World War I entered the worlds of both of our last two poems, and that war’s poetry was one theme we visited over the early years of this Project that coincided with the centennial of that conflict. The interaction between that war and the arts was complex, but here’s a simple question: did WWI cause Modernism?
One Modernist source-point that did owe something directly to the war was Dada, which emerged in neutral Switzerland among Europeans who had fled the conflict. Dada was all about experiment and tweaking tradition, and if I audaciously suggested that one can get something from the later High Modernism of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” by reading it as if it were Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” Dada was clearly willing to use outright random non-sense in service of breaking down old patterns.
One of Dada’s originators was a pan-European man Tristan Tzara. And if the young Tzara and European Modernism had an overall figurehead in the years before the end of WWI, it was another pan-European man Guillaume Apollinaire. Americans (who had an outsized influence on English-language poetic Modernism) may not fully credit how invaluable Apollinaire was in this era. He coined the terms “cubism” and “surrealism,” he wrote poetry in a freer and more freely-associative way,* and he began to lay his words out on the page to typographically break up the phrases, predating and serving as a model for E. E. Cummings.
Apollinaire’s war-time fate was to bookend Rupert Brooke’s. Still convalescing from a head-wound suffered in military service, Apollinaire became another victim of the great flu epidemic that swirled around the end-game and aftermath of the war.
And that story brings us to today’s National Poetry Month poetry prompt for those looking to do more than simply add to the solitary outcroppings on the mountain of poetry, another way to mesh and meld with our poetic ancestors. Why not translate a poem?
What, you don’t know a foreign language? Well, you know something about poetry (or wish to) if you write it. Poetry itself is a second language you either already speak or wish to speak fluently. Translation is the way to work hand in hand, eyeball to eyeball, with another poet, and I maintain that any poet can benefit from it, even monolinguals. The Internet offers increasingly adequate automatic translators and online dictionaries for some languages.** Mixing the two, some research, and your own knowledge of the dialect and tactics of poetry can produce worthwhile translations that can be shared — but here’s the main creative benefit: you’ll learn, intimately, the way a poem can be constructed under the skin. The exercise of trying to find the right sounding, feeling, and meaning English word for another poet’s vision is powerful. If I could make one request, one rule, for creative writing programs everywhere, it would be to make translation part of the curriculum.***
In was in that spirit that I chose to translate Tzara’s poem “The Death of Guillaume Apollinaire.” What would Dada’s young provocateur say about this death of this influence? I was surprised at the emotional depth of the piece — it’s an eulogy as a love poem — with opposites-imagery mirroring the opposites of the living considering the dead. I’m not sure how much better a translation of it I could do today, and I’m particularly proud of my rendering of the concluding two lines, a striking gothic image.
With Tzara’s “opposites-imagery” in his poem I couldn’t help but think of M. C. Escher’s later art used in this video.
You can hear my performance of my translation of Tzara’s “The Death of Guillaume Apollinaire” from the French “La mort de Guillaume Apollinaire” three ways. There’s a graphical player below for some, this highlighted link for others, and if you’d like to see the words and well as hear them performed, this brand-new lyric video.
**You shouldn’t use those automatic translations as anything more than guide and gloss. Your appropriate aim is to produce a poem in English rather than the literality of one-to-one words, to bring the images and the way they are arrayed over to our language. Dictionaries, particularly ones that provide examples of the word used in context, are important adjuncts to the online AI translations.
***Another benefit: this kind of crowd-sourcing of translation can increase the number of translated poems available, increasing the diversity of our culture. And then, like Wallace Stevens 13 lookings at blackbirds, having a spread of translations of the same poem may be a truer representation of the poem’s essence and spreading possibilities than any single one. Cubism activism!
Last time I said I looked through Arthur Rimbaud’s collected works in the middle of the nighttime looking for something to translate, combine with music, and perform. I guess I could have saved myself some time, because I eventually chose the first poem in the collection, The Orphans’ New Years’ Gifts, placed first because it was the first poem he ever published. When it appeared in print on January 2nd, 1870 Rimbaud was all of 15 years old.
On first reading, it’s not representative of the poems Rimbaud would be writing in little more than a year or so. While the entire poem is a gothic story, it’s also quite sentimental and largely conventional. For reasons of time and preferring shorter works, I decided to only perform the first part, but spoiler alert: it’s soon revealed that the children are recently orphaned and they are dreaming of their family still being intact and how they will give their now dead mother they expect to find in their dreams a pair of “for mother” plaques from each of them as a New Year’s gift.
But for us, the performer and listeners today of this first section only, this is no matter, because it’s the last day of 2021 and tomorrow is a new year. We know nothing of 2022 save for dreams pleasant or frightening. The coming year is a more mysterious ghost to us than our past years.
It might seem odd to say, but I’m an orphan — that’s not unusual, at my age most everyone is. It’s a different matter to write this as a 15-year-old, as an adolescent, as Rimbaud was. Those are the years that children learn how to gradually break away from their parents in whatever manner they fall into. Rimbaud instead would do this early and abruptly, leaving his mother — and for Paris, and unrest, and rebellion of all sorts in that “about a year” timeframe. Poetically and emotionally, this poem hardly seems to be a rehearsal for the Rimbaud of 1871 and after.
As I worked on translating this poem, I saw a little window into that other Rimbaud in this short first section. Those intimations were unlikely put there by conscious choice. Maybe they were slipped in by Rimbaud’s future ghost?
A few notes on how I translate. I generally don’t try to bring over the word-music (too tough, too damaging to other elements of the translated poem). I start attempting to be as faithful as I can, but then while in process I am often tempted to sharpen or expand on the images I’m trying to bring forward into contemporary English; because those images expand in my mind as I consider them, and because I want them to remain vivid. I’m of two minds about doing that, and I try to make clear here when I’ve really inserted something altogether invented. If you’d like to read the whole poem in it’s original French, here’s a link.
My local forecast says –11 F (-24 C) for New Year’s dawn. I think of a blues song Leo Kottke used to sing with the line “So cold in China, the birds don’t even sing.” Maybe that’s why I choose the guzheng today?
Here are a few examples in this one, in ascending order of significance. I suspect the curtain Rimbaud has blowing in the winter drafts is a bed canopy, a largely unfamiliar antique item, and instead I’m leading you to see a window curtain. Leading you to the window lets me transition to an image I sharpened. Rimbaud doesn’t explicitly say the cold winter birds are walking, but I think he did intend to tell us they aren’t able to fly in this moment, and I thought I’d underline that. And the final image, the one of New Year arriving as a woman in a dress of snow, I wanted us to see a tipsy celebrant whose party gown is no longer arranged neatly. Did the 15-year-old Rimbaud intend that image? I don’t know, but his future ghost might well have chosen it!
