Note on the Rabbie-habbie-tiger Contiguity

(I was delighted when David Robinson picked ‘Rabbie Rabbie Burning Bright’ as one of his Scottish poems of the year over on the SPL website. So much so that I suddenly remembered I still hadn’t written the little note on the poem they ask for before they post everything up. As ever, xenochronicity had sent the duty floating from my brain like a piece of space debris. I finally rectified the error, so before you visit the site and read all the other poems and their notes, here it is.)

This poem is one of a series in which I’m thinking about what certain Scottish icons can still mean to us now. Its main subject is Robert Burns, of course – that simultaneous metonym for poetry in Scotland and poetry in Scots.

He’s such a star, still burning brightly after hundreds of years, still breaking down the barriers between poetry and song and person and persona, that he can’t be obscured by the dull cult of celebrity. I wanted something which celebrated his energy over that celebrity status – hence the echo of Blake’s incendiary tiger.

I also wanted to revisit the way Burns (and Scottish poetry, and poetry in Scots) gets hauled out at the end of January, when journalism dusts off its fancy for the new year. I like to think instead that the Scottish imagination takes charge of Winter as we make that difficult transition through cold and dark.

From Halloween and St Andrews Night through Hogmanay to Burns Night is something of a rite of passage, with the northern Saturnalia of the Daft Days in its midst. We make joy and light out of the turning of the year with its weird departure from ‘normal’ business hours; we make literal bonfires, and, at the climax of it all, figuratively crown our very own lizard king, he of the perfectly appropriate surname, Burns.

But ‘Rabbie Rabbie’ might as well have been called ‘Habbie habbie’, as it is as much a homage to the stanza as to the stellar bard. This lithe combo of tetrameter and dimeter, of four rhymes and two, encourages play, requires dexterity, and speaks to something performative in the Scottish attitude to language.

In a poetic culture which sometimes seems to dote on the anecdotal epiphany, the standard habbie, in the hands of its masters Fergusson, Burns and Stevenson, kicks off lyric restraint and strikes some sparks. An old form but a merry one, like a post-rock reel played on an uninsured Stradivarius.

Posted in xenochronicity | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A eulogy for my father

A eulogy for my father, William Powrie Herbert (8th August 1937 – 15th March 2014)

(Delivered at his funeral service, St Bride’s RC Church, Monifieth, 26th March 2014)

Thank you all very much for coming. Dad would be delighted and honoured to see you – not that he would let on. I’m going to try the impossible: to talk about his life for just ten minutes, something I suspect I will take the rest of my life to do properly.

I’ve met a lot of clever people, but I’ve met very few as intelligent as my father: he saw what you were saying before you’d said it; he saw through what you were saying; and, if you weren’t careful, he saw through you as well.

I’ve met gentler people – he told you exactly what he thought when he wanted to. But I’ve never met such a gentle man. As many of you have told me, he was a gentleman.

I’ve met funny people, but I never laughed as much as I did with my dad, and at such stupid jokes. Even in the hospital he was doing the old ‘Dinna bather aboot me’ routine he got from his father, the one that ended with ‘Eh’ll jist hae hauf a Waallace’s peh.’ If Wallace’s had sold half of thae hauf a pehs, they’d be rolling in it.

I never met anyone as loving to his family – he gave that unconditional love we all need. That came from his family, the tight nest of four brothers and a sister, and from his beloved mother, who died before he was thirty. It was not a rich family in the ordinary sense of the word, but he never spoke of his childhood without joy and gratitude.

And I never met anyone as intelligent, as kind, as funny, as loving, as my dad. To be all those things is a kind of wisdom, isn’t it? I think he was a wise man.

He had a gift – no, a genius – for friendship. He was my best friend – there was practically nothing we couldn’t say to each other, and I already miss those conversations. You could hardly walk down the street in the Ferry or up the Town without him bumping into person after person he knew. And not just knew – nine times out of ten, he liked them, and they liked him.

When I was wee I sometimes thought he knew everyone in Dundee. As I grew up, I began to think he was Dundee. Hard-working (he gave 50 years without stint), hard-drinking when he wanted to be (and there are plenty of stories there – this is not the place), but not a hard man, in that empty sense. He was my model, my idea, my ideal of how a man should be, with his family, with his job, with his city.

I also first saw the world through his eyes. In the Merchant Navy in his teens, around the world half a dozen times by the time he was 21, he filled my childhood with extraordinary images:

Going over to New York to join his ship with Jimmy Ingram, a teenager on his first time overseas from Dundee, and going to a bar that turned out to be an exact copy of a Dundee bar, full of fellow Dundonians.

