Whitman in Camden, by his close friend and literary critic Horace Traubel, testifies to how the poet regarded that particular text:

W. was both jolly and serious about a squib he saw in a newspaper saying: "If Walt Whitman had written a volume of My Captains instead of filling a scrapbasket with waste and calling it a book the world would be better off today and Walt Whitman would have some excuse for living." W. commented in this way: "I'm honest when I say, damn My Captain and all the My Captains in my book! This is not the first time I have been irritated into saying I'm almost sorry I ever wrote the poem. It has reasons for being — it is a ballad — it sings, sings, in a certain strain with a certain motive — but as for being the best, the very best — God help me! what can the worst be like? A whole volume of My Captains instead of a scrap-basket! Well, that's funny, very funny: it don't leave me much room for escape. I say that if I'd written a whole volume of My Captains I'd deserve to be spanked and sent to bed with the world's compliments—which would be generous treatment, considering what a lame duck book such a book would have been! Horace, that fellow deserves a medal: he's given me a mad dig between the ribs." (Traubel 1915: 304)

It is funny to imagine Whitman reading a translation into Italian of his book, the work of a lifetime, with his free verse constricted into the grid of a Homeric Hexameter, as Carducci had in mind to do for the Feuillage. “God help me!” he probably would have said, seeing his Leaves transformed into a whole volume of My Captains.


Luigi Gamberale, who providentially spent many years of his life translating the entire Leaves of Grass into Italian – a first selection of 48 poems came out in 1887, and twenty years later the complete translation of the book – understood the specificity of Whitman’s innovation, and was fond of the vitality and power of his poetry, even if he expressed quite a few reservations about the American’s poetic technique. Gamberale believed that Whitman lacked the preparatory studies necessary to apprehend the art of poetry, did not punctuate properly, and too easily used words indiscriminately adopted from a number of different foreign languages. Furthermore, his ideas overlapped and intermingled without order or selection, to the point that “quell’esuberanza è spesso fastidiosa ed ingombra ed adombra la lucidezza dello stile”[12] (Gamberale 1887: 12). Gamberale was nonetheless able to feel Whitman’s style and declared that it was unique and varying: it could span from the solidity and stubbornness of sculpture to the fluid indeterminacy of a musical composition; anyone accustomed to his poetry could perceive its powerful and primordial harmony and realize that “è uno sviluppo musicale grandioso, una superba fuga di un gran musicista” [13](1887: 14). Gamberale translated several poems without caging the lines in poetic fixed forms. He adopted a strategy now known as traduzione alineare – after Gianfranco Contini’s influential essay (1942: 133-36) – which had been innovatively utilized in 1841 by Niccolò Tommaseo in his Italian translations of a number of Greek, Corsican, and Illyrian folk poems. Consistent with Tommaseo’s approach, Gamberale’s version was not in prose, as was usual in the 19th century, nor did it follow a regular poetic form (the solution adopted by many Italian poet-translators), but simply translated each line using a corresponding line, regardless of any metrical form. Yet, as many critics claim, Gamberale’s rendition missed the intense and primordial rhythm that made the original lines so much more than mere lists of places and people (Massia 2021: 41).

Starting from the specific problems evoked in James Holmes’ notorious essay Translation of Form Verse, we might better comprehend some of the specific features of markedness and rhythm in Whitman’s poetic voice.


As is well known, Holmes identifies four different approaches to the problem:

  1. The mimetic approach tries to retain the form of the source text in the target text. An example is the translation of a verse written in a specific metric pattern, with a similar verse in the target language, even though the target culture is not familiar with the rules adopted by the metrical system of the source text.
  2. The analogical approach does not intend to recreate a similar form, but tries to find in the poetic tradition of the target culture an equivalent poetic form to the one of the source text. In English, for example, an epic poem is usually written in blank verse, but in Italian in ottonari, i.e. stanzas of 8 hendecasyllables with an ABABABCC rhyming scheme.

Both strategies, as Holmes writes, can be seen as form-derivative forms, since they are determined “by the principle of seeking some kind of equivalence in the target language for the outward form of the original poem” (Holmes 1988: 26).

