On Translated Poetry

Thanks to Clarissa Akyroyd for pointing me toward this article from Cordite Poetry Review. It’s a little on the long side, but very good, so definitely check it out if you have the time. In case you don’t, the article deals mainly with the presentation of translated poetry in academia and the biases that prevent critics and academics from taking it seriously. The author, Johannes Göransson, describes academics as having a sort of idealized vision of what a poem should be, one that, to them, precludes the poem’s truly existing in other languages. This mindset, he says, arises from two concerns: first, that of “faithfulness” to the original text, and second, that students and younger poets will lack the necessary background knowledge to understand translated poems in their proper social and historical context.

Of course, there’s no denying that a poem’s form is often significantly changed in the process of translation. (For an idea of how much a poem can change between two languages, read this article by Ann Kjellberg on Joseph Brodsky and the features of the Russian language that make Russian poets so hard to translate.) There will always be rhymes discarded, rhythms flattened, and wordplay that is lost. True, a valiant translator can find ways to preserve the music of the original in another language, but then often the literal meaning is changed. There isn’t really anything that can completely take the place of the original. But does this mean that we have nothing to gain from translations? I don’t think so, for reasons I will explain in a moment.

It’s also true that cultural difference adds another layer of complexity to foreign poetry. Even after the words themselves have been translated, you might still be left with cultural and historical references that lose their significance once they leave their own borders. Even trickier from some readers is trying to get inside the head of a poet whose upbringing, worldview, and system of values may be very different from their own.

In a way, though, that’s the point: we read poetry for many reasons, but one of the most important is so that it can broaden the horizons of our minds, instead of couching us in what is already safe and familiar. There’s “too much world”1 for us to take it all in by ourselves: we need other points of view, as many as we can get, if we want to form a fuller picture of ourselves and of existence. Reading translated poetry gives you that, while also giving you a glimpse into what is common between all people. It sets a people apart while also illuminating the things that transcend culture, creed, ethnicity, race, and time.

It confuses and slightly alarms me that the prejudice against translated poetry would be so strong in academia. More than ever, academics claim to be concerned with diversity, so it’s strange that, when it comes to non-English poetry, some of them will actively discourage diversity. Context and respect for other cultures are important, and as readers, we should want to increase our understanding of the world by learning (even if it’s only a little bit) about the cultures and time periods whose literature we read. But the concern about “improper influence,” as the article calls it, shouldn’t be allowed to suppress the poetry it claims to protect. Otherwise, we say to the rest of the world that only people who are like us have anything worthwhile to say to us. We deny the coherence of human nature in favor of a linguistic tribalism.


1 From “The Separate Notebooks” by Czesław Miłosz, translated by Renata Gorczynski and Robert Hass, Selected Poems: 1931 – 2004 by Czesław Miłosz published by HarperCollins, 2006.

Advertisements

Authors on Authors

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.

Long, long ago, not long after I started this blog, I published a list of authors  whom my favorite authors had pointed to as influences on their work. It was just lists of names, nothing more than that. So today, I’d like to update and expand upon some of those entries, guided by the words of the writers themselves.

Seamus Heaney

Ted Hughes

The fact of the matter is that the most unexpected and miraculous thing in my life was the arrival in it of poetry itself—as a vocation and an elevation almost. I began as a school teacher in Belfast in 1962. I taught for one year in St. Thomas’s Secondary Intermediate School. I had a good degree in English at Queen’s University and felt that I had some literary possibility, but I had no real confidence. . . . My pseudonym at Queen’s, in the magazines where I published, was Incertus—Latin for uncertain—I was just kicking the ball around the penalty area, not trying to shoot at the goal. Then in 1962 the current began to flow. I remember taking down Ted Hughes’s Lupercal from the shelves of the Belfast public library and opening it at “View of a Pig,” and immediately going off and writing a couple of poems that were Hughes pastiches almost. The first one was called “Tractors”; I remember a line that said “they gargled sadly”—which pleased me a lot at the time. So I sent it out to the Belfast Telegraph—not the greatest literary journal in the world, but even so, it published that poem. And that was of immense importance because I knew no one at the paper, which meant that the thing had been accepted on its own merits, such as they were. [From The Paris Review‘s “Art of Poetry” series.]

On first discovering Gerard Manley Hopkins as a student in Catholic school:

It was a matter of sensation, little ricochets and chain reactions within the nervous system. Like “As tumbled over rim in roundy wells / Stones ring” or “rose-moles all in stipple upon the trout that swim; / Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings.” I once said it was like getting verbal gooseflesh. And, naturally enough, when I wrote my first poems as an undergraduate a few years later, I wrote in Hopkins-speak.

