≡ Menu


An Invitation (Horace’s Ode i.20)

Cheap wine, Maecenas! You’ll drink cheap wine from cheap cups,
our local Sabine swill. I pitched the Grecian jar myself, and filled it with wine

I made. I laid it in my cellar that day when you entered your theater
after a long sickness. Yes, Maecenas, the people saw you and cheered

and the echoes filled Rome, your Tiber trembled and the Vatican hills shook. Yes,
Maecenas, it’s true–you’ve drank the crushed grapes of Calenia and Caecuba.

You’ve had Falernia and Formia–better wine than my cups should ever dirty.

Micah Towery‘s poetry and translations appear in magazines like Cimarron Review, Paterson Literary Review, Ragazine.cc, and Loaded Bicycle, and an interview with Tom Sleigh will be appearing in an issue of The Writer’s Chronicle soon. He teaches at Trinity Western University and tweets @micahtowery. In past lives he was a baker, church organist, and Coca-Cola delivery driver.

Here’s a story right up my blogging alley. I’ve written quite a bit in the past on translation (about Horace and ESL/film), as well as bit on technology and language. I wrote about how Google used the insights of Wittgenstein to overcome the problem of polysemy in search, but ended questioning whether Google could ever overcome the complexities of poetry. Turns out Google has been laboring away at creating a machine translator of poetry.

If I understand it correctly, the poetry translator basically layers several poetic constraints on top of the standard translator: line length, rhyme, meter, etc. Google’s translator uses what Jaron Lanier calls a “brute force” approach to translation. That is, it doesn’t know the rules of grammar—it doesn’t even really have a dictionary. Rather, it scours its database and determines statistical correlation between translations of pages. Put another way, it imitates by means of statistical analysis.

Meta-lord of the cloud-lords of meta of!

Questions of quality aside (i.e., let’s assume Google can be completely successful and create passable—even good poetry translations), would you really prefer Google’s translations Rimbaud over, say, Ashbery’s? Aside from needing a translation in a pinch, I can only imagine an interest in Google’s translation that is analogous to the Turing test: an interest that asks the question “If I didn’t know—could I tell the difference between the results of computer and human translation?”

I have been reading Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget over the last few weeks. He makes a convincing point that Turing’s test is essentially the wrong question. Part of the function of asking “can it fool us?” is a desire to find a computer that can. As a result, we’re essentially willing to dumb down our expectations of what it means to be human in hopes we’ve created machines that think. Ironically, it’s our very human desires that make the Turing test fail. The real judge of the Turing test should be a computer with a merciless set of criteria. No doubt somebody, somewhere has already realized this, and there is a computer slaving away at creating and judging its own intelligence.

Which brings me back to the question: why do we want to read Ashbery’s translations of Rimbaud? I see two motivations: the first is to read Rimbaud without learning French; the second is to read Ashbery reading Rimbaud. Google doesn’t read. To say that it does would actually change the definition of reading, wouldn’t it? Reading implies not a functional end (e.g., Ashbery produces a translation of Rimbaud), since it can exist without a functional end (e.g., Ashbery reads Rimbaud in French).

Perhaps more importantly, Google doesn’t even use language in a way that we recognize as language. Some animals use what we would rightly be called protolanguage. They can acquire a vocabulary, and perhaps even use it in creative ways (I heard a story once about an ape that put two words together to ask for a watermelon: “candy water” or something along those lines). At best, though, animals can only mash together vocabulary, without what we could refer to as “syntax.” Syntax is the ability not only to acquire vocabulary, but to manipulate it according to a deeper intelligence that categorizes vocabulary. It’s the difference between “Micah smile” and “Micah smiles.” The latter indicates not only the fact that I have associated one thing with another (the action of smiling with the word “smile”), but that I can categorize it as a verb and thus deploy it in a sentence (oh the difference an “s” makes). This syntactic ability expands when we think about relative clauses, which nest and hierarchize ideas. We even have words for pure functions of language (e.g., articles). Animals are unable to do this (unless, of course, you’re teaching a gorilla that it will die someday—perhaps death is the motivator of syntax!). Google uses statistical analysis to achieve a kind of protolanguage at best. At best, it “learns” (a word also worth an essay) to associate certain phrases with one another. But, unlike animals, it has no will to use them.

All this is to say that there is something uniquely motivating about a person doing something. A Google poetry translation will never make me reconsider my life, except in a purely serendipitous (i.e., accidental) way.

I suppose deep down I am a personalist, believing there is something utterly unique and irreducible about persons. And I worry sometimes that the whole preoccupation with AI actually takes away from the real achievements of Google’s poetry translator: we clever people have found a way to essentially use an on-off switch (0s and 1s) to do something as complex as creating a passable translation of a poem. But as we are humans wont to do, we get distracted, venerating our creation rather than marveling at the deep mystery inside us which motivated us to create it in the first place.

