“poetry was to be found everywhere”: miscellany 1

September 19, 2013 § 2 Comments

“Poetry was to be found everywhere.”
— Ward, John Keats: The Making of a Poet, p.138

“The abandonment of the autonomy of the will of the speaking person as a speaker constitutes a form of knowledge — poetic knowledge. The knowledge that not ‘I’ speaks but ‘language speaks.’ (Heidegger).”
— Grossman, Summa Lyrica, p.210

“Seriousness is the state of feeling which arises when consciousness, encompassing the circumscription of its own life, becomes centred in itself and becomes heavy with the gravity of its own solitude. Seriousness is a quality of lyric.”
— Summa Lyrica, p.240

Papaver Orientale, ‘Beauty of Livermore’: “Crimson-scarlet with black basal blotch”; “Clumps of divided leaves clothed in bristly hairs catch the light, especially if spotted with dew, and sumptuous flowers, crumpled at first, open to reveal satiny petals and a boss of dark, velvety stamens.”

Anemone x Hybrida, ‘Honorine Jobert’: “The pristine white flowers on five-foot stems, appear luminous at dusk.” (flower manual — which one??)

a poem consists of : a) movement in time (prosody), and b) movement in intellectual time (poetic mode–the analogue of plot in fiction)
— Mary Kinzie, A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, p.14

Kinzie, on reading a poem: “Words. You are not just reading messages or extracting meanings or drafting editorials to put into lines: You are thinking in words. You are thinking so hard in the atmosphere created by words that they enter you like your breathing. This means first, looking at words by themselves, with all their weight and subtlety; it helps to think about their length, complexity, and language of origin, too.” p.5/6

and: “One of the ways a poem grows, which the act of reading imitates, is to send out tendrils from the word toward the sentence of which it becomes a part, and from the sentence to the surrounding trellis of the lines.” p.6

M: “Poetry. Tamatoe (rymeing poem)
red sliced or diced Jucy or
nice in my Hand squishy squishy squishy”

M: “Poetry. Lemon. (non rhymeing poem.)
sour lemon and lime flaver sour sour more sour.”

“As M. H. Abrams notes, Coleridge held that ‘literary invention involves the natural, unplanned, and unconscious process by which things grow.’ Like a plant, the poet gathers material from the atmosphere around him and puts out branches and leaves. The poem itself, also like a plant, begins with a seed or ‘germ.’ It finds its natural or inherent shape, having assimilated materials from the atmosphere.”
— Jay Parini, Why Poetry Matters, p.14

“The first consequence of the first reading [of a poem] is the silence of the reader who was a speaker–his privilege as a speaker has been conceded to the speaker in the poem. The final consequence of first reading is the silence of acknowledgement of difference, the primordial apprehension, not of the otherness of another in terms of characterizing marks, but of the characterizing marks of another in terms of the inference of something personal which is not the self–the new planet, the unnamed thing which was always there but never to this moment acknowledged. This is the paradox of discovery. Discovery creates nothing but concedes the existence of a thing ‘not previously known.'”
— Summa Lyrica, p320

“Prickly leaves twined around pale brown letters. A tiny red dragon’s head was spitting out flowers over the stained paper.” — Inkheart, p.39

“My hand is cramped from penwork
My quill has a tapered point.
Its bird-mouth issues a blue-dark
Beetle-sparkle of ink.”
–Seamus Heaney, translation from the Irish,  “Colum Cille Cecinit, I. Is scith mo chrob on scribainn”

“The memory of my ‘builder’ is a storehouse of materials used by his predecessors: these discoveries, their signs and symbols. This is how poets carry on ‘the conversation begun before us’ — to use Pasternak’s phrase for their response to each other that knows no bounds of time or space. As transformed in the mind of a new ‘builder,’ such borrowed elements help to bring out his purely personal feelings, thoughts, and experiences. Words themselves, in fact, are nothing but distillations of the meaning put into them by all the generations who have ever spoken the language — besides what was already built into them during the pre-history of the language, before it split off from the group to which it belongs.”
— N. Mandelstam, Hope Abandoned, p.620

