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Monthly Archives: January 2016

The Victor Poems by Anthony Caleshu (Shearsman Books)

The Victor Poems by Anthony Caleshu (Shearsman Books)

When I first heard some of Anthony Caleshu’s ‘Victor’ poems being read last November at the Shearsman book-launch at Swedenborg Hall I was intrigued. At the time, and not having read any of them before, I was a little unsure of the tone of voice; there was a sense of yearning connected to a cold journey and there was a wry sense of humour which haunted many of the startling moments encountered on the way. When I heard them again at a reading in the University of Kent I had had an opportunity to look with greater care at the texts themselves and found myself becoming increasingly respectful of what I registered as an elegiac sense of loss in the early pieces. The character of Victor still contained, of course, its Latin association of achievement but now another Victor hovered in my mind. This second character came from Flaubert’s late tale ‘Un Coeur Simple’ and as Félicité, in some ways a later incarnation of Emma Bovary, goes to Honfleur to catch a last glimpse of her nephew, Victor, as he sets out on an ocean voyage I recognised how I had arrived at the haunting elegy which threads its steps through the early Caleshu poems:

‘When she arrived at the Calvary she turned right instead of left, got lost in the shipyards, and had to retrace her steps. Some people she spoke to advised her to hurry. She went right round the harbour, which was full of boats, constantly tripping over moorings. Then the ground fell away, rays of light criss-crossed in front of her, and for a moment she thought she was going mad, for she could see horses up in the sky.
On the quayside more horses were neighing, frightened by the sea. A derrick was hoisting them into the air and dropping them into one of the boats, which was already crowded with passengers elbowing their way between barrels of cider, baskets of cheese, and sacks of grain. Hens were cackling and the captain swearing, while a cabin-boy stood leaning on the cats-head, completely indifferent to it all. Félicité, who had not recognized him, shouted: “Victor!” and he raised his head. She rushed forward, but at that very moment the gangway was pulled ashore.’

In Caleshu’s epigraph from Emerson’s essay on ‘Friendship’ I could gain a sense of the isolation and needs of Flaubert’s character:

‘We walk alone in the world. Friends such as we desire are dreams and fables. But a sublime hope cheers our ever faithful heart.’

The first poem opens with a question, ‘Victor, we say, where are you?’ and as if in answer the line continues ‘The wind has a mind of its / own’. The air, wind, insubstantiality, friendship, hope are both now and are gone:

‘We follow the horizon to where the blue of the sky meets
the white of the ice.’

In the second poem the questioning continues as a recollection is interrupted:

‘The last time we saw you…when was the last time we
saw you?’

The awareness of continuance in absence is presented in festive terms as ‘Even in absentia, you put your credit card’, followed by a white space on the page before the decisive word ‘down’.

‘It’s all paid for, the bartender said’.

As friendship melts before new friendship forms there is a bleak recognition that ‘In the cold we get dark’ and, in poem 6, there is the plea ‘Victor, we want your friendship not your money!’ But the journey of dissolution continues and the poet asks ‘How do we stop the melting?’ before recognizing that

‘Each step has become a wish to step back’.

It was perhaps Anthony Caleshu’s use of the word ‘step’ that brought back to my mind that 1970 tour-de-force by W.S. Graham, ‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land’ which opens with its elegiac tone of friendships left behind:

‘Today, Tuesday, I decided to move on
Although the wind was veering. Better to move
Than have them at my heels, poor friends
I buried earlier under the printed snow.’

Graham’s words move step by step, ‘word on word’, and as Tony Lopez put it in his monograph on the poet ‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land is in many senses a particular place with its own natural history and its own community of strange inhabitants. The full description does not occur in any one place, but reading across the poems we pick up a consistent level of reference which builds a territory outside but linked with normal reality. It is a place of terror and madness, inhabited by monsters, beasts and gods.’
As Flaubert’s character dies she opens her nostrils to breathe in with ‘mystical sensuous fervour’ and ‘as she breathed her last, she thought she could see, in the opening heavens, a gigantic parrot hovering above her head’. A ‘sublime hope’ certainly does cheer ever the ‘faithful heart’ and Caleshu’s concluding poem asserts ‘Victor, we’re replacing this story of you with this story of / us’.
This short review is really just an exploration of a few ideas which came to me at further reading. I shall read this powerful and moving sequence of poems many more times yet.

