Toti O’Brien ruminates about the quality of a poem, the factors that make and destroy a poem. She also reflects upon how a translation changes the identity of a poem, how the borders between the original idiom and the next one disappear leaving the reader with a poem but ‘not that one.’
Many years ago, I lent a slim book of poetry to a friend, asking for her opinion. She was a college teacher of the language in which the poems were written, and I intended to translate some of them. I am not too sure, though, why I gave her the volume or what kind of comment I sought. Mine must have been one of those sharing gestures that pop out during a nice visit—rather mindless, like kids exchanging hairclips, shoelaces, toys.
The book, as I said, was slim, maybe self-published (I do not recall), perhaps manually stapled. Yes, these details count. When she later returned it, she said, “Good luck! It will be a challenge to render such fragile poetry in English.” Her words left a mark. Some words do. It is what one would expect from poetry itself—some words, staying forever. From some poetry, at least.
I believe her sentence first struck me, then lingered, due to its ambiguity. It could have been interpreted as a criticism. Fragile as in inconsistent. As in unsubstantial. Being fond of the author, I—not quite consciously—refused the negative implications. My mind/heart tried to take those words as a compliment. Not quite consciously, I chose to handle ‘fragile’ as in delicate, as if the book were a china doll, or a kite… some thin, laced paper ornament. Of course, I didn’t ask for specifics-should they by any chance contradict my hypothesis.
They wouldn’t have. My friend was an excellent diplomat. Over time, I ended up translating many of that poet’s works, with remarkable editorial success. After all, they held water quite well.
But the adjective ‘fragile’ and the word ‘poetry’ sort of bonded in my psyche, though the duo remained dormant until, recently, I had an impromptu epiphany. I was fulgurated by a minor eureka (one of those you have while vacuuming or washing dishes). Poetry, I heard myself think, is a fragile form of art. Poetry, yes, the whole thing. Since it formulated itself, the thought didn’t leave me alone. Was it an anxiety? A concern? Not quite.
Maybe a doubt, and in fact, after some reflection, I realized my generalization was wrong. Poetry isn’t fragile. I mean, not inherently, not always, not all. There were times, I think, when it was a hefty, robust, almost invasive species. Today its physical shape has changed—as it happens with clothing, following fashion dictates-but it certainly isn’t on the brink of extinction, not even endangered.
Therefore, my insight can’t be justified or corroborated. On the contrary, the argument is already disproved. Still, it came to me as a revelation. That is why I want to honor it, granting it at least some decoding effort.
I am trying to recall what triggered my thought. It must have occurred in the aftermath of a poetry reading, rather than on reading a book, an anthology, a back cover, a blurb. I must have subconsciously pondered, after a live event, the fuss we (poets and poetry lovers) make about our trade, as if it were ineffably precious. Yes, ineffably, as in ‘words can’t quite render justice to the value of this practice/activity/artifact, so we have to leave its quality vague, suggested more than described, more implied than explained.’
So, we don this awed attitude, a bit as it happens during a religious rite or at a trendy art opening, and then—unavoidable, like an after-impression—the question. What was this all about? What did we exactly do? What am I bringing home?
My uncertainty itself in finding a solid definition prompted my verdict, I am sure.
Different activities answer to such questions with different degrees of accuracy. Some do not need inquiry—a paid job, a substantial meal. The happy exhaustion after physical exercise, the concreteness of goods acquired while shopping, the distraction due to most types of entertainment, the emotional nurturing after visiting with a friend, are also transparent.
Poetry readings—listening to live poetry—have many beneficial effects, the proportion of which differs following individuals and circumstances. There’s a bit of this, a bit of that. Some emotional needs are met by company and community (as when seeing friends). Deeper emotional cravings are soothed, for those who read, by being able to express themselves and be listened to (as it happens in therapy). Emotions might be freed by the poetry itself (again, like in therapy), information might be acquired (as when watching a television program or taking a class). Entertaining, informative, nurturing, sometimes even cathartic.
Many benefits, in various proportions for different people, following circumstances. I am aware of it. I don’t know why the question lingers with me, sotto voce. ‘What have we just done?’ But I had never answered, before, ‘we played with this very, very fragile toy.’ Though, I have long had the habit—for fun—to ask fellow audience members, on exit, about the poems they had liked. And I always got similar answers.
