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Our Scandal

Charles Simic

Our big secret, our unspoken literary scandal, is the near-total ignorance by our writers, editors and academics of literature being written elsewhere in the world. There was a time in the 50s and 60s when this was not quite so. It was not unusual to find a new novel by Robbe-Grillet or Witold Gombrowicz or even an anthology of Spanish poetry on somebody's coffee table. With the rise of literary theory in the last 20 years and the quick turnover of critical approaches, not only American but world literature lost out. Hardly anybody reads it anymore as the sales figures of publishers who still bring out a few foreign works testify. Only in a country where confident provincialism reigns supreme can the claim that a Japanese poet was reading Paul Celan in the 1930s pass unnoticed. It's as if somebody said that Lorca was reading John Ashbery in Madrid cafs in the days before the Spanish Revolution.

If only the poems of Araki Yasusada were better. The ones I read in APR and in Marjorie Perloff's piece are not very good. Invention of separate poetic identities (in the manner of Fernando Pessoa), as she reminds us, has a long tradition and is perfectly permissible. Poetry is the only place where a liar can have an honest existence, providing his lies make memorable poems. Unfortunately, not in this case. I know at least a dozen young poets in this country who can write circles around him, and a couple of them have even read Jack Spicer and Roland Barthes. I'm sure the same is true of Japan.

Yes, of course, the poems were published because the poet was a Japanese with a heart-breaking life story worthy of afternoon TV. If a Frank Kowalski, a retired milkman in Milwaukee, submitted something like the following to a literary journal, does anyone really think he would seriously have a chance?


I have waited all week, you quietly said,
to be with you here in this magical place,
and to tell you something beautiful.

(It was your sentimental heart
that always made me laugh
and this stain on the page is spilt tea.)

Nothing here to make you flip out, eh? Perhaps it may be the fault of the translation, you wonder? The sublime lyricism of the Japanese original just doesn't come across into English. Believe me, as a lifelong translator of poetry from three languages, who by now has a nose for this sort of thing, I don't think anything was lost in this "translation."

I've got to admit, though, that the literary executors of Yasusada have a sense of humor and know their customers. The way you pump up the intellectual rubes about far-away cultures is you package what's exotic with what's familiar to them. So we get "morning kimono" with Barthes, and an "ancient dog-shooting range" with Spicer. The verse itself is a bit hermetic, a bit stark and brutal but with a few haiku-like clichs thrown in from time to time. In short, our American version of what a Japanese experimental poet and Hiroshima survivor is supposed to sound like. If Yasusada had been a guard in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and was reading instead Helmut Heissenbuttel, Daniil Kharms, and Felisberto Hernández--a far more interesting concoction, I think--it wouldn't work. His credentials as a victim would not have been in order, and not many of our editors would recognize the names of these writers.

Perloff is correct that this affair tells us something about ourselves. Everybody who reads poetry knows that worthless books and poems are published and anthologized merely to fulfill various fashionable quotas. Cowardice, hypocrisy and not-so-subtle condescension are frequently the rule of conduct in the publishing world. "Do you know any contemporary American-Eskimo poets?" a textbook editor asked me on the phone a couple of years ago. I was too surprised by the question to make a crack in reply and merely said that I honestly did not know any.

Our literary politics being what they are, we can expect more hoaxes. I have no objection to them whatsoever. If the poems are first-rate, I'll bow down to them in deepest reverence even if the claim is being made that they were composed by a left-behind space alien or a love-starved orangutan in the San Diego Zoo. No matter what anyone tells you, as in music, carpentry and all the other ancient arts and true crafts, it always comes down to the work itself. Only in our academic circles is the claim being made that it's philosophically impossible, even for an experienced cook, to judge whether the meal prepared by someone else was cooked badly or not.

Originally published in the Summer 1997 issue of Boston Review



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