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The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan)

The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan)

I am no great reader of theoretical approaches to poetry but the name of the author of this one suggested something rather more exciting. I wasn’t disappointed! Of course when I first thought about reading this recent publication the well-worn quotation from Creeley to Olson about ‘form is never more than an extension of content’ sprang to mind. I have lived with this phrase for years and have often associated it in my mind with that early line from Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’:

‘Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy’

What I like about this new book by Robert Sheppard is the way in which I am taken back to the poems themselves (or the prose in the case of Veronica Forrest-Thomson) with that clear sense of what is at stake,

‘…the agency of form: how it extends, reveals or – in my terms – enacts, enfolds, and becomes content.’

This book is about how we read poetry and it is refreshing to hear Sheppard say that ‘form’ cannot be held any longer ‘to be a simple opposite to content, a vase containing water, or even a cloud permeated with moisture.’ As a former school-master I am delighted to read the reference to Wallace Stevens’s wry note ‘The poem is the poem, not its paraphrase’. That quotation itself should be given to all teachers of poetry to pin up in their classrooms!
There are chapters in this book dealing with, amongst many others, Tim Atkins and Peter Hughes, Rosemarie Waldrop, Geraldine Monk, Allen Fisher, Bill Griffiths and Barry MacSweeney. There is a chapter on ‘Translation as Transformation’ and it reads as if Sheppard had his copy to hand of Yves Bonnefoy’s The Curved Planks, translated by Hoyt Rogers with its terrific afterword about the French poet and the ‘Art of Translation’. Paraphrasing Mallarmé Rogers suggested that translations are not made with images , but with words, and goes on to refer to a letter sent him by Bonnefoy in which the focus is on the French word “bateau” which corresponds well with “boat”. In his poetry Bonnefoy often used the word “barque” but an English equivalent (“bark” or “barque”) simply won’t do since the word is far more unusual in our language. When Rogers settled for the word “boat” he recognised that the French “barque” was evocative because, as Bonnefoy put it, ‘between the consonants the vowel forms the same dark hollow we see in a boat between the curved planks of the prow and the stern’. In his translation Rogers settled for “boat” which itself has an accumulated lyric connotation through a precedent such as The Prelude with its episode of the stolen boat. In this chapter on ‘Translation as Transformation’ Robert Sheppard looks at the practice of rendering poetry from one language into another in terms of a textual engagement, a reading, a response to the original and suggests that ‘Poetry is what is found in translation, as we shall see’.
It was a delight to see a chapter on what I find the bizarre but intriguing world of Stefan Themerson, a world ‘like that of Lewis Carroll…in which logic and poetry wrestle’. In considering the building of cathedrals Themerson writes:

‘its tower
is the thought
of its buttresses’

An example of how Robert Sheppard prompts the reader into thinking closely about the poetry being read can be exemplified by the provocative consideration of Paul Batchelor’s Bloodaxe anthology of essays, Reading Barry MacSweeney (2013) and MacSweeney’s 1997 Bloodaxe publication, The Book of Demons where

‘…readers face two models of poesis, each of which may be seen doubly. The ‘Pearl’ poems, focused upon the figure of a mute young girl as reported by the suffering ‘Bar’, are either read as rich post-Wordsworthian pastoral or as sentimental bucolic. The second half of the volume, the contrasting ‘The Book of Demons’, is read either as the self-indulgent mythologizing of an alcoholic about alcoholism, or as evidence of MacSweeney’s deep, raw honesty about dependency and its attendant psychological horrors.’

Robert Sheppard’s book is one to keep dipping into: it prompts you to want to go back to sources whilst at the same time it offers advice about how to read poetry. It is no mere accident that the first chapter should look closely at Veronica Forrest-Thomson, the critic whose question was always ‘how do poems work’. Referring to the posthumous collection from 1976, On the Periphery, the question for Sheppard remains ‘how will the poems be made?’

Ian Brinton 21st October 2016

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Half-light by Yevgeny Baratynsky (translated by Peter France) Arc Publications

Half-light by Yevgeny Baratynsky (translated by Peter France) Arc Publications

Pointing to the similarities to be found between the poetry of Leopardi and that of Baratynsky the editor of this fine new translation of the early nineteenth century Russian poet suggests that these might include a ‘clear-sighted, bleak vision of man and society’ and an ‘awareness of human fragility and ephemerality’. The sequence ‘Half-Light’ was published in 1842, two years before the poet’s death, and it contained ‘a gathering of poems written since 1834 and presented as a unified whole’; the title is significant since by then the poets of the Golden Age, such as Pushkin, ‘had largely gone out of fashion’. At the same time, however, 1842 saw an imperial decree which seemed to promise a reform, or even an end, of serfdom: ‘timid and abortive though this was, it was greeted at first with enthusiasm’.

There is a haunting seriousness in this Russian poet’s gaze; his ‘sculptor’ sees Galatea buried in stone:

‘Plunging his gaze into the stone,
the artist sees the nymph within,
an ardent flame runs through his veins,
and his heart longs to touch her then.

His desire for her is infinite,
but the sculptor holds himself in check,
unhurrying, deliberate, quiet,
he strips off all the veils that hide
the goddess deep within the rock.’

And, in return for such careful homage, such unfaltering concentration and focus, the spirit within the rock recognises the ‘passion beneath the cool caress’ and responds by leading the artist (‘sage’) ‘to the triumph of voluptuousness’. In Henry James’s late novel, The Tragic Muse, about an aspiring painter who eschews politics for the quiet concentration of the artist, Nick Dormer turns from the lady who has been seeking his love/success and looks round his studio:

‘It was certainly singular, in the light of other matters, that on sitting down in his studio after she had left town Nick should not, as regards the effort to project plastically some beautiful form, have felt more chilled by the absence of a friend who was such an embodiment of beauty. She was away and he missed her and longed for her, and yet without her the place was more filled with what he wanted to find in it. He turned into it with confused feelings, the strongest of which was a sense of release and recreation. It looked blighted and lonely and dusty, and his old studies, as he rummaged them out, struck him even as less inspired than the last time he had ventured to face them. But amid this neglected litter, in the colourless and obstructed light of a high north window which needed washing, he came nearer tasting the possibility of positive happiness: it appeared to him that, as he had said to Julia, he was more in possession of his soul.’

Baratynsky’s artist spends ‘Hours and days and years’…‘in his delicious, dim travail’ as he works carefully to tear the final veil from the ‘guessed-at, wished-for shape’.
The solitude of the artist who works with quiet intensity at full engagement with the outside world is brought into focus in another of these contemplative poems, ‘The Goblet’.

‘Goblet of solitude! You never
give new credence to the cheap
impressions of everyday existence
like some common loving cup;
nobler, richer, you awaken
with a wonder-working might
heavenly dreams or revelations
of regions hidden from our sight.’

Baratynsky recognises the value in removal away from the ‘old sterile distractions, / common passions, social lies’ and heralds the ‘solitary intoxication’ which ‘clears the mist that clouds our eyes.’

The translations read so well. As Peter France puts it in his introduction, ‘I have tried to convey the details of Baratynsky’s meaning, the meaning his poems had for his contemporaries’ and he succeeds in what Yves Bonnefoy asserted when he pointed out that although you cannot translate a poem you can translate poetry.

Ian Brinton 20th September 2015.

Mark Burnhope’s Species (Nine Arches Press)

Mark Burnhope’s Species (Nine Arches Press)

Poet, disability activist and co-editor of Boscombe Revolution, with Paul Hawkins, Mark Burnhope has produced an energetic and thoughtful first collection in the Nine Arches Press Debut new poet series. Species explores bodily identities, disability and ideas of ‘otherness’ seeing the body as a point of loss, beauty and conflict. There is a degree of anger and protest against, amongst other things, Social Darwinism and categorisation that emerges through a penetrating playfulness. The distinction between human and animal is blurred. I admire both its provocativeness and use of unusual angles and approaches to realign and probe.

‘The Species That Begat The Binaries’ is an impressive poem playing with ideas of ordering and naming of species and dualistic thinking, and serves to establish the book’s theme.

The Moral is a magnificently resilient mammal:
both natural / unnatural, and neither thanks
to its ability to buck the competition rider
off its saddled back.
Police and Paralympians owe much
to its domestication, the increasing rarity
of its wild-stampede ways of working.

The poem leads to consideration of the meaning of constriction, the impact of disability on identity and the chameleon nature of binaries, such as figure and disfigure, obedience and disobedience, beast and burden, and so on. This forceful poem precedes the deadpan ‘ “Am I Disabled?” A Self-Diagnosis Questionnaire’ which asks whether ‘you wrestle with what your feet are for?’ and ‘Can you throw over your shoulder a) a tennis ball? b) a school satchel? c) a school teacher?’

Playfulness is given full rein in the ‘Abnominations’ sequence of poems and the ‘Paralympic Lessons: The Atosonnets’. An abnominal is a twenty line poem, developed by the poet, Andrew Philip, using only the letters of the dedicatee’s name, each of which must appear at least once per stanza. The title must be an anagram of their name, and should begin and end by addressing the dedicatee in some way, as in ‘Deviancy as God’ an abnomination for David Gascoyne.

A caved saying: dang dingoes dosing!
Vain dogs, ego-divas, edgy agony-codas

Did as David does: danced giddy, de-
Seeded. Ovid aced yogi’s inane, aged

Voyage. Dived good, snagged a gonad,
Donor in a saved Degas-coven. Navy Dave:

Gay voice, no novice, delicious screed,
Envoy via avid disco-gods and devices:

The poem ‘fragments from The First Week of the World: The Herpetological Bible’ is full of depth playing off different ways and approaches to the natural world.

Sudden mutism,
Idea-death, resort to
‘freedom’ within himself

(Rilke’s transformation,
Heidegger’s institution
of being the poet’s part).

Bonnefoy speaks:
logos, universe, impulse
towards salvation.

This vital and affirmative book concerned with placing and naming of self, species, and other within a split and dangerous world lingers after the first few readings and gets under the reader’s skin. I felt compelled to re-engage.

David Caddy 29th July 2014

Anthony Barnett’s InExperience and UnCommon Sense in Translation

Anthony Barnett’s InExperience and UnCommon Sense in Translation

Allardyce Book ABP http://www.abar.net

This lecture on translation delivered at Meiji University, Tokyo, in May 2002, has been lightly revised and is prefaced with a new note updating references.

Barnett confronts the slippery world of translation theory by boldly asserting that there is no usable theory of translation other than treating each text to be translated in terms of its own necessary requirements and using your head. He utilises Umberto Eco, whose book Experiences in Translation offers practical and imaginative solutions to various problems, Yves Bonnefoy, who believes that translation is not only possible but also poetry rebegun, and his own experiences. He uses the word uncommon to indicate that a common sense solution to a translation may not be obvious, and that something unusual or uncommon may be seen eventually to be the obvious common sense solution. There is, he argues, a way through to the poetic equivalent in the second language.

The lecture is full of illuminating asides and examples of what he means. Barnett notes that poetry, whilst a special use of language, may not be special in every way by comparison with packaged food labels and product instruction sheets, which come in several languages. He wonders why the translators may opt on the same packet for a less precise equivalent and a potentially hazardous result, and notes the necessity to avoid calamitous results by confidently refusing nonsense.

His first example refuting the impossibility of translation is the Italian poet, Giuseppe Ungaretti’s two line poem, ‘Mattina’ (‘Morning’) ‘M’illumino / d’immenso’, literally ‘I am illuminated / with immensity’ and other possible but unpoetic versions. He explains how he found the solution ‘I am blessed with light’ one morning. The line certainly has more poetry than the literal translation and is in harmony with the original.

Amongst further examples, Barnett considers Donald Keene’s problem with translating Midori iro no sutokkingu by Abe Kōbō. When Keene asked the playwright whether the translation should be singular or plural, there being a lack of distinction in the Japanese, he replied that it was his problem. Keene settled for the plural, The Green Stockings. Barnett notes that he failed to utilise the help given by the non-committal reply and could have dispensed with the definite article and the plural to arrive at the more poetic, Green Stocking.

In his consideration of Bashō’s famous frog haiku ‘Furuike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto’, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa as ‘Breaking the silence / Of an ancient pond / A frog jumped into water / A deep resonance’, he cites the concrete poet and Benedictine priest, dom sylvester houédard’s fortune teller origami construction from 1965 where the reader manipulates the folded paper to reveal ‘frog / pond / plop’. This wonderful solution to the translation moreover also has the mouth and shape of the frog, the hollow and shape of the pond, and splosh of the plop as the fortune teller is manipulated through its various combinations. This translation is a shade more minimal than say Cid Corman’s ‘old pond / frog leaping / splash’.

Barnett also points to the example of exceptional author-translators and cites the practice of Samuel Beckett and Isak Dinesen of re-writing their original work in translation. Sentences are recast and passages removed, and sometimes added.

The lecture is full of practical common sense and comes with an appendix ‘Thinking About Translation’, addressed to a translation symposium in Bremen and a translation of Leopardi’s ‘The Infinite’ poem, with accompanying note, as an insert. The translation ends:

In this immensity my mind goes under:

And my foundering at sea is sweet.

 

David Caddy 6th July 2014

 

 

Poems of Yves Bonnefoy

Poems of Yves Bonnefoy

Ian Brinton & Michael Grant’s Poems of Yves Bonnefoy 1 has just appeared from Oystercatcher Press, the award-winning pamphlet publisher. These translations of Bonnefoy, the French poet and essayist born in 1923, interestingly differ from others in what is essentially a post-Heideggerian world. They delineate the separateness of the poetry of anguish, the bridge between light and darkness that comes after destruction.  Here there is silence after death, destruction, loss of God and the slow emergence of the eternal in the human voice, in bird song, in the forests of trees and memory and the healing of spring and fruit. ‘No beauty no colour detains’ this poetry that insists upon its own purity. It is the poetry of an uncertain quietness into living communication that considers ‘those processions of the light / through a land without birth or death,’ and the path to a new world.  There is a depth of voices coming out of the wilderness that is illustrated in the poem, ‘To the Voice of Kathleen Ferrier.’

 

I celebrate the voice merged with grey

Wavering in the distance of a lost song

As if beyond all pure form

Another song trembled, absolute, alone.

 

Here the translators indicate the loss of the song rather than the singing and thus the message rather than the medium. I immediately hear Ferrier’s contralto singing ‘Blow The Wind Southerly’ or Gluck’s ‘What Is Life?’ and recognize that sense of urgency coming out a generation that experienced personal loss during the Thirties and Forties and somehow have to find a way forward. One can sense more than a simple melancholy in her voice in Mahler’s ‘Das Lied von der Erde.’ Such elemental and eternal depth resonates in these carefully enunciated poems and spin off in disparate directions.

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