Monday, December 12, 2016

Fictions of otherness


 (An essay on poetry translation, from the Dublin Review of Books, December, 2016

We carry poems around with us in our heads, part of the internal tradition we create for ourselves. Often these are translations, although that fact may not necessarily register. When something causes us to dwell on the poem as translation, the result can be troubling. To give just one example, Czesław Miłosz’s “Encounter” has been part of my own personal anthology for many years. Recently I had cause to dig it out again. Here, first of all, is the poem in the English version I remembered:

    Encounter

    We drove before dawn through frozen fields,
    The red wing was rising, yet still the night.

    And suddenly a hare shot across our path.
    One of us pointed to it with his hand.

    That was long ago and both are dead:
    The hare and the man who stretched his arm.

    O my love, where are they, where do they lead,
    The flash of a hand, the line of movement, the swishing icy ground?

    I ask not in sorrow, but in contemplation.

    Wilno, 1936

The translation is by Adam Czerniawski, and I liked the poem primarily for its central image of the hare shooting across the path of the travellers and the pointing hand, and the quiet registration of the disappearance of both, a moment in a rich tradition of such registrations of mortality. I also liked the opening line – “We drove before dawn through frozen fields” – maybe because of its simple directness, its alliterative forcefulness, and the sense that anything could follow. The early hour, the frozen fields, the purposeful journey – it seemed like the opening to a thousand evocative stories and poems. I was less happy with the phrase “yet still the night”, which seemed to have been lifted from an anthology of nineteenth century poetry, and the final line seemed a little weak: “contemplation” didn’t really do it, didn’t seem like a strong enough alternative to sorrow. However, Czerniawski’s is not the version sanctioned by the poet, as I discovered when I pulled down my copy of the Collected Poems. Here is the poem as translated by the poet himself and Lillian Vallee:

    Encounter

    We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
    A red wing rose in the darkness.

    And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
    One of us pointed to it with his hand.

    That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
    Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

    O my love, where are they, where are they going
    The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles?

    I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

More



Monday, September 05, 2016

The lure of the troubadours

David Cooke has published a selection from Sway in his online poetry magazine The High Window.

The book will be out later this year, I'll post details later.

The High Window is full of all sorts of goodies -- well worth checking out.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Sway

My new book, Sway, Versions of Poems from the Troubadour Tradition, will be published by Gallery Press in October. This one is a riff rather than a version, taking as its starting point a line by the 12th century trobairitz, Beatriz, Countess of Dia.


Riff for Beatriz
Ab joi et ab joven m’apais

I feed on joy and youth    the rest
forget    all texts
abandoned     I feed
with joy     I feed on you or would
were you here    were I there
by the lake    in the wood    where the
nightingales are    I hear them
the buds along the branches roar
the frost withdraw    I feast on the season
that you may come to me
like light to the trees    I set
my pilgrim heart to roam
I am here   your loosened armour  your
Saracen hands   I feed
on spices and desert air
the rest is argument    discourse
the lines unwinding
the lines bound like the twigs of a broom
to sweep you away and pull you back
my dust is yours together we blow through the meadows
I was here but now
a stir of language in the trees     birdsong
in the composed season    a voice
before the frost comes   before the wind and the rains
bear me off    come to me please

Monday, June 06, 2016

A Shared Wonder of Light





I'm launching A Shared Wonder Of Light, Poems & Photographs From West Cork & Kerry", poems by John Kinsella, photographs by John D'Alton on Sunday 12 June at 3pm in Arthur Mayne's, Donnybrook, in case anyone is free. It's brilliant collaboration ...

Monday, February 08, 2016

The Thing Itself

The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar: essays on poets and poetry, by Helen Vendler, Harvard University Press, 444 pp. £25.95, ISBN: 978-0674736566

