January 27, 2013

Norman Ball


With all due respect to those preceding me on this poetry discussion thread, I see great efforts have been expended to assist your poem along what the consensus clearly feels should be a more linear track. There’s nothing like audience-provided cliff notes! I’m reminded of the old lady—approached at a busy intersection by a Boy Scout—who beats him senseless with her handbag. Everyone assumes the old dear will welcome a helping hand. In fact she relishes the thrill of reaching the other side unassisted.

The message to poets is, beware the kindness of strangers. Those who would rescue a poem from ‘incomprehensibility’ may actually be advancing death-by-explication. Poetic logic is its own animal existing outside the bounds of relatable (i.e. conversational) understanding. I’m guilty of offering dubious assistance in some of your prior efforts. But I find myself developing a comfort level with your opacity. To your credit many readers end their excoriations by allowing, sheepishly, that there is ‘something there’ (by itself, a tacit acknowledgement of poetic success), even as they suspect you of being willfully obscure or insensitive to their great sacrifice as readers. For me, at least part of the fascination of your poetry lies in its willful inaccessibility. I’m convinced you’ve constructed more here than a good game of hide-and-seek.

But first, a word for the much-maligned Internet poetry workshop as it offers the possibility for these marvelous rolling commentaries complete with ugly mob scenes that can develop in a flash. Short of the occasional letter to the editor, how can the Paris Review compete with this human cluster?

While it’s not in vogue, I level some blame at the audience. Even the most engaging preacher must contend with lazy congregants. For too many, difficulty is a tiresome abomination, a code to be cracked; really, they want their poetry fed to them in bite-sized morsels. Of course they’ll weather the broken flow of the stanza; the better to think themselves Poetry Appreciators (I capitalize this because I feel it is a genus, much like the Lesser Shrew.) There is a certain social value in being a Poetry Appreciator. I believe this is the philistinism Frost was rebuffing when, asked to explain one of his poems, he replied, “Would you have me say it in more or less-adequate words?” This obsequious reader has designs on poetry alright, but for all the wrong reasons (or is it simply just one of the many reasons?). He wants a cogent sound-bite to spice his cocktail chatter with, a haiku-kernel with which to impress his fellow mid-brows. I can hear him muttering, “To hell with art. Chicks dig poetry.” Far be it from me, saddled by my own nefarious agendas, to cast the first stone here.

I’d like to address attention spans—but only briefly. There is too much of the dashed-off vignette in poetry today. Difficulty can’t keep up with the penchant for brevity. I must single out the Internet again as, for all its salutary effects on artistic collaboration and community, it beckons with an immediacy that can be the undoing of careful composition. People want to take full advantage of a forum’s one-poem-a-day quota (a virtual gag order as unnatural to the erstwhile poet as China’s one-child policy is to that country’s fertile peasant class). The technology itself tempts at rushing a poem out there before its time. There is a propitious aspect to poetic composition. In the days of pen and ink, poets would put a poem in a drawer for a few years before returning to it at its appointed time. I’m reminded of the famous Gallo wine slogan “We will sell no wine before its time,” a thirty-second jingle that paradoxically extolled the virtues of unrushed maturation. The natural forbearance of good craft is tempted mightily in the Internet age.

Hurriedness is not a charge I lodge against you as I sense careful composition in your tiny enigmas. The question I would be asking myself if I were you is: “does my poem warrant its difficulty or am I a hopeless obscurantist?” Speaking as a reader, I find myself answering sometimes yes and sometimes no, depending on your poem. No different from any other poet, you approach the dais with a satchel stuffed with successes and failures. Who doesn’t?

Though I may struggle to comprehend it, I have no difficulty with difficult poetry on artistic grounds. In fact, we need more of it if for no other reason than to put our shrinking attention spans through their paces. For one thing, there’s our civic duty to consider. We are approaching an age when rapt attention to anything for a period exceeding sixty seconds will be a crime of the state, perhaps a proviso of Patriot Act III. George Bush’s prisons will soon be stuffed with people guilty of extended reflection. Bush, storekeeper for the New World Order, repeats the operative term with Pavlovian insistency: we must not cut and run. True, he is arguing for patience, but through the language of impulsivity—cut and run—what a fascinating dichotomy in the dark tradition of Orwellian doublespeak.

So we are being systematically curtailed. In this Age of Truncation, poetry should strive for the lonely promontory; stake out the oblique leisurely stroll, the unhurried voice of truth to power before being led away in hand-cuffs. Let the Gestapo goons beat their heads against the wall struggling to put into words the precise nature of the poet’s offense. His crimes should be impossible to explicate on a writ or a summons. To all real poets out there, I say: Your inscrutability is a birthright. Follow your destiny. Take the long way home.

T.S. Eliot, no great lover of the approachable masses, was all over difficult poetry. There is evidence he took great pleasure at the allusion-chasers who scoured The Waste Land searching for the Nile’s true source. But if the cartographer can plot the coordinates, then it’s probably Duluth, not poetry. The Waste Land gives nothing up over bagels and coffee. People rarely fall in love over this behemoth. More often they are rendered speechless. Yet it feels like a poem, filling us with the overwhelming sense we are experiencing something. There is no paragraphed synopsis to render this experience. This is as it should be.

Doomed though it is, debate is irresistible. In T. S. Eliot—An Author for All Seasons: Word of No Speech: Eliot and his Words, Lidia Vianu elicits Eliot’s dim view of understanding as a mainstay of poetic appreciation. “Word of no speech” is a line from Eliot’s Ash-Wednesday, part II:

“The ‘seasoned’ reader,” Eliot begins, “does not bother about understanding when he first reads a poem.” This new image of a reader who enjoys before he has realized what he is reading is in keeping with what was new in the way of writing at the turn of the 20th century. The novelty lies in the poet’s consistently leaving out of the poem something that the reader is used to finding there. A “kind of meaning,” Eliot says, is willfully put aside, and its absence bewilders the reader. Eliot gets rid of that clarity which makes the paraphrase of the poem possible.

In short, a frothing at the mouth with apt rejoinders—i.e. the false-mastery of understanding—belongs to that narrow sphere of English majors, dilettantes and cocktail party show-offs. For the unabashed fancier of art, however, full poetic appreciation is entirely possible in the absence of full understanding. A successful poem—no less a cryptic one—should not be mere launching pad for dollops of explanatory cock-waddle. Like the falling tree in an empty forest, a poem is capable of its own noise, thank you very much. One can go further and suggest that a full understanding—so-called clarity—is the province of prose and not poetry at all. After all, why write a poem in the first place if the desired artistic effect lends itself better to prose? Why not write an essay instead? In his willful exclusion of certain narrative elements critical to a linear understanding, Eliot reserved for himself oodles of fun: There is no decoder ring. But keep looking because I’m busting a gut watching you guys scramble for it.

If I’ve helped you flesh out the trajectory of your own poetic inquiries, while stringing up a few pikers along the way, then this exposition has not been in vain. If you’re a true cynic, you’ll see I may have committed the same fallacy I sought to expose i.e. talking your poem to death. In the meantime, I’ll continue enjoying your poetry to the extremities of my feeble understanding.

from Rattle e.3, Spring 2007


Norman Ball is a Virginia-based writer and musician. His essays, articles and poetry have appeared in a variety of venues. “Being Difficult” was reprinted in a collection of essays, The Frantic Force. His song “Good Books” was selected for participation in the Neil Young Justice Through Music Project and he was honored to perform his song “Space Between the Notes” on behalf of ASCAP at the Kennedy Center for the Performng Arts in late 2006. (www.normanball.com)

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January 11, 2013

Art Beck



The American Literary Translators Association is a loosely knit, unique organization where academics and professional linguists interact with an eclectic mix of creative writers and poets. (A number of its members wear all the above hats.) A perennial topic at annual conferences is the question of translating poetic form. What follows is adapted from my notes for a 2003 panel talk on translating form in poetry. “Reading papers” is strictly forbidden at ALTA panels, and hopefully this piece retains some of the conversational dynamic of an ALTA conference.

Let me preface by saying that I plan to talk about some specific Rilke poems—some of which I translated in “free-form” in the late ’70s. And re-translated more formally in the last several years. But before getting specific, I’d like to talk about what I think are some of the general questions inherent in translating form into similar form. Some of these have to do with something as basic as positing a definition of poetry.

I don’t know if my experience is similar to yours, but for years I happily wrote poetry without giving much of a thought to poetics. It wasn’t until I started translating that questions of theory began to get insistent.

Until then, I have to confess I never asked myself what constituted a poem. But when you take on the task of translating someone else’s poem in someone else’s language into a poem in your language—you do have to ask yourself—just what is a poem?

I began translating poetry in the early ’70s—a time when hardly anyone thought of writing in anything but free verse. This made defining a poem harder than, say, in the 19th or early 20th century when end line rhyme schemes dominated. Then a poem either rhymed or—it wasn’t a poem.

Along these lines, a 19th century American translator of Horace, William Peterfield Trent wrote:

When the translator makes up his mind to attempt a close approximation to the Horatian meter, it would seem that he should eschew the use of rhyme as likely to operate against that effect of likeness to the original which he is striving to secure. But, since the use of rhyme in lyric poetry appears … to be essential at present if the English version is to be acceptable as poetry, this close approximation can be desirable in a few special cases, only.

From the 18th through the 19th century, Horace was almost universally cast in strictly rhymed translations. Of course, this kind of thing grates today. Horace wrote in formal meters, but rhyme was only an incidental embellishment in his poetry. Why artificially impose a rhyme scheme that isn’t there? But can’t the same objection be made to ignoring a rhyme scheme in the original?

What Trent said is also good to keep in mind if anyone is inclined to question why the modernists felt the need for liberation from rhyme schemes. But, now we’re liberated and we face the other side of the coin.

There’s a 1948 entry in the Greek Nobelist George Seferis’ (mid 20th century) diary that contrasts formal and informal ages and implicitly points up one of the problems inherent when an “in-formalist” tries to mimic a formalist. To quote Seferis:

In Byzantine art everything is traditional, predetermined by tradition … It is a “god-given” art … it issues from the “Sacred Scarf,” the icons are miraculous because they are god-given; its basis is imitation. And yet, in spite of what people say, it has lived, with intermittent reflowering, for so many centuries. In this art the excellent artist excels by a minute deviation from the traditional …  The ultimate evil of the Byzantines is ossification, the ultimate evil for us is dissolution.

In other words, in formal periods the craft may lie in the constraints—but the art is always a jailbreak. The in-formalist trying to imitate the formalist needs to remember that breaking into jail isn’t very exciting.

Of course, informal poetry, as Seferis says, has its own danger—dissolution. The danger of becoming mere “words on paper.” For me, one working definition of a poem—formal or informal—is: an arrangement of words that has reached the point of becoming something that can’t be said in any other way—the point where language talks back to you.