Ian Brinton 28th January 2016

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On Violence in the Work of J.H. Prynne by Matthew Hall (Cambridge Scholars Publishing)

On Violence in the Work of J.H. Prynne by Matthew Hall (Cambridge Scholars Publishing)

It may seem strange that I should be writing this review since a few lines of my blurb appear on the back of the book itself. However, the point of the review is that it enables me to say more about why I think that this highly intelligent book is one of the best accounts of Prynne’s oeuvre that I have read for some considerable time. It also gives me space to explain why I should think this!

Within the network, the weave, of Prynne’s language there is a compassionate sense of Humanity and a lament for the distortions of language and self-delusion which enable the Human to become soiled by his most basic aspirations. Hall’s comment on ‘Refuse Collection’, that terrifying glimpse into the atrocities of the Second Gulf War, refers to the poem’s elegiac quality which is ‘linked to the pastoral elegy by establishing spatial locations that are unified with ceremonial mourning’:

‘The use of the pastoral elegy establishes connections with the poem Acrylic Tips, as well as ‘Es Lebe der König’, where the elegiac is a feature associated with landscape constructions.’

There is a movement to and from within this book and individual chapters centre upon different texts while never losing sight of how the accumulation of reference builds up into a glimpse of the extraordinary range of Prynne’s work and recognition of the profoundly integrated nature of his poetry. After the first chapter on the Celan poem from Brass we are moved on to a close examination of News of Warring Clans, Bands Around the Throat, Acrylic Tips. The last thirty pages then focus upon that language of ‘Refuse Collection’, a poem which should stand among the most powerful War poems ever written.

Matthew Hall is very good in directing us to the backgrounds, the heritage, the traditions within which Prynne writes. In the introduction he refers to the importance of Keats as a presence lurking behind some of the lines in that poem Prynne wrote immediately after hearing of the death of Paul Celan, ‘Es Lebe der König’, published in the 1971 collection Brass. Hall directs us to look at how, in the second stanza, Prynne’s ten lines mimic ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and how Prynne’s line ‘It is not possible to / drink this again’ reverberates off Keats’s line ‘That I might drink and leave the world unseen’. Prynne’s poetry is well-known for its buried resources, its incorporation of his own reading, and one has only to recall the use of Dickens in ‘Of Movement Towards a Natural Place’ or the words of Lear in the opening lines of ‘As Mouth Blindness’ to recognise the wholeness of a life dedicated to reading, teaching and writing.

The first chapter of Matthew Hall’s book is devoted then to looking in close detail at the way in which that intensely important early poem actively investigates the ‘sense of alienation in the postwar world’. According to a letter sent by Prynne to Anthony Barnett that poem (for Paul Celan 1920-1970) was written on the same night that he heard of Celan’s suicide ‘from a Frenchman here in the city, long before it was reported in the Press’. It was not published until December of the following year.

It has been excellent to read some accounts in this book of the importance of music and its influence in ‘informing the poetic structure and technical operation of Prynne’s poetry’:

‘Throughout Prynne’s poetic oeuvre, music is represented and interrogated for signifying ontological sustenance. The reliance of ‘Es Lebe der König’ on the fugal pattern informs the technical and thematic orientation of the poem, by creating fidelity to the event of Celan’s death and evincing the role of ideology in perpetuating the Holocaust’s inescapable cycle of violence.’

Throughout this highly readable book we are left in no doubt as to the importance of Prynne’s poetry and I am reminded that in 1972 the Cambridge poet was deeply involved in reading early work by the French contemporary André du Bouchet. It seems just, perhaps, to end on a short quotation from one of du Bouchet’s Notebooks in which he commented upon the ‘Readable Poet’:

‘Poetry—this miracle—
the secret on the surface: what is most secret, unique, or so you’d assume, in broad daylight, and circulated through this ordinary language—as though it could only become aware of its secret through this public measure—man.’

