Poetry in translation takes off
September 2, 2009
Sep 2, 2009
18 Min read time
Poets steal. T.S. Eliot concealed this offhand assertion in plain sight 90 years ago in his essay on English playwright Philip Massinger: “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” It had the effect of recalibrating readers’ expectations for originality. All readers. Granted, this was the same effect Emerson achieved in his essay, “Quotation and Originality,” but the recursion supports Eliot’s point. Literary culture alternates between those periods when it refuses to look at anything new, and those when almost nothing like the old is allowed. As for the literary influence of other times and places, the emphasis shifts between defensive isolation and expansive engagement. At the moment, major anthologies of contemporary poetry from Germany, Russia, and Vietnam are appearing in the United States. Though the influence of these poetries on American letters has been muted, or at least restricted to a narrow list of headliners for the last fifty years, that may be about to change.
Where Emerson insisted that “genius borrows nobly,” Eliot used his borrowing to establish a hierarchy of poets, with small-time artisans at the bottom, and at the top, barons of text who, having identified valuable resources to extract as well as a means of converting them to finished goods, integrate operations vertically, overseeing the marketing plan right down to the reviews. This makes it sound like a world-historical crime, but there is a motive on the up-and-up for this behavior: in order to stop talking about themselves, to be inspired, to say something recognizable in an unfamiliar way, poets make believe, generalize, extrapolate from an overspecific detail, and otherwise appropriate what is not theirs. Translation and signaling foreign influence are some of the more prestigious means to effect this escape from the self and its unchallengeable rules, even if they only lead to alien rules, equally unchallengeable. Indeed, Eliot, a bit of a rule freak, emphasized both the importance of stealing from sources “remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest,” and making what is taken into something better.
The near-simultaneous arrival of several international anthologies both attests to this kind of borrowing and will likely fuel it further. (It also provides promising evidence that, despite the decline of language instruction in the United States and the persistent pressure in this country to assimilate and forget ancestral languages, there are still people taking the time to bring new poems from other languages into English.) Anthologies, those syllabus-hogging doorstops, can in fact be ideal platforms for poetry, more various in spirit and means than single-author books, more consistent from page to page than periodicals. Reading an anthology, I feel no need to pretend to enjoy pointless stretches or to bluff up a context in which the tenth imitation of a masterpiece adds something to life. In an anthology the editor claims to have chosen the best poems to hand, or better have. In an anthology a poem works or it does not. You read, you turn the page.
Among recent international anthologies, the most consistent reading experience can be found in New European Poets, a remarkable collection from Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer, offering 290 poets from more than 40 countries in about 330 pages. (The remaining 70 pages are taken up with contributor’s notes and permissions, which ought to give the reader a sense of the labor—and diplomacy—involved.) Miller and Prufer also co-edit the journal Pleiades, and the book reads like an exceptional issue of a literary journal: sufficiently quick and entertaining to get through in one or two sittings, with enough memorable work to provoke rereading and earn a spot on an already overcrowded bookshelf. The poems that make the most impact here do not necessarily transcend the expected art-historical rubrics, the familiar Eurozones of Expressionism, Surrealism, and what we might call Cogito-ism, after the pointedly muted apophthegms of Zbigniew Herbert, an example of which is this untitled poem by Kateřina Rudčenková, translated from the Czech by Alexandra Büchler:
Yes, I live inside the piano,
but there is no need for you
to come and visit me.
At so few pages per national literature—as many as a few dozen, as few as four—there is no time for the poems to devolve into national stereotypes. At the speed of slam, though, it is also difficult for a poet to do more than relate a significant anecdote or make a categorical observation, such as the send-up of objective correlative as objectification of people’s bodies in Elo Viiding’s “The Extraordinary Importance of Private Life,” translated from the Estonian by Kalju Kruusa with Brandon Lussier and Elin Sütiste:
Husband goes to work. Runs into breasts, a belly, mental health, legs, buttocks, a retail prospector of war criminals, a family center’s new perspectives, a belly.
