Saturday, March 13, 2010

Mind Your Ps & Qs

Linda Pastan, The Five Stages of Grief. Borrowing from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s popular On Death & Dying–& how could it not be popular with an upbeat title like that–Pastan arranges poems extraneously related to the five stages of grief--Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance--which serve as section headings. The title poem, at just over 60 lines, is one of the longest & best pieces in this easy-to-read collection. A minimalist--i.e., one who exerts minimal effort, zing!--Pastan relies primarily on imagery to convey complex ideas–sometimes in a poem of a single sentence or a few fragments–with varied success. Some, like “A Short History of Judaic Thought in the Twentieth Century” & “The Mirror,” work well enough, but others, such as “25th High School Reunion” & “Caroline,” seem incomplete–more like starting points than finished poems. To be fair, I’m glad she didn’t expound upon “25th High School Reunion.” I’m not interested my reunions, much less hearing the details of someone else’s. Of course, if I were so inclined, I could watch Archie: Return to Riverdale, Beautiful Girls, Class Reunion, Class Reunion Massacre, Grosse Point Blank, Just Friends, National Lampoon’s Class Reunion, Peggy Sue Got Married, Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion, Something Wild, Terror Stalks the Class Reunion, Zack & Miri Make a Porno or any of the fine selections available at Netflix. Not a member? Sign up for your free trial today!

Carol Quinn, Acetylene. As winner of the 2008 Cider Press Review Book Award, Quinn has a good ear--her left, I think--for poetry. I like “Sequoia” in particular. However, I have a problem with this collection. Out of thirty poems, thirteen begin with an inscription. In baseball, that sort of average would threaten Ted Williams–I mean, of course, before his corpse was frozen & his decapitated head used for fungo, but still not in a good way. Additionally, following quotations from Anne Dillard & Federico Garcia Lorca which open the book, the Proem (a short poem, "Afterimage," allotted a section unto itself) precedes the “actual” poems. To put a cherry on it, Quinn includes a page of notes to elucidate further upon her work. At times, such notes & inscriptions may be vital, but too often–& Quinn’s not alone in this respect–they seem pretentious, as if the poet were Charlie Tuna, propping up poems with scholarly ornamentations. For instance, Quinn describes “Chaconne” in her end notes as “a response to J.S. Bach’s Chaconne from Partia No. 2 for Solo Violin in D minor.” Speaking of, my “response” is to ask if I don’t get the reference to Bach from the title, can I appreciate the poem without listening to, let’s say, Itzhak “Trust your ability!” Perlman? If not, perhaps Acetylene should be published online so Quinn can provide links, which would be, if I may defer to Urban Dictionary, “god pimp perfect.”

To be continued . . .

Sunday, March 7, 2010

O for Ovid: Losses in Translations

“One morning, as Publius Ovidius Naso woke from anxious dreams, he found that he had morphed while asleep into a monstrous insect.” So begins Ovid’s ambitious fifteen-book epic, Metamorphoses. Rife with tales of creation & destruction, love & war, weddings & wakes, songs & festivals, gods & heroes, nymphs & naiads, centaurs & satyrs, suicides & suitors, rape & incest, cannibalism & rape, marriage & rape, rape & birth, drunkenness & drunken rape, rape & rape & lest I forget, rape--it's kind of like the Bible sans the preachy stuff.

I read two translations of Metamorphoses, one by Rolfe Humphries (1954) & the other by Allan Mandelbaum (1995). Neither text is bilingual, so it’s difficult for me to say with certainty, but it might seem that Mandelbaum, judging by the stilted, if not awkward phrasing, adheres to the text fastidiously–which is not to say that’s how Ovid wrote, but that often literal translations read that way. In the past, I’ve always enjoyed Humphries' translation, which, perhaps because of its colloquial tone, I’ve assumed to be more impressionistic than literal. However, appearances–as the old chestnut, apropos of the poem, would have us believe–can deceive.