Ian Brinton 22nd January 2016

Poems 2004 -2014 Harriet Tarlo (Shearsman Books)

Poems 2004 -2014 Harriet Tarlo (Shearsman Books)

In January of last year Shearsman Books published a delightful collection of poems by Harriet Tarlo and I do not use that adjective without some consideration. I remember reviewing her Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry, The Ground Aslant (Shearsman 2011), when it first appeared and being struck by the sharp focus of the poet’s introduction in which she wrote ‘Language is a form in which landscape can come alive’. The quiet and perceptive intelligence of this brief statement was brought back to my mind yesterday when I was reading Madame Bovary in preparation for a talk to be given to Sixth-formers in a couple of weeks’ time. Flaubert’s understanding of the world as seen through the eyes of the sentimental Emma is placed, at one point, in terms of landscape:

‘She liked the sea only for its storms, and greenery only when it was thinly scattered among ruins. She had to be able to derive a kind of personal advantage from things; and she rejected as useless all that did not immediately contribute to her heart’s consummation—being of a temperament more sentimental than artistic, seeking emotions and not landscapes.’

Also in her introduction, the editor accounted for the diversity of texts by Wendy Mulford, Peter Larkin and many others as juxtaposing differing arrangements of prose blocks, found text and stanzas of poetry, ‘each within their own spaces.’ She then suggested that ‘these diverse texts speak to each other across the space, allowing readers to enter the poem and speculate over their relationship to each other’. I think that that it was the importance of this last statement that came back to my mind when I was looking at Harriet Tarlo’s Poems 2004-2014 and I re-read Gillian Allnutt’s comment on the back about this being a poetry ‘that thinks through time and place’.

I was looking closely at the concluding sequence of eleven poems, ‘insurmountable chasm’, many of which were originally embedded in an essay entitled ‘An Insurmountable Chasm?’: Revisiting, Re-imagining and Re-writing Classical Pastoral through the Modernist Poetry of H.D.’ which had been published four years ago in Classical Receptions. The first piece is what Tarlo terms ‘original’ and I think that it is very striking indeed in the different ways it can be read.

found words over space list
shunting sound leaf dust under
learning to hesitate leave it
long and longer over-creepage
ivy

The way that this poem is laid out is central to the manner in which it can be read and I am hoping that the spaces will have come over okay when my little piece has been transferred to the website blog. If not then readers will have to write out the twenty-one words for themselves or, much better, buy a copy of this delightful collection: it will repay many hours of focused study as one appreciates how language is a form in which landscape can come alive.

In his essay ‘Four Different Ways of looking at J.H. Prynne’s Chinese Poem’ (Quid 7), Li Zhimin wrote:

‘To judge whether a classical Chinese poem is successful, the first and most important question is to see whether it creates an integrated Yijing, which refers to the overall effect of a poem, a sort of picturing imagination fully including the poet’s genuine understanding of life at large, of human beings, of nature and the universe…The appreciation of a good classical Chinese poem often runs beyond explanation. In many cases, it is simply unexplainable. The more one explains, the more its beauty will be blurred for readers…’

Li Zhimin goes on to tell us that the usual way of reading a traditional Chinese poem is (i) from right to left vertically downwards. A more modern Chinese way, more familiar of course to us, is (ii) from left to right, horizontally. A third way of reading (iii), combining the two cultures could combine the traditional Chinese-right-to-left and the English-horizontal and one might even be compelled to try (iv) the English-left-to-right and the traditional Chinese-vertical way. Looking at Harriet Tarlo’s first poem in ‘insurmountable chasm’ the effect of these different ways of reading can be felt immediately and I just want to point out a few of the delights which I came across while leaving the continued and continuing reading of these poems to you.

In (i) watch how the pun on ‘leave’ (leaf) is followed by the thrust forward of ‘over-creepage’ to ‘over leaf’ which hesitates before the enclosing growth of ‘ivy’ becomes language.
In (ii) watch how ‘space list’, a white page perhaps(?), seeks space ‘over’ language, words which are that ‘dust’ of accumulation under ‘leaf’ can be given voice ‘shunting sound’.

This beautifully put together book of poems sheds light.

Ian Brinton 17th January 2016

Flame in the Snow: The Love Letters of André Brink and Ingrid Jonker

Flame in the Snow: The Love Letters of André Brink and Ingrid Jonker

Translated by Leon De Kock & Karin Schimke (Umizi 2015)

Afrikaans, one of the official languages of South Africa, spoken by some seven million speakers and widely recognised by the leadership of the African National Congress for its contribution to dissident literature has produced a number of writers of global significance. It remains a vibrant literary culture as the writing of J.M Coetzee, Marlene van Niekerk, and others testify. The love letters of novelist, André Brink and poet, Ingrid Jonker, written between April 1963 and April 1965, return to the reader to a time of protest against censorship when no criticism of South Africa’s race policy was tolerated, and is perhaps a timely reminder for South Africans.

