For not the first time here, I need to travel in a roundabout way in time and place to get to today’s piece. Last post, I discussed how little survives of the work of the ancient Greek poet Sappho: only a small handful of more-or-less complete poems, the rest fragments (some as small as a single word).
What caused us to then remember her at all, to collect and care about these fragments? I think it’s largely because the legends that grew up about her combined with the short verses that survive are intriguing. Yes, the ancient Greeks praised her formal poetic achievements highly, but what survives of her writing and biographic legends testify to a poet who lived and writes about love and desire. The compression of the lyric form mixes with the intensity of the erotic themes and the peak-a-boo of their historic fragmentation — the poems flirt with us.
And now for the time-jump. We move to the beginning of the 20th century, from an exotic 7th century BCE Aegean island dweller to a Canadian, a poet with the name of Bliss Carman.* In 1894, Carman and a college friend published a collection of poems extolling the romantic carefree life: Songs of Vagabondia. Not quite as ecstatic as Whitman or Jack Kerouac, it none-the-less found a public and launched two sequels. Carmen followed this series up in 1907 with what became his most highly praised poetry collection, the audacious Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics. How’s that? We’ve established there’s only a handful of somewhat complete poems.
Bliss Carman audaciously invented his own extension of Sappho. Sappho is here depicted as being the first poet to chew on the cap of her pen while thinking.
Carman’s cousin, and fellow worker to establish a Canadian poetry, Charles G. D. Roberts, explained what Carmen did altogether briefly in an introduction to the book:
Mr. Carman’s method, apparently, has been to imagine each lost lyric as discovered, and then to translate it; for the indefinable flavour of the translation is maintained throughout, though accompanied by the fluidity and freedom of purely original work.”
One wishes for more explanation. Roberts’ account reads to me like one of those occultists who receive texts through spirit guides or translate ancient inscriptions by telepathic laying on of hands. However, in reading the entire book I get a sense of a different tactic with the same strategic goal that I’ve admitted in some of my translations and presentations with music: an attempt to make the old text in an old language uniquely accessible to some contemporary readers.
Yes, yes there are dangers in inauthenticity and willful anachronism. Um Actually historical scholarship illuminates things too, but last time I said I understand and find value in those current readers of Sappho who wish to encounter her as if she was a modern gay woman. Carmen wanted his readers back then to get some sense of Sappho’s expression of unboundaried love that the fragments hint at if assembled just so.
His re-animated Sappho is more of a circa 1900 Pre-Raphaelite to Pre-Modernist** one. He eschews rhyme and doesn’t go all out for florid poetic diction. Most of the lines are his, not Sappho’s by any actual sense of translation, and perhaps they are best appreciated in the same way that dialog is in a historical novel. In research this week I understand there were some notes where Carman at least connected a portion of the poems with the corresponding cataloged Sappho fragments, but nothing like this was contained in the published book.
At it’s best, like today’s piece, you get a poem that wears its intent of patinaed timelessness lightly. Here’s a link to the poem’s text if you want to read along. I particularly like the image of the coupled lovers watching from the bedroom window unknowable ships whose ventures are now safe in port.***
For music today, I’ve turned not to the ancient lyre and flutes of Sappho’s time, but perversely to try for that timeless illusion using synthesizers along with my fretless electric bass. The player gadget may appear below to hear my performance of Bliss Carman’s “LXXXII Over the roofs the honey-coloured moon” poem. Some blog viewers will not show the player gadget, but then this highlighted hyperlink will play the audio piece if you click on it.
*I’ll admit it: the moment I read this name, I smiled. I couldn’t tell what gender. To modern ears “Bliss Carman” sounds like a florid pen name on a romance novel, or even a drag queen’s persona, but some reading and research staunched my snickering. In Real Life, he helped establish Canadian literary poetry and his career stretched from the establishment of the Canadian Confederation to the Modernism of the 1920s.
***Reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights” poem with lovers “Futile — the winds — To a Heart in port — Done with the Compass — Done with the Chart!” Dickinson’s poem would have been somewhat freshly published when Carmen was working, and I wonder if he knew it?
The ancient Greek poet Sappho is one of the oldest poetic voices we have record of. Like the Greek epic poet Homer, her work likely predates written literature and was originally intended to be sung. How much more do we know about her?
