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L’Olive: sonnet 28

My tongue cannot resist disclosing all
I feel for you, when from you I’m away,
but suddenly, feeling you nearby, it says
nothing—-left dumbstruck and deaf, words stall.

Thus hope makes guarantees while duping me:
I am less there, the more I’m in your presence.
What eludes me pleases me immensely:
I desire that which I refuse to keep.

I am joyful by night and sad all day,
having in sleep what, waking, will not stay:
my good’s a falsehood, my evil ever true.

I brood for one who’s faultless, best commended.
Therefore, Love, if there’s charity in you,
make my life brief, or night make never-ending.

L’Olive: sonnet 28

Ce, que je sen’, la langue ne refuse
_____Vous decouvrir, quand suis de vous absent,
_____Mais tout soudain que pres de moy vous sent,
_____Elle devient & muette, & confuse.
Ainsi, l’espoir me promect, & m’abuse,
_____Moins pres je suis quand plus je suis present.
_____Ce qui me nuist, c’est ce, qui m’est plaisent,
_____Je quier’ cela, que trouver je recuse.
Joyeux la nuit, le jour triste je suis.
_____J’ay en dormant ce, qu’en veillant poursuis,
_____Mon bien est faulx, mon mal est veritable.
D’une me plain’, & deffault n’est en elle,
_____Fay’ doncq’Amour, pour m’etre charitable,
_____Breve ma vie, ou ma nuit eternelle.

Joachim du Bellay was a French poet, critic, and a member of the Pléiade.

Translation by Brett Foster.

Plato wanted poets expelled from his ideal republic because they did not arrive at truth by methodology, but, according to him and the ancient Greeks, poets came to truth by way of being possessed by a divine afflatus: a god, a demon, the muses. Of course, this truth the poets came by wasn’t always verifiable or reliable, and Plato’s Republic is all about reliability. It’s about truth verified by method and maintained by law and system. Utopias do not change insofar as they are predicated on an ideal, a measure of perfection: measure. We should consider this word before we proceed further. Measure is not only at the center of Plato’s Republic (he allowed music as long as it was march music and kept people in step) but it is also at the center of this wild unpredictable thing known as poetry. So if we were going to see Plato’s methodological truth as one side of a dialectic (thesis) and poetry’s non-systematic, irrational truth as on the other (anti-thesis), we could then consider measure to be the synthesis of philosophy and poetry. If we call the former precision, and the latter ecstasy, one might see Plato as privileging precision over ecstasy—a state in which the trains arrive on time as opposed to poetry where the trains might turn into Swans. But, still, Plato’s world of system is related to poetry in terms of rhythm, cadence, measure.

Here is the nice little irony: the more methodological the thinking, the more it is about ideas, and concepts, and information, the more it tends to be irregular in terms of the measure of its language. In a culture that keeps books, thinking, concepts, information soon loses the measure, the method of cadence, and becomes what we now know as prose. Poetry, especially insofar as it is–until fairly recently–always yoked to music, remains far more regular and measured. So Plato was not knocking the cadence of poetry except for one of its powers which he feared: it’s power to conjure, to con the listener by an appeal to the heartbeat and the senses, which exploits both the quality of measured music and flights of fancy, of hypnotized and altered states of being and uttering. The ecstatic, that which is in rapture, possessed, out of its usual senses, deeply immersed in the unconscious, the irrational is contingent far more on qualities of measure than is the methodological and logical arguments of prose.

And yet poets, in order to escape the tyranny of too regular a beat, have also embraced a far more irregular pulse and cadence over the last hundred or so years. Free verse is the most pronounced of these, but there is also syllabic verse, and prose poetry. What remains is what Plato feared: unsystematic thinking and a sense of momentum, of measure that appeals to the human mind not as information or data alone, but as an experience beyond paraphrase: that which cannot be summed up or reduced to a nutshell without losing much of its value. If measure is the common link then between precision and ecstasy, if it is that quality of verbal action that cannot be reduced to full precision or to pure ecstasy, then poetry, like music, like dance, might be defined as the precision of ecstasy, and the ecstasy of precision, an ecstatic precision, and measured ecstasy.

When both terms lose their separate properties and become one, poesis occurs, but we have a problem: since free verse has no discernible measure, is irregular in rhythm, what sort of poetry do we now have that Plato did not intuit? Free verse can be distinguished from prose in what way? We know how it can be distinguished from metered and rhymed verse: no regular pattern of beats, of feet, exist (and if they do, they are soon vanquished before they can set up a rhythmic anticipation on the part of the reader). Free verse usually does not rhyme. It tends to emphasize the line in terms of enjambments rather than full stops. It can be broken into lines in any number of ways, by any number of rules, none of which have absolute pride of place.

That’s how it differs from traditional metered and rhymed poetry. How does it differ from prose? In rhythm, in cadence? In meaning? In terms of intention? What makes it far more effective as a series of lines and line breaks rather than as loosely measured language written straight across the page? There is no real answer to this question. I have my own idea that free verse is that written language which may be either more heightened or flatter than prose. In terms of being more heightened, it often employs the ancient devises of spoken oratory: anaphora, anadiplosis, antithesis, alliteration, metonymy, enumeration, and listing—a sort of speechifying, an utterance conscious of itself at all times as an utterance—speech, but speech raised to the level of speechifying, the rhetorical devices of speech employed to create a sense of voice and speaker on the page (Whitman is a good example of this, but so is Allen Ginsberg. Often, this is used for comic mock epic effect. Ginsberg’s rapsodes often have a high degree of wise ass and silliness.).