  1. Those two derivative forms are not often employed today, when the most common strategy is content-derivative form. With this approach the translator leaves aside the problem of the original form, and “starts from the semantic material, allowing it to take on its own unique poetic shape as the translation develops” (Holmes 1988: 27). This is also known as the “organic form”.
  2. Holmes adds a fourth strategy, the extraneous or deviant form. “This form does not derive from the original poem at all […]. The translator making use of this approach casts the metapoem into a form that is in no way implicit in either the form or the content of the original” (Holmes 1988: 27).

Holmes’ systematization is very useful. Carducci’s project of translating Whitman’s free verse into Homeric Hexameter would be the extraneous or deviant form (4); a cage superimposed on a more fluid movement, a classic regularity that, like a metronome, intends to “keep the time” in a composition where the succession of different beats is irregular. The first two categories can be usefully applied to the analysis of translations of the few poems written by Whitman in a fixed form, such as O Captain! (Nasi 2019).


But the most interesting category for our argument is the third one, the one defined by Holmes as Organic, where the form is directly connected to the content. What we have here is probably, at least for the largest part of Whitman’s poems, what Jannaccone, and with him other scholars of the 19th century, called Psychic Rhythm and Rhyming, a form of versification that goes back to early and popular poetry. Whitman’s poetic form follows the syntactic breath of a composition that is intended not so much for a silent reader or a refined reader educated in a music conservatory, but for an audience of listeners at an oral performance of the poem. A metronomic sequence is not the main object of the poetic composition. Music is organic to the content, making the discourse, the singular and unique discourse, as Henry Meschonnic (1982: 216-17) would have said. It is not surprising therefore that Whitman felt distant from Edgar Allen Poe as a poet. Whitman’s judgment of Poe’s poetics is crystal clear:

Toward the last I had among much else look'd over Edgar Poe's poems — of which I was not an admirer, tho' I always saw that beyond their limited range of melody (like perpetual chimes of music bells, ringing from lower b flat up to g) they were melodious expressions, and perhaps never excell'd ones, of certain pronounc'd phases of human morbidity. (The Poetic area is very spacious — has room for all — has so many mansions!). (Whitman 2017: 1284, 1286)

Whitman’s ironic description of Poe’s limited melodic variations (“like perpetual chimes of music bells, ringing from lower b flat up to g”) is striking.

But Whitman’s rhythm was also different from the aesthetic vers libre of French origin that so powerfully influenced American and European Modernism. Cesare Pavese, who wrote his dissertation on Whitman (Pavese 2020) and was a fond admirer of the Old Grey Poet, perfectly identifies the specificity of Whitman’s poetic innovation in his essay Interpretazione di Walt Whitman poeta, first published in 1933:

Whitman non (aveva) mai inteso di guadagnare in musicalità, in effetti fonici, in “rintocchi di campane” sostituendo agli schemi tradizionali il suo verso. E nemmeno, possiamo aggiungere noi, […] Walt Whitman ha mai pensato di scrivere nel nostro – europeo – verso libero della decadenza, esasperazione, se mai, proprio dei prodighi francesi e inglesi di tecnica tradizionale, compiuti nella metà del secolo. Altra è la natura e la portata del verso whitmaniano (…) Whitman non ce l’aveva affatto col metro e con la rima per se stanti. Ne fece anche lui di poesie col metro e con la rima. Ce l’aveva con la musicalità scopo a se stessa e ciò, se fosse vissuto a conoscerli, gli avrebbe fatto condannare i versoliberisti. La sua unità metrica, evidentemente ricalcata sulle versioni della Bibbia, non insegue leggi foniche. (Pavese 1973: 136)[14]

The music of the composition, as Whitman himself states in the first preface to Leaves of Grass, should “bud” naturally like “lilacs or roses on a bush”, not be superimposed from the outside. Coleridge’s influential definition of organic form as opposite to the mechanical comes to mind:

