Piotr Gwiazda

Transpositions

Exchanging signals

Osip Mandelstam, 1914. Photo by Karl Bulla.

What makes me interested in the question of how poems travel is the very difficulty of capturing the actual experience of reading poems, especially as it varies from culture to culture, language to language. I don’t mean some abstract ‘impact’ or ‘effect’ of poems on individuals or societies. I mean those experiences of reading that can be demonstrated or documented, especially in the form of writing. “Transpositions” is an umbrella term for such material evidence of reception: it comprises different kinds of translation, different kinds of criticism, and more.

The drift of it

Walt Whitman, New York, circa 1862. Photographer: Mathew Brady or Alexander Gardner. The Walt Whitman Archive.

A study of how poems travel —  and how they change —  calls for some discussion of the relationship between author and reader. How do poets themselves define or at least imagine this relationship? What do they do to ensure that their work reaches their audience? And what happens then?

Few poets have paid more attention to their audience than Walt Whitman. Matt Cohen’s book Whitman’s Drift: Imagining Literary Distribution, published earlier this year by the University of Iowa Press, explores the topic from the combined perspective of reception studies, media studies, and book history. The “drift” in the title refers to the pattern of distribution of Whitman’s work in his lifetime and after — something not easy to capture empirically or to grasp conceptually. For Cohen, the word implies uncontrolled, unsystematic, but not entirely haphazard movement, “the nexus of the textual-formal and distributional form in his work, coupling a range of methods of dissemination with poetic technique and the physical design of books.” As his study shows, distribution as much as production was central to Whitman’s desire to connect with his readers.

When poems travel

Trans-. The prefix means “across,” “beyond,” “through.” It appears at the beginning of words that signify motion and change: “transportation,” “tranformation,” and of course “translation.” In 1830 Goethe captured just one kind of motion and change brought about by translation when he remarked to Johann Peter Eckermann: “I do not like to read my Faust any more in German, but in this French translation all seems again fresh, new, and spirited” (trans. John Oxenford).