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November 29, 2014

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First of all, congratulations to you for putting the pieces together & revealing the truth of the matter. Credit must be given to Carver,too, for seeing that there was this very good poem hidden in Kafka's letter. But, Ray, c'mon, you're ripping off Franz, taking credit you don't deserve: very bad form.
---Terence Winch

I have to agree - just cutting up someone else's work into lines does not an original poem make. Troubling, especially for a writer as powerful as Carver at his best, even more so when considering the saga of Carver and Gordon Lish in the publication of Carver's first book of stories. Interestingly, last semester, a colleague of mine had her students read both the Lish-edited versions and the "pure" Carver versions of several stories. The students overwhelmingly preferred the Carver versions. As we all know, Carver wanted to pull the Lish-edited stories prior to publication, but did not succeed. So perhaps the Kafka "poem" is another instance of a writer who is still not sure of his own voice and abilities. I'd like to think so, anyway, rather than it just being cheating, although then I have to ask why he republished it later on. Sigh. Why can't writers behave?

As for Kafka, he probably would just chalk it all up as just one more example of the unfair universe crashing down on his head.

aside from the ethics of the poem there is something to be said about the content. anyone who has read kafka's diaries and/or letters knows that this guy was a huge kvetch about everything -- his job, his family, his writing, etc. but although he's conventionally thought of as a fragile poetic type he was actually a kind of superman who worked full time and then stayed up all night writing despite his poor health. i've also read, though have not confirmed,that he was in fact really into his job and was one of the architects of the workers compensation programs that were just beginning around the world. also -- and this was also true of einstein's work in the patent office -- kafka's job writing descriptions of accidents etc helped his essentially visionary talent to express itself in his characteristically precise and icily clear sentences and paragraphs that we all get such a kick out of. maybe raymond carver should have woked in an insurance office. maybe i should have.
mitch s.

For me, the Carver "poem" doesn't pass the smell test. But there's more: Some time ago I came across a picture book about Kafka, featuring his childhood home and places he worked and such and as a caption to one of the pictures was an excerpt of the letter. Carver's poem is closer to the excerpt which makes me think he may have used the picture book version as the basis for his poem. I have the book somewhere.
Yes Kafka was a kvetch. And I too have read that he was an architect of workers comp. Apparently when he and his friends would gather in cafes and read their stories aloud, Kafka would crack himself up. His reading of his own work made it hilarious.

It doesn't seem right, no. But one has to wonder whether an editor at The New Yorker was at work in this case, rather than Raymond Carver . . . could be . . .

Stacey, there's another fold to this, and that is, who "wrote" the translation? Kafka wrote in German, and the "letter" was translated by someone into English. It's an odd translation, I mean, "the sluggishness of swampy time" sounds--well, like a translator's despair. Would Kafka have written his English in that style? So when Carver was borrowing the language of the letter, he was borrowing someone's words, but not Kafka's--a representation in English of Kafka's words. Another translation might have been quite different.
So it's questionable on both scores: lifting verbatim out of another author's writings, and also at the same time stealing a translation. If Carver had gone to the original and made a new translation, that poem would be perfectly honorable, don't you think? But he would have to say "After Kafka."

I found a poem in a fine book by an American poet, our contemporary, which was tagged "After..." I won't name the foreign poet because I don't want to shame our peer. But in fact, the poem was an exquisite, exact translation--there was nothing "after" about it. I marveled at its perfection, but it too was a stolen poem.

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