Teachers & Models
Friday, 21 October 2016
My Afterword in The Shepherd's Hut begins: "Like many people, I began writing poetry as a teenager – usually when in love, or repining with unrequited love, or trying to restore a broken heart." As you can imagine, those poems were really really terrible. It took a poet-teacher to make me begin to find a truer voice of feeling. Paradoxically, that came through listening to other people's voices. Those of true poets. We were lucky at school. A wonderful poetry publisher who was also a poet himself and, the key thing, a translator of great poetry, arrived in some kind of visiting position. He made himself available to look at pupils' poems and to offer gentle but firm advice. His name was Peter Jay, founder of The Anvil Press. Reminder to self: get back in touch and say thank you to him. He got me reading the translations he had published of eastern Europeans such as Vasko Popa and Johannes Bobrowski. From them, I learned the basic lessons: simplify, always simplify. Let the images speak. Less is more. Show, don't tell. Avoid "poetic" diction. Sometimes allow your line lengths to vary, but also learn to shape your thoughts within the bounds of stanzaic forms. Peter also suggested that there is no better poetic discipline than the work of translation.
Then when I was a graduate student at Harvard, I was fortunate enough to have a few sessions with another poet-translator-teacher, Robert Fitzgerald. His example showed me that it was possible to find a contemporary speaking voice even for poetry as archaic, highly wrought and complex as ancient Greek tragedy. It was also while I was at Harvard that I became obsessed with the work of the incomparable, titanic figure of Robert Lowell, whose Imitations surely mark the later 20th century's high watermark of poetic "free translation."
So over the years, translation has often been my way back into the craft of poetry. Two languages in which I am comfortable are French and Latin. Though, like Shakespeare, I have a particular love of Ovid, it is Horace's sane, conversational, slightly paternal voice that attracts the translator in me. Maybe this is because my father, a teacher of the classics, had a particular love for Horace. Readers of The Shepherd's Hut will find three Horace translations, all from his Odes. Two of them are very recent; the third was done long ago, on the occasion of my father's funeral. I read it there.
As for the French, I've included renderings of Victor Hugo (who was often bombastic, but not in the poem I chose, which has a wonderful twist in its tail), Jules Larforgue (France's pioneer of free verse, who died of TB at the age of 27), and Stéphane Mallarmé (a two-parter, leaping from one of his most famous poems to a versification of a beautiful passage in one of his letters). The Laforgue translation was one of my early ones, which I entered for a competition - it didn't win, but I've never forgotten that the competition administrator wrote to tell me that she had pinned it above her desk because it spoke so directly to where she was in her life. It's that kind of thing which gives you the courage - or foolhardiness - to publish.
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