Brink, at the beginning of his career as a novelist, teaching at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, and Jonker, writing her second poetry collection, whilst working as a proofreader in Cape Town, fell head over heels at first sight. Brink, already married, and Jonker, separated from her husband and daughter at the beginning of their relationship, found as much time as possible for rampant sex. The letters, exquisitely written, combine intimacy with candid exploration, responses to their publications and gossip about friends and fellow writers. They show frustration at the insufficiency of words, religion and the post Sharpeville political situation.

Here is Brink on 28 June 1963:

It’s cold here; and here in my little circle of light in the bedroom – all the others are sitting around the fireplace – it’s lonely too. This, however, is no pure, austere kind of cold that clarifies things, down to the bone; it’s miserable and muddy; and my heart feels much the same. …

This afternoon I was with Dekker, but he’s a hard nut to crack. He did, however, indicate he’s not unsympathetic to Labola. Meanwhile, other people’s reactions are typical of Potchefstroom: the head of the Afrikaans Department said straight out he had read the book up to page 42 and then thrown it away. Immoral. Confused. And (isn’t this strange!) uncalvinistic. These are the people who guide our students. …

More pleasant: I found an interesting, though often naïve The Psychology of Sex (Oswald Schwarz) – thus not the one you showed me at Windell’s place. He offers the following insights, among others, that seem more philosophical than psychological (and are therefore perhaps true?) “Sex love means insatiable participation in the existence of the beloved. Love is not a state which can be reached and in which longing comes to rest: love is perpetual striving, unending uncertainty, an everlasting act of creation.”

In his autobiography, A Fork in the Road (2009), Brink explained that his life was never the same again after meeting Jonker. Reading Flame in the Snow one has a sense that he is in the process of being transformed into a more energised and combative writer. His letters are fuller and longer, whereas Jonker’s are more succinct and somehow being what Brink aspires. He had studied in Paris a few years earlier and was full of the existentialism that Jonker seems to embody in her poetry and life. Their literary quotations come from Afrikaans, Dutch, English, and French, Italian, German and other foreign language poets and writers. Brink lets Pound speak his emotions; later Jonker sends her translation of an E.E. Cummings poem. They read all the new American and English poetry anthologies.

It is Jonker’s personae, beauty and poetry that clearly hold Brink in thrall. She attracts other lovers and yet Brink continues to yearn. He kept the carbon copies of his correspondence as if he knew that their relationship held significance. We sadly are not privy to their telephone conversations or the tapes that they sent each other. The relationship is deep, turbulent and, for Brink, liberating. Flame in the Snow reads like a novel and the reader has to fill in the gaps between letters. There is a sense in which Jonker chides and goads Brink to become more oppositional in his every day life and writing. In her second letter she chastises him for accepting the Eugene Marais Encouragement for Drama award, refuses to offer congratulations, and insists that he must be more confrontational. She knows that there can be no compromise with such a regime. After her suicide Brink became more radicalised and oppositional. The letters reveal Jonker as an uncompromising woman struggling to survive. Her financial and physical struggles to write and exist as a single mother allow her access to the world of deprivation experienced more diversely by other South Africans.

Flame in the Snow will surely join the pantheon of great literary love letters and be well scrutinized for its information on both writers. It makes compulsive reading.

David Caddy 9th January 2016

The Drop by Robert Sheppard (Oystercatcher Press)

The Drop by Robert Sheppard (Oystercatcher Press)

When J.H. Prynne gave his Keynote Speech at the First Conference of English-Poetry Studies in China on 18th April 2008 he referred to the art of translation in terms of poetic composition:

‘The activity of composing a poem in the first place shares some features with translation-work: pausing to consider exactly which words and expressions to use, building up the form and sound of a poem as if it already exists in your mind and as if you are translating this idea or process of thought into words on a page.’