Almost nothing for sure — or even by likelihood. As with Homer there are traditions and later stories about her, none of which are plainly based on first-hand accounts, all written centuries later. If one prefers to base their literary analysis on the text alone, that would be just about the only choice in Sappho’s case. Yet for many people not generally interested in ancient Greek poetry, Sappho is best known for being a lesbian writer — indeed the very term for that erotic affinity is derived from the Aegean Island where Sappho lived, Lesbos.
I’d need to be more knowledgeable than I am to discuss how Sappho’s lesbian identification came to be accepted as general knowledge, but some arguments are made using evidence from the text of her poetry. Which brings me to the next thing I was reminded of as I looked at using some of Sappho’s poetry over the past couple of weeks: there’s really very little of it. Very little of it.
Imagine you are a couple of centuries after some event which has erased a great deal of our formerly recorded literature. Suppose you were, in such a time, to try to assess the works of T. S. Eliot, Bob Dylan, or Emily Dickinson based only on other writers’ surviving references to them, references you can only hope will be buttressed with a short quote or two. Everything else would be lost. Sure, those commentaries in surviving texts would be tantalizing, testimony to the author’s greatness — but because they were written before some general loss of literature, they are painful too in their assumption that they needed then to be only pointers to something every cultured person would know.
In such a world of imaginary loss T. S. Eliot would be the “April is the cruelest month” and “bang not a whimper” guy without necessarily the rest of the poems that contained those lines in context surviving. And what could we make about a lost work about, what — cats? Dylan’s music* might well be lost, but a few pithy phrases would survive because so many others liked to quote him to make a point about their times. Some accounts would say he was a great performer, yet others would make fun of his voice. Dickinson? Perhaps a legend would survive of a lifelong, lovelorn hermit, since that makes for a good story,** but beside that we could have only a stanza or so of her short poems, her actual art retaining only the “greatest hits” lines that got quoted, “Hope is a thing with feathers,” “Because I could not stop for death,” and so on.
Sadly, this is what’s left of Sappho’s art.*** So perhaps it’s consolation during Pride month that we have presently imagined her as someone like those we know today: a breathing, living individual of desires and feelings.
Until this century there are only a couple of Sappho poems that were complete enough to consider as an entire work. Then in 2004 another mostly complete poem was added to the canon. The text was found incorporated into the structure of a paper-mache like mummy case that had languished in a European museum. The ancient makers of the mummy case had just recycled what was then garbage dump material, but this dump just happened to contain a manuscript from the 3rd century BCE of a poem by Sappho.
If you’d like to see the text in archaic Greek, a gloss in English, and several English translations other than mine, you can find it at this page. Alas, I can’t link to this section on the long web page that this poem’s entry is part of, but if you search for (Control F on your keyboard) Lobel-Page 58 you’ll jump to it.
*Sappho was a composer and lyre player. Some accounts have her as the leader of a school that taught music, which led me to translate the opening of today’s poem as a musical admonition.
**That summary of Dickinson’s life isn’t all that different rounded-off from the one I received in my youth anyway, even though our modern scholarship has established a roughly normal life for Dickinson, whose noticeable agoraphobia came after her literary work decreased.
***There doesn’t seem to be a single cause for so little of Sappho’s work surviving intact. The random acts of time alone would account for much of that loss. The famed lost libraries of Alexandria no doubt carried some of her work.
****Rimbaud, who wrote his entire influential corpus of revolutionary poetry before he turned 20, spent the last years of his short life as a merchant-trader in an Ethiopian branch office dealing in coffee.
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!
Many of the visits to this blog are not you, the regular readers who are reading this fresh post, but views of some older posts via a search engine. A gaggle from Google have come recently to a post from a year ago which doesn’t feature one of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits,” though it does use, in a way, the words of one of America’s most loved poets, Robert Frost.
Here’s a link to that post. I looked at this post, and I’m not sure what brought it to increased attention, though after re-reading it today, I complemented my past self — who I alternately think is wiser or more foolish than the current occupant of my consciousness. I thought I did a good job of describing how we as writers may improve our work through revision, even though the example I used in the post was my own revision, for my own parochial reasons, of the words of a recognized great poet.
How is this photo connected to today’s post? I don’t exactly know. So what should some translator do when asked to present it in their language?