What you encounter in Hopkins’s journals—the claustrophobia and scrupulosity and religious ordering of the mind, the cold-water shaves and the single iron beds, the soutanes and the self-denial—that was the world I was living in when I first read his poems.

So yes, you’re right that it wasn’t simply a matter of the phonetics taking over, it wasn’t just the fireworks in phrases like “shining from shook foil.” It was the fact that the height and depth of Hopkins’s understanding matched my own. [From Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, pages 37 and 38.]

R. S. Thomas

When I read him first, I enjoyed the self-conscious element in the writing—very artful versification, slight affectation of direction, a touch of Crowe Ransom fastidiousness. But what made him especially attractive was the fact that a potential dandy was being suppressed by a very strict, very frugal censor. And then there was the sheer familiarity of his subject matter in those Welsh hill-farm poems. . . . He got very far as a poet, a loner taking on the universe, a kind of Clint Eastwood of the spirit. Every bit as unsmiling as Clint, but in either case you couldn’t be sure there wasn’t really a wild comedian lurking in there somewhere. [Stepping Stones, pages 112 and 113.]

C. S. Lewis

G. K. Chesterton

It was here [in an army hospital during World War I] that I first read a volume of Chesterton’s essays. I had never heard of him and had no idea of what he stood for; nor can I quite understand why he made such an immediate conquest of me. It might have been expected that my pessimism, my atheism, and my hatred of sentiment would have made him to me the least congenial of all authors. It would almost seem that Providence, or some “second cause” of a very obscure kind, quite overrules our previous tastes when it decides to bring two minds together. Liking an author may be as involuntary and improbable as falling in love. I was by now a sufficiently experienced reader to distinguish liking from agreement. I did not need to accept what Chesterton said in order to enjoy it. His humor was of the kind which I like best—not “jokes” embedded in the page like currants in a cake, still less (what I cannot endure) a general tone of flippancy and jocularity, but the humor which is not in any way separable from the argument but is rather (as Aristotle would say) the “bloom” on dialectic itself. The sword glitters not because the swordsman set out to make it glitter but because he is fighting for his life and therefore moving it very quickly. For the critics who think Chesterton frivolous or “paradoxical” I have to work hard to feel even pity; sympathy is out of the question. [Surprised by Joy, pages 190-191]

Ray Bradbury

Read almost any interview with Ray Bradbury and you’ll probably find at least a dozen mentions of writers whose work he loved. One of his favorite ideas to return to was “the train,” which he described in an interview with The Paris Review in 1976 (republished here):

Bradbury: A conglomerate heap of trash, that’s what I am. But it burns with a high flame. I’ve had my “literary loves,” too. I like to think of myself on a train going across midnight America conversing with my favorite authors, and on that train would be people like George Bernard Shaw, who was interested in everything, interested in the fiction of ideas. He himself on occasion wrote things that could be dubbed “science fiction.” We’d sit up late into the night turning over ideas and saying, “Well, if this is true about women in 1900, what is it going to be in the year 2050?”

Interviewer: Who else would be on that train?

Bradbury: A lot of poets. Hopkins, Frost, Shakespeare. And then writers like Huxley, Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe.

Interviewer: How has Wolfe helped you?

Bradbury: He was a great romantic. When you’re nineteen, he opens the doors of the world for you. We use certain authors at certain times of our lives, and we may never go back to them again. Wolfe is perfect when you’re nineteen. If you fall in love with Shaw when you’re thirty it’s going to be a lifetime love. And I think that’s true of certain books by Thomas Mann as well. I read Death in Venice when I was twenty, and it’s gotten better every year since. Style is truth. Once you nail down what you want to say about yourself and your fears and your life, then that becomes your style and you go to those writers who can teach you how to use words to fit your truth. I learned from John Steinbeck how to write objectively and yet insert all of the insights without too much extra comment. I learned a hell of a lot from John Collier and Gerald Heard, and I fell madly in love with a number of women writers, especially Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter. I still go back and reread Edith Wharton and Jessamyn WestThe Friendly Persuasion is one of my favorite books of short stories.