‘Building up the form’ echoes the note Prynne made one year before that speech in China when he suggested that translation was ‘a noble art, making bridges for readers who want to cross the divide between their own culture and those cultures which are situated in other parts of the world’. Those bridges may be made stone by stone, brick by brick, word by word, or, perhaps when the bridge connects a world of the present with a world of the past, drop by drop. The drop may suggest Donne’s ‘A Valediction: of weeping’ where ‘each tear / Which thee doth wear’ creates ‘a globe, yea world’. The drops of sorrow at the loss of someone close to one’s whole life may, in Donne’s terms, become

‘Fruits of much grief they are, emblems of more,
When a tear falls, that thou falls which it bore,
So thou and I are nothing then, when on a diverse shore.’

That disyllabic adjective emphasizes the distance between the lovers, each on their separate shore.
Near the end of Robert Sheppard’s elegy to his father, the poet writes that the ‘Desire the task / Of the poet is elective translation’:

‘To transmute the nothing said
Into the nothing that could

That could talk itself
Into the world the

Shadow that casts wings between
The pillars the poem’s

Ear vibrates unthreads the
Love-whisper

By interruption
Quickens the sparkle-speech scattered

Among injured words love
Intervenes

Cannot resist too
Much in love with its own resisting

Earlier in this powerful elegy Sheppard had referred to the ‘longest story ladders / Up sides of tombs’ and the whole poem explores the ability of language to explore the inability of the past’s reconstruction. Words can never bring back the dead, never ‘talk’ themselves ‘Into the world’, but the ‘translation’ referred to is ‘elective’ and the stumbling forward of language in its climbing out of the past to reconstruct what can never bridge those distances is caught in the repetition of ‘that could’. That passage from near the poem’s end brims over with suggestion: the ‘Shadow that casts wings’ inevitably echoes the valley of the shadow of death in Psalm 23 and I found myself looking back at Robert Duncan’s ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’ where the poet links the present to the past through imagination. Duncan’s scene is ‘made-up by the mind’ but is definite enough in its concrete reality to be ‘a made place’. Although personal to the poet, it is a place to which he is permitted to return; it has mythological existence as the underworld to which Kora was taken. The architecture of the hall, the domain of the subconscious/past/underworld promotes the palpability of the present in which the poet lives: ‘Wherefrom fall all architectures I am’. Olson also wrote about the impossible distances and suggested that because love is so intense and alive in its feelings it ‘knows no distance, no place/is that far away’ (‘The Distances’).

Robert Sheppard’s elegy opens with two comments which are central to understanding the nature of this unbridgeable loss. The first page opens with the italicized phrase ‘Standing by’ and the fourth stanza concludes with a reference to ‘Elegy lost in action on the outskirts of an event’. The immeasurability of the gap between NOW and THEN, the living and the dead, means that all writers of elegies stand on the outskirts of an event. As Thomas Hardy recognized in the first of his poems about the death of his wife, ‘The Going’, her death was the closure of a term and the single word ‘gone’ on line five has a musical resonance of bell-like clarity. Hardy’s image of the swallow then emphasises the impossibility of bridging the distance between that past and this present. The past cannot ever be reached despite the ability of the migratory bird to fly swiftly over extraordinarily long distances.

Beckett’s short play Krapp’s Last Tape is one of the great elegies and as the recorder of events puts it, listening to himself on tape from a former year, ‘The grain, now I what I wonder do I mean by that, I mean…[hesitates]…I suppose I mean those things worth having when all the dust has—when all my dust has settled I close my eyes and try and imagine them.’ In Robert Sheppard’s world this has become

‘My mind mummified with emotion
I thought everything

Was compiled
On reels of tape piled into temple walls’

The walls of the temple, as Krapp is compelled to recognise, do not keep memory fresh and Robert Sheppard’s ‘drop mourns itself’ and it is not only morphine which will thicken the ‘glassy eye’. The Drop is an extraordinarily powerful poem which grows more lasting each time I read it.

