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Radioactive Relicts by Peter Hughes

Radioactive Relicts by Peter Hughes

Petrarch Sonnets 117-136
Litmus Publishing

In his Keynote Speech given at the First Conference of English-Poetry Studies in China, Shijazhuang, P.R. China, on 18th April 2008, the visiting speaker, Mr. J. H. Prynne addressed the issue of ‘Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” Poems’. At one point he looked at the idea of ‘surprise’:

Poetry is surprising, and good difficult poems sometimes surprise us so much that we can hardly breathe. A translation cannot be successful if, in order to make a foreign poem understandable, it makes it ordinary and rather predictable in its use of words. Thus, the language used in the translation of a difficult and surprising poem must also be difficult and surprising.

Prynne went on to refer to the letter Keats wrote to John Taylor in February 1818 in which he asserted that ‘I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity—it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance’.

I was drawn back to these ideas when I started reading this new Litmus publication of Peter Hughes’s Petrarchan Sonnets 117-136, Radioactive Relicts. For instance the opening lines of number 131, a version of ‘Or che ’l ciel e la terra e ’l vento tace’:

walk in local darkness hearing nothing
except the distant tinkle of the rich
the rest of us stare into burning sticks
till our eyes begin to itch & tingle

the nymph Callisto prowls the April night
shifting her weight from paw to monstrous paw
her body made of empty space & stars
paraded as a banner for all those…

Henry Howard’s early version ‘A Complaint by Night of the Lover not Beloved’ is worth looking up here in any collected edition of the poems of the Earl of Surrey:

Alas! so all things now do hold their peace!
Heaven and earth disturbed in nothing;
The beasts, the air, the birds their song do cease,
The nights car the stars about doth bring
Calm is the sea; the waves work less and less…

These two versions of the original are very much of their time but I have to record how much I am cast under a spell by Peter Hughes’s delicate handling of language: listen and look at the way in which the ‘tinkle’ of line 2 becomes the drawn out ‘itch & tingle’ of line 4 where the words seem to add power to that use of ‘rich’. Callisto prowls the night not only as a great, if supposedly untouchable, beauty but as an echo of a folksong memory of the fleeting presence of Simon and Garfunkel! And for those who might be wondering what happened between the mid-Sixteenth Century and now spot the Matthew Arnold quotation; he certainly will have read his Surrey!
This new publication is yet more evidence, for those who still need it, of the outstanding lyric quality of these translations. Buy a copy now from LITMUS publishing (www.litmuspublishing.co.uk)

Ian Brinton 3rd August 2014

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