November 23, 2016

Post-Election Poetry

In a piece at Wired, Lexi Pandell considers the role poetry plays in processing traumatic situations and how events in 2016 have given poetry renewed interest. And one of those events is the the recent Presidential election.

She writes:
In the 48 hours following the election, also saw its biggest surge of shares in four years. Over a two-day span, the site typically sees 80-100 people tweeting links to its poems, and about 70-100 retweeting those links. On November 8 and 9, though more than 550 people tweeted out poems with 720 people retweeting those links. 
The top poems on the site since then have been Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” a declaration of selfhood about blacks rising against white oppression (read more than 50,000 times); Langston Hughes’s poem on the American dream, “Let America Be America Again” (35,000 times); and W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” about the beginning of WWII (close to 25,000 times).

November 18, 2016

Ginsberg's First Howl

Allen Ginsberg read his poem "Howl" at the Six Gallery in San Francisco back in 1955. The night was advertised as "Six Poets at Six Gallery” and featured Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen.

Ginsberg was poet number five. He went on about 11 p.m. He was 29 years old. The most surprising thing though is that he had never participated in a poetry reading before.

Kenneth Rexroth organized the reading as a promotion for the new gallery. Ginsberg met Gary Snyder and the others. Ginsberg introduced a pre-On-The-Road Jack Kerouac to the group.

Allen started pretty quietly. But he started rolling with the poem. It is said that he took a deep breath before each of the long lines - then said each line in one breath.

Kerouac chanted "Go, go, go" in rhythm while Ginsberg read. The audience loved it and joined in.

One audience member was poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He sent Ginsberg a telegram the next day borrowing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words to Walt Whitman: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career” and added “When do I get the manuscript?”

The group gathered there that night became the core of the group of writers known as the Beats.

Howl and Other Poems was published by City Lights Books in the fall of 1956. It was subsequently seized by U.S. Customs and the San Francisco police and was the subject of a long court trial at which a series of poets and professors persuaded the court that the book was not obscene.

Plague at the location of Six Gallery, 3119 Fillmore, San Francisco

November 9, 2016


When the U.N. General Assembly listens to a speaker, how much is lost in the translations?
"As you know, translation is really a problem-solving task. Every once in a while you see the original and something comes into your head that is also a formal solution to the problem of getting it into lively English, and you feel like you've written a poem. But that's pretty rare. I wouldn't exactly say it's more like doing crossword puzzles than it is like writing poetry, but it's a mix of the two. "                    

- Robert Hass, "Interview: A Common Language"

Ask Google Translate to do its work on "poets online" and you will get in Italian "poeti in linea" and in French "poètes en ligne" and though I can't read Japanese, I'm sure that  詩人オンライン is also a "poet on a line" of some type. Something is certainly "lost in translation."

Translation is difficult. Edward Hirsch says that "Strictly speaking, total translation is impossible, since languages differ and each language carries its own complex of linguistic resources, historical and social values. This is especially true in poetry, the maximal of language."

The translation of poetry needs something more than simply translating words and getting the same general meaning. In defining "translation" for his Poets Glossary, Edward Hirsch notes:
That’s why its untranslatability has been one of the defining features of poetry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the word untranslatableness. Robert Frost famously said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” An Italian pun captures the idea: traduttore/traditore, translator/traitor.
You can find advice about translating poetry, but I am interested here more in using poetry to talk about translation.

We sometimes say, "Let me translate that for you" meaning that we will rephrase something complex into a more understandable form.  We use the expression "in simple English"  in this way.

Richard Blanco's poem"Translation for Mamá" begins:

What I’ve written for you, I have always written
in English, my language of silent vowel endings
never translated into your language of silent h’s.
               Lo que he escrito para ti, siempre lo he escrito
               en inglés, en mi lengua llena de vocales mudas
               nunca traducidas a tu idioma de haches mudas
He writes his poems and also translates it into his mother's Spanish.

