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 player gadget to hear my performance of my fresh translation of Li Bai’s “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon” is below.
*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.
How do we determine what a poem is on about? That this should be a question is a reason many flee poetry. Plainspoken poems still exist, and some poets manage to pull off the technique where there’s an easily accessible layer, and then on further consideration, deeper ones beckoning beneath. But the plainspoken poems are not always honored in the school anthologies that introduce growing minds to the art; and too many when introduced to deeper readings fall away from poetry thinking that either they “just don’t get it” or that those pointing out these subtleties are hallucinating angels and cows in cloud forms.
Even a poet like Robert Frost who was able to pull off that trick of relatable surface and deeper, more complicated undercurrents, must suffer from party boors like myself reminding trapped conversation subjects that “The Road Not Taken” is about the over-consideration of choice not the necessity of stalwart individualism. Damn, the listener thinks, looking for an out, “I thought I had a poem, my poem, and now this fellow is saying one or the other of us is an idiot or a fool.”
There’s another route, another signpost that may help, one couched in the informal phrase “Where are you coming from?” Given that literature in our age has been to a large degree taken over by memoir,* we may employ this tactic as readers or listeners. In this frame, poets are about their lives, and in an even more contained sense, about the important facts of their lives: a trauma, a struggle, a novel life story.
So, I promised I’d get to Rainer Maria Rilke. Last month I started to translate his poem “Before Summer Rain” from the original German. I sometimes do my translations before reading existing English ones. I’m not sure if that is a good idea, but I like the surprise of a poem coming into view for the first time as I work out the language. I finished a draft of it, and then found two or three other English translations in short order.
My “Before Summer Rain” that I could view when this draft was done was a fairly light, fairly clever nature poem about the onset of a thunderstorm. Summer, leaves are all green—then sunlight, perhaps even the chromatic range of the light’s color, takes on a new cast. A bird calls, but we sense it more as a warning omen or a call for others of its species as the storm brews. Inside the house, sunlight no longer illuminates things. Will it storm or will it not quite reach ignition and fade off? A few drops or a deluge? The poem ends.
Right away I doubted my translation in light of the others. I didn’t get the picture entirely wrong, but a couple of significant details diverged, ones that seemed to take the poem elsewhere. Here’s a link to the most common English translation I found. The translation is by Edward Snow, though almost none of the Internet sites that use his work credit him. Snow published his translation in 1991. He’s an award-winning translator who concentrates on Rilke’s poetry—plenty of reasons to respect Snow’s authority on the accuracy of his Rilke. Other than our differing attempts to make compelling English poetry from Rilke’s German, here are the two things that stuck out.
The end of Rilke’s German line “man denkt an einen Hieronymus” (literal: “one thinks of a Hieronymus”) is in Snow’s, and I think every other English translation I found, translated as “St. Jerome.” This indicates strongly that is how the word would be understood in German, and Hieronymus is the Greek version of the name Jerome. This may be problematic for the poem, however. Assuming that the more knowledgeable translators are correct, this leaves many readers in the dark. What the hell does St. Jerome have to do with this reasonably vivid and non-allusive description of an oncoming storm?** In my first complete draft I thought it better to leave it Greek, which would be mysterious in a more mysterious as opposed to a “what the…” way. My second choice, the one I used by the time of my performance, was to use the literal translation of the name from Greek: “sacred name.” This increases an immediate sense of the moment being described by Rilke. The bird’s call is so urgent, so important, that the sacred is invoked.
OK, if I’m going to worry about a single word, what next? The concluding two lines of Rilke’s poem in German are: “das ungewisse Licht von Nachmittagen, / in denen man sich fürchtete als Kind.” (literal: “the uncertain light of afternoons, / in which one was afraid as a child.” Snow renders these as “the chill, uncertain sunlight of those long / childhood hours when you were so afraid.” I had a completely different sense in my draft, that it was still the external object, the changing light of the summer afternoon threatening to storm, that was being depicted. In poetry the observer, the poem’s speaker, and the object may often be merged, but Snow says this is not just an oncoming storm, this is a trigger of something darker than even that. Snow seems to add “chill,” which I can’t find in Rilke’s German, to intensify that sense.
I had read the poems mood as mostly light, mostly clever. Snow had read it, I think, as darker, more chilling. A day or so later I started to think. Did Rilke suffer some kind of childhood abuse?
