Emily’s Rhythms

The thing PG really enjoys about doing TPV are some of the amazing comments that visitors post to provide additional information.

Yesterday’s post, It’s Always Time for Meter and Rhyme which brought PG back to Emily Dickinson’s poetry generated two world-class comments from Karen Myers and allynh, each a long-time denizens of the TPV world.

Each of the comments discussed the meter and rhyme of Emily’s poems, but in very different ways.

Karen provided this illustration of iambic tetrameter from Emily’s poem, Because I Could Not Stop for Death:

BeCAUSE I COULD not STOP for DEATH/he KINDly STOPPED for ME

The lower and upper cases are the unstressed and stressed syllables in this line.

Iambic refers to an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable – daDUM.

Tetrameter refers to how many iambs there are in the line of poetry – six.

Iambic pentameter (five iambs per line) is more frequently found in poetry written in the English language, but Karen’s comment argues that iambic tetrameter (six iambs per line) is a better fit for the way people speak using English.

This is important because in PG’s opinion (and the opinion of many other students of poetry who are smarter/have deeper knowledge than PG), while poetry can be enjoyed by reading it silently, classically, poetry is meant to be spoken aloud and hearing a poem is a better way of enjoying/understanding the poem than just reading it silently.

Music (at least in the Western tradition) is also meant to be played and/or sung and hearing is a better way of enjoying/understanding music than simply reading the words and notes on paper. Western music also has stressed and unstressed notes and often repeats its musical patterns with small or large differences.

Think of the opening sounds of Beethoven’s 5th symphony – da-da-da-DA – repeated thereafter in varying speeds and tonal variations.

allynh pointed out Dickinson’s iambic tetrameter in Because I Could Not Stop for Death meter works with the tune of a long-time favorite song (at least in Texas), The Yellow Rose of Texas.

Here’s an illustration (PG couldn’t get the YouTube video to embed).

It’s Always the Time for Meter and Rhyme

From The Wall Street Journal:

When my sister was in the sixth grade, she had to memorize the poem “Crossing the Bar” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It was the 1950s and my mother, quite modern, was dismayed. To her, rote memorization wasn’t education. The poem was terribly old-fashioned, and it was about death. My mother’s views back then are now standard.

In ancient times, poetry was part of ritual, not only to placate the gods but as to pass history along. Meter and rhyme made it easy to learn.

Now that we have books and electronics, we can remember without meter and rhyme. But they’re still part of us. An echo of the early uses of poetry can be found in nursery rhymes and in such children’s stories as “The Cat in the Hat.” Parents quickly learn that toddlers love rhymes and can readily repeat them.

But poetry has mostly narrowed to small, constrained passages in intellectual magazines like the New Yorker or the Atlantic. It isn’t for the masses. Shakespeare is mostly ignored. The beguiling rhythms of Amanda Gorman’s poetry are available on special occasions only.

A valiant effort to bring back poetry was Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac.” For many years he read a poem on National Public Radio each morning. Another current effort is Poetry Magazine’s poem sent daily by email at no charge. The featured verse is by a contemporary writer on weekdays, a past one on weekends. The magazine has been especially valuable in bringing back little-known poetry by early-20th-century African-American poets.

But a poem sent by email that’s not read aloud must have a small audience. And I don’t know of any poetry clubs comparable to the book clubs that meet monthly around the country.

In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, Mr. Keillor put some of the blame on T.S. Eliot—perhaps as a stand-in for many modern poets: “Eliot was in a lousy marriage. He was so unhappy, so he took it out on the rest of us. But that doesn’t give you an excuse to be dreary.”

So what can help us when someone does cross the bar? Can poetry soothe? One attraction of funerals is that they are public rituals, and there is the poetic writing of the Bible along with sacred music.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Over the Brazier

Robert Graves was the son of a Gaelic scholar and poet and a mother who was related to an influential German historian of those times.

Graves turned down a scholarship to St. John’s College, Oxford, to join the British Army. While serving, he published his first book of poetry in 1916. The title was Over the Brazier.

Over the Brazier

What life to lead and where to go
After the War, after the War?
We’d often talked this way before.
But I still see the brazier glow
That April night, still feel the smoke
And stifling pungency of burning coke.