Going down to the Demerara River in British Guyana and two lads saying they’d swim across the river back to their ship, and one of them drowning.

Coming through the Suez Canal into the Indian Ocean and feeling that heat for the first time: after a filthy shift in the engine rooms, getting showered to go ashore, putting on his white uniform, stepping out on deck, and everything being instantly soaked through with sweat.

Waking up after a night out in Calcutta to find himself lying on a railway track, with his head on one rail, and his feet on another, and looking round to see the train approaching.

On deck in the Far East surrounded by ocean, watching the dolphins race the prow and waiting for that green flash as the sun went down into the waves.

Of course most of you knew him as a Timex man – 1961-1993. A Precision Engineer. How exactly that described him. He was precise about everything – how he dressed, how he behaved; and he was an engineer: he knew how everything worked, from the smallest parts of a watch, to a shift of workers, to a factory, to the twists of international business that brought about the closure of Timex.

That should have been the end – in his mid fifties without a job. But he invented himself once again. His people skills as much as his business experience got him to Ireland, where he spent ten years running a factory in the Gaeltacht of Donegal making and marketing printed circuit boards. And that was mostly a happy time: he made a whole new set of very dear friends, still close to this day, and I would take my daughter out there for idyllic summers on the beach at Derrybeg.

But he had a serious, life-threatening illness before he was sixty, and after he retired and came back to Dundee, he had another, and another. His retirement was shot through with illnesses, sometimes very rare – nothing off the peg for Dad. He ended up knowing as much as the doctors about what was wrong with him. But he took such pleasure in being alive, he bounced back every time – he made cats with their nine lives look like amateurs in resurrection.

And it was often a happy time – his love for family and friends saw to that. For my mum, his wife of 54 years and the love of his life; for his brothers and sister and their families – they just seemed to grow closer and closer; and for his granddaughter, Izzie, his ‘wee darling’, the ‘light of his life’.

He never gave up, even when his quality of life was slowly declining; even in this last crisis, he was making plans for the future. When I left him on the Friday, never imagining it was for the last time before that call we all dread, he looked me in the eye and gave me the thumbs up.

Because his death was so sudden, I want you to know that when we were called back, and sat with him while he went, he was at peace. It was a gentle death: in like a lion, out like a lamb. I’ve thought since how his dad, my Grandad, died before he was forty, and how lucky I’ve been to have him a dozen more years.

He always wanted to sail up the river back to his home town. On his last voyage in the Merchant Service, there was a storm and he never managed it. I’ve been thinking about that Robert Louis Stevenson line, ‘Home is the sailor, home from the sea.’ Well, this is his last ship, and he’s making his last voyage today. I’m very glad you’re all here with us to welcome him home, into our hearts and into our memories.

I’m going to finish with a short poem he wrote back when he was seventy. He was very ill at the time, and I don’t think he expected to live. It’s just four lines, but it shows how precisely he saw the brevity of our lives, the randomness of our entrances and exits. I think we may put it on his gravestone:

I had to come
I had no say
I was not here
I could not stay

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Pedro Serrano’s Peatlands

(This is my intro to the just-out selection of poems by the marvellous Mexican poet, Pedro Serrano, editor of Periodico de Poesia. Anna Crowe is the (excellent) translator in Arc‘s ongoing and highly recommended Visible Poets series. As I’ve said before, Arc’s commitment to translation should be praised loudly, for extending beyond the usual famous names and narrowly Eurocentric focus which seems to be what some other publishers understand by the term ‘translation.’ There are plenty of key European figures in this series of, now, 37 books – Radnóti and Rózewicz leap to mind – but half the joy is in the discovery of farther flung and more recent figures. Serrano is a perfect example of both.)

Pedro Serrano is one of poetry’s great natural ambassadors, moving on the one hand between cultures, whether between his native Mexico and Spain, or between the Spanish-speaking world and the Anglo-Saxon; and on the other between the physical world and the human. The debatable territory between consciousness and instinct, and between landscape and animal (including the human animal), is one of his core concerns. As he says in ‘The Cove at Aiguafreda’:

Shrinking, we came up against the pebble’s roughness,
a wall from which the sandstone’s rubbed away,
the outline of ourselves.
Faults and fissures of mineral accretions, that’s what we are.