The form is mechanic when on any given material we impress a pre-determined form, not necessarily arising out of the properties of the material—as when to a mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to retain when hardened. —The organic form on the other hand is innate, it shapes as it develops itself from within, and the fullness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward Form. Such is the Life, such is the form. Nature, the prime genial artist, inexhaustible in diverse powers, is equally inexhaustible in forms. (Coleridge 1978: 495)

The fact that Whitman’s poems only very rarely have a specific recognizable and conventional form and meter does not mean that they do not have their own rhythm. The difference between meter and rhythm has been clearly stated and studied by Meschonnic (1982), Mattioli (2001, 2017), Buffoni (2002) and other translation studies scholars, and it is useless to spend time here on that distinction. As for Whitman’s poetry, we might talk about free over imposed poetic form, but not about free rhythm, which is organic to the singular logic of his unique discourse. Many critics, even at the end of the 19th century, compared his poetic rhythm to the vast and elementary sounds and movement of nature, like the wind or the lapping of the waves, or to Wagner’s Dionysian musical architecture. In his study which is still valuable today, Jannaccone tries to identify the recurring poetic strategies that Whitman applied.

For Jannaccone “L’elemento logico”—that is, the semantic consistency of the sentence—“tende a disintegrare gli elementi fonici” (such as the rhyme or isometric lines) and “riunir le parole in gruppi… misurati … dal ritmo del pensiero” [15](Jannaccone 1897: 49). Phrases can have a constant cadence, with a regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables, following iambic or dactylic etc. patterns, but in almost all the poems in Leaves the stanza form is not regular. No canonical poetic form (sonnet, ode, ballad, blank verse, epic poem etc.) is followed. One of the main stylistic features of Whitman’s poetry according to Jannaccone is the psychic rhyme, which can consist in the repetition, at the beginning or end of several stanzas or lines, of the same repeated word (as anaphora or epiphora), or the reiteration of the same grammatical construction at the beginning of a sequence of lines (“Enclosing… Believing… Waiting… Making…”), or even the repetition of a whole syntactical segment as a sort of refrain. These are not mere rhetorical figures, but have a rhythmic function, as they had in ancient Hebrew poetry. Like the frequent catalogues and the parallel constructions, these particular rhymes become rhythmical elements much more sensitive and precise than more conventional poetic forms, and they connect Whitman’s poetry with the earliest forms of poetry and the popular poetry of modern countries (Jannaccone 1897: 76).

Perhaps someone might consider this discussion as an argument against Whitman’s “barbaric yawp”. Be that as it may. The problem of the definition of poetry has long been “bracketed” (I refer here to Husserl’s phenomenological epoché, or reduction) and I prefer to assume that position, willingly suspending my judgment regarding the possibility of defining what poetry is once and for all. Aware of the multiple variations of the poetic institutions that legitimize the concept of poetry that a certain culture establishes and assumes as canonical in a specific time of its life, I think it is more interesting to view the relations among different cultures through the hermeneutic and creative process of translation. Relying on the “Productive criticism” elaborated by Berman (1998), it would be extremely interesting to verify how the translation of poetic forms intervenes in a conservative or innovative way in the dialogue among different poetic traditions and institutions. Let us return to Holmes’ categories and examine more closely what he wrote about the “organic form of metapoem” or “content-derivative”, the “approach that does not take the form of the original as its starting point”, as happens with form-derivative forms, which have a “mechanical and dualistic approach to the basic nature of poetry”, but start “from the semantic material” (Holmes 1988: 27–28).

