Saturday, March 29, 2008

Imitations and Serial Translation

Jane Holland has pointed out that Harry Mathews poem 'The White Wind' in P.N.Review 180 is a paraphrase of Wyatt's 'Whoso list to hunt', and that Petrarch's sonnet which served as Wyatt's model features a 'white hind' (una candida cerva) which has undergone a strange transformation in Mathews' title. It seems a little odd that no credit to Wyatt is given, but I guess poets have been using poems as models from the outset, and generally without explanatory acknowledgments. Even so, here at our 21st-century postmodern terminal moraine, maybe a small note wouldn't have been amiss.

I suspect several poets go in for this sort of thing in the privacy of notebooks - dismantling clocks to see how they work, or trying things to help move them towards a new voice or expand their range.

Derek Walcott, in an interview published in Contemporary Literature, Vol 20. #3 1980, remarked: "you know you just ravage and cannibalise anything as a young writer", and the 40-ish Robert Lowell explained, in his introduction to Imitations, that his loose translations were done from time to time when he was unable to do any work of his own. He said he was trying to write "alive English" and to do what the original authors "might have done if they were writing their poems now and in America."

Peter Porter, in a conversation published in Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop's 1972 book British Poetry Since 1960, said of his translations of Martial: "They're not translations at all but more - in musical terms - realisations ... They are done to give me the pleasure of reading his poems - in a very brutal and egotistical way. The only way I could enjoy his writing was to rewrite it myself." Donald Hall's drastic recasting of Horace's Odes in The Museum of Clear Ideas is another good recent example.

And of course translators typically study other existing translations when available, even build upon them. Alan Jenkins, for example, in his translation of Rimbaud, Drunken Boats (Sylph editions, 2007) states that he has stolen what he needed from Lowell and Beckett.

Indeed serial translation, where one translator builds on the good bits of earlier translations was once the norm. Felicity Rosslyn, back in PNR 111 (1996) wrote a wonderful overview of this important and relatively neglected topic.

She demonstrates how the opening of Dryden's Iliad (1700):

The wrath of Peleus' son, O Muse, resound

Whose dire effects the Grecian army found.

was clearly in Pope's mind when he wrote in his 1715 version:

The Wrath of Peleus' Son, the direful Spring

Of all the Grecian Woes, O Goddess sing!

Two days after Pope's Book I, a rival - one Thomas Tickell - brought out his ...

Achilles' fatal Wrath, whence discord rose,

That brought the Sons of Greece unnumber'd Woes,

O Goddess sing.

Pope angrily annotated his copy of this, but admired the clear initial focus on Achilles, and the unnumber'd woes, and for his 1736 edition rewrote the opening:

Achilles' Wrath, to Greece the direful spring

Of woes unnumber'd, heav'nly Goddess, sing!

Thus the completion of Pope's final Iliad can be seen as the cumulative results of many hands working in the one unified tradition - the tradition of heroic couplet translation - and thus, along with Gothic cathedrals, quantum physics and wikipedia can be seen as the flowering achievement of a dedicated community.

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.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Oh the moon shone bright on Mrs Porter

O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter

And on her daughter

They wash their feet in soda water

- from The Fire Sermon

I was looking today at Lawrence Rainey's annotated edition of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, and was surprised to see a reference to a popular American ballad called 'Red Wing', the chorus of which starts:

Now the moon shines bright on pretty Red Wing

The breezes singing, the night birds crying.

and no mention of the WWI music hall 'ding dong' sung to the same tune ...

For the moon shines tonight on Charlie Chaplin

His boots are cracking, for the want of blackn'ning

And his little baggy trousers they want mending

Before they send him to the Dardanelles.

Isn't it likely that it was this version that Eliot - a keen fan of the Music Hall - would have heard?

On Eliot's recording he chants the words to the following rhythm which, at least as far as 'daughter', is a rough match to the song. (No attempt has been made to annotate the near monotonous but slightly rising pitch of his rendition).