I first knew of him as editor and translator of the anthology he produced with Carlos López Beltran, La generación del cordero (Trilce, 2000), which brought my generation of poets into Spanish for the first time. I first met him in person when he was living in Barcelona in 2004, when his wife was there on diplomatic work, and he acted as host and dragoman, introducing me to the poets of that city, the dead as much as the living.

Here, in an irony he would appreciate, I must confess to misremembering the Catalan restaurant he took us to for my own mythopoeic purposes – I lost the notes I made, and determined that it was the Casa Leopoldo, favourite haunt of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, after whom Camilleri named his famous Sicilian detective. Somehow I never quite got round to asking him whether I’m right or, more likely, wrong.* (As he says in ‘Drawing the Boundary’, ‘The fact is, I do not believe in myself’.)

Both as editor and as littérateur, the generous inclusivity of his imagination shone out then, and does so now with striking clarity in this comprehensive selection of his work. His poetry shows his twin reflexes, like the contraction and extension of the muscles of the heart: the urge to curiosity and then communication.

Author of half a dozen collections between 1986 and 2009, with another, reflecting his time in Barcelona, represented here but still to be published, he has a pronounced gift for the musicality of Spanish, as evinced by his interest in libretto. His poetry has demarked its own distinctive territory from the outset – indeed it is about territories, both invoking and, especially, embodying them: the body becomes a kind of geography, and its passions and functions are seen almost as species of weather. As he states in a passage that seems at the heart of his poetics:

Trade winds pass over the chest, swim blue over the hands, pass.
Fear returns, re-establishes itself in the ungodliness of the waist,
you have to go back to the source of the pain, make it
become dream,
pounce in the act of flight, decontract.
Its breath grows before my eyes like pasture,
sex’s sweet black majesty, its crammed and sweaty pubis,
the open presence that I penetrate.
From my centre the wrong windows shatter, grow still.
An immaterial melting makes the flesh flesh,
stone is crushed, becoming sand.
To enter is to come to one’s own centre, a flowing wisdom.

A marvellous love poet, though, as this example indicates, one concerned with relationship in the metaphysical as much as the sexual or familial senses, he tends less toward the poetry of disrupted social contract and political tension that we find in a Latin American contemporary like, say, the Argentinian poet Joaquín O. Giannuzzi, and more to the atavistic impulse we recall in the Neruda of ‘Too Many Names’:

When I lived among the roots
they pleased me more than flowers did,
and when I spoke to a stone
it rang like a bell.

This is not to say there is an avoidance of the violence that we as humans are so ingenious at – in one of his more stunning images (and one which has a neatness and elaboration we would associate with the Metaphysical poets, but which in the Spanish tradition perhaps derives equally from Surrealism and from Góngora), he compares the turning Earth to a revolver:

We are a chamber in darkness,
the globe a revolver.
The world is night and we are there inside it,
loaded and expectant bullets.

It would however be more accurate to observe that in his work, as Blake asserts, everything that lives is holy, and each human function is as appropriate as another for the purposes of poetry. In ‘The Liminating Art’ (notice how neatly Anna Crowe’s translation catches the original ‘El Arte de Fecar’: the play on ‘eliminating’ matching precisely that on ‘defecar’), Serrano draws on the reductive Catalan tradition of the Caganer or ‘shitter’ to draw out a surprisingly elegant comparison between the place of the excreter and the escritoire.

There is as that example suggests a directness to his work despite the elegance of his language, so brilliantly and unerringly matched by these scrupulous translations. He is unafraid of the large gesture, as in ‘It is cold in the vast and unprotected slaughter-house of the heavens’ (from the opening of ‘Three Lunatic Songs’), or of drawing out the interrelation between art (particularly, of course, poetry) and life: ‘I fold my body into this attentive pen’.

In this, he is both a counter and a corrective to the too frequent British assumption that the rhetorical tends only to excess or to artificiality. Forever testing our boundaries, he will turn from a poem about a mermaid to one about a saleswoman with a sense that the juxtaposition, the disjunction, is part of the point.

The intention throughout his work appears to be nothing less than visionary: to transform us through language, compelling us to rethink, re-imagine and re-envision the world and our place in it; and to break down our unconsidered assumptions about opposed categories like thought and feeling, human and animal, by continually returning us to the matrix of the body – ‘To enter is to come to one’s own centre, a flowing wisdom’.

There is in this something at once Quixotic and compelling. What we make of the world, he suggests, is ourselves, at once a fiction and the only meaningful gesture. At its finest, Pedro Serrano’s poetry is both completely involving and seemingly inevitable, and in its aspiration to be an act as well as a force of nature, we find ourselves challenged and marvelously reconfigured.

