Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘poetry’

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.

This week I’m reading three books, moving from one to the other and back again. The books are: David Carl’s Heraclitus in Sacramento, Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates and Herta Müller’s The Appointment. What an odd and wonderful conversation these books are having. All so different, all turning over similar questions about how language works to make meaning.

The Appointment is fiction, obviously, but it’s running a careful hand along the idea of individual identity in a system which wants to forbid (destroy might be a better word) individual thought. The novel covers a single day as a young woman rides the tram to an interrogation session. She’s being watched because she was caught sewing notes (‘Marry me’, with her name and address) into the lining of the men’s suits bound for Italy from the clothing factory where she works. This is life under Ceaușescu.

The worst thing is this feeling that my brain is slipping down into my face. It’s humiliating, there’s no other word for it, when your whole body feels like it’s barefoot. But what if there aren’t any words at all, what if even the best word isn’t enough?

It’s really hard to categorize David Carl’s book Heraclitus in Sacramento. It’s a study, really. A collection of writings and thoughts around the acts of reading and writing. There is a fictional or personal thread as well, which draws it all together. But not tightly. Although it’s a bound book it feels more like a bursting folder collecting notes scribbled and torn from the margins of other books; these notes are in dialogue with so many other works, as is the elusive narrator. It’s a slow and curious read, and I’m really enjoying it. The first section is called “Lucubrations” and here is some of what it looks like:

Is he still at liberty to believe that the reading of words might improve him; might go some distance in making him a better person?

He still believes in such things as better and worse; if not in perfection, then at least in perfectibility. He believes there are things he can do that will make him better than he is, as surely as he believes that there are things he can do that will bring him pleasure.

But what do words have to do with this?

That is a question for him to live with a bit longer.

According to Aristotle, “Poetry is the product either of a man of great natural ability or of one not wholly sane.”

Poetry is the liberation of language, and language the very possibility of poetry.

Nine Gates is Jane Hirshfield’s collection of essays on understanding poetry. It is more classically academic in tone than the other two, but Hirshfield’s language remains lavish and alive even when she’s in an explaining mode. The first essay of the book is about concentration and it reminded me of Jan Zwicky’s interview printed at the back of her collection Chamber Music, in which she talked about “that wordless configuration in the world which lit up, arrested my attention” and the idea of “lyric availability.” Hirshfield gets at this from a number of different directions, using other poets’ ideas as well as her own descriptions. Everyone trying to describe the state of heightened attention involved in artistic creation.

In a passage about how poetry connects the poet with the reader, or the poet with his or her own past, there is this marvelous line:

Shaped language is strangely immortal, living in a meadowy freshness outside of time.

She is writing about the intimacy of repeating words—one’s own or someone else’s. Giving them form in the mind or aloud. How this formulation/formation works through the reader or the thinker. This sentence speaks to both The Appointment and Heraclitus in Sacramento, bringing my reading into a little conversation that will keep me company as I continue through all three books.


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