An interesting line of connections which supports the music hall version as being the source, is that Jean Verdenal, Eliot's close friend and dedicatee of Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) was killed in action in the Dardanelles in the doomed Gallipoli campaign. The Prufrock dedication reads :

To Jean Verdenal

1889 - 1915

This was revised in 1925 collection to include an explicit reference to the Dardanelles, and a Dante epigraph:

For Jean Verdenal, 1889-1915

mort aux Dardanelles

Or puoi la quantitate

Comprender dell' amor ch'a te mi scalda,

Quando dismento nostra vanitate,

Trattando l'ombre come cosa salda.

(Roughly, awkwardly, word-wise: 'And now the quantity, you can understand, of the love which scalds me, when I don't think of our emptiness, treating the shadows like a thing solid')

Eliot's only comment about the Ms Porter lines is that they were reported to him from Sydney, Australia - and given the strong Australia / Gallipoli connection this raises further speculations on the Dardanelles/Mrs Porter link.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Unrhymed iambic tetrameter?

Roy Fuller, both in a short note on rhyme (Agenda Vol 28 No 4, 1991) and in one of his Oxford lectures (collected in the Owls & Articers volume, 1971) mentions Housman's salvaging of Coventry Patmore's dictum (from his 'Essay on English Metrical Law') that 'a series of octosyllables ceases to be verse if they are not rhymed'. C. H. Sisson's response to this: "seems plainly to be untrue" (the same issue of Agenda).

Patmore's original statement is: "The common eight-syllable iambic, for example, ceases to be metre on the removal of the rhyme, although the six-syllable iambic, which is catalectic on, or has a final pause equal to, two syllables, makes very good blank verse."

Friday, March 21, 2008

Ires & Ishmaels: Bunting, Strindberg, Catullus, Hill & Co.

Don Share in a couple of recent Bunting posts has touched on the themes of the writer's indignation and exclusion - Bunting in a crossed out notebook entry wrote "The scholar ought to be like the poet, an Ishmael, scouted and feared" Wild Ishmael, scornful Ishmael (Milton) - his hand against every man, and every man's hand against him - has long been a sort of patron for some writers. A character in Strindberg's The Road To Damascus calls Ishmael a 'scoffer' and explains that that was why he was driven out. The scoffing and scornful outsider: Bunting can wear those shoes.

In the preceding post Share refers to Bunting's Ode II.6 and quotes I.12, with its doctored line from Catullus 47 - all three fine examples of poems sparked by indignation. The image of the poet cadging drinks on streetcorners is a enduring emblem of lack of recognition - like the young penniless Johnson following the older penniless Savage on his habitual night patrols of the affluent West End.

Strindberg explains the usefulness of anger in a letter to Siri (27 June 1875) "Anger is the most powerful emotion, so if you can recall something with anger or sadness the words will become more potent." That "anger or sadness" launches a volley of references ... Hill's "a sad and angry consolation", or D.J.Enright's book title "Sad Ires" ... Pound's early 'Planh for the young English King" ending each stanza with the words "ire and sadness", and then straying a little from the track, Rowland Mallet's fits of angry sadness (Roderick Hudson), and "the sad influence of the angry Moon" (Byron).

Maybe there's a connection between the anger and pride of the excluded (or self-excluded) that accompanies the very notion of setting out to be a poet: inner worth not being recognized or rewarded by the world. "You don't know what's inside me" shouts Sue Bridehead - she's been accused of being nothing unconventional - and she lets Jude know what it is inside her: "The Ishmaelite".