And so, just in trying to do a translation, trying to figure out what a poem was on about—so that I could bring you an audio performance of a piece that otherwise wouldn’t exist, I found myself thinking I had two roads: throw out my attempt at translation as a misleading embarrassment, or dig more into Rilke’s life.
Turns out I knew even less than I thought. I had this sense of a lean, sickly, aesthete melding art and spirituality, a purist willing to risk lyrical excess. In looking at the highlights of Rilke’s life, it’s stranger than that. I began to think Midwesterner Don Marquis would have made of Rilke something of his poet character Fothergil Finch in his Hermoine and Her Little Group of Serious Thinkers satire. But Rilke’s childhood did have elements that we, and he, might view as abusive.
Rilke age 4 dressed by a mom who missed a dead daughter, and Rilke age 11 sent off to military school to butch-up by his dad. Yes, 19th century children’s clothes are a different sensibility, and some kids respond to a disciplined and regimented life. Rilke didn’t seem to, and his teen years in the school were not good, clashing with the other students who were more into it.
And so I concluded, I needed to revise my translation or abandon it.
Then yesterday I had a chance to record with acoustic guitar, and I grabbed a few things that might work presented that way. I thought, “Before Summer Rain” needs revised words, but maybe I can compose the music while I’m at it, and I could record the revised words later.
The tune came fast. The chord progression has similarities to a strain used in Ray Davies Kinks’ song “Rainy Day in June” (another song about sudden summer rain), but given that I had access to a quiet room where I could record acoustically, I decided I’d go all the way and use an even quieter nylon-string guitar available there.
Nylon-string guitar might bring various things to mind: “classical guitar,” Willie Nelson, Latin American music. I’ll often associate it with two things: learning to play guitar on a J C Penny’s nylon string guitar in my youth, and the early albums of Leonard Cohen where Cohen would play his “one lick” effectively on nylon string guitar. Testing the melody against the existing words, I recorded a couple of takes, while trying to reacquaint myself with the different sound of nylon strings.
There, with live mics and the recorder running, I realized I had already written the translation that could bring out the personal darkness, the undercurrents of childhood abuse, with my version of Rilke’s words. It was simply a matter of performance.
You can hear the performance below with the player gadget.
*I don’t object to this except to the degree that as a contrarian by sensibility, I don’t want any mode or approach to become so predominant without at least asking what else could be done. This is part of the reason that this project has been focused on “Other People’s Stories” and isn’t as much about a personal journey (though those elements can’t be avoided).
**Wikipedia’s entry for St. Jerome, who I only knew as the man credited for translating the Bible into Latin (then the common language of educated Europeans) includes an anecdote about the guilt-ridden Jerry after a night of too much party trying to atone by visiting Rome’s dark catacombs to commune with the decaying bodies of apostles and martyrs. Major goth points, and possibly even a reason why he might be mentioned in Rilke’s poem. But how well is this known? I also find it odd that the German to English literal has it “a St. Jerome” if we remove the Greek. Was St. Jerome enough of a big deal meme-wise that you could refer to him as a type, like calling someone “a Judas?”
What if you were to find out that a famous, much-loved poem was not a singleton, but that it was instead part of a pair?
“The River Merchant’s Wife, A Letter” is perhaps the most famous Chinese poem in English, and it’s been widely anthologized since Ezra Pound published it in his 1915 collection of translations Cathay. It’s not hard to see why. It’s a lovely piece of free verse, and though it holds to the Modernist style of showing not telling its sentiments, most readers can easily divine the emotions of the young wife displayed in the poem, separated and longing for her partner.
Be patient with me, reader. I feel I must deal with a few peripheral issues with this poem, which I too admire, for as close as it is to many of its readers’ hearts, there are a few issues. While it’s reasonably frank in its Imagist way about a woman’s desire, one could look at it as an endorsement of patriarchal marriage, rather than a portrayal of two people at a particular moment of time.* One could conclude that the woman’s agency in the poem is limited to the feelings her tale evokes in us.
If you, like I’m sure some readers here and elsewhere are, seeking art as a break from social issues, there is also a literary issue, one of the nature of translation. I would discuss even more things I happen to think about when I consider this famous poem, but to keep this post to a reasonable length, I’ll just speak to the translation controversy.