Here’s a quick overview of the project if you’re interested in reading more about it. Here’s an interview about the project from CBC radio (scroll down to “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Digital Night”—below that one, there’s also another very interesting interview with a Canadian student who created a computer program to analyze rap lyrics).

After wrestling through several Latin translations of Horace and trying to come to grips with him as a poet, I decided the best way to get “into Horace’s head” would be to translate him myself. Though Mrs. Krepich, my high school Latin teacher, might have hoped otherwise, my Latin, poor to begin with, has atrophied. I am saved somewhat by my slightly better Greek, but I barely limp through the original for the most part. So I roped a local Latin professor into my venture and we’ve been meeting once a week, translating and debating the meaning of Horace. Later, with our discussion in mind, I will make a translation in hopes of “righting” whatever wrongs I feel has been done by modern translators.

I’m not really righting any wrongs, of course–just putting my own spin on things. But it’s been an interesting learning process. We were foolish enough to take on one of Horace’s most famous and translated Odes: i.5. Milton’s attempt is the most famous:

What slender Youth bedew’d with liquid odours
Courts thee on Roses in some pleasant Cave,
Pyrrha for whom bindst thou
In wreaths thy golden Hair,

Plain in thy neatness; O how oft shall he
On Faith and changèd Gods complain: and Seas
Rough with black winds and storms
Unwonted shall admire:

Who now enjoyes thee credulous, all Gold,
Who alwayes vacant alwayes amiable
Hopes thee; of flattering gales
Unmindfull. Hapless they

To whom thou untry’d seem’st fair. Me in my vow’d
Picture the sacred wall declares t’ have hung
My dank and dropping weeds
To the stern God of Sea.

Milton’s poem is famously “word for word” (as much as possible from the Latin) and captures Horace’s meaning clearly and accurately. Anthony Hecht did a more irreverent “imitation”:

What well-heeled knuckle-head, straight from the unisex
Hairstylist and bathed in “Russian Leather,”
Dallies with you these late summer days, Pyrrha,
In your expensive sublet? For whom do you
Slip into something simple by, say, Gucci?
The more fool he who has mapped out for himself
The saline latitudes of incontinent grief.
Dazzled though he be, poor dope, by the golden looks
Your locks fetched up out of a bottle of Clairol,
He will know that the wind changes, the smooth sailing
Is done for, when the breakers wallop him broadside,
When he’s rudderless, dismasted, thoroughly swamped
In that mindless rip-tide that got the best of me
Once, when I ventured on your deeps, Piranha.

“Russian Leather” aside, Hecht translates Horace with the 20th century reader in mind, but perhaps loses Horace’s steady-minded, quietly passionate tone in this poem.

Some critics have called Ode i.5 a perfect poem. It has an almost “tossed off” feel, yet upon further study reveals itself to be intricately wrought. It is quite similar to the way Bishop’s craft has made her a “poet’s poet.” This sense of the poem is captured by a Latin phrase from the poem itself: “simplex munditiis.” Milton translates it “Plain in thy neatness”; Hecht translates it much more loosely and colloquially as the “something simple” that Pyrrha slips into. David Ferry makes my favorite translation–“elegant and simple”–a phrase that also describes this poem. In this case, the highest art conceals its artifice. Pyrrha has possibly spent hours getting her hair “just so,” if only so that she can brush off a compliment with “Oh, it was nothing. I just rolled out of bed from a nap and it looked like this.” It reinforces the double illusion that 1. she looks this amazing all the time, and 2. she does not spend hours on her hair. It is the artifice of elegance: that whatever beauty exists in the object has arisen almost naturally, without contemplation, it’s very being tapped into beauty itself.

It’s often the same way with a poem. On the one hand, poetry, particularly formal poetry, draws attention to itself as poetry by its choice to act (or not act) in a way we understand to be poem-like. On the other hand, we derive a special pleasure out of coming full circle and hearing a poem that appears utterly unintentional in its formality, whose execution of the form makes us forget the constructedness of the form itself, as if it’s possible for a sonnet to occur in natural speech at almost any moment. It elevates poetry from “techne” to something divine (and thus the poet inspired–literally God-breathed!).

Then again, perhaps I’m overstating the goals of an art which conceals its artifice (nor do I necessarily believe that it’s the ideal or highest). I say all this only to emphasize that the process of translation–of this ode, at least–is hopeless from the beginning. Horace is just too good a craftsman for a translation to do him any ultimate justice. Yet I believe translators hope for a sort of “good will” that can exist between between themselves and the poet. In this sense, we need not fret about the “treasonous” act of translation, and another poet’s interpretation has the validity of a friendly presumption because of this good will. This good will gives license to the translator’s creative will and frees the translator from attempting to supplant the original (for indeed, this is what a perfectly accurate translation would do, were it possible to achieve). I think it also gives readers some criteria with which to judge a translation by, nebulous though it might be to try and discern the how a translator’s “good will” plays out in the text of the translation.

This brings me to my translation of Ode i.5. When I began this translation, Horace was very much on my mind; that is, I was trying to get into his head. The opening lines, especially, seem important because they say so much about what a translator interprets the original. Later, after certain decisions have been made, the poem becomes more “yours” as a writer. You’ve made certain stylistic choices in the beginning that sets in motion the rest of the poem’s machinery. The first step itself narrows the scope and closes off an infinite range of other poems. Here is my translation as it stands now:

What eager fellow is it now,
Pyrrha, who–in a cloud of cologne–brings
you roses and courts you in
a secret hideaway? (Do you

do your hair still with the same
simple elegance?) How often will
his sweat drip over your faithlessness
and the possibility that Aphrodite might change

her mind again? And how will he
unknowing marvel at the callous
sea and the blackening clouds?
You see he actually still enjoys

your love’s golden glow, flatters
himself that you’ll stay true and tender. He
doesn’t know that whispering breezes
change, that it’s a fool who steers

by untried stars. But me?
You’ll see I’ve hung my dripping
cloak in honor of the mighty god
that saved me from disaster
_____and the open sea.

The first choice for me was how to render “gracilis” the adjective that describes the young man (“puer”) who is currently pleasing Pyrrha. The word choice here is incredibly important because it is the first means by which Horace indicates own feelings toward the new couple. “Gracilis” generally means thin or slight; it could also mean simple, as in unadorned (but in the total opposite way that Pyrrha’s hair is “simplex”). Heather McHugh memorably translates it as “What slip of a boy,” while Ferry says “What perfumed debonair youth.” McHugh captures Horace’s derision toward the young man, while Ferry captures Horace’s jealousy. This is the primary tension in the poem: Horace is at once mocking of the youth’s inexperience while also chewing through the furniture with jealousy and lust (albeit in a totally reserved, very Roman manner). One could even say that Horace is jealous of the youth’s inexperience, jealous of the fact that the youth has the innocence that allows him to delight in the pure joy Pyrrha’s love (before things get rough, that is).

My phrase “eager fellow” leans more on the mockery side, yet, I hope, doesn’t fall into outright derision. “Eager” suggests inexperience, of course, the kind that doesn’t realize it’s a head nosing around for a guillotine. To me, the word “fellow” has always suggested the sort of foppishness that is the exact opposite of Pyrrha’s elegance, the kind that poofs it up in a “cloud of cologne.” Whatever choice is made here in rendering “gracilis,” one thing is clear: the better looking Horace portrays the young man, the more Pyrrha’s enjoyment of her time with him and thus, the greater Horace’s jealousy. On the other hand, the more biting Horace’s description of the youth, the more bitter Pyrrha’s rejection becomes for Horace: you dumped me for that dandy?

The real trick is being able to make it work both ways, which Horace does with the original. “Gracilis” could slide on the scale of meaning toward the pathetic “skinny” or the handsome “slender.” Horace wins the day by understatement. Perhaps “slim” could be close in its ambiguity, yet it lacks the suggestion of inexperience.

There are other forms of understatement in the first stanza. The verb “urget” could suggest a wide range of actions, from the innocent “court” (as in persistently calling, plying with roses) to the probably too-strong “press upon” (as in, physically presses himself upon her). James Mitchie’s translation goes all the way and says “makes hot love to you now,” leaving little room for Horace’s imagination. But isn’t it Horace’s imagination that is running wild? Isn’t this what, partially, animates the poem? Indeed, the affair is happening in some secretive grotto, and in this case, out of sight is not out of mind for Horace. I suspect the wide range of action is purposefully suggested by “urget.”

But even subtler is the arrangement of the Latin itself: “multa gracilis te puer in rosa.” Snuggled in between the adjective “slim” (gracilis) and noun “boy/young man” (puer) is the pronouned Pyrrha (te). And that verbal couple is itself among “multa…in rosa”: many a rose. While the whole situation is never stated, it’s pretty clear that Mitchie’s translation “making hot love to you” has a firm basis in the Latin. But Horace’s expression of this is almost unconscious: expressing the very thing he cannot bring himself to say.

I rendered this “courts you in / a secret hideaway” because I the other translators I’ve read rendered the phrase strongly (Ferry: “urges himself upon you / In the summer grotto”; McHugh: “pressing on you now, o Pyrrha, in / your lapping crannies, in your rosy rooms”), and I wanted to see what happened if I did not render it so strongly. I hoped that “secret hideaway” would imply the kind of intimacy that Horace fears between the new couple, that, indeed, one thing will inevitably lead to another in such a “secret” place, innocent courting or not. I also wanted the phrase “secret hideaway” to allude to Johnny Cash’s “Tear Stained Letter,” which, in my mind, parallels Horace’s poem in some ways:

I’m gonna write a tear stained letter,
I’m gonna mail it straight to you.
I’m gonna bring back to your mind,
What you said about always bein’ true.
Bout our secret hidin’ places;
Bein’ daily satisfied.

The allusion is probably a stretch, but it’s there in my mind, at least until I edit it out at some later point.

This brings me to the most difficult and revealing line in the poem, I believe: “Cui flavam religas comam // simplex munditiis?” To me the phrase “simplex munditiis” is not only a perfect expression of the whole poem’s art, but an emotional depth charge that reveals the feeling which animates the drama of the poem’s language. Despite the poem’s claim that Horace has “survived” the shipwreck of Pyrrha’s love, despite the staid language and reserved descriptions, the poet writhes underneath the poise of this poem. Pyrrha is the archetypal “saucy wench,” the “fickle woman” who fills men with passion and lust as well as self-loathing at their inability to control themselves. As an image, the singular, simple description of Pyrrha’s hair creates an emotional history that founds the whole poem. It’s the perfect example of how the choice and rendering of even a single detail can realize a whole world.

In my translation, I chose to render that line as a real question to Pyrrha (hence the parentheses, making it a sort of direct aside); the rest of the questions in the poem are merely rhetorical. I openly copped Ferry’s word choice (“For whom have you arranged / Your shining hair so elegantly and simply?”), but hoped that a more personal expression of the line would raise the latent longing in that line. I have to admit, though, that here Ferry is hard to beat. Emphasizing that line raises the profile of the detail. Yet its power as a detail is in its latency, its grudging (non-)admission.

There are other important moments that one wrestles with when translating this poem. One such place is the very end of the poem, in which a translator must decide how much to explain the final image: it was a tradition of Roman sailors who survived shipwrecks to hang their sea cloaks in the temple of Neptune with a votive tablet in order to honor him for saving their lives. You’ll see in my translation I pretty much laid that information out completely, though in truth there are places here and elsewhere in my translation where I’ve significantly departed from the Latin (partially out of creative impulse, partially out of lack of skill). As I said, the poem starts out as Horace’s and becomes more the translator’s as it continues.

I would like to comment on other translations I’ve done of Horace in the future. For those who know Latin better than I do, I’d enjoy hearing your feedback on my poems or on any versions of the poem that you enjoy. For those who don’t know Latin, I’d like to hear your feedback on the poem itself, which of the ones I’ve reproduced here seem best to you.

If you are a poet writing in English, you carry Horace in your own voice. I’m convinced there really is no way around this. I’m not sure there’s any possible strain of English poetry that can avoid his influence. And who would want to? Horace is a master of lyric poetry. To learn better how we speak as poets, we should all be looking at and coming to grips with Horace.

This looking back (not so much ad fontes as Jacob wrestling God) is made difficult by the fact that most of us don’t know Latin (or the Greek of the poets Horace learned from). And even for those who do, the collapse that exists between Latin and English can seem insurmountable. I was a terrible student when I studied Latin and Greek and have since forgotten much of it. Looking back now, I can see that I looked at foreign languages more as a different speaking-code that could be translated into English (with a few admitted bumps along the way), rather than another way of thinking–perhaps even another way of being. I’ve realized that language is a rite of sorts into which we are initiated over a very long period of time. Whenever I feel frustrated with my students inability to grasp certain ideas of language, I look up at a large poster of Greek verb endings that I’ve posted in my cubicle to remind myself of the difficulty of learning another language. It keeps me humble (I hope).

Because language is a rite of initiation of sorts, it has to be done with humans. You can immerse yourself in a dead language, but at the end day who knows whether you’re working with the language in a way the original speakers would have been familiar with? I remember reading some translation commentaries in which several possible translations–all very different–were posited by the commentators who then shrugged, essentially, saying–we honestly just don’t know how to translate this. This is maddening if you’re trying to render a translation that is as close to the original in every way possible. At the end of the day, most translators have to admit that they are only able to be accurate in one or two ways, and that these accuracies come at the expense of other accuracies. A translator may, for example, attempt to imitate the free and easy rhythm of the original, but to do so in English, the translator may need to reorder the ideas and images in the original.

A few months back I wrote a sort of prologue to this book review in which I concluded that fruitful translation is possible as long as we are able to recognize and appreciate the “extra layers” of intent that must be layered over top of a translation to make it possible. That is, we first must recognize the limits of translation, while also acknowledging (and appreciating, I think) what the translator adds to the translation.

The collection that J.D. McClatchy has assembled renders the totality of Horace’s four books of odes. The translations are from contemporary English-speaking poets of all varieties, from Paul Muldoon to Charles Simic to Rosanna Warren. All (or almost) have had some experience translating from a classical language. All the poets, with the exception of Simic, grew up speaking one of the major incarnations of modern English (American, British, Irish, Canadian, Australian).

McClatchy’s Odes favors a variety of translators (and inevitably, translational perspectives). As such, it is a valuable collection to add to the stable of Horace translations. From them, you can learn a lot about Horace as a poet. But I suspect you can also learn more about the translators as poets themselves, and that makes this collection a valuable addition to the study of modern poetry as well.

It would be much too large of a task to review how each poet approaches Horace. The good news is that almost every one of McClatchy’s translators take on several Odes each, which creates a sort of arc from which you can study and learn about each poet’s translational perspective. One poem is not probably enough to enlighten us about how the contemporary poet relates her or his poetics with that of Horace, but thankfully, McClatchy has given readers enough to make a study of each individual poet if a they so chose.

Given my own weak knowledge of Latin, I cannot assess well the various ways in which the translations of McClatchy’s edition mediate the gap between Horace’s Latin and modern-day English. The best I can is muddle an assessment in triangulation with another modern edition of Horace I have come to love and admire: David Ferry’s.  Where McClatchy’s Odes features variety, Ferry’s translations have a consistency of translational perspective. Over winter break, I also picked up a copy of Mitchie’s translations (which are, amazingly, often done in the original meter–something neither Ferry nor McClatchy’s translators attempt). Legend has it that Auden was scared off from doing his own translations of Horace by what he perceived as the self-evident greatness of Mitchie’s.

As far as recent poets go, however, I believe that Ferry’s translations will last for a long time as a node upon which modern poetics can hang its relationship with Horace. McClatchy’s Odes exists more as a collection of statements of relationship between modern poets and Horace. For comparison’s sake, let’s look at Ode I.23, by both Ferry and Heather McHugh.

Ferry first:

i.23 / To Chloë

Chloë, it is as if
_____You were but a little fawn
Needlessly fearful of every
_____Littlest breeze that stirs,

Ready to run as far
_____Away as it possibly can,
Seeking its timid mother
_____Anywhere but here

Where its heart beats fast and it trembles
_____In every limb for any
Slightest shimmer or shiver
_____Of newly opening leaf,

Signs of the spring beginning,
_____Or if a lizard’s foot
Disturbs a single twig.
_____Chloë, I am neither

A lion nor a tiger;
_____I have no wish to hurt you;
Do not run to your mother;
_____Now is the time for love.

Now McHugh:


You dash from my sight, little Chloë, the way, wth fear,
a stray fawn bolts from path to bush in search
of her lost mother, trembling utterly at each
sweet nothing of the woods, each stir of air.

Let any thorn tree spring the briefest leaf,
let any lizard make the least green streak
toward any under-tangle–and she’ll freeze,
blood knocking, heart at knees.

But I’m no predatory cur, no wildcat appetite,
to rack a baby down and eat her up. I’m only
human: I’m a man. The time is right, in you, for some
bold move. Now let your mother go. Now, let me come.

McHugh, with her percussive wordplay, has turned Horace’s speaker into a sweaty, groping, borderline (if not already there) pedophile. In truth, it’s also there in Ferry’s poem, but ambivalently. The tactfully discharged imagery of Ferry’s poem could be one playing a role in a game of “hard to get” as easily as it could indicate a smooth, but predatory operator. I’ll admit, however, that after reading McHugh’s poem I have a hard time not seeing it her way (that might also be because I just finished watching an episode of Law & Order: SVU, but that’s neither here nor there).

McHugh takes the central conceit of the poem and thrusts the reader into it (“You dash from my sight”). Ferry, on the other hand, layers the desire below the conceit (“Chloë, it is as if…”). McHugh makes the not-at-all subtle equation of Horace’s desire (and the instrument thereof) to the lizard (which itself sparks other associations); in Ferry’s poem, that image is tidied away as a “lizard’s foot.” The way we see both Ferry and McHugh dealing with these images brings me to a larger point about Horace: one of the most impressive things that Horace does–one thing that I badly wishI could ape from his craft–is his ability to introduce a multitude of objects and hold them all in balance. We see what could be Ashbery’s wandering mind under the disciplinary curtain call of form. Whether the “formal feeling” that gives us a sense of the poem’s beginning or end is a “romantic standby,” I’ll leave for other poets to hammer out at this point. In these translations, there is no formalism, but how the translators perceive Horace’s intent becomes a form, of sorts. They must wrestle with all the objects, by squeezing them in, ordering and directing them to their will. This reinterpretive ordering says much about how the translators as poets relate to Horace.