Or sometimes, he didn’t need the prompting of an interview to come up with a list of favorite authors. From his essay collection Zen in the Art of Writing:

You have your list of favorite writers; I have mine. Dickens, Twain, Wolfe, Peacock, Shaw, Molière, Jonson, Wycherly, Sam Johnson. Poets: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, Pope. … Think of all these names and you think of big or little, but nonetheless important, zests, appetites, hungers. Think of Shakespeare and Melville and you think of thunder, lightning, wind. [“The Joy of Writing,” pages 3-4]

Poets in Translation

While you might already be celebrating Nonfiction November, as a few bloggers are, author and editor Molly Spencer has declared November Translated Poetry Month. As she explained on Twitter, the idea is simply to “Read & share the work of poets who’ve been translated into the language(s) you read. The goal is for all of us to read more widely than if left to our usual tendencies.” So who should you read for Translated Poetry Month? I have a few suggestions.

Yehuda Amichai (Hebrew, 1924 – 2000) – One of Israel’s foremost modern poets, Amichai is concision and understatement together with deep lyricism. Favorites are “Near the Wall of a House,”My Father Was God,” and “A Pity, We Were Such a Good Invention.”

C. P. Cavafy (Greek, 1863 – 1933) – Lively, lucid, passionate. A Greek poet with a fondness for personae and ancient civilizations. Favorites are “Ithaca,” “Craftsman of Wine Bowls,” and “’The rest I’ll speak of to the ones below in Hades.’”

Paul Celan (German, 1920 – 1970) – A Romanian poet writing in German. Though his poems are often very dark, drawing upon his experiences as a Holocaust survivor, they also have a kaleidoscopic beauty to them that’s seldom matched. Favorites are “Line the wordcaves,” “Flower,” “An Eye, Open,” “Threadsuns,” and “Corona.”

Robert Desnos (French, 1900 – 1945) – Known as one of the founders of Surrealism, Desnos alternates between funny and breathtakingly beautiful. Favorites of his include “The Landscape” (a “version” by Scottish poet Don Paterson), “Like a Hand at the Moment of Death,” and “The Pelican.”

Czesław Miłosz (Polish, 1911 – 2004) – Of course. He’s one of my favorite poets, translated or not. Some especially good poems of his are “Winter,”A Song on the End of the World,” “Veni Creator,” “Esse,” and “The Separate Notebooks” (a very long poem; there’s an excerpt of it here and more here).

Rainer Maria Rilke (German, 1875 – 1926) – A veritable poetry god, and very mystical; read “The Panther,” Sonnets to Orpheus, and “The Archaic Torso of Apollo.”

Anna Swir (a.k.a. Anna Świrszczyńska) (Polish, 1909 – 1984) – Underrated in her own day and overshadowed in ours, Anna Swir was writing about specifically feminine experiences long before such writing was common. Her poems tend to be short and understated, but with tremendous power behind them. Try “The Greatest Love,” “Thank You, My Fate,” “I Wash the Shirt,” and “There Is Light in Me.”

Adam Zagajewski (Polish, 1945 – ) – Sort of a mystic; being a student of Miłosz, he sees spiritual depth in practically everything. Favorites are “Autumn,” “Mysticism for Beginners,“Do Not Allow the Lucid Moment to Dissolve,” and “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.”

Have you read any of these poets? Which translated poets do you recommend? Let me know in the comments.

Bookish Links — October 2017

Image by Daniela Cuevas via Unsplash.
  • By now, you’ve probably heard about Jill Bialosky’s memoir Poetry Will Save Your Life, for which she “borrowed” paragraphs from several other sources. By far, the best take on this whole debacle has come from Talya Zax at Forward. (HT: A. M. Juster)

 

Fall Library Sale

It’s that time of year again! Our local library recently had its semi-annual used book sale. Usually, I’ll pick up ten or twelve books at these things—this time, I got 27.

Anyhow . . .

A quick disclaimer: the links to the Book Depository are affiliate links. The Amazon links, however, are not. A few of these books are very rare and out of print, so they don’t have links at all.

Fiction

Affinities: a Short Story Anthology edited by John Tytell and Harold Jaffe – Plenty of good names on this table of contents: Turgenev, Kafka, Chekhov, Poe, Anaïs Nin. Really, it was Chekhov who sold it to me. (See my last post.)

The Bad Beginning and The Vile Village by Lemony Snicket – A friend recommended the Series of Unfortunate Events long ago and assured me that it doesn’t really matter what order you read the books in. Since then, I’ve been snapping them up at sales whenever I find them.

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope – Suzannah from Vintage Novels loves Trollope, and recommended this novel in particular. It’s the second in Trollope’s “Chronicles of Barsetshire” series, each installment of which deals with a different town in Barsetshire and a different minister in each of those towns.

