Sunday, January 27, 2008

Back to the Wanderer

Re my recent post about Don Paterson and losing the thread of my Wanderer translation, I'm pleased to report that all the controversy has been absorbed into my bloodstream now and I'm translating the poem again.

Though perhaps I should say versioning, since although many parts of my poem are a straight translation from the Anglo-Saxon, I've taken one drastic step away from the original, with the result that it can only ever be a version now.

Please note though, I haven't changed my opinion of Don Paterson's views on translation. I've simply revised my opinion. Which is entirely in keeping with my character.

Meanwhile, in my capacity as Warwick Poet Laureate this year, I've been commissioned to write a poem on the history of circus elephants in Leamington Spa.

Beat that for sheer randomness.

Now playing: Julius Katchen, Georg Solti; London Symphony Orchestra - Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, I. Moderato
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Blogging instead of Tinkering

Just a quickie this morning. As the bishop said to the actress.

Trying to avoid tinkering away at my current poetry manuscript - due at Salt Publishing roughly within the next six weeks - I did a random sweep of the blogs this morning, and noticed that Ben Wilkinson's blog, 'Deconstructive Wasteland', is shaping up to be quite an interesting read, poetry-wise.

Check it out here.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Controversial Art of Translation

As I'm currently translating The Wanderer, a tightly-constructed poem in Anglo-Saxon of some 120 lines, I turned to Don Paterson's 'Orpheus' this weekend for some inspiration, as the last few pages of 'Orpheus', his free version of Rilke's famous sonnet sequence, are taken up with notes on the difference between translating and versioning.

At first I was impressed, almost mesmerised, by his highly intelligent and persuasive prose. But as I began to see how his opinions were negatively impacting on my confidence as a poet-translator, I became annoyed. Paterson freely admits that his argument is almost wholly a defence of those who - like himself - 'translate' poetry without a strong understanding of the original language. But that doesn't prevent him from becoming overly-rigid and dogmatic about the issue.

Paterson believes that you must either translate a poem - which is ultimately pointless in verse because it's almost impossible to get the sense and the spirit of the thing down in poetry - or write your own version of it - i.e. essentially a new poem - without bothering too much about being true to the original.

'If, through naivety or over-ambition, both translation and version are attempted simultaneously,' Paterson writes, 'the result is foredoomed.' (p. 81, Orpheus, Faber 2006)

This is over-simplifying the translation issue to the point of nonsense. Anyone who has ever attempted to translate a poem into verse knows that it's impossible to do so without making your own choices along the way, some of which will not be a straight translation but must necessarily be your own invention - or reinterpretation - of the original. The only way to translate a poem without independent choices of that kind - i.e. poetic acts of re-reading - is to translate into prose.

And even the wildest version must, at some point, pay homage to the original sense, otherwise why bother choosing that poem at all?

Influenced by his thoughts, I quickly realised that my own version-in-progress of The Wanderer was part-translation, part-version, and therefore, in Paterson's view, 'foredoomed'. I started tinkering with it, first to bring it back to a straight translation, then - frustrated by the resulting woodenness of the lines - to shift it more boldly into a version, abandoning all pretence of honouring the original.

Having done that, I have found - not surprisingly - that I've completely lost my bearings. I am no longer writing with that strong, sure-footed certainty with which my translation began. The poem feels like a chore to be finished, in whatever faltering voice I can manage to dredge up from the depths of my lost confidence. As the poem itself exclaims: 'All that joy has perished!'

I shall now have to put The Wanderer aside for a few days, and see if I can write something else in the interim, to get my focus and my confidence back - before I continue with my 'foredoomed' translation-version.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Thin Dream of Life: lines from the Aeneid

I promised this little translation from Virgil's Aeneid to my friend Bo some weeks ago; so here it is now, much to my chagrin, a pretty ropey piece of prose disguised as poetry by virtue of having its sentences lopped in half and separated with white space. A thin dream of verse ...

But as a first 'serious' attempt at classical translation, it's not too desperate and was, in fact, rather useful as a starter exercise. I'm relieved to say that my ongoing translation of the long Anglo-Saxon poem, The Wanderer, is far more in line with the sort of original poetry I'm writing, i.e. it's less easy to tell at a single glance that it's a translation!

Where the elipsis occurs, a few lines are missing; I leapt over them in the translation to get to the central image.

Re-reading this, it's clearly not 'finished'. Especially the first two segments (I hesitate to call them stanzas). But that's a good thing. 'Finished' poems are beyond help. Unfinished ones ... well, if they're unfinished, it's easier to believe you could get them right one day, which is always more comforting than accepting that you've failed.

A Thin Dream of Life
(a translation from The Aeneid, Bk 6, l. 268 on)

Shoulder to shoulder, they took by night
to the shadowy wastes of death,
walking bare caverns like two people
lost on a forest path, their way home
shifting under a sullen moonlight,
clouds hiding the stars, everything blackened
by night’s monochrome.