Yesterday I revealed that I wanted to do this piece to honor ardent Rimbaud admirer Patti Smith. Obligation completed, though you may notice this is nothing like how Patti Smith or her band would characteristically perform this. The first instrument you hear is a Chinese guzheng,* a sophisticated zither family instrument, then eventually a variety of drums and percussive sounds arrive along with electric bass, and finally a low synth moan. But did I make clear in talking about Smith yesterday: one of the things she demonstrated was that untapped possibilities of presentation styles are the point, not just duplication of one’s heroes.
*With expensive and exotic instruments like this I usually use what are called “virtual instruments” that sample the notes and sounds of the entire range of the instrument; and as in today’s piece allow you to articulate some of the instrument’s particular attacks and variations, like the guzheng’s vibrato. I select and play the notes with a little plastic keyboard or my guitar with a MIDI interface.
Happy Birthday poet, performer and rock band leader Patti Smith! We’ll get to her, girls basketball, Arthur Rimbaud, and studying French in Iowa before we’re through today’s post.
There’s a lot of things that go into this Parlando Project existing. One thread of that origin begins: I came to admire poetry as a teenager and a couple of years later I started to write it. I did those things sensuously, without deep understanding of connotation or denotation. I loved poetry and I wrote poetry as music: organized sounds that attracted and pleased me.
Let’s follow that thread, barely woven. I took French in high school in my little Iowa town. The teacher was an interesting man, full of iconoclastic thoughts and some experience in France itself that I don’t recall the particulars of. He seemed rather bold in my little farm town mostly settled by Swedish immigrants some 80 years before, and I suspected then he felt immune to criticism because he was a fairly successful girls basketball coach.* French was the only foreign language offered in my small high school, but I was both aware of Iowa’s history as a French colony** and with bilingual French and English labels and signs from fishing trips deep into Ontario Canada. I was not even a middling student in the class. I did fine with vocabulary, reasonably well with the language rules and syntax, but I was bad at conversational French, both being slow to pick up the knack for spontaneous expression using the words and grammar, and abysmal in pronunciation. I was entirely incapable of making the mouth sounds required. I suspect this is neurological, I have a general problem with mimesis in music or speaking. People are often shocked at how bad I am at that kind of thing.
I did even more poorly in my freshman French class in my attempt at college. This was so even though by then I had an additional motivation: I had learned that French poetry was an important influence on Modernist English poetry. And then, after the Bob Dylan revolution in popular songwriting, French poetry was often cited as an influence on Dylan, and so then by one remove from Dylan, a reflected influence on others who sought to write unusual lyrics using expanded forms of expression.
Let’s skip forward to the fall of 1975. I’m living in a trailer in the middle of Newburgh New York, a small descending city beset with racism and mid-70s industrial ennui, working in the busy E.R. that served as the last resort of the uninsured sick and wounded of the area. I eagerly snag the first LP by a poet who has formed a rock band, and who has been performing 68.2 miles away down the Hudson river in Manhattan. A bootstrap magazine down there would put a label for her band and the bands that were performing around the same time and place: “Punk.***” Like most genre labels, that’s too reductionist, but there you are.
The album “Horses” by the Patti Smith Group presented something important to me, then, and from the uncoiled, frayed thread that unravels from there to now. It’s highly audacious and retains a considerable level of originality even today. I’ll allow that audacious may be the friendly way to say pretentious — the difference may be how much the results work for a listener. I can somewhat understand those that down-rate or even dislike the record, for even though some reject it for ignorant or stupid prejudices, others have valid reasons from their experience and ways of looking and doing. This is the nature of art, and it is almost required of art that breaks new ground. One must go on one’s nerve to be different — and nerve is another way to say that you fully risk pretending to validity and worth.
Horses is halfway a rock song record, and the other half is something else. Yes, Smith sings on the record, but often words are chanted, spoken, prayed, reduced to sound collages halfway between puns and scat singing. If one was to compare it to the singer-songwriter records of it’s day or to a hip hop record closer to now, it’s closer to the later but still its own thing. In the context of then and now, Horses is less likely than records of either the 1975 or 2021 poles to represent itself as a first-person narration of the singer. For much of the record’s running time Smith speaks as fuzzily defined protagonists that however lacking in biographic detail don’t seem to be herself. Rappers may like to put on exaggerated and boasting personas, and lately gender fluidity has found its way into hip hop, but Smith is male or of indeterminate gender for almost the entirety of her first record. Sexualized violence and unilateral lust occurs in a state between fantasy and reality. Visionary states of consciousness are entered into extravagantly, yet this never seems much like a psychedelic record of a few years before. Is it more gothic than many of those? Perhaps — but too Horses seems more consequential, and less a novel pipe dream.
Around this time, following my own thread, I began reading in translation and slowly translating to English a handful of French poems. I still “understood” little of that poetry, and didn’t even like all of it. I gravitated to the Surrealists mostly, but I had paperback volumes of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations and A Season in Hell, and I knew that the Surrealists thought him a Surrealist before their time. Yet to this day, I’ve not really come to grips with Rimbaud. Translation is one way to deeply understand, and that’s a route I’ve taken in the past couple of years with him.
From left to right: the most well-known photo of Rimbaud while he was still writing poetry, Patti Smith’s iconic Horses cover photo taken by Robert Mapplethorpe and a photo from the time of the Paris Commune in 1871 that has been identified as likely of Rimbaud.
Even superficially one can see the linkage between Smith and Rimbaud in the most hermetic piece on Smith’s record, “Land.” A protagonist character that may persist throughout this more than nine-and-a-half-minute piece, Johnny, seems to be a melding of one of William Burroughs’s Wild Boys**** and Chuck Berry’s persona of Afro-American guitar-playing crossover success, Johnny B. Goode. In place of Berry’s refrain of “Go go, go Johnny, go go” Smith substitutes “Go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud.” But Smith’s Rimbaud influence seems to be even deeper, merging somewhat too with her partnership with the young Robert Mapplethorpe. If decades of exposure to Rimbaud hasn’t greatly increased my understanding and/or appreciation for Rimbaud, I’ve oddly been able to appreciate Patti Smith from the first words I read of hers on the page, and from the first words on Horses.***** It was famously said about the first Velvet Underground record that few bought it, but everyone who did started a band. Horses sold a bit better, despite its originality and outsider stance. A lot of Horses’ listeners started bands too, and more than a few of us found it more than a demonstration of how to express unusual things within the context of an irregular rock band — we remember it helped us survive and find meaning in that survival. Does that sound sappy to say? Sound like late-adolescent hero worship? Examining myself I don’t think it’s as much of that as it sounds like. Maybe I’m wrong? I’m beyond caring this late in my life what that was, or why — I’m more at grateful I survived and can do this Project now.
Those who know Rimbaud’s biography or work from its appearances here or elsewhere will know how unique and audacious he was too. The most famous single fact about him is that he stopped writing poetry as a teenager, so his entire collected works are the works of a minor. Some of it conforms formally and shows a careful versifier, and some of it out-Whitmans Whitman in free expression of physicality and sexuality.
I awoke at 3 AM this morning, deciding I had to do something today for Patti Smith’s 75th birthday. My sleepless mind half-dreamed and solved that it needed to be something by Rimbaud. Despite reduced higher brain functions, I downloaded a collected works and began searching. Life situations will not allow me to complete any piece started as late as today by end of the day. So, this is Part One, all I can complete. Below there’s an audio piece containing my translation of one of Rimbaud’s best short, rhymed lyrics performed with a little Patti Smith Group feel to the music. The piece is Rimbaud’s “Eternity,” and it’s been one of the most popular ones the Parlando Project has presented. If you’d like to read my translation of the lyric or my original thoughts on the process of creating it, you can find that here. To hear it, you can use the player below, or this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.
*Girls basketball was a big thing in Iowa outside of its largest cities who were uninterested in girls sports at that time. In those days it was played with special rules using 3 on 3 teams separated in each half of the court. This meant that girls that didn’t have shooting talent could play only defense and rebound, and girls whose talent was shooting could be very effective and dominate without having to be quite the all-around athletes that modern women basketball players are asked to be. This allowed good coaching and gritty players from small towns to beat many larger schools in the single-class annual state championship tournament which was broadcast live and covered extensively in the newspapers.
**Like snooty Parisians, even rural un-degreed Iowans of my time would know to discretely sneer “out-lander!” at anyone who pronounced our state capitol with un-French final “s” sounds. Beside that historical French connection, my aunt and associated pair of cousins had been posted with her husband in France with the Army, and those cousins were bilingual as they learned speech. She herself spoke French with a decided American southern accent, a little like American Creole. I loved that aunt so much, this might have also been a factor.
***I keep reminding my contemporary teenager that “punk” at its American inception didn’t mean a single style. It was more at the “irregulars” —those whose lives had not necessarily been as musicians — being pressed into service as the more exclusively musical Sixties predecessors died, became depleted from drugs (cocaine in particular gave too many a “best consumed by” date), or just became regimented in a new record industry that understood how to constrain musical artists into commercial money-makers. Speaking in the context of Rimbaud, I could note that “punk” originated as slang for a less successful/powerful criminals and by extension into less-powerful young men in homosexual relations.
****I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of those labeled “Beats,” but for some reason I’ve never really wanted to read Burroughs. I have no idea if that’s my loss. All I know about him is what others have said, but Smith has spoken of Burroughs’ influence, so I don’t need to draw the connection myself. “Land” itself was the hardest song on Horses for me to appreciate and enjoy. I’d been through some incidents of sexualized violence in my teen years and Smith’s use of that motif, while not exactly “triggering” in the modern parlance, wasn’t easy to appreciate.
*****I do own a copy of the indie single that preceded the LP, but I bought it after the LP came out. I first ran across Patti Smith on the page as a writer, before Horses. One early example I recall was a prose-poemish piece of hers called “Dylan’s Dog.” And I knew from notices that she and Lenny Kaye (another person I knew as a “rock critic” before I heard a note of his music) had been mixing electric guitar with poetry. By 1974-75 in Newburgh I was far enough away and far enough poor that I was disconnected from New York City, and so I missed out on the NYC CBGB’s scene.
The last time I created and performed a fresh translation of a Rimbaud poem here, I broke from my usual practice with translation and produced a rhyming poem. I don’t usually do that. There’s too much else to try to bring over from one language to another to add that extra degree of difficulty. But in the case of Rimbaud’s “Eternity” I felt the incantatory power of the poem was too essential to discard.
Today’s new translation from Rimbaud’s French relieved me of that decision, as “Dawn” is from his collection of prose poems Illuminations. I’m still left with the usual problems of translation though. My primary goal when I translate is to make the poem vivid in the destination language, and that leads me to take care with two tasks: to transfer the sense of the poem’s images to the contemporary reader in the new language; and when a poem makes use of scenes or an overall plot, to do the same with portraying that. The translated poem’s sound word-music will almost certainly be diminished (per Frost’s “poetry is what’s lost in translation” declaration) but I try to respect the poem’s music of thought, that sense of harmonic relationships between things, the melodic undulation of its series of images. These primary tasks become fraught when the images and scenes are difficult, or by intent irrational or obscure; and in those cases determining the author’s intent and how understandable they would likely be to the intended reader they wrote them for adds another level of difficulty.
Lately I fear I may go too far in how I handle this, reducing to something determined that which the author wanted to remain mysterious or only an enticing sound or novel juxtaposition — yet still I risk it. Most other translations of today’s Rimbaud piece are less clear than the one I produced. My hope is that the sense of wonder in the poem is enhanced rather than reduced by portraying more exactly what I sensed Rimbaud was showing us. Here’s a link to the poem in French, and then here is the fresh translation I made and used for today’s performance:
Issues start with the poems opening sentence: “embrassé” has been translated as “embraced” (retaining some of the sound from French) and as “kissed.” From the whole of the poem, this non-native French speaker thinks there’s more of a context of grabbed or taken in here. Unlike others I then chose to make a compound English expression for Rimbaud’s single word: “caught and kissed.” My hope is that this sets up the story that Rimbaud seems to me to be telling, of the poem’s speaker and the dawn of the title being caught up in something between a passionate tryst and an abduction.*
Truckloads of dawn are being shipped while you sleep!
The second paragraph shows us an urban early morning as the sun is just rising. Grand public buildings, symbols of power and order, have no crowds or guards. The trees are still shadowing the streets. Warmth is only gradually emerging from the overnight chill.** The last phrase there remains somewhat mysterious to me, so I left it so for the reader. I believe the wings may be the pigeons or other early morning birds in front of the grand buildings, but “pierreries” (gemstones) is harder to grasp. I tried the thought that it might be iridescent feathers on the birds, but little else in this poem looks at such a close level and I suspect more at glints of early morning light breaking in, which helps inform how I handle the next section.
That next paragraph is mysterious too — and left somewhat at that in my translation. But I couldn’t resist making “blêmes éclats” into “gilded splinters.” It was just too good a connection from Rimbaud’s French to Afro-American creole French, known to me from the Voodoo folk-chant once appropriated effectively by Dr. John into a slow-burning musical ritual.
I think the next paragraph is dawn’s light coming in through tree branches, blonde on blonde.
In the next paragraph I once more choose a compound English expression rather than making a singular choice from the French. “Voiles” can be either a veil or a sail,*** an I think the sense of the poem wants it to be both. Dawn (feminine) is lifting veils, and the poem’s speaker (masculine) is setting sail on a voyage. Ecstatically Rimbaud is sailing down the streets in the poem’s mind and camera-eye out to the very borders of the city in a magical instant while dawn is still breaking and unveiling, to reach where in the penultimate paragraph dawn and Rimbaud fall onto a forest floor in what I read as a sexual embrace.****
Some readings of the poem have the final sentence as one of those “It was all a dream” trick endings. Yes, the poem intends to portray a visionary experience, but I think we’re still in the vision at the poem’s end, perhaps with the lovers only about to depart in a mid-day aubade — after all, the speaker has exercised the aubade trope of denouncing the time-announcing rooster. In their union, dawn and Rimbaud have stopped time, if only for an interval.
So, here’s the player gadget and alternative highlighted hyperlink for those who don’t get the player gadget in your reader to hear my performance of my new translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s “Dawn.”
*This poem is a vision, a fantasy. Yes, within the fantasy there’s no explicit consent, and we might read Rimbaud as male and the long-haired and veiled dawn as female (see the footnote on linguistic gender below) but that may be us putting our own casting on the fantasy roles here. But again, it’s a fantasy, and the loving and respectful rules of reality may contain it.
Alternatively, in kinky fantasy footnotes, my best-guess that the child (l’enfant) in that concluding embrace is a persona of the young Rimbaud, and that opens up age of consent issues regarding an encounter between the ancient cosmic event of solar dawn and a teenager. Beyond glib jokes, given Rimbaud’s biography, I wonder if that has been more seriously addressed by modern scholars?
**Personal aside: in my early-morning bike rides this May, I’m growing increasingly tired of the WWII-Fahrenheit temperatures of between 39-45 degrees so far. I want to ride with bare legs and arms and make vitamin D with human skin!
***The former noun is feminine in French and the later is masculine. My teenager strongly dislikes gendered languages with a personal dislike, and I’ve never cared for this common language feature for efficiency’s sake. Still, I searched the section to see if I could determine the gender intended and decided it wasn’t certain.
****Discrete Rimbaud leaves out (did I intend that pun?): forest floor matter in nether crevices, bugs more interested in their own desires, and pointy things extrinsic to the coupling. This is why Rimbaud is a poet!
Heard this one? A Chinese poet, a shadow and the moon walk into a bar, and they order wine from a translator…Oh, that was last time, and Le Bai’s “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon.” Well I promised I’d say a little bit more about translation in another post, as yesterday’s was already long enough.
I’ve translated some poems for this project that have few or no translations I can obtain. After all, this project is a strange mix of poems few have heard about and then “poetry’s greatest hits.” There’s a real need for translations of poems that have been overlooked, but I do feel like I’m driving my translation SUV on thin lake ice when I do them. You see, I don’t speak any language other than English. My only academic exposure to languages was high school French, and most of what I learned then was that my mouth and vocal cords couldn’t pronounce French words correctly. Whatever knowledge of French vocabulary, much less verb tenses and syntax, has faded over the decades since. About all that’s left is recognizing a French word that I would have wrestled with as a teenager, sort as if one might recognize someone at a class reunion as someone you used to know even while their name now escapes you.
So, what do I rely on since I’m monolingual? Machine translation, such as Microsoft and Google translate is helpful. When I’d translate French poems in the 1970s before any such computer/network things, I’d be thumbing back and forth in French-English dictionaries for an afternoon just to get that far, and now in a second I can get something that is a helpful start. With Chinese poems, Chinese-poems.com provides literal/one-for-one translations for the Chinese characters of a number of poems.
But these two ways are just a start. For example, here is the literal from Chinese-poems.com for a poem by Du Fu about Li Bai:
Cold wind rise sky end
Gentleman thought resemble what
Goose what time come
River lake autumn water much
Literature hate fate eminent
Demons happy people failure
Respond together wronged person language
Throw poems give Miluo
And here is Google Translate’s rendering of yesterday’s Li Bai poem:
A pot of wine among the flowers
No blind date alone
Toast to the bright moon
Opposite shadows into three people
The moon is neither free to drink
The shadow disciple with me
Temporarily accompanied by the shadow of the moon
Fun must be in spring
I linger about song moon
My dance shadows are messy
Make friends when you wake up
Disperse after drunk
Endlessly relentlessly travel,
Phase Miao Yunhan
Unless one enjoys the most abstract kind of language poetry, neither is much of a poem, and neither will impress a casual reader with the need to read them or an experience to be savored. What can one, seeking to make an effective English poem, grab hold from these literals?
I almost always start with the images. What is the poet seeing or sensing? As I get some working sense of that, I’m mixing in the question of how these images relate. My primary job as a translator then is to take those things and make them vivid and comprehensible to a modern English speaker. If I fail at that, the translation will fail utterly. If I succeed at that, the result will have some value (assuming your source is a good, effective poem) even if it’s not yet a strong piece of poetry.
I’ve always admired folks who mastered several languages, though I’m not one of them. But, with an open heart and inquiring mind, aided by modern Internet dictionary and research tools, a poet can expand their view of poetry by the process of translating others.
As I polish my translation, I pay attention to what I began to feel are key words. I have spent an hour or two on one word,* and not having any panel of native speakers to refer to, I’ll do Internet searches looking at actual usage of the word in other writing and using online dictionaries to appreciate more about the specifics of meaning.
What about the word-music? Master poet Robert Frost famously said “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” But Frost was a stoic, maybe even something of a fatalist, so this observation from him doesn’t mean to not try translation—it just means to accept a certain amount of failure is inevitable and to continue. If you are translating a rhyming poem from another language to English should you rhyme it, maybe even try to use the original language’s rhyming scheme? My answer to this was no—or it was, until I ran into Rimbaud’s “Eternity” and found it too bare without the reinforcement of the ringing of the rhymes. But to mess too much with a poem’s matter of images and juxtapositions to make rhyme is a mistake in my mind. Similarly, scholars tell me that Li Bai was a formalist poet: his poetry exactly followed the existing rules of Chinese prosody that I have almost no understanding of. Even if I understood them and had a plan to represent them in English, how much can I afford to sacrifice for that? Even though the original poet had to make tough choices during creation within their language to fit the form or make the rhyme, I as a translator have taken on an additional, difficult task and will say I cannot cripple the poem to retain some shadow of its original music.
Still, poetry is musical speech. I do try to make the resulting translation have a music in English. It just may not be much of a copy of the original poet’s word-music. In the Parlando Project I often have fun matching poets and poems to musical settings that seem, at least at first, to be inappropriate. Any word-music device that adds to the poem’s vividness can be chosen anew during the re-creation that is translation.
In yesterday’s Li Bai, I added a refrain, a repeated line that wasn’t a set line, and so it has an intoxicated repetition effect. This device wasn’t used by Li Bai. My reading of his poem was that it wants to represent the experience of intoxication progressing to the point of being quite drunk, and this musical device reinforced that.
Do I look at other English translations, if available? Yes, I do, though my usual practice was to do this after I have finished mine. I’m not sure if this is right, but I have enjoyed the gradual reveal of a poem’s meaning as one labors over the translation, and so I don’t want to unwrap the present beforehand. In case of yesterday’s Li Bai poem there were an extraordinary number of English translations available,** and I collected all I found on the Internet and read them all. I think I may have been asking myself if another translation is even needed here, or thinking there was a possible post on how there can be so many and how they differed.
Remember that “thin ice” feeling I mentioned when one is translating a language that is not one you’ve mastered even to a rudimentary level? Reading another translation can help you check that you haven’t fallen through and trapped your translated poem under the ice where it needs to be rescued or left to die in the white page darkness of your own abandoned project pile.*** Sometimes I double check where I differ, dive deeper into the original language or what I can determine about the author’s intent or knowledge. Other times, I believe I’ve found a co-equal alternative in the poem’s ambiguity. After all, many of the more than 40 translators I found of Li Bai’s poem knew at least some of these other translations. The inarguable fact that there have been many effective portrayals of Hamlet doesn’t mean we should stop performing the play.
Ideally, in matters of culture and language, a poet-translator should work with speakers and scholars of those things. Many translators do, to at least some degree. My age, resources, project deadlines, and personality have kept me from doing this with the translations in this project, and even though collaboration is a component of some effective art, committee work rarely is. Ezra Pound relied on limited Japanese sources for his translations of Tang dynasty Chinese poets. The results were not very accurate, but they produced vivid poetry that bore, however inexactly, the power of their original verse to English language readers.
Currently, there are additional worries about cultural appropriation in such actions, perhaps even in my own. Some of it comes down to a sort of literary Gresham’s law: that less accurate work by those outside a culture will obscure or prevent work by those within it. This is an issue worthy of a few thousand words on its own, but not today. I tell myself at my level, with a small audience (thank you for being that audience!) and a completely non-commercial enterprise for the past four years, that I’d be putting on airs if I thought I was stopping someone else. As an artist, I’ll testify too that bad or incomplete work can be inspiring. I also have enough faith in the accidental and chaotic parts of artistic inspiration that allows mistakes and misinterpretations to produce good art. And while I acknowledge the issues, I have some inner belief that cross-cultural exchange is both unregulatable and desirable.
Speaking of accuracy, of faithfulness to the original poet: I’ve feel a duty to them. Translating someone else’s work can be an intimate experience, an additional level beyond reading a poem, or even deep reading a poem several times, or performing it aloud, or memorizing it. However inaccurately and fantastically, I feel for a few days as if I’m working as an apprentice to this 8th century Chinese master. This year, following the practice of Robert Okaji, I’ve decided that more of my translations would better be labeled “After…” which is an out if I’ve misinterpreted, and a license to extend what I may have only partially absorbed.
Before I leave the subject of translation, I encourage any of you who write poetry to attempt it. Perhaps pick a poet you’ve liked in translation and double-check the English translation you know by doing your own from the original language. You may be surprised at how freely the translator chose to work, but beyond that: this feeling of co-creation, of apprenticeship and comradeship with another artist, with the choices that need to be made in your language to carry in it what comes from the other’s eyes, heart, and senses—this is a powerful spur to the poetic art. And though the English language can be proud of it’s poets, there’s a world of poetry that was spoken in other tongues. French poetry helped form my early writing, Chinese poetry has expanded the range of my older poetic voice.
No new audio piece today, but here’s a piece about how I eventually came to a theory of how my experience of a song my great-grandfather liked was a “mistranslation” of his experience of it. Oh, and like Li Bai’s poem, intoxicating beverages are involved.
***I’ve been fairly brave or foolhardy given my lack of language facility, but there’s no reason that you have to show anyone your translations, much less perform them as I’ve done here. And while I might be audacious, other people’s work I present here is overwhelmingly in the public domain. I agree that living writers should have a say in the substantial reuse of their work, but your own private translations are not an issue.
For those that have been following our look at English poet Frances Cornford, we’ll have at least one more example coming of her stuff soon. But now is the time when we count-down the ten most liked and listened to pieces from this past winter.
It’s been a slightly difficult season for this project for me personally. It’s frankly been hard to keep up the level of posting, research, composition, recording, and playing that goes into it. What has been encouraging is the increase in listenership for the audio pieces and your continued readership here on the blog. December set a new record for monthly listens with increases coming significantly from those who hear only the audio pieces from the places where you might get podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, PlayerFM etc.)* During February the number of listens passed the milepost of 50,000 all-time downloads. This is small by the scale of Internet sensations (typically measured in millions) but to me that’s satisfying in the larger, but sparser crowd of those interested in poetic expression.
Readers here on the Parlando Project blog know that besides the same audio pieces the podcast listeners get, you get more information here about the writers and my reaction to what they’re doing. You might think of the blog as a kind of an “insiders ring” in that way. Blog traffic took off last fall, which made my heart leap up, and it’s continued at a similar level over the winter.
Given that I mostly keep with the older pre-1924 Public Domain stuff that is unrestricted in reuse, and because I wander about various musical genres in a way that’d tempt many old car radio listeners to “push the button” and current playlist streamers to tap play next, I especially appreciate those who stick with this project and it’s eclectic tastes!
Let’s go to the countdown. Today we’ll cover numbers 10 through 8 as calculated from listens on all platforms and likes here on the blog. The title of each piece will be hyperlinked to the original post, so you can click and check on what I said about it then.
10. Rimbaud’s “Eternity.” This winter I decided to make things more difficult for me by doing more translations of non-English poetry, adding translation to the whole compose/record the music, play most of the musical parts, research the context of the text, and then write about those tasks. And Rimbaud may have caused me more trouble in translation that anyone other than maybe Mallarmé. I labored to some kind of reasonable draft on two or three Rimbaud poems, but the results just didn’t grab me in English. Knowing that some other poets who I admire think highly of his work, I couldn’t figure out if I was picking the wrong poems, or what.
“Go Rimbaud, Go Rimbaud….” The most famous photo of the teenaged poet.
