August 23, 2011

from A CONVERSATION BETWEEN WILLIAM O’DALY AND ALAN FOX

FOX: You pay a lot of attention to the musicality of the poem. Can you say more about that?

O’DALY: Well, some people—in fact I’m reading a book right now on the line, the poetic line—believe that what poetry is is the sound of poetry. I mean, the first line of this book—it’s a very nice book—that’s the definition. I’ve always thought, well, what does separate poetry from prose? As poets and editors we think about these things. But so much really isn’t in the literal or denotative meanings of the words, it’s in the relationship between the sounds of the words and the connotations. Once you get beyond the surface, it’s that interplay. And with Neruda, who had one of the best ears of any Spanish-language poet ever, it’s an important element in his work and so I had to pay extra attention to that. It also serves as a good guide when you can’t stay as close as you’d like to what you’re reading in the original—the music will help steer you in a direction that will maintain faithfulness to the original while leaving part of that literal surface behind in order to capture the poem.

But I think the work that I do, the late and posthumous work, Neruda very consciously chose a less—in the words of Robert Pring-Mill, one of his best critics—a less pyrotechnical surface. There’s no pyrotechnics in those works. They’re more straightforward to a degree, in terms of the language as well, but there’s still his musicality, but he’s not pushing it; it’s become so natural to him at this point, toward the end of his 50-year career, that what I had to do is make sure that I was able to maintain the musicality but also not try and pump it up to match the exuberance of the early work. And I think people who translate the late work, where they go wrong in terms of the musicality is that they hear one Neruda. The great Neruda is the exuberant Neruda, even though he repudiated that himself. I mean, one way he was able to keep changing as a poet, morphing and refreshing himself, becoming new, was to say, “Okay, I did that, that was a product of my isolated life as a Chilean consul in the Far East, that’s what I needed to do at the time.” But the Residencias now—the poems are so melancholy, they’re so obscure. I don’t want to be obscure, I don’t want to be programmatically melancholy or isolated, I don’t want to be the poet who feels only his own pain, and so I’m going to write out of the struggles of my people, of the South American continent.

Actually, his experience of the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War informed the third and final book of the Residencias, and it was then he began to write as a socially committed poet. Out of that same commitment, he completed a personal transformation by writing the book-length Canto General. After the Canto and one other more programmatically political book, he wrote a gorgeous book of love poems, The Captain’s Verses, for his mistress and third wife-to-be, And then the elemental odes, which in nearly every way are the absolute opposite of the Residencias and in their apparent simplicity repudiate the grandeur of Canto. And Extravagario is probably the book that may be most pivotal for him because everything that had come before came to a focal point and there’s this huge scope of expression within that book; he’s humorous, he’s sad, he’s sincere, he’s exuberant; it all came out, it all focused there. Out of that book came all these other voices. Well, when he gets to the end of his life he’s singing simply, beautifully, and that’s the music I try to recreate. Exuberant Neruda I love, but I love the mature Neruda all the more because the poetry is endowed with much greater wisdom and personal honesty than his exuberant work, generally, and I look to poetry for those, too.

FOX: As you speak, it’s pretty clear to me that you have a very intimate relationship with Neruda, because you’ve lived with this intimately for a long time. Isn’t that one of the bigger rewards of being a poet or being an avid reader of poetry?

O’DALY: That may be my favorite question yet. Yes. It’s definitely a reward. Poetry is a pretty isolating act as I’m sure everyone in this room knows—it can be, at least initially—and when I’m translating him or preparing I feel that there’s this intimate dialogue going on. And I think I’m really clear about what translation is, but I love how from the moment I sit down—and this is how translation differs from poetry—the dialogue is just there. And actually it might be more of a triangulation, how we navigate: there’s Neruda, there’s me, and then there’s the translation, this third entity. So we talk to each other, his poem, his voice, as I hear him. I know his work pretty well, most of those 3,000 plus pages, and I know about his life—I’m not a scholar, don’t want to be, I think that might be detrimental—but I’m almost a scholar. And so all of that information is there and must be to translate effectively, I feel, especially over a long period of time and a number of books. But I began to realize—I really didn’t think about it a lot, Alan, but then when I was in Chile absolutely everything was going so beautifully and I’d walk into a bus station and say, “I want to go to Temuco” and they’d say, “Oh, well we have a bus leaving in seven minutes for Temuco,” and they’d pick up my bags—and they don’t do that in Chile—and take them to the bus for me. I mean, they didn’t know my role with Neruda at all. And I would tell Chilean friends this and they’d go, “Well, of course, Pablo’s looking out for you.” [laughs] And they would say this in such a way that the first couple of times it sent a chill up my spine. “Of course things are going well,” they’d say. [laughs] That’s when I seriously started thinking about the question you just asked me. But I thought, “Well, will I miss this?” And I don’t know how long I’d have to live for it to dissipate to the point where I wouldn’t feel I had a relationship where Neruda wasn’t with me…

from Rattle #34, Winter 2010