Ian Brinton 8th January 2015

Spaces for Sappho by Kat Peddie (Oystercatcher Press)

Spaces for Sappho by Kat Peddie (Oystercatcher Press)

Post-Poundian-Ppppsappoppo

The fourth chapter of Hugh Kenner’s masterful The Pound Era is titled ‘The Muse in Tatters’ and it focuses on fragments of Sappho as presented through the mid-Victorian bluster of Swinburne, the Georgian tushery of Richard Aldington (via Prof. Edmonds) and the Poundian engraving of ‘Papyrus’:

‘Spring………
Too long……
Gongula……’

When Pound wrote to Iris Barry in the summer of 1916 he complained of the ‘soft mushy edges’ of British poetry (‘We’ve been flooded with sham Celticism’) and suggested that the whole art could be divided into:

a. concision, or style, or saying what you mean in the fewest and clearest words.
b. the actual necessity for creating or constructing something; of presenting an image, or enough images of concrete things arranged to stir the reader.

Kat Peddie’s poems leave spaces on the page and only the clearest of words are left as stone markers, memorials, echoing the words that Walter Pater (former pupil of King’s School, Canterbury) wrote about lyricism and loss:

‘Who, in some such perfect moment…has not felt the desire to perpetuate all that, just so, to suspend it in every particular circumstance, with the portrait of just that one spray of leaves lifted just so high against the sky, above the well, forever?’

In Peddie’s ‘105a [for Page duBois]’ this idea becomes ‘The poem is the absence of an apple / anakatoria’.

To place greater emphasis upon this fragmentary world of concision one might turn up Swinburne’s early poem ‘Anactoria’ with its epigraph of lines from Sappho. My copy of this poem covers ten pages and the opening lines sound hollow some twenty years after Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’:

‘My life is bitter with thy love; thine eyes
Blind me, thy tresses burn me, thy sharp sighs
Divide my flesh and spirit with soft sound,
And my blood strengthens, and my veins abound.
I pray thee sigh not, speak not, draw not breath;
Let life burn down, and dream it is not death.’

Lines from Kat Peddie’s fragment ‘6’ are worth considering here:

‘Consider Helen [whose beauty outshone all]
sailed from country
husband
parents
children to
follow hers

some men say
without a thought I think
of Anaktoria gone
her walk
her face outshines armour’

The echo of Eliot’s echo of Dante is there immediately with the dramatic command ‘Consider’. Eliot used the word to remind the reader of Phlebas ‘who was once handsome and tall as you’ while Odysseus, in Inferno XXVI, used the word ‘Considerate’ as a reminder to his ill-fated crew that they owed it to themselves and their heritage to pursue the paths across the ocean. Kat Peddie’s Spaces for Sappho are dedicated ‘for & from Anne Carson’ and the Canadian poet’s rendering of the Sappho fragment reads

‘For she who overcame everyone
in beauty (Helen)
left her fine husband

behind and went sailing to Troy.’

Peddie’s Helen ‘outshone’ all others rather than ‘overcame’ them and this is woven seamlessly into the reference to Anaktoria whose ‘face outshines armour’ as amor vincit omnia. The sense of loss in Peddie’s poem is held, for a moment, with that pause between ‘I think’ and the new line’s opening ‘of Anaktoria gone’. Swinburne wouldn’t have been able to resist a capital letter for that little word ‘of’. With a recall of the absent figure of Anaktoria what is remembered first is ‘her walk’ (after all that is what takes her away) and then her face, presumably turned away, which ‘outshines’ the clothing she wears, leaving a glimmering behind her for the reader to ‘Consider’.
At the beginning of this handsome new Oystercatcher Peddie gives a short lesson on pronunciation:

‘Today, in English, she [is] all soft sibilants and faded f’s, but in fact she is ‘Psappho’. In ancient Greek—and indeed in modern Greek—if you hear a native speaker say her name, she comes across spitting and popping hard p’s. Ppppsappoppo. We have eased off her name, made her docile and sliding, where she is really difficult, diffuse, many-syllabled, many-minded, vigorous and hard’.

Kat Peddie’s versions of Sappho are both hard-edged and personal; they are full of meetings, as are Eliot’s poems, and partings as both poet and reader ‘seem to our / selves in two / minds’.

Ian Brinton 6th January 2016

Cavalcanty by Peter Hughes (Equipage)

Cavalcanty by Peter Hughes (Equipage)

In a letter from late 1831to Julius Charles Hare of the Philological Museum William Wordsworth made a comment concerning his experiments in translation:

‘Having been displeased, in modern translations, with the additions of incongruous matter, I began to translate with a resolve to keep clear of that fault, by adding nothing; but I became convinced that a spirited translation can scarcely be accomplished in the English language without admitting a principle of compensation.’