But "How do I say it?” is what Joy Harjo is really concerned with in her poem “Deer Dancer..”  Though she can be referring to the language of her own Mvskoke/Creek Nation, she is also talking about the inadequacies of all languages. 

How do I say it?  In this language there are no words for how the real world
collapses.  I could say it in my own and the sacred mounds would come into
focus, but I couldn’t take it in this dingy envelope.  So I look at the stars in
this strange city, frozen to the back of the sky, the only promises that ever
make sense.
Harjo is trying to tell a story about an incident in a bar, but language can't quite convey all that happened there that night.

Nearly everyone had left that bar in the middle of winter except the
hardcore.  It was the coldest night of the year, every place shut down, but
not us.  Of course we noticed when she came in.  We were Indian ruins.  She
was the end of beauty.  No one knew her, the stranger whose tribe we
recognized, her family related to deer, if that’s who she was, a people
accustomed to hearing songs in pine trees, and making them hearts.

The word "translation" derives from the Latin translatio, which in turn comes from trans- and fero, meaning “to carry across” or “to bring across.” It usually mean the transfer of meaning from one language to another, but it also is what we do in interpreting the world around us every day.
One of my poems is about this everyday translating we do - from other languages, in interpreting the world and certainly in writing and reading poetry.


My grandparents would speak Slovak
with my father, the aunts and the uncles
at the Sunday dinners at their home in Newark
when they didn’t want us to know.
In those days, the priests spoke Latin.
That was the mystery of the faith.
The boys on the #42 bus spoke Spanish
as I rode to my afterschool job
and when they laughed, looking in my direction.
Too fast for my B+  Spanish III  understanding
but enough that it hurt.
The waiter at the Chinese restaurant
changes my order into words
that I want to understand,
but will  never know.
This is the poet’s job,
and the job of the reader too.
We have been in training
all our lives.

- Kenneth Ronkowitz

Our writing prompt for November is a poem about translation in any of those three ways: from other languages, in interpreting the world, or in writing and reading poetry.

November 4, 2016

Translation and Robert Fitzgerald

Ulysses and the Sirens by John William Waterhouse (1891)

“I think that one poet is lending himself to the other poet, that the obligation is to the other poet, and that one is taking on for the time being the spirit and impulse and intent of the other poet, and so the wish is to make all that clear in one’s own language rather than express oneself, so to speak.” - Robert Fitzgerald

Robert Fitzgerald is best known for his English translations of Homer’s The Odyssey (1961) and The Iliad  which are pretty much the standard works used in schools.

I recently read about when he was a student at Harvard University. He read T.S. Eliot’s "The Waste Land" and said that it changed his life. He began to write poetry. He got published in Poetry magazine.

While still a student, he got to met Eliot while in London and gave him one of his poems. Eliot studied the poem for several minutes and then looked up and said, “Is this the best you can do?” I can imagine such a remark having a devastating effect on a young writer.

He graduated in 1933 and worked as a reporter, but kept writing poetry. He published Poems (1935) and A Wreath for the Sea (1943).

He served in the Navy during World War II, including time in Guam and Pearl Harbor. He had with him the works of Virgil and a Latin dictionary and, though he had no training in translation, he would translate Virgil a line at a time into a notebook.

Fitzgerald teaching at Harvard
After the war, married and with a family, he began teaching, first at at Sarah Lawrence College and later at the University of Notre Dame, the University of Washington, Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University and Harvard. He also served as poetry editor of the New Republic.

He went back to his wartime translations and convinced an editor to advance him money for five years to translate Homer’s The Odyssey. With that and a Guggenheim award, he took his family to live in Italy for a time.

He was very much a formalist in his poetry, something certainly influenced by the classics. His own influence on his students helped drive the New Formalism of the late 20th century in American poetry. That approach promoted a return to metrical and rhymed verse.

His verse translations of Homer’s The Iliad (1974) and The Odyssey (1961) and Virgil’s The Aeneid (1983), as well as other classics and his own poetry brought him many honors.

From 1984 to 1985, he was the consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (the position now known as Poet Laureate).