* Pedro tells me it was in fact the Can Massana, a favourite haunt indeed, but of Jaime Gil de Biedma. I am strangely indifferent to the enormity of my error.

Posted in current emanations | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Laughter in the North (of London)

There was the other day a small but, it seems, significant shift in the way our most avowedly left of centre broadsheet, The Guardian, has been handling the Scottish independence debate. I don’t mean Martin Kettle’s opinion piece, which was a legitimate argument about the significance of the currency issue.

I happen to disagree with him, and with the slant he puts on Westminster ganging together over the issue, because I simply don’t believe anything George Osborne says to be a competent assessment of the facts or, more importantly, true. But I’m nonetheless interested in Kettle’s opinion, not least because it tells me how certain aspects of the London media think on this issue (by infantilising the Nats).

I certainly don’t mean Steve Bell’s depiction of Salmond – I particularly enjoyed the one where Eck dances a fling as he ascends upon the flatulence emitted by McKraken Brown. I’m thinking rather of Stuart Jeffries’ comic apology, which runs to 76 items (79 would at least have taken us up to Devolution, but perhaps he’s no interest in numerology).

I’m interested in this precisely because it was a ‘light’ G2-ish item, meant to amuse, and because, rather than the mild-to-wicked smiles caused by Pass notes or Lost in Showbiz, I found myself feeling hurt and upset by the piece.

I should say now that I’m not a straightforward Yes-voting Nationalist, nor someone interested in Scottish identity in much more than the existential sense of it forming a great deal of my life experience. And, yes, in that sense it does mean a great deal to me, it’s a key subject in my writing, but, apart from that, my politics and sense of identity veer too immediately away from any party line for me just to toe it in this case.

But I found myself wondering at the degree to which I was upset. I didn’t mind at all the old faithful hits at diet, accent, sentimentality – Jock-osity, as London persists in seeing it. But apology number 4, which used the term ethnic cleansing to describe the Clearances – how was I meant to take that in the light of Barroso’s comparison of Scotland with Kosovo? Who’s the Serbs here? Who’s the Albanians?

Apology 65, where a graphic account of a hanging drawing and quartering is followed by the suggestion it should only have been a ‘ticking off’ sounds weirdly affectless, like it’s forgotten it has just been talking about a person being tortured to death because that person was William Wallace, and Mel Gibson’s depiction of him is so emotionally manipulative.

And 29-32, where the topics are massacre, cultural suppression and deracination – are they the ‘sincere’ ones? They’re preceded and followed by comments about Scots in Westminster and Prince Charles in Scotland: complex issues of power and identity, and these are clearly jokes. But, again, I end up not knowing how to take the detailed accounts of people being slaughtered.

It seems to me the tone of this piece loses its way when it starts to discuss historical events, and it was probably an error of judgement to include them. It can’t really be OK to joke or even appear to joke about a massacre in the same way as you do about a Mars bar, can it? I’m not suggesting you can’t joke about difficult subjects, but this doesn’t feel like it’s got the angle right at all.

I’m thinking it’s principally a rhetorical problem – it just can’t carry the reader/audience across its shifts in subject by maintaining much the same tone throughout. A mock-serious apology about a national stereotype is a different kind of thing from a mock-serious apology about people being killed, even if they were killed in culturally complex circumstances a couple of hundred years ago.

It could shift gear at such points into a full on bad taste mode in which our expectations are challenged – we’re outraged, but we betray ourselves by laughter. For instance, a satirist might have presented the idea of brutal execution as a ticking off, thus transferring that hint of psychopathy to the period’s concept of justice, or take ‘Butcher’ Cumberland’s nickname to a Swiftian conclusion – Sawney Bean conveniently crops up in apologies 37 and 38.

But it doesn’t attempt to do that (perhaps it shouldn’t have been so ready to dismiss Frankie Boyle in apology 72, since he’s based a career on this deft challenging of liberal expectations). Instead we’re simply left assessing the sincerity of one section compared to another.

Of course the trouble here is about pronouns like ‘we’ – the piece purports to address all Scots on behalf of all English, though its more probable audience is a particular subset of readers who identify with the apologist. So its addressees are being subdivided at the outset – ‘real’ Guardian readers, it supposes, Scots or English, already find these matters ridiculous – then excluded as we read if we can’t see that the kilt and the Clearances are equally funny.

It’s because I’m sure Stuart Jeffries doesn’t actually believe this, that it feels like something has gone wrong at a rhetorical level. Why that’s happened, of course, and how it feeds back into Martin Kettle’s assumption that we must take Gideon seriously because Ed Balls says so too, is another matter entirely.

