Wednesday 28 November 2012

The European Muse

The European Muse

reviewed by  Seamus Gallagher.

The European Muse, an event organised by Peter Sirr and the Dublin Book Festival and sponsored by Poetry Ireland, took place in Smock Alley Theatre on Saturday 17th November.

It was hosted by Michael O'Loughlin and gave rise to a very stimulating discussion by four Irish poets and the Dutch classical singer and poet, Judith Mok. Harry Clifton, Moya Cannon, Judith Mok, Mary O'Donnell and Michael O'Loughlin discussed the influence of European poetry in translation on their own work.  Each read and spoke about a poem and poet that had an influence upon their poetry.

Michael O'Loughlin spoke about The Survivor by Tadeusz Rosowicz, a Polish poet whose work changed how O'Loughlin perceived poetry.  He had been brought up believing that a poem had a particular shape to it and 'did not look like' the work that Rosowicz was producing. As a result of reading this and other European poetry, his own writing changed. 'My early poems, when I read them now sound to me as if they were translationese' he observed. He then noted that a poet like himself might have been accused of a kind of reverse parochialism, where he was only interested in what was European and not what was happening at home. This of course, he eventually realised, is a false distinction: where is Europe if not here? For O'Loughlin, reading European poetry therefore brought about the realisation that Ireland is as much Europe as Holland or Poland.

Harry Clifton had a similar experience when he encountered the European Muse, but with a different emphasis. While O'Loughlin was struck by how different the new poetry looked, Clifton was challenged by the unfamiliar sounds which he encountered, especially those in 'Modern Poetry in Translation' [edited by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort]. 'It sounded different to us,' he said. 'We were used to a particular 'noise', a sound of English and Irish poetry.'  He read an extract from The Song of Wandering Aengus by Yeats, as an example of poetry that is familiar to the Irish saying that 'It is beautiful, but not useful to us'. By 'not useful' I took him to mean something that was not useful to us as poets, something that we could not learn from. He then read Eugenio Montale's The Ark which he said sounded at first, strange, muddy and obscure to him, but emotionally engaging. Montale, who in his subjective poetry 'retreated into an inner, private world,' carried for Clifton a philosophical weight, which was not foregrounded in Irish poetry.

Mary O'Donnell developed this point saying that intellectual rigor and an abstract or philosophical approach whether present or not in Irish poetry, had not always been acceptable to Irish critics. While establishing the Irish canon, they wanted concrete details instead of abstractions, therefore the  poets they approved of tended - or tend! - to be more 'lyrical' than philosophical. O'Donnell 's European Muse, Ingeborg Bachmann, was a woman for whom philosophy was an integral part of life and work.  The invasion of her Austrian homeland by Germany was an experience Bachmann carried with her throughout her life. The psychic experience of 'invasion' haunted her, the poetry she wrote was very serious and she felt no compulsion to entertain. She was a complex poet who wrote in a melancholic tone but believed always in the redemptive power of art. O'Donnell read Bachmann's Timelapse and then read a poem of her own inspired by this, Turn Season.

I found Judith Mok's contribution particularly interesting. When she was growing up she told us that her 'ears were filled with various languages'. Her father was a prominent poet and throughout her early life Judith became accustomed to poets visiting the house, reading and discussing poetry. She read poetry not in translation, but in their original languages, in Spanish, French, English and others. The concept of 'European poetry' was something she only became aware of when she travelled to Ireland and America. Being a classical singer, sound is very important to her, and she reminded us that we don't read poetry just for its meaning. 'Poetry is sound too,' she said, and it is difficult to get across in translation how a poem sounds in its original language. She illustrated this by reading Friedrich Holderin's 'Helfte des Lebens' (Half of Life) in the original German, emphasising some lines and saying  that these sounds were really untranslatable.

Moya Cannon has translated early Irish poetry and has found what she called a 'to and fro-ing' between Irish, European and Greek poetry. She felt that the 'permissions' she got from unfamiliar forms of poetry  which she read when she was between seventeen and twenty-three years of age were very important to her development as a poet. She and Michael O'Loughlin recalled the Eblana Bookshop in Grafton Street in the 1970s and the small, precious selection of poetry in translation they found there. Moya spoke particularly about Antoni Machado, and his poem 'Renacimiento' (Rebirth) which she read in both English and the original Spanish and told us that she had first encountered his work in Michael Smith's translations. He was a political poet 'in a non-explicit way' she said, and he spoke about the power of the spirit in a sense that had nothing to do with anything ecclestiastical or with  logical positivism.  For Machado, poetry was the 'deep pulse of the soul'.

In the general discussion which followed some interesting points were raised.  Harry Clifton said that there was a 'fashionability' about reading poetry in translation. Lorca, for example, was highly fashionable to read as was Mandelstam in the 1970s.  Moya Cannon felt that some poets were right for a particular time, but also for a particular period in the readers own life. Michael O'Loughlin commented that we don't really know if Mandelstam is a good poet because we are dependent upon translation. Judith Mok felt that as you hear the voice of the translator the poetry is, in a way, the work of that translator. Harry Clifton concluded that we get an emotional excitement from the 'exoticness' that a foreign poet brings to our gaelic temperament.

I found it very interesting to learn what it was about reading poetry in translation that brought something to life in each of the five poets who had taken part in this discussion, and I left the theatre looking forward to reading their work again, and reading it in a new light.

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