Of course, the opposite can happen, too, as with my experience reading the Slovenian poet Srečko Kosovel (1904-1926).
In part because he died at 22 (of meningitis), Kosovel has been compared to Rimbaud, who stopped writing poetry at around the same age. (And Rimbaud has his Drunken Boat, Kosovel his Golden Boat.) Kosovel also has been compared to Rilke, whose Duino is near Kosovel’s childhood home. This romanticization of Kosovel’s early death is probably inevitable. (Why not compare him to Keats: premature death, serious artistic development toward the end of his life, major breakthroughs.) What matters is that Kosovel left behind nearly a thousand poems, about half of which have been published as finished poems (the others are considered rough drafts or notes toward poems). Only a few dozen poems appeared during his lifetime.
I first encountered Kosovel the same way, and in the same place, that I found Kocbek’s work (a special issue of Slovenian Literary Magazine [Literrae Slovenicae]). Although I admired Kosovel’s modernist tendencies, most evident in his poems employing idiosyncratic typography, I wasn’t particularly moved to reread his work. But a 2008 book published by Salt and translated by the Slovenian poet Bert Pribac with the Australian writer David Brooks and the Slovenian translator and photographer Teja Brooks Pribac, The Golden Boat: Selected Poems has changed how I see Kosovel’s work, making me realize that I’d misread, or at least under-appreciated, Kosovel’s poetry.
Being the first book of its kind in English, and geared toward readers of English-language poetry in the U.S., UK, and Australia (Salt’s primary places of distribution), The Golden Boat naturally aims to be definitive, to position Kosovel as “a major voice of Central European modernism,” as the jacket copy puts it. To that end, the book presents “the largest and most comprehensive selection [of Kosovel’s poems] to have appeared in any language other than his own.” Brooks provides an informative and engaging introductory essay (“Srečko Kosovel: Life and Poetry”), and the book includes about 120 of Kosovel’s poems, separated into three main parts.
Kosovel’s early poems are mostly pastoral; they’re generally set in the Karst in southwestern Slovenia. But they’re also quite dark. In The Golden Boat’s English versions, words such as “grief,” “blood,” “dead,” “empty,” “dark” (in every possible permutation), “dying,” “silent,” “ruined,” “sorrow,” “despairing” are ubiquitous and thus set the tone. It’s usually evening; if not, it’s probably raining. And there’s the backdrop of World War I, which began when Kosovel was 12 and officially ended when he was 17. In his introduction, David Brooks usefully discusses the ways in which WWI seemed to have affected Kosovel. (He also points out that Ulysses and Duino Elegies were “conceived and substantially written” near the village where Kosovel spent his childhood.)
Although most editions of Kosovel, even in Slovenian, privilege his later, more experimental poems, The Golden Boat gives nearly as much space to these earlier poems. I think this is an excellent editorial decision, because it compels the reader to assess the earlier work alongside the later work rather than view the earlier poems as quaint rural pieces by a budding poet, stepping stones toward real greatness. Many of these early poems are brilliant.
Consider “Autumn,” which at first seems typically dreary:
A light drizzle of rain.
The Karst roads are white.
The early morning is grey.
The pine is not stirring.
Where is this road hurrying to?
The early morning is grey.
The brinovka wakes,
shakes itself, and flies into the sky.
The early morning is grey.
The opening tercet of “Autumn” is standard fare. But something about the negative statement in the first line of the second stanza strikes me as unusual: why say what the pine is not doing rather than what it is doing (being still)? (Furthermore, as Brooks informs us, “pines” (bori) in Slovenian is quite close to the famous burja [Bora, or Boria] winds.) And in the next line, the word “hurrying” also seems odd, considering the beginning of the poem. When “The early morning is grey” shows up again, it’s changed slightly. The poem really becomes interesting for me in the final tercet, when the bird appears, “wakes, / shakes itself, and flies into the sky.” That’s what birds do, of course, but in the context of the rest of the poem (and Kosovel’s early poems in general), the bird’s action seems not only natural, but downright wonderful—even if “The early morning is grey,” as the poem reminds us again. Now the grey morning has some life and color in it. “Autumn” isn’t the only poem to provide this kind of relief / release.