“The Orphic machine is the poem: a severed head with face turned away that sings.”; “Each poem is a reinvention of the speech source, because each poem establishes again, and is also identical with, the fictional ‘I’ (the severed head) which is the machine that has speech as its product.”
— Summa Lyrica, p. 364

“Think of it as the shell, the skull, the mummy, the golden bird, the garden, the rose, the ark, the bee-box, the labyrinth, the whale, the stone, the grail, the bridge, the tower, the pyramid, the temple, the knot, the breast, the mountain, the sea, the harp, the wind, the countenance…The source of speech, the source of poetry and the source of world are co-implicated. Symbolic representations of the origination of poetic utterance in Orphic objects and machines indicates that poetry is the speaking of being and that being comes first. Poetry is the speaking of being in the process of discovering itself as an occasion of the visibility of a person. The Orphic machine is the state of the object at the point of that discovery. Poetry issues from world at the point of submission of world to countenance, that is to say, at the point of its brokeness as world.”
— Summa Lyrica, p.365

“Williams was turned to ash on August 15 on the coast of Tuscany, Shelley the day after at Viareggio on pyres of pine, frankincense, wine, oil, honey, and salt.”
— Posthumous Keats, Stanley Plumly, p.101

from Modern Poetry and the Idea of Language, Gerald Bruns:

–that to Aristotle, “Words thus appear to be regarded as so many atoms in space, available for combination into molecules according to a linear model. This linear model is clearly at work in Aristotle’s discussion of diction in the Poetics, where he distinguishes, together with the letter, noun, and verb, the syndesmos and arthron, two anatomical terms meaning ‘ligament’ and ‘joint.'” p.29  i.e. they bind together parts of the sentence (conjunctions or articles)

–“It was customary among the Greeks to identify the letters of the alphabet (and with them the indivisible sounds of speech) as stoicheia, literally physical particles…” p.30

–on Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, in the 4th book, P. & friends encounter strange sounds at sea — frozen words and cries of people in a bloody battle the winter before, their words frozen in the air; as the thaw comes, the words melt and can be heard

–P. throws “‘on the deck a whole handful of frozen words…and when we had somewhat warmed them between our hands, they melted like snow and we really heard them.'”

–“This frozen state is another way of describing the condition of the written (and particularly the printed) word, the word reduced to the extended, purely spatial mode of existence of the phonetic  alphabet. It was by means of the alphabet that man learned how to fix the spoken word in space by transforming  it into a sequence of objects. To read the written or printed word, of course, is simply to reverse this process: it is to re-create the utterance, to return it from space into time.” p.37

–“Signmund Burckhardt, in an essay entitled ‘The Poet as Fool and Priest,’ has observed that ‘the nature and primary function of the most important poetic devices–especially rhyme, meter, and metaphor–is to release words in some measure from their bondage to meaning, their purely referential role, and to give or restore to them the corporeality which a true medium needs.’ After all, language for a poet is rarely or never a purely transitive medium–a medium acted upon solely for the purposes of signification. Gerard Manley Hopkins once said, in his essay ‘Rhythm and the Other Structural Parts of Rhetoric-Verse,’ that ‘we may think of words as heavy bodies, as indoor and out of door objects of nature and man’s art’; and he went on to observe that, like natural bodies, words possess centres of gravity and centres of illumination. The function of a word in a rhythmic structure is to be found in the relationship or interplay between these two centres, which determines, respectively, its stress and pitch.” p.196-7

–“‘It is an impossible absolute that all words, that the texts, be written in such a way as to allow the words their complete semantic thickness. This is impossible. But if one has that sensitivity to the thickness of words, to the fact that they do have a history, that they have provoked associations of language, then this provides a much thicker material that is not superficial, which is a thing that one can mould precisely because it has the quality, the thickness, of potter’s clay. It is a physical object with many dimensions.'”
— Francis Ponge, qtd in Bruns, p.280-1

Rosalind, teasing the lovesick Orlando: “There is a man haunts the Forest, that abuses our yong plants with carving Rosalinde on their barkes; hangs Oades upon Hawthornes, and Elegies on brambles; all (forsooth) deifying the name of Rosalinde.” III.ii.352-5

