The great ones get through. I’m in good form today. I am back drinking coffee and my system seems better for it and I am feeling better than I have done in an age. And I am thinking about translating. Not just contemporary poetry from one language to another – but translating from time period to another; from very different transmission methods; from one person to another. I’m not so interested in the why or what of poetry. For me, those are not the interesting questions.
What interests me is the how of poetry and specifically how to get it from poet to the reader. I have been thinking a lot about it hence the part 1. Today will have two parts but there might be more. Now I’m thinking about it from the point of view of the reader. I love poetry and read it a lot.
But I confess I have all but stopped reading poetry reviews. I know I should do the literary thing with the Guardian, with the Irish Times but I just find it a bit ‘I saw the legend first’. And the poet in me tends to get depressed and stands in front of that mirror thinking ‘I’m too maintream; and too marginal’ and my muse thrums his fingers on the toilet lid and reminds me that I haven’t even a word written. And our eyes lock over the friendly child who spend her share of time alone in the playground – content to sit out the ‘it crowd’ power struggles and seemed to do fairly well anyway.
But I’m really pro-critic – we need the good’uns. So my approach to finding them is much the same as meeting the inner circle. It is mostly hanging around and happenstance. Like A Alvarez. Somebody gave me his collection on suicide and having read it I know that intellectualising things doesn’t tend to bring me comfort but I was interested in it anyway. I’m sitting with him again now about translating modern European poetry, but more about that in the next.
I think there are essentially two types of poetry critic. The first, and my favourite, are the poets themselves. A good share of them, and particularly those who judging the canon-fodder of the future, are passionately interested in what makes a poem stand out in bas relief on a page. They are certain to have been thinking about how to make poetry in any case – even if it is only that they’d rather just get on with it and leave the thinking to somebody else.
The second, almost my favourite, are the full-on critics – who write the full-on books like ‘poetry in the late eighteenth century’ or ‘the mixed metaphors of the carpet industry 1950-75’. They not only know their stuff but the context of their stuff. You, the poet, might have been writing – and writing a lot – about an inner garden. They, the critics, know that walled inner-ism comes about in times of boom and bust. They go beyond the first glimmer of recognition and can tell you that that person you fell in love really does look like your father. I’m being light-hearted here but it’s all useful and especially because this kind of critic will allow you to draw your own conclusions first… add to them.. maybe overturn them but you don’t feel like you are in pressurised handshake of a politician. Ian Sansom is, of course, my favourite. I look forward to running into many more.
What has all this got to do with translating? Maybe it’s the first point of contact. Translating from the personal to the public. And somehow it seems that the great ones get through.