Pound wasn’t a Chinese scholar, didn’t speak the language, and didn’t have any knowledge in depth about the history or culture of that vast country. What he was instead was a poet who had what musicians call, and I’ll repeat with punning intent, “great chops.” Particularly at the time literary Modernism was getting underway in the early 20th century, he had a sense of how to pare things back, to express something vital minus a lot of useless extra baggage. Pound likely recognized a kindred spirit in Li Bai,** the 8th century Chinese poet, and so thought it all right to speak for him in English.*** The poem he produced from Li Bai’s work is a loose translation, missing nuance that more informed scholars find in the original. There have been other attempts at better, or at least more accurate translations. None have produced as widely an effective poem.
But it was in looking at that this past week, while trying to better understand Li Bai’s work and intents, that I had a remarkable discovery. It was probably around midnight, when I should have been sleeping, reading a .PDF scan of a 1922 book of Li Bai translations by Shigeyoshi Obata.**** His translation of the poem Pound made famous is rendered as “Two Letters from Chang-Kan,” the first of which is Obata’s rendering of “The River Merchant’s Wife, a Letter.” But, But But—what! There’s another letter! Did Li Bai intend this to be from another persona, another river merchant’s wife, or is it a second letter written by the same character? Either could make sense. The situation is the same, absent traveling merchant partner, young wife left at home. The speaker’s mood has similarities to the well-known poem too, but there are differences. In my reading of more Li Bai poetry this month I’ve come to believe that he works in subtle associations, subtle parallels, implied metaphors not necessarily made into explicit similes.
Harry Partch kicks out the jams, Li Bai considers the abyss, Ezra Pound looking like he’s ready to write yet another crank letter to the editor
In this poem, the speaker is a bit more angry with the situation and more wary. She’s not fallen out of love, no, but her expressions seem to mix frank longing for her missing partner, with suspicion that it might not be mutual. Was Li Bai contrasting two women, or expressing that the human heart can hold all those emotions at once?
I’m indebted to Obata for making this Li Bai poem known, and since I know of no other translations, I based my version I use today on his English language one—though I, like Pound but having only my own talents—took liberties. I wanted to tell a story that worked as a song, one that would pull the listener in and bring forward in both the text and performance the wider meaning of what is said by the river merchant’s wife in this purported letter. So, my version has a stronger if not strict meter, occasional rhymes, and I try to emphasize those parallels that serve as images that I think are part of Li Bai’s poetic sense-making. Parallelism, refrains, rhymes—these are all musical tactics that can work to bring some things to the foreground that were undercurrents in Obata’s version of Li Bai.
My performance of what I call “The River Merchant’s Wife, Another Letter” is available with the player gadget below. As this is already a long and much-delayed post, I’m not including texts yet for this, but I hope the performance will work in its way.
*I’m sure some have written critiques on this basis, because there is matter there for this, including that the wife is a teenager (though the poem indicates the husband is roughly the same age.) I wonder if anyone has written that the husband’s absence is based on the needs of commerce, asking if this is a veiled attack on capitalism or a cultured acceptance of it?
**Li Bai is the now preferred way to write the poet’s name in western characters. Many works of Pound’s time use a different scheme to render the same poet’s name as Li Po. There are more variations too. Same guy. Confusing.
***Yes, one of the things I could talk about, instead of getting on to the pleasure of the resulting poetry, would be the cultural appropriation in that assumption. Big subject, worthy of a longer treatment.
****The Works of Li Po the Chinese poet done into English verse. Obata was of Japanese heritage, but writes he had access to Chinese-speaking friends and other resources while studying at the University of Wisconsin. When he encounters Cathay he realized Pound’s artistry, but also knew how loose Pound’s translations were, and how they missed certain cultural nuances. “I confess that it was Mr. Pound’s little book that exasperated me and at the same time awakened me to the realization of new possibilities so that I began seriously to do translations myself.” Despite reading both Arthur Waley and Pound’s Chinese translations as a young man, I had never heard of Obata, and there is little available in Internet searches to indicate he made any lasting impact—save for one thing: his translations have been used for settings of Li Bai poems by Constant Lambert and Harry Partch, which seems like remarkably rich company to the likes of me.
Before I present today’s audio piece, once more a story, one that has kept me up reading and thinking about it for the past week. Like many of the stories I’ll tell here, the events may seem at first to be far off and unrelated to you, as much a “who cares” as poetry is to many people. But the story behind the poem affected me, now, in our current age, just as poetry written long before I was born might.
In 1878, a man was born in Germany named Erich Mühsam. When he reached the proper age he was sent off to a fine boarding school where young Mühsam recognized two things: he didn’t much care for the school’s rigorous discipline (“corporal punishment,” the polite word for instructional beatings, was the order of the day) and that he wanted to become a writer, a poet. So, the teenaged Erich wrote an article for the local Socialist newspaper about the school’s abuses. For good or bad, that was his ticket out of there. He was expelled.
