A Question of Likeness
Gaspara Stampa, a sixteenth-century Venetian poet, sang the canzones of Petrarch as entertainment for polite society. She was one of many virtuose, professional singers often mistaken for courtesans—but singing someone else's songs wasn't enough. She began to write her own poems in the Petrarchan tradition, bemoaning a cruel lover (Count Collaltino di Collalto) with fiery eyes and cold heart. After Stampa died in her early thirties, her sister funded the publication of her sequence of poems that mirrors Petrarch's Canzoniere with its sonnets, canzones, madrigals, and other forms. The collection didn't stay in print long, though it was reissued in 1738 and 1913. Rainer Maria Rilke read Stampa and mentions her in his first Duino elegy: "Have you imagined / Gaspara Stampa intensely enough so that any girl / deserted by her beloved might be inspired / by that fierce example of soaring, objectless love / and might say to herself, ‘Perhaps I can be like her?'" (Stephen Mitchell's translation).
All work in form is somewhat imitation (an attempt at likeness) and somewhat resistance. Stampa's rhyme schemes or metrical arrangements sometimes echo Petrarch, her contemporary Vittoria Colonna (another female poet), and others. I imagine the rhythms got stuck in her brain after performances. I imagine her humming to herself while moving about her day. However, Stampa resists certain tropes of the Petrarchan sequence: her love for Collaltino is consummated, not deferred indefinitely. Her lover does not die, though he does marry. She even falls in love a second time, with another man. In fact, Stampa wanted to stake out her own ground. In the first poem of the sequence, which mirrors Petrarch's first poem in its address to those who might listen, she hopes that they might hear in her work "my sufferings above all others" (de le pene mie tra l'altre prime). This woman had ambition and often punned on the meaning of her last name: publication. She was not your average Venetian Renaissance lady.
In my recent work adapting poems of Stampa's, I've found myself putting into practice Rilke's notion: "Perhaps I can be like her." I don't attempt the rhyme schemes but work to reproduce her sense in a contemporary context. Thus, the Camaro in "Prizefighter." My versions of the poems are like hers in their sense of line and stanza, yet unlike. I put on her mask and sing a little bit, reanimating the forms and learning about the sonnet from Stampa. I've used that knowledge to start my own sequence of courtly love poems (for and about 1990s rocker and cultural provocateur Courtney Love). Each time I start a sonnet, there's a little set of boxes to fill, each stanza taking up a certain amount of space, each calling for a bit of likeness and unlikeness, even in the rhymes. The poet mediates the familiar and the surprising, hoping to balance both.
(If you want to read Stampa in both Italian and English, I recommend Troy Tower and Jane Tylus's version through the University of Chicago Press.)