Posted in current emanations | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Three answers not exactly about style

(A student asked me a couple of questions about style for a project and, because of administrative constraints upon my time, I couldn’t get round to answering her till her deadline was almost upon her. So my responses were, very apologetically, very spontaneous, and probably not much use. Perhaps that means they belong here, rather than in an academic context.

Or perhaps that means there isn’t a border between this blog and that academic context, unless of course I’ve allowed my mode of response to become itself a kind of border, through tone or sphere of reference – ‘style’ at one level.

I’ve been thinking about academic language as a kind of new Latin, in the sense that, alongside its avowed and allowed function of disciplining our thought, it has the side effect of allowing all the ‘clerks’ to think they understand it, while discouraging the ‘commoners’.

That’s a side issue to these three questions except in the important sense that I didn’t try to define what she or I might mean by ‘style’ – surely an area where Theory deserves its say.)

Choosing a style

The idea that we can define and then select a particular style, based on market-led or other categories, goes against the process-based manner in which many writers work. We are inside a process we often do not fully understand, or at least cannot fully articulate, whereby our practice as a writer defines our style gradually for us.

We learn what we are good at, rather than what we want to be good at, and our conscious intervention through choice is just one factor alongside direct and indirect influences (both literary and non-literary) of many sorts. What we like as audience may not ‘like’ us as practitioners. When we read or see something that strikes us as significant will be as important as what that something is – sometimes we’re ready or able to incorporate an influence, and sometimes we’re not.

Choosing poetry, prose or script

Ideally we would choose between poetry, prose or script depending on an informed understanding of what might suit the idea best. But we are not very often ideal versions of ourselves, we are not always informed rather than (however unconsciously) prejudiced, and the idea itself may not exist in a prior form suitable for being ‘translated’ into one mode rather than another.

All we can do is attempt to be as self aware as possible about our own processes of writing (which are largely processes of revision – or rethinking something through rewriting it), while not falling into the trap of being self-conscious about them. Models, both of form and method, can help to the extent that we test them by enactment, trying them on for size while realising that what they do or do not fit may be the piece of writing, rather than us as writers.

Choosing poetry over prose or prose over script or script over poetry, etc, is as much about time management as it is about the market (ie do you have the time to test what works best?) and as much about inclination as calculation.

Should you just be spontaneous?

It is actually very hard to be spontaneous, which is why people usually prefer picking and choosing between readymade structures and methods. Constant practice, constant reading, and constant alertness sounds like an impossible discipline, and indeed so it proves for most of us most of the time. So I aim for persistent practice, reading, and alertness, just returning to what concerns me about my writing whenever I realise my attention has drifted. I keep trying to take the step back, to contextualise the work, and then the step in, to make it into text at all.

Sometimes a gesture comes in which all these issues seem to achieve a sort of balance, and that can feel spontaneous. Whether it’s also stylish is a further subject for debate with yourself and with your peers.

Posted in current emanations | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Third Shore (in three parts): 3

(This third part of the Third Shore intro has been delayed by other work, which – such is my ineptitude – prevented me from deploying the few minutes necessary to dig out the correct characters for the point it makes about translating from Chinese.

In the published edition, the key term ‘鮮’ (‘xiān’ in pinyin), meaning ‘fresh’, was unfortiunately not given – although it is present in the Chinese version of the text. The term substituted for it made a nonsense of my point, which depended on the meanings of the two characters which together make up ‘xiān’. So this version replaces that published in the book.)


I wrote in the introduction to Jade Ladder about my conviction, gained through working on that book, that translation is a fundamental aspect of any process of dialogue, not just those evidently about a transfer of meanings across languages. The transition from one era to another, from one class to another, from one gender to another, from a memory to the world-view of the present self, each involves us in a type of translation.

This is self-evidently a metaphoric use of the term ‘translation’, but we must always be alive to the metaphors through which we conceptualise such exchanges. Many of our metaphors for translation tend to contain hierarchical assumptions, from the gendered ‘mother tongue’ to the idea that meaning can be ‘lost’ as though it were baggage – or rather merchandise – in transit. And yet there is a more fundamental sense in which translation is itself metaphoric, which has a direct bearing on the processes employed and the choices made by the poets gathered in this anthology.

Translators are often supposed to work in what might be described as a metonymic manner; that is, when seeking equivalences of language, form, image or cultural reference, it is often anticipated that they will seek contiguous ones – synonyms rather than antonyms, syllabics for numbers of characters, images drawn from the same field of reference, and cultural equivalences that appear to be as ‘close’ as possible.

