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December 01, 2011
Brendan Kennelly is certainly an essential poet but his editors, Michael Longley and Terence Brown, have done him a favour by distilling his burgeoning oeuvre to the 110 poems in this book and 36 poems on a CD (Kennelly is a highly skilled spoken word artist).
This is a strong introduction to Kennelly, and the editors are refreshingly candid about the poet’s lyric and epic strengths as well as his occasional failures of rigour (there are worse crimes than over-writing or writing too much).
What comes across in The Essential Brendan Kennelly is the poet’s spiritual generosity, a tonic sense of wonder and a project that allows new readers to reach the core of Kennelly’s poetry without being tripped up by thirty slim and not-so-slim volumes.
The Essential Brendan Kennelly: Selected Poems, edited by Terence Brown and Michael Longley with CD of poems read by Brendan Kennelly, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 160 pp., £12.00, ISBN 978-1-85224-904-5
Thanks are due to the editor of Poetry Review, Fiona Sampson, where this piece first appeared.
April 03, 2010
‘I never thought it was a poem. I thought it was just [Menashe slides arm slowly downwards] a sigh’. This is Samuel Menashe speaking in the film Life is Immense: Visiting Samuel Menashe by Pamela Robertson-Pearce which comes packaged with the book. Menashe writes concise poems. It’s rare in a review to be able to quote a poem in full but with Menashe it’s open season. Here are two untitled poems that possess the sigh of pure brevity:
The sea staves
* * *
A pot poured out
Fulfills its spout.
Ian Hamilton Finlay wrote that ‘I feel more and more that the purest poetry exists in single words or seemingly minute effects. These are what lodge in one’ (quoted from Thomas A. Clark’s suitably spare edition of Finlay’s letters on poetry and making A Model of Order.) For Menashe, purity of diction requires a purity of contraction:
The niche narrows
Hones one thin
Until his bones
Eleven words. Fourteen syllables. This is a poem about which Donald Davie once commented, ‘[Menashe’s] poems have to be compact and close because only in that way can English words—any English word, if the right tight context be found for it—show up as worshipful, as having a wisdom and an emotional force beyond what we can bring out of it when we make it serve our usual occasions’. As Menashe might have said, less is more as God is love. (Being a tireless reviser and refiner Menashe would probably file this down to ‘Less is love’.)
Reading this excellent selection of poems, you can’t help but admire Samuel Menashe’s integrity of perception, his self-possessed seriousness, and the precise, often playful awareness of the importance of space—space as another means for stating, imparting, whispering.
Menashe’s restrained epiphanies come over strongly and unstrained in performance. I met this fine poet at the Ledbury Poetry Festival last year. His resonant, gentlemanly, measured delivery woke rich meanings and sounds from the stringed air of each poem. This is what so-called Slow Poetry should sound like, honed not only in drafting but in delivery.
It helps to hear him, and it is a pleasure to watch him articulate his working methods and aesthetics. The film of Menashe reading his poems in his tiny
New and Selected Poems, Samuel Menashe, with a film on DVD by Pamela Robertson-Pearce, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 240 pp., £12.00, ISBN 978-1-85224-840-6
My thanks to Fiona Sampson of Poetry Review where this piece first appeared.
March 28, 2010
Growth-Rings in Poems
Antonio Machado claimed that, ‘In order to write poetry, you must first invent a poet who will write it’. It might be a smart move to invent your translator while you’re at it. Robert Frost’s over-celebrated remark that ‘Poetry is what is lost in translation’ may make poets feel unattainable, but what Frost went on to say was, ‘It is also what is lost in interpretation’ which makes attainability a little problematic. And it says more about the nature of poetry than it does about the process of translation, or of criticism for that matter. Few enough writers realise that good translation, like good criticism, is a vocation and practice as thorny as original composition.
In fact, for many creative writers, translation shares the table with writing, just as for literary translators it is another form of creative writing. Translation is always a negotiation. To paraphrase Ngugi wa Thiong’o, translation moves beyond and around language. Some words are charged with particular meanings in their host language; that does not entail their carrying those associations into another tongue.
It is not only the spectrum of meaning that is considered in excellent poetic translation. There are polyphonies of factors: the physical sound of the poem’s internal movement; the speed, shiver and intent of word-notes, taken individually, within a line, and within a whole poem. And what about the meanings of the sounds of words, the tongues and voices ringing and ringed in the grain of poetic lines, and the notion of locality in how a word is spoken and understood?
