Justin E. H. Smith
The last time I went to a poetry reading, I was made to sit patiently as a preening, college-age jack-ass indignantly declaimed, in verse that could only be called 'free', his strong disapproval of Dick Cheney. A serious issue, to be sure, but certainly not serious in a way that gets my poetic imagination going. If I confess a sympathy for what Stefan George called 'pure aestheticism' in poetry, this is not because I believe myself to be above politics, but because I believe that poetry is above current events, and by 'current' I mean whatever social world human beings have managed to throw together for themselves, for now, until it comes apart. Leave engagement with that to prose, which is to say to the vastly greater part of what language does in this, what Walter Benjamin rightly called our 'prosaic age'. Prose is the (more or less) formally unrestricted use of natural language for the telling of captivating things about the world. The formal restrictions of poetry, by contrast, bring it about that whatever poetry says about the world, it is always also saying something about language. This means, among other things, that translating poetry is at least something quite close to writing poetry (unless we take Nabokov's hyper-literalist translation of Evgenii Onegin, which was meant precisely to illustrate that a true translation of one language's poetry into another can only come out as prose). Someone who has translated a novel, by contrast, certainly could not be said eo ipso to have written a novel.
What language is poetry about? Generally, it is about the language it is in. In translation, in turn, poetry is about the limitations of the fit of one language with another. These two facts together mean that, in writing poetry, in contrast with prose (more or less), it matters what language one is writing in. I have become convinced, in fact, that good poetry, the best poetry, is the poetry that seeks to lay bare the essence of the language that serves as its medium. Now I understand that from a historical-linguistic point of view languages do not have essences, but are ever-evolving accretions of borrowings, local adaptations, creolizations and mishearings, but that does not change the fact that, in terms of expressive power, 'life', 'earth', and 'kin' sound closer to the soul of English than, say, 'vitality', 'terrestrial', or 'family'. I have thus also come to appreciate the extent to which the essence of English is Anglo-Saxon and Germanic, and to think that no one understood his task as a poet better than Seamus Heaney, when he undertook to translate Beowulf into modern English, in part, as he explained, to come to better know not just the source language, but also the target language.
One thing I have noticed in my attempts to translate poetry from French, Latin, Russian, and German into English, is that it is only with the last of these that I feel like I've ever obtained a result that could be called an equivalence, rather than a rendering or an approximation. This is achieved in large part when the source poem relies heavily on monosyllables, and when suitable monosyllabic, Germanic-rooted words can be found in English for their translation. For reasons that are not so hard to understand, German and English tend to retain a basic, shared vocabulary for the very most basic things, for the things with which they were familiar before the Romans, and then the Normans, came to tell them about art, science, morality, and so on. Those things are, namely, the things of nature, and this is why poets such as Rilke and George are often such a delight to translate, in a way that, say, Brecht would not be. Yet one does not need to go to Romanticism or to Pure Aestheticism to find German poetry that appears positively to invite the reader to come up with its English equivalent. Consider these two translations from 12th-century Middle High German (each followed by the original text):
A Blessing for a Journey
I want to see you · I want to send for you
with my five fingers · my fifty-five angels ·
May God send you home safe ·
May triumph's door be open to you ·
and to you the door of sailing ·
May drowning's door be closed to you ·
and to you the door of fighting ·
Ic dir nach sihe · ic dir nach sendi
mit minin funf fingirin · funui undi funfzic engili ·
Got mit gisundi hein dich gisendi ·
offin si dir diz sigidor ·
sami si dir diz segildor ·
bislozin si dir diz wagidor ·
sami si dir diz wafindor ·
A Blessing for Horses
A man went his way ·
dragging his steed ·
There my lord met him ·
With all of his men ·
How · is it going · man?
Why aren't you riding?
How can I ride when ·
my steed is all stiff?
Just push at his flank, man ·
while whispering to him ·
he'll step with his right foot ·
and get along good ·
Man gieng after wege ·
zoh sin ros in handon ·
do begagenda imo min trohtin
mit sinero arngrihte ·
wes · man · gestu ·
zu ne ridestu ·
waz mag ih riten ·
min ros ist errehet ·
nu ziuhez da bi fiere ·
tu rune imo in daz ora ·
drit ez an den cesewen fuoz ·
so wirt imo des erreheten buoz ·
I particularly love the second of these two poems (and I'm also more confident in my translation of it; I confess in the final lines of the first one I proceeded more by inspiration than analysis, hopefully with at least some of the success of Pound's wonderful, impressionistic translations from Chinese). The man's horse won't budge! Now there's something to write a poem about.