It’s got a pretty gold foil cover, but the illustrations are vaguely reminiscent of Curious George.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien – Despite both my enthusiasm for the Inklings and Tolkien’s making semi-regular appearances in my Bookish Links posts, I have yet to read an entire Tolkien novel from start to finish. Here’s hoping that changes soon.

Gone Girl by Gillan Flynn – Michael from Lessons from the Screenplay made this story sound really, really interesting.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – The film is a favorite of mine. The book, I’ve been told, is much different from the movie and I’d like to know how.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding – Mostly, I just want to be able to understand all of the references that other books and movies make to this novel.

Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales edited and translated by Serge A. Zenkovsky – In spite of its rather alarming cover, I was happy to find this. I’m curious to see what these stories are like, since what little medieval literature I’ve read has come almost entirely from the British isles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham – This novel was the basis for another favorite movie of mine, the 1946 adaptation with Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney. I’ve actually started to read this one already. Hopefully, there will be a review before too long.

Nonfiction

50 Essays: a Portable Anthology, Second Edition edited by Samuel Cohen – As with Affinities, a few of the names in this collection especially caught my eye: Richard Rodriguez, Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Annie Dillard—all authors I either love already or am keen to try.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt – This very famous memoir recounts the author’s childhood in 1940s Ireland, where he grew up in a desperately poor family with an alcoholic father. This one will probably make an appearance on the blog next March for Reading Ireland Month.

The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets by Helen Vendler – Of course, Helen Vendler is one of the most famous and most widely-respected literary critics in the world, but for some reason, I’ve never gotten around to reading any of her books. This looks like a good place to start.

Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World’s Best Poems by Camille Paglia – I read an excerpt of this book here and decided to keep an eye out for it. I’ve read a few chapters so far, and while they haven’t been as mind-blowing as I hoped (I came up with most of her points about Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XIV” by myself), she does offer some intriguing perspectives.

Collins Roberts French-English English-French Dictionary by Beryl T. Atkins, Alain Duval, and Rosemary C. Milne (et al.) – Up until now, I’ve gotten by with the small Merriam-Webster dictionary I bought for high school, though it happens every now and then that I find a word in a French text that it doesn’t include. This dictionary, on the other hand, is far more extensive.

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs by John Foxe, edited by W. Grinton Berry – A sixteenth-century British minister’s famous account of the history of Christian persecution. I’ve already read some of it from Project Gutenberg, but it’s nice to have a hard copy too.

I and Thou by Martin Buber, tr. by Ronald Gregor Smith – I’m cautiously beginning to enter the field of philosophy. I bought this book because it has been referenced more than once in some of my other reading.

Latin: an Introductory Course Based on Ancient Authors by Frederic M. Wheelock – As a student of French, I’ve often thought that some knowledge of Latin might be helpful. Wheelock (I’ve been told) is the expert for books on learning Latin.

Marina Tsvetaeva: Author by Tom Vtoroy – A Russian language biography of the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva. I can’t really read much Russian yet, but it looked interesting, and it could be an example of Russian text to measure my reading skills against later. After Googling the name on the little tag on the back, I found out that this book apparently came from Beryozka, Soviet Russia’s state-run department store. My sister says the cover is probably full of microfilm. We shall see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Paris Review Interviews Volume I – Mere days after I learned the heartbreaking news that The Paris Review has put all of their interviews behind a paywall, I found this book. It collects sixteen interviews from across the history of The Paris Review, none of which I got the chance to read while they were free.

Promenades Littéraires et Grammaticales by Renée Waldinger and Gisèle Corbière-Gille – For practicing French!

Secrets in the Dark: a Life in Sermons by Frederick Buechner – A couple of other bloggers (Christopher and Ethan) piqued my interest in this particular writer. Buechner is a Presbyterian minister and author who’s writing deals especially with the concepts of faith, doubt, and imagination.

The Shaker Cook Book: Not by Bread Alone by Caroline B. Piercy – This book apparently was part of a series of cookbooks focusing on the cuisines of different cultures. There was a Polish cookbook, an Israeli cookbook, a Chinese cookbook, and this Shaker cookbook that I picked up for I don’t really know what reason. I doubt if I’ll ever cook anything in it, but it looked interesting nevertheless.

Poetry

Le Livre d’Or de la Poésie Française Contemporaine by Pierre Seghers – A book of contemporary French poetry, published in the 1960s. I think it will be good French reading practice, mais non?

Songs of Innocence by William Blake – An interesting little edition printed in the 1970s with all of Blake’s original illustrations included. It’s pretty and strange.

To Urania by Joseph Brodsky – These sales almost never have any translated books, let alone translated poetry. I’ve been quite interested in Brodsky’s work lately, so I was excited to find this buried in a stack of Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain.

