Shirley Bell introduces stunning found poetry in translation – in Gifted Beneficato by Patrick Williamson with Guido Cupani


    Patrick Williamson, a British poet and translator, who lives in France. I also work with music and filmpoems (Afterwords, set to music by Mauro Coceano). My work is increasingly focused on Italy, where I have published two collections Beneficato(English-Italian, Samuele Editore, Pordenone, 2015), and Nel Santuario (Samuele Editore, 2013; Menzione Speciale della Giuria in the XV Concorso Guido Gozzano in 2014). Editor and translator of The Parley Tree, An Anthology of Poets from French-speaking Africa and the Arab World (Arc Publications, 2012). Recent and ongoing translations of poetry by Italian writers Guido Cupani and Erri de Luca.



    Beneficato, Williamson Patrick
    Collana: Scilla, Samuele Edizioni
    978-88-96526-53-8 (EUR11)
    Preface and translation by Guido Cupani

    Available from:

    Samuele Editore                                                            Patrick Williamson

    via Montelieto, 50                                                         27 Rue de Romilly

    33092 Fanna (PN)                                                          78600 le Mesnil le Roi

    Tel. +39 0427 77 77 34                                                    tel +33 6 71 49 12 69     


    Samuele Editore is run by Alessandro Canzian





    I have been fortunate enough to publish Patrick Williamson and Guido Cupani’s fine work in an earlier issue of the magazine. In Issue 18 we had a fascinating look at the translator’s art,  in Patrick’s article on The Methodology of Translation, plus a bumper section of poems by Guido Cupani and Erri De Luca , translated from the Italian by Patrick Williamson, and Guido Cupani’s translations of works by Patrick.

    In Issue 4 of the magazine I wrote about found poetry; if you look under current issue on the toolbar you can pull up archive issues and find it there.  I talked about it as a method of freeing the imagination and overcoming writer’s block but of course it is also a fine art form in its own right.

    The Acknowledgements in Gifted    Beneficato describe how these poems were conceived:

    These thirty poems were written as treated found poems as part of the Pulitzer Remix project, which was created by Jenni B. Baker, founder/editor of the Found Poetry Review. The poems were written using text in Humbolt’s Gift¹ by Saul Bellow and posted one by one on the Pulitzer Remix website, from 1 to 30 April 2013. The poems recently appeared in English only in Gifted, a chapbook with Corrupt Press, Paris, 2014.

    With thanks to Alessandro Canzian, Rachel Slade, Guido Cupani, and Maria D’Agostino for their work on the collection.


    In his preface, below, Guido Cupani, gives a great insight into the intricacies of this work, from the choice of Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldts Gift onwards.  He describes how Patrick Williamson made his selections from the text and how he organized the phrasing and syntax. Then there was the task of translating these selections into Italian:


    Words as a gift

    Poets believe that they have an infinite universe in their hands; what they actually use is a small subset of the words between the two covers of a dictionary. All future books already exist, scattered across the corpus of literature: the hard work is to find them, and to sort out their words, throwing away what is not needed. One apparent exception to this axiom is the possibility of word coinage; nevertheless, it’s just a matter of time before a coined word is incorporated in the dictionary as well.

    When I first heard about found poetry, I must admit I regarded it as a pointless artifice – a poet chooses a book and decides to create a new work by literally picking words out from the book. The rule is simple: you can only use words from the original text. Puzzle lovers may be tempted to introduce a further constraint: instead of picking words out randomly, always choose the tenth word of each line, or one word out of thirty; pass the text through the sieve of Eratosthenes; whatever boredom and numerology may suggest. Can we call a text that is so mechanically engineered a poem? With great humility, practitioners refer to them as found poems. That’s deliberately ironic, though: if you just think of it, all poems are found, not only those composed in this way. Verses are not created ex nihilo; the artist’s skill, the so-called inspiration are not regarded as mechanical just because we are unaware of their obscure laws. Being forced to pick words from our personal mind inventory is not a lesser constraint than to unearth them in a book written by somebody else.

    The book you are about to read is an explicit collection of found poems. The statement is a part of the game. The original text is Saul Bellow’s renowned novel Humboldts Gift . The title of the new work, Gifted, reflects its source and the author as well: in a sense, finding poems is receiving a gift. Patrick Williamson is too well-judged an author not to know the limits of a programmatic approach; he admits he selected the words according to his own taste. He resolved to proceed in a forward direction where each new word follows, at some point, the previous one, thus respecting the order they had in Bellow’s text; he did not refrain from inflecting verbs and nouns when needed, though, to comply with the syntax of the new text. This is properly referred to as treated found poetry.

    Are these just technicalities? Yes and no. One cannot help but notice a great syntactical liberty in the texture of Gifted; in most poems, the boundaries between phrases are barely discernible. The lack of full stops is not a mannerism but a way to emphasize the ambiguity. For example:


    I must stop

    this tease-act

    fatalities make

    this a gloomy place

    little of substance

    we could tell

    rulings set penalties



    Reduced relative clauses in English allow for this liberty; almost all possible arrangements are grammatically sound:


    I must stop this tease-act

    this tease-act fatalities make

    fatalities make this

    make this a gloomy place

    little of substance we could tell

    we could tell rulings set penalties


    It is certainly not an attempt at randomness, relying on the reader’s subjectivity. Williamson positively puts forward a single construal in each case. The aim is different: to constantly remind the reader that lines are literally sequences of words and that these words come from another text; that the number of possible arrangements is boundless and the filiation of one text from another could go on indefinitely (I suspect that Williamson may regard his own book as a source for future found poems).