Then with his “Eternity” I realized—this poem’s impact in French comes from its invocatory power. This is why someone as unafraid of going over the top as the young Patti Smith could be drawn to his writing. Free verse can reach that level, but loosening my translation so that I could (uncharacteristically) render it as a rhyming verse made this one more compelling.
9. “The Labors of Hercules” by Marianne Moore. Marianne Moore writes in English, but her expression is so unusual that I feel like I need to translate her to get to the heart of her poems. Unlike Moore’s contemporary Gertrude Stein, whose verse is even harder to draw denotative meaning from, the task of performing Moore to music is challenged by her conversational rhythms which sound like someone talking.** Not only does this make it harder to fit in regularized music (I didn’t) it tends to lure the listener into thinking that they should be able to comprehend what Moore is getting at. With Stein you’re quickly aware that words are being used in a musical way, so you can just enjoy them for sound value. With Moore you sometimes think that the speaker herself or you the listener are in early days as English as a second language.
A lesser-known photo of Marianne Moore. Like Frost and William Carlos Williams, I always visualize her as if she was born at that advanced age that she was at when I started to encounter poetry, not as this young woman
I’m doing the back-patting here, but I think I helped Moore’s gist come across a bit better by my performance than the poem left sitting mute on the page.
8. “Ghost Blues” by Hugo Ball. Another case where I decided to go with a looser translation in order to vivify the original work for the modern English language user. The original post shows some of the intermediate steps I went through in translating this Dadaist poem from German. One thing that I think I’ve figured out after the original post is that a word that I couldn’t find in any of my accessible German dictionaries, “Gängelschwemme,” is probably a place name. My performance uses “spillway” for it, and still I have no way to know for sure (if it is a place name) if it references something along those lines.
I decided to make this a Dada Blues as it might be loosely rendered by electric players in the blues revival of the Sixties. Unlike a lot of pieces here, this one isn’t really composed. I had setup a loop to see if my translated text might fit to a groove like that. As I sung, I felt moved to plug in an electric guitar as I tried the lyrics.
“Hey, this works pretty good” I thought. I hit record. And one take later this is what you get.
If you’re new here you may notice that all of these are electric guitar pieces in a rock’n’roll context (though “The Labors of Hercules” is more irregular and somewhere in-between post-rock and free-jazz in my mind). Long time listeners here know that’s not what we consistently do. Stick around, the next three of the Winter 2020 Top Ten is coming up soon.
*Just to clarify expectations: the Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet podcast is only the audio pieces themselves, unadorned. While I suppose I could chat about the poems and my music in the discursive and wandering way most audio podcasts do, I don’t do that.
**Back in the 1960s when I first got a little plastic cassette recorder, I took to recording people having casual conversations and then transcribing the words literally. Here’s what shocked me in this practice: the words on the page made little grammatical or syntactical sense. The transcriptions didn’t even match “natural, realistic” dialog in fiction. Our daily conversation is often more avant-garde than we realize; and we are comprehensible to each other orally in ways that we would not be if our speech was turned into page text, through things like timbre, expression, non-regularized conjunctions and connections.
I suspect Stein and Moore were both more exacting mental transcribers of what we actually say aloud than conventional literature expected, and as two women aware of the modernist movement in general (not just literature, but music and visual art) they combined this objective phenomenon with their own aesthetic techniques.
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.**
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.
“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.
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. Some of you know the drill to hear it: the player gadget’s below, but what if you don’t see a player? Here’s an alternative, this highlighted hyperlink will also play my performance.
*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.
It’s time to look back on the past season and to look once more at the most listened to and liked pieces over that time. We do this in the classic count-down method, moving from the 10th most popular to the most popular piece.
This time I’m going to link to the original post each time so that you can read the longer discussion of my encounter with the text, but if you’d just like to hear the recordings of the performance of the poems, the player gadget following each listing will do that.
10. October by Paul Laurence Dunbar. When something makes these count-down lists it’s often hard to know if it’s the inherent interest in the author, the things I wrote in the post introducing the poem, or the qualities of the musical piece and its performance that account for that. In this case I think it could be a bit of all three. I wrote in my post about what I thought was an undertone in this seemingly happy autumn poem. Was that a misreading? I’m not sure, but it informed my solemn musical performance which may work even if you don’t share my sense of this supple poem.
I highly recommend translation as an exercise for poets. Not only do you need to achieve a Vulcan “mind meld” with another artist when translating them, but the mental muscles activated to find the best English word in sense and sound are great ones to develop for one’s own writing.
Three poets awaiting the invention of the MacBook and the modern coffee shop with WiFi: Rilke, Mallarmé., and Dunbar.
8. Autumn Day by Rainer Maria Rilke. Another translation that received good response this fall. Here I ascribe a substantial portion of that response to those looking for and appreciating Rilke poems, and finding some here. Of course, there may be many reasons for that desire to seek out Rilke, but I’m under the casual impression that he’s treasured for what seem to be life lessons to his readers. I noted in my post on this poem that it’s been a particularly popular target for translators, but you still may want to look at mine, or hear the way I performed it.
This poem of his is also an example of a theme: gardens and small agriculture, that I returned to again and again this fall. Perhaps it’s my own position in life’s passage that caused that, but there are a good number of autumn poems that are both about the experience of “cultivating one’s garden” and the valence of the ending of a growing season. Such is Rilke’s.
One of the issues with being half-learned is that one can fall into traps and tasks that are more difficult than you expected. This week I thought, why don’t I translate some Mallarmé? Alternate voice here Dave Moore had given me a book on him for my birthday (which I haven’t had time to read yet, too busy with this project…) but having recently translated and performed another poem by Apollinaire, I was reminded how often the English language Modernists looked to the preceding French Symbolists for inspiration.
So, I look. I see lots of sonnets, which is good. I like short poems personally and I aim for shorter pieces here for performance too. And short should make for a shorter translation task. On one hand, I have my unfamiliarity with French other than my il y a longtemps high school. On the other hand, I’ve tackled French Dada and Surrealist work, so a 19th century Symbolist should be no harder.
The hard to translate word here would be: “Oops.”
Turns out Mallarmé focused on esoteric philosophical ideas and the ideal in his art and manner. Maybe the rough English language analog would be Wallace Stevens, but with Stevens I can lay back and enjoy the color and sound of his English language words without having to worry about translating them into another language, and Mallarmé is very compressed and obscure in his tropes. There’s a reason that 20th century Dadaists found him congenial despite his dour and spiritual outlook: in French he may be interesting without one needing to understand what he’s intent about.
The 16 line poem I picked to translate, “Saint” is an earlier one, one reckoned to be less obscure than later Mallarmé. I’m not sure how much that helped.
I read one report “Mallarmé was…widely considered incomprehensible—the standard joke was to request a translation of his work into French…” I read that several hours into my translation. I laughed pretty hard.