With Cat for Comforter by Ray Bradbury – This book is a longish illustrated poem about cats. It’s also a Ray Bradbury book that I didn’t have, and had never even heard of before. The Bradbury completist in me wanted it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do let me know in the comments if you’ve read any of these books and what you thought about them!

Book Review: The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov

Translator: Constance Garnett

Original Language: Russian

Year of First Publication: 1917

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2004

Number of Pages: N/A

Publisher: Project Gutenberg

Genre: Fiction


A few weeks ago, I read my first Chekhov play, Uncle Vanya. I liked it so much, that I decided to read some of Chekhov’s short stories as well, beginning with the Project Gutenberg edition of The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories.

I never know how to write about collections like this where there’s not much of a common theme, so instead, I’ll write about each story individually.

“The Lady with the Dog”

One of Chekhov’s most famous stories, it concerns a banker who feels trapped in his middle-class Moscow existence. While on a trip to the resort town of Yalta, he meets a young woman who is equally unhappy in her recent marriage. The two begin an affair that, despite their promises otherwise, never really ends, and the story closes on the two of them in a hotel in Moscow desperately trying to think up a way for them to be together. It’s a stroke of genius on Chekhov’s part, leaving us hanging with the fulfillment of our expectations indefinitely deferred, similar to the predicament of his two protagonists. Combine that with the gift Chekhov has for mapping the interior space of his characters, and you have yourself a fabulous story.

“A Doctor’s Visit”

A very socially conscious Chekhov tells us a story about a physician who is called to tend to the daughter of a rich factory owner. Upon visiting the factory, just next door to the owner’s home, the doctor is appalled by the conditions in which the laborers are forced to live and work. He sees the daughter’s physical illness as a reaction to the moral and spiritual degradation around her. Preachy? Maybe a little.

“An Upheaval”

A day in the life of a household struggling to cope with its controlling, eternally-suspicious matriarch. It’s one of the shortest stories in the book, and yet in that tiny space, the husband’s desperation and the tension of the whole house become palpable.

“Ionich”

Dmitri Ionich Startsev is young doctor who has set up a practice in a small town. He befriends the delightfully ridiculous Turkin family, and falls in love with their daughter, Yekaterina Ivanova (Kitten for short). He would marry Kitten, but she intends to study music and doesn’t want to be tied down to a house and family. Instead of moving on, Startsev lets Kitten’s rejection turn him bitter until he’s incapable of loving anyone or anything. It’s a very simple plot, but still moving, with excellent characters

“The Head of the Family”

Basically “An Upheaval,” but with the gender reversed: this time, it’s a father who terrorizes his family with constant outbursts of temper, then cannot understand why they’re all so afraid of him. It gets even sadder when you find out that the character was probably modeled after Chekhov’s own father.

“The Black Monk”

Another very famous story, about a monomaniacal philosopher’s slow descent into madness. This story made the book for me. It’s so beautifully done, so vivid (especially that ending!), and so delicately walks the line between realism and fantasy. It’s my favorite in the collection.

“Volodya”

Reading this after Turgenev’s First Love was a little bit of déjà vu, and not just because the protagonists have the same first name: a teenage boy falls in love with an older (and in this case, married) woman and her rejection sends his life into a tailspin. While I didn’t exactly “enjoy” the story, it was interesting to see how quickly Chekhov could take his reader from sympathizing with the main character to recognizing him for the petty, self-centered child he really is.

“An Anonymous Story”

This is a long one: a young man named Vladimir goes to work as a valet for a man called Georgy Orlov. Orlov is in a relationship with a married woman named Zinaïda Fyodorovna, but only stays with her because he finds her physically attractive. One day, Orlov is shocked to find that Zinaïda has left her husband and wants to move in with him. He does everything he can to make Zinaïda feel unwelcome, and when that doesn’t get rid of her, he begins lying to her, telling her that he’s going on business trips when he really intends to spend the week at his friend’s house across town. As his valet, Vladimir becomes an accomplice in these deceptions, a job he hates doing because, while Orlov was trying to get rid of Zinaïda, Vladimir was falling in love with her.

This ended up being my least favorite story in the book. For one thing, the character of Vladimir is a little odd. When we first meet him, he’s a member of a radical political organization. His whole reason for taking the valet job in the first place was so that he could get closer to Orlov’s father—a prominent politician whom Vladimir’s group opposes—and learn things about him that could later be used to blackmail him. That all seemed a little contrived to me, and the references to Vladimir’s association with that group felt like a distraction from the real story, his relationship with Zinaïda. The second thing that bothered me was the tone of the story overall. Like all of the other stories in this book, “An Anonymous Story” ends sadly; unlike the other stories in the book, it seemed Chekhov was working extra hard here to make you pity his main characters. It just felt too forced and sentimental over all.