The organic form of the metapoem… is a corollary of an organic and monistic approach to poetry as a whole: since form and content are inseparable (are, in fact, one and the same thing within the reality of the poem), it is impossible to find any predetermined extrinsic form into which a poem can be poured in translation, and the only solution is to allow a new intrinsic form to develop from the inward workings of the text itself. As fundamentally pessimistic regarding the possibilities of cross-cultural transference as the mimetic approach is fundamentally optimistic, the organic approach has naturally come to the fore in the twentieth century. (Holmes 1988: 28)


There is an idiomatic expression in Italian that says: “l’abito non fa il monaco”, which could be roughly translated with “do not judge a book by its cover”. But the Italian expression fits our argument better, and I’d like to use the image of a suit/dress/form that is intended to bestow identity on a content (the significance or substance of a written composition, or, in our expression, of a man). In Holmes’ useful systematization, the number of suits or forms appears to be limited, and form and content can be seen as separated or separable. What if, as in the case of Whitman, we have a new poetic form that is not strictly canonical, but nonetheless has its own psychic rhythm and rhymes? In this case, the better solution would probably be to apply a mimetic organic strategy, the only one that can properly present a new, unprecedented form in the process of its cross-cultural transference. It is not only a matter of transferring a poetic and metrical form, but of rewriting a wholeness, a discourse with its own (in our case psychic/logical) rhythm and that can find, in a translation free from prejudice, another innovative poetic rhythm.

Just a brief example. Mark Strand’s last book of poetry, Almost Invisible, is a collection of short prose compositions. It seems an oxymoron: a book of poetry made of prose pieces. Harmony in the Boudoir is an example:

After years of marriage, he stands at the foot of the bed and tells his wife that she will never know him, that for everything he says there is more that he does not say, that behind each word he utters there is another word, and hundreds more behind that one. All those unsaid words, he says, contain his true self, which has been betrayed by the superficial self before her. “So you see,” he says, kicking off his slippers, “I am more than what I have led you to believe I am.” “Oh, you silly man,” says his wife, “of course you are. I find that just thinking of you having so many selves receding into nothingness is very exciting. That you barely exist as you are couldn’t please me more.” (Strand 2012: 14)

The recurring “say” (here highlighted in italics) is not far different from what Jannaccone called “psychic rhyme” in Whitman. The translation would appear to be easy and unproblematic. But here is the passage as translated by Damiano Abeni, unquestionably one of the best Italian translators of contemporary American poetry:

Dopo anni di matrimonio, lui sta in piedi in fondo al letto e dice alla moglie che lei non lo conoscerà mai, che per ogni cosa che dice c’è dell’altro che non dice, che dietro a ogni parola che pronuncia c’è un’altra parola, e centinaia d’altre dietro a quella. Tutte le parole non dette, spiega, contengono il suo vero sé, che è stato tradito dal sé superficiale che le sta davanti. “Così, vedi” continua scalciando le pantofole dai piedi, “io sono più di quello che ti ho indotto a credere che sono.” “Oh, che sciocco” replica la moglie, “ma è ovvio che lo sei. Io trovo che il solo pensarti con così tanti sé che recedono verso il nulla sia molto eccitante. Che tu a malapena esista così come sei non potrebbe darmi più piacere.

The rhythm of the composition, and therefore its uniqueness, emerges in the hammering repetition of the verb, but a literary convention (or institution) deeply ingrained in Italian style forces the translator to avoid repetitions in favor of the Latin rhetorical Variatio. Strand could have used several synonyms for the verb to say, as the Italian translator did (“spiegaer to the oral and farther from the genteel tradition (C”, “continua”, “replica”). If Strand did not, it was due to an intentional and precise stylistic and philosophical choice (Nasi 2015: 66), perhaps not dissimilar from the ones made by writers such as Carver, Naipaul or Hemingway, who worked on different ways of writing, probably closavagnoli 2021: 24, but on the importance of lexical and phonetic repetition in translation see also Hatin and Mason 1990: 124, and Boase-Beier 2006).

The Everyday Enchantment of Music (Strand 2012: 26) is a second example. It has the same prose form as Harmony in the Boudoir, but we can reshape it as we did with Whitman’s Our Old Feuillage, following Jannaccone’s “logical or psychic rhythm”:

A rough sound was polished

until it became a smoother sound,

which was polished

until it became music.

Then the music was polished

until it became the memory of a night in Venice

when tears of the sea fell from the Bridge of Sighs,

which in turn was polished

until it ceased to be

and in its place stood the empty home of a heart in trouble.