You go for the cheap pun Frank. Look here: I wrote “phalange.” Is that not singular? My friend Manet’s painting of me will enlarge on this point!
Mallarmé’s “Saint” isn’t incomprehensible. It’s even an admirable poem with something to portray about the ideal nature of music. It probably helps if one has some background in Roman Catholic liturgy as one reads it, but imagery requiring a bit of understanding of other cultures can be a feature not a bug.
Here it is in French, in one of three slightly different versions I eventually came upon:
A la fenêtre recélant
Le santal vieux qui se dédore
De la viole étincelant
Jadis selon flûte ou mandore,
Est la sainte pale, étalant
Le livre vieux qui se déplie
Du Magnificat ruisselant
Jadis selon vêpre ou complie:
A ce vitrage d’ostensoir
Que frôle une harpe par l’Ange
Formée avec son vol du soir
Pour la délicate phalange
Du doigt que, sans le santal
Ni le vieux livre, elle balance
Sur le plumage instrumental,
Musicienne du silence.
Native French speakers: feel free to mock my audacity to render this. For those interested in translation, I’m going to allow you to look over my shoulder as I worked on this. Note: I almost never try to render rhyme schemes or meter from one language to another. Like Stevens in English, this poem sounds lovely in French even if you can’t figure it out. In English I tried to instead vividly render the images, which is my preference in translation, even if it can lead to approximations and out and out bad guesses. And then to put that to some English word-music that may not reference the other language’s “tune.”
Here’s what I came up with:
The window frames
The worn fretboard
Of the splendid viola—
Once played music with flute or mandolin.
There’s the pale saint, opening,
Spreading the old book.
Mary’s Magnificat falls out—
Once for vesper or compline.
This window is a monstrance.
She holds her harp, an angel’s
Customary evening wing,
Played by the delicate phalanx
Of fingers. Without a fretboard,
Without the old book, she strums
On the instrumental plumage,
A musician of silence.
First Stanza. This is an extraordinarily difficult image to figure out, and some of the guesses others have made are not a concrete image, which could even be Mallarmé’s intent. There’s clearly an instrument mentioned, a viol (a larger predecessor to our modern viola, and I imagined a viola da gamba, a wonderful “early-music” instrument for which the viol name was used). I rendered it as viola so that moderns might have a more common instrument in their minds eye. I did the same for “mandore” an ancestor of the now more familiar mandolin. Mallarmé may have meant to add an ancient music air to this, and I could have gone the other way with the instrument names (Stevens would have).
One of the chief problems is some read this description as an instrument that’s out of sight (“recélant” can mean to harbor or to conceal—and a window concealing?). Idealist Mallarmé could have intended it out of the frame. But I wasn’t sure, and I’d rather the reader know about it clearly, particularly as it opens the poem. And his description is puzzling—a point made of it being personified as sandalwood for one thing. Sandalwood is a hardwood. You probably wouldn’t use it to make the soundboard of an instrument, which functionally and surface-area-wise would be the main part. But it can be used for necks and particularly for finger/fretboards. Even though Mallarmé repeats sandalwood later in the poem, and there are fragrance and ceremonial connections with the wood and word, I decided to call it a fretboard, to help us see the instrument. There’s another issue with Mallarmé’s description: the instrument is “étincelant” and yet also “dédore.” I decided that the instrument is “splendid” but also “worn” in the area of that hardwood fretboard: i.e. this is a fine instrument that has been well and often played.
Second Stanza. This one is more straightforward. Cecilia is the “sainte pale” (named specifically in early versions of the poem) and she’s opened a book which seems to contain the score of a setting to Mary the mother of Jesus’ famous passage called the Magnificat in Roman Catholicism. I decided to add the “Mary’s” to the Magnificat just to help listeners hear the word as a proper noun. And something happens regarding the Magnificat: “ruisselant.” This word, best as I can figure has a sense of streaming or trickling. At first I thought the image is that the music represented by the score is magically sounding itself as Cecilia the patron saint of music opens the old book. But I don’t think we are to hear music as the poem develops, and so I wondered if the meanings of ruisselant infer running downhill. I decided that the score of the Magnificat falls out of the book, making itself known, but not making a sound or allowing it to be used to aid the music making, just as in stanza one Cecilia is not availing herself of a fine and once oft-used viola.
Third Stanza. Tougher again. This stanza contains the strongest image of the poem, the fusing of an angel’s bird-like wing with the somewhat-like shape of a harp—and Mallarmé wants to stuff other ideas into the four lines too. I decided that the specific and technical term “monstrance” cannot be replaced: it’s a glass altarpiece holder of a sacred object. Wallace Stevens would have loved to have used that word! The obscurity of the word adds some mystery I think, and no simply understandable single word replaces it. With the stanza’s last word I fell into thinking Mallarmé intended to pun on “phalange” (phalanx) which is from the Greek, meaning a massed formation (usually of soldiers or police)—but also fingers, similarly grouped together in disciplined order when playing an instrument. I decided to use phalanx because either words’ use for fingers is somewhat obscure in English (outside of medical usage) but I liked the idea of the delicate phalanx of soldiers or riot troops. But I think phalange may be singular in French, and if so, I may have misunderstood Mallarmé’s intent. My sin is falling in love with the image.
Fourth Stanza. Home stretch! Easier again, and choices already made set it up. In my reading Mallarmé is saying Cecilia has her spiritual intent on ideal music, the impossible music made with the mythical wings of angels and the impossible music made by strumming a bird’s feathers—such a fine image because it works bidirectionally! Actual music has been left behind as once, and not now (“jadis,” twice in the poem). She no longer needs the viola or the score.
She’s become the unheard melodies that idealist Keats says are sweeter than heard ones.
CeCe, you’re messing up the form again! It’s a 12 bar minor blues with a 4 bar tag I’m going to modulate counter-clockwise on the cycle of 5ths each second chorus, and then—what you do mean, “Wing it?”
In performance, I had to resort to heard music so that the estate of John Cage didn’t sue me for plagiarism. I thought I might try to reference the Velvet Underground when it featured the pale saint John Cale on keyboards and viola. But neither the drum part nor the rhythm guitars I settled on had that VU feel. None-the-less I went ahead and created a top line using viola and a keening combo organ.
Last time I repeated the short poem several times so that I could show the different ways it could be expressed. Today’s short musical piece gathers a sort of meditative power if played on repeat. The player is below.
Poetry as an immediate witness to momentous history is not a common thing. Poems of events tend to autobiography, deaths, love, births, personal injuries and triumphs. Today’s piece has both elements—memorable on both counts.