Stefan George was very good at conveying the archaic, in ways much more subtle than, say, writing 'Sein' ['being'] as 'Seyn', and the other forms of resistance, which so impressed Heidegger, to relatively recent orthographic shifts. (I wouldn't for my part think to try to recapture the antiquity of Anglo-Saxon by returning to the Elizabethan spelling of the verb 'to be': bee. That just looks silly.) The first time I came across the special punctuation mark in the two poems above was in George. I took it to be his own invention, but it struck me as an invention meant to capture a form of pausing between the elements of a sentence in a way that had been lost with time. It struck me that George was returning to a rhythm of thinking that predates the period, the comma, and their cohort. Here are two of my favorite George poems (again, my translations followed by the original):
Speak not always
Of the leaves ·
Violent breeze ·
Of the smashing
Of ripe quinces ·
Of the coming
At year's end.
Of the quiver
Of the darters
In bad weather
And the lights
With the flicker
Sprich nicht immer
Von dem laub ·
Windes raub ·
Reifer quitten ·
Von den tritten
Spät im jahr.
Von dem zittern
Und der lichter
(from Das Buch der hängenden Gärten, 1895)
Is this the lad of ancient lore
Who came from thence with flatterer's eyes
With rosy soft virgin's members
With sumptuous tissues enticing?
His trunk was slim and taut. He grasps ·
He tempts no more · has no jewels.
Shines with grit and lust for battle
His look . . his kiss is short and burning.
His seed now shot from the holy shaft
He pushes into pain and danger.
Ist dies der knabe längster sage
Der seither kam mit schmeichler-augen
Mit rosig weichen mädchengliedern
Mit üppigen binden im gelock?
Sein leib ward schlank und straff. Er greift ·
Er lockt nicht mehr · ist ohne schmuck.
Von mut und lust des kampfes leuchtet
Sein blick . . sein kuss ist kurz und brennend.
Hat er besämt aus heiligem schoosse
Drängt er in mühe und gefahr.
(from Der Stern des Bundes, 1914)
Now, I admit I've never done the research by which I could, probably very easily, find out what that special punctuation mark actually does. I have however attempted to appropriate it. Here is a poem I wrote some years ago, at the beginning of my period of adoration of Stefan George (it hasn't ended yet):
Crex crex, crake. Crex still more.
The quern has no corn in it.
Ergo the ergot · ergo the spore.
Siskin stole a radish ·
Aurochs dropped a perfect pat ·
Boar bled and stank and was, well, fat ·
Bear saw to the law of the cycle of gore.
Crex crex, crake. I'm hungry too,
and eating is a form of war.
But I'll have my store, and I'll have my pelt.
Stay 'round, and peck, and you will be dealt
a crake's share of emmer
and einkorn and spelt.
In this poem, there are only seven words of Latin origin. If you exclude repeats, there are only two such words, one of which is onomatopoeic, and also likely the most evocative genus-and-species name in the history of binomial nomenclature. (I notice now, though did not notice then, that at least two more words are of Greek origin; and one is a very recent borrowing from German, rather than a Germanic cognate.) While English has throghout the centuries decorated its sentences with Latinate words, English and German both often appear more Latinate than they in fact are as a result of the adoption of Latin spelling conventions for individual words. Thus 'quern' does not immediately strike one as Germanic, even though it is cognate to, e.g., the Norwegian 'kvern'. That initial qu– leaves one wishing to ask the word (if words may themselves be addressed), Tu quoque?
But the Latinity is superficial. 'Quern', like 'peck', 'fat', and 'war', is English, real English. Not coincidentally, these words are about things that have been around for what feels like forever. Again, and of course, nothing has really been around forever, and Heidegger was being a pompous crypto-Nazi when he claimed 'Being' could be disclosed by a few lines of poetry written in an olde-fashion'd style. But there's nothing like antiquity to fire up a certain kind of imagination, and each language contains traces of its own antiquity, like the buffalo nickels one used to get back as change on occasion. One task of poetry, recognized by Stefan George, and imitated by me, is to strip away all the affectations of prose and politics, all the shit that's gone down since the Roman occupation (ut de americana taceam), and to make those old coins shine.
For a comprehensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.