According to Sara Mack in The New Criterion, “Humphries probably comes close. But Humphries, while offering us a readable poem, doesn’t give us Ovid–he prunes Ovid’s luxuriance too drastically.” Whereas Mack may be slightly critical of Humphries, she deems Mandelbaum’s translation as “so heavily padded that he isn’t always recognizable as Ovid at all.” She cites as example Mandelbaum needing seven lines (51 words) to render Caenis’s response to Neptune, though Ovid required only two & a half (18 words). That, sorry to say if you’re Mandelbaum--& if you are, welcome to my blog!--proves to be one of Mack’s milder criticisms, as she expounds upon such errors as misused or misunderstood idioms, inaccurate word choices, mistranslations, misspelled names, mistaken characters, sporadic rhyming & tedious poetics. Mandelbaum, she concludes, “has done Ovid a great disservice.”

More recently, Charles Martin's translation of Metamorphoses appeared in 2003, which Mark Jarman, writing in The Hudson Review, praises wholeheartedly, saying it “reminds us that in these tales Ovid remains our contemporary.” To illustrate his point, Jarman writes:

One of Martin’s numerous tours de force, as he transforms Ovid into contemporary American English that dogs, cats, and the hip can understand, is to depict the daughters of Pierus challenging the Muses to a poetry slam, as follows:

“‘We’ll show you girls just what real class is
Give up tryin’ to deceive the masses
Your rhymes are fake: accept our wager
Learn which of us is minor and which is major
There’s nine of us here and there’s nine of you
And you’ll be nowhere long before we’re through
Nothin’s gonna save you ’cuz your songs are lame
And the way you sing ’em is really a shame
So stop with, “Well I never!” and “This can’t be real”
We’re the newest New Thing and here is our deal
If we beat you, obsolete you, then you just get gone
From these classy haunts on Mount Helicon
We give you Macedonia—if we lose
An’ that’s an offer you just can’t refuse
So take the wings off, sisters, get down and jam
And let the nymphs be the judges of our poetry slam!’”

Sigh, I hardly know where to begin. Well, how about for starters we “recognize” this passage is about as “hep” as a Toon Disney promo telling all the kids to “posse up” for the upcoming Hercules episode. Aw, yeah. Corn factor aside, it's not translation--it's paraphrasing. Not even that really. My Latin may be limited to translating inscriptions from statues in the park, but I’m pretty damn sure Ovid doesn't write rhyming couplets or portray the daughters of Pierus as crappy wannabe rappers from the suburbs. To be fair, I haven't read the Martin text, but if the idea is to bring Ovid into the 21st century, then shouldn't he be on Twitter?

Monday, March 1, 2010

I-N Like Flynn

Early last month, as I cleaned my glasses before settling in for the evening with Mrs. Dalloway–as if I were that doting dolt, Peter Walsh–my frames snapped like a twig. Efforts to repair them myself, however nerdy or valiant, were in vain, as Scotch tape proved futile & over the next couple of weeks, I was forced to wear “loaner” frames (I never knew such things existed--they were like ligers, cockapoos & sewer gators all rolled into one) fashioned not from titanium like my lightweight pair, but from cast-iron salvaged from the Titanic, heavy & ironic. Anyway, despite the obstacle of impaired vision, here are the poets I read in February as part of My ABC of Poetry experience.

David Ignatow, Poems: 1934-1969. Lots of poems here–266 pages worth–jammed into this volume however they fit, two or sometimes three to a page, spanning the poet’s work over four decades. Ignatow has impressive literary credentials, having served as editor of American Poetry Review & poetry editor of The Nation, but the book’s layout does nothing to enhance his work. Not that I dislike it, but Ignatow’s poetry often seems rhythmically flat & in terms of imagery, trite at times, so the reading becomes tedious. For instance, the volume includes several unfortunate poems about being on stage–all the world’s one, ya know–at which times weird, often violent, scenes ensue. Generally speaking, I like the later work in which Ignatow appears less inhibited, a reflection of changes all-around in poetics during the late 50s & throughout the 60s.

By the way, you may be surprised at how few poets have surnames that begin with “I” Other than Ignatow there’s maybe three. Honestly, I’m considering changing my name so I won’t have to contend with the multitudes of Matt Morrises out there. But Matt Imperial sounds too snooty. Matt Incognito–too phony. Matt Imus–uh, no. Matt Idle, brother to Eric, or Matt Idol, cousin to Billy–decide, decide! Matt Ignatius–I’d need a stupid hat with ear flaps. Matt Irani–no, my life’s difficult enough already. Irons–too hard. Infante–too juvenile. Ives–too “Burl”-y. Ix–too icky! Maybe I should sleep on it.

