We were running out of breath, as we ran out to meet ourselves. We were surfacing the edge of our ancestors’ fights, and ready to strike.
from “An American Sunrise” by Joy Harjo
Joy Harjo has appointed the next U.S. poet laureate. She is of the Muscogee Creek nation, born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the first Oklahoman to be named poet laureate.
She told Tulsa World, “I know a lot of young people were turned off from poetry when the teacher would ask us to ‘tell what the poem means.’ But sometimes, it’s better just to listen. I mean, we all listen to something like ‘Hotel California,’ but could we really explain what it means? What is so amazing about poetry is that it’s a way to speak beyond words.”
Many outlets are reporting that Harjo is the first Native American to be appointed to this position, but poet William Jay Smith, who was part Choctaw, held the position in 1968-70. (This detail was pointed out by A.M. Juster, which I learned through Prufrock)
Billy Collins mediates on silence in this short poem from Poetry magazine. In such a noisy world, this is almost an untranslatable concept, especially in its versatility. Peace, dread, waiting, strength. Here’s the second stanza.
“The silence of the falling vase before it strikes the ﬂoor, the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.”
Dylan Thomas wrote about the seasons washing over the Welsh Glamorgan county–the summer so beautiful, the winter barren. Time repeatedly rides up from the coast, bringing nothing unusual, nothing but change. Here’s the sound of a winter thaw.
And now the horns of England, in the sound of shape, Summon your snowy horsemen, and the four-stringed hill, Over the sea-gut loudening, sets a rock alive; Hurdles and guns and railings, as the boulders heave, Crack like a spring in vice, bone breaking April, Spill the lank folly’s hunter and the hard-held hope.
Scholars who want to understand the poems thus wisely grapple with them first by direct translation, then by seeing if they can translate them poetically as Crockatt does. It is a useful exercise for him for another reason. The poetic form shapes the word, but learning to use the form shapes the mind. Habituating the mind to the creation of poems in just this form is going to alter the way one thinks, slightly but definitely. In learning the compose poems in this strict form, you are learning to think just a bit more like the Viking who is your historical subject.
Kali Kolsson (ca. 1103-1158) adopted the first name Ragnvald in honor of a famous predecessor as earl (jarl) of Orkney. Technically he wasn’t a Viking, having been born after 1066, but it’s hard to deny him the title. He went on a great raid, fighting in Spain and off North Africa (and then doing a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and proceeding to Constantinople). And he was a master of the old Norse poetic form; if his poems aren’t Viking poetry, I don’t know what they are.
Ian Crockatt succeeds in producing vigorous poems in the spirit of the originals. Some of his word choices seem strange to me – especially substituting “Eve” for the names of Norse goddesses. But in a project like this you’re going to end up making a lot of subjective choices. I can’t fault him. Oddly, in discussing previous translations, he does not mention Lee Hollander’s efforts along the same lines, which seems to me a strange omission.
Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw is fascinating reading for anyone interested in its esoteric subject. And it’s not long.
LARB: The authors you write about in your book are mostly novelists. Do you read much poetry, contemporary or otherwise?
Martin Amis: “Yeah, I do. It’s much harder to read poetry when you’re living in a city, in the accelerated atmosphere of history moving at a new rate. Which we all experience up to a point. What poetry does is stop the clock, and examine certain epiphanies, certain revelations — and life might be moving too swiftly for that.
“But I still do read, not so much contemporaries, as the canon. I was reading Milton yesterday, and last week Shakespeare — it’s the basic greats that I read.”
“Hall has long been placed in the Frostian tradition of the plainspoken rural poet,” Billy Collins, another American poet laureate, wrote in The Washington Post in April 2006, two months before Mr. Hall himself was given the post. . . . He was a staggeringly prolific writer who chose freelance work over teaching — a decision, as Mr. Collins put it, “to detach himself from academic life, with its slow but steady intravenous drip of a salary.”