As the new 20th century began he returned to his home city of Berlin and fell in with some young folks who were running what in my day would have been called a commune: “Neue Gemeinschaft” (New Society). It’s there that Mühsam met Gustav Landauer, who though only eight years older, became a sort of guru to the young Mühsam. Landauer was a theorist, a charismatic one at that, for a type of Anarchism that believed that the most effective direct action was to begin living the theory rather than seeking (and likely waiting) for some revolution to give Anarchists that opportunity. He encouraged Mühsam to develop as a poet, and poetry was part of Landauer’s world-view. Landauer’s wife was also a poet and a German translator of works of Wilde, Poe, Rabindranath Tagore, and Walt Whitman.
Mühsam absorbed much from Landauer, and you can see that in the text for today’s piece, a poem Mühsam wrote in 1909—but Mühsam was a more active revolutionary, though much of it was through literary efforts: poetry, plays, cabaret works, essays, and editorship of his own anarcho-communist journal Kain. The Left in this period was (as it often is) splintered—sometimes most sure that those with beliefs most adjacent to a segment’s own were as dangerous to the cause as overt opponents. Mühsam was non-violent but open to alliances with those that weren’t. Landauer and Mühsam sometimes found themselves on opposing sides, but their relationship was never severed. Landauer was accused of being to professorial and uninvolved in active struggle. Mühsam was thought by some as too provocative. *
Mühsam, Gustav Landauer, Martin Buber. How does that last guy fit in? Read on. Is it just me or does Mühsam have a little Marc Maron thing going on?
How many of you find this Anarchist theology boring? Well, here comes WWI. Boring also to some, but also deadly and existential.
The war stifled critics of the Imperial German government, at least at first. Even the activist Mühsam had a hot take where defending his country and citizens seemed an imperative.** Write anything critical of the government and you might be arrested and jailed. Support strikes by war-workers? Go directly to jail. So, eventually Mühsam was jailed.
By late 1918 the dam broke. Beside the mountains of deaths on all sides, unimaginable before this first full-scale mass-production European war, Germany was losing, and no amount of government propaganda could convince many that this was not so. Sacrifice for winning can be cast as heroic. Sacrifice for losing is a harder sell.
And if you were waiting for it, here it comes: revolution!
In November 1918 the Kaiser abdicates as WWI ends. In the Bavarian regional capitol, Munich, the Independent Socialist Party declared the “People’s State of Bavaria.” A guy named Kurt Eisner was named its President. Seeking alliances with others on the left, Mühsam and Landauer are offered positions in the new government. They don’t take them up on this, but during this time the two old friends are now in Munich.
Eisner’s Socialists were democratic, republican (small case, they believed in elections). In the midst of this chaos, with even basic social functions in turmoil and the new Socialist alliance unable to prove any of its theories, they held elections in January 1919. They lost. Eisner went to parliament to present his resignation, true to his beliefs. An assassin shot and killed him on the street before he arrived. Now a new government is proclaimed “The Bavarian Soviet Republic.”*** And now Mühsam and Landauer join up.
Ah, so now the story of sleek agitators and thoroughbred theorists pressed into harness as government draft-horse functionaries? If only my story could stay so boring. This government lasted six days. I’ve had left-over pizza that lasted longer than that! And Wikipedia says that during this less than a week time a “mentally ill Foreign Affairs deputy” declared war on Switzerland. How could they go up against all those multifunction knives and prevail? Oh! Such comedy, dark as it is!
Trust that dark. That’s where we’re going.
Now yet another government is declared in Munich, this time led by Communists and a guy that his contemporaries said “Wanted to be Lenin. He thought he was Lenin!” Mühsam is arrested by this new government and thrown back in jail. Given that he was so provocative, one doesn’t have to imagine him stretching his talents far to piss them off. Lucky him. The more mild-mannered Landauer has suffered in this winter the death of his talented literary wife (a victim of the 1918-19 flu pandemic) and the dashing of his hopes for wider realization of his theories. He sticks around, out of power. Is he frozen by grief that winter? Spring comes. There’s a revolution one can count on…
…but not just flowers are coming. The Freikorps, a right-wing militia, goes into Munich to put down the revolution. This they do, hundreds die. Who can tell Landauer’s mind, but Landauer had refused advice to leave in that spring. He’s rounded up, imprisoned. The day after May Day, the guards take him to a room. They beat and abuse him. They shoot him. They beat him some more. They shoot him again, finally killing him, and toss him into a common grave.
