Confession time: I find a lot of epic or narrative poetry a slog. Milton, Homer, Dante… I have read my way into them all, but unlike my other books, I never get very far in any of them at each reading, although I make the effort and do so often. I don’t even enjoy reading Shakespeare’s two long poems, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece, and I read everything else by the bard with great relish.
It’s odd because I love reading Chaucer’s poetry, even his longer pieces. I delight in Shakespeare’s sonnets. I have dozens of collections of works by poets like Auden, Yeats, Frost, Pound, Stevens, Lorca, Cummings, Eliot, Cohen, Dickinson, Horace, Rumi, Catullus, Li Po, Williams, Ginsburg, and many, many others. I have read the Gilgamesh and Beowulf epics in poetic form, both several times in different translations and enjoyed them. I have translations of poets from around the world. I have limericks and numerous books filled with Don Marquis’ Archy and Mehitabel poems. I read the poems in the Tanakh and in the 1,001 Arabian Nights. I read the blank verse in Shakespeare’s plays, especially his great soliloquies.
And I enjoy reading them all.
So it’s not the poetic form that stymies me: I like poetry in almost all of its styles and forms. And it’s not the reading: I consume books, reading hundreds of pages a day spread across a half-dozen or more books most days. But when I pick up Milton, as I am doing these days, I find I read like I’m wading through molasses.
Nor is it the author. I find in Milton great lines, masterful language, powerful emotions. I marvel at his skill and his vocabulary. The story he tells is rich and complex, with well-imagined and deep characters. Yet when I pick him up, time moves at a slower speed. Ditto with Homer and Dante.
With the extra time to read on my hands these days, I’ve been dipping again into the poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus, Roman poet around the time of Julius Caesar. I’ve written in the past about reading Horace, a somewhat later Roman poet whom I greatly admire. I like to pick up a translation of Horace’s Odes or Epodes and read a few lines, maybe a whole poem, every now and then. Horace can be quite insightful and inspirational. Not so much Catullus for me. He’s entertaining in so many different ways. If Horace is a letter to the editor or an op-ed opinion, then Catullus is, for the most part, the editorial cartoon.
That may be a trifle unfair. What we have left of Catullus’s work is a collection of a mere 116 poems, although my translations leave out numbers 18, 19, and 20 as falsely attributed (there is some scholarly debate around them, especially 18). Most are short; some are love poems to his anonymous lover Lesbia (identified later as Clodia Metelli, a bit like Shakespeare’s Dark Lady of his sonnets), some are comments about or to other Romans, or on current events, some are scatological, some satirical, others obscene (or obscenely funny depending on your sense of humour). And a few are long, deep, and complex (like the elegaic Poem 64).
Obscene? you ask. Well, yes — by the uptight moral standards of suburban-consumerist-WASPish North American culture and that of the 19th century British school curriculum where he as required reading in Latin classes. Not by Roman standards – they were far more relaxed and open about many aspects of sex and sexuality, including homosexuality, in Catullus’ time. It’s one of the reasons Augustus tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to impose a straight-laced moral code, laws and all, on his own Roman culture. Even his own daughter failed to live up to his ideals and ended up being exiled for her wanton ways. But I digress.
Earlier translators of some of his poems tried to water down, bowdlerize, or even exclude the dirty bits. Others tried to mold his words to more sensual or erotic (and less explicit) forms. Even today some translators struggle with verbs like irrumare and try to soften them. Me, I suppose I’ve come to the age when little in the classical world shocks me — that effect is reserved for the stupidity, selfishness, and corruption of today’s world (especially in the USA). Catullus’ frankness I find amusing.
Seen in the light of our online, easy-access-pornography culture, I suspect Catullus’ words have less opportunity (or ability) to shock and titillate today. Many recent translations grapple to find a modern, yet linguistically accurate way to express Catullus’ sexual and scatological imagery, varying between euphemism and metaphor to outright obscenity. But Catallus, too, wrote in metaphors that one needs a critical guide to fully understand (I’m also reading Charles Martin’s Catullus, Hermes Books, Yale University, 1992, which offers an academic analysis of the works).
Perhaps the thing that strikes me most in his work— and in reading any of the classical authors — is that it shows how little human behaviour, reaction, passions, and emotions have changed in the intervening millennia. Catullus is at times horny, lustful, angry, lovesick, sad, blustering, thoughtful, friendly, and snobbish. He’s so very human in his writing, and in that he’s much like Horace.
