Thomas Carlyle

Bright arrogance #8

Diagram of The Malebolge (from Alexandre Masseron's 1947 French translation of the Divine Comedy)

In the last column, I speculated that Mary Jo Bang’s translation of the Inferno was initially seduced by but ultimately rejected the more corrosive qualities of Flarf. However, in the baroque-brut line of Henrik Drescher’s accompanying illustrations, there seems to be a corrective, drawing us into visceral mess of hell’s innards, albeit with high artisanal flare.[1] These illustratings seem to outdo (or undo) Gustave Doré's engravings from his popular Dante volumes of the 19th century, in that they are at once more terrifying and more cuddly — open to being in an loose relation with the text they accompany. In contrast, Doré's engravings are so aesthetically overpowering that, existing in volumes that were kept around the house more as a marker of status than for reading, the illustrator’s name is more commonly associated with this Divine Comedy than that of its proper translator (Henry Francis Cary, who for the longest time, because of a C with an overgrown serif, I thought was merely “Gary” — like some anonymous Cher or Prince of a forgotten poetry scene).

State-of-the-Nation poems

Albany Coronation Hall 1911
"What you call a view" - Albany Coronation Hall (1911)

I think that we’ve had enough generalizations about various different types of New Zealand poetry for a bit. It’s time to descend to cases. But which poems should we talk about?

There’s not much point in doing a mini-anthology of my favourite contemporary poets. In any case, that’s something I’ve already been asked to do for Jacket2. It appeared last year as the feature “Look and look again: Twelve New Zealand Poets.”

Instead I thought it might make sense to concentrate on big-issue public poetry: those “state-of-the-nation” poems which poets more often find themselves writing by accident than actually sitting down to compose (or so I suspect, anyway).

Robert Lowell specialized in such poems: “For the Union Dead”, for example – or “Waking Early Sunday Morning.” It’s a form of engagé, ex cathedra discourse which many modern readers are understandably suspicious of, but when you reread those Lowell poems, or Derek Walcott’s superb sequence “The Schooner Flight,” or even Philip Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings,” it becomes clear that there are ways of avoiding pompous attitudinizing within this mini-genre.

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