Commentaries - March 2012
The Short Takes on Long Poems symposium
I'm taking the beach-poem at its word, and beginning anywhere.
In my case, since I’m just back from the Short Takes on Long Poems symposium at the University of Auckland, I thought I might start there.
And it does seem a useful way of starting some hares of discussion we can pursue at our leisure over the next few weeks (or months).
The gathering was an international one. There were Academics and Poets from Australia, the United States, Hong Kong, Hawai'i, and other New Zealand cities. The New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc for short) has built up contacts in a lot of places in its decade of operations.
Last year a group of us met at Deakin University in Melbourne, the year before both in Auckland and the Technological University of Sydney. Many of those people were back in Auckland this year, but there were new faces too.
I suppose this mightn’t seem unusual in other cities or centres, but it’s still something of a radical move here, down at the bottom of the world (or the top, depending on how you flip the globe, which is, after all, still a “circle whose centre is nowhere and whose circumference is everywhere,” to quote Empedocles - though it's quite surprising to see how many other people this apothegm is attributed to ...)
The guest of honour was the distinguished American poet Rachel Blau DuPlessis, who’s been making an extended visit to Auckland over the past couple of months, and whose long poem Drafts, shortly (she told us) to be completed after 25 years of work, gave the symposium its theme.
There were, if I counted correctly, 21 papers and readings over the two days of the conference proper (Thursday 29th-Friday 30th March), as well as an appetiser of 11 readings on Wednesday night. The whole thing culminated in a ferry ride to nearby Waiheke island, at the head of Auckland harbour, where we all collaborated to construct what we fondly hope was the world's longest beach poem, running a thousand odd yards along Oneroa beach.
There were a lot of interesting conversations over the three days, a lot of comparisons of our respective cultural locales. For me, though, one particular session outweighed all the others — not just the details of the session itself, but one particular gesture within it.
Just before Maori poet Robert Sullivan began his joint reading with local Pakeha judge and poet John Adams, he asked for the blinds of the room to be opened and for some air to be allowed in. “To let out the shades,” he explained. “There are some powerful ghosts in here.”
He meant (among others) the ghost of Nineteenth-century colonial Governor Sir George Grey, one of whose official residences this was. And it was Grey's own words that John Adams proceeded to read out, with an accompaniment of some of the Maori proverbs and songs he collected and translated for the following reason:
I found that these chiefs, either in their speeches to me, or in their letters, frequently quoted, in explanation of their views and intentions, fragments of ancient poems or proverbs, or made allusions which rested on an ancient system of mythology; and although it was clear that the most important parts of their communications were embodied in these figurative forms, the interpreters were quite at fault. […] Clearly, however, I could not, as Governor of the country, permit so close a veil to remain drawn between myself and the aged and influential chiefs, whom it was my duty to secure, and with whom it was necessary that I should hold the most unrestricted intercourse. Only one thing could, under such circumstances, be done, and that was to acquaint myself with the ancient language of the country, to collect its traditional poems and legends, to induce their priests to impart to me their mythology, and to study their proverbs.
The quote is from the preface to the book he eventually compiled, Polynesian Mythology & Ancient Traditional History of the New Zealanders as Furnished by Their Priests and Chiefs, which appeared in Maori in 1854, in a (somewhat abridged) English translation in 1855, and as a dual-text in 1885.
Grey was, on the one hand, a grim and somewhat disingenuous man, who never for a moment doubted his own superiority to and right to govern the various native races he fought and administered in various different parts of the British Empire. His explanation that he collected the myths and traditions of the “New Zealanders” in order to control them more effectively gives a somewhat chilling atmosphere to his book, still an irreplaceable foundation text for any serious study of the subject of Maori beliefs and customs.
On the other hand, he was an intellectually voracious polyglot, whose collection of books in many languages (most of which he could speak or read) laid the foundations for the Auckland Public Library. Our poetry seminar was literally taking place in his front parlour — or perhaps it was his study, or even his reception room. In any case, his memory lingers there, along with the memories of the various Maori informants — some of them credited by him, some of them not — who recited to him the powerful texts he wrote down for their future undoing.
“Poets do not forget,” wrote the Italian poet Salvatore Quasimodo, at the end of the Second World War, as he lamented the devastation he saw all around him, “Buchenwald is there ... Stalingrad / and Minsk with its marshes and rotten snow.”
