Some of what follows may be repetition, but a good thing bears repeating, especially in an age when so much bad stuff is prevailing. So what I am discussing and explicating are touchstones and consolations, as far as anything can console and encourage.
Though I consider Guillaume Apollinaire and Jacques Prevert much greater poets, it is one stanza by Louis Aragon that travels with me, and I quote it here, perhaps not entirely correctly, from memory—I am not a very good memorizer.
Mon amour, j’etais dans tes bras.
Au dehors quelqun murmura
Une vieille chanson de France.
Mon mal enfin s’est reconnu
Et son refrain, comme d’un pied nu,
Troubla l’eau verte du silence.
This was written during the Occupation, when people tried to inure themselves against terrible times, as presumably did the very leftist and quasi-surrealist Aragon, when what this poem says presumably occurred. I translate:
My love, I was in your arms,/ When outside someone murmured/ An old song of France./ My hurt at last recognized itself,/ And its refrain, as with a bare foot,/ Troubled the green water of silence.
What, I wonder, was that old song that had such a great, shaming and redeeming impact on the surrounding silence? The recognition it provokes—that one cannot accept even unspoken Collaboration with the Nazis—stirs up dormant patriotism and Resistance. The allusion, I take it, is to kids on the border of a lake dangling their feet in the water in carefree leisure. But what is that “green” doing there? I assume that it refers to the treasonous allure of resignation. Green can be the peaceable color of standing water, eliciting inaction, however seductive.
But, this being poetry, there is also the matter of sound. In the last line, the ou and a and au are dark sounds, with er and e transitioning to the brightness of u, i. en. and mute e forming a lure toward connivance. That last line is sheer seduction, wrought by alluring music.
Speaking of music, English poetry offers magisterial means for it. This is largely, but by no means solely, so because the poet has such opportunities provided by there being so often a choice between a romance and an anglo-saxon word, on the order of friendly and amicable, lengthy and long, peaceful and pacific, happy and felicitous, murderer and assassin, verity and truth, endanger and imperil, and so on and on. In my book “Paradigms Lost,” I have a whole chapter on that subject, entitled “Sibling Rivalry.”
Even though my favorite poets in English are Robert Graves and Richard Wilbur, let me reach back to a stanza by the melodious (or tuneful) Swinburne. One concluding (or ending) quatrain of his runs, “And the best and the worst of this is/ That neither is most to blame,/ If you have forgotten my kisses/ And I have forgotten your name.”
This I find sublime. Take the wonderful rhyme “this is” and “kisses.” That is a feminine. i.e., bisyllabic rhyme, in pleasing alternation with the masculine, i.e., monosyllabic one, “blame” and “name.” It is good that both sets use rather commonplace words, which still manage to be surprising in context, without having to reach for less plain, more recherché, words to create rhyme. This is what makes the artful device of rhyme come across as perfectly natural.
And then we have the powerful idea of something being both best and worst, both good and bad. That is no ordinary insight. Haven’t we all gotten over lost loves, and yet this calming oblivion (or forgetfulness) makes something basically sad livable with. It not only neutralizes our suffering, it also exculpates the one who caused it. We are both equally guilty and innocent in a world where there is no black and white, but rather a merciful (forgiving or at least extenuating) gray. And how the words sing!
In German, one favorite bit of poetry comes from an obscure poem written for Marthe Hennebert, a weeping young working-class girl whom Rilke encountered in the street and proceeded to console by making her his girlfriend. A final stanza runs like this:
Befriedigungen ungezaehlter Jahre
sind in der Luft, voll Blumen liegt dein Hut
und ein Geruch aus deinem reinen Haare
mischt sich mit Welt als waere alles gut.
Appeasements of innumerable years
are in the air, your hat lies full of flowers
and a smell from your pure hair
mingles with world as if all were well.