Wife goes to work. Runs into a belly, legs, a belly, breasts, buttocks, the impartiality, legs.
Husband returns from work. Runs into breasts, breasts, a belly, legs, buttocks, the masses.
Wife returns from work. Runs into breasts, a single-edged sword, legs, buttocks, legs, a belly.
Hard to get more about strong feeling and objects than that.
If, as John Locke suggested in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, it is only possible to understand what you can relate to some experience you have already had, then new experiences will only get through when accompanied by familiar ones, and so the yoking of unlike terms will never go out of style. Neither, for that matter, will repeating familiar experiences in familiar ways. There is plenty of that in New European Poets, too. But variations in the texture of the language jump out at the reader, as in Branko Maleš’s “Crystal,” translated from the Croatian by Miljenko Kovačićek:
the hills are of iron combs
whose tunics are wedge-shaped tongues
your ore—you broken mop!
clay has split like a ruin
Near-random exclamations and addresses to inanimate objects are not sufficient conditions of poetry, and for most people they probably are not necessary, either. They are enjoyable, though, so charged with emotion and unlike ordinary speech. Their presence here is reassurance that, should the need arise to escape from critical certainties about what poetry is or can do, powerful counterarguments can still be found.
The threads that appear to bind these different writers and traditions, especially when the reader challenges him- or herself to read new anthologies side-by-side, can be surprising. In this latest wave of international anthologies, perhaps the most peculiar common ground is in the work of the Russian Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, whose name comes up in several introductions. Miller and Prufer cite him as an influence on Evgeny Bunimovich’s poem, “Excuse and Explanation,” translated by Patrick Henry:
as a romantically inclined pilot once said
love is not when two people look at one another
but when they both look in the same direction
this is about us
for ten years now my wife and I
have been looking in the same direction
at the television
for eight years now our son looks that way too
Mayakovsky turns up again in Nguyen Do’s foreword to Black Dog, Black Night, an anthology of contemporary Vietnamese poetry Nguyen co-translated with poet Paul Hoover. For Nguyen, Mayakovsky is a clear influence on the foundational poem of modern Vietnam, Huu Loan’s “The Purple Color of Sim Flowers,” which begins:
She had three older brothers in the army,
but some of the younger ones
were still too young to speak
and her hair was still green.
I was in the National Guard,
far from my family,
and loved her as one loves a sister.
On the day of our engagement,
she didn’t ask for a new shirt.
Though the more obvious echo is of “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” Ezra Pound’s retranslation of a Japanese version of Li Po, the tone of Hoover and Nguyen’s translation does share some of the heartbreak of Mayakovsky’s “A Cloud in Trousers.”
Mayakovsky is not, however, a looming presence in Bunimovich’s Contemporary Russian Poetry. There is a pretty good reason, at least in Eastern Europe, for the lull in appreciation for Mayakovsky. In their eagerness to breathe free of the Stalinist aftermath of the Soviet revolution, the émigrés who came to prominence in America—Russians from Nabokov to Brodsky, Poles from Milosz on—rejected all things Futurist, especially the movement’s superstar. What you will find in Contemporary Russian Poetry are a lot of quatrains, which can be made to carry enormous freight—a look at even the feeblest edition of Aleksandr Blok or Osip Mandelstam will confirm this—but can also be as poetic as a cinderblock. A few of the poems are outright vaporous—lines such as “the cathedral blooms with an arboreal rainbow of echoes” are, happily, not the norm—but the overall cautiousness of the poets gathered here puts an early curfew on the party.
Still, cinderblocks make good first bookcases, and there are signs of life throughout. Ivan Zhdanov takes a chance on ludicrous sentimentality, and wins the bet: “As a bird dies / the spent bullet inside weeps, / because it wanted more than anything else / to fly, like the bird.” (John High, editor of an earlier, more spirited, less coherent anthology of Russians, is the translator.) Certain names will be familiar to readers of books from such American presses as Zephyr, Ardis, Green Integer, and Ugly Duckling, and it is to be hoped that others will be translated further and soon: among them, Aleksandr Eremenko, Anya Logvinova, and Yuli Gugolev, whose “The Book of the Four Precepts” is filled with terrified ambassadors and luggage catching fire, and observes nonchalantly that “In the cochlear noise ages reverberate, / the goblet of your eye swims in solar slime.” The widely translated and recently deceased Alexei Parshchikov is the wildest, most welcome presence here, as evidenced in “The Road,” translated by F.D. Reeve:
Perhaps in Rotterdam I behaved too freely,
wore skirt and stockings, licked my fingers, gave him an excuse.
After that, he began insisting on my coming over. So I put on
a high-end business suit and drove to his studio flat. All night
he babbled about the masculine mind, about metaphors and former wives.
Like someone scalded, I flew outside to the fresh air.
Why did he, incomprehensible and so unlike anyone else,
keep on about art where everything is so clear anyway?
On the way home I’d have ripped the steering wheel out in fury
But it seemed silly to be carrying it along the road in high heels.
Perhaps there is nothing to steal in Parshchikov’s poem, but that almost-ripped steering wheel can clue American poets to how to integrate distance, strong feelings, and object permanence. (The one full collection of Parshchikov’s work published in the United States, Blue Vitriol, is well worth further investigation.)
• • •
If poetry really is going to be grounded in the first person for good—that is, if it is not going to revert to narrated epics or romances, or decree some new post-human syntax—then a refrain common to several poems of survival in Black Dog, Black Night may be useful to keep in mind. Tran Vu Mai says in “The Grassy Banks of Hong River,” “I will always be me”; in “America,” Hoàng Hung says “you are still you”; Tran Dan begins “The Blind Path” exclaiming “I am still me!” That this hard-won baseline assertion is made both by members of the state-sanctioned Writers Association and those who have had to make careers without official approval is worth noting.
Hoover and Nguyen have translated all the Vietnamese poems in Black Dog, Black Night, and that consistency is part of what makes it so good to read. Hoover is the coauthor of a sincere and majestic new translation of Hölderlin’s collected works, but a more apt reference here is his 2005 collection, Poems in Spanish. In that book, Hoover used the music and directness of Spanish poetry in translation to make poems in English that sound at once otherworldly and completely, poignantly American:
I shall never reach Danville, Ohio,
Danville distant and lonely.
Black car, small moon,
in the back seat beer.
Because I’ve forgotten the roads
I shall never reach Danville, Ohio.
Black Dog, Black Night includes works by several Vietnamese-American poets born just before and well after the Gulf of Tonkin incident: Linh Dinh, Hoa Nguyen, Truong Tran, and Mông Lan. Linh Dinh reflects on the sound of American English:
I think “vesicle” is the most beautiful word in the English language. He was lying face down, his shirt burnt off, back steaming. I myself was bleeding. There was a harvest of vesicles on his back. His body wept. “Yaw” may be the ugliest. Don’t say, “The bullet yawed inside the body.” Say, “The bullet danced inside the body.” Say, “The bullet tumbled forward and upward.” Light slanted down. All the lesser muscles in my face twitched.
(“The Most Beautiful Word”)
Just about every poet in the book speaks directly about brutality. This, too, ought to give pause, even to poets reading for something to steal:
Sometimes blazing up, as if in a trance,
Spirit rushes from my body.
It plucks out my intestines and liver to count them,
pricks a drop of blood for a diagnostic test.
In me are an intellectual, a farmer, a hooker,
a businessman, a government employee, a joker,
a Buddhist and a ghost, all related to each other, if only a little.
Each makes the others miserable
because it’s hard to remove so many masks.
Let’s take them off now, no more delay.