Ishmael and Isaac stand another enduring emblem, ever topical: divided blood ever makes loud discord. Remember Lancaster and York.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

North 41 - and blabbing

The North 41 has arrived - I've always liked their 'blind criticism' section, in the spirit of Zukofsky's A Test For Poetry - and on a quick skim through I noticed a few poems - such as Catherine Smith's 'Picnic' which is about sex in somebody's office followed by a raid on the staff fridge - which put me in mind of Hugo Williams' essay where he contrasts Bly's concept of 'Leaping' poetry with a sort of confessional 'Blabbing' ... the word comes from Patrick Kavanagh's Self-Portrait:

"What seems of public importance is never of any importance. Stupid poets and artists think that by taking subjects of public importance it will help their work to survive. There is nothing as dead and damned as an important thing. The things that really matter are casual, insignificant little things, things you would be ashamed to talk of publicly. You are ashamed and then after years someone blabs and you find you are in the secret majority." - Kavanagh

'Blabbing' it seems equates to the "rather shameful" "personal confidences" that M. L. Rosenthal found is his review of Life Studies. This approach is presumably underwritten by the idea - expressed once by Martin Amis - that the writer hopes that the particular will turn out to be universal.

Smith's 'Picnic' juxtaposes sex pressed up against a manager's in-tray with a memory of a child's first picnic. Andrew Motion once said something about leaning two things up against each other and seeing what happens. As formulae go, it's a good one.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Ludic lines

David Caddy has written an appealing piece on Tom Raworth, drawing connections back to the verbal play of radio programmes such as Much Binding in the Marsh and The Goons. This is a useful insight, although I now fear that I will always hear an inner Neddie Seagoon when reading Raworth. I recall one of John Forbes' titbits of advice to me - he used to visit when I lived not far from him in Carlton - was that one could spot the crap in your own poems if you read them aloud in a silly voice ... he recommended Japanese Science Fiction voices.

Raworth stands in that tradition of 'ludic and literary self-consiousness' which Morrison and Motion picked up on - for them it was primarily manifested in the work of the Martians (or the School comprising English poets with the initials C.R. - the U.S equivalent including Charles Reznikoff and Carl Rakosi is another thing altogether). The somewhat notorious use of the word 'ludic' came after M&M had curiously commented that nothing much had seemed to be happening in England in the 60s and 70s. But of course the playfulness goes back at least as far as those 'proto-ludic' figures, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Although here of course we do run into the unclearly marked divide between light verse and serious. Oscar Williams' A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry had a separate substantial section at the end for light verse. The anthology was influential if only because Geoffrey Hill's father bought him a copy on a shopping-trip into Birmingham when the young Geoffrey was about fifteen. Hill carried the Little Treasury around Worcestershire in his jacket pocket for years until it disintegrated. At one time he knew by heart every poem in it. Bunting in his seventies carried the Penguin Njal's Saga around in his pocket. An enquiry into poets' jacket pockets through history might prove enlightening.

Funkhouser, Fairchild: More of the world

I recently went back to look up a poem by Erica Funkhouser that I first read in The Atlantic Monthly back in December 1995. It is called 'The Accident' and was collected in her 1997 book, The Actual World with a few minor changes (the main change was dropping the two last words of the line " but the neighbor knew he was going to cook for her.") The poem presents a high-resolution depiction of an incident where a wife suddenly realizes simply by observing the smallest details in a moment of crisis that something has been going on between her husband and the woman next door. The thing that struck me going back to it was that it was a much longer poem than I had recalled, that there is more of the world in the piece. Raymond Carver used to say that his stories from the collection Cathedral onwards were fuller and "more generous" - "generous" is a good word for Funkhouser's poem.

The common drive to get more of the world into the poems is nicely caught in the title of Albert Goldbarth's New & Selected 1972-2007: The Kitchen Sink. But one poet who stands out in this regard is B. H. Fairchild whom I first came across by googling for something about the story of Mozart at table folding and refolding his napkin in intricate patterns (which seems to embody something fundamental about the way the artistic mind strives to shape and investigate possibilities of form, the bedrock of theme-and-variations ... and this could lead off into a discussion of Bunting's ideas of musical form) ... google led me to the poem 'The Art of the Lathe' which includes the lines ...