The scene is as in Seurat’s immortal painting, a Sunday afternoon on the shore of the Seine, with the poet and his new young mistress enjoying a respite, regardless of other people with the same idea. It is all very idyllic, the flowers obviously purchased as a rich bouquet, and laid on top of the divested hat, yet the scent is coming not from them, but from the beloved’s pure hair. Somehow that wonderfully clean and presumably opulent hair exudes an odor di femina (as Italians would have it), something not shop-bought but, dare one say, naturally erotic.
A terrific effect is achieved by that inner rhyme, “deinem reinen”; not only does it intensify the purity of her hair and so flatter the new mistress, it also speeds up the movement to that terrifying ending despite all these wonders still unable to make the world better. That “as if” is quietly devastating. But what about “the “appeasement of incalculable years”? A tribute, I suppose, to la Grande Jatte,” that playground for so many folk to indulge themselves as Sunday compensation for working-class stiffs--no need to evoke the Sondheim musical.
By locating te appeasement “in the air,” Rilke makes its charm truly ubiquitous, as universal as can be, and yet ultimately not enough. Particularly poignant is calling the world, which in German should be “die Welt,” merely “Welt,” something more mysteriously permeating, as “World” is more cosmically overpowering than an ordinary, known, cozy, everyday “the world.” And yet, with all these inducements to happiness, to a dejeuner sur l’herbe almost, it is still only that hapless quasi-world or threatening superworld, too little or too much. Or “ the best and the worst”—and, as it were, no real picnic.
That is one of the great attributes of poetry, the ability to say so much in so little, to which the apt rhyme-scheme also contributes: the effective alternation of feminine and masculine rhymes, concluding with that strong yet deceptive closer, “gut.”
All of this leads me to a powerful, to me saddening, proof of the impossibility, or near so, of translating lyrical poetry, where so much depends on sound. A marvelous poem by Hungary’s Baudelaire, the fountainhead of its modern poetry, Endre Ady, has a great ending in “Testamentumot, szornyet, irni/ Es sirni, sirni, sirni, sirni.” (Imagine accent marks on the second o and on the capital E, making them, respectively, an English er and an a as in lake). I have tried in vain to translate the poem into rhyming verse; in prose, that ending translates “To write a testament, a dreadful one,/And weep, weep, weep, weep.” The prime reason for the untranslatability of this crushing distich is those four “sirni”s, comparable to Lear’s heartrending four “never”s. In English, weep and cry are monosyllables, and those do not resonate as horribly as a quadruple bisyllable, pronounced more or less like “sheerni.” Four “weep”s, like four “cry”s, just don’t do the trick.
To be sure, sometimes a not so great poem can be effectively translated; I have, if I dare say so, published a Serbian verse translation of Kilmer’s “Trees” that works as well as the original.
In English, there are single lines of poetry that do the job for me, notably Cummings’s “Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands” that affects me even without the assist of Tennessee Williams’s famous appropriation of it. And then there is, horribile dictu, Poe’s horrendous “Quoth the raven Nevermore,” the latter owing its immortality through persiflage. Note that the repeated vowel--e in Poe’s raven and Lear’s outcry, like the i in Ady’s sob--add to the quotability, another poetic device that defies translation. Observe the poetic iteration in device and defies.
Still and all, I tend to wonder why these particular quotations come to me the way equally fine verses do not. Add that fact to the mysteries of poetry. As is the force of compression, say, in that great early English lyric (circa 1530), which runs: “O Western wind, when wilt thou blow,/ That the small rain down can rain?/ Christ that my love were in my arms/ And I in my bed again?” Or, perhaps even earlier, the Scot William Dunbar’s “Timor mortis conturbat me,” i.e., “The fear of death unsettles me.”
The penultimate and last quotation are less frequent visitors. The former, because it does not apply to my condition; the latter, because it applies all too much. But even as, in the mystery play, Good Deeds accompanies Everyman to his demise, so do these quotations companion me through life. They do not cure, but they do facilitate.