“But ‘He is a god in my eyes,’ fragile and ephemeral as the action it imitates might seem, catches and holds the light of things as they are, everywhere, always, as surely as does the Iliad or the Antigone.”
— W. R. Johnson, The Idea of Lyric, p.83

“‘The circumstances of my life, living in the domain of a foreign tongue, have meant that I deal much more consciously with my language than before — and yet: the How and Why of that qualitative change the word experiences, to become a word in a poem, I’m unable to define more closely even today. Poetry, Paul Valery says somewhere, is language in statu nascendi, language becoming free.'”
— Paul Celan, qtd in Felstiner, p.77

“It is Keats’s use of consonance, however, as a stay against the flow of vowels, that really grounds the substance of the music to its meaning–both its source and statement. Keats’s consonants hold what his vowels would let go, the ‘subtle’ tension of which enacts the mortality of ‘the wasted breath’ that Yeats himself calls lyric poetry.”
–Plumly, Posthumous Keats, p.345

lyric/epic modes and the recognition of persons

April 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

In the poem as trace of an event 2 I mentioned that the American poet and theorist Susan Stewart in Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (2002), offers an interesting discussion of the ethical element of lyric when she distinguishes between lyric and epic poetry: she suggests that epic poetry is the voice of the nation (it voices the official perspective of the nation at war) while lyric poetry is the voice of the individual, who may be caught up in that war, but speaks alone, as one:

“I would like to take seriously [Rorty’s] suggestion that literature is a vehicle of moral progress if by such progress we mean an increasing recognition of individual persons and a reciprocal attention to the consequences of actions in relation to intentions. But I would argue that we can as readily find an analogue to the contrast between the abstracted and sublime view of human suffering and the immediacy of first-person experience in the contrast between two poetic modes: the first associated with public representations of war and the expression of tribalism and nationalism — the epic — and the second associated with the expression of the senses and emotions out of first-person experience — the lyric.” (p.296)

She goes on to argue that the lyric mode is best able to present the idiosyncratic consciousness of an individual, those “senses and emotions” that arise from first-person experience, over the engineered ideological pronouncements of the state. I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the Iliad, and Alice Oswald’s Memorial (2011), which could be described as a reworking of Homer which attempts to rescue the individual soldiers and their deaths from the relentless (at times cinematic) narrative of battle in the original poem.

Oswald writes in her preface to Memorial, that

“ancient critics praised [the poem’s] enargeia, which means something like ‘bright unbearable reality.’ It’s the word used when gods come to earth not in disguise but as themselves. This version, trying to retrieve the poem’s enargeia, takes away its narrative, as you might lift the roof off a church in order to remember what you’re worshipping. What’s left is a bipolar poem made of similes and short biographies of soldiers, both of which derive (I think) from distinct poetic sources: the similes from pastoral lyric (you can tell this because their metre is sometimes compressed as if it originally formed part of a lyric poem); the biographies from the Greek tradition of lament poetry [….] I like to think that the stories of individual soldiers recorded in the Iliad might be recollections of these laments, woven into the narrative by poets who regularly performed both high epic and choral lyric poetry.” p.1-2

Her “translation” then is based on her interpretation of the Iliad as “a kind of oral cemetery — in the aftermath of the Trojan War, an attempt to remember people’s names and lives without the use of writing.” p.2 As such, and in light of Stewart’s comments above, Oswald is working against the grain: to salvage the individual perspective by lifting it from its surrounding epic (state) narrative, to give us tiny glimpses of individual soldiers at their deaths, of who they were, their preoccupations, their loves.