I’d thought: ‘A cottage in the hills,
North Wales, a cottage full of books,
Pictures and brass and cosy nooks
And comfortable broad window-sills,
Flowers in the garden, walls all white.
I’d live there peacefully and dream and write.’

But Willie said: ‘No, Home’s no good:
Old England’s quite a hopeless place,
I’ve lost all feeling for my race:
But France has given my heart and blood
Enough to last me all my life,
I’m off to Canada with my wee wife.

‘Come with us, Mac, old thing,’ but Mac
Drawled: ‘No, a Coral Isle for me,
A warm green jewel in the South Sea.
There’s merit in a lumber shack,
And labour is a grand thing…but—
Give me my hot beach and my cocoanut.’

So then we built and stocked for Willie
His log-hut, and for Mac a calm
Rock-a-bye cradle on a palm—
Idyllic dwellings—but this silly
Mad War has now wrecked both, and what
Better hopes has my little cottage got?

Memorial Day

PG wrote about Memorial Day a day or two ago.

Today is celebrated as Memorial Day in the United States. Other nations also have similar traditions.

PG understands that the United Kingdom celebrates Remembrance Day on November 11, the day on which the armistice between the Allies and Germany was signed, ending World War I. He also understands that Australia and New Zealand recognize Anzac Day on April 25, as the day of the first military action by Australian and Kiwi forces in World War I.

Rupert Brooke was one of the leading English poets of World War I.

His most well-known poem had two somewhat different titles, “The Soldier” and “Nineteen-Fourteen: The Soldier”

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Rupert Brook

Brooke saw his only action of World War I during the defense of Antwerp, Belgium, against German invasion in early October 1914. Although aided by a stiff resistance from Antwerp’s inhabitants, British troops suffered a decisive defeat in that conflict and were forced to retreat through a devastated Belgian countryside.

In 1915, Brooke was serving as an officer in the British Royal Navy. He died of blood poisoning on a hospital ship anchored off the Greek island of Skyros, while awaiting deployment in the Allied invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula.

In Flanders Fields

Canadian physician John McCrae volunteered for World War I in 1914 and served as a brigade surgeon for an artillery unit. He was involved in Second Battle of Ypres, where the Germans launched an assault that included the war’s first use of poisonous chlorine gas. He cared for many wounded, including a close friend who died.

In the aftermath, McCrae wrote a poem about those he and others could not save.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

God Has a Beautiful Mansion for Me Elsewhere

From Lapham’s Quarterly:

On December 10, 1825, the fifty-year-old English lawyer Henry Crabb Robinson attended a dinner at the home of his friend Charles Aders, a London businessman. Eliza, Aders’ wife, was a painter and printmaker, and she had invited a few artist and engraver friends to the party. Over the course of the evening Robinson became increasingly fascinated by one of the guests—an elderly, relatively unknown poet and painter by the name of William Blake, whose conversation casually roamed from the polite and mundane to the beatific and fantastic.

Blake was short, pale, and a little overweight, with the accent of a lifelong Londoner. He was dressed in old-fashioned, threadbare clothes and his gray trousers were shiny at the front through wear. His large, strong eyes didn’t seem to fit with his soft, round face. Robinson noted in his diary that he had “an expression of great sweetness, but bordering on weakness—except when his features are animated by expression, and then he has an air of inspiration about him.”

For all his wild notions and heretical statements, Blake was pleasant company and easy to like. The aggressive and hectoring voice of his writings was not the Blake those who met him recall. Many years later, another guest at that party, Maria Denman, remarked, “One remembers even in age the kindness of such a man.”

What made Blake so fascinating was the casual way in which he talked about his relationship with the spirit world. Blake, Robinson wrote, “spoke of his paintings as being what he had seen in his visions—and when he said ‘my visions’ it was in the ordinary unemphatic tone in which we speak of trivial matters that everyone understands and cares nothing about.” Blake peppered his conversation with remarks about his relationship with various angels, the nature of the devil, and his visionary meetings with historical figures such as Socrates, Milton, and Jesus Christ. Somehow, he did this in a way that people found endearing rather than disturbing. As Robinson wrote, “There is a natural sweetness and gentility about Blake which are delightful. And when he is not referring to his visions he talks sensibly and acutely.”