“The Husband”

Ah yes, the good old Russian trope of the bitter old man who feels that he is unworthy of happiness, and therefore tries to destroy it every chance he gets. As a character study, I think it’s one of the stronger stories in the collection: very simple and straightforward, but still compelling and real.

That’s all for today. If you have any other recommendations for short story collections, Russian or not, leave them in the comments below.

Thoughts on the Nobel Prize

The winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature is going to be announced tomorrow. I know not everyone is interested in or cares about literary prizes, but I for one find it interesting to see the implications they have both on the literary world and the world at large. For one thing, a well-known and prestigious prize like this one can lift an underappreciated writer out of obscurity. That was the case in 1980, when the Nobel was awarded to Czesław Miłosz, who, at that time, had been erased from Polish literature by the Soviet authorities and had not found an audience anywhere outside of Poland. Other times, by elevating a particular author, the prize also draws attention to important social concerns. In 2000, for instance, the prize was awarded to the Chinese novelist Gao Xingjian, who, from the very beginning of his career, had struggled against the Chinese government’s strict censorship. This, of course, helped highlight human rights issues in China, especially where freedom of speech and freedom of the press are concerned.

Of the names that are mostly frequently mentioned as possible future Nobel Laureates, there are three whom I especially would like to see win. And yes, they’re all poets.

Adonis

For years now, Adonis (pen name of Ali Ahmad Said Esber) has been a favorite of Nobel speculators, and for good reason: his work is absolutely stunning and he greatly deserves such an honor. In addition to that, I think he would also make good use of the platform that the Nobel would give him. Though he now lives in France, Adonis is originally from Syria and has written extensively about Arab culture. He’s especially outspoken about the oppressive nature of the theocratic regimes that dominate much of the Middle East today. Of course, Adonis isn’t exactly an obscure writer now, but a Nobel might help to increase his visibility even more outside of the worlds of French and Middle Eastern literature.

Adam Zagajewski

Zagajewski is, of course, one of my favorite living poets. He has his detractors, but I personally find his work captivating and beautiful, for reasons that I partly outlined in this post.

Don Paterson

The betting site Ladbrokes gives Paterson 100/1 odds. It’s not very likely, but I would be happy if it was. Though Paterson and I might not always see eye to eye on a philosophical level, there’s no denying that he is an absolute master of his craft. Few, I think, can match the ease of his style and the subtle musicality of his language.


Image of Adam Zagajewski (left) by Frankie Fouganthin and licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. (Source)
Image of Adonis (center) by Bahget Iskander. (Source)
Image of Don Paterson by Freddie Phillips and licensed under CC BY 2.0. (Source)

Bookish Links — September 2017

Image by Florian Klauer.

“Try to Praise the Mutilated World” by Adam Zagajewski

There are some poets who, no matter how many great poems they write, are always associated with one particular work. That work becomes their signature, the poem that even non-poetry readers know them for. For Seamus Heaney, it was “Digging,” for Gwendolyn Brooks, it was “We Real Cool” (which is actually a work of virtuosic genius, but I digress), and for the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, it appears to be “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.”

Of course, “Try to Praise” did get more attention in the press than most poems do: following the September 11th attacks, The New Yorker printed this poem on the back cover of its next issue. The poem was then picked up by several other media outlets, all of them feeling, like The New Yorker, that it spoke to what America was feeling at the moment.

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

[Translated by Clare Cavanagh]

A few writers have commented on what appears to be a trend in Americans’ taste in poetry: after any major political shift or national disaster, Polish poetry becomes very popular. I won’t speculate on what others see in this nation’s poetry, but for me, one of the main things that draws me to Polish poets is their willingness to be dead serious about things that many people generally do not take seriously. Begin with the title of the poem: though some choose to believe that the world is pointlessly cruel and devoid of meaning, Zagajewski goes against that nihilistic grain by describing the world as “mutilated.” It’s a disturbing word, but in a way, it expresses hope too: a thing can’t be “mutilated” if it was not once whole, and if it was whole once, maybe it can be made whole again.