The Dutch poet and archaeologist Esther Jansma may have a view given that she established the age of wooden artefacts from growth-rings in the wood which could be applied to timber in The Netherlands. Are there growth-rings in a poem’s language and form? Her translator writes in her introduction to the excellent What It Is that ‘if a source poem is rhymed, some translators see the rhyme as somehow “separate from” meaning… I feel that if rhyme is used, it is part of a poem’s meaning…’. Author and translator held a painstaking negotiation over every draft, and their teamwork makes for a very convincing, clear, almost scientifically-eyed poetry:
If we have to dress, when all is said at last
against the cold or in something’s name
in what remains of this or another past
tales and aides-memoire which simply claim
that we were here and nothing more
in time which existed before today…
from ‘Archaeology 2’
With the exception of Jane Holland’s persuasive and energetic versioning of The Wanderer, the books under review are all ‘beyond and around’ translations in that they are neither re-imaginings nor imitations. That does mean they are any less under-imagined than Holland’s delightful appropriation of the Anglo-Saxon original. She states ‘the switch from Christian to secular beliefs and the switch from male to female narrator were acts of reinterpretation…Those who find this change too much of a strain…should consider that each age must reinvent the classics rather than simply ‘translate’ them…’. She is correct of course except there is nothing simple about translation, whereas reinterpretation (pace Frost) sets up another force field for the reader.
The translator makes a choice of an author’s work, decides the posterity of certain poems. For example Driven by the Wind and Drenched to the Bone by the Argentinan Daniel Samoilovich is a beautifully selected collection or sharp, startling, colourful lyrical poems. Conversely, I got the underwhelming feeling in Starve the Poets! that the selection of work from ‘controversial Chinese poet’ Yi Shah shows him to full disadvantage. The translators have done almost too good a job in rendering into English - what seems to me - a self-regarding, self-important, sexist set of work. It’s almost as if Yi Sha had taken the least attractive tonal elements of Bukowski then done his best to divest his poetry of the quality of mercy. The trouble is that we passed through this kind of phase some time ago: half-pretending to enjoy poems that yielded you zero as a reader except corrosion of precious attention. Eye-wateringly, this appears to be one of the stated intentions of the author except he believes he’s being laconic, as opposed to tedious:
Walking across life’s stage.
as I handed him a cigarette
he gave me a light
Walking across life’s stage
In the flickering flames
I got a glimpse of his cigarette lighter –
well, what d’you know?: it was shaped like a mini-
from ‘Crossing the Stage’
Many poets argue that all writing is translated in that it is translated from silence. Midnight and Other Poems by the Palestinian writer Mourid Barghouti reads like a series of skilful resurrections, through language, of a silenced majority:
After the dust and smoke
have cleared from the house that once stood there
and as I stare at the new emptiness,
I see my grandfather wearing his cloak,
wearing the very same cloak –
not one similar to it,
but the same one.
He hugs me and maintains a silent gaze,
as if his look
could order the rubble to become a house…
from Part 1 ‘Midnight’
‘Midnight’ is clearly an ambitious sequence, a montage of images from the land of his birth, and rewards being read aloud. One gets the feeling it is written to be heard, and can be considered part of a wider debate about language, land and dispossession, rather like the interesting poems in Flowers of Flame by some new poets of Iraq.
Moving finally to the resonant and gloriously complex Prague with Fingers of Rain by Czech writer Vítězslav Nezval, first published in 1936, and translated here by the brilliant Ewald Osers. This is an expertly evocation of Prague’s interwar liveliness and polyvalence. What’s especially exciting is how landscape and streetscape are rendered clearly and precisely within an apparently ‘surrealist’ confection of forms and strategies. Unlike the tired strategies of Yi Sha, we are only just catching up with such approaches (John Hartley Williams and Luke Kennard spring to mind). It is unlikely you will have read anything else quite like this collection, not only in terms of meaning and structure, but also ricocheting forms and acutely-judged sound.
Many thanks to Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, in which this piece first appeared.
What It Is: Selected Poems, Esther Jansma, translated by Francis R Jones, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 96 pp., £8.95, ISBN 978-1-85224-780-5
Lament for the Wanderer, translated by Jane Holland, Heaventree Press, pb., 22 pp., £4.00, ISBN 978-1-90603-806-9
Driven by the Wind and Drenched to the Bone, Daniel Samoilovich, translated by Andrew Graham-Yooll, Shoestring Press, pb., 60 pp., £8.95, ISBN 978-1-904886-60-0
Starve the Poets!: Selected Poems, Yi Sha, translated by Simon Patton and Tao Naikan, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 96 pp., £9.95, ISBN 978-1-85224-815-4
Midnight and Other Poems, Mourid Barghouti, translated by Radwa Ashour, Arc Publications, hb., 240 pp., £14.39, ISBN 978-1-906570-08-8
Flowers of Flame: Unheard Voices of Iraq, edited by Sadek Mohammed, Soheil Najm, Haider Al_Kabi, and Dan Veach, Michigan State University Press, pb., 96 pp., £14.50, ISBN 978-0-87013-842-3
Prague with Fingers of Rain, Vítězslav Nezval, translated by Ewald Osers, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 64 pp., £8.95, ISBN 978-1-85224-816-1