Robinson walked home with Blake that night and was so struck by the conversation that he spent the evening transcribing as much of it as he could remember. The two men became friends, and Robinson’s diary is an invaluable record of how Blake acted and thought during the last two years of his life. “Shall I call him Artist or Genius—or Mystic—or Madman?” Robinson mused that first night. He spent the rest of their relationship attempting to come up with a definite answer. “Probably he is all” was the best he could find.

. . . .

A week after the party, Robinson made his first visit to Blake’s home at Fountain Court in the Strand, where he lived with his wife, Catherine. The building itself has long since gone, but it was roughly where the Savoy Hotel now stands. Robinson was unprepared for the level of poverty in which the couple were living. “I found him in a small room, which seems to be both a working room and a bedroom,” he wrote. “Nothing could exceed the squalid air both of the apartment and his dress, but in spite of dirt—I might say filth—an air of natural gentility is diffused over him.”

This was the second of the two rooms that the Blakes rented on the first floor of the building. The first was a wood-paneled reception room, which doubled as an unofficial gallery for Blake’s drawings and paintings. The second, at the rear, was reserved for everything else. In one corner was the bed, and in the other was the fire on which Catherine Blake cooked. There was one table for meals, and another on which Blake worked. From here he looked out of the southern-facing window, where a glimpse of the Thames could be seen between the buildings and streets that ran down to the river. This sliver of water would often catch the sun and appear golden. Behind it, the Surrey Hills stretched into the distance. For all the evident poverty, visitors spoke of the rooms as enchanted. As one later recalled, “There was a strange expansion and sensation of freedom in those two rooms very seldom felt elsewhere.”

Blake, Robinson remembered, was “quite unembarrassed when he begged me to sit down, as if he were in a palace. There was but one chair in the room besides that on which he sat. On my putting my hand to it, I found that it would have fallen to pieces if I had lifted it, so, as if I had been a sybarite, I said with a smile, ‘Will you let me indulge myself?’ and I sat on the bed, and near him, and during my short stay there was nothing in him that betrayed that he was aware of what to other persons might have been even offensive, not in his person, but in all about him.”

“I live in a hole here, but God has a beautiful mansion for me elsewhere,” Blake once said. He knew that he was pitied by the occasional prosperous artist who visited, but he thought that it was he who should be pitying them. “I possess my visions and peace,” he argued. “They have bartered their birthright for a mess of pottage.” Robinson was struck on that first visit by how at ease the Blakes seemed with their poverty. “I should be sorry if I had any earthly fame, for whatever natural glory a man has is so much detracted from his spiritual glory,” Blake told him. Despite how the world had treated him he was quite happy, he insisted, because he wanted nothing other than to live for art and had no desire to do anything for profit. But as Robinson also noted, “Though he spoke of his happiness, he spoke of past sufferings, and of sufferings as necessary. ‘There is suffering in heaven, for where there is the capacity of enjoyment, there is the capacity of pain.’ ”

Link to the rest at Lapham’s Quarterly

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake, The Tyger, 1794
Blake’s Ancient of Days, 1794

But at my back I always hear Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

       But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

       Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Andrew Marvel, To His Coy Mistress

PG’s Note: In 1641, two years after Marvel completed his BA at Cambridge, his father drowned in “the Tide of Humber”—the estuary at Hull made famous by To his Coy Mistress.

Spoon River Anthology

From The Poetry Foundation:

Edgar Lee Masters was born in Garnett, Kansas, and he grew up in the small towns of Lewistown and Petersburg, Illinois. The author of 40 books of poetry and prose, Masters is best remembered for his great collection Spoon River Anthology (1915), a sequence of over 200 free-verse epitaphs spoken from the cemetery of the town of Spoon River. His honors include the Shelley Memorial Award, a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Academy of American Poets Fellowship.

When Spoon River Anthology first saw publication in 1915, it caused a great sensation because of its forthrightness about sex, moral decay, and hypocrisy; but its cynical view of Midwestern small town values influenced a whole generation of writers and their works. “The volume,” said Herbert K. Russell in the Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, “became an international popular and critical success and introduced with a flourish what has since come to be known as the Chicago Renaissance”—a group of writers, including Masters, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and Theodore Dreiser, who disproved the notion held at the time that only on the East coast of the US were there writers capable of producing great literature. “It is safe to say,” declared Ernest Earnest in Western Humanities Review, “that no other volume of poetry except The Waste Land (1922) made such an impact during the first quarter of [the 20th] century.”

