A Poem about Translating Poems


I’ve been reading Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems 1956-1998 out on the dock and came across a poem that touches on a tough topic: translating poetry. Ironically, Herbert’s poem is translated, Polish to English, so it’s a level of weird on top of weird reading the poem.

What I like about Herbert (yes, I’m going through a Herbert phase) is his combination of erudition and humor. Such a great pair! Interested in translation issues? Erudition? Humor, maybe? Give a listen:

On Translating Poetry
by Zbigniew Herbert

Like a clumsy bumblebee
he alights on a flower
bending the fragile stem
he elbows his way
through rows of petals
like pages of a dictionary
he wants in
where the fragrance and sweetness are
and though he has a cold
and can’t taste anything
he pushes on
until he bumps his head
against the yellow pistil

and that’s as far as he gets
it’s too hard
to push through the calyx
into the root
so the bee takes off again
he emerges swaggering
loudly humming:
I was in there
and those
who don’t take his word for it
can take a look at his nose
yellow with pollen

— translated  by Alissa Valles


Amazon.com: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


When you utter the word “amazon” as in “dot com,” you get varied reactions. Many consumers love the behemoth for its convenience and price. They are loud in their praise and often in their clicks-to-cart. Many others are “closet amazon” fans. They talk the good talk about supporting small independent booksellers, but if they want a specific book (and they do) at the best price available (and they do), they order it from the privacy of their amazon-prime homes.

Of course, amazon is more than just books now. It hawks just about dot-com everything. And if you get into a problem with a delivery like I did a few weeks back, you get the best horrible customer service correspondence in the world. Long letters in need of an editor. Cookie-cutter apologies that sound as sincere and as empty of humanity as a Donald Trump rally.

In fact, when my 2-day delivery never showed up and I asked why, amazon customer service assured me it would arrive on Day 3. Then Day 4. Would you believe Day 5? Uh, no. So the amazon solution was this: To show they care and to assuage my alarm, they offered me a one-month extension of our amazon prime membership (retail value: $8.43).

I replied, “Button up your shirt because your heart’s falling out!” but they didn’t get the idiom and probably considered me an idiot. A brief glimpse of human irritation slipped out when the long-winded response (an amazon staple) included a reference to concern about my “precious time.” Sarcasm dot com. Even amazon customer service reps in need of an editor and a Strunk & White lesson on succinct writing are subject to it.

Which brings me to Barnes & Noble, the step-child in the behemoth bookselling world. I did the usual irate customer act and took my business elsewhere, elsewhere meaning Barnes & Ignoble. My amazon grudge order will arrive in a week or so, depending on pony changes (they ship Pony Express, apparently).

Still, these days, you can’t take behemoth booksellers for granted, just like you can’t take successful deliveries for granted. In an article in the New Republic, culture news editor Alex Shephard writes that the impending demise of B&N will hurt writers. No, not the rich-get-richer writers referenced  in my last post. The little guys (includes 99.3% of poets). The rising stars. The literary outsiders. Here’s Shephard on what will happen if B&N goes the way of Borders:

“…Big-name authors, like Malcolm Gladwell or James Patterson, will probably be fine. So too will writers who specialize in romance, science fiction, manga, and commercial fiction—genres with devoted audiences, who have already gravitated to Amazon’s low prices. But Barnes & Noble is essential to publishers of literary fiction—the so-called “serious” works that get nominated for Pulitzers and National Book Awards. Without the initial orders Barnes & Noble places, and the visibility its shelves provide, breakout hits by relative unknowns—books like Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven—will suffer.

In a world without Barnes & Noble, risk-averse publishers will double down on celebrity authors and surefire hits. Literary writers without proven sales records will have difficulty getting published, as will young, debut novelists. The most literary of novels will be shunted to smaller publishers. Some will probably never be published at all. And rigorous nonfiction books, which often require extensive research and travel, will have a tough time finding a publisher with the capital to fund such efforts.

The irony of the age of cultural abundance is that it still relies on old filters and distribution channels to highlight significant works. Barnes & Noble and corporate publishers still have enormous strides to make in fully reflecting America’s rich diversity. But without them, the kinds of books that challenge us, that spark intellectual debates, that push society to be better, will start to disappear. Without Barnes & Noble, we’ll be adrift in a sea of pulp.”  (The full article can be read here.)

Bad. Ugly, even. But amazon will just keep keeping on.

So maybe, in addition to supporting the little independent booksellers when you’re in their brick-and-mortar neighborhood, you can support one of the big guys on the ropes while you’re at it. For writers like us, the trickle-down economics of a Barnes & Noble implosion might just be the beginning of the end, also known as the end-of-publishing days.