In practice, Oswald constructs the bulk of Memorial by presenting first a description of a soldier’s death, followed by an epic simile, which is repeated twice. The repetition suggests a certain ceremonial, religious aspect, as in a litany or a prayer for the dead. It also suggests the ways in which memory circles back, returning again and again to recall the ones we have lost. As example, I’ve selected her description of the death of Skamandrios (Scamandrius in Oswald’s version):

First, here is the death of Skamandrios, in Richmond Lattimore’s translation:

The henchmen of Idomeneus stripped the armour from Phaistos,
while Menelaos son of Atreus killed with the sharp spear
Strophios’ son, a man of wisdom in the chase, Skamandrios,
the fine huntsman of beasts. Artemis herself had taught him
to strike down every wild thing that grows in the mountain forest.
Yet Artemis of the showering arrows could not now help him,
no, nor the long spearcasts in which he had been pre-eminent,
but Menelaos the spear-famed, son of Atreus, stabbed him,
as he fled away before him, in the back with a spear thrust
between the shoulders and driven through to the chest beyond it.
He dropped forward on his face and his armour clattered upon him.  Bk. V. l.48-58

Here is Oswald’s translation or version, including the twice-repeated simile she adds to the biography:

SCAMANDRIUS the hunter
Knew every deer in the woods
He used to hear the voice of Artemis
Calling out to him in the lunar
No man’s land of the mountains
She taught him to track her animals
But impartial death has killed the killer
Now Artemis with all her arrows can’t help him up
His accurate firing arm is useless
Menelaus stabbed him
One spear-thrust through the shoulders
And the point came out through the ribs
His father was Strophius

Like when a mother is rushing
And a little girl clings to her clothes
Wants help wants arms
Won’t let her walk
Like staring up at that tower of adulthood
Wanting to be light again
Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted
And carried on a hip

Like when a mother is rushing
And a little girl clings to her clothes
Wants help wants arms
Won’t let her walk
Like staring up at that tower of adulthood
Wanting to be light again
Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted
And carried on a hip


Some of the personal information of Skamandrios is in the original, including the irony of the hunter now becoming the hunted and the slain.  Oswald draws more however upon the senses and emotions Stewart points to as the province of lyric; it’s as if we see through his eyes (what he used to hear in the “lunar/No man’s land of the mountains”). And the shorter line is more familiar to us than the original hexameter of epic poetry. But it is in the simile where Oswald diverges widely from Homer. The simile itself isn’t in the original, at least, not attached to Skamandrios’s death; rather, it appears at the opening to Book 16, when Patroklos comes to Achilleus:

and stood by him and wept warm tears, like a spring dark-running
that down the face of a rock impassable drips its dim water;
and swift-footed brilliant Achilleus looked on him in pity,
and spoke to him aloud and addressed him in winged words; ‘Why then
are you crying like some poor little girl, Patroklos,
who runs after her mother and begs to be picked up and carried,
and clings to her dress, and holds her back when she tries to hurry,
and gazes tearfully into her face, until she is picked up?
You are like such a one, Patroklos, dropping these soft tears.

(Bk.16, lines 3- 11)

Achilleus is not so sympathetic to Patroklos and his sorrow for the wounded Greeks; the implication is that such “soft tears” are not the appropriate response of a warrior; rather, they are the response of a child — a girl child no less, who seeks the comfort of her mother. Yet we know that Patroklos will in fact take on the heavy responsibility that is Achilleus’s to bear, and lose his life for it.

Oswald takes (or maybe rescues) this simile of a young child who desires to be picked up and carried by a mother and attaches it instead to the death of Skamandrios, and in so doing, transfers the emotions of the young girl-child wanting her mother to those of the soldier at his death. She is true to the original simile, but adds some lovely details: in the truncated grammar from the child’s perspective, its entire being suffused with wanting the mother (“wants help, wants arms”); in the idea of “wanting to be light again,” lifted from the heaviness that life has become; and in that final realistic detail, missing in the original, but so true to a mother’s experience, wanting to be “carried on a hip.” I envy her these lines.

Other adapted and transposed similes in Memorial come equally from the human world of labour, and the natural realm, each simile drawn from the original poem, but now married to the description of a soldier’s death. For example:

Like a wind-murmur
Begins a rumour of waves
One long note getting louder
The water breathes a deep sigh
Like a land-ripple
When the west wind runs through a field
Wishing and searching
Nothing to be found
The corn-stalks shake their green heads. (Memorial p.14)


Like when the wind comes ruffling at last to sailors adrift
Trying to manage the broken springs of their muscles
And lever and lift those well-rubbed oars
Making tiny dents in the ocean (Memorial p.43).