People know which poets they preferred, of course. They do not recall the poems. In the best case, they say, ‘the first one she read’ (more often, the last one). Go on, ask what it was about. In the best case, there is a vague hint. The deer! or the funeral. Maybe. The default answer is, ‘I cannot recall, but it moved me.’ Or, it was strong, or witty. Haunting… how possibly, if it’s gone? The tone, the voice haunts us—and it’s fine. That is what we are here for: the voice, not the contents. Today’s poetry is not for oral transmission of knowledge. Doesn’t have to be.
Even spoken word, we do not remember, as we drive or walk home. We recall the delivery, the themes, maybe—especially for the last piece read. But the thing itself evaporates, vanishing as it is produced, like tears drying on the cornea.
That must be why the term ‘fragile’ came and stayed. Poetry doesn’t stay—which doesn’t apply, for instance, to a freshly-watched movie, a novel, a song. Those are built otherwise, differently structured. Poetry is so made that it quickly fades. Not a lasting pleasure.
But it wasn’t always like this (though I don’t think of ‘lasting’ poetry as a better form of the art).
That it wasn’t always like this, I have learned from another anecdote/anomaly. Actually, anomaly/anecdote. The anomaly is my father liking poetry, the anecdote is the reason why he does, which I begged him to explain when he was in his late eighties.
My mom’s passion was literature. She wrote fiction in her late years, but throughout her life she read and reviewed for magazines. She was sure of her flair about novels and short stories, but she openly said poetry baffled her. She did not get it, at all. When a friend presented her with a poetry manuscript and she couldn’t say no, she passed it to my father, who devoured it and rated it with no hesitation. Dad read poetry with competence and—what impressed me the most—with pleasure. As a child, that struck me as strange because Father, to my eyes, was the very embodiment of all things prosaic. He never read novels or stories. He read the news and then serious, sober books of nonfiction, theory or facts. His fields were law, logic, politics, ethics.
About poetry? When I finally asked him, he went three quarters of a century back, to the small village school (one class for all ages) he attended against the will of his parents. He said, in those times, in that context, there were no ‘subjects,’ truly. No geography, history, science, and so forth—at least not in primary school. After learning basic arithmetic and literacy, ‘culture’ came in the form of poetry to memorize. Therefore, poetry was the sum of all knowledge. Rather, the arrow pointing to a kind of knowledge not meant for mere survival. Litmus paper, showing unknown possibilities of language, open windows upon landscapes unseen. Books were scarce, more than we can imagine. My dad didn’t have many. Bright, promising children memorized poems—which functioned like passwords, I guess, later facilitating their access to higher education. Perhaps.
So, Dad said he found poetry kin and close because, during his school years, it wasn’t ‘a genre’ of literature he might have liked or not. It was all that was offered, and it summed, and it meant it all.
I would think of that poetry, widely memorized by Italian school kids until after WWII, perhaps through the nineteen fifties, as not frail. Kind of solid. Perhaps, boring—most of it was celebratory of historical facts, holy truths, and national ideology. Although, paradoxically, the bits everyone could recite down in their old age were unfailingly by Giovanni Pascoli, a poet of ‘small things,’ humble nature, domestic settings—and the three most uttered lyrical clusters, without any doubt, mentioned a young mare, a row of cypresses and a single, lonely pomegranate tree.
If I try to niche myself inside my father’s mind and say the word ‘poetry,’ I sense something like a river, a kind of mighty current with no end or beginning in view. I hear a chorus of voices—with no recognizable idioms but a definite musicality, made of both melody and rhythm, complex yet familiar. I believe this is poetry how my dad’s class and generation perceived it. Something large. Deep. Powerful. Connected. Continuous.
It’s a fragile pleasure—what does it mean?
I have sensed it, sometimes, while studying an author’s entire body of work for translation— when I painstakingly tried to select few items, among multitude, that would not only embody the essence of their author’s identity and vision... They should also stand by themselves, so to speak, and be memorable. Sometimes I couldn’t find them, though I liked the specific poet. I was sure I liked the work, but my appreciation apparently ran through lines, pages, stanzas, across titles, niched (as I said about readings) within the tone and voice. When summoned to jell around a single object, clearly, it lost its compass. As I read again and again, something occurred, similar to when one’s attracted, for instance, to the pile of t-shirts displayed in a store window. We are attracted to the pile, as merchants know well—to the gamut of colors and how they interplay, although we don’t know it. Merchants do. So, we step in to buy a t-shirt and there is this moment of subtle, intimate, unspoken dismay, when we are not sure which color we want. If we want the t-shirt, indeed. Because what we liked was the gamut, and the interplay. Sometimes, sifting through a poet’s body of work, I recognize that subtle dismay.
In those cases, I am overwhelmed—I guess—by fragility. The feeling is pervasive, hovering above the book, and above me.