Some days, when you read the newspaper, it seems clear that the United States is a country devoted to poetry. You can delude yourself reading the sports pages. After finding two references to “poetry in motion,” apropos of figure skating and the Kentucky Derby, you read that a shortstop is the poet of his position and that sailboats raced under blue skies that were sheer poetry. On the funny pages, Zippy praises Zerbina’s outfit: “You’re a poem in polyester.” A funeral director, in an advertisement, muses on the necessity for poetry in our daily lives. It’s hard to figure out just what he’s talking about, but it becomes clear that this poetry has nothing to do with poems. It sounds more like taking naps.
Poetry, then, appears to be:
a vacuous synonym for excellence or unconsciousness. What else is common to the public perception of poetry?
Paddy McCann says, “My dream is to be a poet. I would love to do it full time.” Hear part of his poem on his home town recorded in his car last month. Good work, sir. May your voice find a large audience.
His biographer notes his depression, even at least one moment of despair.
Half a deadpan paragraph treats as more or less normal the moment when Miłosz swallowed a quantity of vodka, loaded a revolver with a single bullet, and played Russian roulette. Graham Greene, a not-so-dissimilar character, also gave way to this particular form of nihilism—or is it vanity? . . .
The Sovietization of Poland was bound to be fraught with moral choices that would lead either to reward or to punishment, possibly a concentration camp and death. . . . Once he was in the West, Miłosz himself was to observe, “All I wanted was to get out, and see what would happen next,” accepting that this amounted to making “a pact with the devil.”
Daniel Swift discovered a little poem about bread and flowers by Ezra Pound, written on the back of an envelope. It shows something of his skill but also the inconsistencies of his philosophy. He spent WWII as a propagandist for fascists, condemning equality among nations and races, and was tried and acquitted for treason in 1946.
“And yet the method of his poetry,” Swift says, “insists that ideas can and must be translated across cultures. He mixes African myth with classical Greek epic, ancient Chinese poetry and the American blues.”
His scripts for Radio Roma covered political, economic, historical and cultural subjects, interspersed with personal reminiscences, all tumbling over one another in such impulsive and unpredictable order that some Italian officials suspected he was transmitting military secrets to the enemies of Italy in an unbreakable code. He was in fact expressing in his customary percussive prose style his deeply-held beliefs that only a currency reform under a system known as Social Credit would solve the world’s economic problems; that only an authoritarian regime like Mussolini’s could clear out the muck that was stifling modern life; and that something, preferably something violent, should be done to get rid of the Jews, the Bank of England, Franklin Roosevelt (“Stinky Rosenstein”), Winston Churchill, publishers, night-clubs, usury, birth control, muddy painters like Rembrandt, sloppy composers like Beethoven and Puccini (“Spewcini”). Along the way he would drop in gnomic utterances on the order of, “The laws of durable government have been known since the days of King Wen,” or, “The cultural stink betrayed the U. S. in 1863.”
Pound did spend time after the trial in a mental hospital, but I’m inclined to attribute his hateful ideas to simple human hubris more than mental illness. It doesn’t take much to hate other people.
Most translators have either abandoned the [loose alliterative lines of the original] altogether or tried to replicate its alliterative movement in hopes of conveying its harsh, Germanic energy. Ridland, in contrast, renders the poem in loose iambic heptameter, thereby giving us a form that sounds both native and natural to our ear. He also introduces sporadic and spritely alliteration to preserve a hint of the poem’s exotic roughness.
He offers an excerpt, which you might compare with this translation (from the first stanza of part two):
a year turns full turn, and yields never a like;
the form of its finish foretold full seldom.
For this Yuletide passed by, and the year after,
and each season slips by pursuing another:
after Christmas comes crabbed Lenten time,
that forces on flesh fish and food more simple.
Marly Youmans has three evocative poems on Education & Culture today. I find “Nancy at the River” enchanting in the way of missing someone whom you have deeply loved, though this was perhaps not quite that. Though the subject may have been delighted in, she may not have been deeply loved. But perhaps I’m being overly relative.
all is mystery, so pure/ And secret like a mythic flower bride
Who fades and blooms, or like a poem rhymed/ With unknown words that aren’t yet ever were