Louis Jenkins, Nice Fish. Winner of the 1995 Minnesota Book Award, this selection of prose poems, some new, some from Jenkins’ two prior books (much like my Greatest Hits, recently published by Pudding House) include “Football,” “War Surplus,” “Appointed Rounds,” “Violence on TV” & “After School.” I know I don’t write it, but prose poetry is a choice & I’m pro-choice. Personally, I see enjambment as one of my strengths, but I also get that in free verse line breaks, if not quite arbitrary, are discretionary–so, one may think, why bother? After all, while at a reading, do you hear line breaks? If not, does the work cease being a poem when read aloud? Poetry remains, whether written in lines or paragraphs, more economical, more musical than most prose, Virginia Woolf excepted.

Kenneth Koch, Seasons on Earth. This book features Koch’s two mock epic poems, Ko, A Season on Earth & its–kaff–sequel–kaff–The Duplications, as well as a preface, each written in terza rima. Each has moments of Koch’s playful genius, such as when he writes: “If you are wondering about Aqua’s age,/Since she is young and gorgeous, though Etruscan,/And how she got her name, don’t skip this page.” But too often the rhymes seem forced, the storylines predicated by the rudder of rhymes, which Koch admits in the preface, "Seasons on Earth." Sometimes this strategy proves fun & funny, watching the corners Koch paints himself in & then, like a cartoonist with a magic brush, paint his way out of. At other times, he goes on at length, amusing only himself with stanzas of uninteresting or sophomoric rhymes that serve no purpose other than to illustrate Koch’s ability to write terza rima ad nauseam. I recommend this volume for Koch fans, but the unenlightened would find greater delight in other Koch works, such as The Pleasures of Peace, Thank You & Other Poems, The Art of Love, One Train, etc.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Song of Hiawatha. You can’t escape trochaic tetrameter, poetry’s Alcatraz. Even if you scale the walls, you’ll drown in the frigid water before you reach shore. In a way, however, it actually makes the piece easier to read. Like listening to Van Halen while riding a stationary bike, you may think it sucks, particularly with Sammy Hagar singing, but the tempo keeps you moving, so you almost forget that you’re bored or that you’d read Hiawatha in an undergraduate class about myth & folklore, which is kind of odd considering the stories are mostly Longfellow’s own literary–so to speak–creations. (Spoiler alert–the final section, “Hiawatha’s Departure,” is not only condescending but also surprisingly anti-Semitic!)

Cate Marvin, World’s Tallest Disaster.“Maybe you didn’t hear me so good," Joe Flaherty says in SCTV's Irwin Allen parody, "TOWERING INFERNO!” Whether Marvin had the one time king of disaster flicks in mind–or SCTV, for that matter–when she titled her book is idle speculation on my part. Winner of the 2000 Kathryn A. Morton Prize, it’s thankfully not about 9/11. The title poem employs the same metaphoric equation (body + desire = building on fire) as Mayakovsky’s “Cloud in Trousers,” but tallest? Is it a tribute to Anna Swan? Gheorghe Muresan? Is the poet herself abnormally tall? In the introduction, Robert Pinsky compares Marvin to George Herbert & Philip Sidney, which sounds nice, I suppose, but I’d probably slug someone for saying that about me. In my favorite poem from this collection, “On Parting,” Marvin wishes a plague of misfortunes upon her ex, stated with such a light touch that even he’d have to admit, in spite of being mugged or lying dead at the bottom of a lake, that she’s got a keen sense of humor. If I have a complaint–obviously, yes–it’s that nothing particularly distinguishes Marvin from any number of good poets writing today.

Pablo Neruda, Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon. What can I say that hasn’t been said? Neruda transforms the commonplace, breathing new life into everyday items. For him, a book is a “minuscule forest,” the wine glass curves like the hips of a lover, the artichoke has its own mythology, each living thing (excluding racehorses & their whining) possesses its own language the poet wants to learn so that he can “be intimate with this world.” But you know all that already. Instead, let me comment on Stephen Mitchell, the translator. From what I can discern from this bilingual text–keep in mind I know next to nada about Spanish–Mitchell seems not to stray far from the original. I’ve also read Mitchell’s translations of Rilke–all of them–& I’m almost ashamed to admit, but before his translations, I never really liked Rilke. Now I sport an artsy Rilke tattoo–just like Lady Gaga!

To be continued . . .