“Poets do not forget.” Actually, he wrote “I poeti non dimenticano.” The translation I'm quoting from is by New Zealand poet Kendrick Smithyman (1922-1995), who — I feel sure — meant it as much for his own people as he did as a reminder to any Italians who might read his work (published posthumously here in Auckland in 2004 as Campana to Montale: Versions from Italian, and again in a revised second edition in Novi Ligure, Italy in 2010).
I guess my running definition of any poetry is an attempt to conduct a conversation with the tradition. On Friday morning Robert Sullivan and John Adams talked for — and to — their respective ancestors. The result, to quote Robert himself, “gave me goosebumps.”
As the actual words of Grey’s informants were read out, doubled with Grey’s own brutal letters to local military commanders, his ornate prefaces to works of scholarship, I realised how meaningless this whole event would have been without them. The risk of too international a focus is a kind of bland abstraction, a lingua franca of poetics and literary theory instantly comprehensible to those of us trained in schools of poetics, but detached from the local conditions that give these concepts depth and meaning.
For me, the symposium was a success because of this single act of Sullivan (who identifies himself as being of Nga Puhi, Kai Tahu and Irish descent) and Adams (a high-ranking member of the New Zealand judiciary as well as a poet). They acknowledged the central historical paradox that underlies our life here in these islands: the reasons why most of us here speak English as a first language instead of Maori (or French, or Spanish, or Chinese).
Most, but by no means all. The symposium touched on many cultures, languages and poetic traditions. It was enabled and made welcome in the space, though, by this gesture towards the contradictions that surround us and give us life. It was necessary for Robert to usher out the ghosts, to clear a space for himself and John, before he could begin to speak. The moment they stopped the ghosts came crowding back in, though.
I don’t think I can really write any meaningful “notes” here on New Zealand poetry without doing the same: naming the memories and the spirits, and allowing them to jostle my pen as I write. We're in this thing together, as poets of Kendrick Smithyman’s generation knew so well. Our attention to the outer world must not distract from the voices of the tangata whenua, the people of the land, all of those who were here before us and who laid down traditions for us to act within.
Martin Rowson’s The Waste Land “Seen” was published in 1999 — a modernist hermeneutic detective story (hard-boiled) in comix form. Now Rowson and Michael Barsanti are bringing it back as an iPad app, which is to say, more simply, an e-version for easy tablet reading. “It takes a lot of detective work to decipher modernist literature. Trying to figure how grail legends, the Upanishads, and vegetation myths all link up has left scholars chasing their tails for nearly a century, and has left us ordinary palookas in the dust. Lucky for us we have private eye Chris Marlowe, cartoonist Martin Rowson, and scholar Michael Barsanti to help shake out some of the clues and make some hasty repairs to a heap of otherwise broken images.” There's more here and also, naturally, a link to iTunes where you can download the app. The image above gives you a sense of where I am in the “story” as I write this: section II, “A Game of Chess.” “I lost Idaho Ez,” it begins, “so I decided to look up the only other person I knew in these parts. I remembered the first time we'd met. She'd looked like a million dollars....”
Introduction and excerpt from the Roof Book (New York, 1997)
An excerpt from SHI: poems by Li Po and Li Yu: PDF
You can purchase the book from SPD.
This book is not an attempt to grasp the “essence” of Chinese poetry, nor is it an endeavor to produce an over-polished version of English that claims aesthetic superiority over other works in the same field. It grapples rather with the nature of translation and poetry, and explores poetic issues from the perspective of translation and translation issues from the perspective of poetry. Looking from such a vantage point, translation is no longer able to hide itself in our blind spot; instead, the often-invisible face of translation is being brought to the foreground of poetic texture and the traces of translation’s needle work are being exposed to the reader’s view. With its agenda hidden, translation is too often a handyman for the metaphysical, mystical, or universal notion of poetry. When emerging from obscurity, translation becomes an ally with poetic material and enacts the wordness of the words. And this book strives to strengthen the alliance between translation and poetry through various textual and conceptual means that I will discuss now.
A passing glance at this book will no doubt yield the impression: annotation is overwhelming. Our modern poet, Marianne Moore, once wrote in “A Note on the Notes,” regarding the extensive use of borrowed materials in her own poetry:
A willingness to satisfy contradictory objections to one’s manner of writing might turn one’s work into the donkey that finally found itself being carried by its masters, since some readers suggest that quotation-marks are disruptive of pleasant progress; others, that notes to what should be complete are a pedantry or evidence of an insufficiently realized task.