The strength of Oswald’s technique in Memorial is in the particularized description of each death, lifted out of the original narrative of war; each soldier and his death is given equal weight, no longer subsumed by the larger story of Achilles. And each death is then attached to a simile, as if a ritual mourning for that death. At its best, as in the example of Skamandrios above, lyric’s potential to tap into emotion and sensual experience is used to particularize the soldier’s death and present him as individual.

Yet, sometimes I feel that the similes drawn from the natural world — by which the soldier is transformed into grain, into waves, into earth, into sounds — begin to naturalize and thus possibly even sanction such deaths, these bloody deaths in the service of the state. That is, that Oswald attempts to resist the ideological ‘gravity’ of the Iliad by using lyric elements to lift the soldiers’ deaths out of the epic narrative — to carry them on the hip — but that Memorial is ultimately dragged back down into the Iliad’s heavy ideology because of the naturalizing similes, and may become complicit to some extent with the viewpoint of the state embodied by the epic form of the original. It’s as if the similes at times in Memorial erase the event’s trace, and the death is made clean. In this, the similes work against the particularizing force of the initial description of the soldier and his individual death; it is his death, yet it is given without question to the state.

At other times, I think there is something more positively transformative happening in Memorial, as if the Iliad is a cloth of many stitched pieces which Oswald has ripped apart at the seams and then rescued and stitched back together again, these lyric scraps meant to create a new hybrid poem to challenge the original epic, reframing its energeia, its “bright unbearable reality.”

the poem as trace of an event 2

February 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

Five miles away the hayricks and houses
are going up in fire;
beside the fields, peasants smoke their pipes
in silence and in fear.
Here, the lake still ripples at the little
shepherdess’s stride;
on the water a ruffled flock of sheep
stoops to drink a cloud.

Cservenka, 6th Oct. 1944

— “Razglednica (2)”  (Postcard 2), Miklós Radnóti, transl. Francis R. Jones

Beyond local, small-scale ecological witnessing, such as that of Borodale, Oswald, Longley, (discussed in “the poem as trace of an event 1“) some poets become directly caught up in larger historical events, these bloody trajectories of the 20th and 21st centuries, events which are then registered in their poetry in various ways — or sometimes deliberately resisted: Czesław Miłosz, on refusing permission to reprint some of his poems on the Warsaw Uprising: “I do not want to be known as a professional mourner.” (See his interview in The Paris Review.)

What kind of knowledge might a poem carry of an event such as that of the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti’s forced march of early November 1944, a march which ended in his execution in a mass grave?

Even during this march Radnóti managed to continue to write small poems in a soft-covered notebook, now known as the “Bor Notebook,” or sometimes “Camp Notebook.” (An online facsimile of it can be found here, from a 2009 exhibit of his work.) This was a small, square-ruled notebook which was later found on his body when the grave where he had been buried was exhumed after the war. [1]

Perhaps the very question is wrong, suggesting a desire for some utility for poetry, a desire that we can trace back in the English tradition at least to Sir Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesy (published 1595), who argued that poetry should both teach and delight, and which finds expression today in the “ethical turn” in literary studies. David-Antoine Williams offers an informative overview of this ethical turn in chapter 1, “Ethics, Literature, and the Place of Poetry,” of his Defending Poetry: Art and Ethics in Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, and Geoffrey Hill (2010). Tellingly, he notes that the focus of this ethical turn has been on narrative. Williams observes,

“Many writers on the ethics of literature simply ignore poetry and the poetic altogether: if the neo-Aristotelian didactic and the responsibility-oriented deconstructive streams of ethical criticism share anything, it is that both rely on broad theories of narration, which is to say they regard real or imagined human actions, consequences, and fates (usually) within social situations. It is the narrative components of novels, stories, dramas, etc. that are discussed and debated over, not, usually, their formal effects […] it is unclear where narrative-dependent ethical criticism leaves poetry, especially lyric poetry. Attempts to account for an ethics of poems are often perforce drawn back to narration: Susan Gubar, in discussing recent Holocaust poetry, ultimately locates its ethics in its ability ‘to counter the numbing amnesia inflicted on its casualties by traumatic injury and on their descendants by our collective overexposure to widely circulated narratives of attrocity.’ In other words, poetry’s ethicity depends on the extent to which its narratives can replace or refresh old, worn ones. Unsurprisingly, Gubar’s analysis never lingers on anything non-narrative, formal, or even ‘poetic’ in the poetry she treats.” (p.18)

