Her house is empty and her heart is old, And filled with shades and echoes that deceive No one save her, for still she tries to weave With blind bent fingers, nets that cannot hold. Once all men’s arms rose up to her, ‘tis told, And hovered like white birds for her caress: A crown she could have had to bind each tress Of hair, and her sweet arms the Witches’ Gold.
Her mirrors know her witnesses, for there She rose in dreams from other dreams that lent Her softness as she stood, crowned with soft hair. And with his bound heart and his young eyes bent And blind, he feels her presence like shed scent, Holding him body and life within its snare.
William Faulkner began writing poetry at an early age; and in his late 20s he published his first book, a collection of poems titled ‘The Marble Faun’. Though much of the fiction for which he won the 1949 Nobel Prize carries a heavy southern accent or is written in stream of consciousness, it is engaging to see that he could be meditative in the iambic pentameter of a regular sonnet if he chose.
So Louise Glück has won the 2020 Nobel Prize for Literature, “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” This is all very well–she has powerful insights, strong images, and these translate well into other languages. But as an advocate of the use of poetic tools inherent in language–rhyme and rhythm in particular, for English–I can’t classify the expressions of her poetic voice as poetry.
The simplest touchstone is this: How easy is it learn the passage by heart, to recite it word for word from memory? Because that is why we developed the tricks of poetry, the different rhythms for different moods, the different forms for different levels of complexity. Poetry is song with the emphasis shifted from the melody to the words; but the music is still there in shadow form.
It is very hard to keep the actual poetry when a poem is translated from one language to another. It is easy enough to translate the insights and imagery, but what of the music of the language? It can be done by a skilful translator, but the fidelity is often compromised to remake the poetry. Yeats was very free with the French of Pierre de Ronsard when he wrote
When you are old and grey and full of sleep, And nodding by the fire, take down this book, And slowly read, and dream of the soft look Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
but he captured the poetry and made it into one of his own best-loved pieces. James Joyce translated the German of Gottfried Keller as
Now I have fed and eaten up the rose Which then she laid within my stiffcold hand. That I should ever feed upon a rose I never had believed in liveman’s land.
It’s Keller, but it’s also poetry, and with Joyce’s own voice. Glück indeed has a voice, but how simple is it to learn her work and recite it word for word, compared with the Yeats or Joyce work above? And if you learn it by heart, will you still be able to recite it verbatim years later? I think not. So I submit that her work is not poetry.
That doesn’t mean that it isn’t literature. It just means that we need a word for such work, writing that is too poetic to be called prose, but too prosaic to be called poetry. Poetry needs its undercurrent of song. When the Nobel Prize was being awarded for poetry, Bob Dylan was a far wiser choice than Louise Glück.
Aniara has fascinated me for a long time because it combines three of my favourite literary interests: science fiction, poetry, and the works of Nobel Prizewinners.
Harry Martinson wrote the book in the 1950s, a decade after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but before Sputnik launched the Space Age. It is the story of mass migration to Mars from the destroyed Earth, centred on a miles-long spaceship with thousands of emigrants that is knocked off course and is headed out of the solar system on a hopeless journey.
The existentialism of the situation – living lives of no destination in an inescapable vessel – is in practical terms no different from our own endless circling of the Sun… The issues of whether this feels different, and whether it should feel different, are never addressed but resonated with me nevertheless.
The characters are diverse and interesting. With the book having been written by a male, and with the narrator having a variety of sexual relationships with women, I was surprised to find that the recent film version has a female protagonist. Well, why not make it into a lesbian sf movie, though?
The book is divided into 103 ‘songs’ of half a page to seven pages in length – only 102 in the English translation by Hugh MacDiarmid and Elspeth Harley Schubert, as they and the author agreed that Song 42 is untranslatable.
This raises the question of what the verse is like in the original Swedish. A mixture of formal and free verse, apparently, but with much more rhyme and structure than in the translation. (That the translation is weaker is natural enough, but unfortunate). While I wait to find a full copy in Swedish (which I will be able to work my through, with the English translation in my other hand), I am glad to have found a Swede’s Goodreads review in English which gives samples of the poetry in both languages. (Thank you, Lisa!) For example:
“Försök till räddning genom tankeflykt
och överglidningar från dröm till dröm
blev ofta vår metod.
Med ena benet dränkt i känslosvall
det andra med sitt stöd i känslodöd
vi ofta stod.
Jag frågade mig själv men glömde svara.
Jag drömde mig ett liv men glömde vara.
Jag reste alltet runt men glömde fara. –
Ty jag satt fånge här i Aniara.”
In the MacDiarmid/Schubert translation:
“Attempts at respite through the flight of thought
and constant transference from dream to dream
was often our method of seeking relief.
With one leg steeped in a flood of feeling
and one supported by a lack of feeling
we often stood.
I questioned myself but quite forgot to answer.
I dreamt of life but quite forgot to live.
I ranged the universe–but could not travel farther
for I was imprisoned here, in Aniara.”
The MacDiarmid/Schubert translation is not great, as shown in this excerpt. Not only is there a general lack of rhyme, but the second-to-last line would translate correctly as “I traveled all around but forgot about danger”. The only justification for changing the meaning is to make the (very weak) rhyme of “farther” with “Aniara”.
But then again, translating poetry into a different language’s poetry is at least as difficult as translating a written story into a film… so, as for this translation: I’ll give it five (out of ten, for the try). But the original? From what I can see and guess, ten out of ten!