The donkey that is being carried in my book seems to be even heavier than the one in The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore, where her sketchy notes are mostly of bibliographical nature. In my book, there are not only notes parallel with the translation text, but also a whole section entitled “More Explanations” that comes right after it. But this donkey, I hope, carries more theoretical force than its own weight. By juxtaposing translation text with annotation and even adding more, I mean to challenge a notion of transparency that has for long governed the theory and practice of translation. Such a notion, stemming from a metaphysical ideology that regards language simply as a medium for some extralinguistic “meaning,” advocates the erasure of the translator’s fingerprints and tends to leave only a clean, uncontaminated (by notes) translation text as a “faithful” rendition of the original. This translation practice, in effect, disguises or ignores the linguistic and cultural particularities within which any poetic work is situated. My provision of extensive annotation in this book is, therefore, a conscious effort to disrupt any “smooth” transaction between different linguistic capitals.
Ezra Pound, whose work has served as a great inspiration and resource for this book, has in consequence become an object of my critique here because of his willful division between what he terms “Luminous Details” and “multitudinous details.” To produce a translation that excludes the “multitudinous” annotation would be, to follow Pound, to make it [im]possible for the “Luminous Details” to transcend the linguistic and historical situation of writing. But the contradiction between Pound’s volitionist poetics of “Luminous Details” and his poetry relies heavily on allusion, quotation, paraphrase, and other kinds of annotative textual apparatus that to various degrees deal with the “multitudinous details” is now too commonly known for me to repeat the criticism of it here.
The section entitled “Radical Translation” is again my effort to disrupt the smooth transaction of “meaning” by foregrounding the radicals (roots) of Chinese characters. However, the nature of this practice is very different from what Walter Benjamin has characterized as the “literalness” of Hölderlin’s translation of Pindar that risks the danger that “the gates of a language thus expanded and modified may slam shut and enclose the translator in silence.” The literalness, to Benjamin, is ultimately a property of the “pure language” or the Adamic Language that names things without any mediation. But radicals, as vital components of Chinese characters, are not a representative language that eliminates material mediation. On the contrary, my presenting radicals in translation brings forth exactly the material medium itself. It is true that “the gates of a language” will thus be “expanded and modified,” but there is no danger that the gates “may slam shut and enclose the translator in silence” as long as the translator and the reader are well aware that the radicals will loudly and boldly enact the meaning of words, instead of letting the words abstractly, or silently, “express” meaning.
The last section, “Diagnostic Translation,” by juxtaposing “What’s in English” and “What’s in Chinese,” aims to bring out what is characteristic of each language that stands as insurmountable blocks to translation. The English list consists mostly of grammatical formations that don’t exist in Chinese, such as articles, variations of verbal tenses, affixes, and plural nouns. The Chinese list is basically a list of radicals taken from the “Radical Translation” section, but they are now seen from a new perspective. In the previous section the radicals functioned as vital components of the meaning of the individual characters, whereas here they group together and embody the characteristic of the Chinese language. Let me put it in an analogy: When the ancient people carved words on the mountain cliffs or stone monuments, they chiseled off chips of rocks and left concave marks that have been called “words.” But now, instead of musing over the metaphysical absence in those concaves, we are looking at the scattered rock chips to feel the concreteness of the words. And the radicals are just these rock chips or powders that reveal the make-up of the words in a language. Therefore, the “What’s in Chinese” list intends to demonstrates not the “essence” but the linguistic features of Chinese, just as the “What’s in English” list, however incomplete, attempts to describe the specific mode of English.
Having gone thus far, we have in fact reached a point where translation is no longer confined to its conventional definition. Not only has the transference of meaning from one language to another become a close reading of the bone and flesh that physically construct each language, but also the particular mode of translation here, such as radical translation, is meant to be read as English writing that is experiencing its own foreignness in the foreign linguistic soil, namely, Chinese. A line such as “bamboo-xiao ear-sound mouth-sob” shouldn’t be read simply as an analysis of the radicals in Chinese, but as an English sentence itself. In this sense, both the “Radical Translation” and “Diagnostic Translation” sections shouldn’t be taken as supplements to the “basic” translation that goes before “More Explanations”; each of the two sections is in effect a complete translation text of a Chinese poem, a text that brings with it a different notion of translation, writing, and reading. The unconventional versions of translation presented here, I hope, will unceasingly challenge the “clean, uncontaminated” version produced under the illusion of transparency, a version we can get if we exterminate all the annotation and the other two sections in my book.
