Rimbaud’s Eternity

I started out this January trying to translate Rimbaud, and it’s only as the month is ending that I’ve finally got something to present. Why was this such a struggle?

Well, some of it’s me. I’m having a harder time this winter keeping up this project, and by focusing recently on translation I’ve only made it harder on myself. Why do I do these translations on top of composing, recording, and playing most of the instruments in the pieces? That’s more than a rhetorical question, I’ve sincerely asked myself that this month. I’m not a speaker of any of the native languages of the poets I’ve translated, so I work with the highly welcome online dictionaries and computer translators available—but I’m not a literary scholar or expert on any of these poets, and I’ve never lived as part of their culture. I worry about getting it wrong, doubly so in that I present them publicly.

I think I have three reasons. First is that it expands what I can present here. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s difficult to get permission to do what I do for work that’s not in the public domain, and I don’t want to use other people’s translations that are in copyright without permission. Second, I think this is a great practice to improve one’s own poetry. Do any creative writing programs these days require or assign translation of poetry?*  I don’t know, but if not, I’d encourage that. The struggle to find the best English word, to not harm the strength of an image, and to shape the poem so that its word-music works are directly transferable to writing one’s own poems. And here’s the last reason: I think performing a poem illuminates it for the reader/performer, it makes it part of your breath. Translating it imbeds it even more so in one’s mind.

So why was Rimbaud a tougher task?

Unlike other poets, I’ve never been a Rimbaud fan, even though Modernist French poetry was an enthusiasm of my twenties. I think I bought a translation of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell  at the same Savarns book store on the Minneapolis West Bank where I picked up poetry chap books by Patti Smith and collections of French language Surrealists. And Smith and Surrealists liked Rimbaud a lot.  Smith has spoken reverently about how her copy of Rimbaud helped her through her own early twenties, but Rimbaud didn’t perform that service for me.**

Arthur Rimbaud
Sentinel soul. Teenage poet Arthur Rimbaud

 

But even just as myth, Rimbaud has an inescapable pull. There’s no story like it: a bright teenager drops out of secondary school, flees to the Paris of the Paris Commune in 1871, takes up with celebrated poet Paul Verlaine. Disasters ensue, including taking the most famous non-fatal intra-author bullet from a disordered Verlaine. In the midst of this, he writes furious poetry, poetry capable of impressing the most avant garde writers of the 20th century to follow.

Bang Bang My Baby Shot Me Down

“Situations have ended sad/Relationships have all been bad…” Plaque marks were Verlaine shot Rimbaud.

 

All this as a teenager. As his teen years end, he stops writing and moves to Africa to work as a commercial trader, never returning to the writing life and by accounts actively distaining it. He dies of cancer at the age of 37.

As we’ve seen recently here, there are other teenaged poets who’ve produced work we still read today. But very few of them produced their greatest work at that age—and arguably none of their youthful work was as influential as Arthur Rimbaud’s.

I’ve dealt with the trouble that hard-to-grasp, obscure, and Surrealist poets present to translations. Rimbaud was as tough as Mallarmé in that regard. In one Rimbaud poem I finished a complete translation draft, but was left with an “is that all there is” feeling that the result wasn’t all that compelling. I started another and then another, but again the early results didn’t seem like I’d grasped them or that they’d work here.

Then it hit me, at least with his poem “Eternity,”  part of its power is incantatory, it’s in the metrical and rhyming effects in the original French! This shouldn’t have surprised me. While there are other ways to achieve similar effects: parallelism, repetition, old-English alliteration, even a certain kind of intellectual rhyme in imagery itself, rhyme is still used in most songs and hip-hop rap flows, not because there’s some kind of rule about it, but because the expectation of return to the rhyme gives a certain fatalistic drive to the verse. And “Eternity’s”  meter is also unusual, it’s a very short line, just five beats.

Do you remember me saying that I almost never try to bring over the sound of the original verse into my translations, that I’d rather focus on making the images vivid and for the poem to have whatever good word-music in English? That’s still a practical rule, which may go double when translating from a language like French which has the benefit of so many more rhyming words; but in this short poem I decided to move over to respecting the syllable count of the original line and to a ABCB rhyming scheme.