Then suddenly there was sun

and the music came back

and traffic was moving off in the distance,

at the edge of the city, a long line of clouds appeared,

and there was thunder,

which, however menacing, would become music,

and the memory of what happened after Venice would begin,

and what happened after the home of the troubled heart broke in two would also begin.

Let’s take a look at the translation, paying attention to the repetitions that are so decisive in the cadence and rhythm of Strand’s poem:

Un suono scabro venne levigato

fino a divenire un suono più soave,

che venne levigato

fino a divenire musica. 

Poi la musica venne levigata

finché non divenne il ricordo di una notte a Venezia,

quando le lacrime del mare caddero dal Ponte dei Sospiri,

che a sua volta venne levigato

finché non cessò di esistere

e al suo posto si erse la casa vuota di un cuore turbato.

Poi d’improvviso apparve il sole

e la musica tornò

mentre il traffico si muoveva e in lontananza,

al limitare della città, apparve una lunga teoria di nuvole,

e venne il tuono

che, per quanto minaccioso, sarebbe diventato poi musica,

e il ricordo di ciò che era accaduto dopo Venezia sarebbe ricominciato,

e ciò che era successo dopo che la casa del cuore turbato si era spezzata in due pure sarebbe ricominciato.

Abeni does not throw Strand’s poetry into the stocks, as Carducci might have done with his Homeric hexameter. Yet he does impose the rules of good writing in the Italian style on a specific poetic form, in this way throwing into shadow a specific feature or markedness of Strand’s poetics: “Until it”, repeated 4 times by Strand, becomes “finché” twice, and twice “fino a”; “there was sun… and there was thunder” is rendered with “apparve il sole” and “venne il tuono”; “what happened”, repeated twice in Strand, is varied in “era accaduto”, “era successo”…). An unprejudiced ear, ready to capture the organic wholeness of the poem, willing to follow the guidance of the blind character’s hand in Carver’s short story, together with a modest act of rebellion against the norms of proper style imposed by the schools, as Ortega Y Gasset might have said, could help the translator experience new rhythms and recreate them within a new vital and dynamic relationship.


As we have seen, Wallace Stevens depicts Whitman walking along the shore as he sings about himself and the world. The verbs used by Stevens are “sing” and “chant”. This last term is related to cantillation, the rhythmic recitation with melodic modulation of lines from the Bible. Whitman’s success in his effort to chant life, to translate its splendid complexity in an original and diversified rhythm, has been captured by Borges in the final lines of his Camden, 1892, with the meaningful and unexpected rhyme ritman-Whitman. Envisioned on a Sunday morning, with its Stevensonian spleen, the smell of coffee in the air, in a humble but decorous abode, Whitman skims through the newspaper, then looks at himself at the mirror and discovers his face worn out by time:

Piensa, ya sin asombro, que esa cara
Es él. La distraída mano toca
La turbia barba y la saqueada boca.
No está lejos el fin. Su voz declara:
Casi no soy, pero mis versos ritman
La vida y su esplendor. Yo fui Walt Whitman.[16] (Borges 1985: II, 124)

He might soon be gone, but his verses, rhythmically chanting “la vida y su esplendor” for thousands of readers and listeners, will sing again and again, thanks also to translations that keep those rhythms alive in different languages and different decades. Every translator will face this task with his or her skills and creativity, and with the awareness that, as Stevens writes in his poem about Whitman, no translation will ever be the final one:

Nothing is final, he chants. No man shall see the end.
His beard is of fire, and his staff is a leaping flame.


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[1] Is not rejected because it is immeasurably distant, it is not annihilated by incorporating it into one's own cultural and conceptual universe and, last of all, it does not lead to the renunciation of one's own self and tradition [...], but is welcomed in a pact of reciprocity.

[2] Is the very act of asylum and means reciprocity; it is at best a desire to relate, to mingle, to know each other and to come closer.

[3] Mediation in act, it makes and unmakes institutions and sociability. [...] It is therefore politics and methods, both plural and in an expanded sense, contextual rather than textual, undisciplined.