So when I ask what knowledge a poem such as Radnóti’s “Razglednica (2)”, which I quoted above, might carry, I am thinking of knowledge and an ethical force beyond that which narrative holds. In any lyric poem we find both narrative and lyric elements, where the lyric often bears a heightened focus on language’s own procedures, by means of its formal elements. Williams is pointing here towards these procedures and formal qualities, and how they might be associated with a poem’s “ethicity”.[2]

An initial difficulty in concentrating upon “Razglednica (2)” as a lyric poem is its contextual history. Note that the poem is always published with the place and date of its writing — Cservenka, 6th Oct. 1944; Radnóti was on the forced march by this time. The original notebook includes these details of place and date following each poem, as if a “signature;” all versions of the poems in translation I have read follow him in this. And this signature invites us to always read the ‘postcard’ — ‘razglednica’ is the Serbian word for ‘postcard’ — within the context of his lived history and witnessing, as if each postcard-poem describes an image or snapshot from the march, the ghostly “reverse” of the poem; the notebook itself is often described as a witness from beyond the grave. But does this then relegate his razglednici to mere documentary snapshots of his own slow torture and death? They are often read as transcription or witness of these events, analogous to a newspaper report, as in the final razglednica, where he describes the killing of an acquaintance, which could also be a postcard documenting his own execution several weeks later. Yet what remains then of its status as lyric poem?

“Razglednica (2)” is the second of four such postcard-poems he wrote in the last months of his life. In them Radnóti invokes the pastoral tradition. He was a trained classicist, and some of his work consisted of making translations of Virgil, among others; Radnóti’s finest poems I think are his own “Eclogues,” which incorporate this Virgilian mode of social critique and lament with elements drawn directly from his experiences during the war — for example, in the Second Eclogue, instead of staging a dialogue with a peasant, he speaks with a military pilot who conducts bombing raids by night: “Pilot: Went far out into the night; I laughed, I was so mad./Like swarms of bees the fighter planes buzzed overhead…” (Transl. Emory George, p.230).

Similarly in “Razglednica (2),” the war is invoked; the image of a flock of sheep which stoops to sip from a cloud-reflecting lake is framed by the five-mile-distant carnage of a village in flames. There is no significant narrative here; merely ironic juxtaposition of two images. I take pleasure in his description of the lake as if the sheep stoop to sip from a cloud, in his having taken note of this trompe l’oeil effect, presenting a verbal equivalent by means of metaphor. The invocation of the pastoral also invites us to consider the function of this lyric mode, and its very capacity to document or engage with the events of war, which it seems here to do most forcefully.

But I am still avoiding the issue of the formal qualities of the poem, as much as I can engage with them in a translation, not being able to read the original Hungarian. Radnóti often used classical and closed forms; the razglednici are written in quatrains, and employ cross rhyme; some of his translators attempt to offer similar formal patterns, while the Polgar, Berg, and Marks translation employs free verse. The decision to replicate the formal patterns is important, however, for his poems use these formal elements of poetry to stand against the chaos and unmaking of war. During the years of the war he made the deliberate choice of turning to classical structures, even though his earlier collections of poetry experimented with free verse; he seemed to have found strength in this formal patterning, so much so that he did not stop writing these poems, even under duress, as if the closed structures helped to order and contain the violence he witnessed.