Masters was firmly rooted in the Midwestern society he both praised and criticized in Spoon River Anthology. The central Illinois area in which he grew up was especially revered for its historic association with Abraham Lincoln; Russell commented that Masters’ “hometown of Petersburg was but two miles from Lincoln’s New Salem; he knew personally William Herndon (Lincoln’s law partner), the Armstrong family (one of whom Lincoln had defended), and John McNamar (the man who jilted Ann Rutledge before her story became entwined with Lincoln’s).”

. . . .

Masters himself was trained for the law—he practiced as an attorney in Chicago for nearly 30 years, and for several years he was the law partner of Clarence Darrow, the lawyer later to become famous as the counsel for the defense at the 1925 Scopes trial—although he had long harbored literary ambitions. Using a variety of pseudonyms to avoid possible damage to his law practice, Masters began to publish poetry in magazines. By 1915 he had published four books of poetry, seven plays, and a collection of essays, but none of them had received much critical attention. Then, following the advice of Reedy’s Mirror publisher William Marion Reedy, Masters began to experiment with poetic form, bringing to life the sort of people he had known in his boyhood. The result was Spoon River Anthology, which mixed classical forms with innovative ones. It followed the example of the Greek Anthology, a collection of some 4500 Greek poems written between about 500 B.C. and 1000 A.D. Many of these poems, like those in Spoon River, took the form of epigrams—laconic sayings that harbor (or seem to harbor) a truth—and others were expressed as confessional epitaphs, in which the dead commented on their lives. Unlike the ancient Greeks, however, Masters made his dead recite their speeches in free verse.

Link to the rest at The Poetry Foundation

By coincidence, PG met Masters’ daughter, who was a older woman, when he was a sprout in college. She was a friend of PG’s favorite professor.

Here’s the introductory poem from Spoon River Anthology. As mentioned, Spoon River’s cemetery is on The Hill. (PG tip – If you read it out loud, you may get a better sense of the poem.)

The Hill

Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,
The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter?
All, all are sleeping on the hill.

One passed in a fever,
One was burned in a mine,
One was killed in a brawl,
One died in a jail,
One fell from a bridge toiling for children and wife —
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

Where are Ella, Kate, Mag, Lizzie and Edith,
The tender heart, the simple soul, the loud, the proud, the happy one? —
All, all are sleeping on the hill.

One died in shameful child-birth,
One of a thwarted love,
One at the hands of a brute in a brothel,
One of a broken pride, in the search for heart’s desire,
One after life in far-away London and Paris
Was brought to her little space by Ella and Kate and Mag —
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

Where are Uncle Isaac and Aunt Emily,
And old Towny Kincaid and Sevigne Houghton,
And Major Walker who had talked
With venerable men of the revolution? —
All, all are sleeping on the hill.

They brought them dead sons from the war,
And daughters whom life had crushed,
And their children fatherless, crying —
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

Where is Old Fiddler Jones
Who played with life all his ninety years,
Braving the sleet with bared breast,
Drinking, rioting, thinking neither of wife nor kin,
Nor gold, nor love, nor heaven?
Lo! he babbles of the fish-frys of long ago,
Of the horse-races of long ago at Clary’s Grove,
Of what Abe Lincoln said
One time at Springfield.

The Hill via The Poetry Foundation

To Sleep

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,
Our gloom-pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close
In midst of this thine hymn my willing eyes,
Or wait the “Amen,” ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities.
Then save me, or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes,—
Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul.

John Keats, 1816

Some scholars believe that Keats was an opium addict. It is known that at least one of his doctors treated Keats with mercury, attempting to stop a chronic sore throat and, perhaps, venereal disease.

Per one of Keats’ biographers, Nicholas Roe, “It is difficult to appreciate how commonplace an opium habit was in Keats’s lifetime.” Opium was dispensed “as a matter of course, and for a simple reason: it was the only painkiller that worked.” 

Keats had been a medical student and had professional knowledge of what treatments were commonly used to treat various conditions.