In terms of being flatter than regular prose, free verse may emphasize blunt statement, parataxis, a complete deadpan presenting of disparate facts either aided and abetted by, or resisted by line and line breaks (think James Tate’s prose poems). Suppose I write: “Pass the soup please Veronica. All over the earth toads are gathering in the gardens of reasonably well fed men and woman.” I could line this any number of ways to emphasize different words, to isolate them in strange patterns. First, these two sentences are paratactic (one statement after another with no conjunctions or connective phrases). We can call this style of paratxis a sort of rhythmic non-sequitur (something Getrude Stein employs to perfection), but there is also actual ongoing non-sequitur, things jumping about, or said in a non-sequential, illogical manner that creates a sort of strangeness. In such a case, uber-flatness of utterance heightens the sense of strangeness, creating a language that may be both comical, and frightening in its emotional affect. In this case, no one would possibly speak this way (though we often do without being aware of it). This is the free verse of much New York school and language poetry, and all the variants in between. It comes from the conversational lyric (a type of poetic thinking on the page first developed by Coleridge and used most extensively by Wordsworth). The conversational lyric is the most common form of free verse.

The confessional, or narrative poem also uses the conversational lyric in which the measured sound is neither the strangeness of the oracular or the dead pan of uber flatness (glibness), but that which approximates a sort of ordered consciousness, a speaking consciousness in the act of relating a meaning, an atmosphere, a poetry that attempts to move a reader to laughter, tears or deeper appreciation of a theme. This is the poetry closest to prose in terms of wishing to communicate a truth that is not, to a large sense, swallowed up by its own utterance. It is serving information, communication, and expression of emotion. Very often, in order to do this, such poetry will be middle of the road, seek a sort of measured prosaic voice that does not draw too much attention to itself as a voice at all, but is trying to convey something beyond itself. Examples of this type of free verse might be the poems of Philip Levine, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Sharon Olds, Stephen Dunn. This poetry seeks to be clear—to be understandable. It does not seek to razzle dazzle as does speechifying, or to create a strangeness of deadpan as does that free verse which is flatter than most prose. Some poems contain what might be called hybrids of all these types. Very often, even poets such as Levine and Gillan use the list, or anaphora, or contrast and they tend to do it far more than writers of prose, but they do so sparingly. Very often young poets write poems that use all three of these types of free verse in a single poem, and not successfully. This is why it is important to know your method of intention, and the way to do that is to read and learn from all these practices of free verse.

Now take some time to read George Trakl, who wrote in German. These translations by James Wirght and Robert Bly rendered Trakl into a sort of poetry that mixes the paratctic, flat style of free verse cadence with the last type I mentioned: the sense of a poet merely report what is scene, what is there for the sake of some meaning beyond the poem. If we could read these poems in German, if we could hear them in the natural measure of their utterance, we might have a very different poet before us—a poet carrying Holderlin and Heine, and Goethe, and also his contemporaries such as Rilke and Stephan George on his back. In meter and rhyme, these poems might seem totally different in character. We must read them here as English poems which have, through parataxis, a ghost of what I call “Ugg” clinging to them. “Ugg” is that overly stilted, stiff, sometimes simplistic English we have so called “primal” peoples speak: noble Indians, Tarzan, etc. We also use sophisticated Ugg for most Chinese and Japanese poems. It has the following features:

1. Usually short, declarative sentences, or even fragments, which have the rhythmic non-sequitur feeling of paratactic speech.
2. Dependance on image more than on rhythm, and on general rather than idiomatic phrasing. 3. Tendency toward eloquence in its new language which is not necessarily the same species of eloquence it had in its original language (for example Chinese poetry in Chinese is full of puns and verbal slights of hand. It is not: “the cherry trees bloom. I think of mustard” we tend to in English translation).

Translation of Japanese and Chinese poetry and other forms of ancient poetry tended to influence the actual writing of poems in the native language—to such an extent that it is hard to tell whether the imagists were imitating the Ugg translations of Chinese and Japanese poems, or Chinese and Japanese poetry was being reiterated into the flat, clear, paratactic “Ugg” measures of imagist poetry. Both are probably true.

Try to look at these Georg Trakl poems as free verse translations. Try rhyming them, complicating the sentences, emphasizing rhythmic pattern rather than image and see what happens. If you can, look at the original German. The point of this labor is to learn what exactly we mean by free verse and how exactly we become conscious manipulators of this tradition.

Georg Trakl has influenced many poets writing in English, especially the deep imagists, and poets such as Bly and Wright. His tone is that of the dream, the deadpan, almost drugged voice of disconnection we have come to see as one of the basic touch points of modernist, and post-modernist poetics.

Prompts for further exploration:
1. Take one of the Trakl Poems and try to retranslate it as a metered rhymed poem, keeping all the images, but playing with word arrangement and word choice. What does it do to the mood or effect of the poem? Now take this rhymed poem and retranslate it into free verse, rearranging as above.
2. Read “Locust Tree in Flower” by Williams–both published versions if you can. Try to reduce a poem of your own in this manner.
3. Take a movie review from the newspaper and play with it as a free verse poem. See what you can get rid of, what you can keep. The review should be three hundred words or less.

Brian: My favorite aspect of your novel, one that other “Armageddon” narratives mostly miss, is that the sky may fall, but still nothing is more terrifying than one’s own death (or even one’s own life).  I guess this is a statement posing as a question.

Colin: I like this.  Thanks, Brian.

Brian: A writer friend and I debate over concept v. character. I don’t consider your book to be a “postmodernist rewrite.” But some might. Did you envision this book in that light? To what extent do you see yourself as an “experimental” writer?

Colin: I don’t view it as a rewrite so much as an interpretation, and a loose one at that.  Obviously I pick and choose which elements from the Book of Revelation I’m interested in working with.  I set down a frame on a particular section of a particular translation and worked with those elements. I’m working with the material much in the way that the characters are.  I’m responding to a  limited set of external stimuli, drafting a story in response.

As for the “experimental writer” thing…I’m going to go ahead and say I would accept being called as much by someone else, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it about myself.  In a literal sense, Revelation is a long-form experiment.  In one sense, especially early on, I was balancing a variety of narrative modes against one another to see the effects.  But I also feel like “experimental” has become a way of describing a certain style of work that resists recognizable trends in “realist” fiction.  This is going to date me a little, but I think of a band like Modest Mouse and how everyone would always describe them as “indie,” even long after they were on a major label.  It had more to do with their sound than anything else.  There’s a certain “indie” feel to it.  This is done all the time.  Bands have an “indie” sound, or writers have an “experimental” vibe, even though most of the work that’s out there being called “experimental” is as heavily codified and traditional as what people often call “traditional” (by which they most often mean “realist” or narrative).

Brian: This is interesting. I focus on what some call “unnatural” narratives. That is, anti-mimetic strategies that stretch the reader’s cognitive parameters. Problem is, “unnatural” strategies, such as, say, the experimentations of postmodernism, are very quickly “naturalized,” or incorporated into a set of parameters readers have come to expect. Do you feel pressure to challenge those parameters? Are we always trying to be one step ahead of incorporation? What does the MFA workshop, which wants you to be able to sell your books, say about this?

Colin: I’m interested in working with the expectations of the reader.  For certain projects, I’ll engage with familiar tropes or narrative modes, recognizable genre ticks, references of one kind or another, etc., and use them in specific ways.  Of course, it’s impossible to predict how people will ultimately respond to a provocation or proposition, regardless of the thought and care that went into it.  And I’m also interested in this.  I find it fascinating and extremely useful that you can introduce elements of the “familiar” by opening a story in a particular way, or saying a particular thing at a particular time, and yet every reader will have a different set of associations to a “familiar” thing.  So what you’re really doing is loading the work with a moment of recognition.  It’s a tool in the toolbox.  The thing is, the “parameters” you’re talking about, what tricks are “naturalized” or “familiar,” those are shifting all the time.  So it feels pointless to me to challenge them directly.  Rather, you can use them to enhance or complicate the work in some way.  I gave my grandmother a copy of Revelation because she was very excited about the fact that I had written a book and someone had published it, etc.  But I talked to her a few months later and she said she had to put it down because she felt she wasn’t familiar enough with the Book of Revelation to read it.  Her plan was, and I suppose still is, to reread the biblical version of the story in order to prepare herself for taking this book on.  Now if you’ve read the book, you’ll know that’s entirely unnecessary.  Maybe it would enhance your read in some way, but everything that needs to be there is in the book itself.  At least in my opinion.  But I’m interested in the way her expectations of the book shift due to a structural conceit.  If she ever returns to Revelation, studied up and thoroughly “prepared” for the material, the questions at the center of the book will be as present as they would have been otherwise, only maybe she’ll feel them more deeply because they will resist the information she’s brought to the book with her.  Where, she might ask, is the God I’ve come to know?  Why is the believer in the same position as the non-believer?  What/where is salvation?  But this book is not the Book of Revelation.  It’s not even a re-telling, really.  It’s something else entirely.  It functions on its own terms, even though it incorporates and uses a variety of familiar narrative modes.  Alternatively, if I had attempted to write something that was a direct challenge to those modes, I feel like it could no longer be said that the work functions on its own terms.  I’m tempted to say that if I wanted to “challenge” the Bible, I would just hand out copies of the Bible to as many people as possible.

But back to your question, I think we want to innovate.  That means different things to different people.  Most people want work that explores new ground, digs a little deeper, maybe, or addresses something abandoned or untouched, or recasts the die, etc.  This is as true of the “experimental” writer as it is of the YA novelist.  So, as you’re making work, it helps to know what you’re ambitions are.  And I think young writers tend to feel that more than know it.  No one in my MFA program was too concerned with me selling my work.  In fact, when I pressed faculty for information, everyone seemed just about as confused and unsure of the game as I was. I won’t go into it here, but it’s obvious that the face of publishing is changing and has been for some time.  The people I listened to most at school were those who encouraged me to make the work I wanted to make, and trust that if I kept at the whole publishing thing I would eventually land on my feet.  At the very least, during those desperate nights when you feel you’ll never make it as a writer, that no one will read your work, let alone pay you for it, that your “career” is a joke, etc. (we all have these nights, right?  Or maybe some poor souls feel this way in the morning…), but at the very least you’ll have a folder full of work that you love and that means something to you.  That’s not enough for everyone, but at one point it was something that kept me going.  It got me to this point, where I’m a little more comfortable with myself.  I don’t ever think you can shake the fears, the doubts, the reservations, but you can make it to a point where they’re no longer driving the car.  This is something a teacher of mine once told me, another thing that stuck, that you’ll never get rid of fear and self-doubt, but as long as you don’t let them take control, you’ll be alright.  They can even be useful.

Brian: That’s beautifully put. Thank you. We have Marcus’ whole life in a slim volume. Did you always envision this book as being relatively minimalist? Why did this approach speak to you the most?

Colin: I knew the book would need to be spare.  I wrote a lot more than is included and edited it out or set it aside knowing it would never go into the book in the first place.  I drafted the in-between scenes and most of what (in the book) happens off stage.  For example, the letter Marcus is obsessing over in the second chapter, I have that written out and saved in a folder on my computer.  The exact wording of the letter is irrelevant for the book, because for that scene what matters is not what the letter says, but the way Marcus is reading the letter.

Also, throughout the book, I wanted a clear sense of how things had moved in the characters’ lives.  I needed to be able to write each new chapter as if it were continuing a story, rather than picking up at some random point and beginning again.   I was interested in a story that feels clear and direct and yet is full of gaps.  The book is a kind of distillation.  There is a story here, but it is obviously not the “full” story.  In fact, I’m skeptical of the idea that there ever is one.

I’m interested in examining our relationship to the unknown, but I didn’t want to be withholding without purpose.  I think the gaps introduce elements of the unknown without tendering purposeless obfuscation.  The gaps make the world feel bigger.  I heard a story once, and I’m likely remembering this wrong, that when Gil Evans was working with Miles Davis on the album Sketches of Spain, Evans wanted to include “quiet” in the composition.  Not silence, but “quiet”.  The way he went about it was to instruct the players to play a large instrument (like a gong) softly.  So, it was actually a fairly loud sound, but it created a sense of quiet because that loud sound was loaded with the possibility/sense of an enormous sound.

But there were a lot of things that made this approach important.  Another major one was speed.  I wanted the book to move quickly, or to have the feeling of something that is moving quickly.  This isn’t an articulate way of saying this, but the book needed a kind of “woosh” to it.

Brian: Is this because death “wooshes” us?

Colin: Oh god, if we’re lucky.  I hadn’t thought of it this way, though.  Life certainly does from time to time.  David Byrne had it right.  And here’s the annoying part of the interview where I include a hyperlink to a Youtube video.

Brian: There’s some interesting textual variety here. Why fill up the page sometimes, sometimes not? Is there a relationship to poetry there?

Colin: I suppose so, in the sense that I was interested in graphic interruptions.  I think the white space on the page guides the way we read and can dramatically alter our interpretations of and engagement with the text, and that’s something many poets are concerned with.  Certainly more than most fiction writers.  But I’ve just finished two books of poems and that feels very, very different.  It was something else entirely, really.  For Revelation, I was interested in certain moments standing alone, or inserting gaps here and there.  Slowing things down or speeding them up.  I wrote the book in standard paragraphs, and it wasn’t until we were editing the book that I spaced it out like this.  Once I had done it I immediately thought, oh, this is right.  This is perfect.  Then I had to edit everything all over again.

Brian: How long did you work on Revelation, from the first intuition of the concept to the final edit?

Colin: I wrote the first draft of the book in a month.  Or, about three weeks.  During that time, it was practically all I did.  I sent it to readers then and spent a few months editing.  Then I Quixotically sent it out to publishers and agents.  Mutable Sound got back to me in a matter of months.  We went for it.  Following that, I spent maybe three months editing and re-formatting the book.  I took it to Martha’s Vineyard and immersed myself in it in the way I had done when I first wrote it.  The book was published exactly a year after I finished the first draft, but I was sending them “updated final versions” up until the last possible second.

Brian: Talk a little bit about your web presence. Your site does some interesting things.

Colin: Ha!  My web presence.  First please allow me a tangential anecdote: about a year ago I was in Austin doing a reading at 5 Things!, a monthly reading series held down there.  At the time, Amelia Gray was involved in running things and she was the one who invited me to read.  After the reading we were all hanging out at Amelia’s and eating tacos and I was being drunk and Amelia said something about the fact that I had a kid.  When I said, I do not have a kid.  She looked at me a moment and then said, well you need to work on your web presence.

That’s been the resounding cry from all concerned ever since.  I recently started working with a publicist  (Lacey Dunham at Atticus Books, she’s amazing) in preparation for the release of A Long Line of Diggers, a pair of novellas I wrote that they’re releasing in 2013.  One of the first things she said to me after we introduced ourselves was, we should talk about your web presence.

I mean, to be honest, it is primarily jokes with myself.  That’s about it.  I just thought to write, it’s all a desperate attempt to be funny…but that’s not entirely true because if I’m posting something, it’s almost always because it’s making me laugh to myself at that moment.  So I guess it’s kind of selfish…

The website is a pride of mine.  My friends Rebecca Elliott and Heather McShane helped me do the code for it.  They helped me realize what was a very specific dream.  It does exactly what I wanted to do.  It is an extension of my outlook in certain ways.  It is a random assortment of images that are related to my work in specific ways and excerpts and stories and interviews and what have yous.  There is no way to “successfully” navigate it, meaning the only way to potentially ever access all of the material is to keep going back and trying over and over again, although you’re just as likely to get nowhere or cycle through the same thing over and over.  Like I said, it’s random.  I imagine it’s terribly frustrating to many.  But I find it immensely pleasing.  (Not frustrating people, mind you, but the site itself).

Brian: That’s why I love it! These are interesting moments you describe, when folks who want to market you “need to talk to you about your web presence.” How comfortable are you, in general, with the prospect of marketing yourself, or, altering aspects of what comes naturally for you for the sake of marketing?

Colin: Thanks, Brian!  I get the idea and use and even necessity of an “artistic persona”.  I think it’s not only a marketing tactic, but also a tool for guiding readers as they approach your work.  That said, I’m a terrible actor.  So my “artistic persona” or my “web presence” has always just been an extension of my normal, social self.  An exaggerated extension, sure, a distillation, but one that, as you say, “comes naturally” to me.  Lacey is an amazing publicist and we never did wind up making any serious changes to the website or any of the other ways I’m using the internet: social media sites, etc.  After we started working together a little more closely, I think she got a handle on where I was coming from and things started to gel for both of us.  She might not have even been concerned initially, but rather looking to make sure we were on the same page.  And I think we are.  I’ve been called “strange”.  The work is “strange”-seeming, at least to some.  And my web presence is certainly “strange” in particular ways.  But I think once you see the whole picture it starts to make a certain kind of sense.  So, in answer to your question, I’m fine with the idea that artists or writers might work to present themselves in a certain light, I think we’re all doing this all the time anyway.  But I think it’s important that the presentation/illusion be in some way a part of the work, or that it help us to better understand the work or inform us as to the terms on which we are to engage the work.  However, in terms of serious alterations to the self, I’m just not a savvy enough fellow to stray too far from home.

Brian: Some very exciting things are happening for you in the near future. How do praise, fame, etc. affect your work?

Colin: There are some exciting things happening, yes!  Or things I’m excited about, at least.  There will be the book of short stories Animal Collection out in September 2012 (Spork Press) and then two novellas will be released by Atticus Books in 2013, as I said earlier.  I’m excited for all of that and to tour and on and on.  As for the second part of your question…I’ll need to see your sources.

Brian: What about the not-so-near future? Do you have ambitions for bigger projects, different modes, more experimentation, etc.? Do you feel the need to evolve as an artist?

Colin: I just finished two new projects I’m really excited about.  The first was a book of poems collaboratively written with another poet, Ben Clark.  It’s called Kate Jury Denton Texas.  Most recently, I finished a book-length poem.  Right now it’s called And We Will Stay That Way.  These were the two “ambitious” projects on the horizon this spring, but now they’re finished and out in the world being read and hopefully they’ll soon find a home.  I’m also about halfway through a new novel that is doing some strange things.  It’s a lot of fun to work on, but it feels very odd moving back into fiction after being so heavily steeped in poetry for the last few months.  To me, every project feels singular, though I’m sure you could locate patterns and identify developments in style, etc. if you were to look closely after the fact.  I’m interested in making work that is exciting to me, and part of what excites me is examining new ground, or the same ground in radically different ways.  I don’t feel pressure to “evolve” as an artist.  Or, if there is a pressure I feel, it is not on those terms, necessarily.  I feel pressure to keep myself interested and fully invested in the work.  But I don’t look at it as a progression as I move from project to project.  But if I were to use the language of a linear progression, I would say I work “backwards” as much as “forwards,” and of course “side to side”.  As I see it, I’m sifting through and rearranging a network of constantly shifting ideas and associations.  It’s a mess up there and out here.  Each project is a momentary organization of a set of needs, ideas, impressions, etc.   Let us look to the T-1000.  Ideally, each book would enter the world like one of his blades or needles, exacting and perfectly fitted to a specific use, and yet the full effects of the introduction of that new element are unpredictable.  That’s one of the motivating factors behind sharing the work, I suppose.

Sigh.  That is the second time in two days I’ve brought up Terminator 2.  Something is wrong with me.

Brian: Well, I don’t see too much wrong with Revelation, or with the way things are going for you. Thank you so much

The best way to gain time is to change place.

Any review of literature in translation is also a review of the translation. And in this act, the review is also, in part, a comment on the endeavor of translation itself.

The Zoo in Winter, a selection of Polina Barksova’s poetry translated by Boris Dralyuk and David Stromberg, often addresses this issue of translatability head on. For Barskova, language shapes both perceptions of and expressions of interior identity and exterior reality, writing, “how could one describe in Russian/ The grand and small (goddamn) details/ Of need, so that the martyr’s crooked body/ Would not be crooked more painfully,/ So that, as it had once, it should desire/ Purposeless days in place of rueful days?”

In her work, Barskova doesn’t shy from explicitly stating her concerns as a writer, a woman, and a Russian living in the U.S., writing, “most of all I’m occupied with beauty/ I’m driven mad by the fact that the prattle healthyyoungbeautiful/ in their language means simply alive…” Here, and in its concern for beauty and its confrontation with mortality, poetry has the capacity, despite language-gaps, to bring people together, across genders, across nations, across languages—even as memory recedes, even as death intervenes—in the very act of articulating these divides. Barskova writes:

Under a foreign sky, under the ward
Of smiling Berkeley invalids
Whom I attend,
My soul lies like a hero killed,
No longer drawing crows.
Everything toothsome has been pecked from it,
It should be washed by rains and kicked by winds.
But – there is neither rain, nor wind, and one can hardly
Pick out a word to cover up the shame.
Words that serve here are meek and even,
Foreign to past grandiloquence…

In that passage—from “On Overcoming the Language Barrier”—language is not a mere characteristic of a nation’s people, but shapes nationality, and nationality, is not only a characteristic of an individual, but shapes that individual from his/her origin.




Two years ago, in celebration of the Tolstoy Centennial, at a Russian-themed reading at Pacific Standard in Brooklyn, Polina Barskova read with Ilya Kaminsky and Boris Dralyuk, a translator of Tolstoy and also Barskova’s translator. And this reading in 2010, marking one hundred years since Tolstoy’s sudden disappearance, then illness and death at a railway station in then-Astapovo, now named Lev Tolstoy, Barskova read her poems in the original Russian, then in the English translation, suggesting a loyalty to her own language, while also a commitment to being understood across barriers.

Also there in reading’s audience was Austin LaGrone, a Louisiana poet I met just before the reading began. We discussed the Southern Writers Reading series, which takes place monthly at a massage parlor-turned bar in Chinatown, and his then-forthcoming first book, Oyster Perpetual, selected for the Idaho Prize for Poetry by Thomas Lux and now available through Lost Horse Press. (Months later, in the same backroom of Pacific Standard, LaGrone would read from it, and I’d snag a copy.)

His book, like Barskova’s work, rings out strongly of its origin, but in a way that neither exoticizes where it comes from nor alienates a reader who comes from someplace else. Further, it shares a similar concern with being transplanted to new cities, with bridging time and place, and with conveying experience that is specific to an era and locale while also reaching beyond its context. In “Peach Flavored Cheyennes” LaGrone writes:

I’m not sure how things
come together to make a life,
or at what nexus we choose our heroes.
I want to sing Hank Williams.
But then I see girls
outside Pete’s Candy Shop
tying cherry stems with their tongues
and I think about Crystal
working the pole down at Maxine’s.
The heart grows stubbornly
in whatever soil we give it.

And even though this conversation during the break in this Russian-themed reading was our first-ever, our talk ended up landing on the topics of illness, death, and grieving. Oddly, it is with this similar, associative motion that Barskova’s poems function. In the book’s title poem, she writes:

Your father now holds Frosya by the hand. The hand –
Should be memory’s last stop
Before it swims off into the abyss.
The palm wraps round the night trains of remembrance,
Proust’s soggy little madeleines,

And VN’s Dobuzhinskii caves.
And Frosya’s wooly head
Is pressed against the tender web of veins,
Stretched out across the father’s ruin
Like a sweet lover’s furrow.

The hand. To hand. He walks into the room, where I sit without light,
As if I’m Heracles, ensnared with Admetus,
Hoping to save someone, yet lingering.
And mumbles: “I’m still. How cold. Give me that.”
And grasps my hand in a despairing handful,
The sweaty palm – awakened, warmed,
Blooms, nearly, like a stump on a spring day,

What’s astonishing – your father doesn’t know
Who I am, in that room looking after him,
Judging about him,
Yes, and in general, himself. Druid and asteroid,
He moves in darkness,
He moves towards me,
So as to freeze above me, and for a long time warm my hands
In the comfortless silence of his haggard rooms.

This reading was two years ago, now, as Tolstoy died in 1910, but I can still remember, as Barskova read the last lines of that title poem, “Since he has long ago forgotten all our names,/ Let him give names to us: Madness and Death,” LaGrone and I caught each other’s eye, astonished, across the packed backroom of that Brooklyn bar on 4th Avenue and St. Marks.

Read Levi Rubeck on Oyster Perpetual here.

Ballata del Maine

Volo impercettibilmente calmo, come in un film
in cui suo fratello guardava distrattamente la spiaggia,
per poi trovare conforto in una nuvola
su cui l’occhio si posava,
come quella volta, ancora in volo, ma con altri,
non più suo fratello ormai distratto, senza conforto,
con altri che all’epoca parlavano di morte, come la morte
fosse passata calma, in volo, come in un film
a parlare di morte, morte come blocco della foto
remota eppure presente, saluto a due mani
da lontano, nel fotogramma ingiallito, quelli che rimangono
fanno domande, se lo chiedono, dove si va?
Ma sì, c’e’ da chiederselo, che succede, cosa si vede?

Ora come in un film, ma questa volta all’indietro,
ai giorni di scuola, sulle scale che contengono le impronte
che ancora parlano di lui, come quella volta con i suoi amici,
ancorati alle pagine, a parlare di morte, era sull’Atlantico, era sul Pacifico?
Da est ad ovest, da ovest ad est, a parlare
da est ad ovest, da ovest ad est per non tornare
non tornare ai giorni della scuola, quelli della pioggia,
irragiungibili, così ad ovest come ad est.
impercettibili, in volo, a chiederselo, che cosa si vede?
Andando verso ovest, verso est, come sempre
alla fine del ritornello, verso ovest verso est
a chiederselo di nuovo, che cosa si vede?
Perché poi a parlare sono gli altri, che guardano non visti,
non uditi, come in volo, impercettibili, come sempre.

Ballad of Maine
(Translation by Olivia Holmes)

A still imperceptible flight, like in a film
in which his brother watched the beach distractedly,
to find comfort then in a cloud
on which his eye rested,
like that time, still in flight, but with others,
no longer his brother, distracted by now, discomforted,
with others that at the time spoke of death, as death
had passed calmly, in flight, like in a film
speaking of death, death as a freeze of the photo
remote and yet present, a two-handed wave
from far off, in the yellowing movie still, those who are left
inquire, they ask themselves, where do we go?
Indeed, we should wonder, what happens, what can be seen?

Now, as if in a film, but backwards this time,
to his schooldays, on the stairs that keep the prints
that still speak of him, like that time among friends
anchored to the pages, speaking of death, on the Atlantic or the Pacific?
From east to west, from west to east, speaking,
from east to west, from west to east, not turning back,
not going back to his schooldays, the rainy ones,
unreachable, to the west or east,
imperceptible, in flight, to wonder: what can be seen?
Going westward, eastward, as always
at the end of the refrain, westward eastward
wondering again: what can be seen?
Because it is the others who speak, who look without being seen
or heard, as if in flight, imperceptible, as always.

Mario Moroni was born in Italy in 1955. He moved to the United States in 1989. He has taught at Yale University, the University of Memphis, and Colby College. He currently teaches Italian at Binghamton University. Moroni has published seven volumes of poetry and one of poetic prose. In 1989 he was awarded the Lorenzo Montano prize for poetry.

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.

At the insistent behest of Joe Weil I have picked up a few Kenneth Burke books. In Joe’s opinion, Burke is one of the great American minds who has been unjustly put out of fashion. The more I read Burke, the more I agree with Joe. I’ve found that Burke’s explanations of art resonate with me as an artist. For example, Burke’s essay “The Poetic Process” (from Counter-Statement) delineates the relationship between the “emotion” that inspires writing, symbol, and technical form in an incredibly believable way.

Burke begins with dreams:

…at times we look back on the dream and are mystified at the seemingly unwarranted emotional responses which the details “aroused” in us. Trying to convey to others the emotional overtones of this dream, we laboriously recite the details, and are compelled at every turn to put in such confessions of defeat as “There was something strange about the room,” or “for some reason or other I was afraid of this boat, although there doesn’t seem any good reason now.”

This is because, as Burke says, “the details were not the cause of the emotion; the emotion, rather, dictated the selection of details…Similarly, a dreamer may awaken himself with his own hilarious laughter, and be forthwith humbled as he recalls the witty saying of his dream. For the delight in the witty saying came first (was causally prior) and the witty saying itself was merely the externalization, or individuation, of his delight.”

In what seems to be the inverse of Eliot’s “objective correlative,” the emotion directions the choice of imagery. The imagery becomes “symbol” at this point. Burke compares this to a grandparent who tries to share all the details of his or her childhood as a way to communicate the “overtones” of the experience. The grandparent wants to express themselves, their feelings.

Yet an artist does not want to express their feelings. Rather, they want to evoke emotion in the audience: “The maniac attains self-expression when he tells us that he is Napoleon; but Napoleon attained self-expression by commanding an army….transferring the analogy, the self-expression of an artist, qua artist, is not distinguished by the uttering of emotion, but by the evocation of emotion.” One of the most dreaded things I hear is somebody describing their own personal poetry as self-expression. I don’t dread it because I begrudge that person’s personal art, but usually because a request to read their work and give feedback follows. And almost always the work is terrible. Why? Because it’s solely concerned with self-expression and the would-be poet feels no obligation to anyone but his or herself. A person like that will not hear any advice; they seek affirmation. Our writing goals are not the same. As Burke puts it “If, as humans, we cry out that we are Napoleon, as artists we seek to command an army.”

This is not to say that there is no element of self-expression in poetry. There certainly is, according to Burke. But “it is inevitable that all initial feelings undergo some transformation when being converted into the mechanism of art….Art is translation, and every translation is a compromise (although, be it noted, a compromise which may have new virtues of its own, virtues not part of the original).” The private poet cannot stand to compromise on their feelings and, as a result, they often write terrible poetry. But in the poetic process, a poet realizes there is compromise. This leads to a concern about the “impersonal mechanical processes” of evocation, and, eventually, leads the artist to a place where the means of expression are an end in itself. At this moment, we are in the realm of technique.

In short, we begin with emotion, which dictates choice of symbol, for which the systematic concern thereof creates technique. Tom Sleigh once memorably asked my MFA class “do you, as a poet, logos into eros or eros into logos?” I forget what my answer was at the moment since I was stubborn and probably more concerned with subverting the question. Burke’s essay, however, has interesting parallels. (For the record, today I’d probably say, with Burke, that I eros into logos, which might account for a recent turn toward formalism in my poetry.)

Before ending, I want to note the parallel between Burke’s point and my point (via Rexroth–or, more accurately, Rexroth via me) about Tu Fu, who I described as writing in a way that suggests “that the category break [between feeling and image/symbol] is weaker than we think. The image (object) is already interpreted: ‘values are the way we see things.’” If Burke’s description of the poetic process is accurate, Tu Fu’s poem is actually winding backward toward the origin of his poetry, backwards through the linked images interpreting one another, back toward the initial thought/emotion/impulse which led to the first decision to communicate, to attempt evocation.

I’ve been enjoying Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited lately (You can find a few of his essays reprinted here). Rexroth’s literary polymathism—his ability to speak (and translate) almost anything—seems touched only by Ezra Pound (who was a great translator, but not a good one).

Rexroth’s admiration for Tu Fu as a poet (along with Joe Weil’s recommended book list) inspired me to purchase One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. And I’ve spent the last several weeks reading, and rereading Tu Fu, in hopes that I would be able to understand and come to some of the insights that Rexroth touts. For example, Rexroth says

You feel that Tu Fu brings to each poetic situation, each experienced complex of sensations and values, a completely open nervous system. Out of this comes the choice of imagery — so poignant, so startling, and yet seemingly so ordinary. . . . For Tu Fu, the realm of being and value is not bifurcated. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful are not an Absolute, set over against an inchoate reality that always struggles, unsuccessfully, to approximate the pure value of the absolute. Reality is dense, all one being. Values are the way we see things. This is the essence of the Chinese world view, and it overrides even the most ethereal Buddhist philosophizing and distinguishes it from its Indian sources. There is nothing that is absolutely omnipotent, but there is nothing that is purely contingent either.

Rexroth concludes his essay saying

If Isaiah is the greatest of all religious poets, then Tu Fu is irreligious. But to me his is the only religion likely to survive the Time of Troubles that is closing out the twentieth century. It can be understood and appreciated only by the application of what Albert Schweitzer called “reverence for life.” What is, is what is holy. I have translated a considerable amount of his poetry, and I have saturated myself with him for forty years. He has made me a better man, a more sensitive perceiving organism, as well as, I hope, a better poet. His poetry answers out of hand the question that worries aestheticians and critics, “What is poetry for?” What his poetry does superlatively is what is the purpose of all art.

I have not come to the profound insights of Rexroth, and I suppose I won’t for many years. I did figure out, I think, how at least one of Tu Fu’s poems functions. Or rather, how Rexroth’s translation functions. Here’s the poem:


Sunset glitters on the beads
Of the curtains. Spring flowers
Bloom in the valley. The gardens
Along the river are filled
With perfume. Smoke of cooking
Fires drifts over the slow barges.
Sparrows hop and tumble in
The branches. Whirling insects
Swarm in the air. Who discovered
That one cup of thick wine
Will dispel a thousand cares?

On display here, of course, is poetic montage, which became especially popular in modernist poetry (in part because of the influence of eastern poetry, which was being imported to English via French, if I understand history correctly). I had always been familiar with Ezra Pound’s idea of metaphor as a sort of montage, but what is happening here seems to me to be a sort of directional, linear montage. One image leads to the next in a linking chain of montage. The sunset glittering on the beads is (possibly) refracted, turned into multiple colors. The beads, perhaps, are slowly moving from side to side, like a pendulum. This is similar to the way that the flowers, coming up in Spring, begin to display various colors and perhaps wave in the Zephyr.

The flowers quite readily lead to the garden image—this isn’t really montage. The garden is full of perfume, which leads to the smoke from the barges. The barges lead to the sparrows—perhaps a bit of a stretch, but I can see one saying that barges drift and tumble down a river the way that sparrows hop and tumble through branches. The montage here, I think, is the implied aimlessness. Finally, the sparrows montage into the insects.

We want to ask next, how do all these images culminate in the question “Who discovered / That one cup of thick wine / Will dispel a thousand cares?” It’s a good question, and on the surface it seems that Tu Fu/Rexroth has pulled this last line rabbit-like out of a hat. It’s not a complete non-sequitor. But let’s return to what Rexroth says:

Out of this comes the choice of imagery — so poignant, so startling, and yet seemingly so ordinary. . . . For Tu Fu, the realm of being and value is not bifurcated. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful are not an Absolute, set over against an inchoate reality that always struggles, unsuccessfully, to approximate the pure value of the absolute. Reality is dense, all one being. Values are the way we see things.

Rexroth seems to be saying, in Tu Fu’s poetry, the question I just posed should not even be a question. We perceive a break between images and feeling. But perhaps this break is artificial. We acknowledge that images can evoke feelings, perhaps that there is an “objective correlative” that can reliably evoke feelings. But perhaps what is being suggested here is that the category break is weaker than we think. The image (object) is already interpreted: “values are the way we see things.”

Thus, we can move seamlessly from the barge to sparrows to the question about wine; it’s all part of Tu Fu’s hermeneutic circle: one thing constantly interpreting the next. Perhaps I should reconsider my use of the word “linear,” given that I just described Tu Fu as using a sort of “circle.” But I don’t want to sit firmly with one or the other. Maybe coil? Spring?

These philosophical musings are not what is poetic here, though. Perhaps they are the fodder of the poetic (though “fodder” downgrades philosophy in an unfair way). Having interpreted the poem philosophically, though, it begs the question: what is poetic about this piece? Rexroth again: [Tu Fu’s] poetry answers out of hand the question that worries aestheticians and critics, “What is poetry for?” What his poetry does superlatively is what is the purpose of all art.

Rexroth’s answer may be a trapdoor: What is poetry? Read Tu Fu and you will understand. Undoubtedly there is a wholeness about Tu Fu’s poem. We enter the poem at the beginning and leave it at the end. Have we gone anywhere? We’ve moved from image to image, and yet I’ve argued we remain in the same place, we have stayed within an interpretive circle.

Yet our minds have been expanded. We are in a different place than before. We can try to define that place, interpret and understand it, but in doing so we are actually moving to a new place. We grasp at it and it slips away.

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.

Entering a new language is entering a new world. But what does it mean to be “in” a world? The word “in” originally had no spatial connotations. To say that someone was “in” something meant that they existed “in anger” or “in love.” Love and anger are not places, but modes of being. But this means that you can say these statements another way: to be “in anger” is to be angrily and “in love” is to be lovingly. To be “in a world” means to be worldly.

When you enter a new language, you enter a new mode of being. This is true not simply of English, Chinese, Farsi, etc. but also of the language games of technologies, skills, and other modes of thought. As long as there is a new vocabulary, it is a new language game, and anywhere there are new rules is a new world. Entering a new language is not simply acquiring a new means of communication, but, as Micah Towery said, learning a new way of thinking. I would go even further: to enter a new language is to enter a new way of being.

As Okakura Kakuzo said in The Book of Tea, “All translation is treason.” This is very true, but I would modify this: all we have is translation. All we have is treason. Every conversation is predicated on our essential being-guilty. To put it another way, discourse only proceeds when we remain open to the possibility of miscommunicating our ideas. Closedness is the greatest enemy to communication and to healthy relationships. If there is ever such a thing as Original Sin, it is most obvious in language – the mere birth of language brings about contradictory concepts. Language unites and separates. All discourse, though, requires concerted effort. The word “relationship” is overused, and there is nothing inherently good in having a relation to anything – relations can be good or bad, as my wife’s in-laws consistently prove.

Every action (and word) has a limitless number of consequences, most of which cannot be predicted. Because of the unpredictability of spontaneous conversation, the only way to sustain dialogue is forgiving the unintended consequences of the Other’s words (and our own).  Forgiveness is therefore the very life of conversation and the heart of discourse. Without a constant flow of forgiveness even disagreement is impossible.

Forgiveness frees the victim and the victimizer from the crime. The victim is freed from the inhibition of the grudge, and the criminal is freed from the bondage of her sin. Engaging a new language is one of trial and error, but also always forgiveness of errors.

So, while we are all guilty of treason and are thus all guilty, we are all also in need of forgiveness. Whatever truth may be, it is always expressed in a historically-bound vocabulary and cannot be abstracted from our historical situation. But what makes up our vocabulary? Whatever  conditions affected our species, our countries, our families, and finally ourselves. Since none of these conditions are ever identical, no vocabulary is identical and thus no world is identical. Translation is treason, but treason is our own means of being in the world.