Guillaume Apollinaire is a major figure in Modernism with an influence across the arts as a critic and theorist. He popularized the term Cubism, invented the term Surrealism, and using his own name “Orphism” helped explain and formulate abstract expressionism. In the era surrounding WWI his influence and omnipresence was stronger from his base in Paris with French-speakers than Ezra Pound’s was for English-speakers from London. As a poet Apollinaire bridges the 19th century Symbolists to the Dada and Surrealism to come, and though he wrote in French, many of the English-language Modernists looked to French models for their verse.* While his work is experimental with form and language, it’s also very open-hearted and joyous in a way I associate with later 20th century American Frank O’Hara.
“The little car” tells of a day of Apollinaire’s that would change his life. On that biographic matter alone it would be of interest to literary historians. But it also tells us about the early days of the most influential event in Modernism, the outbreak of WWI. Apollinaire’s poem is comparable to W. H. Auden’s better-known beginning of WWII poem “September 1, 1939.”
So, let’s begin talking about the poetry as history today.
World War I started over a series of days earlier in the month of August 1914, kicked off by a ham-handed assassination in the Balkans at the end of June, followed by a slow enactment of various alliances and agreements plunging the whole world into warfare over the course of weeks (or in the case of the U.S., years).
Unlike the reputation of WWI as a brutal struggle of attrition between trenches, the opening August weeks were fast-moving. German troops cut through Belgium taking over that country in short order, putting them at the northern border of France as they met the French army. Large military movements and formations just slightly modernized from the Napoleonic era, that still included cavalry charges and fife and drum, met modern artillery and rapid firing weapons. Aerial bombings were introduced to warfare (though ground-based actions were more deadly to civilians). Soon amplified by propaganda, there are widespread accounts of bestial atrocities by the advancing army.**
Before the events of today’s poem, which self-dates itself to the end of August 1914 and into the following September day, during the Battle of the Frontiers, France’s army had suffered its largest single day of deaths and casualties in this or any war before or since, a staggering total of 27,000 killed in one day, with a figure of 300,000 casualties. The French army was reeling, withdrawing back toward Paris, which was the Germans’ objective in this first month of the war.
Apollinaire and his friend the artist André Rouveyre are in Deauville on the northern, English Channel coast of France. The poem doesn’t say, but I’m assuming they feel that the German advance is threatening their location, and so they do what threatened people unsure of the future often too, they head for home, Paris, not weighing that the French capital is the objective of that invading army.
Here’s my new translation of Apollinaire’s “La petite auto” used for today’s performance
That they leave “a little before midnight” is not just an image of imminent dark change, it also may say something of a necessity not to wait, or perhaps a decision that traveling at night, as difficult as it might be with primitive headlights, may be safer under the cover of darkness.
The poem continues with a series of Symbolist images, assembled in whatever order, as a Cubist painting might be. These are not mere inventions. Although expressed symbolically, they are reportage. Indeed, some of the symbolic events which may seem mundane to us in our world, would be accounts of dreadful wonder in 1914: men fighting in the sky, submarine monsters of war—the masters/merchants of war with their opulent and extraordinary wares.
Another feature of this poem is that the text begins to wander on the page and eventually is laid out in a manner that Apollinaire called “Calligrammes” to form the shape of “The little car” of the title.*** I’ve not included that concrete poetry text in my new translation for reasons of length and focus on the spoken potential of the piece.
The poem ends with Apollinaire and Rouveyre arriving in Paris on the afternoon of September 1st. I note the poem says they stopped for a bit in Fontainebleau, just south of Paris, which indicates that they took a round-about route that day since Fontainebleau is south-east of Paris though they were coming from the north-west of Paris.
The “mobilization posters” he speaks of that were being put up as they pulled into town tell of the irony of their route to escape the Germans. The German army is now threatening Paris itself, advancing to between 20-30 miles from the city, and legend has it that the French army was able to redeploy quickly by dragooning the entire taxi-fleet of Paris.****
Many of Apollinaire’s WWI generation lived on as forces in my post-WWII lifetime, as still-living actors in the culture, but Apollinaire was not to be one of them. So influential as he was in the early-20th century’s cultural ferment, it could be said that his death during the war was the single most important cultural casualty, more important than the death of promising poets such as Edward Thomas or Wilfred Owen because Apollinaire, like another casualty, T. E. Hulme, was more than just a writer, he was a leader and promoter of ideas. You can make the case that his death is the same magnitude as some alternate-time-line where the world lost Picasso in 1918. Or you could make another judgement: he was so effective in the pre-1918 years, and the Modernist urge was so strong and then intensified by a world war that made the old artistic forms seem like a cavalry charge against machine guns, that his continued life was not crucial. That’s a cold debate. His friends sure missed him, and kept working.
Dionysus and Apollinaire.
Musically I’ve had this thought lately that I’ve avoided use of some of my most basic musical genres. And Iggy and the Stooges are the definition of that. They started as an art project, making free-form noise on stage, with Iggy Pop, a converted blues-band drummer as their front man. Somehow they decided that the most elemental and elementary expression, however untutored and unvarnished was the way to go. Iggy Pop’s lyrics were the “Blue Undershirts” of 60s rock, the rejoinder to “you call that poetry.” A song such as “1969” from their debut LP is a bored and hedonistic critique of a year deep in another war, cultural and shooting. Robert Lowell it’s not. It’s really not. No, it’s really really not.
For this performance I’ve enlisted my son, the “in his first year of it” bass player and singer, who from his interest in punk and indie-rock can explore that aesthetic with a fresh set of fingers. Conceptually, this song is inspired by the Stooges “1969” because here we have (with “The little car”) two songs about war across a nation,***** but in my tribute I simplified the Stooges’ typical 3 chord trick into a 2 chord chug. Of course, to my son the Vietnam era is exactly as old as WWI was to Iggy and the Stooges. All wars should be so old.
***E. E. Cummings was heavily inspired not only by Apollinaire’s dropping of punctuation, but his freeness with placement of text on the page.
****The taxis that saved Paris legend may not hold up. But my favorite part of this linked story? The account that the taxi owners kept the meters running and presented a bill to the government after the battle. Paging Joseph Heller or Milo Minderbinder to the white courtesy phone.
*****Or not—at least by intent. On the rattling plastic luggage record players of the time, I always heard Iggy Pop’s opening lines in 1969 to be “It’s 1969 OK/War across the USA.” Some cover versions say I’m not the only one who heard “war” as part of the folk process. The published lyrics and close listening with headphones say Iggy was singing “All across the USA.” Well, excuse me while I kiss this guy. The Iliad was carried by an oral tradition long before it was written down. Regression analysis says Homer wrote it about some sunny Mediterranean partying and dancing. The homoerotic and warfare parts were just misheard by the folks in the back row.