One of my favorite early poems is “Karst Village.” I’m especially fond of part 2:
Steep roofs sleep through the night,
straw roofs, stone roofs,
with lowered foreheads
people with arms crossed
over their chests.
‘You die, or you come back.’
I like these lines from the beginning. Although others have written about roofs sleeping, I prefer what Kosovel does with it here. (I was intrigued to see that the phrase “roofs sleep” appeared in Ernest C. Peixotto’s “Impressions of Dalmatia” [Kosovel’s backyard, basically] in Scribner’s magazine in 1906, two years after Kosovel was born.)
“I Saw the Pines Grow” is quietly weird and devastating:
I saw the pines grow
into the sky. Calm stoics
through the flaring sun.
I saw a fire once
that would burn them up.
Like old men, the hills
leaned their heads onto their white pillows
and kept silent.
The pines are rustling.
(Who are they talking to?)
I saw how they wandered,
like burning pillars,
into the sky …
My body has collapsed into ashes.
And there’s the assertive “My Poem”:
My poem is an explosion,
a wild raggedness. Disharmony.
My poem doesn’t want to reach you
who by divine providence, divine will
are dead aesthetes, museum moths,
my poem is my face.
In The Golden Boat, Kosovel’s middle period begins with the line “Rhymes have lost their value,” signaling both dissatisfaction and innovation. The poems become increasingly disjunctive, humorous, and bizarre, allowing just about everything in.
The Mystic Light of Theory
The mystic light of theory.
I live in misery.
A notion of solar energy.
An ox observes itself in the pond
but does not understand its image.
Politics is dying.
The rest mourning.
Even poems with a narrative line become disorienting:
My Black Inkpot
My black inkpot is taking a walk.
In a tuxedo.
Like the fog.
The whole country veiled, deaf.
A melancholy cat lies in the hay.
Whining on its golden violin!
Yea, yea, yea.
For me, after the initial thrill of encountering such distinctive work, these kinds of poems invite rereading, a little research, and making connections to other poems—not just Kosovel’s—from this period. One poem mentions “The laugh of king Dada / on a wooden horse”; and in the poem called “The Laugh of King Dada,” the “dangerous” sunset “has to be jailed / in the black sea.” Kosovel also has a mystical strain (“The kaleidoscope of the macrocosm / is the microcosm”).
However hermetic they might seem, these poems also reference contemporary events, such as Gandhi’s imprisonment, Einstein’s theory of relativity, the Kludsky Circus, and, of course, war. “Blue Horses” seems to refer to aerial warfare:
Blue horses go over the fields.
They are cloaked in moonlight.
A city lies there
Bright dawn breaking over it.
It is nice to be dead.
(HP is probably Handley Page, manufacturer of airplanes.)
Kosovel often laces these poems with social commentary, as when “Admission: one dinar” follows “The hanged men / swing from the telegraph poles,” or when “Christ has come into the League of Nations.” So there’s delight and invention and satire, beauty and raucousness and pain throughout these poems. The line “Everything is a poem” (from “Poem”) is demonstrated on nearly every page.
The book’s final section seems to synthesize elements of the early and middle poems. If they’re not quite as stunning as the other poems, they’re at least straightforward in their own way:
Slovenism is a Progressive Factor,
Humanism is a Progressive Factor
A humanistic Slovenism: synthesis of development.
Gandhi, Gandhi, Gandhi!
Edinost is burning,
our nation choking, choking, choking.
(Edinost was a Slovenian newspaper published out of Trieste; Italian Fascists burned down its printing plant.)
More recently, Ugly Duckling Presse has published nearly 80 of Kosovel’s poems in a 200-page bilingual edition, Look Back, Look Ahead: Selected Poems, co-translated by the Slovenian translator Ana Jelnikar and American poet Barbara Siegel Carlson.
Because it’s bilingual and includes an excellent 8-page introduction/overview by Richard Jackson, a translators’ note, a substantial afterword by Jelnikar, and even facsimiles of Kosovel’s drafts, the Ugly Duckling book offers plenty for readers who already have The Golden Boat. About half the poems in Look Back, Look Ahead are in The Golden Boat. Although The Golden Boat includes 40 more poems, LBLA includes the 9-part “Tragedy on the Ocean,” four fantastic prose poems, and a couple dozen other poems not available elsewhere in English. To get a decent sense of Kosovel’s range, one should read both books.