To the tune of Sounds of Silence, with apologies to Paul Simon…
Hello, winter, my old friend
I have a bone to pick, again
Because a snowplow softly creeping
Passed my house while I was sleeping
My driveway’s blocked and I’m shovelling again
My back’s in pain
I curse these days of winter.
Every day we play this game.
Digging out then filled again.
The snow drifts reach up unto my knees
Beneath the heavy snow my pipes do freeze
Each time I clear my driveway of the heavy load I know
There’ll be more snow.
I hear the plow a-coming.
And in the morning light I saw
Ten thousand shovels, maybe more
People shovelling without speaking
People shovelling their backs creaking
People piling snow on mounds that tower high
To reach the sky
The daily curse of winter.
“Fools,” said I, “You do not know
Snowdrifts like a mountain grows.
Snowblowers may throw it far and wide
But the drifts never do subside.”
From above, as the silent snowflakes churn
The plow returns
I curse the days of winter.
And the snowplow flew and sprayed
Another driveway wall it made
And shovels rose up and fell again
As the neighbours groaned and backs did bend
And the snow it continued to fall down
The plow turned ’round
Just another day of winter.
I was standing in a bookstore in downtown Toronto a couple of weeks back, and opened The Essential Ginsberg, a collection of poems, songs and other writing by the late Allen Ginsberg, he of Howl fame*. I open the book at random and read the opening Ginsberg’s poem, Capital Air, which starts:
I don’t like the government where I live
I don’t like dictatorship of the Rich
I don’t like bureaucrats telling me what to eat
I don’t like Police dogs sniffing around my feet
Even though Ginsberg wrote it in 1980, it felt like something he would be writing today about America’s Trump government. Or about the increasing repression and fascism in his country. I shivered when I read it because it spoke aloud to now.
Ginsberg was more than a poet: he was also an outspoken political activist for freedoms and rights. Although he died in 1997, I’m sure he would be writing similar lines today, had he lived.
Of course, I had to buy the book (well, buying any book isn’t a difficult decision). Not just for this poem but for others he wrote, the best of which were collected within. I also picked up three more books of poetry: Rumi: The Big Red Book (trans. Coleman Barks)**; Haiku in English: the First Hundred Years (ed. Kacian, Rowland, Burns)***; The Essential Ginsberg (ed. Schumacher) and E.E. Cummings: The Complete Poems (ed. Firmage).
I initially passed on the 1,100-page Cummings’ collection because carrying a 4.2 kg – yes, I weighed it – hardcover in my knapsack through the hot city was daunting. But thought about it overnight, thought about how much he reminded me of Don Marquis and his delightful archy and mehitabel poems, that blank verse and their shared disdain for form, and how little I had of Cummings’s work on my shelves, then made a special trip back to the store to get it the next day. I also found the haiku*** collection beside it, a serendipitous find. ****
An odd thing happens when I read poetry. Normally, I read a dozen or more books at any one time: I am a fairly fast reader with good comprehension. I can juggle all the different types, styles and topics without losing much if anything between books. But when I read poetry, it’s like my brain shifts gears and drops off cruise control.
Reading slows down, it becomes more focused. The chattering monkey in my head stills. Words become heavier, as if gravity increased. I read poetry with more attention to each word, savouring each one, sometimes repeating lines in my head several times, feeling for the rhythm, the wavelike motion of each. I parse each line with more attention than I do to prose. A single, page-long poem can take me as long to read as a chapter in, say, a novel or a history.
I usually re-read the entire poem, once I’ve gone through it, just to try out different emphasis on syllables. Find its inner music, weigh the words. Even poems I’m familiar with – and I am prone to re-reading my favourites – take longer than prose, as if I need to digest each line at a measured pace until it settles in my mind.
It’s like music: emotionally entwining – but without the accompanying sound it’s a subtle mystery I have to decode. Although I can read music with a child-like effort, when I stumble through a songsheet, figure out the notes and how the tune progresses, I feel a great sense of accomplishment. Same with poetry. When the poem finally settles in me, I feel like I’ve achieved something, solved something.
