Reviews

The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations by Robert Bly

Andy Fogle

What I see being published these days is poetry that either values language over life, or vice versa, rather than a productive friction between the two.


The Winged Energy of Delight

Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 416
Subtitle: Selected Translations
Price: $29.95
Author: Robert Bly
US publication date: 2004-06
Amazon

Even though I cherish the art, I am bored to tears by most poetry being published today. In the mainstream, in the small presses, nay even in most of the underground, it is rare that I find poetry that is challenging but not obscure, entertaining but not lightweight, intellectual but not elite. Happily, over the last 40 years, Robert Bly has built a body of English versions of foreign-language poems that reminds me of what I love about poetry.

Today in America, for whatever reasons, we are still generally stuck with either the smirks of language poetry or the comfortable rehearsals of first-person-lyric-narrative, whether formal or free verse. This is a blatant over-generalization, but what I see being published these days is poetry that, for whatever reason, either values language over life, or vice versa, rather than a productive friction between the two. Seeing language poets and formalists roll their eyes at the mention of the other reminds me of the great two-party false choice that stifles the US political system, and I don't like where that has my country.

But I do like how Ghalib's "The Clay Cup" chooses to dance, a poem that makes me glad I learned to read:

If King Jamshid's diamond cup breaks, that's it.
But my clay cup I can easily replace, so it's better.

The delight of giving is deeper when the gift hasn't been demanded.
I like the God-seeker who doesn't make a profession of begging.

When I see God, color comes into my cheeks.
God thinks-this is a bad mistake-that I'm in good shape.

When a drop falls in the river, it becomes the river.
When a deed is done well, it becomes the future.

I know that Heaven doesn't exist, but the idea
Is one of Ghalib's fantasies.

The bridge between American poetry in the 20th century and that from the rest of the world is the ghazal, an ancient Persian sequence of associative couplets. Typically, the subject matter is an absent lover, but many ghazals orbit around some other type of absence. The tradition also requires the last word of each stanza to be either identical or perfectly rhymed (this too is often played with); in the final couplet, the poet uses his or her own name somehow.

Ghalib, a 19th century Indian Muslim alcoholic, exercises what I believe to be one of the most crucial tools of the poetic imagination: the associative leap, non-linear transitions from one image or lyric to another. Each couplet is a working part of larger-but-not-lockstep whole, as well as a piece that could be excerpted, read on its own, and still make sense, still compel. Childlike, wry, intoxicating/-ed, mischievous, at times quietly profound -- I see so little that meets all these qualities in contemporary American poetry. A handful of American poets (Bly, W.S. Merwin, James Wright, Mark Strand) have consistently paid tribute to this mode, but it still seems undervalued, and I think this kind of consciously intuitive mindset is always -- and this is not exactly a complaint -- on the margins of U.S. culture.

Bly has been a fine, though flawed ambassador for the rest of the world's poetry, boasting a downright jaw-dropping range of countries and time that is represented -- India, Afghanistan, Chile, Norway, Sweden, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Japan. He stretches all the way back to Horace, born 66 BC and a contemporary of Julius Caesar, up to poets still living today, with an especially remarkable coverage of the last 200 years. There are some marquee names (Neruda, Lorca, Rilke, Rumi), a few that seem almost obligatory (particularly Basho and Issa), but I am knocked over by the Indian and Scandinavian poets included here, like Mirabai and Olav H. Hauge.

One might say, "Golly! This guy must know a bushel of tongues to translate all of this." He doesn't.

Bly has somewhat unorthodox methods as a translator, but to his credit, he admits this, giving a pretty extensive account of all the people and in some cases institutions which have helped him bring these poetries to the US. It's not unusual for a translator to thank friends, even a son-in-law as Bly does, for expertise in other languages, but his "Kabir poems are rewritings of the translations into colonial English made by Rabindranath Tagore in the 1920s." Does that mean Bly didn't return to the originals in Kabir's native tongue? The Mirabai "versions" (a term Bly rightfully uses instead of translations) have a similar foundation, evolving "from word-by-word translations � by the East Asian Language Department of the University of Chicago." Finally, this admission is nothing short of baffling: "I had no help on Rilke, and depended on my own German, which was probably not good enough."

Unfair as this may be, it offers a quick taste of what you get when you read Bly over another translation. He has a phrase of Rilke's poem "Archaic Torso of Apollo" as "the place where the seeds are" while Stephen Mitchell has it "where procreation flared;" at the opening of another Rilke poem, Bly exclaims "Every single angel is terrible!" while Mitchell broods "Every angel is terrifying." While I prefer Mitchell's Rilke and Daniel Simko's Georg Trakl, to Bly's (or his many associates') credit, most of the translations are just fine, and a few flat-out gorgeous.

Translation is a blurry business anyway. Languages evolve, mix, words meanings have hydra-like relationships with contexts. And the fertile compact nature of the best poetry only compounds the difficulty of the translator's task. Many rightly declare that any foreign version of a poem is inferior to the version in its native tongue, but that's no reason to let it lie. And despite his often befuddingly personal introductions to poets, Bly obviously honors the bringing together of these voices more than anything else, and we'd be fools to fault him for that.


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