If I had a wider range of knowledge about all the contributing translators, McClatchy’s collection of new translations could do with a thorough comparison, a catalogue of what each poet is doing with Horace in his or her own right. That exercise would, no doubt, yield a large number of insights, and I hope that the readers of this review would do this and return with their findings (perhaps shared in the comment section?). Ezra Pound suggested that there are three major components to poetry: sound, image, and word play. In this review I mostly focused on image (the most easily translated of the three aspects according to Pound). I was hoping to tackle tone, which floats around Pound’s three aspects. I wanted to write about Mark Strand’s translations, but honestly I just didn’t have time (this was supposed to go up at Christmas!). Maybe some other day.

What I wanted to end this review with, however, is with a demonstration of the way that we all carry Horace in our voice, using a poem I wrote as an example. While a student at Hunter, I was given a side-by-side comparison of Wyatt’s “My Galley, Charged with Forgetfulness” and O’Hara’s “To the Harbormaster.” Wyatt’s poem was itself a translation of Petrarch’s “Canzionere 189.” I decided to do my own loose rewrite of O’Hara and Wyatt, and the resulting poem turned out to be a bit of a cipher (to me at least) for the rest of my poems.

Later, after “discovering” Horace (that is to say, I had begun to read seriously and enjoy), I found that Petrarch’s was itself a rewrite of Horace’s 14th Ode from Book I. It was a very clear demonstration for me that tradition, for better or worse, was a part of all our voices, and–in a sense–we all need that tradition to speak as poets. So I present you with 5 different “versions” of the same poem, the last of which is my own (not to suggest that I am, in any way, an equal to the poets in this list).

i.14 / To the Republic
David Ferry

O ship, O battered ship, the backward running waves

Are taking you out to sea again! Oh what to do?

Oh don’t you see? Oh make for port! The wind’s gone wild!

Your sails are torn! Your mast is shaking! Your oars are gone!

Your onboard gods gone overboard! How long, how long

Can the eggshell hull so frail hold out? O ship so proud,

Your famous name, your gilded stern, your polished decks,

Your polished brass, so useless now, O Storm’s play thing,

O ship my care, beware, beware the Cyclades!

Debora Greger

O ship, a ground swell threatens
to set you adrift–look out!
Hurry to reach the harbor–no, don’t stop
to look, but you’ve lost your oars.

The mast has snapped, sails slap at the wind,
your hull needs rope to tie it back together,
canvas has torn, but you no longer
have gods to get you out of trouble.

Though you’re built of the best pine
from the most noble forest, upon a plank
of which your famous name is lettered–
and so beautifully–who can trust paint?

You make a sailor nervous. Be careful
or you’ll become a toy of the storm.
You who, not that long ago, were just
my headache, my pain in the neck,

but who now have my heart aboard,
steer clear of those narrow seas
that cut past the bright lights
marking the rocks of the Cyclades.

My galley, chargèd with forgetfulness
Thomas Wyatt

My galley, chargèd with forgetfulness,
Thorough sharp seas in winter nights doth pass
‘Tween rock and rock; and eke mine en’my, alas,
That is my lord, steereth with cruelness;
And every owre a thought in readiness,
As though that death were light in such a case.
An endless wind doth tear the sail apace
Of forced sighs and trusty fearfulness.
A rain of tears, a cloud of dark disdain,
Hath done the weared cords great hinderance;
Wreathèd with error and eke with ignorance.
The stars be hid that led me to this pain;
Drownèd is Reason that should me comfort,
And I remain despairing of the port.

To the Harbormaster
Frank O’Hara

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

Canzionere 189

Like a forgetful, wind tottered garbage scow
I float. Pity me now
that I have eaten the sun god’s
cattle, and hunger still grips my body.
I wanted to shield it from the gulls
who followed the fat, dull
smell of death from port to
port, pulling out intestines of trash. For you
I have been terrible, increasing,
lashed to a green whale, desiring
spontaneous prose from secret thoughts
to hold me now. Oh how sorry
I am that I ate the sun’s cows
and didn’t feel sorry about it.

There’s been a bit of back and forth about questions of translatability (here and here), and I thought it was worth some observations.

I have mentioned this before on the blog, but for those who do not know, I teach upper level ESL to students who plan on entering graduate school in North America. It’s basically a college writing class, but the ESL aspect creates interesting dilemmas for me as a teacher. For example, I’m consistently torn between allowing students the comfort of pulling out their electronic dictionaries and forcing them to live in the uncomfortable space between languages. If I allow dictionaries, I will essentially handicap (or allowing them to handicap) their future English skills. They will forever be tying English words to words or phrases in their native language. As a result, they will never be fully fluent in English (at least not in the same way as a native speaker is fluent–which is often what most of my students desire). If, however, I force them to use context, word roots, and experience to understand words, eventually they will understand English words in an English sense. Perhaps an end-run around this dilemma is letting them use an English dictionary, forcing them to associate English definitions with English words. Unfortunately, students often come upon words in the English definition that they don’t understand, so we’re back at the same dilemma again. Spare the rod, spoil the child, anybody?

