In the small hours. . . we make up a different language for poetry, and for the heart.
I was not a natural poet like the Russian I translated, Yevgeni Vinokurov, or Tom Clark, whose Stones is here, with its wicked parody of Wallace Stevens, ‘Eleven ways of looking at a shit bird.’ Rather, as Donald Davie would write in a note to his collected poems, poetry went or came out against the grain of a natural inclination for abstraction and ratiocination though poetry can and sometimes does happen in those circumstances –provided one keeps the antennae open – just as, on occasion, conceptual art transcends the literature and anthropology with which it has such affinities and generates and authentic visual construction.
I was trying to pass myself off as a modernist with his own slant when I was nothing of the sort. I was attention-seeking, inventing a gap whose filling would henceforth be associated with me. Many notebook statements I annotated seem now to be wind in the straw, but I remain struck by a handful. Painful for me is Roethke’s thought that ‘One form of the death wish is the embracing of mediocrity: a deliberate reading and rereading of newspapers.’
Donald Davie’s endnote to his Collected Poems spoke volumes to me:
It is true that I am not a poet by nature , only by inclination; for my mind moves most easily among abstractions, it relates ideas far more readily than it relates experiences. I have little appetite, only profound admiration, for sensuous fullness and immediacy; I have not the poet’s need of concreteness.
But, he continues,
. . .a true poem can be written by a mind not naturally poetic –though by an inhuman labor of thwarting the natural grain and bent. This working against the grain does not damage the mind, nor is it foolish; on the contrary, only by doing this each true poem as it is written becomes an authentic widening of experience – a truth won from life against all odds, because a truth in and about a mode of experience to which a mind is normally closed.
Every real poem starts from a given ground and carries the reader to an unforeseen vantage point, whence he views differently the landscape over which he has passed. As a translator my job has been to recognize these two terminal points, and to connect them by a coherent flight. This cannot be exactly the flight of the original, but no essential reach of the journey should be left out. Features are thus transposed, or suppressed only to come out elsewhere in disguised form. These are the liberties of a translator, but liberties assumed for the sake of a new order. Sometimes the original thought would be compromised by appearing in a poem for the twentieth century. It must therefore be diffused in the atmosphere of a new poem .For a new poem the version must be: otherwise it cannot live. Translation is resurrection, but not of the body.
There is also a distinction to be made between poetry and verse, roughly put, the thought and the feeling; “The perception of the intellect is given in the word, that of the emotions in the cadence’ (Pound). The fact is that we are always fundamentally more interested in what a writer has to say. When we are sure of that, we pay attention to the way in which he says it. Time and time again reams of verse surround a nugget of poetry, though Peter Russell could invent a live world in words radiating energy that projected far from the poesy and flights rampant in the main body of his work. On the other hand, as DeQuincy wrote, “the restless activity of Coleridge’s mind in chasing abstract truths- attempts to escape out of his own personal wretchedness -often buried itself in the dark places of human speculation”, a sentence I heavily underlined thirty years ago and which still speaks volumes to all who in their own small way have experienced the treachery of their own will.
Robert Lowell is an iconic figure, the very figure, the very type of poet, an artist who spoke truth to power, as Norman Mailer well understood in Armies of the Night although, in his third-person narrator persona, he has problems if not issues with the Boston Brahmin and judges the poet ‘to possess an undue Christian talent for literary log-rolling.’ In a postcard, Lowell tells Mailer he is the finest journalist in America; in a second card, he praises Mailer’s book of poems Death for the Ladies, but Mailer notes that he never praises it in public. Lowell repeated the remark about journalism on the steps of the Pentagon, occasioning the reply: ‘Well, Cal, there are days when I think of myself as being the best writer in America.’
Lowell is one of the poets in Walter Lowenthal’s anthology Where is Vietnam?, but he never resorted to agitprop, nor did he embrace silence* the way Oppen did, precisely because at the time and in the radically different and differently radical circumstances of the 1930s, Oppen could not conceive of a political poetry that was not agitprop. ‘Mailer’ then addresses himself and Lowell: ‘The only subject we share, you and I, is that species of perception which shows that if we are not very loyal to our unendurable and most exigent inner light, then some day we may burn.’ More experienced in protest than Lowell, he explains to the poet, who hopes to get away in time for an important dinner, that he must be prepared to stay on longer to ensure that if there are any arrests the two senior and well-known figures will be among them, to prevent authorities from claiming that the demonstration (in the persons of those arrested) exclusively involved bohemians, radicals and nutters.
Starting out under the aegis of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, Lowell lightened up under the influence of poets unlike himself –the younger Ginsberg, the older Williams –and generated a freer poetry, so-called raw poetry. Life Studies was the turning point; deservedly, it is one of the most influential poetry books since the war. Some of his best poems, however, are contained in Lord Weary Castle, and all written before he was thirty. If you think I am exaggerating, take another look at “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” and “Mr Edwards and the Spider”.
I have two books by Gary Snyder, Regarding Wave and Earth House Hold, the latter a precursor of what we would call today green attitudes and green writing, and an argument for a synthesis of the wisdom of both East and West in order to arrive at a ‘totally integrated world culture’. Nearly forty years on, globalization has arrived, integrating us all in a terrifying vicious circle at the heart of which climate change is worsening and all the models of capitalism on offer increasing the gap between the haves and the have nots, a bermuda triangle into which the finite resources of a battered and plundered planet are pouring –uncontrolled, wasted, contaminated. He saw it coming.
The Viennese-born Londoner Erich Fried was a harsh, powerful and astute poetic commentator on the daily insults and injustices to common decency and historical truth that regularly turn up in the press and from the mouths of government spokesmen. His poems are laser-tipped (or taser lipped) attacks on the enemy. Fried, translated by George Rapp, is often formulaic, reminding me of Guillevic and other prolific and fluent poets with acute powers of condensed observation:
Came to stones
The stones replied:
We are not
When working on my anthology Voices in the Ark it became obvious that it was easier to define a Jewish poet than a Jewish poem: for our purposes a Jewish poet was not defined in strict religious terms but someone who said they were Jewish or, if one could still asked them, would say they were. Pasternak, we decided, would not have wanted to be in the anthology, whereas Mandelstam would. Joseph Brodsky agree to be in, so did Bob Dylan, except his agent asked for too much money.
“The Jewish Time Bomb”
On my desk is a piece of stone engraved amen,
one survivor of the thousands and thousands of fragments from
in Jewish cemeteries. And I know that all the shards
are filling up the biggest Jewish time bomb
together with other splinters, fragments from the Tables of the Law,
filling it with broken alters and crosses, rusty crucifix nails,
and broken bone, broken holy vessels, broken houseware,
and shoes, glasses, artificial limbs, dentures,
and empty canisters or lethal poison: all these
are filling up the Jewish time bomb until the end of days.
And even though I know about these things and about the end of
this stone on my desk gives me tranquility.
It is a stone of truth left to its own devices,
wiser than any philosopher’s stone, a stone from a fractured grave
and this stone is absolutely perfect,
this stone testifies to all the things that ever existed
and all the things that will exist forever, an Amen and love.
Amen, amen and may this be His will.
Yehuda Amichai (his final poem, translated by Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann and Anthony Rudolf)