P.N.Review 180 has arrived and there's another of James Sutherland-Smith's Letters from Belgrade.
Back in PNR 175 he described well the attraction of living immersed a foreign language: " ... the advantage to a poet of not understanding. For poets whose gift is to write poems where their language is distilled to the highest proof, a babble around them, or at best only a surface understanding of the others languages spoken around them, creates no interference with the language within them. It permits an enormous concentration. For poets, whose gift is to clarify meaning, attention to the babble around them is useful training for the poetic processes of making meaning precise and lucid."
I'm not sure which of these varieties of poet JSS considers himself ... back in an even earlier Letter from Belgrae (PNR 169) he wrote: "When I write a poem I have the desire to make something potentially useful for the English language. 'Potentially' is the whole of it, either to indicate a direction the language can take or to conserve a way of saying something that is in danger of being confined to the notes in the OED. ... There is also a measure of self-assertion when I write a poem. I am establishing and making public my own idiolect."
Of course not everyone takes that approach - I can't imagine Berryman's idiolect, no matter how much he drank, ever getting close to the syntax of his poems.
But Sutherland-Smith is right about the effects of being in foreign parts. When you have to express yourself in a language you have only a weak grasp of, or say something unambiguously to someone who has rudimentary English, it focuses the mind on how meaning is conveyed and on how it can be undermined, for instance by the use of idiomatic turns of phrase.
As one ventures into reading poetry in another language and attempting to translate it, one quickly appreciates the impossibilities, and how the deep contextual associations at the level of each single word are utilized to establish meaning, tone, effect.
In the latest letter he touches upon the topic of the day job, line managers and performance review grades: Larkin's toad and 21st century Human Resources tactics.
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