Piotr Gwiazda


Material transparency

Rodrigo Toscano at the University of Pittsburgh, October 11, 2017.

Like much of his previous work, Rodrigo Toscano’s Explosion Rocks Springfield (Fence Books, 2016) defamiliarizes language. The book examines the relationship between the energy and the service industry, having been prompted by a natural gas explosion that took place five years ago in Massachusetts, injuring 18 people and destroying a strip club next to a day care center.

Two Trakls

Kraków, the city where Trakl died in 1914.

The poetry of Georg Trakl (1887–1914) has attracted numerous English translators, from Eugene Jolas in 1927 to Robert Firmage, Stephen Tapscott, and James Reidel only within the last decade. In the twentieth century, composers like Anton von Webern and Paul Hindemith set Trakl’s poems to music, producing what Roman Jakobson calls “intersemiotic transpositions.” In addition, in recent years, two poets, Christian Hawkey and Daniele Pantano, subjected Trakl’s work to recreative processes that go beyond the conventional notion of translation.

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.

Before turning to my first example of transposition, I want to consider two models of poetic circulation that complement the one elucidated by Matt Cohen in Whitman’s Drift, the subject of my last post.

The drift of it

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1872. Library of Congress.

The 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).