While some might demean Keats and his work because of the substances he ingested voluntarily or which were prescribed for him, PG thinks it’s amazing that he was able to compose such incredible poetry despite the effects of the horrible substances that he and others put into his body.

Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples

The sun is warm, the sky is clear,
The waves are dancing fast and bright,
Blue isles and snowy mountains wear
The purple noon’s transparent might,
The breath of the moist earth is light,
Around its unexpanded buds;
Like many a voice of one delight,
The winds, the birds, the ocean floods,
The City’s voice itself, is soft like Solitude’s.

I see the Deep’s untrampled floor
With green and purple seaweeds strown;
I see the waves upon the shore,
Like light dissolved in star-showers, thrown:
I sit upon the sands alone,—
The lightning of the noontide ocean
Is flashing round me, and a tone
Arises from its measured motion,
How sweet! did any heart now share in my emotion.

Alas! I have nor hope nor health,
Nor peace within nor calm around,
Nor that content surpassing wealth
The sage in meditation found,
And walked with inward glory crowned—
Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure.
Others I see whom these surround—
Smiling they live, and call life pleasure;
To me that cup has been dealt in another measure.

Yet now despair itself is mild,
Even as the winds and waters are;
I could lie down like a tired child,
And weep away the life of care
Which I have borne and yet must bear,
Till death like sleep might steal on me,
And I might feel in the warm air
My cheek grow cold, and hear the sea
Breathe o’er my dying brain its last monotony.

Some might lament that I were cold,
As I, when this sweet day is gone,
Which my lost heart, too soon grown old,
Insults with this untimely moan;
They might lament—for I am one
Whom men love not,—and yet regret,
Unlike this day, which, when the sun
Shall on its stainless glory set,
Will linger, though enjoyed, like joy in memory yet.

 Percy Bysshe Shelley
Ponte de Tappia, Naples, About 1900, public domain, Wikimedia Commons
Basketmakers, Naples, 1906, Picryl, Public Domain
Picryl, Public Domain
Children in Naples, Italy. A group of little Italian boys pose. Photographed by Lieutenant Wayne Miller, August 1944. U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives, public domain

Mstyslav Chernov, 2008, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

An Epic Mother-Son Reunion in Italy

From Electric Lit:

There you were on my ancient doorstep, late, or early, unannounced, 
 in the thick black coat I bought you for Christmas. Of course, 
 you were on your way, but when would you arrive? As always, 
  
 no phone. Me, no extra-key or place to hide it, only two days into 
 my teaching abroad, Florence sodden, dark, full of shadows 
 and confusion. But you convinced the smoking college students 
  
 on the cobblestone street—who knew me as professor mom—
 to let you through the first two doors, and then you were at mine, 
 a one, two knock. Bearded, cold, smiling. It was February, and you’d 
  
 landed at Heathrow, taken a bus to the City of London airport. 
 Then the flight and travel path went something like Frankfurt 
 to Macedonia. Macedonia! You huddled on a frozen hill in the coat 
  
 and in a down sleeping bag. Then to a rickety communist era train 
 to Thessaloniki and on to Athens. Next a port town I can’t remember, 
 maybe Patras, and a night ferry to Ancona and another train 
  
 to Bologna and back to Florence until you found my building 
 with directions jotted on a ragged scrap of ferry napkin. Long ago, 
 you and I were alone together in the small house, your father student 
  
 teaching in another town, coming home on weekends. It was you 
 and me, day after day, me too young to mother properly, me 
 in charge of you, already smarter with a wicked baby smile. 
  
 But there we were in the dark mornings, the slog of the day. 
 We went to every free Wednesday at the merry-go-round, every 
 park. You and me together in the nighttime with fevers. Here, 
  
 in Florence, in the medieval building, in the odd apartment, you 
 and me again, planning meals of roasted eggplant and 
 brocolo romanesco, walking to the store pulling the cart 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Translators in the UK Call for Racial Equality in Literary Translation

From Publishing Perspectives:

In what has developed as a healthy debate, the Translators Association and the Society of Authors in the United Kingdom have stepped forward to take an eloquent stand on issues of race and access to work and opportunity in their profession.

. . . .

Briefly, the translators are writing to two points deeply important to workers across all the creative industries, fully inclusive of both international book publishing and literary translation.