Mühsam escaped this because he had been imprisoned by the last revolutionary government. But in the aftermath, he’s still a notorious revolutionary, so he’s put in a new prison as an enemy of the new central German Republic government.
While he’s imprisoned, in 1920, a collection of his poems titled Brennende Erde(Burning Earth) is published, and this month I got a pdf scan copy and did a rough machine translation in order to peruse it. Why did I go looking for this obscure collection? I’d read a passing reference to him as a poet and activist, and something drew me to look, in this time when I’m questioning the arts and poetry and the seeming necessity of activism that I feel unequipped to take on.
I did a more careful, human, translation of the first poem in that collection, “Zum Beginn “ (“At the Beginning.”) It carries a subheading there telling that “At the Beginning” was first published in Gustav Landauer’s magazine, and given the importance of Landauer to Mühsam and the short interval between the publication date for the collection and Landauer’s death, it’s easy to read it as a comment on what Mühsam learned from his teacher. Here’s my English translation, the one I perform today:
Can one read things in it that seem to speak to today? I believe one can. I wonder if whoever was putting together the collection before publication thought it spoke to 1919 too. That line written in 1909: “Plague air hangs over the world” could be read in 1919 as a comment on the great influenza pandemic, not as a mere metaphor, just as you might read it now in Covid-19 times. The closing litany of people awakening to the power of realization, that too could be more than a dusty relic as folks marched this summer under a growing common understanding of oppression and “nets tightly wrapped around the forehead…until it can’t breathe.”
So, what happened to this young poet who turned activist/poet? In 1924 there was an amnesty declared for political prisoners and he was released. Lucky him! Another lucky man released by that amnesty had tried to declare a new government from Munich too, this time in 1923: a painter turned activist named Adolph Hitler. You probably haven’t heard much of his paintings.
Just as his 1909 poem foretold, Mühsam arrived by train in Berlin after release from prison and was met by a crowd of admirers, cheering and lifting him onto their shoulders. Someone thought things got out of hand, and soon the edges of the crowd were being attacked and beaten, though Mühsam was carried to safety that day. More than a decade after he wrote his poem, those with the fists still had the power—or some of it.
Mühsam took part in the artistic and political ferment in Berlin for almost ten years. Shortly after that pardoned painter/activist succeeded in getting power in Germany, someone burnt down the Reichstag, and it was time to round up those that had ticked off Hitler and his supporters. Mühsam was one of the first taken in. You know the quote attributed to the conservative German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller? The one that starts “First they came for…?” Jews, Gays, Leftists, avant garde artists? Was there any group Mühsam didn’t qualify for? Lucky man, head of the line.
He was sent to a concentration camp. There he was beaten and abused. In short order he was taken into a room and abused and beaten until he was dead. The guards hung his body and said he committed suicide.
There are martyrs we remember and martyrs we forget. Phil Ochs wrote a song “Too Many Martyrs” and we might slag him off for stating the obvious rather than the artful—but the obvious is likely the truth here. At least in the United States we have next to no remembrance of Mühsam or Landauer. As far as I can tell from a brief search, Mühsam’s poetry has not attracted interest from English translators, with one site that did feature some English translations (and tantalizingly, some set to music) now defunct—and the domain name takes you to a place with bogus antivirus pop-ups flashing all over your screen. Both do have some interest to Anarchists as political figures. That’s a bit odd. Isn’t one of the romantic knocks against artists turning activists: ars longa, (and their political concerns), vita brevis? Countering that is what I call Donald Hall’s Law: that poet’s statement that almost all poets, even prize-winning poets, are largely unread 20 years after their death. I fight that here, but Hall may be right.
History had a few more things to offer me as I read this sad and affecting tale of these two men.
Mühsam wasn’t the only one who had their life impacted by Landauer and his idea of practicing egalitarian Anarchism right now in a communal and immediate relationship. His most famous pupil was probably Martin Buber, whose influence on humanism in the mid-20th century was considerable.
Remember Landauer and his wife, and his belief in the monad of domestic life as a model for change? Well that talented writer and translator and that theorist of humanist Anarchism had a child. And that child, Brigitte, survived her parents and married a doctor in Berlin. In 1931 they had a child, Mikhail—and later that decade they got out of Dodge before the painter/activist/ Führer got around to those not first on every part of his list.