    Gifted poses a tough dilemma for the Italian translator. A tempting option is to dig into the translation of Humboldts Gift, after having retrieved the words picked out for the new book. But this is an impossible task, that’s why it looks so simple. It is based on two misguided assumptions: that a one-to-one correspondence between the two languages exists, and that Williamson would have chosen the same words, had he been able to directly pick them out from the Italian version. Found poetry takes the issue of poetic translation to extremes. What is to be translated: Bellow’s words? Williamson’s rearranging inspiration? Something in-between, to make the recomposition process more apparent?

    The answer lies in the book itself. Gifted reaffirms the quality of Williamson’s poetry, already known to readers of Nel santuario, the previous collection published by Samuele Editore in 2013. It’s like meeting an old friend again after a long time; we find him changed, but we still recognise him; we feel that time has made him more rounded, that life has grown a new tree ring to his experience. (The tree metaphor is fitting to an author who carves his poems from living matter, albeit still and petrified, so to speak.) We find once again the hyperrealistic concern for natural detail, the appearance of vanishing, ghost-like human figures; the sharp light-and-shade contrast in description, the fragmented rhythm that drives the reader’s attention here and there, with sudden deviations. We also find a subtler irony, well enhanced by the stylistic uniformity and the lack of punctuation, eventually leading to disorientation: We were whispers [] without a me / you’ll have it right / in the teeth / I said it’s sweet of you / to stand up for me. We find, above all, a clear continuity across the whole work, which can be read as a single poem in fact, moulded by unrelenting forces. This is the accomplishment of a mature poet, who recognises himself in any medium and is able to shape the raw material to his own will.

    This cohesive quality is what I tried to preserve in translation. I started from the end, from the results, refraining from mimicking the author’s procedure. One does not need to know about the compositional approach to appreciate a work that is justified in itself. The trick is not the point. Bellow’s words sound legitimately new on Williamson’s pages because they are everybody’s words, and continue to be when the book is over. Gifted is a bewildering journey through the afterlife realms, where participation and detachment, the absolute and the ordinary coexist. It’s a discussion about life heard through a wall, or read transparently from the other side of the sheet, after life: hence its universal yet enigmatic tone, always far from mere divertissement. Is it just a lucky coincidence that the Italian version of this book may be considered, ex post, a form of treated found poetry on Dante’s Commedia? I leave the reader the pleasure of proceeding through the poems without any other anticipation. To land on the last page with a feeling of having been, like the author, gifted.


    Guido Cupani, 15 January 2015


    The resulting work is elegant, intricate and compelling. I have selected the first and last poems from the book, with 3 poems from the rest of the book inserted within these, to give a taste of this remarkable achievement.  I don’t know Italian, but the poems are placed side by side and I feel you can get a sense of the musicality and essence of the translation even if you are not lucky enough to speak the language.


    [one_half]I became, after death,
    even more intense
    I ran away leaped down
    as a boy remarkable
    in my fifties inspired
    with flight that same night
    boasted I can
    how I ran hell flew
    in terrific shape
    sturdy naked sides so
    his bones crumbled
    nothing but soot


    [/one_half]Diventai, post-mortem,
    ancora più deciso
    fuggii balzai
    come ragazzo notevole
    a cinquant’anni ispirato
    alla fuga la notte stessa
    urlai che potevo
    come corsi cristo volavo
    in forma smagliante
    turgido il fianco nudo e
    le sue ossa si sbriciolarono
    sporcizia, nient’altro



    [one_half]He stopped me
    see what I mean
    death and rebirth
    the soul’s journey
    past the gates of death
    hold it
    go for that
    thing called

    [/one_half]Mi fermò
    capisci che intendo
    morte e rinascita
    viaggio dell’anima
    oltre i confini della morte
    calma, calma
    cerca quella
    cosa chiamata



    [one_half]Only change
    the cold face
    our meetings always
    how I’ve missed
    we always went
    through covering snow
    frost was delicious
    the weight of winter
    lifted effortlessly
    astonishing light

    [/one_half]Unica novità
    il viso freddo
    i nostri incontri sempre
    quanto mi sono mancati
    ogni volta andavamo
    via sui due piedi
    fra coltri di neve
    delizioso il gelo
    il peso dell’inverno
    si sollevava senza sforzo
    luce favolosa



    [one_half]We were lofted
    corrugations of seas
    no higher to eye
    than palate to tongue
    we plunged across
    this deep place
    the school of souls
    I believed the glimmers
    of Good
    only a fool would

    [/one_half]Eravamo innalzati
    il corrugarsi dei mari
    non appariva più alto
    del palato alla lingua
    volammo radenti
    su questo abisso
    il branco di anime
    credevo ai barbagli
    del Bene
    solo un pazzo l’avrebbe fatto



    [one_half]My job in the bag
    muttering drunken
    had little to say
    if you’d like to go
    I don’t feel quite ready
    I told you it was just
    we’ve known
    written about each
    cheerful season for us
    if I have to go
    I can count on you

    [/one_half]Compiuto il lavoro
    borbottando ubriaco
    non avevo granché da dire
    se desideri andare
    non mi sento ancora pronto
    te l’ho detto era solo
    quel che abbiamo saputo
    scritto di ciascuna
    allegra stagione per noi
    se devo andarmene
    posso contare su di te









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