I’m wrestling with these matters currently with another translation in process,* a prose-poem by Arthur Rimbaud, particularly with a common issue I come upon in translation: how much did the author intend to be mysterious, and how much did they (or their ideal, likely contemporary reader/listener) understand to be clear in their original language? With translation, one can’t avoid substituting your own words, and likely things like word-order, idiom, and so forth — that’s inescapable, inherent in the task.
In the case of this poem by Frost, my recasting wasn’t so much for immediacy of meaning, or to make an image clearer to our time and place; but to make the poem more sing-able, to fit and obtain impact in a conventional song performance. Yet, the song that I made of it was not very popular with listeners here. When I looked today, it appears that nobody that has visited the post this month has listened to the performance.
Again, complementing my past self, the one I feel I can more often judge objectively; I think I did a pretty good job of the song I derived from inside Frost’s poem “Ghost House” and retitled “Stones Under a Low-Limbed Tree.” My vocal (often a weak point) was passable — though I idly wish for “cover versions” by a legitimate vocalist for pieces I write and present here — and the rest of the audio piece works well.
*Following the practice of Robert Okaji, I’ve taken to casting some of my alterations or freer translations as “After a poem by…” — another way to deal with this, though it doesn’t remove all the questions I ask myself.
Well, this is sort of embarrassing. The Parlando Project is about wandering about in the universe of other people’s words that I might combine with music. I wanted to cast for a wide choice of words because that was part of the core energy of one of the project’s ideas: “Other People’s Stories” and how could my music and the performances illuminate a range of experiences.
You see, I think that the performer—like you, the reader or the listener—should become the co-creator with the author’s text for the fullest experience. I find it rewarding when, in taking my part, I am collaborating with William Butler Yeats, Fenton Johnson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Du Fu, Emily Dickinson, or Tristan Tzara. Long-time readers here may have noticed that in the past year I’ve increasingly turned to translation from non-English authors, which enforces that need to become the respectful collaborator with the author’s text, but in effect even those authors who wrote in my native language require translation into a performance with music.
I had the damndest dream! I was this 4th century BCE Chinese guy eating breakfast in Minneapolis. And then I awoke, and I was just Walt Whitman, a cosmos.
So despite those principles, the most popular piece in terms of likes and listens this past fall was “Two Butterflies,” an exception where I wrote the words as well as the music. In my original post on “Two Butterflies” I didn’t take much time to write about my intent with the poem. Let me do that today.
The original experience that brought this poem to my mind was sitting at an outdoor city patio early one morning eating breakfast when I was startled by the pair of butterflies flying past me within inches without stopping on their way to the potted plant near the café’s door. For the next several minutes I was enraptured by them, compelled to watch them experience the same transient morning I was in. I noticed them intent on their connection to the flowers that co-existed with a watchfulness so that they would each take off in a spiral flight when someone else would enter the café for takeout.
Much of the poem then was pure observation, its ideas derived largely from what I selected to report. The effect I was seeking to bring out in the reader in that part of the poem was an intense investment and identification with these creatures and the poem’s speaker. At times the speaker is away and watching, at times he seems as close as one of the butterflies is to the other, or even seeing through their eyes the humans about them.
Then two stanzas from the end, the poem has its turn, its volta. I’m not sure if the way I went was the right way to go. I destroy the imagist mood of the opening three-quarters or so of the poem, but I often quite like it as a reader when a poem destroys its mood or continuity in service of another frame or facet of what it’s portraying.* My readers often note this as a fault, a mistake on my part, but if so, it’s a mistake following my intent here. The poem could end before the last two stanzas, and it’d be more likeable. The casual reader would find that foreshortened poem largely understandable, a pleasant word picture.
The sin I risk in the last two stanzas is pretention—and that’s not a tantalizing sin to me. I fear committing it as much as I fear being caught committing it. To say what I sincerely thought in that morning’s moment is not an air-tight alibi. I pack a lot of metaphysics into those last two stanzas, and most readers don’t want to be waylaid by such. Most of us are too busy competing with or caring for each other to find that useful. For a few moments—and pretentiously, for only a few moments—one morning I was unoccupied enough to think on these things. You, dear reader, are not obligated to do the same. If you’d like to hear my performance of “Two Butterflies” the player gadget will usually appear below. If you don’t see a player, this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.
*The desire for this kind of sideways explosion in a poem’s intent or at least a slicing undercutting of its statement was something that I found in my attempt this month to come to terms with the Zhuangzi, and its own Butterfly Dream. Casual readers and even philosophers seem so taken by the implied question in Zhuang Zhou’s Butterfly Dream of how can we be sure if something is dream or reality, and then entirely miss the extra explosion Zhuang Zhou put at the end of his parable: that we find these two states completely distinct, and yet we move between them. Therefore, can we not move between completely different states in our outlook in other matters?
I’ve got Burton Watson’s translation of The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu containing all the inner books of the Zhuangzi, and it’s somewhat slow going to fully grasp despite Watson’s helpful framing and notes, but as promised Zhuang Zhou hops around quickly, hoping perhaps to destroy conventional reading.
In the 8th century, in China, there was a poem written by a man whose name we now write in our alphabet as Du Fu.* It’s a short poem, 8 lines, and in it Du Fu addresses a friend, another Chinese poet of his time, Li Bai. Du Fu was able to compress a lot into those few lines about their shared task of writing. I’ve seen the poem’s title translated as “Thinking of Li Po at Sky’s End.”
Here’s a literal gloss of the original Chinese ideogramic text translated into English:
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
I’ve been carrying this gloss around in the background since August, thinking about how to render it when I chose to translate a poem by Li Bai instead. Then this November I was taking time out from the Parlando Project for a task I complete each month: to write up my reactions to a small group of poems from a circle of poets I’ve known for over 40 years. I try do do my best at this. The members of this group are generally accomplished, two of them markedly more so than I. In-between responding to their work, I continued to consider the Du Fu poem.
This project that you meet me at here has allowed me to explore intensively how I respond to poetry, poetry that is often of widely different styles. This only makes me more worried as I respond to this circle’s new work. I’ve seen varied ways poems can work, but I’ve seen the varied ways they can fail with an audience too. I try to respond authentically to the circle’s work, with an open heart, just as I do with the poems I present here, but in the end, what do I know for sure about what works or makes something work better or less well? What then to tell other poets, perhaps ones better than you?
After all, the same thing that seems to succeed in one poem seems to fail in another. I often think of how many musicians and writers have said that if they had the maps and mechanisms to make their art work each and every time, they would go to that place and never leave.
Similarly, if we knew as readers and listeners how to always pay the proper attention, would more poems, songs, or tunes succeed or fail?
This year I’ve begun writing a series of sonnets about my inability to come to grips with a number of simultaneous crises: a viral pandemic, a wider and painful realization of our racial caste system and its costs, the climate change frog-potboiling, and a government in proud, foolish, and willful disarray regarding these things and the judgement of voters. Round and round I go trying to find out what I don’t know. Trying to figure out what’s best to do. No next thing I read or watch will answer that, and some of what I come upon will dismay or anger me. That syndrome has been given a name: “doomscrolling,” and perhaps you have found yourself falling into it too. In honor of the obsessive nature of us little people trying to make sense of these senseless things and manage some mitigating protection for ourselves, friends, and family, I’m calling my series The Doomscrolling Sonnets. We try to puzzle these things out, just as we continue to try to make poetry or other art work.
I think that may be what Du Fu wants to tell fellow poet Li Bai he understands in his poem.**
In my roundabout way, I came to a decision about how to present Du Fu’s poem. I decided to use it as a rough framework, an inspiration, as the kind of translation as starting point that is most accurately described as “After Du Fu” rather than an attempt at a faithful translation.*** This poem isn’t going to be written to Li Bai, it’s going to be to my friends, and to you if you too read, write, speak, or listen to poetry in this troubled time when our rudder is stuck hard to one side and we circle endlessly.
I love dividing the 14 lines of a sonnet in various ways. Instead of an octet and sestet, this one is two 7-line stanzas with the turn/volta in the middle, and a closing couplet. Rather than end-rhyme, I decided to use a variety of internal rhymes, repeated words, and near-rhymes. The effect I’m aiming for here is a constant but irregular little chime occurring rather than a fixed rhyme that has the reader settling into an expectation.
I open the poem trying to render Du Fu’s autumn setting with some extra elaboration, though I translated it to my colder Minnesota clime. I think of the geese here as our occasional encounter with our muses and sometimes the song we hear from them isn’t as sublime as we’d like. And late autumn reminds us of what we must, and have, finished, what we’ve written down: the dried, settled ink and frozen surfaces of pages.
Chinesepoems.com, the source of the gloss above, gives us a helpful hint at what Du Fu is getting at with his closing line. Qu Yuan is a poet who, in a time of despair, threw himself into the Miluo river and drowned. In tribute, poets would come later and throw poems into the Miluo at the site of Qu Yuan’s death. Here again, I had my own localization to apply. I used to walk every day over a bridge crossing the Mississippi River, that mighty stream that runs through the middle of the Twin Cities and the rest of our country. A couple of years before I came to the Twin Cities, John Berryman, a poet and professor had copied Qu Yuan (or Hart Crane) and jumped from that bridge, a direct downward path taken presumably in giving up his own doomscrolling life and literary problems. I knew nothing of Qu Yuan or Du Fu back then when that was my daily walk, but I too once dropped a poem over the side of the bridge. Maybe Du Fu spoke to me before I knew his name? Muses will do that.
This poem’s two best lines I think are my attempt to directly translate Du Fu:
True literature doesn’t care if it is popular, and
It is only demons that care about a poet’s failures!”
You can stick that one by your keyboard or in your notebook. I think it’s better to listen to muses than demons, even if the muses lead us on, because muses tell us to write poems which we may throw in the water rather than throwing ourselves. I say that, even though I have reminded you here over the years: “All artists fail.” And so, we, poets, will fail. We fail mostly.
* Du Fu is also spelled out as Tu Fu, and Li Bai as Li Po. The poet Ch’un Yuan referred to at the end of Du Fu’s poem can also be spelled Qu Yuan. It all has to do with the problem of taking Chinese language and portraying the names with the Western alphabet.
** Du Fu’s poem was written in a troubled time. The government of China was in turmoil, the country divided in civil conflict. Both Du Fu and Li Bai were imprisoned during this conflict, and Li Bai eventually had a death sentence handed down against him. Li Bai’s death sentence was commuted, but he was sent into exile. The two friends were separated for the rest of their lives.
As a person educated in the mid-20th century this is what I knew about Fredrich Nietzsche: he was a philosopher who was all the rage in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century and he had this thing about achieving a more perfected human condition. Oh, I knew one more thing about him, something that discouraged all other curiosity: the Nazis liked him, saw him as an intellectual forerunner of their decidedly non-intellectual movement.
I know only a little more than that now. In the past few years it’s become accepted knowledge that the Nazi connection was to a large degree accidental. Nietzsche’s sister was his literary executor,* and she was a Nazi fan-girl who did a great deal to forge that linkage; and since the Nazis were nationalists, the available idea that there was a notable German cultural figure whose contradictory writings could dab some intellectual cologne onto their bully-boy stink was useful.
But this fall, while reading a blog I follow,** I learned another thing: that Nietzsche was also a poet. Which shouldn’t be news to me I guess, but it had never occurred to me, even though as a philosopher Nietzsche seemed to be something of a human quote machine who could turn out memorable phrases. And today’s text, “In German November,” was the example that introduced me to that fact.
Ah sunflower! Weary of cold and $%*@! snow.
I know only a little about German literary Romanticism, but what I know makes Nietzsche’s poem part of that tradition: worship of nature, doomed love—Damn! There’s even a prominent talking flower for Odin’s-sake! This can seem very twee in summary, but Nietzsche redeems it with his gift for language and characterization. Unlike other translations I’ve done here, this one’s poetic images and plot moved rather easily into English.
This is autumn: it — it just breaks your heart.”
After the poem establishes its “This is Autumn…” refrain by opening with it, the first full stanza has a graceful post-equinox image of a now lower sun against a mountain that would please Wang Wei. The poem’s second scene, set in a orchard with post-frost fruit starting to rot mixes sex and death tropes effectively. And then there’s that talking flower.
It takes some nerve to carry that scene off both as a writer and as a performer. I felt I had to push myself as a singer to portray the sunflower, and part of the reason I’ve started to put chord sheets up for some of my compositions here is to encourage better singers to improve on my attempts.
Simple chords, but this one has opportunities for a singer.
Because Nietzsche’s German moves fairly easily to English my translation doesn’t differ that much from the one in this link, which also provides you with the original German. One choice/change I made: I wanted to emphasize the existential angst of the sunflower and to strengthen an image—and so the original German: “in ihrem Auge glänzet dann/Erinnerung auf” gains a repeated word “memorial” reflected in the dying flower/eye. I also thought the implied pause in Nietzsche’s refrain: “This is autumn: it—just breaks your heart.” could be emphasized further by repeating the “it” for a stutter effect.
As I mentioned above, I went for it in this performance, and given my limits as a singer it may not be to everyone’s taste, but it was the best I could do given the more limited recording opportunities I have these days. The player gadget to hear it is below. Thanks for reading and listening in whatever November wherever you are.
*Nietzsche died in 1900, late enough to give his ideas access to the early 20th century’s cultural ferment, but with the benefit that the proponent of those ideas wasn’t around to contradict the uses interpreters put them to.
**Byron’s Muse. I like to think I’ve outgrown youthful goth romanticism, which fits badly with my aged frame and less virginal connections to death, but Byron’s Muse sometimes reminds me that artistically there is still some attraction there.
It’s time to look back over the summer and see which pieces you liked and listened to the most during this season. As always, I’m going to count up to the most popular in a series of posts here over the next few days. Each bold-face listing is a link to the original post, in case you’d like to read what I said when I first presented it.
10. Before Summer Rain by Rainer Maria Rilke. Long time readers here will know that I like to take a crack at original translations, and I even wrote a post this summer about how I, a person with only a little French in high school over 50 years ago, goes about this—and why you might want to try this too. Regardless of your level of language mastery and your obligations to the original writer, a public translator must also take up an obligation to produce an impactful, living poem. It may be unavoidable that you bring your own gifts as a poet to this task—or even up your game to be able to do that while using another poet’s inspiration as your matter.
Rilke currently has a reputation as a poet of spiritual uplift, a man whose lines get Pinterested over photos, quoted in journal entries, and immortalized on refrigerator magnets. In short: the self-help poet of spiritual self-improvement. I’m not going to knock that. There’s a hell of a lot of lesser things that a work of art can do than to make someone feel better, less lonely in their thoughts, or to help them think that they can better themselves. Sure aesthetes, that’s not all poetry can do, and while I’m no Rilke scholar, I think that isn’t all Rilke can do either.
My translation focused on Rilke’s images in his poem, trying my best to make them understandable or at least striking, and to give the poem a working English word-music.
9. Huazi Ridge after a poem by Wang Wei. More translation. The cultural and linguistic audacity to translate classical Chinese poetry has to be a few orders of magnitude greater than translating 20th century German (a language I don’t speak, but I had grandparents who did).
I decided to term what I derived from the sparse literal translation I had of this poem “after Wang Wei,” which is likely more accurate than calling it a translation. But if you are going to use what is more frankly your impression of a poem, the charge remains the same: give us something vivid and give it some word-music that works in English.
The music music here includes my simple approach to the Chinese lute, the pipa. While guitarists might think they have some grounding with this not unrelated string instrument, the pipa, like the western lute, has almost no sustain compared to the modern guitar. Great players can wring a wide range of sophisticated effects from the pipa, but a naïve player like myself just hopes to add a little bit of a different timbre that reflects the culture that produced such distinctive and highly compressed lyric poetry.
If you like to hear what the pipa is capable of, Gao Hong demonstrates it’s range while performing her composition “Flying Dragon” in this video.
8. Government by Carl Sandburg. Carl, whose parents spoke Swedish, makes things easy for me by already writing his poem in informal modern English. Sandburg worked for the Socialist* mayor of Milwaukee before he started his career as a poet in Chicago and published his first collection, Chicago Poems, where this one appears. His day job in Chicago was working as a newspaper journalist in the era made famous by the play and movie The Front Page. These things mean that when Sandburg writes this poem and says repeatedly “I saw…” it’s not just some poetic trope.
His final stanza is a fairly sophisticated analysis of politics. Interestingly it’s not—in this poem—a ringing call for change. The statement here that government is made up of humans, and that it therefore inherits human characteristics, is on the face of it an explanation of the political failures this poem testifies to. But nested in this also is the idea the government can change as people change (and change it). No, it won’t be perfect, but it can be better.
*Midwestern Socialists of Sandburg’s time reached the highest level of Government administrative responsibility in US history.
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.
Our last audio piece this month had American satirist Mark Twain pointing out incongruities in the longstanding trope of the tortured poetic genius who dashes off “weird, wild, incomprehensible poems with astonishing facility, and then gets booming drunk and sleeps in the gutter.”
How far back does that trope go? Well at least to 8th century China, and the authentic poetic genius of Li Bai.* Li Bai and Du Fu are the two most highly regarded poets of the Tang dynasty period, and given that the Tang dynasty can be viewed as the artistic high water mark of an extremely long and wide culture, that makes this pair probably the most esteemed Chinese poets. The metaphor is rough, but unavoidable: either have been called “The Shakespeare of China.” Their lives overlapped, they knew each other, even wrote poems that drop each other’s names.
Li Bai both by reputation and through the persona that appears in his poems, has some similarities to Twain’s poetic genius. References to wine** in Chinese poetry are legion, but even against that background Li Bai stands out for the number of poems he wrote about the consumption of wine and examination of intoxicated states. The Li Bai poem I’m performing today, “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon” is one famous example.
I think this poem pulls off a neat trick. Somewhat like Twain’s “Genius,” on the surface it’s comic: Li Bai portraying himself as a sort of Falstaffian character whose meditation practice this evening in nature is to get hammered on some juice. But to my reading this short poem also portrays the progression of his intoxication subtly. The opening has him cleverly figuring out how to bypass any guilt from society’s admonitions regarding solitary drinking. And then he quasi-surprises himself that his plan is only partly working. I love the image of him finding that his shadow is merely a disciple—that Shadow will only follow Li Bai’s own drinking and not spur him on by proposing additional draughts. Then as his hand gets less steady, the moon’s reflection in his wine cup wiggles and dances. He of course doesn’t sense that he’s getting unsteady himself, but that shadow guy, he sure looks shaky. Finally as intoxication becomes deeper, he senses that his senses are going to be blotto, that the disciple Shadow-man, the companion moon, and yes even Li Bai himself are going to be out of it, cast off into some state not in the here and there of his actual moment.
Where does he go, where does his imagination go? The final image is of stars, moving, swimming it seems, movement-blurred. These could be the actual stars if he’s now flat drunk, or even abstract visual stimuli as his consciousness slips away. Footnotes in some translations tell us the idiom Li Bai uses in his ending may be understood as the Milky Way, the visual smear of our own stellar galaxy visible on some clear non-light polluted nights. My reading is that Li Bai may be using that image, but any stars are blurred and multiplied to his character in the poem now.
My new translation of Li Bai for today’s performance.
Oddly, it takes a clear-headed poet to portray drunkenness. Twain may have had some moment of empathy for his dying in rags and dirt “Genius” poet, however foolish he can portray him. Li Bai starts his poem alone—and though he imagines his two drinking partners, he knows that they too, not unlike real companions absent at the start of his poem, will disappear with his consciousness as the wine flows.
In the original Chinese, Li Bai was a meticulous poet, observant of the traditional forms, a fluent user of rhyme and the Chinese version of meter. I can’t tell if any of the poetry Twain’s genius wrote justified the rough and foolish life, but from Li Bai’s esteemed poetry we know that whatever is true of his now legendary life, that his poetry gives us something worth reading. It’s possible the poet Li Bai used the character Li Bai, the dauntless romantic unconcerned for moderation—just as Samuel Clemmons, the ambitious young man who fled west to become a writer, used the character of Mark Twain.
I’ll probably write a follow-up post regarding the process I went through in creating this original English translation of Li Bai’s poem, but in summary, my observation at the start of that task was that most existing translations worked hard to be poetic, and some achieved that to a degree, but at a cost of not vividly embodying the process and character of the poem’s speaker. So, I went another way.
Musically this started out as a rock quartet: two electric guitars, drums and a very saturated overdriven bass guitar that sounds almost like a synth bass. I used some woozy Mellotron strings again, adding a bit of simulated worn tape cartridge wobble. I was going to go with the infamous Mellotron flute (any two or three notes using that, and many will forget what you’re playing and start to go: “Let me take you down, where I’m going to, Strawberry Fields…”) and then I thought: why not a Chinese bamboo flute instead? The last part I played was an approximation of a guzheng, a long scale zither-like Chinese instrument that I thought of since I had recently seen some examples in a museum this summer.
*The names we type and read in western alphabet for Li Bai’s name are approximations, and the schemes have varied. Li Bai is also rendered as Li Po and Li Bo and if we take the carom shot off the backboard of Japan’s pronunciation (as Ezra Pound did), he can also be called Ri Haku or Ri Taihaku.
**I had to look and see as I worked on this translation what kind of wine was common in 8th century China and would be known to Li Bai. Most Chinese wine in those days was grain-based from millet or rice. There were regions that made fruit wines then, but they were much less common.