But it is as often the case that what is being sought are metaphoric equivalences – words, metrics, images, references, which are ‘like’ the original, but don’t necessarily directly correspond. The likeness, as in metaphor, is made implicit by the act of creating a poem in the target language, rather than, say, writing an essay about the original poem. In a sense, the translation is itself a metaphor for the original. In I.A. Richard’s terms, the original is the tenor, and the translation is the vehicle.

This relationship is, I think, particularly clear when when we look at translations between English and Chinese. The dynamic between pictogram and meaning in Chinese is often metonymic, for instance the character meaning fresh, ‘鮮’ (‘xiān’ in pinyin), consists of an association made from contiguous elements – the characters for two fresh things, ‘fish’ and ‘sheep’ (魚 ‘yú’ and  羊 ‘yáng’).

By contrast, for the English speaker, ‘fresh’ delivers its associations by dint of being an Old English monosyllable. That is, whether we are aware of its etymology or not, most English speakers register the directness of the sound and link it to its meaning in a way we might not so readily do with ‘neoteric’ or ‘uncontaminated’. Synonyms in English come from different sources that we don’t always recognize as contiguous, and in fact can experience as contrasting.

When we think about the relation between ‘鮮’ and ‘fresh’ therefore, we are thinking metaphorically about how a spatial relationship between characters can resemble a meaning built up through complementary or contrasting linguistic roots, ie a temporal relationship. This is, I believe, what the poet Yu Jian meant when he said at a recent festival in Nanjing, ‘The Chinese character cannot be translated.’ He didn’t mean that a kind of translation did not take place, but rather that translating Chinese makes us think laterally about equivalence itself.

To think of translation as a search for metaphors as much as a search for meanings is to note that likeness may be something subtly different from similarity. Twins can resemble each other exactly but have different natures, while two strangers can contrast in every way while recognizing – or at least agreeing – that they are in some way fundamentally alike.

Translation in this sense is a kind of leap of faith which we can only commit to if trust has been established between translated and translating poets: they must have faith in each other’s judgement as poets beyond the limits of their grasp of each other’s language and culture. Poet to Poet translation, then, is a relationship rather than an infallible method, one in which we hope to recognize and value likeness.

This recognition of likeness occurred again and again in the creation of this book, as poets in both languages acknowledged that each other’s engagement with their culture’s politics, history and prosody was not just similar to their own, or not just simplistically operating in parallel, but felt as though it were the same engagement. The evidence was as simple as finding you were as fascinated by your fellow poet’s problematic or otherwise relationship with his or her canon as you were by your own, and indeed as he or she was by your own.

It was certainly the case that many of the poets from Britain responded strongly to the way in which Chinese writers were renegotiating their relationship with avant-garde techniques (often imported from US poetics) through a radical exploration of their classical heritage, in which, on the one hand, no simplistic direct link to that heritage was assumed to exist, nor, on the other, in the wake of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, was an absolute break with that past considered either desirable or possible.

This was, some of us felt, not unlike the continued negotiation that had gone on throughout twentieth and twenty-first century poetry written in Britain and Ireland between what was interpreted as experimental and traditional poetries and poetics. Having as broad a variety of formal resources as theoretical approaches seemed to both sets of poets to be of something like the same importance.

This sense of shared values and of common commitment to a method of translation that places such emphasis on dialogue may, it is hoped, help to mitigate a final imposition that anthologies of this kind make upon their contents and contributors.

Our cultures do not have a detailed awareness of each other as contemporary entities, especially when it comes to the field of poetry. The temptation, therefore, especially for readers of English contemplating the vastness of Chinese culture, but also for Chinese readers considering the wide variety of Englishes from US to UK to Indian, Australian, and so on, is always to employ a sort of thinking by synecdoche, that rhetorical device whereby the part is held to stand for the whole. ‘I shall never read everything,’ we think, refusing to admit the thought even as it arises, ‘therefore, this poem shall represent this poet; this poet shall stand for that cultural movement; and this anthology shall be adequate for the entire medium of poetry in that language.’

This anthology seeks to displace that act of substitution by moving in two directions at the one time. Each language presents to the reader a portrait of itself and a picture of the other as selected by that other. These two images simultaneously encourage comparison and contrast. They are in dialogue with each other exactly as the poets who translated each other were in dialogue. They in fact represent that process as much as they represent their respective cultures, and they suggest limitations: this type of anthology can only consist of that part of each culture which is prepared or practically able to enter into this kind of dialogue: there will be many who are not, or cannot do so.