The Rich Get Richer…


Yes, it’s simple math. The rich get richer and the poor remain poor. Economics? Nah. Publishing and sales.

People publishing their first books are schooled in this hard, Adam Smith-like fact of life more than any other. Their novels, short story collections, poetry collections, or collected essays may be good. They may even be very good. But they aren’t going to sell much outside the demographic known as family and friends comma very comma very close.

Here’s why:

  1. A first published book is like a first drunk. It goes to your head. Quickly. You feel dizzy with unreasonable delight. Your delusions become grandeur. Just as you once, as an adolescent, assumed you might be Death’s exception (after all, this is me we’re talking!), you assume that somehow, someway, your baby, your beautiful book will find a way to top the charts. Or at least assault them. Or at least give them a good scare.
  2. You don’t realize how crowded this field is. The competition is akin to New York City’s population. There are that many you’s out there. And none of them are saying, “Here’s looking at you and your beautiful work, kid.” Nope. They’re just walking on by, heads forward, hearts pumping me, myself, and I just as yours does.
  3. Marketing is easier said than done. Even if you make it a full-time job. Really.
  4. Internet “friends” (or “followers”) will pledge like furniture polish, but very few will buy. Fewer still will read. And fewer still will write a review. Investing in them is like chasing last year’s hot stock. Celebrate the few who come through! Don’t have such high expectations. Imagine if you yourself bought and read every “friend’s” or “follower’s” work (especially if you have thousands, you “popular” person, you). Repeat after me: “Adam Smith, Adam Smith, Adam Smith.”
  5. As you watch your friends buying and reading established names like Stephen King, Alice Munro, and Billy Collins (and not you, you, or you), don’t hold it against them. Established names have earned their establishment through talent or moxie or something Rubik’s cube-like you haven’t figured out yet. Even if those names are living on past reputations, they’ve earned as much. If it bothers you that the rich get richer, maybe it’s because you’re not one of them. Smile about that.
  6. Your writing may be better than the rich’s writing. Chances are, it’s not. But it may be. And if it is, you only have time and discipline and work ahead of you. Life may eventually reward you, making you rich in publication and sales. Or the frustration of posthumous riches may visit upon you. Or, most likely, your talent may go hiding with you to the grave. Prepare for that contingency. Celebrate quietly as you write wonderfully. Be appreciated and famous to yourself. Not everyone’s work earns a fair hearing. Life is the ultimate kangaroo court.
  7. Resentment and hard feelings are detrimental. Work on. Create positive sweat. Believe that talent will out and riches will someday be yours. Or, if that sounds way too capitalistic, focus on art for art’s sake. Creative riches are capital, too, earning interest–yours, if no one else’s.

Keep on keeping on, fellow writers! Art and economics may make strange bedfellows, but four feet are sticking out from under the sheets, so live with it and carry on!

“Apollo and Marsyas”: Zbigniew Herbert Redux

herbert book

Finishing Zbigniew Herbert’s small book Mr. Cogito yesterday, I was hungry for more. On the web, I found this disturbingly beautiful (and beautifully disturbing) Herbert poem about a Greek myth and wanted to share it. This translation comes from Alissa Valles in 2007. Perhaps I am ready for The Collected Poems? Yes. More than…

Apollo and Marsyas

The real duel of Apollo
with Marsyas
(absolute ear
versus immense range)
takes place in the evening
when as we already know
the judges
have awarded victory to the god

bound tight to a tree
meticulously stripped of his skin
before the howl reaches his tall ears
he reposes in the shadow of that howl

shaken by a shudder of disgust
Apollo is cleaning his instrument

only seemingly
is the voice of Marsyas
and composed of a single vowel

in reality
Marsyas relates
the inexhaustible wealth
of his body

bald mountains of liver
white ravines of aliment
rustling forests of lung
sweet hillocks of muscle
joints bile blood and shudders
the wintry wind of bone
over the salt of memory
shaken by a shudder of disgust
Apollo is cleaning his instrument

now to the chorus
is joined the backbone of Marsyas
in principle the same A
only deeper with the addition of rust

this is already beyond the endurance
of the god with nerves of artificial fibre

along a gravel path
hedged with box
the victor departs
whether out of Marsyas’ howling
there will not some day arise
a new kind
of art—let us say—concrete

at his feet
falls a petrified nightingale

he looks back
and sees
that the hair of the tree to which Marsyas was fastened
is white


What We Can Learn from Mr. Cogito


Steering clear of translated poetry is more common than running off the road to avoid poetry written in your native tongue. Poetry, after all, is the genre most vulnerable to missteps in diction. It is disproportionately left to pay literature’s heavy syntax.

Still, as a writer or reader of poetry, you must resist the urge to resist. You can see through translations’ glass darkly. Sometimes you can even see the lightning.

Having just finished John and Bogdana Carpenter’s 1993 translation of Zbigniew Herbert’s collection, Mr. Cogito, I can attest to the merits of perseverance. Herbert’s poetry, in this case a Polish train placed on English tracks, is playful, inventive, and gratifying. He’s a master of short lines, one-line stanzas, and zig-zagging line lengths (who, after all, says they all have to be uniform?).

Most delightful, he dispenses with punctuation and pulls it off. It’s a little more work for the reader, but the reader is equal to the task–quickly adapts, even. For example, consider the challenges in this Herbert work:

Sense of Identity

If he had a sense of identity it was probably with a stone
with sandstone not too crumbly light light-grey
which has a thousand eyes of flint
(a senseless comparison the stone sees with its skin)
if he had a feeling of profound union it was exactly with a stone

it wasn’t at all the idea of invariability the stone
was changeable lazy in the sunshine brightened like the moon
at the approach of a storm it became dark slate like a cloud
then greedily drank the rain and this wrestling with water
sweet annihilation the struggle of forces clash of elements
the loss of one’s own nature drunken stability
were both beautiful and humiliating

so at last it would become sober in the air dried by thunder
embarrassing sweat the passing mist of erotic fervours

It’s an exercise in reading, no? You need to pause in unknown places, look around for the sun or, if night, the north star. The poem demands some focus and attention, but it’s worth it, even if for one phrase: “…it would become sober in the air dried by thunder”

Yes. Worth the price of admission, that. And the exercise in imagination. I like to read poems that put me off balance now and again. Herbert is just the ticket for that. After all, balance is bad when there’s too much of it. Just like everything else. Including conventions of writing, thank you.



Waiting for Ideas (vs. Godot)


Sometimes waiting for an idea for a poem is like waiting for Godot–some kind of existential joke. You can see Camus laughing in the barn. Or Sartre’s mirthful eyes through his thick glasses. Or angst from the corner of your wary eye. But after a while, you grow impatient.

So I flipped open good old Ted Kooser’s good old The Poetry Home Repair Manual to the section titled “But How Do You Come Up With Ideas?”  A reading, then, chapter and verse:

“The poet Jane Hirshfield wrote: ‘A work of art defines itself into being, when we awaken into it and by it, when we are moved, altered, stirred. It feels as if we have done nothing, only given it a little time, a little space; some hairline-narrow crack opens in the self, and there it is.’ She goes on to quote Kafka: ‘You do not even have to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, remain still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you unasked. It has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.'”

A lovely image, that. The world rolling at your feet like a submissive spaniel. An idea bringing you a stick called “brilliant poem.” And all because you waited, because you said to the Muse, “Heel!”

See how easy? You may now begin writing….


thumbs down

Rejections. They’re part of the game when you’re a writer. You bundle up some poems, send them out, hope for the best.

But sometimes you feel confident. The reason? You do what you’re supposed to be doing. You heed the editors’ cries and actually read the poems they publish “to get an idea of what we like.” And sometimes you wonder about poems they like. Why on earth would an editor say “I do” to a poem like that? Why would she marry herself to such a lame excuse for poetry?

There are a few reasons. Sometimes, just as you want to promote your own poetry by getting it published, editors want to promote their journals by publishing known names they can splash on their covers, thus upping the “prestige factor” of their magazine. In that case, real estate is sucked up by writers who sometimes live on past reputations as much as present merit.

Or sometimes questionable poems just fit an editor’s personal quirks. He likes that style. He likes form poems. He likes rhyme in a free-verse world. He likes that topic.

The same holds for rejected poems that, by all accounts, seem as strong or stronger than what goes into the journal. It could be you’re not a known entity and thus, don’t even get a true hearing. Private country club-itis stops you at the door. End of story. Or it could be, as is true with students taking high-stakes tests in schools, the mood, health, or temperament of the editor that particular day worked against your poem.

Then again, it could be a numbers game. Many submissions are only partially read by readers helping an editor out. They may stop reading, mid-poem (or even four lines in) if, quite frankly, they don’t like how it starts. I dare say (but fear to say it), some submissions are rejected without being read at all. Is this really possible, you ask? Of course. Anything that’s possible can and will occur. Who knows, really?

Which is not to say I’m questioning the integrity of editors. The vast majority are overworked and dedicated to a cause we mutually deem important. I’m simply saying editors are human, and thus subject to human weaknesses.

To think of rejections this way can only be helpful to writers, who have to understand it as a numbers game being played in an existential world of organized (Submittable, anyone?) chaos. If your work is good–or certainly as good as work you’re seeing published–it will eventually take root somewhere. But it will not necessarily be automatic. Or quick.

The system does not work that way. Not until your name is Billy Collins or Mary Oliver.