Having the two books—both generous, both deftly translated—published so close together reminds me of this paragraph from Brooks’ introduction to The Golden Boat:
One of the problems facing contemporary translation practice, and a significant inhibition when it comes to the best representation of the poet being translated, is the felt pressure in translators themselves to be original at every point, so as to distinguish their work clearly from that of previous translators of the same text. When the translation of a line or group of lines in a poem is clear—when they move easily into English in a form that is likely to occur to several different people attempting to translate them—then the assumption that the first person to translate them in this manner has somehow copyrighted them and that others must use a different form can only produce less and less effective translation. In major authors whose work is translated many times, this can become almost a principle of deteriorating translation.
Brooks is leading here to an explanation of his and his co-translators’ decision not to try to deviate from earlier Kosovel translations even when they’re similar or identical, to attempt “the best” and “most obvious translation of the original poems” even if that means overlapping with earlier translations. But his larger point is valid beyond its application in The Golden Boat. There’s plenty of overlap between the common translations in The Golden Boat and LBLA, but some significant differences, too. But both translations have substantial strengths, such that I could not recommend one over the other.
Richard Jackson remarks that “Kosovel’s poems aim at the unsayable.” If a poem is unsayable, imagine trying to translate it. Jackson’s specific example here, “Cons 5,” illustrates the point fairly well: the poem (part of a series of poems working out Kosovel’s own brand of Constructivism [one of which ends “Man is not an automation”]) is nearly unsayable and untranslatable.
The poem in The Golden Boat:
Dung is gold
and gold is dung.
Both = 0
0 = ∞
∞ = 0
1, 2, 3.
Whoever has no soul
doesn’t need gold.
Whoever has a soul
doesn’t need dung.
The LBLA version:
Manure is gold
and gold is manure.
Both = 0.
0 = ∞
∞ = 0
A B <
1, 2, 3.
Without a soul
you don’t need gold.
With a soul
you don’t need manure.
Both attempts have their strengths. In the first, using “dung” works well because it’s paired with “gold”; the equation there seems apt. “Without a soul / you don’t need gold” in the second version is snappier, but seems to veer from the original, which (as far as I can tell) doesn’t use the second-person address. When I first read the poem in The Golden Boat, I didn’t know how to read/sound the last line, “EE-AW,” which can be taken two ways (as an incomprehensible mathematical companion to “AB<” or as an approximation of the sound a donkey makes). LBLA clarified this for me by avoiding the all-caps; the line is clearly meant to be sounded out, not just seen (it functions differently than “A B <”).
Here’s the original poem:
Gnoj je zlato
in zlato je gnoj.
Oboje = 0
0 = ∞
∞ = 0
A B <
1, 2, 3.
Kdor nima duše
ne potrebuje zlata.
Kdor ima dušo
ne potrebuje gnoja.
In his introduction, Jackson explains how Kosovel “has been at various times described as a political poet resisting Italian and Austrio-Hungarian hegemony, an impressionistic local Karst poet, a futurist, an expressionist, a surrealist, a dadaist, a satirist, and as a prophetic voice of social change.” The poems mentioned and quoted here demonstrate how multifarious Kosovel is. LBLA advances that variety even further with a few poems that seem unlike anything in The Golden Boat. There’s the impressive sequence “Tragedy on the Ocean,” the hilarious prose poem “Honorarium” (“a work of art is perfect only when you get an honorarium for it. Until then it lacks an essential nuance”), a poem addressed to a critic (“Your beard is larger than your brain”), and the wonderfully optimistic “A Small Coat”:
I would like to walk around
in a small coat of
But hidden underneath should be
a warm, bright world.
What is wealth?
What is luxury?
For me it is this:
a small coat I have,
and this coat is like
Kosovel’s self-awareness is often astonishing, whether he says, “I’m the broken arc / of a circle, / the cracked form / of some statue, / and someone’s stifled / thought” or “I’m like a disease that has no label.” Salt and Ugly Duckling have done poetry readers an invaluable service by bringing so much of his work into print in English.