This is the sort of limitation many writers will recognize as a great liberation: the technical restriction that obliges invention, and thereby enables you to escape from other, more doctrinaire constraints. We do not, I think, want to represent our cultures in quite so straightforward a manner as a synecdochic reading implies. Rather we wish to explore what we can do as writers and translators freed from this sort of representation into a zone where communication, with each other, with our own, and with each other’s audience, is the key element. In that zone, if the quality of the original writing and of the translation is high enough, both writers and audiences will create their own understanding of our respective poetries, their links and contrasts, their evident particularity and their possible universality. They will, in effect, land upon the third shore.

Posted in xenochronicity | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Third Shore (in three parts): 2

(Here’s the second section of my intro to The Third Shore – this part almost stands alone, I think, as an introduction to the ‘poet to poet’ translation itself. It’s certainly informed by my work in collaborative teams on Farsi, Somali and Turkish poetry, among others, including a few encounters with hyper-sensitive translation types who wanted their names on the credits without giving much credit to the stage these teams of poets were engaged in – the one of making the poem work in the target language as a poem. But it’s also by way of tribute to those other writers who very much got it – and agreed that this stage was almost as exciting as original composition itself.)
Yangzhou calligraphy (a Wang Wei poem)

So what was the Poet to Poet method, and how has it evolved over the eight or so years encompassed by this anthology? How specifically did its processes lead to a change in emphasis in how we translated poetry in both directions?

Arguably, the method has its roots in a remark by Pound from ‘How To Read’, where he states in typically absolute fashion:

Another point miscomprehended by people who are clumsy at languages is that one does not need to learn a whole language in order to understand some one or some dozen poems. It is often enough to understand thoroughly the poem, and every one of the few dozen or few hundred words that compose it.

Poet to Poet translation, then, is one whereby a poet sets out to inform another poet of the full cultural significance of those ‘few dozen or few hundred words’ from the dubious position of authority of having written them. Literary translation utilising this dialogic method was initially conducted without any preparatory literal or interlinear text, where there was a common language (almost always English).

Later it was also done between poet and poet with an accompanying interpreter, often a skilled translator or poet/translator in their own right. Sometimes, where the original poet could not be present, it was done between poet and translator. In this latter case, which clearly strains the original term, the translator tended – indeed needed – to be not only an expert in the field of literary translation, but also a close contact of the originating author, able to verify their responses through consultation.

In both the latter cases, literals tended to be used, giving rise to complications of their own, which I’ll return to later.

However, in all three cases the aim remains to create a publishable text through the dynamic dialogue between writers in source and target language. This changes normal translation procedures in several significant ways.

Firstly, and most importantly, the work is usually selected by the original author. This reverses the procedure, whereby the expert translator selects from the passive canon of a foreign poetry, and thereby it also inverts the hierarchy whereby the selection of the poem can be made according to assumed ease of translation, or for ideological or aesthetic ‘fit’ with the target culture. Chinese has for a long time been subject to a series of orientalising gestures which this method counters even though we understand it cannot entirely escape them.

This procedure has its hazards – a work may be discovered to be effectively untranslatable, or at any rate less effective in the target language. It often proves to be far harder to translate than either party realized at the outset. But these dangers are outweighed by the benefit of discovering how the originating poet wants to be represented (assuming this was a factor in their selection process – it is still of course possible for the poet to select ‘easier’ pieces.)

Secondly, the active presence or accessibility of the originating poet allows for a more detailed, more informed and, arguably, more accurate picture of the poem to be constructed. It at least brings out into the open the amount of second guessing any translation process must be filled with, making explicit the degree to which the translator has to consider intention as much as meaning, gesture as much as tone – because the translator can simply ask the author. This is one of those areas that feels very different depending on whether you are the translator or the translated. It is as marvellous to be able just to ask, as it is challenging to have to answer.

Thirdly, the presence of a poet fluent in the target language can mean a high level of discussion about formal issues, with the result thereby achieving more of an agreed equivalence in metrical, imagistic and, where suitable, idiomatic finish. Effectively, the Poet to Poet method allows for a strong engagement with the issue of cultural translation on the level of craft.

These three positive elements allow for an almost unique moment of shared reflection for both originating poet and poet-translator. Many of the questions one is asked as part of this process are not those one asks oneself during composition. Indeed, some such questions may need to be avoided, deliberately or instinctively, in order for composition to take place.