The translation work that Wordsworth was engaged upon was from Virgil’s Aeneid and one poet laureate commented upon another as C. Day Lewis referred to this passage in 1969 in his Jackson Knight Memorial Lecture on ‘Translating Poetry’:

‘By this principle we presumably mean putting things in which are not there, to compensate for leaving things out which cannot be adequately rendered.’

Day Lewis went on to suggest that ‘much greater liberties can justifiably be taken with lyric verse than with narrative or didactic’ and that very word ‘liberties’ suggests a hint of danger, revolution, turning a world upside down. When Pound wrote about Cavalcanti he suggested that the canzone, Donna mi Prega, ‘may have appeared about as soothing to the Florentine of A.D. 1290 as conversation about Tom Paine, Marx, Lenin and Bucharin would to-day in a Methodist bankers’ board meeting in Memphis, Tenn.’ Pound then goes on to suggest that Cavalcanti may well have read Grosseteste on Light, De Luce, and a reading of the opening lines of the canzone supports this idea. Grosseteste considered light to be ‘a very subtle corporeal substance, whose exceeding thinness and rarity approaches the incorporeal, and which of its own nature perpetually generates itself and is at once spherically diffused around a given point.’ As another reader of Grosseteste, the poet John Riley, recognized Light is the active principle of all things and the Bishop of Lincoln’s opening statement in Riedl’s translation reads ‘For light of its very nature diffuses itself in every direction in such a way that a point of light will produce instantaneously a sphere of light of any size whatsoever, unless some opaque object stands in the way.’ I can imagine that Pound might have regarded that Methodist bankers’ board meeting in Memphis as an opaque object.
Pound’s translation of Donna me prega opens:

‘Because a lady asks me, I would tell
Of an affect that comes often and is fell
And is so overweening: Love by name.

E’en its deniers can now hear the truth,
I for the nonce to them that know it call,
Having no hope at all
that man who is base in heart
Can bear his part of wit
into the light of it,

And save they know’t aright from nature’s source
I have no will to prove Love’s course
or say
Where he takes rest; who maketh him to be;
Or what his active virtu is, or what his force;

Nay, nor his very essence or his mode;
What his placation; why he is in verb,
Or if a man have might
To show him visible to men’s sight.

In the Preface to his own collected poems, published in 1936, Ford Madox Ford, to whom Pound had shown his canzone many years before, wrote that aureate diction was a civic menace because ‘the business of poetry is not sentimentalism so much as the putting of certain realities in certain aspects,’ and ‘poetry, like everything else, to be valid and valuable, must reflect the circumstances and psychology of its own day. Otherwise it can be nothing but a pastiche.’
Turning to Peter Hughes’s version of ‘Donna me prega – per ch’eo voglio dire’ in this new Equipage delight we can see what might halt that Memphis bankers’ board meeting in Memphis in its tracks:

‘now the lady makes me think about love’s
pit-bull attacks on the soul’s soft tissues
& those fatal core-reactor meltdowns
& deep immunity to metaphor
it’s tricky thinking through these things in ink
as love demands we loosen up our grip
on pre-existing modes of consciousness
affiliation & self-confidence
otherwise we stand no chance of melting
flowing into fresh configurations
in response to love’s accommodations
of feral power rerouted through refined
reformulations of specific lips
in actual laps tomorrow evening

The energy of these lines gives off a heat which confronts us with a social and political sense of ‘in yer face’ and that ‘deep immunity to metaphor’ ensures that any prevailing post-Movement, post-Martian, post-Mush world is left completely behind in the dusty cupboard of dead poetry anthologies. This is a world of Love which is made ‘of nothing yet feels like marble knuckles / kneading your most vulnerable hollows / articles & raw protuberances’. The energy of childhood’s games of marbles (no feeling of butterflies here!) merges with the pun on knead/need and the empty cries from empty places within. It’s superb!
This short flagging-up of Peter Hughes’s tremendously powerful evocations of Love in Cavalcanti is merely to whet your appetite and, with that in mind, take a warning about how ‘beauty’

‘finds its finest incarnation in her
being out of touch around the corner

we’ve never been quite bright enough to take
the subtle hints & reassurances
the goddess always hovers round the bend’

Ian Brinton 4th January 2016

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