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May 13, 2013


Good translations of excellent word-smithing is difficult from any language, but works of literature that express a larger vision about the complexity of the world and our relationship with nature and each other, would be translatable into any language. Ideas translate better than fancy word play.

Goethe could not have NOT read Horace!

It's wonderful how the word "Ruh" and later "ruhest" convey both "peace" and a kind of ominous stillness.

Perhaps, but poetry is less about great ideas than about the intricacies of how we present them. That is, the words, their arrangements, their sounds, and their syntax are more important than the so-called "ideas" they may present. And those ideas, especially in the poems that composers use for lieder, are often commonplace. Edgar Degas once said to his friend Stephane Mallarme that he had a lot of ideas he wanted to put into a poem. To which the poet himself replied, "A poem, my dear Degas, is made not with great ideas but with words." He was right.

The problem is that most "modern" poets have gotten so lost in the word play that they end up saying nothing. And then they lament why society largely ignores them these days.

By the same token, good ideas shine brighter when presented with elegant and musical language.

Therefore poetry works best when good ideas are presented with beautiful language. Both are necessary in equal measure.

Above sharp peaks
calm breeze.
Across tree-tops
soft breath.
In suffused woods
birds dream.
On cool grass
nameless peace.

To support your argument, Dr. Spiegelman, I would offer my opinion that cutting edge exploration of language is a necessary component of every poet's development.

Poets playing word games explore far outside the pale of standard methods of communication, testing the strangest juxtapositions of words on a quest for compact expression of the most complicated ideas, and thus seek new paths for standard language used by society to grow and evolve more beautiful ways of saying normal things.

I wrote thousands of experimental poems about 20 years ago in the Dickinson-Ryan realm, and explored transcendent social concepts in the Whitman-Ginsberg realm, and howled at injustice with social activist jeremiads in the Lennon-Dylan realm. Now I am exploring socio-psychological metamorphosis in the Shakespeare-Milton realm of epic, writing narratives about the lives of Greek philosophers.

From personal experience, I developed my opinion that while word play is necessary in developing the poetic craft, I found those poems were fun to write but seemed to fail in the actual purpose of language, which is to communicate.

While I could remember the synaptical connections of images intended through the experimental word play, that became "pregnant with meaning" (Anthony Burgess), I realized no one else would care. I returned to more traditional linguistic methods of telling stories in verse in order to communicate with people who otherwise have no interest in poetry.

I have written poems that were all ideas but poorly worded, and poems that were all fancy word play but lacked meaning, and eventually developed ways of expressing ideas with condensed word play that satisfy love for language as well as satisfy thirst to express ideas.

For the last line, I could not decide which conveyed the idea better, what I wrote or:
mindless peace

I felt nameless was better because when a person becomes at peace with nature, they forget the linguistic labels we have applied to everything when we are experiencing the world as it is.

Did the Nazi plague kill Goethe for non-German readers? It's a theory, but I favor your idea that "Goethe in translation is a radically diminished author." Some authors defy translation -- imagine Milton in any language other than English. Others cross borders with ease. Shakespeare slips into French or German just fine. Sein oder Nichtsein; das ist hier die Frage. Etre ou ne pas être? c'est-là la question. . . . . . . S'il est plus noble à l'âme de souffrir les traits poignans de l'injuste fortune, ou se révoltant contre cette multitude de maux, de s'opposer au torrent, et les finir.

Judging from the number of attempts on them, Homer and Dante beg to be translated over and over. But Goethe is a tough proposition. "Linger on, thou art so fair." Jarrell tried to do Faust, but I think it defeated him.

In the original, the Goethe poem that ends, "soon you will be quiet, too," is a lyric masterpiece. My father used to recite it from memory. -- DL

Thanks for explaining your choice of "nameless" -- and for your noble effort that makes me want to try my own hand at it. Very hard. The last two lines: "Just wait: soon / you too will be at peace," but that's far from ideal because "Ruhest" and "Ruh" mean more than peace, more than "the quiet," not exactly what Eliot meant by "the peace that passeth understanding" but the end of the struggle. "The birds in the woods are quiet. / Just wait: soon / you will be quiet, too." No, not good enough. But I'll keep trying. -- DL

I could not agree more.

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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