Eternity

For good or ill, this did cause me to play more fast-and-loose with some of the more difficult images and phrases in Rimbaud’s poem, ones where other translators had other readings. If it sounded good, if it kept to the scheme, if it seemed to advance some overall flow to the poem’s meaning from image to image, I judged it “close enough for rock’n’roll.”

In the end, my main diversion from other translations of “Eternity”  I’ve seen is that many other translations make this poem more of a brag that Rimbaud has absorbed the infinity of the titular eternity and is now it’s master. My version has a more elusive eternity and a sense that others are seeking to apprehend it, much like a search for an underground partisan. Because the other translators may be Rimbaud scholars with a greater mastery of French, there’s a good chance they’re more correct—but if there’s a possibility that the “I is another” in Rimbaud’s poem, there may be an element I’m bringing out that was always there. Here’s a link to the poem in the original French for those who’d like to check.

Musically, this is rock in the ragged sense that rock’n’roll is a loose and inclusive form. There’s no tight backbeat, the bass is a bowed contrabass with some filtering, and the guitar won’t really play the blues—but the overall guitar timbres are from the rock palette. For the chord cadence I made a nod to some of those who did help me get through my 20s. The line in Rimbaud’s poem that ended up being translated (loosely in this instance) as “I see no escape” brought to mind “All Along the Watchtower”  sideways to me, and the chord cadence I use is also somewhat similar to Patti Smith/Bruce Springsteen’s “Because the Night.”  The lines in my translation “Murmur our desire/Night that is nothing/A day that’s on fire” could well fit into that sort of expression. You know the drill to hear it: the player gadget’s below.

 

 

 

 

*I know in the past students were assigned translations from classical Greek and Latin poets as part of general studies. While this came from the idea that classical grammar and vocabulary were the basis for mastery of English (a suspect notion) I think it must have helped many a budding poet.

**It was poet/musicians did that for me: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Smith herself. All of these are controversial figures in purely literary circles. I can tell you that none of them helped my standing in those 1970s years when I should have been establishing the peripatetic poetry career that I didn’t have. It would have been better for me, influences-wise, if I could have said Rimbaud instead.

Red Rooster

Here’s a poem and poet with a mystery.

“Red Rooster”  was written in 1917. It’s an Imagist poem, a good example of how this pioneering school of poetic Modernism might present things directly, without nearly as much scholarly allusion as later Modernism was prone too.

The same year this poem was written, its poet was published in Poetry  magazine, the beacon of mainstream American Modernism, alongside poems by Ezra Pound, Vachel Lindsay, and William Carlos Williams. Three years later the author had a collection published, containing over a hundred poems. Poetry’s editor, Harriet Monroe, speaking from her post-WWI maps-being-redrawn time, called that book “This miracle” and “A richer promise for the new age than may be read in treaties and decrees.”

Other reviews? That book-length collection had a forward by Imagist Amy Lowell who said of the work:

When one reads a thing and voluntarily exclaims ‘How beautiful! How natural! How true!’ then one knows that one has stumbled upon that flash of personality which we call genius.”

So, immense promise, now an assay of genius—though Lowell also cautions that within the collection “Inadequate lines not infrequently jar a total effect…” That first book went through at least seven printings and two other poetry collections followed shortly thereafter.

Go ahead, drop down to the bottom and listen to “Red Rooster”  now. It’ll be interesting to encounter it before you know more about the author.

Red Rooster

Willie Dixon & Howlin’ Wolf said ”No peace in the barnyard, since the little red rooster been gone.”

 

 

Who was the author, the poet with the mystery attached? Hilda Conkling. How come you (likely) haven’t heard of her? Well, we discussed “Donald Hall’s law” here last year. Hall said that most poets, even most poets who win awards and are published in the usual ways, are forgotten by 20 years after their death. There’s that. And Conkling had a short career, no more new poems from her after 1924, though she lived until 1986. But here’s the most significant reason: Conkling wrote “Red Rooster”  when she was seven, her first collection was published when she was ten, as her output was already dropping off, and she gave up creating poetry entirely at age fourteen. A teenaged poetic legend like Arthur Rimbaud would be Sophocles writing Oedipus at Colonus  in comparison.