Emery George’s 1980 translations of the entire corpus of Radnóti’s poetry attempt to preserve many of the formal qualities of Radnóti’s verse, as do the more recent translations by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth and Frederick Turner in their 1992 Foamy Sky: The Major Poems of Miklos Radnóti, and Francis R. Jones in Camp Notebook (2000). George notes he tries to follow Radnóti’s own translation principles:

“It would not do […] to render a hexameter work in ‘open’ form, any more than it would do to try to render it in Alexandrines or in blank verse. Every syllable contributes its share of the weight to careful work in meter or in the shaped line and stanza. Indeed fidelity requires that, wherever similarities in syntax permit it, even the relative positions of words be observed; that where lexicon and semantics favor it we show sensitivity to the possibility of sound repetition somewhere near the passage that exhibits it in the original […] In short, the translator of poetry had better have a good ear.” p.42]

He introduces all kinds of questions here regarding translation, but I want simply to note his insistence on the importance of form to Radnóti himself as translator and poet.

Here is George’s own translation of “Razglednica (2)”:

Nine kilometers from here the haystacks and
houses are burning;
sitting on the field’s edges, some scared and speechless
poor folk are smoking.
Here a little shepherdess, stepping onto the lake,
ruffles the water;
the ruffled sheep flock at the water drinks from
clouds, bending over.

The rhyme scheme, which both Jones and George preserve by means of slant rhyme is xaxa xbxb. Jones rhymes fire and fear, stride and cloud, while George strains towards burning/smoking, and water/over. Rhyme often reinforces semantic or emotional connections between words. In this, I find Jones’ translation more successful in the linking of fire to fear; the ambiguity of George’s poor folk ‘smoking,’ as if smouldering and not smoking a pipe, is unfortunate.

The two quatrains are used by Radnóti to set up two distinct images which contrast sharply and ironically with one another. In the first quatrain we see the distant, burning village and the peasant observers — and are perhaps reminded that we also watch, as from a great distance, this scene from almost seventy years ago. In the second quatrain a more typical pastoral image is presented of a shepherdess with her flock of sheep, which sip from the sky-reflecting lake. The ironic juxtaposition of the two images is strengthened by the formal elements of the first quatrain (alternating rhyme, line length) which are then mirrored in the second, as cloud is mirrored in lake, as the first image begins to obscure or cloud over the second as the war progresses.

George more successfully captures the rhythm of the original line, I suspect, with his use of a triple foot and falling rhythm. But I like the way in which Jones manages by means of enjambment to emphasize fire, silence, and fear in lines 2 and 4 of the first quatrain:

Five miles away the hayricks and houses
are going up in fire;
beside the fields, peasants smoke their pipes
in silence and in fear.

The first line with its reference to hayricks might be the opening of a simple pastoral quatrain, until the second line undercuts this with the words “are going up in fire.” Similarly, peasants smoking their pipes, another idyllic image, is quickly undercut by “in silence and in fear.” I don’t know if this effect is present in the original, but it is effective.

The very fact that Radnóti writes this poem while on a forced march, using elements such as metre and rhyme, quatrain form, image, metaphor, and the resultant compression of language this entails, can also be read as significant: he makes pattern out of a chaos of sound, a poem out of the chaos of war which, as Scarry observes in The Body in Pain, unmakes language along with many other human institutions. This tiny poem functions as counterforce to such destruction.

Similarly, I equally value in Radnóti’s poems from his Bor Notebook  the gesture of the individual voice, the single, quiet voice that speaks in the silence, in the dark.  As readers, we are allowed access to the imprint of his single consciousness — again an imprint that is found in the very formal qualities of the poem itself, a transcription of what this man thought as he rested in barracks (I don’t mean here a spontaneous trace of his conscious thought, but inevitably a re-presentation of this thought through formal means; Grossman–“Poems are fictions of the privacy of other minds. Wherever the philosopher says per impossibile the poet shows the way” p.147 Summa Lyrica), as in the magnificent “Seventh Eclogue” in which he describes a dream-journey from the forced labour camp back to his home:

from “Seventh Eclogue”

Look how evening descends and around us the barbed-wire-hemmed, wild
oaken fence and the barracks are weightless, as evening absorbs them.
Slowly the glance loses hold on the frame of our captive condition,
only the mind, it alone is alive to the tautness of wire.
See, Love: phantasy here, it too can attain to its freedom
only through dream, that comely redeemer who frees our broken
bodies — it’s time, and the men in the prison camp leave for their homes now.