  • First, they argue that anyone can translate anyone. That is to say, the rejection of one or another translator based on a factor such as race is, they say, unacceptable. (If you’ve ever stopped to admire how deftly a male translator like David Hackston can handle the most sensitive work of a female author like Finland’s Katja Kettu in The Midwife (Amazon Crossing, 2016), you know what they’re talking about). The translators write, “We believe an individual’s identity should never be a limiting factor.”
  • Second, the translators are addressing “structural racism and access to publishing” on a wider scale. As they phrase it, this involves “the urgent need for more openness and opportunities in publishing, more visibility of translators of color and more proactive intervention to help dismantle the institutional barriers faced by early-career translators.”

If anything, the arrival of this inflection point represents a kind of backfire on an attempt to impose limitations on literary work. And for those of us who know translators and work with them or cover their work, the moment is exhilarating because this discussion puts them at centerstage, for once, not cordially shooed to the sidelines.

. . . .

You may recall that in the January 20 inauguration in Washington of Joe Biden as the United States’ new president, the activist poet Amanda Gorman delivered her inaugural poem, The Hill We Climb.

When the Dutch publisher Meulenhoff in Amsterdam was preparing to have its Dutch edition of The Hill We Climb translated, it recommended to Gorman that the translation be made by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. As Publishing Perspectives readers know, Rijneveld is the gifted author of De avond is ongemak (The Discomfort of Evening). Its English translation by Michele Hutchison won the 2020 International Booker Prize. The Discomfort of Evening is published in the United Kingdom by Faber & Faber, and in the United States by Graywolf.

Rijneveld, at 29, is the youngest author to have won the International Booker, and her book is the first debut effort to find top favor with the jury.

An objection to Rijneveld’s selection to translate Gorman, however, came from journalist Janice Deul in a piece at deVolkskrant. Deul, as Anna Holligan wrote from The Hague for BBC News last month, argued that a white translator for Gorman’s work was wrong.

In her column of February 25, Deul wrote, “Isn’t it—to say the least—a missed opportunity to hire Marieke Lucas Rijneveld for this job? … white, non-binary, has no experience in this field, but according to Meulenhoff still the ‘dream translator’?” (Rijneveld identifies as non-binary and prefers the pronouns they and them.)

“Nothing to the detriment of Rijneveld’s qualities,” Deul wrote, emphases hers, “but why not opt ​​for a translator who—just like Gorman—is a spoken word artist, young, woman, and: unapologetically Black ? We … are blind to the spoken word talent in [our] own country.”

Rijneveld would end up withdrawing from the Gorman translation assignment.

. . . .

Rijneveld’s step-aside from the translation work on Gorman was followed by news that the Catalan translator Victor Obiols, as he described it, was informed that his finished translation would not be used because, being a white man, he “was not suitable to translate it,” as reported by Sindya Bhanoo at the Washington Post on March 25.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Yet another problem facing traditional publishing. Fortunately, there is an alternative.

PG wonders whether anyone thought to ask the author of The Hill We Climb, Ms. Gorman, who she would like to have translate her poem into Dutch and whether she thought the translator should be an African-American like she is or whether a translator who is any other color that the large majority of the Dutch population would do.

PG recalls a friend he worked with many years ago who was Nigerian and had received his undergraduate degree from a Nigerian university and his MBA from a very good school in Chicago.

PG’s friend said he felt no affinity for anyone he had met in the large African-American community in Chicago. For him, the culture and values of Nigeria and the culture of the African-American community to which he had been exposed differed in many significant ways. They were not the same as all.

The roots of Nigerian culture reach back to a time when the Roman Empire was also developing. Islam reached Nigeria long before any European explorers and Christian missionaries appeared.

Suffice to say, culture and skin color/race are two different things. Russia has a different culture than France. Japan has a different culture than China. Scotland and Canada have different cultures than the United States.

So, who’s a better translator of a wonderful poem written by an African-American into Dutch – someone with a skin color other than white or someone who is experienced with the nuances of both the English and Dutch languages?

PG will conclude with an excerpt from Ms. Gorman’s poem which, to him, seemed apt for this discussion.

We are striving to forge a union with purpose,
to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man.
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us,
but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another.

Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”