They settled in America and adopted an easier to spell-and-say name, so their grade-school-aged son Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky became Mike Nichols. He became a radio folk-music DJ, an influential pioneer in popularizing improv comedy with Elaine May, and then on to a significant career as a stage and movie director.
Strange, the undernotes of history. I’ll likely never listen to a Nichols and May routine or watch a Nichols-directed movie like The Graduate again without thinking of that grandfather, that heartbroken, widowed man being abused to death after watching the revolution, one he didn’t want to wait for, fail. I’ll still laugh. The laughs are just darker.
Today’s music is more in the “bash it out fast” manner, no pretty string quartets, no subtle sound design, just two electric guitars, bass, drums and my effort to speak the words. The player gadget is below if you read this in a browser. Apple WordPress Reader users, use the Reader’s gadget to open this in Safari to see the player.
*Among Mühsam’s early 20th century beliefs were “free love” and gay rights/acceptance. The communard Landauer believed that a loving and equalitarian family unit was a small-scale model for society.
**He took that back, and wrote anti-violence and war poetry during the war. Can one imagine Twitter in 1914? The telegraph lines would have melted.
***OK, if you stayed with me so far, with “Socialist” and “Communist” being thrown around in addition to the “aren’t they the guys who throw little black round bombs” “Anarchists,” “Soviet” might be the final straw that chokes your metaphoric dolphin or turtle or other benevolent creature. “Soviet” means in this context, a worker’s council as a source of authority. As far as Anarchists were concerned, that’s a good thing. Anarchists are often against violence, and particularly state violence, torture, and oppression—but they are very much for long boring meetings, which have a special dispensation from being defined as torture or oppression.
It’s been awhile since I last presented one of my fresh translations of a poem from another language here. Today I’m going to sing a version of a poem by classical Chinese poet Wang Wei, but first a few words about translation.
I’ve grown to love doing translations from other languages here. I view it as an extension of the Parlando Project where we combine various words, usually poetry, almost always by other people, with music we compose and play. That means that most everything here is a translation of a kind, as the author probably didn’t intend for their words to be combined with music, nor are they available to tell Dave or I how to read and present their words.
Translation from another language to English is an additional layer of the author’s work being filtered through what I see and react to in it. Sometimes the Dadaist in me comes around, and I supply music that isn’t conventionally appropriate for the text. This doesn’t bother me.* But in translating their text, the words someone else wrote, I do worry about being accurate, being a good steward of their cultural contribution. And I should worry. I speak no foreign languages. I had High School French. A grandmother and my mother spoke German as a child, but not as an adult with us. I live in a neighborhood with many Spanish speakers. None of this adds up to any fluency. That makes translation a difficult process and my efforts are no guarantee against misunderstanding of the author’s work in their native language. Now add to this the time and cultural gap to Wang Wei, the 8th century Chinese poet—a greater degree of distance than Rimbaud, Rilke, or Neruda.
There is some help in the shortness of this poem. It leaves you fewer lines to recode. Wang Wei was not as slight as his poem is though. Indeed, he was quite the hyphenate. He was a painter, a musician, a poet, and a functionary in various positions in a Chinese government which was facing a serious rebellion in his time, which led to a period in which he was a political prisoner. He was said to be a Buddhist. I know little about the background of this individual poem of his. I first came upon it in another English translation by poet Robert Okaji, who long-time readers here have already been introduced to. Here’s a link to his translation. Okaji has a good tactic for dealing with the extraordinary difficulties in translating a poet so far from us as Wang Wei. His translations are taken, as my Chinese translations are, from a supplied literal transliteration into English. He titles his as “After….,” an indication that he only claims to be sending forth his impression and inspiration from the original author’s poem. Good idea. I chose to do the same today.
Here’s the literal transcription he and I used as our entry into this poem:
Fly bird go no limit
Join mountain again autumn colour
Up down Huazi Ridge
Melancholy feeling what extreme
My guess is that Okaji was struck by the visual imagery in Wang Wei’s poem, and more than I eventually did, Okaji well-portrayed that aspect. As an accomplished painter, Wang Wei was unsurprisingly known for the corresponding strength in his concise portrayal of natural scenes in his poetry. Though I didn’t go that way with “Huazi Ridge,” I often chose this route in translations: finding a way to make vivid the imagery the poet presented in my modern English.
I instead chose to go with two other aspects. The first that struck me was a strongly implied parallelism in this tiny poem: the birds who “go no limit” in the first line and the “Melancholy…what extreme” in the final line. The birds can fly, their possible course seems infinite. Even a mountain is no barrier to them. Sadness, suffering, dissatisfaction, and humanity’s attachment to that, is at the core of Buddha’s teachings. So, in trying to get at the meaningful linkage between those two lines I chose to see the birds as choosing to return to this mountain, this massively material earthly obstacle (perhaps as a migration or habitat) even though they could fly seemingly anywhere.
Here’s what I came up with in English:
Look these birds can fly without limits
Yet they return to this mountain in red autumn
All up and down Huazi Ridge
What then are the limits of sadness
A central fact in this poem remained unsettled as I worked on my translation. Where is Huazi Ridge and the associated mountain?** What is the landscape, why would Wang Wei choose it in particular? There some extra degrees of difficulty in a web search on Huazi. The western alphabet I’d search on is an approximation, and place names everywhere change with regionalism and time.
Web searches on Huazi often led to a Chinese Mount Hua. Here’s a somewhat irreverent but illustrative video of what it’s like to climb up and down it.
Turns out there are easily a dozen videos out there of what it’s like to climb the path up Mount Hua, but I still like this one.
The translation I came up with—my impression, however mistaken, yet (I hope) worthwhile—of Wang Wei’s poem sought to portray an earthbound, flightless human noting the birds who could easily fly over the mountain and anywhere else they would choose, but instead they return, captured perhaps by the autumn beauty or the immense thereness of the mountain. Ah, notices the poem’s speaker—“Look!” he urges, see this too: even the flight-blessed birds who do not need to trudge up and down at great peril and effort choose not to step off the wheel of return. What then are the limits of suffering, sadness, unsatisfaction? You climb the mountain once, twice, how many times? The noble truths of the Buddha’s teachings says that you will return, as the birds do, until you can choose to see all that is not the mountain.
What’s the other thing I sought to put in my English impression? I rendered it in metrical verse. And since it is said that Wang Wei played and composed for the pipa, the Chinese lute, my music today uses my attempt to portray a little of that instrument using the MIDI interface on my guitar along with a more Western drums, bass, and electric guitar ensemble. The player to hear my performance of “Huazi Ridge” is below.
*Bother me? Hell no, it’s great fun—and unusual juxtapositions sometimes demonstrate something that otherwise wouldn’t be revealed in a work we perform. Since we use material in the public domain, there are no rights issues with authors preferences.
**I couldn’t even find a pronunciation for “Huazi,” and my fear is that this performance’s guess could be risibly bad by Chinese standards. I know I have some Chinese readers. Is Huazi mountain and/or ridge a well-known place that would be meaningful to a Chinese reader?
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. You know the drill to hear it: the player gadget’s below.
*I know in the past students were assigned translations from classical Greek and Latin poets as part of general studies. While this came from the idea that classical grammar and vocabulary were the basis for mastery of English (a suspect notion) I think it must have helped many a budding poet.
**It was poet/musicians did that for me: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Smith herself. All of these are controversial figures in purely literary circles. I can tell you that none of them helped my standing in those 1970s years when I should have been establishing the peripatetic poetry career that I didn’t have. It would have been better for me, influences-wise, if I could have said Rimbaud instead.
Last post I said that Pablo Neruda’s departed lover was by definition absent by the time we got to the final love poem in his Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. I’ve now read the entire collection in an English translation, and I’d have to say that the lover is to a large degree absent throughout—not just in the sense that elements of a doomed romance are woven into the whole series, but in the sense that she isn’t really given a living presence.
Still, quiet, and dark are all attributes Neruda sees or applies to her.* Erotic attention is given, moments of apparent mutual intimacy are sketched, and most importantly to us as readers (as opposed to actual partners of Neruda) a range of striking imagery is used to represent her and the poem’s apprehension of his experience with her.
This last point may be crucial. Without it, this poetic series would be only another example of the syndrome of “The Male Gaze.” If that sort of thing, and the patriarchal power dynamics associated are a point of pain, this series of poems by the eventually Nobel Prize winning poet may not be for you.
Sexuality and its expressions, its inescapable intertwining with the rest of society’s hierarchies and prejudices, is not a simple thing. Twenty Love Poems’ popularity testifies that not everyone in the past 100 years sees it this way or is equally bothered by that element.