I have no difficulty writing prose. It falls off me like water from a roof in a rainstorm. But poetry for me is a slog, the death march of my intellect. I can’t disconnect the monkey brain that demands I analyze, assess, parse each word as I attempt to write. it’s like building a Lego house while stopping to measure the distances between each block and compare the height of their protrusions. I have nothing but respect, admiration and a bit of envy for those who are able to write it with any ease.
Language translation fascinates me. It’s a mix of language skill, art, interpretation, science and, apparently, divination. Maybe even magic.
Going from one language into another is far from a simple step of swapping words in dictionary manner – Flaubert’s le mot juste. Any fool can do that. Hell, even Google can. A single word can be a fulcrum, and the decision to use one word instead of another can utterly change the meaning. I wrote about this in The Municipal Machiavelli. The translator’s choice of even a single word – in that case the choice between the English words ruin and destruction – can alter the reader’s emotions, understanding and appreciation of a work.*
Back in the 17th century, English poet, satirist and translator John Dryden divided translations into three forms:
…metaphrase, paraphrase, and imitation. Metaphrase is literal, word-for-word translation; paraphrase follows the sense of the author, rather than his precise words; imitation departs from the original at the pleasure of the translator, and really constructs a new poem on the basis of the old. Dryden rejects the two extremes of metaphrase and imitation, and chooses the middle way of paraphrase.(Full article here)
Dryden explained his approach in his introduction to his translation of Ovid’s Epistles (1680), the work that launched his late-life career as a translator. He evidently gave the process a lot of thought:
All Translation I suppose may be reduced to these three heads.
First, that of Metaphrase, or turning an Authour word by word, and Line by Line, from one Language into another. Thus, or near this manner, was Horace his Art of Poetry translated by Ben. Johnson. The second way is that of Paraphrase, or Translation with Latitude, where the Authour is kept in view by the Translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly follow’d as his sense, and that too is admitted to be amplyfied, but not alter’d. Such is Mr. Waller’s Translation of Virgils Fourth Aeneid. The Third way is that of Imitation, where the Translator (if now he has not lost that Name) assumes the liberty not only to vary from the words and sence, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion: and taking only some general hints from the Original, to run division on the ground-work, as he pleases. Such is Mr. Cowley’s practice in turning two Odes of Pindar, and one of Horace into English.
Concerning the first of these Methods, our Master Horace has given us this Caution, Nec verbum verbo curabis reddere, fidus
Interpres — Nor word for word too faithfully translate.
I was thinking about how little poets seem to matter to modern political administrations. Maybe to modern society as a whole. Their light has, it seems, been waning for several decades as our collective attention shifts.
I was thinking about what an odd, awkward fit it would be for a poet to be invited to today’s anti-literacy White House. Would he or she have to start each conversation with the question “Have you read…” dreading the answer would be a blank stare, a silent shake of the head and the turning of eyes to smartphones and TVs blaring Faux News.
I was thinking of how John Kennedy asked Robert Frost to read a poem at his 1961 inauguration. Poetry still mattered then. Of how Carter, Clinton and Obama also invited poets to read at their inaugurations. Poetry seemed to fade after Kennedy, possibly because the Vietnam War invited more protest than introspection. Possibly because his death cut down many muses, as well. Possibly because we turned increasingly to TV and then the internet as our source of inspiration, not books. A 2015 CNN article noted:
The cult of people who buy books of poetry in the U.S. is almost certainly dwarfed by the 20 million or so viewers who watch a single episode of “Game of Thrones.”
A mere five poets were invited to attend and read at presidential inaugurations in more than 50 years. The CNN article noted:
Many Americans’ exposure to poetry today is limited to inspirational snippets on fridge magnets or a few verses recited every four years when a poet is trotted out at a presidential inauguration.
But that’s only true for Democratic presidents. Republicans shy from poets. At the Trump inauguration? None: just a handful of wannabe celebrities, some sycophants and has-beens. No poets, no authors, no reading, no evidence of culture deeper than the superficial. Not even as good as a single episode of America’s Got Talent.
Thus is the new world of politics: reduced to a small screen and a handful of words. No deep insight, no big reads. Is poetry disappearing from our lives? Sublimating to texting, Twitter, Instagram and such platforms that require little to no thought, but demand instant response and mindless reaction? Continue reading “Does poetry make things happen in 2018?”