I listen to the clunk-and-slide of the milling machine,
Maudsley's art of clarity and precision: sculpture of poppet,
saddle, jack screw, pawl, cone-pulley,
the fit and mesh of gears, tooth in groove like interlaced fingers.
I think of Mozart folding and unfolding his napkin
as the notes sound in his head. The new machinist sings Patsy Cline,
I Fall to Pieces. Sparrows bicker overhead.
Screed of the grinder, the bandsaw's groan and wail.

There's a strong element of Fred Voss's factory-floor vignettes in much of Fairchild's work, but something else is going on: there's a richer inclusiveness of reference.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

John Clarke, daring to be sentimental

"Tortoise Jelly-Mould" by John Clarke is in Smiths Knoll 41. Some things are only hinted at in the poem ... "while nanny read and re-read the telegram" ... the central lines read:

The last one was eaten long ago
by a girl who could run like a hare

and who so loved tortoises
she ate a pink one every night

There's the pathos and sentimentality here of the adult perspective on childhood. I am reminded of Coventry Patmore's 'The Toys' ... the father goes up to check on the child scolded and sent to bed ...

For, on a table drawn beside his head,
He had put, within his reach,
A box of counters and a red-vein'd stone,
A piece of glass abraded by the beach
And six or seven shells,
A bottle with bluebells
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart.

Lowell said of Laforgue: "If he hadn't dared to be sentimental he wouldn't have been a poet. There's some way of distinguishing between false sentimentality, which is blowing up a subject and giving emotions that you don't feel, and using whimsical, minute, tender, small emotions which most people don't feel but which Laforgue and Snodgrass do. So that I'd say he had pathos and fragility - but then that's a large subject too."

Monday, March 10, 2008

Tropical rhymes

Metre and rhyme can exert interesting and unnatural pressures on words. Nick Cave has a lyric - and here I'm interested in the rhyme words 'tropical' and 'hospital' - that runs:

Karl Marx squeezed his carbuncles
while writing Das Kapital
And Gauguin, he buggered off, man,
and went all tropical
While Philip Larkin stuck it out
in a library in Hull
And Dylan Thomas died drunk in
St. Vincent's hospital.

That drawing out of the last syllable of 'tropical', that slight distortion foisted on the word by the rhyming line, makes the language that little bit more striking. And there are echoes here of something but I'm not sure what. Perhaps it's Lowell (Cal rhymes with tropical) ... an early draft of 'Home After Three Months Away' ended:

For months
My madness gathered strength
to roll all sweetness in a ball
in color, tropical ...
Now I am frizzled, stale and small.

Are there other poems that use rhyme with 'tropical'? Peter Porter has it at a line end, but no rhyme for it in sight:

In the chartreuse
glow of the tropical
fish tank, the doctor
tells me his good news:
the better the new cures
the longer the teeth
of the thing that
gets you in the end

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Angela Cleland in Smiths Knoll 41

Angela Cleland has a memorable four-liner called 'No Backwards Glance, Departure Gate 5' in Smiths Knoll 41. The poem not only is short but also compact: there's a lot going on. A memory "surfaces like a cold white face", paralleling the famous "wet, black bough", the station of the metro being updated to a gate lounge, but the effect is one of image turned to epigram, and closed cadentially with full rhyme.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Who is Sean Elliott?

Recent issues of poetry magazines form nagging piles. One name I've been noticing is Sean Elliott. No book yet? There's a lucidity and tautness in the lines that stands out. Something reminiscent of Alan Jenkins perhaps in the settings and material, and there's an echo of the intimate tone of Hugo Williams. There's a strand of poetry that emerges from the editorial influence of Ian Hamilton: pared back (few-don'ts-wise) and somewhat confessional.

The first poem of Elliott's that I noticed was, I think, about Ingmar Bergman films; I can't locate it now, buried as it must be in one of the many now unnagging piles of the skimmed and perused.