Equally, for the translator, this process may oblige them to reflect upon aspects of their own creative habits and perspectives in a more exteriorized and critical light, to assess whether they are indeed fit for purpose. Both writers are, after all, often encountering the different cultural weight they attach to the same literary technique, mode, or sphere of reference.

This moment in which both parties achieve however partially a conscious perspective on their own poetic procedures and creativity may be seen as a kind of secondary effect of the translation process, but it is one with huge implications for the success of the project. Depending on each party’s ability briefly to escape their own milieu the dialogue mode of Poet to Poet allows, indeed causes, change to take place in their approach or practice, and the successful translation is often more dependent on the nature of this change than either party may have allowed.

To be able to let go of the poem or the practice is, effectively, not to impede transmission. This condition is the ‘third shore’ to which we refer in our title, a place that cannot be completely governed by the poetic customs or cultural tides of either the original or the target languages.

The Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who often had to negotiate those treacherous crossings between the languages of the British Isles, referred to a similar sanctuary at once of transition and translation when in his long poem, In Memoriam James Joyce, he welcomes Joyce ‘to our aonach’, conflating two Gaelic words – one for a meeting place or fair, and another meaning a ridge or high place.

The third shore as a point of colloquy between poets and between poetries finds its corollary in his poem ‘On A Raised Beach’, where the shoreline has been literally lifted above the sealine by eons of geological change, and the stones stranded on this beach symbolise an ‘inoppugnable reality’ the poet attempts to approach through language, deploying an extraordinary extended range of scientific vocabulary and Shetlandic Norse in an attempt to translate the stones into words:

This cat’s cradle of life; this reality volatile yet undetermined;

This intense vibration in the stones

That makes them seem immobile to us…

This kind of intense encounter with what lies within the line, the metre, the image, the tone, the character or the word – with that which may well prove untranslatable – is the goal of the Poet to Poet method.

The very intensity of this dialogue, however, may sometimes contain within it the seeds of its own undoing. There is a temptation for the translated poet, reconsidering his or her own work, to use the translation to develop an idea explored through discussion, i.e. for the translation to become a means of revision. There is a similar temptation on the part of the translating poet to make sense of the poem according to their own instincts and principles, rather than having the patience to allow the meaning and style of the source text to emerge through discussion and redrafting.

This confusion of the fluidity of the draft translation with that of the compositional draft can lead to a kind of folie à deux, in which both poets do what they do best, composing, while believing they are acting in the best interests of the poem. This is why the dialogue is often better chaired by a translator who, like a marriage counselor, can pull both parties back to the text at key moments. It is also why having more than one translating poet means they too can enter into dialogue about stylistic and interpretive issues in the target language, the results of which might be less individual, but they can also be more resistant to personal habit.

The ideal model for the Poet to Poet translation method as it has evolved might therefore be the quadrilogue, consisting of, firstly, the originating poet either present or accessible; secondly, the interpreting or intermediating poet/translator; and, thirdly and fourthly, two poets from the target language. Of course these four roles can be played by just two or three parties, but four allows for the greatest degree of engagement and objectivity.

What this evolutionary process has also given rise to is a more sophisticated understanding of the different roles played by different kinds of preparatory text. Originally, as stated above, there were none: two poets sat down together with a poem selected by the source language poet, and off they set. Gradually, the role of some form of literal translation in order to determine which poems to translate began to seem useful. But this brought its own dangers.

Literals are, naturally, never only that – a literal version of the poem, which enables work to begin. They tend to be, already, versions, often produced by writer-translators with strong aesthetic principles of their own, articulated or not, which mean they have made a series of decisions about how to produce the literal, which they then have to, but may not be in a position to, explain to the target language poet or poets. Therefore, a certain amount of this translation method – especially if the original author is not present or is not fluent in the target language – is spent assessing the literal rather than engaging with the original.

Authors of literals often feel they have already done the hard work because they have the source language expertise or know the original author well, and may have less grasp of the significance of the stage the target language poets are embarking on. It can be difficult to explain that, as is sometimes the case, their version may not be publishable in the target culture, and that an emphasis on dictionary definition or on loyalty to the author can reach a point where it becomes obstructive.

For this reason, poets working in this method often use the literal mainly to help selection, whereupon they embark on the creation of an interlinear – a word-for-word crib, preserving word order, listing synonyms, and noting cultural or stylistic issues as they arise. This construction of the interlinear is achieved specifically by a deconstruction of the literal, and directly engenders the dialogue discussed above.

Posted in current emanations, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment