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“[T]here are no rules. What I think is that you start with materials. You start with matter, not rules.” —Clark Coolidge “And the matter is language or, more exactly, words or, more exactly still, the material of words…” —Gerald Bruns William Carlos Williams’ famous statement (in his introduction to The Wedge) that “a poem is a small (or large) machine made of words” points to the fact that machines, like poems, are assembled by someone. This somewhat echoes Grigory Vinokur’s claim (about 20 years earlier, in 1923) that “poetic creation is work on the word not only as a sign, but as a thing possessing its own construction.” A little later in his introduction, Williams writes (incisively, but with an unfortunate gender assumption), “When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them... It isn’t what he says that counts as a work of art, it’s what he makes, with such intensity of perception that it lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity.” And, finally: “There is no poetry of distinction without formal invention, for it is in the intimate form that works of art achieve their exact meaning, in which they most resemble the machine, to give language its highest dignity.” It is not particularly difficult to find criticism on the formal or technical aspects of poetry. Russian formalists such as Vinokur—“The material of poetry is language”— and their adherents, and linguists such as Richard D. Cureton—“language constitutes poetic art”—are the most common sources for formalist writing about poetry. But it can be difficult to locate criticism that considers style/technique (materials) in conjunction with content (material). We could go toward the extremes of formalism and impersonality, as Osip Brik does in “The So-Called Formal Method” (1923): “The history of poetry is the history of the development of the devices of verbal formation.” (This is after he claims “there are no poets or literary figures, there is poetry and literature.”) But to do so would reduce works of art to the merely mechanical. Poetry criticism needs a middle ground between form and content, between style and subject. That middle ground consists of explaining how form contributes to content, how subject matter is facilitated by technique. It’s useless to point to technique, to cordon it off as a separate element. And it’s not sufficient to discuss content without addressing what distinguishes poetry from other bits of language. Although there are some scattered reviews in print magazines, online journals, and blogs that consider the material and materials of poetry, very few books do so. Perhaps this is because most books about poetry are written by scholars interested in poetry’s extra-poetic elements. But one needs a lot of spare time to keep up with periodicals and blogs. Poetry commentary occurs in numerous places at all times, and it’s easy to fall behind or feel overwhelmed, since the commentary continues, as does the commentary on the... Continue reading
Posted Jul 31, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Translation apparently can be a dangerous activity. In Javier Marías’ novella Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico, a 22-year-old Spanish-born man assigned to Elvis during the making of a film in Acapulco nearly gets killed for translating an insult. After a skirmish in a seedy bar, one of the members of Elvis’ entourage is insulted in Spanish by the gangster-proprietors. Elvis and one of the gangsters square off, “[t]heir inability to understand each other ... enraging them.” Stuck between the angry men, the translator slightly embellishes the initial insult when relaying it to Elvis (he wants to insult the man himself, albeit vicariously). Elvis’s response: “You’re going to repeat this word for word, Roy, to the guy with the moustache, don’t you leave out one syllable.” Cue insult. Elvis and his party leave, sans the translator, who is detained by the bad guys. One of the gangsters tells him, “you must spend a little more time with us tonight, it’s early still, you can tell us about the Madre Patria and maybe even insult us some more, so we can listen to your European accent.” When the translator protests, “all I did was translate,” the gangster replies, “Ah, you didn’t do anything but translate. … Too bad we don’t know if that’s true, we don’t speak English. Whatever Elvis said we didn’t understand, but you we understood, you speak very clearly … we heard you loud and clear, and you can rest assured that we’re listening.” Usually, translators would love to have so much attention paid to their work. But in this case, the translator nearly gets strangled. “I only had to try to get them to forgive me for words that were not mine—though they’d been on my lips, or had become real only through my lips, I was the one who had divulged them or deciphered them—but that was incredible, how could they hold me guilty for something that didn’t proceed from my head or my will or my spirit. But it had come from my tongue, my tongue had made it possible, from my tongue they had grasped what was happening… I was the messenger, the intermediary, the translator, the true deliverer of the news…” (Bad Nature is translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen.) Continue reading
Posted Jul 30, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
“Les jugements sur la poésie ont plus de valeur que la poésie.” (“Judgments on poetry are more valuable than poetry.”) —Comte de Lautréamont “It is easy to treat poetry as if it were engaged in the language-game of giving information and thus to assume that what is important about a poem is what it tells us about the external world.” —Veronica Forrest-Thomson “The ambiguity of poetic language answers to the ambiguity of human life as a whole, and therein lies its unique value. All interpretations of poetic language only interpret what the poetry has already interpreted.” —Hans-Georg Gadamer Poetry criticism seems to be in a perpetual state of crisis. It’s not just that critics cannot agree on which poets or kinds of poetry are the best, but that poetry critics often have no common ground. They do not share the same aesthetic values, they cannot agree on common approaches. Critical writing about other art forms—say, visual art—is, or has been, in a similar position, but I’m not sure that art critics are constantly publicly worrying (in journals, on blogs and in comment fields) about art criticism. If they are, then maybe all critics (at least those who aren’t paid) should listen to Elvis Costello: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture; it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.” Part of the issue is that people interested in poetry and poetry criticism often talk/write more about criticism than about poetry. The Matthew Zapruder piece at the above link sparked over 220 comments on the Poetry Foundation’s site; Stephen Burt’s equally provocative essay on the relationship between poetry and everyday life received 10% as many comments on the same site. Jason Guriel’s piece on negative reviewing received over 100 comments; David Bespiel’s polemic on poets and civics received half that many. Maybe people just like to argue, and it’s easier to argue with tertiary criticism about secondary criticism than with secondary criticism about poetry. Or maybe there’s a collective anxiety that, combined with individual anxieties, results in an explosion of tertiary commentary (with commentary on that commentary, which becomes quaternary). Or maybe it’s the quickest way for people to get their names and ideas out there, even if it means becoming best known for their work in the comment field genre. Or maybe, since most of the people writing about poetry also write poetry, there’s such a sense of urgency that every claim, assessment, and suggestion must be picked apart. And then there’s the issue of category. Is poetry criticism a type of literary journalism? academic writing? informed but objective response? personal rumination with an intellectual bent? exploratory prose? This brings up the question of venue and audience. A poetry review for the New York Times won’t adopt the same approach as a poetry review for Talisman, even if they’re the same length. A review assigned by an editor with a word count usually will differ markedly from a review written for a blog, where the author and the... Continue reading
Posted Jul 29, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
“The translator invades, extracts, and brings home.” —George Steiner, After Babel “Nothing takes us faster to the heart of matters linguistic and metaphysical than translation.” —Nikolai Popov, “The Literal and the Literary” Translators of poetry, like poets, often agonize over single words. One word might convey the meaning of the original more accurately, while another might be less precise but seems more faithful to the music of the original or more sonically effective in the target language. Sometimes ambiguity in the original can push a translator to attempt to clarify. Even with a long poem (such as Pablo Neruda’s Alturas de Macchu Picchu), a single word choice can cast the work into a new, perhaps problematic light. The themes of Alturas de Macchu Picchu, with its blending of indigenous and Christian values, make the poem particularly difficult to render in English because this mixture of heritages points to the paradox of identity in Latin America. The language transfer is only part of the challenge. An entire value system must be absorbed in Spanish and delivered in English for the poem to work in English. In his book Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu, John Felstiner walks the reader through his decision-making processes in translating Neruda’s poem. He also provides a history of Neruda translation, relevant biographical information, and his own theories of translation. Felstiner sees translation as “a process as well as a finished version,” with “that process, with its origin in a strange language and culture, remaining active in the finished version.” In the first five cantos of Alturas de Macchu Picchu, Neruda expresses the isolation, anguish, and lack of identity in urban life. He wanders through a kind of deathscape in which people die daily (“cada día una muerte pequeña,” “su corta muerte diaria”). The horizontal movement of city life allows for no spiritual elevation. Mankind coasts on a flat spiritual plane. But in the sixth and seventh cantos, after he has recognized the dire spiritual state of mankind, the poet ascends to Macchu Picchu on a kind of pilgrimage to his past. The dual motion—upward and downward—is necessary because as Neruda climbs to the city, he descends in time to a city buried by time. The city died “una sola muerte,” “la verdadera, la más abrasadora / muerte” because its people disappeared completely. This collective, decisive death serves as a contrast to the individual, gradual deaths of people in the contemporary city. Neruda uses this physically and spiritually elevated vantage point to connect past to present, Macchu Picchu to modern polis. With the Spanish Civil War behind him and World War II concurrent with his visit to Macchu Picchu, Neruda initially gives way to the temptation to look at the Peru before European conquest as a sort of paradise, a world without subjugation. But he’s aware of the dangers of idealizing a pre-Columbian, pre-Christian society; and in the tenth canto he implicates the Christian conquistadors in the oppression of the Latin American people. In that canto,... Continue reading
Posted Jul 28, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Yesterday I wrote about how chance can influence how we respond to a poet’s work—specifically, how the first book we read by a poet in translation can become our favorite even though there are more authoritative, thorough, or exacting translations out there. Of course, the opposite can happen, too, as with my experience reading the Slovenian poet Srečko Kosovel (1904-1926). In part because he died at 22 (of meningitis), Kosovel has been compared to Rimbaud, who stopped writing poetry at around the same age. (And Rimbaud has his Drunken Boat, Kosovel his Golden Boat.) Kosovel also has been compared to Rilke, whose Duino is near Kosovel’s childhood home. This romanticization of Kosovel’s early death is probably inevitable. (Why not compare him to Keats: premature death, serious artistic development toward the end of his life, major breakthroughs.) What matters is that Kosovel left behind nearly a thousand poems, about half of which have been published as finished poems (the others are considered rough drafts or notes toward poems). Only a few dozen poems appeared during his lifetime. I first encountered Kosovel the same way, and in the same place, that I found Kocbek’s work (a special issue of Slovenian Literary Magazine [Literrae Slovenicae]). Although I admired Kosovel’s modernist tendencies, most evident in his poems employing idiosyncratic typography, I wasn’t particularly moved to reread his work. But a 2008 book published by Salt and translated by the Slovenian poet Bert Pribac with the Australian writer David Brooks and the Slovenian translator and photographer Teja Brooks Pribac, The Golden Boat: Selected Poems has changed how I see Kosovel’s work, making me realize that I’d misread, or at least under-appreciated, Kosovel’s poetry. Being the first book of its kind in English, and geared toward readers of English-language poetry in the U.S., UK, and Australia (Salt’s primary places of distribution), The Golden Boat naturally aims to be definitive, to position Kosovel as “a major voice of Central European modernism,” as the jacket copy puts it. To that end, the book presents “the largest and most comprehensive selection [of Kosovel’s poems] to have appeared in any language other than his own.” Brooks provides an informative and engaging introductory essay (“Srečko Kosovel: Life and Poetry”), and the book includes about 120 of Kosovel’s poems, separated into three main parts. Kosovel’s early poems are mostly pastoral; they’re generally set in the Karst in southwestern Slovenia. But they’re also quite dark. In The Golden Boat’s English versions, words such as “grief,” “blood,” “dead,” “empty,” “dark” (in every possible permutation), “dying,” “silent,” “ruined,” “sorrow,” “despairing” are ubiquitous and thus set the tone. It’s usually evening; if not, it’s probably raining. And there’s the backdrop of World War I, which began when Kosovel was 12 and officially ended when he was 17. In his introduction, David Brooks usefully discusses the ways in which WWI seemed to have affected Kosovel. (He also points out that Ulysses and Duino Elegies were “conceived and substantially written” near the village where Kosovel spent his childhood.)... Continue reading
Posted Jul 27, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
I wonder if this is true for others: the first book I read by a non-English-language poet often remains my favorite, even if the book is not his or her most popular, most acclaimed, or most widely available. This is true for me with Yannis Ritsos, whose work I first encountered in Late Into the Night, published by Oberlin College Press and translated by Martin McKinsey, not Edmund Keeley / Princeton UP / Ecco. And with Paul Celan, whom I first read in Breathturn, published by Sun & Moon and translated by Pierre Joris, not Michael Hamburger / John Felstiner / Persea / Norton. I bought these books because I was in the habit then of buying every book published by Sun & Moon and Oberlin College Press that I could find, and didn’t feel any need to locate “the best” translation, though I naturally moved onto other translations. I was thinking about this after a conversation with Ilya Kaminsky about the Slovenian poet Edvard Kocbek (1904-1981), whose poems I first read in a 1995 special issue of Slovenian Literary Magazine (Litterae Slovenicae) that I found at the Slovenian Writers’ Union in Ljubljana. Translated by Michael Biggins, the Kocbek was published by the Slovene Writers’ Association, Slovene PEN, and Slovene Literary Translators. The book is black with orange, gray, and white text on the front cover and gray dots on the front and back covers. Kocbek’s headshot in the upper lefthand corner of the cover is counterbalanced on the right by an orange rectangle with “L.S.” in capitals. I’m dwelling so much on the cover of the book because it’s the first thing my mind “sees” when I think about Kocbek. While talking with Ilya, I realized that we had slightly different conceptions of Kocbek’s work because we were talking about different translations. I’d responded viscerally to Biggins’ Kocbek, who immediately became one of my favorite poets. But most people reading Kocbek in English will encounter him in Princeton UP’s 2004 edition of Nothing Is Lost: Selected Poems, translated by Michael Scammell, who has translated numerous books from the Russian, and the Slovenian poet Veno Taufer. The Princeton Kocbek is an impressive tome with an authoritative air. Over 170 pages long, with clear divisions according to Kocbek’s individual books and the Slovenian originals en face, a 12-page introduction by Scammell, and a 3-page foreword by Charles Simic, the book seems definitive. And because it was published by a major university press, the Princeton Kocbek is likely to be the Kocbek book stocked by libraries and bookstores. Biggins’ Kocbek, on the other hand, feels much slimmer than the Princeton book, in part because of the difference in design, but also because Biggins’ Kocbek offers only English translations, most likely because the book’s primary audience—those living in or visiting Slovenia—have easy access to the originals. The book includes an 8-page introduction by prominent Slovenian poet and essayist Aleš Debeljak; but there is no arrangement or division by individual books, so the reader... Continue reading
Posted Jul 25, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
For Monday and Tuesday, I'll be writing about the Slovenian poets Edvard Kocbek and Srečko Kosovel. But for today, here's the video for the instrumental song “Srečko Kosovel” by the Štefan Kovač Marko band: And here’s a punk version of Kosovel’s poem “Ecstasy of Death” by G.u.B.: Continue reading
Posted Jul 25, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Jul 25, 2010