[4] TT is not a faith to be 'believed', it is not 'exact', 'true', 'immutable', it is a Reference System valid hic et nunc, and it must be regularly tested and updated. Theory is always a reflection on experience; it tries to formalize general procedures that reflect clear and explicit postulates and provide for particular situations sub-routines of general procedures; in other words, it is an economic synthesis of criteria aimed at obtaining professional procedures in the shortest possible time, minimizing the risks of failure with respect to the project.

[5] Contains only invariant information

[6] The combination of WHAT and HOW corresponds to the linguo-stylistic specificity of an utterance in the CONTEXT.

[7] To write well is to make continual incursion into grammar, into established usage, and into accepted linguistic norms. It is an act of permanent rebellion against the social environs, a subversion. To write well is to employ a certain radical courage. Fine, but the translator is usually a shy character. Because of humility, he has chosen such an insignificant occupation. He finds himself facing an enormous controlling apparatus, composed of grammar and common usage. […] He will be ruled by cowardice, so instead of resisting grammatical restraints he will do just the opposite: he will place the translated author in the prison of normal expression; that is, he will betray him. Translated by Elisabeth Gamble Miller, in Venuti 2000: 50

[8] Did you know that I have read and translated the American 'Foliage' three times with my teacher of English, an Italian who escaped to America when he was 17 and stayed there for 23 years, and was a captain in the service of the Republic during the civil war against the Southern States? He's a beast, always drunk; but he feels and breathes America; he has forgotten almost completely his Italian; and he commented the poem with fierce gestures and shouts.

And I immediately felt like translating it into Homeric hexameters. All those names in a catalogue! Those enumerations, successions, the series of landscapes, of feelings, of extraordinary and true figures! I remained and still am captivated! After the great colossal poets, Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, etc., there might have been something more thoughtful, most profound, most perfect, but nothing so immediate and original. It is a pity and damnation that I understand little English, and only prose; but poetry is very difficult for me.

[9] Penetrating effectiveness… grandiose and musical 

[10] True orphic songs without tradition

[11] The short poem "O Captain! my Captain! [...] is cited by many critics as the only gem in Whitman's work, a polished and polite gem among a formless, impure, and crude mass of mineral. Many believed they could sense from it the great height to which, with the mastery of form, the poet could have risen, and they place behind it everything else Whitman wrote, even the rhapsody in Lincoln's death When lilacs last

[12] That exuberance is often annoying and clutters and overshadows the lucidity of the style

[13] It is a grand musical development, a superb fugue by a great musician.

[14]  Whitman never intended to gain in musicality, in phonic effects, in "tolling bells" by substituting his verse to the traditional schemes. And not even, we can add […]Walt Whitman ever thought of writing in our - European - free verse of decadence, which was indeed an exasperation of traditional techniques done by the prodigal French and English, in the middle of the century. The nature and scope of Whitman's verse is different [...] Whitman was not at all annoyed with meter and rhyme per se. He also wrote poems with meter and rhyme. He was annoyed by musicality as an end in itself, and this would have made him condemn the vers libre writers, if he had lived to know them. His metric unity, evidently based on the versions of the Bible, does not pursue phonic laws.

[15] The logic element tends to disintegrate the phonic elements” and “to gather the words in the rhythm of thought.

[16] He thinks, now without wonder, that that face / Is him. His inattentive hand touches both / The frowzy beard and devastated mouth. / The end is not far. His voice declares: / I am almost not, but my verses give rhythm / To life and its splendor. I was Walt Whitman.

About the author(s)

Franco Nasi is Associate Professor of Anglo-American Literature in the Department of Studies on Language and Culture at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, where he teaches Anglo American Literature and Theories of Translation. His research interests include Anglo-American Literature, English Romanticism and English Contemporary Poetry, Contemporary Italian Literature, Comparative Literature, Theory and History of Translation, History of Criticism and Poetics, Children Literature and its Translation.

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©inTRAlinea & Franco Nasi (2022).
"Psychic rhymes and rhythms in translation:  Walt Whitman and Mark Strand"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Embodied Translating – Mit dem Körper übersetzen
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