Typically, by the time students get to a level or two below my class, electronic dictionaries are forbidden in the classroom. It’s much harder, though, to break them of the habit of composing whole sentences in their own language and translating them, an attempt which is doomed from the start. I get lots of grumble and pout when I tell them to start thinking about their papers in English. I feel a bit like a parent coaxing their child to stand up to a bully. And in many ways, a new language is a bully. I always tell my students that learning a new language is not really learning a new way to communicate, but a new way to think. When working in English, you have to know how to work within or manipulate the categories and expectations of English–something we native speakers do without realizing.

Which brings me back to the blog posts I mentioned in the beginning. As Geoffrey K. Pullum points out at Language Log, “untranslatable” doesn’t really mean there is no translation, it just means there is no one-word equivalent in English. This is the difficulty with translating poetry and why it is often such a fruitful angle to approach questions of poetics. What makes the poetics of a particular work tick? By poetics, I don’t just mean poetry, I mean all art forms (I tend to think of “poetics” as an arch-art form). Dziga Vertov, for example, thought that film was a new international language, a sort of visual esperanto. In his avant-garde film, Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov boldly declares in the first title cards:

The film Man with a Movie Camera represents
Of visual phenomena
(a film without intertitles)
(a film without script)
(a film without actors, without sets, etc.)
This new experimentation work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema – ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY – on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature.

Vertov’s ambition is palpable in the film. Each cut is gravid with meaning. Not only would film be the first international language, it would be the language of the revolution (according to Eisenstein). Many of us still think that film is an international language. In many ways, it is true. It certainly speaks across many cultures, but as McLuhan points out in Gutenberg Galaxy, film is the product of a literary mind. The conventions of film (at least as Vertov sees them) are the conventions of visual print culture. That is, we read films much in the same way we read books.

McLuhan describes the experience of aid workers (in the 1960s, I believe) showing hygiene films to people from what McLuhan identifies as aural-tactile culture (that is, lacking the thought structures that are inherited from print culture). It’s a bit too long to quote here (to read the whole section, click here), but the basic gist is this:

“Literacy gives people the power to focus a little way in front of the image so that we are able to take in the picture in a whole glance. Non-literate people have no such acquired habit and do not look at objects in our way.”

Later McLuhan quotes John Wilson:

“Film is, as produced in the West, a highly conventionalized piece of symbolism although it looks very real. For instance, we found that if you were telling a story about two men to an African audience and one had finished his business and he went off the edge of the screen, the audience wanted to know what had happened to him; they didn’t accept that this was just the end of him and that he was of no more interest in the story. They wanted to know what happened to the fellow, and we had to write stories that way, putting in a lot of information that wasn’t necessary to us. We had to follow him along the street until he took a natural turn–he mustn’t walk off the side of the screen, but must walk down the street and make a natural turn….Panning shots were very confusing because the audience didn’t realize what was happening. They thought the items and details inside the picture were literally moving….the convention was not accepted.”

The point of sharing all this (aside from the point that it’s generally fascinating) is to show that even images, which we often consider somewhat universal, often require certain conventions of thought. So even there, the poetics of an art form are mitigated by “translation,” which, quite literally, must translate it from one form of thought to another.

I do believe fruitful translation can and does happen, but we must be aware of the “extra layer(s)” of intent that exists over top a piece. I want to focus more on what we as poets (and poeticists) can learn from and through translation when I review the new translations of Horace’s Odes (edited by J.D. McClatchy), so the rest of this discussion will be postponed until then.

How do you know when you’re “done” a poem?

I’m not speaking about revision, but rather, the act of writing, particularly lyrical free verse. Donna Masini once described it to me (or a class I was in—can’t remember which), as a settling in the body: a literal sense in the poet’s body that there is no more to write. What a strange way to describe it—yet, I find it has been true with me. I’ll be sitting in front of a computer, write a line, and suddenly, intuitively, I know the poem is finished. It’s a sense of relief, that sighing experience when you’ve just removed a splinter (though the process of removing a poem from your body is usually more pleasurable.

Grossman speaks about the silence from which a poem comes. Silence is the place where “all men agree.” Not only this, but one must overcome silence, the gap between speech and no speech (more on that later). But once you’ve broken this barrier, how do you know when to shut up the stream of words? Often, it seems there is no end to the multiplicity. Once you’ve entered a poem, how the hell do you get out?

Grossman speaks about “closure.” Perhaps this isn’t the same as the closing of a poem, yet, once you’ve reached closure, how much further could the poem go? (Does anyone know of a poem that begins with closure and goes from there?) Grossman says:

The poem achieves “closure only when some new cognitive element has been added to the relationship of subject and object. Terminal closure is “something understood.” Closure brings the poem to an end as apocalypse (“dis-closure”) brings Creation to an end.