Still, I have found countless and magnificent poems I was compelled to translate—and I did, each time getting another chance of confronting this haunting, strange fragility-ghost. Actually, while translating, frailty becomes more of an evidence, of a conscious awareness. I realize, each time, how the poem tends to disappear at the borders—so to speak—between its original idiom and the next one. It goes undercover. It camouflages. Its identity shifts. You lose sight of it for an instant and it’s gone. You get something in the target language, but it’s not the poem. Not that one.
I am reminded of an intriguing piece by French artist Sophie Calle—a large installation about beauty and blindness. Calle exhibited photos chosen by a number of sightless people as symbols of beauty, besides printed statements motivating each choice. I spent a long time with the piece, enthralled by the statements, which contained the finest aesthetic insights I ever read.
I was struck by the overall concept (expressed by many voices) of beauty as a complex, multi-sensorial, braided experience. I am reminded of this truth when I try to translate a poem. Its ‘wholeness’ is ensured by the inextricable work of many elements—visual, aural, semantic. Let’s try to list some: literal meaning, along with echoes and resonances. Sound, cadence and rhythm, but also vocals and consonants, open, closed, insisting or sparse, soft, hard, dental, labial. Shape, how lines are or aren’t cut, long, short, large, narrow, symmetrical, angled, rounded and so forth. There are other qualities. Many. Some relate to the tone, of course. Intimate, distant, frank, elusive. Is it legato? Staccato? Aggressive? Abrupt? Shy? There’s no end, in fact, to the number of factors converging, and it seems reasonable to focus on some—the most crucial—without venturing into a virtually infinite analysis. It is reasonable indeed, and it works.
Only, in some cases it doesn’t, and I am forced to accept that omitting, displacing any of the many pieces murders the poem. Such—how should I call it—'lack of flexibility,’ ‘failure to adapt’—makes the poem endangered. Frail.
Here’s another set of reflections about poetry’s alleged delicate nature. Perhaps, I should say volatility.
Back to a reading situation—listening, rather than looking at a written page. Actually, the written page is there, in the hand of the poet. We see it, and we anticipate the (multi-stranded, as I said, slightly unpredictable) pleasure of listening to the poem. Often, the pleasure follows the anticipation. Sometimes it doesn’t. In readings, sometimes the poem falls through—meaning it fails to commute from the page (where we sense it exists, breathes and pulses) to the microphone. We understand the misstep happened in the transfer—at the border, as it occurs in translation. What caused it?
That is the point. Causes can be minimal, and so varied. Just one sound interference, one. A cough in the audience, a passing train, a chair shifting, the drone of a fridge humming two rooms away, a brisk lowering of the reader’s voice on one word, just one. You would think one word isn’t much. But it is, unfortunately. You could think I am exaggerating. I prompt you to personally verify.
Causes can be minimal and not only of the subtracting type, like those I just mentioned. Additional items also spoil the poem in a blink, though they are more subliminal. Prior talk overpowers a poem in inexplicable but quite lethal ways. Banal talk, things that you’d think would leave no trace. Explanations. They are usually good. They either relax the audience or they focus, collect attention—both effects are desirable. But there is a fine line, invisible… so it gets overstepped. One more sentence than needed, and it is too much. The poem that follows is dead. Drowned, to be exact. I am not sure how this happens. I don’t know if the extra-introduction simply exhausts listeners’ capacity, or if it steals the part of mystery that particular poem required to ensure its own alchemy. And we already know that omitting, displacing, etcetera…
I could think of an old-style scale, with brass plates. Here the poem, there the introduction. They must balance, I guess. Otherwise, as the intro sinks down, the poem’s up in the air. Gone.
Apologies kill the poem without mercy. Not sure how. I think that they smother it, smearing it with guilt. Poems don’t survive apologies.
Is that all? No. Mispronunciations, unwanted stops, pause, repeat, ‘I will start again.’ Yes, it happens. It is human. But the poems perish and that’s when I’m keenly conscious of unjust, unfair, of ridiculous frailty.
Do poems feel that way. Do they want to be that way. Are they proud of it. Do they deem themselves an elite, because of it. Are they even aware of it or just mindless, just innocent. Are they ever afraid. Do they trust. If yes, whom do they trust. The author. The reader. The listener. What should be done. Could something. Should they be (more) protected. Secured. Would they allow it. Would they feel captive, if. Don’t they like the risk, maybe. The exposure. Yes, the exposure, whatever it entails. To be so at the mercy of. So casual. Do they care at all. Do they live—I think, I guess—in the moment.