In addition to wholeness, another thing this poem wants is immutability. It seems poets are often distressed by the indifference of nature, wondering how there can be an ultimate good when their cries of pain are met by a planet that simply keeps turning. This speaker, on the other hand, turns that problem on its head: he tries to find solace in a world that is indifferent to human woes, and therefore unchanging: “The nettles that methodically overgrow / the abandoned homesteads of exiles.” Nettles, of course, don’t care about exiles or their homes. They exist only to keep growing, and grow they do. There is an order to their behavior and that behavior remains constant, no matter what happens to the speaker. Like the word “mutilated,” it’s a depressing scenario, but not entirely hopeless: whatever tragedies may befall mankind, at least they can’t keep the world from spinning or the plants from growing. Life can still go on.

One of Zagajewski’s great strengths as a poet is the incredible subtlety of his work, and there’s perfect example of it in this poem. While the speaker is encouraging his listener to think back to happier times, he tells the person to “Remember the moments when we were together / in a white room and the curtain fluttered.” Such a vague reference, and yet, so evocative of the sort of comfort that this speaker is hoping to get from the world.

It’s impossible to be sure what went on in that room. It appears that only the speaker and his listener really know. Maybe the speaker and listener are lovers and this was their bedroom? Or maybe it’s a dark, dreary sickroom brightened by the sudden intrusion of sunlight? In either case, the result is the same: these two people are suddenly reminded that there is a world outside of them. For the lovers, they get to wake up beside each other and find that their happiness will continue. For the sick person and his/her companion, the sun provides a brief distraction from their worries and fears. The sun causes a break in the private universes constructed by these people—whether those are universes of pleasure or of pain—and pushes the couple out toward a world that is even bigger than the two of them.

And ultimately, I think that’s what this poem wants us to do: to think outside of our own heads for a change. To realize that there is more in heaven and earth than we can dream of. I think all good poetry exists to make us think outside of ourselves and the vision of the world that we’ve come to accept. For me, Polish poets in general and Zagajewski in particular are especially good at doing that.

“Hurrahing in Harvest” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

This Friday is the first day of fall, so naturally, the literature blogs and poetry Twitter are going all out with the autumnal poems. Keats’s “To Autumn” deservedly gets a lot of praise, but my favorite fall poem is one I discovered just recently, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Hurrahing in Harvest.”

Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks rise
     Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour
     Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes,
     Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;
     And éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a
Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder
     Majestic – as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet! –
These things, these things were here and but the beholder
     Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart réars wíngs bold and bolder
     And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

The poet Tiana Clark wrote (on Twitter), “Poems are bodies that remind us of our bodies.” I like that, but what I really like is for a poem to remind me not just of my body, but of my whole person—my spirit as well as my body. Hopkins can do that.

{PD-1923}

Hopkins, of course, is well-known for poems that use the beauty of nature to point to a benevolent and all-powerful Creator, suggesting that beauty only exists in the world because God loves us and chooses to favor us with it. What I love about this poem is how Hopkins pushes us beyond mere intellectual acknowledgment of this spiritual reality by invoking bodily experience. God’s love, as demonstrated through the beauty of autumn, is compared to a look or a greeting from a lover, and found to be “realer” and “rounder” than what is perceived by the senses. The hills are identified as Christ’s “world-wielding shoulder,” reminding us that Jesus too had a body, whose destruction and resurrection brought about our salvation. And finally, when the riches of God’s love begin to dawn on this speaker, he is so overcome that he feels as if the very earth under his feet has been taken away. By bringing this spiritual wisdom to us in such physical terms, Hopkins challenges us to think of God not just in abstract, but as a real, living presence, as much apart of the world around us as the hills, the trees, and our own bodies.

Six Poets Who Actually Give Good Readings

There’s a long-standing stereotype in the poetry world that says that poets always give terrible readings of their own work. And while this generalization does bear out for some poets (looking at you, Eliot), this is by no means the rule for all. On the contrary, I’ve found quite a few poets who not only give pleasant readings, but sometimes actually add something to their poems by the way they read them. I’ve compiled a small list of these poets below.

1: Seamus Heaney

My favorite poetry reader. His speaking voice, of course, was beautiful, but this is merely a complement to his real strengths: an impeccable sense of timing, perfect rhythm, and a willingness to let the poem occupy its own space, which is surprisingly rare. Another part of the reason I enjoy Heaney’s readings so much has to do with the man himself: his quiet, unassuming demeanor belies the power, even the brutality, of some of his work.

Harvard has a large collection of Heaney’s readings online, but there are plenty of them elsewhere as well.

2: Sylvia Plath

Between that Mid-Atlantic accent and her skill as a voice actress, Plath was quite a unique reader. Listen here to how she hits the beats in this very sound-heavy poem. Notice those little dramatic flourishes too, like the mock pity on the line, “Daddy, I’ve had to kill you.”