There seem to be couple different ideas Grossman is drawing on here. “Something understood” refers, perhaps, to an almost Buddhistic sense of Nirvana. The achievement of enlightenment brings about the end: one has finished becoming and is only being. Naturally, this seems like an ending place for the poem (especially if we understand a relationship between being and text—again, more on that in post 5, which is forthcoming).

On the other hand, there is a strong Judeo-Christian understanding of narrative here: the apocalypse, the end that must come (as the diver must eventually finish his dive). Strange to think of a poem and apocalypse as being in the same category, but it makes a certain sense: the poem is an act of a person (godlike) who breaks the silence (ex nihilo?) and at some point comes riding in on a white horse and ends the poem. On the other hand, is it fair to separate the beginning of writing from the myriad of things that inspire it?

Let’s look at an actual poem. I love David Ferry’s translations of Horace’s Odes, and it always amazes me how Horace’s poems seem to snap shut at just the right moment. (Note: I have been unable to get WordPress to get the exact formating of this poem–apologies to David Ferry.)

To Sestius

Horace (trans. David Ferry)

Now the hard winter is breaking up with the welcome coming
Of spring and the spring winds; some fishermen,
Under a sky that looks changed, are hauling their caulked boats
Down to the water; in the winter stables the cattle
Are restless; so is the farmer sitting in front of his fire;
They want to be out of doors in field or pasture;
The frost is gone from the meadow grass in the early mornings.
Maybe, somewhere, the Nymphs and Graces are dancing,
Under the moon the goddess Venus and her dancers;
Somewhere far in the depth of a cloudless sky
Vulcan is getting ready the storms of the coming summer.
Now is the time to garland your shining hair
With myrtle or with the flowers the free-giving earth has given;
Now is the right time to offer the kid or lamb
In sacrifice to Faunus in the firelit shadowy grove.
Revenant white-faced Death is walking not knowing whether
He’s going to knock at a rich man’s door or a poor man’s.
O good-looking fortunate Sestius, don’t put your hope in the future;
The night is falling; the shades are gathering around;
The walls of Pluto’s shadowy house are closing you in.
There who will be lord of the feast? What will it matter,
What will it matter there, whether you fell in love with Lycidas,
This girl or that girl with him, or he with her?

There is one clear arc through this poem that indicates the end is coming: it moves from dawn (of spring) to evening (of life). While not about a literal day, the movements of a day are naturally contained (and what a beautiful and subtle shift from the seasons to life here—one that’s been done a million times, it’s true—yet so perfect and worth repeating; c.f., Joe Weil on the Ballad. Joe’s post reminded me of a poem from Wendell Berry’s Given—the title of the poem escapes me at the moment—in which an artist states that he would be perfectly content painting the very same river over and over, that this was the ideal of every artist.). The ur-movement from morning to evening, and the association of it with the seasons (and thus life itself) is, I think, what Bly was getting at when he referred to “deep image.” I suspect such “deep images” that are arguably shared between even wildly diverse cultures have something to do with the where and when of our poems, the sense of when a poem “feels” “closed” to us.

But this movement from day to evening is not everything. If it were, the poem would not contain the “new cognitive element” of which Grossman speaks. The whole poem is an address, yet the addressee is not revealed until the very end. Indeed, grammatically, there is no clue that it is a poem of address (as opposed to private musings “overheard” by us, the audience), until the very end. The convergence of the “deep image” of day and the revelation of Sestius helps achieve, perhaps, what Grossman referred to as a “new cognitive element” that is “added to the relationship of subject and object.”

There is more going on here that indicates the ending (the repetition of words and the question are a rhythmic indication), but I suspect the address to Sestius (culminating in a question only) combined with the movement from day to evening is the basic structure of the poem. Horace is allowed to end on a question, not because it is open-ended, but it is the natural completion of the thought. Nighttime brings about both closure and anxiety (What will come tomorrow? Was today sufficient?). Thus it is entirely appropriate to end on this note, and not at all a (deliberate) incomplete ending.

On one other note, Grossman believes that the “occasion for generative speech” (i.e., poetry), is “some dislocation or ‘disease’ of the relationship of a subject and an object….Creation is not the speaking itself but the primordial disease or fall which thrusts me into a predicament in which speech is the only way.” This idea seems to conflict with the idea that Wendell Berry articulates, that a poet should be content to stare at the same river, rejoicing continually in it, painting the same thing over and over (though really, is a river ever the same?). For Grossman, poetry comes out of a problem; for Berry, ideally, poetry comes out of a sense of fullness, of completion (not to the exclusion of problem poetry). Interesting to note that in the creation narrative of Genesis, creation is sung into existence (or rather, the creation narrative itself is a hymn).

(Note I’ve skipped from Part 4 to Part 6. Part 5 is still in the works.)