But this is of course hopefully the case with the poem you’re translating. So how do you find another way of saying what can’t be said any other way?

I’m going to offer the opinion that one way you can’t do it is simply by imitation. From the time Robert Lowell used Imitations as a title for his collection of loose translations, I’ve always disliked calling translations “imitations.” And I think Lowell’s translations are the opposite of what I perceive as “imitation.” For me, imitation is akin to a slavish art forgery.

Conversely, I think a successful poetic translation reaches into the original, and draws as much directly from the landscape that’s portrayed as from the original poem’s portrayal. The object of the translation is, ideally, not the “portrait,” but the subject of the portrait: A new poem that attempts to tap the same source the original poem tapped.

That, of course, is what Lowell was doing and, while his caveat not to expect a literal translation was appropriate, I wish he had used a different word. I’d have preferred “performance.”

What I think is essential to a “performance” is—for want of a better word—what I characterize as the “internalization” process. The long, slow taking in of the original until you reach a point where you’re no longer working with the energy of words in the source language, but in your own. So that like a fledging swimmer plucked from a pool and tossed into a river, the poem and its images either sink or swim on its own in English. (Or whatever language you’re writing in.)

The implication with any performance is that the performer won’t be invisible. But that presence may be more or less noticeable. For example, you can’t listen to John Lewis’ adaptations of Bach without being aware that Lewis is a jazz pianist having a dialogue with Bach. What he’s playing isn’t quite jazz, isn’t quite Bach—but there’s a distinct sense that Bach might tap his foot and smile. Glenn Gould is a pure classical pianist, but are his renditions of the Goldberg Variations—music originally written for a plucked keyboard and reborn with all the dynamic nuances of the pianoforte and Gould’s rich ear—any more “pure Bach” than John Lewis’ syncopated renditions?

Which brings us back to breaking in and out of jail. What happens with Gould and Lewis—with any performer worth listening to—is that they’re enraptured—arrested if you will—by the piece they’re performing. They’re already in jail and free to plot their break.



In poetry, the “jailbreak” is the difference between writing into a form or out of a form. Perhaps it’s worth remembering that Rilke whipped out the 55 Sonnets to Orpheus in what he claimed was a two week space in 1922. It’s obvious he wasn’t writing into but out of the form—the way Charlie Parker might roll out chorus after chorus of the blues. I use Parker as an example, rather than someone more traditional, say Jimmy Rushing, because in the Orpheus sequence I think Rilke stood the traditional sonnet on its head.

The sonnet form often takes on an almost geometric progression leading to a “closed conclusion.” The Sonnets to Orpheus, and even some earlier Rilke sonnets such as Archaic Torso, tend instead to take flight and end with harmonic ambiguities and open statements. It’s worth noting, I think, that when Rilke returned to the sonnet form for this late in life sequence, he said he wanted an “open,” “conjugated” sonnet, i.e. something both akin to and yet not a traditional sonnet.

One of the problems in translating these poems formally is that I don’t think we have any precedent for them in the traditional closed iambic logic of the English sonnet. They almost require a new sense of form in English. I’ve always felt that Rilke stands with one foot in the 19th and century with the other firmly planted in 21st. So for me, the main danger in translating these essentially modern—maybe even still emergent—poems is that in chasing form we may risk pushing back into the 19th century rather than to following to where the poem is pulling us.

But conversely, how can you ignore the question of form in a poem like #5 Volume 1 of the Sonnets to Orpheus. My translation is still in an early draft, but far enough along I think to demonstrate a point.

As an aside, one reason I’m tentative about the quality of my translation attempt is that Rilke’s poem has such big historic echoes—Shakespeare’s sonnet #55: “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme … ”

And Horace’s Ode #30, book 3, which Shakespeare probably drew on for his sonnet #55. The Horace ode opens (in Burton Raffel’s translation): “The monument I’ve made for myself will outlast/ brass, reaches higher than Egyptian/ kings and their pyramids … ”

Rilke, in his sonnet, focuses not on his own mastery, but on the prototypical mythic poet, Orpheus, who serves throughout the sequence as a persona for Rilke, the poet and man. And distinct from its predecessors, Rilke’s sonnet speaks to the vulnerability as well as durability of poetry. It begins:

Errichtet keinen Denkstein. Laßt die Rose
nur jedes Jahr zu seinen Gunsten blühn.
Denn Orpheus ists. Seine Metamorphose
in dem und dem. Wir sollen uns nicht mühn …

Don’t erect memorials of stone. Just let the rose
bloom every spring as his token. Because this
too is Orpheus—another of his metamorphoses
into one thing or another. Why stress ourselves

deciphering all his names? If there’s singing,
now and forever, it’s Orpheus as he comes and goes.
Isn’t it enough that every so often he lingers
a few days with the rose petals in the bowl?

So much of him has to wither so you can know.
That frightens him too, as he fades. But just as his
word goes beyond what’s here, what’s now—

he’s already there: alone where you can’t be.
The bars of the lyre strings don’t cramp his
fingers. Even transgressing he obeys.

A poem, I think, not only about the coexistence of life and death in poetry, but, incidentally, about form and the jailbreak of art.



Below are samples of my old and more recent translations of two of the Sonnets to Orpheus. The first versions date from a volume I published in the early ’80s and obviously the translations aren’t in sonnet form.

Let me tell you a little of what I was trying to do. At the time Rilke wasn’t the icon in America he’s since become. The only translations I was aware of were Mrs. Norton’s and Mac Intyre’s and a few others dating from the ’30s and ’40s. But this was also the time that David Young’s iconoclastic translations of the Duino Elegies started coming out in Field. They bowled me over. Young recast the Elegies in William Carlos William-like triplets that seemed to energize and focus the rambling poems. This was a poet I didn’t recognize in Norton or Mac Intyre. So I started playing with translating Rilke on my own—not the Elegies but the New Poems and Orpheus sonnets. Above all. I wanted to hang onto that “21st century leg.” Not only, sad to say, did I not have the slightest interest in the sonnet form, I couldn’t have written one if I wanted to. I was a child of my time.

I still like some of those old translations although I wouldn’t do them this way again. I imagine some of you may like them, and others will grit your teeth. But—I think—for reasons other than formal vs. informal. It’s interesting that the editor of the chapbook series these first appeared in was a budding formalist and I got surprisingly warm feedback on my 1983 volume from other dedicated formalists. But for a lot of people, these won’t sound like the Rilke they’ve come to love. It’s the voice not the form—and that voice was intentional on my part.

I’m also including my recent, more “formalist” translations. The new versions were prompted by a challenge from someone I respected, but the re-translation went far beyond a re-casting as “faux sonnets.” In revisiting the Sonnets to Orpheus, I found that in my young enthusiasm I’d often left half the poem on the table. But what didn’t change much, I think, was the voice—for me Rilke’s “voice” seems to live in the harmonic, half elusive images—not especially the rhyme or meter. Rather in a more subtle underlying music that resonates with what might be said as much as with what’s said.

I should note that I use the term faux-sonnet because none of these use full rhyme. Some of it may be a continued lack of skill on my part, but over time I’ve also come to feel that English has come from being the language of a small island to being a planetary language. There’s no longer any one correct way to speak it. It’s too dynamic and fluid. And for me at least, it likes assonance and corresponding words and hints of rhyme. When I find myself using full rhyme, it’s usually in a comic mode.

For readers accustomed to a “different” Rilke voice, I can only offer that as with any performance, the choices are personal and will vary between performers. I think it’s wonderful that America is rich enough to have dozens of versions of the Sonnets to Orpheus—the Germans can only have one. But, of course, they’ve kept the best for themselves.

from Rattle e.8, Spring 2010 (PDF)


Art Beck is a San Francisco poet and translator who’s published two translation volumes: Simply to See: Poems of Lurorius (Poltroon Press, Berkeley, 1990) and a selection Rilke (Elysian Press, New York, 1983). His chapbook, Summer with all its Clothes Off, is reviewed by Ellaraine Lockie  in Rattle E-Reviews. His article on Rilke, And Yet Another Archaic Torso– Why? can be accessed in the Australian online journal Jacket at: www.jacketmagazine.com

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December 28, 2012

David James


For 30 years, I’ve been a free verse writer. I was free to use any words in any pattern, flaunting the page without a thought of rhyme scheme, unhindered by syllable counting. Formal poetry was defined as that work from the past, by the Romantics, by Shakespeare and Chaucer, by poets before the printing press. Of course, I dabbled with forms here and there, merely as exercises, writing a ghazal, sestina, villanelle, sonnet, pantoum. I wrote in these forms so when some wag confronted me with one of them, I could say, “Oh, sure, I’ve written that.”

As I get older, however, I am being drawn to form and meter. And as I write more rhyming verse, using enjambment and mosaic rhyme patterns to mute the obviousness of sound, I have come to the conclusion that we have fallen down on the job. Contemporary poets have done little, if anything, to further the innovative use of end rhyme in literature.

Looking at the major forms of rhyming poetry, it’s obvious that no new forms have surfaced in over a century. The ghazal, a Persian form with couplets, is over 1000 years old. One of the most complex French forms, the sestina, originated in the 12th century with Arnaut Daniel. The Italian sonnet’s origin, a precursor to the English sonnet, dates back to the mid-1200’s, popularized by Petrarch (1304-1374). The French villanelle, our song-like refrain form, was standardized by the late 1500’s by Jean Passerat. The haiku first appeared in the 16th century. The most recent form, the pantoum, a Malaysian invention also containing repeating lines, became popular in Europe in the 1800’s. In the last 150 years, several generations of poets have turned their backs to formal verse, at least with regard to inventing innovative new forms for others to emulate.

As a lifelong free verse writer, I am intrigued when I venture into rhyming poetry. First, writing formal poetry alters my perceptions of the world. The rhymes, line requirements, and syllable restrictions change what I write and how I write in surprising ways. The restrictions send me into uncharted imaginative waters. My poems approach the material from a different vantage point, and I consistently end up saying what I never would have said if I was writing in free verse. The novelty and imaginative gyrations are both worth the attempts. The late great Richard Hugo voiced his appreciation for formal verse, particularly in overcoming writer’s block: “When you concentrate on the ‘rules of the game’ being played on the page, the real problem, blockage of the imagination, often goes away simply by virtue of being ignored. That’s why I write more formal poems when I go dry.”

Secondly, I have this longing to create my own forms, forms that thrive in today’s language and sensibilities. Personally, I find the age-old forms too restrictive and constraining. The sonnet and villanelle, though honorable, seem outdated for the world of the internet and global warming. Our challenge is to imagine the forms that speak to today’s culture and modern times.

So this is the gauntlet thrown down at the feet of poets: to create the contemporary forms of rhyming poetry that will outlive them. What forms will young poets be cutting their teeth on 150 years from now? What are the new types of formal poems for the 21st century? What legacy of form will this generation leave to the future, if any?

To get the movement started, I’ll provide two new examples of 21st century formal poetry. My goal is to invent forms that 1) have a certain flexibility, 2) do not emphasize the rhyming pattern, and 3) play off the strengths of free verse. The first is called a Karousel. It is a twenty line poem, four stanzas of five lines each. The rhyme pattern is the following: abcda  ecdbe  fdbcf  gbcdg. The three inner lines (bcd) rotate in each stanza until they circle back to their original bcd form from stanza one. Though each stanza is enclosed in a rhyme, there are no metrical restrictions.


As each year came and went,
the man noticed the tree
outside, the one in back,
how its bark shed
like fur, how it bent

and swayed in time to the wind.
He remembered how his dog tracked
in his last dirt before being found dead.
The man buried him, like the others, religiously.
With each year, something pinned

itself to the inside of his heart,
which he imagined was not red
anymore, but bruised and mildly
dry, an item to be stacked
on a shelf or a cart.

The years began to rain down,
one suddenly became three.
The man looked up into the black
sky. And then a strange thought in his head
fell, like the whole world, into the swollen ground.

My second example is called the Weave. It is less restrictive than a Karousel and can be written in two line stanzas, five line stanzas, or no separate stanzas at all. Its rhyme scheme follows this pattern: abcad  befbg  ehiej (and so on). The first and fourth lines rhyme, and the second line rhyme from the first stanza becomes the rhyme for the first and fourth lines in the following stanza. So, the second line from stanza one weaves into stanza two; the second line from stanza two weaves into stanza three. The following poem is an example of this form.


I’m drowning
in a pool of my own making
like a minnow at the bottom of the ocean.
It’s too dark to see. There’s a pounding
between my ears, peeling the flesh

off my brain, breaking
each good thought
into dust that dissolves in water.
Much of what we do could be called faking
it, going through the motions

so we won’t get caught.
But we learn too late, this one life,
these millions of minutes
can’t be bought
or sold, only used or wasted.

Whether or not these forms last or evolve is not important. Only time and fate will determine that. They are, however, forms that I have used and reused to make dozens of poems, new forms that have allowed me to see the world in a different light.

Even though rhyming poetry has fallen out of favor and practice with contemporary poets, that does not mean formal poetry must die a slow death.  It is our right, perhaps our duty, to resurrect rhyme and meter and transform its use to capture the day.  With a little imagination and attention, a new formal poetry can speak out in this terrible world.

from Rattle e.4


David James teaches for Oakland Community College. His most recent book is Trembling in Someone’s Palm from March Street Press.  His other books include, A Heart Out of This World, published by Carnegie Mellon University Press, and three chapbooks, Do Not Give Dogs What Is Holy, I Dance Back, and I Will Peel This Mask Off. His one-act plays have been produced off-off-Broadway, as well as in Massachusetts and Michigan.

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December 2, 2012

James Fleming


We don’t normally think of cops as having much to do with poetry. During my 30 years with the Portland (Oregon) Police Bureau, my interest in it was at least tolerated. I was editor of the police union newspaper and was able to use that medium for expressing what poetics I might think appropriate to the union cause. I admit straying from time to time from unionism in order to expose the readership to the joys of poetry for itself.

I never received any complaints about doing this. A fellow officer would sometimes ask me to explain what in hell I was trying to say. It seemed to me that this is about as much as any poet can expect from his or her readers. Someone had read the stuff and reacted to it.

* * *

Cops actually do have more in common with poets than one would think. Police officers are always writing. They used to do it in donut shops, but now on computers. Relevant detail must be written down, with strict regard for detail and accuracy. Isn’t this what a poet does?

It’s a task for both poets and cops to render experience into words. As with the poet, the cop must be a careful observer. The initial police report is where all investigation must begin. The success or failure of an investigation can be determined by the writing ability of the first cop on the scene.

I taught report writing to cops at the police academy and always asked that they write a poem. I would offer comment as if it were a poetry workshop. I believe the experience taught them the importance of careful writing. They produced some remarkably good poems.

* * *

If the street cop is called to investigate a crime, his report will wind up in a Detective Division detail according to the type of crime committed, which could be burglary, auto theft, larceny, homicide, fraud or something else.

I once worked in the Larceny detail as the detective in charge. In some ways, it was like being an editor for a literary magazine. Reports (submissions) from street officers would flood in, and it was my job to reject or accept what would merit further action. Literary merit (a well-written report) would catch my eye. It meant we could depend on the report and the officer as to the facts and their reliability in a prosecution.

* * *

One might say that police reports should be free from passion and personal opinion, two things poets freely indulge in. But good poetry should evoke passion, not talk about it. And a sparse, carefully written police report can evoke tears.

* * *

On a weekend night a district cop can spend his shift racing from one “family disturbance” to another. Drinking and fighting seem to be a weekly ritual in some households. The arrival of the cops can be the dispute’s climax. It’s when the participants have someone to judge the merit of their grievances against one another.

As routine as these calls might be, they would occasionally evolve into something quite unexpected. When I worked the street, I could count on a weekly call to the home of a particular family. I came to know the scrapping husband and wife, and would try to advise them on the futility and even hazards of their way of life. But their fighting seemed to be as addictive as their drinking. My arrival was part of the way the scene had to play out.

Once, when I got my usual Saturday night call to the house, the husband, quite sober, invited me in. “Emily is leaving,” he said. “We wanted you to know.” She sat on the couch crying, a suitcase at her feet. I was stunned. I wouldn’t see them again.

* * *

“A policeman’s lot is not a happy one” runs a refrain from The Pirates of Penzance. The observation is regrettably still true today, although we would probably feel uncomfortable with a cop who took joy in his work.

We are wary of the police in the way we are wary of poets. They are both reminders of the strains and hazards of being human. We think of criminals as lacking in humanity. Those I’ve known are remarkably ordinary people. They have human needs which they fulfill in all-too-human ways.

Cops are either protectors or thugs, depending on the authority they work for. Like soldiers who can’t choose their battles, they go after whomever their superiors say they should. Poets aspire to act freely. As expansive as language is, poets can only work within its limitations. Knowing the limits and possibilities of your material is a basic requirement for any art. It’s called creativity.

* * *

Cops work within the law and are confined by it. Within those limitations, it’s surprising how much creativity goes on.

When I was a detective, I took an under-cover assignment as a means of effecting an arrest on a Mr. Jim Elkins (now deceased), who had earned the reputation of Portland’s crime boss. Being the pro that he was, he had avoided all police efforts toward putting him in jail. I posed as a petty crook and was eventually able to not only meet Elkins but to be accepted by him as a close companion. For months I shared the criminal life with him. I was able to avoid a criminal act myself, but while I was trying to catch “Big Jim” and others on charges that would stick, I enjoyed a privileged and favored lifestyle as personal friend to a high-level crime figure. When I finally arrested him, it felt like a betrayal—which it was.

* * *

There is also isolation. It’s a condition for all writers trying to get the right words down. For cops it’s more of a lifestyle. Part of it is that they do a lot of shift work. It’s surprising how much this puts you out of phase with the rest of the world. Like many people, cops like to go out after work to have a drink and relax. I knew cops who worked the graveyard shift and would gather at a tavern at eight in the morning. To be awake when most everyone else is sleeping is a particular kind of isolation. If you work the swing shift, you don’t have the evenings for normal socializing, and you hang out with other swing-shift cops.

* * *

Cops and poets are intruders into other people’s lives. They both probe for character, motive, history. They both eavesdrop and want to know what people are up to. A person of interest can wind up in a poem or in jail. In any case, the interest is self-serving. Cops and poets take what they need from their person of interest and move on. Whatever other problems are uncovered in the process are for someone else to deal with.

* * *

In the old TV series Dragnet, the detective Joe Friday was always asking witnesses for “just the facts.” During my detective years, I came to realize why he would say this. As soon as people learn they may become part of a crime investigation, many of them will try to exaggerate their part in it. People also will see an interview as an opportunity to explain to an authority figure how they themselves had been the target of injustice, straying away from the relevant details. Cops, like poets, appreciate words used sparingly and to the point.

* * *

At one time in my police career, I was assigned to Radio Dispatch. It was before the use of civilians for such duty. The system was quite simple then. A phone call to the one police number connected you to a knowledgeable woman at a switchboard. She sent calls for help to us in Dispatch. We would first start a district car to the address. In the time it took the car to get there, we would keep the caller on the line and extract as much information as we could so that upon arrival, the responding officer would have a complete and up-to-date idea of what was going on.

I once talked to a caller who could hear a prowler breaking into her house. She told me she had a gun. The man coming onto your porch now, I told her, is a police officer. Don’t shoot him. The need for the right use of language here was obvious.

* * *

Poets seldom advise us on how to behave. The police do. But poets also try to get to a truth that applies to everyone, which is what the law does.

* * *

Poets and the police bring the world to account. Both try to hold us to hard truths about what our behavior says about us.

* * *

There’s sort of a complementary opposition to the way cops and poets deal with emotions. The poet tries to evoke them, and the cop tries to calm them. In order to do either, both cop and poet have to know something about the human psyche. Motive is always an element in the investigation of any crime. There are crimes of passion and crimes of opportunity. Behind both is a human emotion, hate or greed perhaps, which the police investigator looks for.

Poets take no responsibility for what legal consequence their writing may stir up. But the law is based upon an assumption the poet also makes. It takes the view, as the poet does, that human behavior is consistent enough to be predictable. A crime or a poem says something about all of us.

from Rattle #37, Summer 2012
Tribute to Law Enforcement Poets

Rattle Logo

October 16, 2012

Art Beck


Note: Part 1 of this essay appeared on October 9th and can be read here.

IV. Colonialism, language and love.

For the sake of argument, let’s presume that poetry mutates and germinates as it migrates. And that the translator’s ability to create literature in the target culture is at least equally important as foreign language literacy. Even so there’s still an implicit question Parks didn’t get into that seems worth exploring: Why or how would anyone get interested in translating from a language in which they’re not fluent? Is it a kind of cultural colonialism, akin, say, to mining diamonds?

Exploitation is an obvious factor, but poetry translators aren’t crass commercialists. Rather, I think they’re trying to transplant a heartbeat, to scoop a living fish from one stream and set it free in another.

Might the imperfectly schooled translator’s motivation be better described as “inspired opportunism”? Consider the proverb about lovers: “One kisses, the other offers the cheek.”  The unworthy bumpkin translator receives the barest lip of a kiss on the cheek and wants to explore?

There are, of course, translators who translate out of a deep regard for the source language and its literature. Francophiles, Russophiles, Sinophiles, etc. etc. They’re like lovers who study and absorb the object of their affections. Lovers who labor to make themselves worthy. Because the “one who kisses” is a devotee, sensitive to the nuances of the beloved. Are they the ideal translators? Sometimes it works like heaven on earth. But, alas,  “the one who kisses” is just as often spurned and even more often pained. Conversely in life, that careless ignoramus, who “offers the cheek,” is always rewarded and never suffers.

Until of course, as sometimes happens to the most brazen of cheek-offerers, the trap is quietly sprung and they’re astonished at how quickly they fall and dangle in love. If “world literature” indeed exists, it’s a kind of fertility–so love should be no surprise.


V: Exophonic authors: the opposite of dark, the most attentive kiss

Let’s wander out of the dark for awhile into the ultimate brilliance of fluency: where translation turns inside out and one goes beyond translating a language to translating oneself. Most everyone who’s ever tried to learn a foreign language experiences a quantum degree of difficulty between reading and comprehending and trying to speak, much less write, in that language.

Even so, throughout history, untold millions, maybe billions or more, of immigrants have become fluent in new languages in the process of making new lives. The fluency of immigrants comes in degrees, of course. My grandparents on both sides were minimally educated Poles who emigrated in the teens of the last century. They spoke well enough to get along–work, shop, listen to the radio and, later, watch television in English. But they read only Polish newspapers and their ability to write in English probably never exceeded the most rudimentary post card message.

That’s a far cry from the not-unusual immigrant in the corporate or business world, whose English skills, accented or not, may be several cuts above that of the native born clerical staff. But over the ages, how many of this great migrating horde have written classic literature in their new language? Out of the billions or trillions, are we talking in the thousands? In any case, some number infinitely more infinitesimal than 1%. If World Literature exists anywhere, it’s certainly present here, at the extremes of cosmopolitanism.

There’s a February, 2011, article in the Guardian by Dan Vyleta (who’s described as a “Czech-German-English-Canadian” novelist) listing Vyleta’s pick for the top ten “exophonic” books. For me there’s something too academically trendy about the term “exophonic,” but, lacking a better word, it will have to do. Among Vyleta’s authors is Joseph Conrad who Vyleta characterize as “the patron saint of exophonic authors.”  And, of course, Vladimir Nabokov, Arthur Koestler, Joseph Brodsky (a poet in Russian and essaysist in English). And the non-Eastern Europeans Ha Jin and Samuel Beckett.

Beckett switched to writing primarily in French the second half of his life, to the extent that when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1969, the New York Times noted: “It was not immediately clear whether Mr. Beckett should be regarded as an Irish or a French winner.” The subsequent official award presentation speech by Karl Ragnar Gierow doesn’t much clarify the matter:

Mix a powerful imagination with a logic in absurdum, and the result will be either a paradox or an Irishman. If it is an Irishman, you will get the paradox into the bargain. Even the Nobel Prize in Literature is sometimes divided. Paradoxically, this has happened in 1969, a single award being addressed to one man, two languages and a third nation, itself divided…


VI. The divided dynamics of transformation.

One exophonic writer who Vyleta misses is Apuleius whose 2nd century novel Asinus Aureas (“The Golden Ass,” originally entitled “Metamorphoses”) remains an often-translated classic. The rambling story of Lucius who was magically turned into a jackass and after many adventures restored to humanity is still read as much for pleasure as scholarship today. And the last lines of its short prologue seem particularly apropos to this discussion: Iam haec equidem ipsa vocis immutatio desultoriae scientiae stil quem accessimus respondet. Fabulam Graqceanicam incipimus. Lector intende: laetaberis.

Roughly in English:  “But then, for my part, I’d respond that this desultory interchange of language is precisely the literary discipline required. It’s a Greek story we’re commencing: Reader, pay attention. You’ll be glad.”

There’s a practical  translation challenge in these lines that I think is very difficult to solve–an essential image that didn’t come across in my translation above. An image perhaps central to the exophone experience and to that ephemeral concept, “world literature.”

To put the lines in context, we need to back up into the Prologue. The first-person narrator describes himself as a non-native Latin speaker, formally educated in Greece, who later came to practice law in the Roman courts and taught himself workplace Latin with great difficulty. The speaker’s path somewhat resembles Apuleius’s.

You’d expect Apuleius–who before going to Greece grew up as a child in Roman North Africa–to have been exposed to Latin well before he arrived in Rome to practice law. However, Jack Lindsay, a late-Latin scholar and translator of the work, notes in his 1932 introduction that Punic and Greek were also widely spoken in the North African provinces. So no one really knows what language or dialect prevailed in Apuleius’s childhood home and neighborhood. And the first-person narrator who introduces himself in the Prologue might well be taken as somewhat of a proxy for Apuleius, just as the protagonist’s later conversion to the Isis cult is identified with Apuleius’ religious beliefs.

In the Prologue, the narrator apologizes and begs indulgence for mistakes he may make as a foreigner attempting literary Latin. But then he realizes that since it’s a Greek story he’s telling, his Greek accent is just the thing. It’s as if Andre Codrescu declared himself uniquely qualified to write a new version of Dracula.

What’s hard to bring across, however, is the imagery Apuleius uses to describe the switch in languages: vocis immutatio desutloriae.  “Desultory” in English derives from the Latin “desultor.” But it’s forgotten its roots. The English word means to sort of idly wander back and forth. The Latin root denotes an acrobat in the circus (the horse races), a trick rider who vaults back and forth between horses and chariots.

If that image could be conveyed, all kinds of things might come to life. The galloping power of two languages (and their underlying cultures). The discipline and grace of the artist as acrobat–and outsider. The “scientiae” of Greek studied in the academy and Latin learned in the school of hard knocks. The serious play and risk of the work at hand. The ringmaster announcing a spectacle well worth the reader’s attention.

Apuleius knew full well he was a master of Latin. He may have been educated in Greece, but he chose to write in Latin. The enrichment of Latin with Greek was nothing new. Some 200 years earlier, Horace staked his claim to fame on being “the first to bring Greek meter into Latin verse.” Similarly, Apuleius, re-inventing the Greek novel in Latin was, like Horace, creating not an imitation but a new Latin genre.

It’s easier to describe than translate the image. But a description loses the compressed energy of the Latin. The following is no more than a stab. “But then I tell myself that like an acrobat leaping between horses, this is just the accent and experience the story needs. It is, after all, a Greek tale we’re commencing. Reader, pay attention: you’ll be glad.”


VII: A Polish Novelist?And so, no Nobel.

On December 3, 2009 a friend forwarded Garrison Keilor’s Writer’s Almanac  post for the day. It included this note:

It’s the birthday of the man who wrote: “It is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence–that which makes its truth, its meaning–its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream–alone.” That’s the Polish writer Joseph Conrad…born in Berdichev, Ukraine (1857). By the time Joseph was twelve, both his parents had died of tuberculosis.

So he went to live with an uncle, got a good education, and then went off to sea with the French merchant navy at age 17, and a few years later, joined the British (mercantile) marines…

I found myself crankily emailing back:

John–I was glad you noted Conrad’s birthday. A chance to think about him again and realize what a giant he was. The anti-Kipling, etc. I think he pretty well defines the underside of colonialism and also – in Nostromo, for instance – sniffs out the fascism lurking in the young century. A hundred years later, he doesn’t seem a bit dated. His world still inhabits ours. But sometimes I find that Garrison Keillor–in his literati pose–annoys me no end. … “The Polish writer, Joseph Conrad…” ??  Someone who’d never heard of Conrad (and we probably both know more than a few people who haven’t) would never realize reading Keillor that Conrad wrote in English. Conrad is about as much of a “Polish writer” as Tom Kryss and I are Polish poets.

I should first of all apologize to Garrison Keillor. Browsing The Writer’s Almanac, I find he’s done other posts on Conrad that both more than clarify the issue and very intelligently comment on Conrad’s work as a master of English prose. Apart from wondering if the “Polish writer” soubriquet wasn’t the work of an intern that slipped past, my response was also driven by the memory of a Conrad biography I’d read some years earlier. Again, I find myself unable to properly cite because I’ve forgotten the name of the work, but stuck in my memory is the biographer’s description of Conrad’s quiet elation at hearing he was shortlisted for the 1907 Nobel Prize which was going to be awarded to a British writer. And his later dejection at the whisper that he’d been ultimately rejected in favor of Kipling because the committee had doubts about whether a foreigner writing in English could be an “English author.”

The official 1907 Nobel presentation included the following:

In the cycle entitled The Seven Seas (1896) Kipling reveals himself as an imperialist, a citizen of a world-wide empire. He has undoubtedly done more than any other writer of pure literature to draw tighter the bonds of union between England and her colonies.

In 1899, Conrad published Heart of Darkness in a three part magazine serial. The novella is a still widely read meditation on the mad underside of colonialism. Early on in the work, Conrad’s recurring alter-ego narrator,  Charlie Marlow, offers: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”

In 1899, Kipling published a poem dedicated to “The United States and the Philippine Islands.”  Posterity, obviously, hasn’t viewed Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” kindly. But it’s striking that the 1907 Nobel committee used the term “imperialist” as a compliment not the pejorative it’s become. Reading the Nobel presentation, you get the sense that “The White Man’s Burden” was a reflection of the prevailing culture, and Heart of Darkness an outlier. If Conrad was, indeed, short listed, it would be instructive to read the minority argument.

Although it’s not all that simple. Kipling’s literary scope far exceeded his imperialist jingoism. And Conrad has been notably criticized by the acclaimed Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who found reading Heart of Darkness to be a painfully racist experience. Achebe’s view has, of course, in turn been criticized. But when I read his response to Heart of Darkness, I find myself empathizing–not that Conrad’s novel is racist, but that its portrayal of Africa is sharply Eurocentric. From what other perspective was Conrad qualified to write? It’s Kurtz, who’s “gone native” and lives among the severed heads of his conquests stuck on poles, who’s the subject of the story. Not the Congolese natives who cherish Kurtz like a demi-god, a “simple people” with a predeliction for cannibalism, who quail at the screech of the steamboat whistle.

From the standpoint of the colonized, this may be a technical quibble. Most of Conrad’s Europeans are real, the Congo is real, but his “natives” today seem no less symbolic than Kurtz, whose darkness we also never really fathom. Like a poet groping for metaphors among the savage myths of antiquity, he appropriates their alienness. Is the dark pulse of his narrative any less vital for this?

And after reading Conrad’s 1912 memoir A Personal Record,  I recently found myself more in sympathy with someone else: Garrison Keillor (or perhaps the intern?) who dubbed Conrad a “Polish writer.”  A Personal Record opens with some literary philosophizing, but it’s not a writing career memoir. From a narrative standpoint, it begins and effectively ends at the point in Conrad’s life when he decides he can become a novelist. Like most of Conrad’s narratives, it circles awhile – before bringing us to his childhood in Eastern Europe and tales of his grandparents, granduncles, parents and other relatives. All “citizens” of a country that hadn’t officially existed for generations before Conrad’s birth. Orphaned at an early age, Conrad’s ancestral and personal early memories seem tangled; interwoven with clotted pain and futility. And the unquestioned need to look elsewhere for any sense of home.

Presumably, as with every human, Conrad’s first years imposed their indelible imprint on his psyche. But with Conrad it’s as if that inescapable inner-child could never risk expression in the language of his broken childhood. Or even in French, a language he was reportedly fluent in since boyhood. He needed workplace, seafaring English, and, ultimately, England to, finally in his 30s, begin to speak from the heart.

James Joyce could only fully flower as an Irish writer in self imposed exile, but he still wrote in his childhood tongue. Conrad seems to have been born an exile. In a 1919 “author’s note” to a re-issued edition of A Personal Record, he again revisits the alienation of his childhood, the death of his parents and “the fact of my not writing in my native language.” Something he himself acknowledges as “freakish.”  After some discussion, he concludes that it wasn’t he who “adopted” English, but that the English language adopted him. And that: “All I can claim after all those years of devoted practice, with the accumulated anguish of its doubts, imperfections and falterings in my heart, is the right to be believed when I say that if I had not written in English, I would not have written at all.”

I believe him. And I also agree with him that the phenomenon is “too mysterious to explain…as impossible as trying to explain love at first sight.” Implicit in Conrad’s description is a sense that language is elusively, but no less powerfully, alive. And that culture is born to travel. Conrad has described what English brought to him. But what did Conrad bring to English? An outsider’s loner sensibility, a refreshment, a slightly strange lilt, the energy of a man suddenly changed by falling in love with a tongue entirely new to him–all those things that translation brings? And like a translated poem coming alive in a new language, his energy seems stirred more by some still-forming future than either English or Polish tradition. The kind of art that wants to go where it’s going, not where it’s been.

Conrad and Apuleius weren’t translators per se, but what they have to say about language dynamics seems to me to bear out my–wholly personal–inclination to dismiss the arguments both for and against “domestication” and “foreignization.” I think the two exophones would consider both to be false choices. Apuleius galloped his Greek tale into Rome in masterful workaday Latin. And Conrad’s rich English–Captain Charlie Marlow’s everyday language painstakingly acquired like a sea bag full of gold–became the ransom that finally released his choked-back, childhood voice.


VIII: Imagine a deep freeze and whirled peas.

But enough theorizing, let’s get to the supernatural and dead poets.  And in case you’re getting tired of all this wandering among the novelists, I’ll play the part of  the  typical poet unwilling to relinquish the stage at a reading and beg your indulgence for just one last “world literature” segment, beginning with yet another novelist.

I find that I most enjoy the prolific Japanese maestro, Haruki Murakami’s intricate novels in audiobook format. There’s something about his quiet wormholes and the hyper-reality of his plot twists in endlessly wandering stories like The Wind Up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore that makes them perfect aural scenery for walks in the Pacific summer fog. His latest, 1Q84 is no exception.

The title has no English equivalent and poses an immediate translation issue. The reference is to 1984, both Orwell’s 1984 and also the year in which Murakami’s book is set. The letter “Q” in Japanese is a sometimes slangily substituted homonym for the number “9.” Something similar might be  “2” for “to” in English. Murakami’s story takes place, not in a dystopian or nostalgic 1984, but an alternate “1Q84” in which time’s shifted onto another track to a world with two moons and strange happenings.

Its heroine is a hip, 30-ish fitness trainer with the unusual surname, “Aomame.” A name the translated text tells us is

…written with exactly the same characters as the word for “green peas” and pronounced with the same four syllables. Ah-oh-mah-meh… Telling people her name was always a bother. As soon as the name left her lips, the other person looked puzzled or confused. “Miss Aomame?” “Yes, just like ‘green peas’” … Some people would get the name of the plant wrong and call her “Edamame” or “Soromame,” whereupon she would gently correct them. “No, I’m not soybeans or fava beans, just green peas…”

I don’t know if any of the above was expanded in translation for non-Japanese readers, but I do know that Murakami, who lived in the United States for a number of  years and who’s translated many American writers into Japanese, is not above playing language games. Miss Aomame, besides being an environmentally conscious young woman, is also a professional assassin in the service of social causes. Not that Greenpeace employs assassins, but if the novel’s title is a Japanese pun, might Murakami be also punning a bit with “Miss Greenpeas” for his American readers? Something similar began to stir at the back of my mind when I reached chapter 25, near the end of the book. A chapter entitled: “Cold or not, God is Present.”

The chapter setting is a vacant Tokyo apartment where a sleazy private investigator, Ushikawa, has been photographing the building’s tenants in the hope they’ll lead him to Aomame. She’s in hiding after assassinating “Leader,”  the charismatic head of a sinister new-age religious cult, at the behest of “The Dowager,” a powerful woman with a safe house for battered women. Leader’s offense was the ritual abuse of pre-pubescent girls in a sort of sacrfifice intended to invoke the “little people.” Engimatic beings who tunnel their way from an alternate reality and who first appear out of the mouth of a dead goat, then later from the mouths of the brutalized children. Before dying, Leader told Aomame that in ancient times the “little people” may have been perceived as the gods.  Now, in 1Q84, they resemble Goldilocks’s dwarves.

The alien indifference of the spirit world will be a familiar theme to Murakami readers. In The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, Lieutenant Mamiya is thrown into a dried up well by Mongolian soldiers and left to die. The sun passing over once a day at noon suddenly envelops him in “overwhelming light” that, despite his misery, imparts “a marvelous sense of oneoness… of unity…. the true meaning of life resided in that light…” That celestial light reconciled Mamiya to his death, but was also a harbinger of his miraculous survival.

An uncertain blessing, because Mamiya, the only one of his unit who managed to return to Japan, lived out his long postwar life in menial work, without family, lovers or friends, regretting the miracle in the well. “… at a time when I should have died, I had been unable to die. It was not that I would not die: I could not die. Do you understand what I am saying? Whatever heavenly grace I may have enjoyed until that moment was lost forever.”

In Kafka on the Shore, “Johnnie Walker,” a paranormal character come to life from the whiskey label, systematically kills cats in order to make a flute from their tortured souls. Murakami’s mystical imagery can be reminiscent of Conrad’s Charlie Marlow  equating cannibal drums with English church bells in Heart of Darkness. And to stretch the metaphor, Ushikawa–who’s working for Leader’s unholy sect–finds himself suddenly a sort of missionary simmering in the pot.

Tamaru, The Dowager’s security chief, has crept up on Ushikawa in his sleeping bag on the floor of the empty apartment and trussed and blindfolded him before he can stir. He’s left like that for a long time, unable to move, helplessly urinating down his legs. Then Tamaru begins to calmly and professionally interrogate him. Ushikawa is cagey. He is, after all, a former lawyer come down in the world. But it was slippery dealing that brought him down, and Tamaru is up to the task. He slips a plastic freezer bag over Ushikawa’s head, tapes it close under his chin and sends him for a walk on “the bottom the sea.”

Plastic bag suffocation, as described from Ushikawa’s perspective, is quite painful, a sort of dry waterboarding. Tamaru methodically finds out everything he needs to know and in the process becomes somewhat empathetic to his unfortunate captive. Ushikawa, he learns, isn’t a member of the sect or aware of its secret rituals. He’s just an independent contractor trying to eke out a living after a long run of bad luck.

Tamaru understands tough times. He’s a WWII displaced Korean orphan smuggled into Japan as a child from Manchuria. Unwanted anywhere, he lived by his wits in the shadows until The Dowager took him in. He’s also a quirkily erudite auto-didact who, for no particular character or plot reason, happens to be gay. Deadly and intelligent, but not unfeeling, Tamaru might be Jean Genet turned enforcer rather than poet. He sincerely ponders the human thing to do with Ushikawa. He’d like to let him live, but the risk is high and the situation murky. Finally, he asks Ushikawa: “By the way, have you ever heard of Carl Jung?”  Ushikawa “instinctively frowns” under his blindfold and responds “Carl Jung the psychologist?” “Exactly.”

They converse a bit about Jung who Ushikawa has no real interest in. Tamaru leisurely describes Jung’s lakeside villa near Zurich and, then, the stone tower Jung constructed with his own hands at Bollingen and how it grew from its simple conception.  “As time went on, he found it necessary to build partititions and divisions…and a second floor… He created paintings on the wall. These were suggestive of the development and split in individual consciousness. The whole house functioned as sort of a three-dimensional mandala. It took him twelve years. For Jungian researchers, it’s …extremely intriguing. Have you heard of this before?”

Ushikawa, of course, hadn’t. Tamaru goes on to say that “rumor has it …that at the entrance ….is a stone into which Jung carved some words with his own hand. Cold or Not, God is Present. That’s what he carved into the stone himslf.”

After repeating the phrase he asks Ushikawa “Do you know what this means?” Ushikawa doesn’t, and Tamaru confesses…

I’m not sure myself…there’s some kind of deep allusion…something difficult to interpret…I don’t know why but I’ve been drawn to these words for a long time…the difficulty in understanding makes it all the more profound. I don’t know much about God. I was raised in a Catholic orphanage and had some awful experiences there so I don’t have a good impression of God. And it was always cold there, even in the summer… If there is a God, I can’t say he treated me very well. Despite all that, those words of Jung’s quietly sunk deep into the folds of my soul. Sometimes I close my eyes and repeat them, over and over, and they make me strangely calm. “Cold or Not, God is Present.” Sorry, but could you say that out loud?

Ushikawa does; first “in a weak voice,” and again at Tamaru’s request, more distinctly. Tamaru whispers “I’m sorry about this” and slips the plastic bag over Ushikawa’s head again. Ushikawa’s last living thought as he suffocates is of the scroungy family dog he never liked and who never liked him, in better times before his divorce.


IX: What the hell does it mean, in Japanese or English or somewhere in between?

In a later chapter, the “little people” climb out of Ushikawa’s dead open mouth “over the greenish mossy tongue, clambering over the dirty, irregular teeth.” But that’s just a morbid detail I can’t resist throwing in.  The actual purpose of all my meandering is the enigmatic phrase “Cold or not, God is Present.”  Listening to the audiobook, I kept wondering: Did Jung really say, or rather carve, that? And if so: like Tamaru and Ushikawa, I wondered–what the hell does it mean?

My first thought was whether there might be some disconnect between the original (was it in German?) phrase, and the Japanese translation. The phrase was vaguely familiar. There was a time when I avidly read Jung , why couldn’t I remember it? With the help of Google, it didn’t take long to find that Jung’s phrase was actually in Latin. Vocatus atque non vocatus, deus aderit. A rather well known phrase to any serious Jungian. It’s carved , not in the Bollingen tower, but over the  entrance to his main Zurich home. And also, on his tombstone.

The Latin words can be variously rendered, but a very common translation of Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit is “Called or not, God is present.” A slight mis-translation as it turns out, but we’ll get to that in a bit. My immediate response was that, of course, Murakami is punning and intentionally misquoting. The substitution  of “cold” for “called” is just what the episode needed, and the confusion is well within character for the eclectically self educated Tamaru. But, if so, is Murakami punning in Japanese as well as English? And if so, how serendipitous that the American translator could find such an apt equivalent?

I decided to query the American Literary Translators Association members at the ALTALK chat group. Surely, someone would know Japanese well enough to shed light on the question of what the pun was in Japanese. But there doesn’t seem to be one! Professor Juliet Winters Carpenter, who teaches in a Japanese college researched Murakami’s original text and noted it reads: Tsumetakutemo, tumetakunakutemo, kami wa iru. Which straightforwardly translates to “Cold or not, God is present.”

Conversely, she notes, “called or not” in Japanese would be either: Yondemo, yobanakutemo . Or yobaretemo, yobarenakutemo. As Juliet reports :

There is no play of words comparable to the one in English. You have to suspect Murakami wrote the line in Japanese based on his knowledge of the English quote (also a translation, of course). It would take a mighty astute reader to penetrate all those layers and find it!

But if ALTALK  chat-groupers are anything they’re astute. And curious. It was at this point that Jim Kates, of  Zephyr Press, a venerable publisher of  poetry in translation, noted that the English “God is present” is itself somewhat of a misquote of deus aderit.  Properly, the phrase is either “God will be present” or the god will be present,”  depending on whether or not you infer a mono or poly theistic context. In any case, the saying didn’t originate with Jung and the group began to research its source. (And at this point, I should mention that Jim Kates is himself at work on an essay on this exchange. So some of what follows may or may not appear plagiarized, but is actually simultaneous reportage.)


X: From Thuycidides to Erasmus, to Jung, to Murakami with a detour through Horace

“Cold or not cold” vs. “Called or not” seems to be language-play in the work of an quirkily erudite Japanese author whose novels are set in Japan, but who draws from world culture and who’s been an international best seller almost from the beginning. It’s easy to imagine Murakami, say in his Princeton or Tufts years, hearing the pun at some waggish faculty gathering. Or it may be original English wordplay on Murakami’s part. Given the detail and length of the chapter’s discussion of Jung, the least likely explanation is that the “mistranslation” was unintentional.

For Jung, as for Ushikawa, the deus in question was also not particularly a solace. In 1960, he wrote to his mentee Aniela Jaffe:

It says: yes, the god will be on the spot, but in what form and to what purpose? I have put the inscription there to remind my patients and myself: Timor dei initium sapiente  (The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom). Here another…road begins, not the approach to “Christianity” but to God himself and this seems to be the ultimate question.

So Jung’s divinity isn’t anthropomorphic–or even necessarily compassionate, except on its own enigmatic terms. Jung found the phrase in Erasmus’s Adagia, a 16th century compilation of old Latin sayings  he acquired in an antique 1563 edition. In the letter, he acknowledged Jaffe’s citation of the earliest known origin of the phrase. There the pertinent god is Apollo. As Jaffe noted: “It is the answer the Delphic Oracle gave the Lacedemonians when they were planning a war against Athens.”

In our ALTALK thread, it was Jim Kates who located the phrase in Thuycidides history of the Peloponesian War. It was also Jim who researched Thuycidides’ original Greek and noted that the repetitiveness of the Latin isn’t present in the Greek. Thuycidides uses two different words where the Latin uses only vocatus. Perhaps, it’s this repetition that preserves it as a Latin, rather than Greek adage. The repetition of vocatus imparts a certain irony that stresses divinity has it’s own agenda, invoked or uninvoked.

And presuming the old adage is more or less accurately noted in Erasmus, Murakami wasn’t the first to bend it. In the 1st century b.c.e., Horace used a variant of vocatus atque non vocatus… as the final image of his Ode #XVIII, Book II. Horace’s ode is a meditation on the vanity of wealthy pride; the misery of impoverishment–and the divine power of death. It begins chattily, as is Horace’s wont:

Non ebur neque aureum
mea renidet in domo lacunar
non trabes Hymettiae
premunt columnas ultima recisas


Neither ivory nor inlaid gold
glisten from the ceiling of my home,
no Greek marble beams
rest on columns quarried in farthest

Reading Horace’s poem, we don’t need Charlie Marlow to remind us that the Romans, too, were colonialists. In the poem, Horace doesn’t particularly begrudge the rich their wealth, but knows he’s not one of them. No long lost relative is going to leave him a palatial villa; enterprising noblewomen won’t come flirting, full of hope. Still, he’s content in his self-respect and his “blessed” little Sabine farm. While acknowledging that his modest contentment relies on the protection of friends in power. And, of course, the forbearance of the gods.

Horace’s poem is addressed, not directly to the reader but to a powerful acquaintance, vaguely a neighbor, obsessed by greed and ostentation.

…truditor dies die,
novaeque pergunt interire lunae,

tu secanda marmore
locas sub ipsum funus et sepulcri
immemor struis domos,
marisque Bais obstrepentis urges…


…tomorrow drives out yesterday.
new moons wax and die,

and you, on the verge
of the sepulcher, quarry
marble for your beach house
on the crowded coast…

This wealth don’t exist in a vacuum. In his greed, Horace’s addressee, tears down the boundary markers of his farm and evicts his client-tenants. In the C.E. Bennett, Loeb Library trot: “Man and wife are driven forth bearing in their arms their household gods and ragged children.” This is how the rich get richer.

It’s in the next lines that we graduate from humble household gods to the divinity invoked by Horace’s vocatus.  In Thuycidides, the god was Apollo, for Jung, The Creator. For Horace–Orcus. Originally a god of the underworld and the dead, similar to Hades or Pluto. But by Horace’s time–death and the underworld personified. As much a dark force and process as a god. But no less a divinity for the abstraction. The Loeb prose translation proceeds:

And yet no hall more certainly awaits the wealthy lord than greedy Orcus’ destined bourne. Why strive for more and more? For all alike doth earth unlock her bosom–for the poor man and the prince’s sons.

For Horace, Orcus is implacable, the great leveler. His uncorruptible attendant, Charon, has never been bribed, even by “crafty Prometheus,” to ferry anyone back.  And then Horace ends the poem with another personification: the image of Tantalus, not only greedy and avaricious in myth, but the founder of the great overweening house of Atreus. (The “he” in the loose translation below is Orcus.)

hic superbum
Tantalum atque Tantali
genus coercet, hic levare functum
pauperem laboribus
vocatus atque non vocatus audit.

 ….He traps the proud and
all their arrogant descendants.
He senses the impoverished
praying for release from their toil.
Called or not called, he hears.

Cold or not, called or uncalled, invoked or uninvoked. Ushikawa down on his luck. The tenant farmers with their shivering kids and helpless good-luck statues. The anxious Spartans and the anxiety doctor, Jung. All pondering an enigmatic divinity. From Greek to Latin, through Rotterdam and Switzerland, to English to Japanese over two millenia “World literature” just won’t stay put. What does it all mean? Tamaru says it well:

…there’s some kind of deep allusion…something difficult to interpret… I don’t know why but I’ve been drawn to these words for a long time…the difficulty in understanding makes it all the more profound.

The phrase began with the Delphic Oracle after all, where the Pythia utters revelations that belong to everyone and no one, in a dark, sinuous tongue.


Art Beck was a regular contributor to Rattle e-issues with a continuing series of essays on translating poetry. He has published several collections of poetry and poetry translations, most recently Luxorius, Opera Omnia or a Duet for Sitar and Trombone, published by Otis College, Seismicity Editions. His poetry and essays have appeared in a wide range of literary journals including Alaska Quarterly, Artful Dodge, OR, Sequoia, Translation Review and in anthologies such as Heyday Books’ California Poetry from the Gold Rush to the Present and Painted Bride Quarterly’s 20 year retrospective.

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October 15, 2012

John E. Buri


“Those that teach honestly, teach ideas that are, ‘lithe and beautiful and immensely generative’.”
—Ann L. Brown’s Paraphrase of Jerome Bruner’s words

Students may become teachers, perhaps mentors and the cycle begins anew. So it is with me. I am not the be-all, end-all in poetry or anything for that matter. I can only offer what I have been taught and what I have learned from reading.

I was a member of Richard Shelton’s Creative Writer’s Workshop in the medium security, Santa Rita Unit, Arizona State Prison in Tucson. I was not a poet. I had been writing lyrical poetry for songs most of my life. Richard, of course, recognized my incompetence instantly as I read my first poem to the workshop. “What a terrible waste of punctuation. Perhaps you should try prose,” he said, holding his glasses just off his face as one would expect of a professor. A waste of punctuation? What could that mean? I had been so caught up thinking that I’d written something special; until that moment I did not know the poem was rubbish. Punctuation has no cost, but somehow I had managed to waste it! I was devastated. So now what? Just forget this whole writing thing? Yes I was embarrassed, but this was a room full of . . . how do I put this now, geeks, poets and writers. These people were not in my circle. I could just walk away and none of my friends would be the wiser.

The problem was Richard Shelton. A man so obviously intelligent and talented, Western States Book Award winner, Pulitzer Prize Nominee, and the list goes on and on, he was here every Saturday listening to novices like me present rubbish to the workshop with his confident smile. There is something mysterious and almost magical about this man, something infectious that translates to the men as easily as a virus. I wanted to be a geek! I wanted this man to someday say that I was a good poet.

After many bad poems and many workshops, I left the classroom bloody from the verbal cuts from the talented veterans. The most cutting of all of course was Richard Shelton. I began to study collections, anthologies, textbooks and literary journals. I found a section in a textbook that dealt with revision. Yusef Komunyakaa says he writes one hundred lines to get 16 very strong lines. God help those workshop members! I was determined that after the next bloody assault, I’d do revision after revision until I got it right. Some though, were sow’s ears no matter what I did to them.

Richard brought in many books for us to borrow, and one was a James Tate’s. I was making .25 an hour working as a clerk and saved for months to buy a copy of James Tate’s Selected Poems. This was a significant moment in my life. I didn’t save for a television or a pair of shoes or buy candy bars, cigarettes or heroin. I gave up snacking and smoking to buy a book of poetry! When the book arrived, I studied every word, every line, and every break. Why did he write this poem in this form, using these words? Lessons Richard taught began to make sense: Compression, Enjambing, Show MeDon’t tell Me, clichés, etc.

My work slowly began to improve. My big break came when a popular magazine put out a call for poets writing from prison. I hardly qualified as a poet, but I had the prison part down cold. Stellasue Lee, Poetry Editor of Rattle  published one of my poems. She is a wonderful lady and remarkable poet who gave me that thrill of first publication. More importantly, she returned my unaccepted pieces covered in her red-ink comments.

About this time, late 1998—early ‘99, I began sending submissions. I must admit I was rather indiscriminate as to what publication I would send my work. I would target publications I thought would take my rough poetry. Along with those easy submissions, I would pick one or two reputable magazines. I was delighted when seven out of ten submissions came back with accepted poems! Oh I had it bad now; I was infected.

Borderlands: A Texas Poetry Review published a couple of my poems. Pen in Hand took one and paid me. Rivertalk accepted one, and several others all inside a couple of months. I was writing furiously at that time, two, and sometimes three poems a day, everyday. With writing so much and having the extra money to submit, well, I was bound to write something worth reading—as my old Uncle Ed would say, “Even an old blind hog finds an acorn now and then!” In 1999, I had over twenty publications in good magazines. I was amazed that people wanted to read what I had written. Even Richard Shelton began accepting my work for his magazine, Walking Rain Review. I can bear witness that this is my most valued accomplishment.

The education department at the Santa Rita Unit asked Richard if he would read at a literature awareness function. He asked me to accompany him and read a couple of my latest poems. Quite a large turnout of fifty to sixty inmates, teachers, and administrators attended. Richard’s reading was flawless. It was amazing to me to see murderers, armed robbers, gang-bangers of every race and age enthralled in poetry. When the reading was turned over to me, the audience was primed. There were smiles, then laughs and even applause. Applause! Here I was being accepted for something other than being a tough guy or a drug buddy. This poetry disease was now incurable. After the reading, Richard fielded questions; one asked Richard who his favorite poet was.

“I have so many, but one of them is sitting right over there.” Richard said pointing at me. This is what I had been waiting for since I wasted punctuation that first workshop. Yes, I had publications, but until that moment I did not feel like a real poet. Anyone can scribble a few lines and call himself or herself a poet. To have Richard Shelton include me among his favorites in the society of poets was the proudest moment of my life!

In late January of 2001, Richard’s Creative Writer’s Workshop, our workshop, came to an abrupt end. The Department of Corrections, in response to racial conflicts between Mexican-American and Mexican National inmates, decided to have the Santa Rita Unit exclusively house Mexican National inmates. The fifteen workshop members would be transferred to any number of other units throughout the state.

That night, our last workshop together was incredibly emotional for us all. I can only liken it to the day I was sentenced to these 36 years in prison. This workshop was so much more than literature; it was a key to self-worth, a small piece of humanity, something just as good as people enjoy in the free world and now it was over. We shook hands and Richard said, “You have it in you now, John. I do not expect this will stop you. You can send your new work to the magazine; I will make my comments and get it back to you. The process will be slow, but it’s all we have.”

I arrived at the medium security Tonto Unit situated just below Graham Mountain in Safford with 67 other refugees from Santa Rita; none of which were members of the old Creative Writer’s Workshop. I continued to write and submit it to Richard at the magazine. In one of his return letters, he suggested starting a Creative Writer’s Workshop of my own. I had some experience while at Santa Rita, holding mini-workshops, mid­week, between our regular Saturday workshops with Richard. I had been meticulous in keeping lessons and assignments Richard had given us and believed I had a firm grasp on his methods. However, I was filled with doubt. This would be an enormous responsibility.

I took a job as an administration porter. In prison, the word porter and janitor are synonyms. I knew though, working among Wardens, Chiefs of Security, and the program supervisors could be beneficial when trying to gain approval for a new workshop. I worked as if I had the stamina of a teenager: mopped, polished, dusted and cleaned toilets, windows, ledges, and coffee cups. Every poet should take a job like this at some point. It is humbling, only speaking when spoken to, smiling at all the right times, trying to be the best porter this administration had ever seen. The head of programs, CO IV Jon Foote, called me into his office one afternoon. A no nonsense kind of fellow, old school, is what we call an officer who has worked his way up through the ranks over many years. He looked me up and down, saw that I was sweating and said, “You don’t look like a porter to me, Buri. What is it you want to do here at Tonto?”

“I’d like to start a creative writer’s workshop.” He had heard of such programs, but they were always directed by Richard Shelton and not an inmate. Mr. Foote began firing questions at me and to my surprise; my responses were quick, accurate, and apparently persuasive. I gave him a current copy of the Walking Rain Review, issue VI to take home, and read over night. Mr. Foote called me in again. He told me he did not know poetry could be like the poems of Walking Rain Review, and said, “You can teach this kind of thing?” I explained to him Richard’s format for a workshop and that it was more a gentle guiding and suggesting. I told him that Richard thinks I can do this and so do I. He was impressed and asked who would pay for the program. I explained to him Richard Shelton’s workshop is supported by a Lannan Foundation grant and he would help with materials and occasionally come to Tonto to monitor its progress.

I took a job in the unit’s library. Prison libraries are quite small, one room, 28’x 36’ I would guess and only one sixty-year-old book of traditional poems. The Unit librarian was unusual by DOC standards; highly intelligent, computer savvy, a love of literature and poetry! I’ve never seen her equal in the Department of Corrections. In the employment application, she asked what qualifies me to work as a clerk in the library? I responded by saying, “I can recognize a book, as a book, four out of five times.” Sometimes a little humor can get you in the door. I proposed the idea of a workshop to Ms. Marion (the librarian) and to my surprise she was very interested. She explained to me the chain of command, those who would have to approve, so I arranged through Richard Shelton, to have a copy of that same Walking Rain Review sent to them all. In the weeks to follow, I had countless staff coming to me saying they’d read my book, many wanted to read more, had no idea poetry could be so contemporary and so in your face. I learned that day; poetry affected anyone with an open mind. Not just those of us who wanted to write it and that perhaps this workshop might get off the ground.

The workshop was approved. Now it would be seen if I could teach. Our wonderful librarian consented to come in five hours early on Saturdays just so that we could meet in the library. I must admit to you that I had much trepidation, but I also had the Richard Shelton workshop format well in hand. It did not take long to drum up enough interested people on the yard and the first meeting was a resounding success. My confidence building with each passing workshop, I began to present Richard’s assignments to the new workshop members and poems came by the dozens. Sure there were many bombs, not as bad as my first poems, I thought, and if I could do it . . . .

I was faced with problems I could not have imagined. Young, angry wanna-be rap artists, Hallmark card poets, a man who was writing his life story and couldn’t spell nonfiction. There was a man who turned in two very famous poems written in the early 1900’s as his own! I had seen Richard expose a neophyte member once and I entertained the idea of doing the same. My plagiarizer was a Goliath of a man and I thought it wise not to embarrass him in front of his peers. I decided to wait, write Richard and ask his advice. In Richard’s return letter, it seemed that he was amused with my predicament. He offered little advice and welcomed me into the fold. I did speak to Goliath in private, showed him the poems he submitted, written by Rudyard Kipling. He seemed slightly embarrassed, but admitted to nothing more than drawing them from a latent memory. “You must have a photographic memory then,” I said, “because the punctuation is perfect down to the last semicolon.” He simply looked at me as if to say, So? I gave him The Plagiarism speech I had heard Richard give, as close as I could remember and ended it by asking him not to return to the workshop.

I tried my hand at inventing some exercises for the workshop members and for the most part had at least some success and some exercises produced good poems across the board. It wasn’t long before I felt comfortable sending packets to Richard to show off a little the talent of my guys. In less than ninety days, one of the best students got his first publication. When he brought the acceptance letter for me to read, I felt like hugging this man. It felt much the same as when my son brought a failing grade in reading up to an A. As the workshop progressed, the publications kept coming, but more importantly, I saw that humanity, self-respect and worth began lighting the eyes of the workshop members. Petey, the first to sign up was writing a novel and was reading chapter at a time to the workshop. He must have rewritten each chapter ten or more times and each time it was stronger. Petey incorporated the principles of poetry to his fiction and his images took on life.

Richard began accepting submissions for Walking Rain Review VIII. I did not hesitate in sending large packets from the Tonto Unit and many he accepted. Richard encouraged me with each return letter saying “You know John, there is only one other Creative Writing workshop in the country directed by an inmate. You should be very proud.” I was!

The key, I found, to directing a workshop was not so much being vastly knowledgeable in the art. Richard told me to be a good listener. That seemingly obvious advice was what kept the members coming back and trying hard to improve. It was what kept me coming back years before when I sat in their chair.

Richard and the Department of Corrections deemed the Tonto Unit workshop a success. As with most things in DOC, the other foot had to fall. Through a truckload of errors, most of them my fault, I was unexpectedly transferred to another unit in Douglas, Arizona, called the Mohave unit. Yes, I know Mojave is spelled with a J, but tell it to the Department of Corrections. Again, I was successful in getting a new creative writer’s workshop. I did not have the kind of help provided by Tonto’s Librarian and missed it sorely. I soon had twenty-five new members. This workshop is almost a carbon copy of Tonto’s. Different men and talent, but talent. The other foot I spoke of earlier came much quicker here, though it was not quite as dramatic. Because I am still in the Mohave unit, it is not wise to go into details, but the evening Richard was scheduled to come to this new workshop to check our progress first hand, he was turned away at the gate after driving many hours in the rain.

Richard Shelton is the most respected volunteer in the Arizona Prison System and the fact that he was turned away caused a series of reactions, whose ripples are still being felt as I write this. Richard could not justify funds from his Lannan grant for a workshop he cannot even get in to see. I understood and agreed with him. He and I both know that after now twenty years in prison, I soon will be eligible for a minimum custody unit. We both know that if I don’t land at his workshop in Tucson, I will be trying to start another workshop somewhere else. It is my job now. I am the emissary.

from Rattle #23, Summer 2005

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October 9, 2012

Art Beck


I: A visionary myopia, or how bilingual do you need to be to translate poetry?

Late last year, Tim Parks posted a provocative essay entitled “Translating in the Dark” on The New York Review of Books blog. It can be accessed here.

Parks, a regular NYRB contributor, is a British novelist, translator and essayist who’s lived and taught at the university level in Italy for some time. Beyond being fluent in Italian, he seems to be more than a bit of an Italophile. I’m not quite sure if his article draws any final conclusion, which makes it all the more fertile. But his thrust is to challenge the fairly well-accepted convention that (with the help of various resources) poetry can be successfully translated without a thorough grounding in the source language and culture–so long as the translator is a good enough poet.  Or, as a quote in the article from the British poet Jamie McKendrick puts it: “The translator’s knowledge of language is more important than their knowledge of languages.”

Parks opens by quoting last year’s poetry Nobelist, Tomas Tranströmer: “We must believe in poetry translation if we want to believe in world literature.” And Parks gives due credit to all the poets, bi-lingually challenged or not, who’ve attempted to contribute to literature by translating. But Parks wonders if it’s all that easy, and over the course of the essay, he almost seems to question whether such a thing as a “world literature” can or should exist. As Parks puts it:

I have no quarrel with the aspiration, or all the intriguing translation/imitation processes it encourages. My sole objection would be that it is unwise to lose sight of the reality that cultures are immensely complex and different and that this belief in World Literature could actually create a situation where we become more parochial and bound in our own culture, bringing other work into it in a process of mere assimilation and deluding ourselves that, because it sounds attractive in our own language, we are close to the foreign experience.

This statement, perhaps unintentionally, seems to echo an ongoing “domestication vs. foreignization” debate among translation theorists. “Domesticated” translated texts ideally read as if they were originally written in the new language. By artfully presenting the illusion of clarity rather than a smudged window, the translator brings you an interesting visitor who’s learned to speak your language well.

Proponents of “foreignization,” conversely, advocate subordinating the target language to the unique otherness of the translated culture. Rather than straining for equivalent images and idioms that can distort as much as clarify, the “foreignizing” translator takes you on a trip abroad. If clarity is possible, that’s great, but the illusion of transparency is a falsifying mirror.

Parks seems to frame that debate when he goes on to quote Tranströmer again: “I perceived, during the first enthusiastic poetry years, all poetry as Swedish. Eliot, Trakl, Éluard—they were all Swedish writers, as they appeared in priceless, imperfect, translations…”

No one would quarrel with Parks’ general argument that a deeper knowledge of the source language can only improve a translation, and I find myself agreeing with him insofar as prose translation (at which Parks excels). But I’m not so sure about lyric poetry where I find I’m more in sympathy with McKendrick. My quibbles are the practical concerns of a practicing poetry translator, wondering whether “imperfection” may not be the unavoidable price of translating poetry. Whether accuracy, as opposed, say, to resonance, should even be the primary goal. An awful lot of what passes as translated poetry is prosaic, vapid, and published only because of the reputation of the original. But I’d argue that the deficiency of these renderings isn’t usually their accuracy. Rather, it’s a lack of creative vitality.

I’m guessing Parks would disagree. He’s particularly dismissive of Dante’s Inferno, a 1998 collection edited by Daniel Halpern of various renditions and imitations of Dante by 20 contemporary English language poets as diverse as Seamus Heaney, Jorie Graham, W.S. Merwin, Carolyn Forche, etc.  For Parks:

The result is inevitably extremely uneven as in each case we feel the Italian poet’s voice being dragged this way and that according to each translator’s assumptions of what he might or might not have sounded like. Sometimes it is Heaney’s Inferno, sometimes it is Carolyn Forche’s, sometimes it is W.S. Merwin’s but it is never Dante’s.

These kind of exercises will, of course, not be to everyone’s taste and results are bound to be mixed. However, I think Parks is critical of Halperin’s project, not for what it is–essentially a response to Dante from within another time and culture. But for what it’s not: a serious attempt to replicate Dante.

As an alternative to the creative re-renderings in Halpern’s Inferno, Parks offers Robert and Jean Hollanders’ 2002  “unrhymed verse”  “reworking” of John Sinclair’s 1939 prose translation as a “serious approximation and a fine read.” Fair enough. The three translators are Dante scholars with a deep respect for the original and this is the kind of version that should merit the respect of anyone who wants to go beyond just being entertained.

But, insofar as bringing us “close to the foreign experience,” a serious reader might also bear in mind that Dante died in 1321, roughly a couple of generations before Chaucer. The Hollanders’ translation is presented in mannered, but contemporary English. Perhaps Italian has developed less dynamically than English, but Dante’s Italian isn’t modern Italian and from the start any Dante translator has to decide which Dante to bring over: The antique Dante that a modern Italian reader encounters; a Dante who speaks a modern tongue; or some combination.

And is there any technique that might bring us anywhere even close to what must have been the almost revolutionary experience of the 14th century reader discovering the birth of a suddenly eloquent language in Dante’s vernacular? These are translation issues that the light of scholarship and linguistics can’t solve. I’d argue that the only responses lie in creativity.

In the back of my mind, there’s some vague, still forming, stretched metaphor of a large immigrant family where some of the children assimilate and others remain faithfully in the barrio. If translations are emigrating children, how fertile has The Divine Comedy been these many generations later? And how can you expect all those great, great, great grandkids to remain home, still making the sign of the cross?

Parks also doesn’t address what, to me, seems a core question: whether poetry translation involves an essential added step akin to the elusive but real difference between poetry and prose. The question comes to mind because there are times his meditation almost abuts the Robert Frost “poetry is what gets lost in translation” bromide. Parks, not un-similarly, quotes Celan: “Poetry is the fatal uniqueness of language.”

But why is it only in poetry translation, not prose, that the tradition of foreign language challenged translators is respectable, even honored? Is this just a quirk, or are there reasons that have as much to do with the nature of poetry as with the vagaries of translators?

Many commentators thoughtfully discuss the difficulties of translating prose across cultures.  But it’s usually only when discussing poetry that “difficult” sometimes segues to “uncaptureable.”  Is there some correlation worth exploring here?  There’s a lot of crossover and both are equally “literature,”  but I wonder if beyond their many commonalities, the translation of, at least shorter lyric, poems doesn’t involve different practicalities than, say, translating novels or stories.


II: Reverberation and Re-Creation, Poetry at Play

Translation involves the interaction of both reading and writing skills in various admixture. At the writing extreme, we can find poets interested primarily in writing their own poem, using the foreign language original only as a touchstone. Yeats’ great poem which begins “When you are old and grey and full of sleep/ And nodding by the fire, take down this book…” is really a variation on a famous 16th century French sonnet by Pierre de Ronsard. Its opening,  Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,/Assise auprès du feumight be rendered: “When you are very old at evening, by candlelight beside the fire…”

The Ronsard poem is as iconic as Yeats’ is, but would anyone seriously wish Yeats had stuck to Rostand’s text and forewent what amounts to a rich ancestral conversation, a “continuation” rather than translation of Ronsard. Yeats doesn’t pretend to be translating and makes no reference to Ronsard.  Is it translation? Yes; no; maybe? Would Yeats’ poem have existed without Ronsard’s? And of course this comes down to a matter of intent. Or, rather, the degree one might value the translator’s or appropriator’s intent versus the intent of the original poet. Still,  if poetry in translation aspires to rise to the level of poetry, it has to do so in the target not the source language.  In a sense, Yeats begins by exploring Ronsard like a bat in a treasure cave, but then discovers a larger poem echoing in himself.

Among practicing poets, there’s an often-noted dynamic: A successful poem achieves poetry only at the point that it imposes its own sudden intent on whatever intent the poet began with. Let’s posit that this spark is what can’t help but be “lost in translation.” And can only be re-captured by a similar spontaneous combustion in the target language.  If you buy into this, poetic license is not only a privilege, but the essence of a poem.  And the la belle infidele mot, which implicitly wonders whether a translation has to choose between beauty and fidelity, becomes the obverse of Celan’s “fatal uniqueness of language.” Even if for some theorists, the translated poem should ideally retain a foreign accent, it’s an accent in the new, not the old language. This is at least one argument for “dark translation”:  Skill follows temperament. There just aren’t that many good poet-scholars. No matter how formal or mannered on the surface, poetry cultivates an essential wildness.


III. Crutches,  Night Vision and Germination

Implicit in Jamie McKendrick’s observation, which values language skill over “knowledge of languages,” is the acknowledgement that there are many available compensations. A poet with limited foreign language fluency can access dictionaries, trots, other translations and commentaries. The practice of consultation or collaboration with linguistic scholars or native speakers is common. In some cases, the translator can correspond with living authors. Taking this a step further, the University of Iowa has an International Writing Program that sponsors visiting foreign authors who collaborate with graduate writing students in translating their work, sometimes for publication.

Last fall there was a long American Literary Translators ATALK chat group thread triggered by Parks’ essay. In the course of it, I asked Russell Valentino, who edits The Iowa Review and has some exposure to these workshops, if the collaborative authors get fussy about “mutations” in the poetry translation process. He responded:

Some are quite willing to allow their English works to become something quite different from their “originals.” And sometimes they go back and change things in their originals as a result of being translated in this way, which puts their texts under a kind of scrutiny that they may not have ever enjoyed before.

So a linguistics-challenged translator-poet can enlist a lot of help. But there are really no compensations for poetic weaknesses. There are many examples of literature being created by good writers translating (often with even suspect help) from languages they weren’t fluent in. There are no examples of literature created by inept writers.

Still, Parks’ essay raises a valid question. When translated poetry rises to that indefinable but recognizable level of “literature,” is it “world literature”? Or simply literature in the new language? For me–and it’s only my personal temperament talking–does it matter? If the translated poem achieves poetry, something’s come alive and I’m not going to complain just because that life is new.

Browsing an old journal entry, I found I’d noted two quotes from George Seferis, another poetry Nobelist, with an indication to myself that they were from different periods of his life. I’d like to be able to cite their sources, but maybe it’s more fitting for the direction of this piece just to pull them out of the air and hope they’re accurate. “All art/poetry is blind.” And “No poem is ever alone.” Those statements, taken together, might as well be comments on the organic nature of translated poetry. Rather than “translating dark,” maybe the issue is whether the translated poem, similar to the original poem, requires a leap in the dark.

Why not accept that when poems move as poems between languages they don’t/can’t replicate; but rather mutate and germinate? And if so, it’s not clarity but fertility that’s at stake. Tranströmer’s youthful reading of Eliot, Trakl, Eluard etc. as Swedish poets seems, after all, to have had the effect of inspiring a great new Swedish poet.

To revisit the 16th century, Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is an English masterpiece. But its rhymed couplet scheme and earthy Anglo-Saxon energy present a stark contrast to Ovid’s 1st century sophisticate’s subtle Latin voice. Ovid, it might be argued, was writing, if not at the end, at least at the peak of an era. Golding, conversely, wrote at the fountainhead.  And he created an English rather than Latinate work that seemed to insistently captivate the greatest English poet of his age.

Golding’s Ovid is difficult to read now, its language and accent as olde as its quirky aesthetic. But scratch Shakespeare almost anywhere, from Romeo and Juliet to The Tempest and you’ll find Golding’s Ovid speaking to you. Most well educated Elizabethans could read Latin; a literal replication would have served little purpose beyond a trot, similar to those in the Loeb Classical Library. Golding was a skilled Latinist among many other Latinists, but those skills were secondary to the elan–the poetry–of his personal re-creation. It was Golding’s command of English, not Latin, that enriched Renaissance English.

Thinking about the Iowa collaborative translation program and Golding, it occurs that it would be nice if translators were able to similarly interact with dead poets. So, maybe it’s time for me to interject that like most of the essays in this series, this one will soon start to wander. And my plan in “part two” is to ultimately wander to a place somewhere supernaturally close to a dead poet interaction.

Note: Click here to read part 2 of this essay.


Art Beck was a regular contributor to Rattle e-issues with a continuing series of essays on translating poetry. He has published several collections of poetry and poetry translations, most recently Luxorius, Opera Omnia or a Duet for Sitar and Trombone, published by Otis College, Seismicity Editions. His poetry and essays have appeared in a wide range of literary journals including Alaska Quarterly, Artful Dodge, OR, Sequoia, Translation Review and in anthologies such as Heyday Books’ California Poetry from the Gold Rush to the Present and Painted Bride Quarterly’s 20 year retrospective.

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