(translation by Emery George, in The Complete Poetry)

Radnóti is using here the classical dactylic hexameter line, one which we are much less used to hearing in English, and which George attempts to reproduce — he speaks of Radnóti’s hexameter lines as having “grace, speed, and power” (p.42).

While Virgil uses hexameter lines to write the Eclogues, and this may be Radnóti’s more immediate model, we might consider also the use of the hexameter line as formal vehicle in epic poetry, foremost of which is the Iliad. In Susan Stewart’s Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (2002) she makes the useful distinction between the epic mode, which carries official ideologies, the state’s version of war, and the lyric mode, which, she argues, offers the perspective of the individual caught up in war, and carries traces of an individual’s sense-perceptions and emotions (p.296). Radnóti in his use of the hexameter line to write many of his last poems we might read as an undermining of this vehicle of official ideology; he uses it to convey the individual’s first-person experience of sensation and emotion, a private dream life in the midst of war. Frederick Turner in his translator’s essay in Foamy Sky, also notes the importance of this hexameter line in Radnóti’s poetry: “..the epic/pastoral hexameters of the first and eighth eclogues are fundamental to their meanings, recalling the power of Homer, the moral complexity of Virgil, and that strange Hadean combination of the arcadian and the heroic that we associate with the descent to the land of the dead” (p.xlvii).

Formal qualities are integral to the effect Radnóti seeks to achieve in these last poems. George acknowledges the documentary or trace aspect of Radnóti’s Bor poetry, and yet insists on their self-conscious attention to making:

“If ever there was art that moves beyond the naturalistically faithful documentation of life that it appears to be providing, it is the poems of the Bor Notebook. To be sure we have no reason not to accept at face value some of the conditions the poems depict, or — nearly so — some of the statements they represent a man as making. That the poet misses [his wife] Fanni and that he hopes to make superhuman attempts to return to her (“Seventh Eclogue,” “Letter to My Wife,” “Forced March”), that in the solitude of his brutish exile he is consoled by his thoughts (“Letter to My Wife,” “Eighth Eclogue”), that in the midst of his own predicament he is thinking of the many who have already met their fates in one form or another (“A la recherche….”) […] What may still need our attention is secrets of the poems not revealed by the images alone” (p.39).

George then goes on to note the deliberate invocation and undercutting of the pastoral, and the formal skill of the Bor poems, bearing “a hardness and diamond-like perfection” (p.40) In this, he is directing our attention to the formal over the documentary “trace” of this poetry.

Yet he also points out that the “Razglednica” as imitation “postcard” is part of a longer experimental tradition by Radnóti to engage with “letters, diary entries, newspaper reportage, expansions of poetic expression that parallel concrete and three-dimensional poetic happenings in our time” (p.40). Here Radnóti would seem to self-consciously engage with poem as documentary trace of an event.

[1] The Bor notebook comprised the 7th and 8th Eclogues, “Root,” “Letter to my Wife,” ” À la recherche,” “Forced March,” as well as the four Razglednici or postcard poems.

[2] Williams’ comment on Gubar and the role of narrative in poetry is not entirely fair. Consider her discussion of “Why poetry matters”  in chapter 1 of Poetry After Auschwitz: “poetry serves an important function here, for it abrogates narrative coherence and thereby sparks discontinuity […] In an effort to signal the impossibility of a sensible story, the poet provides spurts of vision, moments of truth, baffling but nevertheless powerful pictures of scenes unassimilated into an explanatory plot and thus seizes the past ‘as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.’ According to Benjamin, images (not stories, which tend to recount the past so as to account for it) put the ‘then’ of the past into a dialectical relationship with the ‘now’ of the present, constitute a critique of the myth of progress, and promote mindfulness about how the past continues to exist as an outrage in the present.” p.7 That being said, however, I agree with him that in her actual treatment of individual poems, she glosses over more formally interesting poems by Celan, Forche, and others, concentrating largely on narrative-driven poetry, which she then herself critically narrates.

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