Sunday, May 07, 2006


JH: Digging up my copy of the Penguin Nerval, I find that Sieburth quotes (translates) Nerval quoting (translating) Goethe's remarks on the subject of poetry being translated into prose: "In his preface to his 1840 translation of Faust, he quoted the Sage of Weimer himself in justification of this practice", writes Sieburth, and then he gives this passage (Goethe by Nerval by Sieburth):

"All honour no doubt should be accorded to rhythm and rhyme, for they are the primordial and essential attributes of poetry. But there is in a poetic work something far more crucial and fundamental, something that produces the profoundest of impressions and that works with the greatest effect upon our spirits - namely, that which remains of a poet in prose translation, for only this conveys the true value of the material in all its purity and perfection."

Poetry comes first in civilization, before writing. The act of writing is prose, once it goes beyond magical symbols. To write poetry is to visit the two (contrary?) spaces, of civilization and barely-human thought. Words themselves are prose, once they evolve past their first primordial utterance and come to have a quotidian utility, a use outside of themselves, no longer a song. Poems are built from this prose. If you build a palace out of bottle caps, people are going to see the bottle caps along with the palace. Prose is seen in the most hermetic or lyrical poem, since it is made of words. Prose is words considered as the act of writing, which is why words may be passed over and still the prose is read. Poetry is the words themselves (including the punctuation, with any lineation considered as punctuation), without reference to what lies outside the poem (any outer reference the reader sees is coincidental, due to a common language). Skip over but one word in a poem, you have not read the poem. There's a tension in the meeting of the poetry of the word and the civilization of the written text (prose). In poetry, lines or sentences are words in themselves. In prose, the word by word is dispersed widely in the process of getting the meaning across. Prose is allusion, rather than conjuring. Poetry is conjuring a scene that would not exist except as in a poem, even if the poem is a description of a sunset. The sunset in/of a poem is not outside the poem, it is the poem. In prose the sunset is the sunset that happens every twilight, no matter how specifically the sunset is described. Why does poetry refuse to be prose? For a poem to be prose instead a poem would be for the poem to never exist in the first place so it could pass into prose - the prose it was to evolve to, if indeed that is a naturally-intended progression, would have to allude to the poem, and once the poem is written, or formed in the mind enough where it could be written, it can only refer to itself. The poem as poem stops with the poem, and can only turn into prose from the outside, via commentary or translation. So, is there more tension (in the meeting of the poetry of the word and the civilization of the written text), more of a risk, even, in prose poems than in lineated poems? How about in prose translations of lineated poems?

AHB: It has been useful for me to consider these questions and angles that you propose. It is right yet odd to think of poetry coming first, then prose. I've gotten somewhat lost in poetry's vastness, the possibilities of poetry. Thinking of poetry as rhymed and metered writing proved simpler (and remains so for many readers). And then there's the generational fisticuffs as to whether this or that is poetry 'really poetryā€¯. Which is an overly pop perspective, if you ask me. But anyway, prose as poetry is a fuzzy conception. Tho it goes the other way as well, by which I mean those poems that narrate stories, Don Juan, for instance. And it may be that what makes a prose poem poetry lies in the lack of utility in the prose: the words are not being put to a specific charge of meaning but are allowed to find their own manners. I don't like Ron Silliman's binary distinctions, his School of Quietude, but I know poems exist that partake of palpable intention. Once again I can reference Keats, the Egotistical Sublime. I don't know if prose poem runs a risk of turning prosy, prosaic. I think it is important to be open to irregularities when writing it, and not let the rules of prose write the poem. Rules don't write poems. Prose translations of lineated poems admit that the music is lost in translation. I think risk gets mystified in that process. The translator tries to render calmly the poem's dream, a difficult task. Do you translate? I often take texts and change words, so that a sense of the original remains yet the meaning is much altered. The original shows in shadows and memories, let us say. The risk in that, and also or prose translations of lineated poems, is in not forcing the complexion of a tendency, like adding irony or sentiment or such into and onto the original. Could you be content to translate strictly and accurately?


Post a Comment

<< Home