(Containing sundrie small Poemes of the Worlds Vanitie.)
Suppose you want to know whether a given Czesław Miłosz poem rhymes in the original. Or you want to know if it’s in meter. If you don’t speak Polish, friend, you have some serious fuss ahead of you.
Tell you one thing. You won’t find out by reading the introduction to any English translation of Miłosz I’ve ever looked at. Questions of this sort are regarded as matters of absolutely no interest. Why would you want to know anything about a poet’s prosody.
Books and books are translated out of Sanskrit, and the translators never tell you how to pronounce anything. Consequently you run around putting the stress on the next-to-last syllable of every single proper noun, as if Sanskrit were Spanish or Italian …
X Ramayána whereas it should be ✓ Ramáyana
X Mahabharáta whereas it should be ✓ Máha·bhárata
X Vatsyayána whereas it should be ✓ Vatsyáyana
X Ravána whereas it should be ✓ Rávana
X Kadambári whereas it should be ✓ Kadámbari
X Prajnaparamíta sutras whereas it should be ✓ Prájna·parámita sutras …
And it’s the same thing with Chinese. The translators and publishers feel no need to guide the helpless American reader with regard to the pronunciation of words like xian, qi, zhuang, and so on. Why would anyone need to know that.
(Two honorable—very honorable—exceptions. The volumes of the Clay Sanskrit Library tell you where the stress falls every time, and they provide a full explanation as to how the transliteration system works. Honorable exception #2: the old Aylmer translations of Tolstóy always tell where the stress falls on Russian names. That way, you don’t go around saying BOR-is, when it’s bor-EES (like Maurice except with a B). Also Vladímir, not Vládimir, et cetera, et cetera.)
I don’t understand why no one ever revises the lyrics to songs. There are millions of good songs whose lyrics could use some touching up.
Take Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock.” First bit is fine:
I remember when rock was young
me and Susie had so much fun
holding hands and skimmin’ stones
had an old gold Chevy and a place of my own …
but the second isn’t much:
But the years went by and the rock just died
Susie went and left us for some foreign guy
long nights cryin’ by the record machine
dreaming of my Chevy and my old blue jeans
Surely somebody could get in there and fix the wiring. Or Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely.” Try and sing it. The parts you remember are good; the parts you can’t remember are like this:
I never thought
through love we’d be
making one as lovely as she
In the Middle Ages, nobody would have hesitated. The song belonged to whoever was singing it. If the singer saw a way to improve the piece, of course he or she jumped on it. Adding verses, dropping verses—standard practice.
Come to think of it, I don’t even do this in private. The most I’ll do is change maybe a word or two.
♩ So, goodbye, Yellow Brick Road, ♬
♬ as the dogs of society howl …
I sing “as,” but the original says “while.” I don’t know why “as” is better, but apparently I think it is, ’cuz that’s the way I always sing it. But why would I never dare add a whole other verse to the thing. What is the meaning of this.
When I memorize people’s poems, I don’t hesitate to change ’em. I’m not a museum. You write something and it’s got a stanza I don’t like—pook!—I just leave it out. I’m not a documentary. I’m not a museum. I can do whatever I want. It’s my head.
In 1948, T. S. Eliot got up there at the Library of Congress and gave an address so witheringly condescending to Edgar Allan Poe that I felt angry reading it. What do I care about Edgar Allan Poe? Yet I felt angry.
The thing Eliot was setting out to explain was: Why do French snobs think Poe is a god, whereas American snobs think he’s just for kids? Could it be the French know something we don’t? Eliot’s answer: The French are dumb; they don’t speak English. Their poetry had a death wish, and Poe’s asinine ideas were simply a convenient rope with which they hanged themselves. Poe is no good, the French are a dead end, thank you very much. Where’s my Nobel Prize.
Here’s a different hypothesis, why not. Poe’s good stuff is good. For lots (but not all) people, Poe’s good stuff has the quality of distracting them from his bad. One looks away. This is not an unfamiliar phenomenon. “The Man That Was Used Up” is good stuff—never mind “The Black Cat.” “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” is good—never mind whatever. “Annabel Lee” is good; “Helen” is good; even “The Raven” is kinda good. I mean, isn’t this what we do with most writers?
So what’s the difference between the French and the Americans? The French had nothing at stake with regard to Poe’s immature or tedious writings. They didn’t need to rush to disavow that stuff, ’cuz who cares. Whereas, Americans had a just-being-born reputation to protect.
It’s like the high school kid who’s allowed to enjoy superannuated bubblegum pop, e.g. the Monkees. Not everyone is allowed to listen to the Monkees, but the French had such a huge record collection, they could get away with liking whatever they wanted. And anyway there’s nothing wrong with the Monkees.
Marianne Moore. If you take the trouble to type up her poems, eliminating all the line breaks, and in their stead putting in paragraphing wherever it makes sense to you, you will not fail to observe that the poems become much, much clearer. In fact, you will very likely see things you’ve never seen before, because her line breaks have a tendency to hide much more than they highlight.
So, question: Can it be said that while we are gaining in clarity we are also losing something in terms of delight? Maybe even something in terms of meaning?
I … don’t see it.