Both Lowell and Monroe considered Conkling’s age, and both thought the case of Hilda Conkling might tell us something about childhood and poetic genius. The case for pre-adolescent children creating art has been argued a great deal since then. Art critic Herbert Read encouraged thorough arts education for school-children in the 1940s. Kenneth Koch taught classes where children were exposed to poetry and urged to write it. Koch wrote a couple of books to encourage this in the 1970s, and by that time the idea of arts for children was spreading out generally. In the early 1980s Dave Moore and I had heard so much of this that Dave (raising a precocious Hilda-aged child himself at that time) wrote an LYL Band song called “Kids”  where the indignant child artists claimed, “we’re the natural poets, so shut up…” But despite that subsequent educational movement, Hilda Conkling is still a strange case: she started at age four, by the story, spontaneously, not as a pre-school exercise. Her father left Hilda’s mother around the same time, and Hilda told her mother that she’d composed a poem, which she then recited to her as a gift. The poems over the next decade followed the same process. Hilda’s mother was a writer and college literature professor who had exposed Hilda to books and music from an early age. One assumes Hilda learned to write later in childhood, but she would always recite each new poem to her mother, who would write them down.

Your first thought may be same as mine, that Hilda’s mother composed or helped to compose the poems. That’s possible, even probable, though the mother denied this, and said Hilda was always careful to correct any mistaken transcriptions. Amy Lowell deals with the issue by pointing out the childish elements in some of the poems as proof that they were genuine. But that speaks not at all to the idea that the mother improved or regularized the poems, or that some poems, even if they had a germ of an idea from the daughter, had elements that the literature professor mother further developed. It’s not hard to imagine an aiming-to-please daughter accepting some of what the mother transcribed and read back to her, even if it wasn’t what she had said, because she liked her mother’s changes, or didn’t want to disappoint or displease her.

The other accepted plot point in this story is that Hilda’s mother asked Hilda to write down her poems herself as Hilda turned 14, and then Hilda’s poetry stopped. That argues for the importance of the collaboration both as motivation and as conscious or unconscious editorial assistance. There are theories that Hilda may have had a disability which made writing her poems down difficult for her, but no additional life-evidence is offered to indicate that. The suggestion that Philistine and patriarchal society may have pressed the creativity out of the child has been offered. No one seems to have considered that Hilda might have continued to write poetry after age 14 but kept it to herself (a not-uncommon teen-age practice).

So much to wonder and doubt in this story—but we’re left with the best of the Conkling poems, such as “Red Rooster.”  Could what’s good in it be unintentional? In the opening observation of the rooster, the metaphors have just the right taste (comparing the irradiance of the bird’s feathers to wet rocks and to boat hulls seen through water). The poem’s turn and development in the last few lines seems even more remarkable. The rooster as symbol of masculinity is time-honored, but we’re ¾ way through the poem before we leave objective and immediate observation to have the rooster characterized as both proud and foolish, and foolish like unto Joseph leaving his family with his “coat of many colors.” The concluding couplet is just great poetic invective. Did a seven-year-old write that, intuiting not just the nature of the conflict in her home, but a vibrant, time-resonating metaphor for it? Was Hilda a 20th Century Mozart, or a prolific creator that sometimes landed a lucky strike? Or was it help from a wronged-by-a-man ghostwriter/mom? As a reader I don’t care. “Red Rooster”  doesn’t read as unintentional, as a random combination—but then again, we readers are great pattern-seers, as anyone who’s worked with things like automatic writing or cut-up discovers.

My best guess is collaboration, a child and an adult seeing and sharing the world together. That, like this poem, could be extraordinary too.

Here’s my performance of “Red Rooster.”  Give a listen to it with the player below.