I’m willing to put Neruda on the stand, but only in our moot court, since he is now long dead, and no one now living likely had to try to negotiate an erotic relationship with him. He’s now become his writings, and his youthful lovers too have become the imagery that he preserved them as. Take that in the balance as we weigh the once living beings and their kindnesses, cravings and blindspots against the art that one of them has left.
“Poem 20” in the series began by launching one last extravagant image about the love affair as it writes that there can be no more, but as I now turn to the opening of the series, the 19 year old Neruda is going to try numerous audacious images to describe his beloved and their relationship. They’re all going to be one-sided. She never speaks. Her emotions can be sometimes made out if one reads the poems in an Imagist manner (where emotional words are not used, but depicted with external description) but they are not the point of the series which is focused on the male speaker’s suffering, confusion, and dissatisfaction.
I’ve mentioned before that I fear that I may ere in my translations because my prime goal is to make vivid the images I discern in a poem. In Neruda’s “Poem 1,” I differ from other translations I’ve read of it in that I see some images they have muted or made more abstract and “prettified.” I worried about my tendency here so much that I pulled back from some rawer translations I considered. This may be cowardice on my part—but the most noble explanation I can give is that to make a sure judgement on that level of tone I would need to be a fluent speaker of the source language and more familiar with the entirety of Neruda’s work.
Here are some brief notes on my experience of “Poem 1” in making my fresh translation of it from the original Spanish.
The poem opens with an audacious image: the beloved is portrayed as an immense (if inhuman—not even animal, but mineral!) landscape. My reading is that Neruda is making an extended metaphor that erotically he’s engaged in mining his lover’s body. Are there subtexts here (I assume unintentional, but who knows) to foreign corporate exploitation of Chilean resources?
The first quatrain ends with what I read as a brag that lover-man Neruda is so potent that his lover could only conceive a son from his mining operation. See what I warned about? Either Neruda or I—or both of us—is risking risibility here.
In the second quatrain, Neruda recovers. This is flat-out marvelous and mysterious writing. Perhaps it benefits in that Neruda is no longer trying to describe his beloved, only himself here. In my translation task I worked a bit on what word to use for “túnel.” “Tunnel” is the obvious choice, but I never liked it as word-music when I tried it. I chose “cave” instead, preserving the anima subtext I sensed.
The third stanza, problematic again. It opens well, and as word-music compels. The “de leche ávida y firme” phrase is rendered by all the other translators in whatever their best Surrealistic/poetic manner finds. I’m more base it seems, and was struck by secondary Spanish meanings for “leche.” I could also have chosen the idiomatic meaning of smacking or bumping, even though other translators haven’t. Third line? If she was to speak: “Neruda, my absent eyes are up here!” Fourth line. “Rosey pubis” is just bad, and I couldn’t justify linguistically my alternative.
OK, you in the back row. Stop snickering. Or otherwise we’ll stop with erotic poetry and go back to Longfellow right now!
Last stanza. How self-aware was Neruda when he wrote this?** As he refrains on woman and body, he goes and drops in the “my woman” formulation with it. Given that in the course of this series of poems or even the rest of this stanza, this isn’t going to be a long-term commitment, I’m not sure how he gets the deed and mineral rights on his beloved’s mortal corpus, but if you like you can just say that I’m 2020 anachronistically considering 1924. The final three lines make plain, even if it’s lovely verse, that, well: a man’s gotta ramble, I can’t be satisfied, and the problems of us little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
Am I being unfair to Neruda? Even here as a 19-year-old he’s an accomplished poet who found an avid audience that bonded with what they received in his art. When reading his Twenty Love Poems and Song of Despair I came across as many “wow!” lines as problematic ones, and I wasn’t bored. Not everyone looking for a lover, much less a love poet, is going to ask for the correct dialectic to get them through the night.
A possible defense is that this isn’t poetry as memoir (a common form today) and that the woman in the poem seems soul-less and silent because she is intentionally an abstracted metaphor. As I said when we started—whatever, she is now.
For my performance I chose not to go romantic for this as I did with “Poem 20” last time. While there is a tender cello present, the main music is carried by pianos playing astringently. I performed it more as if it was a Browning-like dramatic monolog—for monolog it is. Feel free to hiss or sigh with the character of this very young dramatis personae.*** The text in Neruda’s original Spanish alongside another English translation is here. The player gadget to hear my performance is below.
*In “Poem 15” the poet says to her “I like for you to be still: it is as though you were absent,/distant and full of sorrow as though you had died.” This may be taking a Goth stance a bit too far.
**In “Poem 14” he shows a moment of sympathy, “How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me.”