But the unconventionality is not solely my own invention. For the idea of “radical translation,” I owe a debt to Wai-Lim Yip’s Chinese Poetry (Berkeley, 1976). Yip, in his introduction, first points to the significance of radicals in translating Chinese poetry, a suggestion which has not been fully carried out in his work. The “Radical Translation” section in my book is, therefore, to “radicalize” Yip’s radical analysis of Chinese characters and to legitimize it as a method of translation. For the “diagnostic translation,” a neologism of my own, I have borrowed the idea from the work of Alton Becker, a linguistic anthropologist. Becker’s collaborative essay with Bruce Mannheim in The Dialogic Emergence of Culture (Dennis Tedlock and Bruce Mannheim; Chicago, 1995) presents me with a possibility of applying his linguistic anthropological methodology to a comparative study of poetics. The kinship between poetry and anthropology has always been close since Jerome Rothenberg’s and Dennis Tedlock’s proposition for ethnopoetics. Hence, this book can also be regarded as a continuation of the ethnopoetic conceptualization.
Now, some explanations regarding the textual apparatus applied in this book:
In the “More Explanations” section, the Arabic numerals refer to the line number in which the word in question is located (poem title counts as the first line, and the laying out of Chinese lines can be found in the next section;
In “Radical Translation,” the words in bold face refer to the so-called literal meaning of the characters, while the italicized words connected by hyphens indicate the radicals in these characters. For instance, in “bamboo-xiao ear-sound mouth-sob,” xiao, sound, and sob are literal translation of the Chinese characters, while bamboo, ear, and mouth are radicals in those three characters respectively;
In “Diagnostic Translation,” the “What’s in English” list refers to the English translation text found in the beginning of each new poem, the one with parallel annotation.
And last, I want to express my gratitude to Charles Bernstein and James Sherry. It was in Bernstein’s seminar on poetics at SUNY-Buffalo that I did the first experiment on the kind of translation now presented here. And it is Sherry who has provided insightful readings and invaluable editorial advice for the preparation of the manuscript, apart from sending in his ever encouraging and challenging words.
An excerpt from SHI: a poem by Li Po : PDF
You can purchase the book from SPD.
Trying to write again about Rob Halpern's work, for a festschrift being put together by Richard Owens in celebration of Rob's forthcoming book Music for Porn, here are a couple paragraphs that may relate to this commentary:
Poetic and aesthetic techniques are neither progressive or retrograde, though I can certainly think of certain poets I would prefer to attend than others, and certain art that I think of as offering more to an existing conversation. Rather, poetic techniques — whether lyrical or not — have a particular application within different historical and cultural contexts, and the poet may be judged to some extent on how they choose to apply these techniques, how they take them up strategically or practically. Beyond “movements” and “coterie,” I want to look at practices and projects uniquely inasmuch as they may be misapplied, or find their application more effective in a different social context. We might also conceive of how particular techniques of writing or art offer more or less resistance to an existing matrix of power and domination. [...]
One of the radical applications lyricism maintains is its embeddedness within specific bodies and within social space. Lyric’s potential—its empowering aspect — lies in the fact that it remains from bodily and affective predicament. Just as space is a key factor in socio-political struggle — the proximity of bodies to other bodies coproducing one another in a defined physical location, not merely virtually—as has recently been proven by Occupy Wall Street and other social movements internationally, lyric relates the body of the poet to a poetics of collective affects, both bad and good, intended and unintended, recognizable and repressed. In its reliance on sonic and rhythmic qualities, it produces what the French linguist and poet Henri Meschonnic called a “politics of rhythm.” Similarly, Robert Kocik and others have identified lyric as the privileged site of stresses counter to the belligerence and toxity of our current economic, political, and social environment. Much of Rob’s writing comes out of this preoccupation with what lyric can do, oriented by a complex of counter-hegemonic forces.
— from Appropriation and Affective Production in Rob Halpern’s “Obscene Intimacies”