Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts from the ‘poetry’ category

Included at the end of Jan Zwicky’s collection, Chamber Music, there is an interview between Warren Heti, Darren Bifford, and Zwicky about her poetry that I return to once or twice a year, and I did this morning after reading a few of my favorite poems in that collection (“The Geology of Norway”, “Cashion Bridge”, “Epistomology”, “Small Song for the Voice of the Nuthatch”)

Zwicky is a hesitant interviewee, because, in her words, “…it seems graceless to talk about one’s own work.” I very much agree. But Zwicky does go on to talk about how a poem is both created and received by the poet – she doesn’t want to give the poet all the credit, nor does she believe the poet is only a conduit. It seems to me that great writing is always wedged in a balance between craft and raw inspiration; they must go hand in hand. And Zwicky has a nice baseball metaphor about catching a fly ball.

The interview goes on to talk about something I’ve mentioned in passing in other posts, this is her reflections on the idea of lyric availability. Her point is that a writer needs technique in order to make something of the way in which they perceive the world, but the initial perception (or attention) is key. She uses a notion from Charles Simic to explain what she means by that perception:

…an eye for the similar and the significant… most of the time poets, like everybody else, stare at the world in incomprehension; and occasionally they don’t, occasionally, for reasons we don’t understand, poets and other lyric artists are suddenly available to the connections—the real, significant similarities—that are actually there in the world all the time.

And she goes on to describe what this availability means to her specifically, how some aural or visual scrap of memory or attention will stand out to her and she feels compelled to do something about it, to honor it in her way. Later she calls it a “haloed being or situation”.

All over the margins of this little interview, I have written the names of the writers and poets who do this – who come to a kind of raw emotional attention at “something” and then find a way to create something out of it, narrative or poetry or something else entirely. I am enjoying the fact that I cannot provide a concrete definition of this “something” as it will be different for any writer. But the experience is the same, I think, of a very definite and attuned focus that is transposed into words.

Zwicky goes on with wonderful difficulty to explain the idea further:

Most of my experience of availability is indeed simply of image-complexes—individual things, or situations, or events—standing out against their backdrops. Invariably, though, if I can stay under long enough, I sense—well, more. And it’s not until I sense that more, until its shape, too, begins to be discernible—that’s not quite right: until my availability is stretched to extend to it, too (although that’s also not quite right: it’s often more like achieving sufficient interior darkness for some dimmer trace to register—nothing so active as stretching)—anyway, it’s only then that the haloed image-complex stands stably in my perception.


Enjoying an article (“Lyric, Time, Beauty” by Sue Sinclair, in the April 2015 issue of Philosophy and Literature) on lyric philosophy this morning, and its examination of Jan Zwicky’s work, in particular her book Lyric Philosophy:

Zwicky’s claim is that the composition unfolds in time but that it is not fundamentally temporal in structure. It reveals its spatial structure in time as a flower unfolds in time, but it remains spatially organized. Temporality is but a way of establishing various distances—spaces—between the elements of the musical composition. An argument, by contrast, is of time; time isn’t a setting but provides the internal structure of the argument, as indicated by the image of the girder. Parts of an argument are connected along a single line that passes from x to y to z; an argument lacks the dimensionality necessary to unfold like a flower. And as the image of the glass pane suggests, it also lacks the flexibility and responsiveness required for resonance.

Because lyric experience, as part of human experience, must unfold in time, it is dependent on time, though differently than an argument is. Zwicky, however, suggests a further sense in which lyric experience bears a relation to time. She tells us that lyric vision is “rooted in the preciousness, the losability, of the world” (LP, L70). This reference to losability suggests a deep connection to time, for loss is an effect of time’s passage.

I’m interested in these ideas for their own sake, but also how they relate to translation – which can also be spatially organized and not “linear”, if we stretch the meaning of “linear” to “mot à mot”.

You can read the entire article here.


Over the last few months I have been very lazily reading Jane Hirshfield’s book Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. (And I think I owe a big thank you to Marina Sofia for recommending this book to me, it’s splendid.). For Day 2 of my advent reading, I read the third chapter, “The World is Loud and Full of Noises,” which, serendipitously, is about translation.

The chapter begins with the idea of how uncomfortable people can be with translation, and where this comes from in terms of prohibitions about translations in sacred texts. I’ve never made the explicit connection, but now it seems glaringly obvious—if words have any whiff of the sacred, it would be sacrilegious to altar them in any way. Move that idea forward a few millennia and there is this, exquisitely expressed:

Further, by asserting that things worth knowing exist outside the home culture’s boundaries, translation challenges society as a whole.

When you look at it this way, translation isn’t just a superfluous extracurricular that’s nice to have around if you can, it’s a vital component of a society with an ability to look outward.

And Hirshfield talks about this from a political perspective, but also a literary one, mentioning the ways in which translation of “foreign” poetry has enlivened and rejuvenated English language poetry in important ways.

She moves then to talk about the act of translating and what it involves, how it actually feels. I love her description of translation as erotic:

…the translator enters into an erotic engagement with the chosen text, reading the poem again and again for its meaning, its resonance, its kinetic and musical bodies, its ambiguities, rhetoric, grammar, images, and tropes—for all the rustling of its many leaves and for the silences at its roots as well. The translator reads in the desire to join with what she reads, placing the life of the poem thoroughly within her own, discovering how each entering word modifies that life.

Her point, and I’d agree with it, is that both the text and the translator are altered by the experience. The two are no longer separate when all is said and done and a translation appears, wholly unique but still connected, deeply although somehow inexplicably, with the original text.

The rest of the chapter gets quite technical—in the best way—with Hirshfield writing about her experience translating the famous Japanese poets Izumi Shikibu and Ono no Komachi. She gives examples and details her process. It’s fascinating, and quite inspiring.

I’ve been terrified to attempt any translation involving actual poetry, probably because I don’t trust my own poetic instincts, and I’m afraid of the constraints involved. But Hirshfield makes me want to try, she presents the translation of poetry as more of a liberating experience than one marked by rules and limitations. That seems much less scary.

She ends the chapter by citing a short poem by the Japanese monk Kūkai, who is credited with developing the kana system, which is used in combination with Chinese characters, to write Japanese. Knowing that about him, and seeing the poem, and thinking about the sacred nature of words, and how any language is “translated” from thought to expression when articulated, I could get lost inside this poem for years:

Singing Image of Fire

A hand moves, and the fire’s whirling takes different shapes,

Triangles, squares: all things change when we do.

The first word, “Ah,” blossomed into all others.

Each of them is true.