 Poets and critics sometimes inhabit the same body. Think Eliot, Pound, Randall Jarrell, Donald Davie, Robert Pinsky, Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert or, from these shores, Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, Dennis O’Driscoll, David Wheatley, Peter McDonald, Justin Quinn. But poet-critics are an increasingly rare and imperilled breed, and most critical response and reputation-making or -shredding is left to vocational critics, often based in the universities. In the United States Helen Vendler is a force to be reckoned with. Through her regular appearances in The New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books, her editorship of the Harvard Book of Contemporary Poetry (1985) and her many books on the likes of Wallace Stevens, Yeats, Emily Dickinson and Seamus Heaney, she has become, in terms of recognition and influence, the pre-eminent American poetry critic. This is not say that she is universally admired, even – or rather, especially – in the crowded pond of contemporary poetry. But her eminence can hardly be denied and it’s partly explained by and coincides with the shrinking prestige of poetry in American culture during her writing career. Attention to the details of lyric poetry, or what Vendler herself calls “aesthetic criticism”, is an activity deeply suspect in many universities, wedded as they are to their highly politicised and theoretical discourses. The wider culture too hardly falls over itself to celebrate or evaluate the mysterious arts of the lyric imagination.

 - See more at: http://www.drb.ie/essays/the-thing-itself#sthash.AORV6JQ7.dpuf

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Radio Carla



My new radio play, a ghost cum love story, first aired on Sunday, 17 January, 2016 as part of RTE's Drama on One series. It features Olwen Fouéré, Andrew Bennett and Deirdre Monaghan.
The producer was Aidan Mathews and sound supervision was by Mark McGrath.

Radio Carla

And this is In the Wings, where Olwen and I talk about the play.

The Drama On One site is full of rich pickings, an archive of radio drama and features going back several years, well worth keeping an eye on.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Don't Look Back: Poetry and Retrieval

I gave this talk as part of this year's Aldeburgh Poetry Festival




A few years ago I was greatly taken with a poem by the French poet, or Franco-Uruguayan poet Jules Supervielle and ended up translating it. It’s called ‘Le regret de la terre’ and although I didn’t translate the title it might come out as ‘regret for the earth’ or ‘nostalgia for earth’. Since I’m going to be talking about retrieval I thought I might begin with this:


One day we’ll look back on it        the time of the sun
when light fell on the smallest twig
on the old woman the astonished girl
when it washed with colour everything it touched
followed the galloping horse and eased when he did

that unforgettable time on earth
when if we dropped something it made a noise
and like connoisseurs we took in the world
our ears caught every nuance of air
and we knew our friends by their footsteps

time we walked out to gather flowers or stones
that time we could never catch hold of a cloud

and it’s all our hands can master now
( ‘Le regret de la terre’, version by Peter Sirr)


I love many things about that poem: the way it turns us into relaxed if regretful connoisseurs of our own life, looking back from the blankness of the afterlife to the intense sensational life of the earth where everything, from something dropped to a footstep,  reverberated. I like how the poem reminds us that one of poetry’s main missions is this kind of retrieval, this stamping of human and earthly sensation onto the void, or the compensation that somehow realising the world and our own experience in it provides for the blankness that will follow it.

More than that, though, and this is where I pull the rug from under my own feet a bit, I love the way this poem occupies its own space, the way it is, the ways it constructs itself and lays itself down on the page. Its particularity, individuality, the print of its voice that relates to other poems by this poet that I admire. It reminds me that whatever the ostensible subject, what we actually turn to poetry for is the quality of its own making, the peculiar connections and energies that circulate between poet, language and world. What was it Miroslav Holub said once – ‘poetry is an energy storing and energy releasing device.’ That’s what I mean.

So when I gather up a bunch of different poets under the rubric of ‘retrieval’, whatever else retrieval can be taken to mean it must also try to acknowledge each poet’s harnessing or retrieval of their own imaginative energies as they grapple with one of the great myths.

To go back to Supervielle’s poem for a minute. I said I value the way it brings back the world or brings us back to the world. Some the greatest myths have always done this: Demeter and Persephone: the harvest goddess presiding over the cycle of life and death and her daughter who is kidnapped by Hades and taken off to the underworld. She is eventually offered her freedom but as always, there are conditions: she can be fully free if she hasn’t eaten anything while in the underworld. But it turns out she ate some pomegranate seeds and the result is that she can only leave the underworld for a certain period in the year, corresponding to spring and summer.

That’s ultimately a comforting myth because it sets the world in order and plays fruitfully with the natural cycle of the year. Demeter’s grief for her daughter is answered, the thing is resolved, whereas the whole point of the greatest of these myths, Orpheus and Eurydice, is that it isn’t resolved, the attempt at retrieval isn’t successful, but ends in disaster for both Orpheus and Eurydice.