Thursday, March 27, 2008

James Sutherland-Smith from Belgrade

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.


Jane Holland said...

On receiving PNR 180, I immediately sat down and wrote a letter to the magazine, asking why Harry Mathews' poem 'The White Wind' (p. 15) was not acknowledged as a loose version of Wyatt's 'Whoso List to Hunt' and also dwelling on the idler but more interesting observation that his title 'The White Wind', with a tweak to change the second 'W' to 'H', gives us a translation of the first line of Petrarch's original (on which Wyatt's sonnet was based, of course) 'Una candida cerva sopra l'erbe' or 'A white deer (hind) on the grass'.

Forgive any mistakes there, by the way, that's all off the top of my head.

But then I thought 'How silly and pointless' and tore the letter up. There's no definite rule that a new version of a classic poem needs to be acknowledged as such, after all. It just seemed a little odd not to mention the debt at all.

Perhaps everyone was simply meant to 'know' without being told. But that seems even more dubious. Or am I being too precious about the whole thing?

Jane Holland said...

To clarify, the interesting thing for me about the 'white hind' situation is that the colour white is a vital element of Petrarch's original but isn't mentioned at all in Wyatt's harder-bitten version. (Wyatt's hind was far from a downy-white innocent!)

In other words, was Harry Mathews' poem based on W's or P's sonnet, or an amalgam of both?

Just an idle question, really. But perhaps someone out there knows the background to that particular poem and can clear it up for me.

David M Lumsden said...

Hi Jane,

I hadn't got to Harry Mathews' poems yet ... your observations are very interesting ... not least because reworking old pieces to see how they work, to see how logic and syntax and form knit together, is something I find myself attempting in notebooks from time to time - pulling part a watch to see what makes it tick. Did Wyatt acknowledge Petrarch? If not, then maybe he's fair game.

Mathews' model looks to be the Wyatt, as I think the "helas, I may no more, the vayne travail hath werid me so sore" idea isn't in Petrarch 190. Mathews dishes this up as "me, unable to go on, Unsuccess having so worn me out" ... even the lineation runs the same way, so the whole effort is pretty transparent. Maybe that's why the attribution was deemed superfluous??? But I agree, dubious.

This raises other ideas and associations .. I might do a new post on it soonish.

Jane Holland said...

As far as I know Wyatt didn't acknowledge Petrarch, no. Except possibly by word of mouth or private letter.

But then, I don't think it was common to officially acknowledge sources at that time, perhaps because private mss of poems would have been circulated to friends and admirers, rather than officially published, and there would have been a general assumption of a certain level and breadth of European and classical reading amongst those in receipt of the mss. So acknowledgement of sources would have been largely unnecessary.

That's how I see it. But I'm no expert on medieval reading habits, it's true.

Did Shakespeare acknowledge his many and varied sources? Not very often, if at all - again, as far as I'm aware.

So I don't think we can say Wyatt didn't acknowledge Petrarch, therefore it's fair game not to do so today, as ways and levels of reading amongst general readers have changed substantially since Wyatt's time.

It seems unlikely to me, for instance, that the vast majority of PNR readers - whilst many will be educated up to and beyond undergraduate level - are going to be able to spot a rehash of a medieval or Renaissance poem at sight.

David M Lumsden said...

I agree that some sort of note would have been a good thing: I'm all for clarity. In general I think I'd rather select readers weren't patting themselves on the back for spotting an allusion. Broader reflections arising from this thread I've posted here