You’ve been lying, but you can’t much longer.
Being smart and stupid both have a limit.
(Nguyen Duy, “Looking Home from Far Away”)
There may be a few too many generalized moons, crystals, markets, and ancient forests in Black Dog, Black Night to place the same kind of bet on its longevity that I am happy to wager for any of the poets I have named and quoted from the book.
Murat Nemet-Nejat goes Hoover and Nguyen’s tandem collaboration one better and translates almost all of his Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry on his own. (Disclosure: I contributed one of the sixteen translations in the book not solely by Nemet-Nejat. It runs two lines.) Turkey, when compared to say Russia and Vietnam, has not been that contentious a zone for American policy, though as with every foreign culture up to and including England (and some would even extend it to other Americans), there is for Americans a layer of exoticism and stereotype—what used to be called a national temperament—to pass through. In Turkey’s case, this temperament as displayed in Eda consists of melancholy and an abandon both sexual and spiritual:
They called you ugly, I became enemy to beauty;
They called you infidel, I gave up God;
You picked up gold coins tossed to you by countless hands,
Became a whore; I resented purity.
(Faruk Nafiz Çamlıbel, “The Escaper”)
Cluttered with typos and nonstandard grammar, with unspeakably ugly type (an endnote advises that the text is set in “11 pt. Roman,” but it may as well have said “spears and thorns”), the poetry in Eda is camouflaged well, so well that I half wonder each time I reread this book whether disorder might sometimes be the indicator of delight Robert Herrick’s famous poem rationalizes it to be. The only recent international anthology with a higher ratio of signal to noise is Michael Hofmann’s Twentieth-Century German Poetry, about which more below.
The best-known Turkish poets, Nazim Hikmet, Orhan Veli, Ece Ayhan, Ilhan Berk, all of whom are available in single-author collections in English, are represented well here. Berk is giddy and erotic, and somehow polite about it even as he emphasizes the unreserved senses of smell, taste, and touch:
This is the true entry to the soul of Fish Market. And once you are in, first, flowers greet you, socks, slips, shirts, mussels, plums, cucumbers, tomatoes, thousand year old dried mackerels, blennies, plaice, Gregorian smells (do you know Gregorian smells? Think of sea caves and a bit of salt and vinegar), Orthodox and Catholic faces, nylon and plastics, spices, clothing lines, tea cups, sheep lung kabobs, the Baptizer Yahya’s wild honey, sour pomegranates, hair tints, sage, rue and flies and Galata rats (which are the size of cats and dogs and look at you in this wonderful, frightening way).
(“Fish Market, Backstage Street”)
The most winning quality these and other Turkish poets share can be found in those parentheticals. Berk and Veli are the masters, but nearly everyone in Eda has the capacity to take the reader into confidence, to establish a relaxed and intimate tone at will. I would like the chance to get to know more of the work of several of the poets in Eda, especially Lale Müldür, whose sequence about Turkish and Dutch names of paint colors is also anthologized in New European Poets, and Cemal Süreya, who appears to have carried on Veli’s gift for haiku-like melancholy disclosures:
You are watching a bee whizzing by in the room
You ate your milk pudding
Three days ago.
Only after three days of my cajoling,
Coaxing, feeding, lying
You reached this serenity:
Your pale, still unripe breasts showing,
Leaning against the board,
Nibbling a mackintosh apple . . .
The term eda is Nemet-Nejat’s attempt to account for the paradoxically exuberant melancholy found in poems such as Süreya’s above and also in most of the poems included in the volume. Nemet-Nejat defines eda variously: the essence of Turkish culture in the twentieth century; the simultaneous beauty and stench of Istanbul, the original cosmopolitan city; the outcome of the agglutinative linguistics of the Turkish language; and Sufism’s constant reconciliation of contradictions. Apart from this book, which it fits perfectly, the concept of eda is nebulous, and its relevance to all of Turkish poetry is impossible to verify until the next anthology of Turkish poetry arrives. Still, naming the book after its main quality is a good idea, and given the history of a similar term from the Spanish, it may also be a brilliant riff on how Americans want to read poetry from elsewhere.