Reaching the jaws of death, they saw
how those most grieved and oppressed
had thrown down their beds,
how the old and unwell
had built themselves a den there
with the poor and the starving.
Grim-faced and scared, they stared out
from death’s workhouse ...

at some vast shadowy elm,
older than time, extending dark arms
at the heart of this hell;
a resting-place, where a thin dream of life
still clings on and cleaves –
so they tell – with its sticky fingers
to the undersides of leaves.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

In Dark Places - the revised draft

Click to enlarge

Now that we're well into January, I can no longer put off posting up my own effort at the Dark Places writing and revision exercise. You've probably all forgotten the original poem, and who can blame you, but there's a scribbled-on draft above and it can also be found on Raw Light here if you want a quick refresher.

The poem's earliest genesis
I began writing this poem by copying out a few lines from Ezra Pound, then attempting to continue in the same 'voice' and style but on a different theme. Cheating? Probably, but not something I'm too worried about. If a particular technique kickstarts a draft, why not use it?

It's not something I do very often, though I did write a poem called 'Thanatos' - published in PNR, and in my second collection - using this technique. I chose an incredibly powerful, almost raw poem by Ted Hughes as a template on that occasion, addressed to Sylvia Plath and entitled 'You Hated Spain'.

The Ezra Pound I used was a snippet of some ten or so lines from the middle of Canto II. It begins 'And, out of nothing, a breathing/hot breath on my ankles'. It's an extract that focuses on the senses above all: smell, taste, touch, sight and hearing. And this emphasis on physicality reminded me of a visit I'd made to the Pont Du Gard, some ten or twelve years ago, with a lover in tow whose star was about to dim for me.

I wanted to keep faith with Pound's use of the senses. So I used 'fish-scaled' and 'urine', thought about how the 'light' inside the aqueduct was blocked by people stepping across the openings above or coming towards us down the narrow tunnel. I remembered the 'rough' walls under our fingertips, the need to stoop. Plus the blinding heat and dust that struck me as I left the cool interior of the aqueduct itself at the far end.

It's the top level of the Pont Du Gard you walk through, which you always used to reach via a short scramble up a dusty hillside and a series of narrow and torturously steep steps. You can climb out onto the very top at intervals - a hazardous decision on a windy day, with no barriers between you and the sheer drop - and stare down at the river below, a marbled greenish-blue dotted with swimmers.

Letting my own voice out
By about the 10th line, I was finding it impossible to sustain that eliptical Poundian style for much longer. So I gave up and just let my mind wander wherever it wished. As you can see from the sudden expansion of the lines, the poem begins to change and develop at that point. Most importantly, the unexpected word 'we' makes an appearance, along with a past tense, both elucidating the narrative voice and giving the poem an emotional context it had originally resisted.

At about that stage, I deleted the lines from Pound that I'd used as a springboard, and gave the poem its own title, Pont Du Gard.

Technical Problems
Why are the 'hands' in line 13 'well-worn'? Surely the stone is worn, rather than the hands. Or was I transferring the epithet unconsciously, thinking of a 'well-worn' relationship, maybe one just about to snap? A clever enough answer, but I'm writing a poem here, not a dissertation.

I played with the line, and cut the too-obvious hands, throwing the primary beat backwards to make 'stone well-worn,/blackened with water'. This tightening of the metre also brings it into line with the earlier part of the poem. But at a later stage of the draft, I found this didn't work and had to change it again, as you can see.

My other basic revisions followed that tendency - i.e. to shorten the line and tighten the metre, removing elements in the second half of the poem which negate the mysterious and abrupt sense-explosions of the first ten or so lines.

I also considered eradicating the later references to 'we' on the same grounds.

Initially, the appearance of 'we' felt like a strong and useful progession to the specific from the general, but that may not be the case if the poem is the weaker for it. Perhaps the human presence, as I write in my marginal notes on the poem itself, anchors this rather ephemeral poem to reality. But it may also ruin it, by destroying its opening atmosphere of other-worldliness and making this feel too much like a 'holiday' poem.

But is it worth saving from the wastepaper bin?
I like this poem. Some of the phrases tug at me pleasingly. But I need to know more about its purpose before I can push on with more rigorous revisions or think about it as a finished piece.

Poems without purpose are like roses without a fragrance. They may look great in magazines, and even poetry collections, but no one remembers them as especially important, including the poet. And if we are at all serious about poetry, we want our poems to have purpose and to be remembered.

Purpose need not be overt in a poem; overt purpose is usually awkward and embarrassing, rather like going about naked in public or wearing too ostentatious an outfit for the occasion. The best sort of purpose is often secret, its deepest levels hidden even from the poet. But it must exist, and we must sense its existence as we read.

So what purpose does this poem have? Answers on a postcard.

The revised draft
Here's one possible redraft, but 'Pont Du Gard' needs far more work if it's to achieve any sort of poetic conviction:

Pont Du Gard
Stone hall for the shrunken,
black pit interior
fish-scaled with urine.
Grim shadows of men
blocking the light up ahead.
Broad squares of sun-flash,
rectangular access
to blind air and buffet.
Swimmers below
pale fins burning in water.
Sink back into darkness
at the next space, worn stone
blackened with water,
the rough runnels of history.
Filigree depths
where the heart struggles to rise.
Pinioned to single file
in the low-roofed
night haul of the Roman:
troll-trod, dwarf dominion.
Afterwards, hot dust and olives,
a dazzle of strangers
on the long road backwards.