3: Anne Sexton

Ms. Sexton was also quite the performer: the rolling of her eyes, the dramatic toss of the head punctuating certain lines. Admittedly, both her voice and her manner can seem a little overwrought at times. Still, I’ve found that, on a good day, her readings can be captivating things.

4: W. H. Auden

A matter of taste, perhaps: I happen to like Auden’s readings very much, though some people have called them flat and stilted. See for yourself:

5: Dana Gioia

A staunch believer that poetry is just as much for the ear as for the eye, Gioia is careful to give his poems time to hang in the air. He leaves you time to take in what he’s saying, as he says it. Plus, as he mentioned during the reading I’ve linked below, he usually recites his poems from memory, which is cool.

6: Philip Larkin

Personally, one of the things I like about Larkin’s poetry is his droll and somewhat dark sense of humor. So it helps that his voice too has a droll, depressive sound to it. I especially enjoy his reading of “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album,” where, I think, he transitions perfectly from the sardonic to the heartfelt.

Are there any poets (or actors, teachers, whoever) whose readings you especially like? Let me know in the comments.

Book Review: First Love by Ivan Turgenev

Translator: Constance Garnett

Original Language: Russian

Year of First Publication: 1860

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2014

Number of Pages: N/A

Publisher: The University of Adelaide

Genre: Fiction

Download the ebook here or buy the paperback here. (Disclosure: I use affiliate links.)


I’m on a bit of Russian literature kick lately. Maybe you noticed. After sampling a bit from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov, I next set my sights on Turgenev, having heard him described as one of the greatest Russian novelists who ever lived. The first thing I read from him, though, was not a novel but a novella. There’s apparently some division among book bloggers as to the worth of the novella as a form: while many people prefer the shorter format that eats up less time than novels do, others find novellas too brief to allow the reader to form an attachment to the characters. I for one love novellas, and especially ones like this, that, for all their brevity, still have you feeling with, and hurting for, the characters.

Like many of Turgenev’s stories, this one begins with a frame story: three men are all sitting around the fireplace one evening, where they’ve all been asked to tell the story of their first love affair. After two of them deliver lackluster stories about how they met their wives, the third man, Volodya Voldemar, asks for time to go home and write his story out. He returns the next day and reads to his friends the story of how, when he was sixteen years old, he fell in love with a beautiful young woman named Zinaïda. So captivated is Volodya with Zinaïda that he barely even notices how cruel she can be, or that she’s merely amusing herself with him and her five other suitors. His dreams of loving her, however, come crashing to the ground when he discovers that Zinaïda is secretly having an affair with his father.

***

There was a long time where I was reading mostly nonfiction and poetry, and when I tried to read fiction, I would quickly lose interest. After reading so many poems where practically every word contributed in palpable ways to the meaning and the effect of the piece overall, prose just seemed too … prosaic. I was disappointed by fiction because it didn’t have that same (or similar) intensity of language. As it turns out, Turgenev is just the sort of fiction writer I wanted: his prose is rich and lyrical. His words flow effortlessly. His ability to create a mood and an atmosphere too is breathtaking:

The air blew in a gust for an instant; a streak of fire flashed across the sky; it was a star falling. “Zinaïda?” I wanted to call, but the word died away on my lips. And all at once everything became profoundly still around, as is often the case in the middle of the night. … Even the grasshoppers ceased their churr in the trees—only a window rattled somewhere. I stood and stood, and then went back to my room, to my chilled bed. I felt a strange sensation; as though I had gone to a tryst, and had been left lonely, and had passed close by another’s happiness. [From Chapter 16. Ellipsis in the original.]

Turgenev, in a photo by Félix Nadar.

Not only is the prose beautiful and vivid, the characters are as well. One of the things I love most about Russian books (the ones I’ve read, anyway) is that, while they may not always fit the modern-day criteria for “realism,” their characters still feel more real than most. By that I mean, though the circumstances that these characters find themselves in may sometimes seem very dramatic, there’s a core of truth in these characters that lets the reader form a deeper connection with them. Their actions and circumstances might not be “reality” for most people, but the emotion and the feeling behind them is universally human. Maybe it’s because First Love is so heavily autobiographical—Turgenev himself wrote that it was his favorite of his own work because “it is life itself, it was not made up”—but the characters have an emotional richness to them that is hard to find elsewhere.

That’s all for now. Which other Russian books or authors would you recommend? And how do you feel about novellas? Let me know in the comments.