American poet-translators, when trying to account for the thrill of particularly successful poetry, have often seized upon duende, a term introduced by Federico García Lorca in a lecture on ecstatic reactions to flamenco music. Through overuse it has become a cliché, signifying depth, surface, darkness, light, death, and life all at once. In other words, it has become meaningless. Critic Jonathan Mayhew lampoons American duende merchants effectively in his new study Apocryphal Lorca: “While [Robert] Bly echoes [Jerome] Rothenberg’s interest in heightened emotions, he presents a much simpler, hydraulic view of poetic creation, in which ‘duende water’ overflows powerfully into the writing of the poem” (emphasis in original). There is more to poetry than sensation and mystification, or, if you prefer, reason and piety, form and content, jouissance and restraint.
That more is progression, whether it takes the form of narrative, a turn of argument or some other type of modulation not merely a change of subject (devotees of parataxis, this means you). I and other readers are responding more and more to work that develops beyond the accretion of modernist shocks and postmodernist jokes; even cascades of luminous details have come to seem less and less sufficient. Not to say the grand modes of the twentieth century are completely exhausted. Take the poem “foam,” a series of alternating rhetorical questions and imprecations by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, better known in America as an essayist than as a poet:
at the hour of birth i was blinded with foam in my eyes
crying with grief unable to look at the sky
on a black friday thirty years in the past
foam hangs from the century’s mouth foam
in the bank vaults foam howling
in the wombs of mothers in the lead-lined bunkers
foam in the pink-tinged bidets
The key words in Jerome Rothenberg’s translation, which appears in Twentieth-Century German Poetry: An Anthology, are “howling” for Ginsberg and “bunkers” for Germany. In his aoristic introduction to the anthology, editor Michael Hofmann addresses how closely the book’s subject is “bound up with Germany’s villainous history.” Indeed, considering the fame of Theodor Adorno’s remark that lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric—Hofmann’s paraphrase substitutes “impossible”—it is all-too depressingly clear why this brilliant book is already gracing the remainder tables. Thinking about twentieth-century Germany is hard enough, never mind considering its poetry from the fin de siècle past the fall of the Berlin Wall.
If “foam” is the unknown masterpiece, Bertolt Brecht is the unknown master. Hofmann’s selections (and especially his translations) make a case for “poor B.B.” as not a playwright-theorist who dabbled in verse, but a major poet of twentieth-century Germany:
In the grey pre-dawn the pine trees micturate
And their parasites, the birds, start to bawl.
At that hour I empty my glass in the city and throw away
My cigar end and worriedly go to sleep.
We have settled, a whimsical tribe,
In dwellings it pleased us to think of as indestructible
(In the same spirit we built the tall constructions on the island of Manhattan
And the thin antennae that underwire the Atlantic Ocean).
Of these cities there will remain only what passed through them, the wind.
The house makes glad the eater: he polishes it off.
We know we are provisional,
And that after us will come: really nothing worth mentioning.
Ironic deflation and the anatomy of anxiety are what used to be called literary achievements of the second order, minor literature, but there are finenesses in Brecht’s offhand gestures (birds as parasites, transatlantic cables compared to lingerie) that distinguish these poems. Fineness is on a spectrum with airlessness, but Hofmann’s selections, both from Brecht and from the corpus of German letters, mainly stay clear of that difficulty. More valuable than the finenesses, though, is the combination of Brecht’s winningly rakish persona, his confident shaping of each work’s beginning, middle, and end (not necessarily in that order), and above all the sense that literature is commerce between adults who think well enough of themselves and others. Sanity, in other words.
Of all the jewels of foreign influence to make away with, that would be the best.
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September 02, 2009
18 Min read time