Friday, February 27, 2015

Sappho / I asked myself

[I asked myself / What, Sappho, can...]


I asked myself
What, Sappho, can
you give one who
has everything,
like Aphrodite?

Monday, February 23, 2015

Sappho / I'ts no use

[It’s no use / Mother dear...]

It’s no use
Mother dear, I
can’t finish my
            You may
blame Aphrodite
soft as she is
she has almost
killed me with
love for that boy

Friday, February 20, 2015

Sappho / One Girl

One Girl

Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough,
Atop on the topmost twig, — which the pluckers forgot, somehow, —
Forget it not, nay; but got it not, for none could get it till now.

Like the wild hyacinth flower which on the hills is found,
Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound,
Until the purple blossom is trodden in the ground.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Poster poems / Sappho

Poster poems: Sappho

The passionate words of Sappho have been reinterpreted with each modern age; now it is your turn – pen new versions of her musings on moonlight and death

Billy Mills
Friday 5 September 2014 11.00 BST

With International Translation Day fast approaching, it's time for us to return to this most interesting of literary crafts. I say return because we already had a Poster Poems translation challenge a little over four years ago, but while that was a general invitation to post translations of your own choosing, this time I was thinking of something a little more specific.
The Greek poet Sappho has long been a favourite with English translators, with each generation recreating her work in the image of their own time. I've picked two of her poems, the short No 48 and the somewhat longer No 65. (The numbers are from Edwin Marion Cox's 1925 edition, by the way.) The idea is to look at a prose translation of each and a number of verse renditions. Then I'll invite you all to have a go at your own versions of one or both.
Fragment 48 is a haiku-like mediation by moonlight. HT Wharton rendered it in a simple English sentence: "The moon has set, and the Pleiades; it is midnight, the time is going by, and I sleep alone." His prose captures the essence of the meaning, but omits anything that might be considered poetry.
If anything, the opposite might be said of John Addington Symonds's translation, in which the Greek poet becomes something of a Late Victorian aesthete, lost in reverie in a London studio.
The moon hath left the sky;
          Lost is the Pleiads' light;
          It is midnight
And time slips by;
But on my couch alone I lie.
The Irish novelist and ship's doctor Henry De Vere Stacpoole contrived to turn Sappho's poem into a kind of melancholy sea shanty:
The moon has set beyond the seas,
And vanished are the Pleiades;
Half the long weary night has gone,
Time passes—yet I lie alone.
Under the influence of imagism, Mary Barnard produced a more pared-back version. AS Kline, one of the great translators of the internet age, has managed to pare his version back to roughly the same length as Wharton's prose while still producing what is recognisably an English poem.
In Fragment 65, Sappho warns a rich (or, according to some editors, an uneducated) woman that when she dies, her wealth won't mean anything. In this instance, Wharton's prose is rather more florid. It's worth noting that the roses of Pieria were used to crown the Muses. "But thou shalt lie dead, nor shall there ever be any remembrance of thee then or thereafter, for thou hast not of the roses of Pieria; but thou shalt wander obscure even in the house of Hades, flitting among the shadowy dead."
It's a subject that almost inevitably appealed to Thomas Hardy, who made it even more Hardyesque in his translation:
Dead shalt thou lie; and nought
Be told of thee or thought,
For thou hast plucked not of the Muses' tree:
And even in Hades' halls
Amidst thy fellow-thralls
No friendly shade thy shade shall company!
Swinburne contrived to insert a typically verbose rendering of the poem into hisAnactoria, a kind of Sapphic melange of his own devising.
Thee too the years shall cover; thou shalt be
As the rose born of one same blood with thee,
As a song sung, as a word said, and fall
Flower-wise, and be not any more at all,
Nor any memory of thee anywhere;
For never Muse has bound above thine hair
The high Pierian flower whose graft outgrows
All summer kinship of the mortal rose
However, not even Swinburne could match John Myers O'Hara's ability to spin out so little over so many words:
Pale death shall come, and thou and thine shall be,
Then and thereafter, to all memory
Forgotten as the wind that yesterday
Blew the last lingering apple buds away;
For thou hadst never that undying rose
To grace the brow and shed immortal glows;
Pieria's fadeless flower that few may claim
To wreathe and save thy unremembered name.
Ay! even on the fields of Dis unknown,
Obscure among the shadows and alone,
Thy flitting shade shall pass uncomforted
Of any heed from all the flitting dead.
But no one maid, I think, beneath the skies,
At any time shall live and be as wise,
In sooth, as I am; for the Muses Nine
Have made me honored and their gifts are mine;
And men, I think, will never quite forget
My songs or me; so long as stars shall set
Or sun shall rise, or hearts feel love's desire,
My voice shall cross their dreams, a sigh of fire.
Once again, Barnard's version – number 82 in her very personal system – is leaner and more imagistic than these earlier attempts, and she manages to retain the very Greek notion of the "fitful" dead. She also conflates both wealth and ignorance as reasons for condemning her subject to an unsatisfactory afterlife.
And so I invite you to make your own versions of one or both of these pieces by one of the great poets of the ancient world. If accuracy is your watchword, the Internet Sacred Texts Archive will give you an idea of what the surviving poems look like in the original, even if you have no Greek. But don't worry too much about precision; you can be as faithful or as faithless as you like. For a poet as polymorphous as Sappho, fidelity would be something of a betrayal.

Monday, February 16, 2015

First Love by Joan Margarit

First Love 
by Joan Margarit

The Catalan poet explores brutality, love and death in a lifelong journey that begins with the secret purchase of a knife as a child

First Love
In the dreary Girona of my seven-year-old self,
where postwar shop-windows
wore the greyish hue of scarcity,
the knife-shop was a glitter
of light in small steel mirrors.
Pressing my forehead against the glass,
I gazed at a long, slender clasp-knife,
beautiful as a marble statue.
Since no one at home approved of weapons,
I bought it secretly, and, as I walked along,
I felt the heavy weight of it, inside my pocket.
From time to time I would open it slowly,
and the blade would spring out, slim and straight,
with the convent chill that a weapon has.
Hushed presence of danger:
I hid it, the first thirty years,
behind books of poetry and, later,
inside a drawer, in amongst your knickers
and amongst your stockings.
Now, almost fifty-four,
I look at it again, lying open in my palm,
just as dangerous as when I was a child.
Sensual, cold. Nearer my neck.

First Love (Primer Amor) first appeared in English in the 2006 Bloodaxe edition of Joan Margarit’s poems, Tugs in the Fog: Selected Poems, translated from Catalanby Anna Crowe. It was originally published in Els Motius del llop (The Motives of the Wolf) in 1993. A subsequent collection of Margarit’s translated work,Strangely Happy, appeared in 2011.
Joan Margarit was born in Catalonia in 1938, towards the end of the Spanish civil war. The fascist dictatorship banned his native language, and all education took place in Castilian. “I had no culture in any other language,” he writes in the prologue to Tugs in the Fog. “Years later, I moved over to writing in Catalan, searching for that which goes deeper in all of us than literary culture … I gain access to the poem in Catalan, but I immediately begin to handle the Castilian version as well … I make all the modifications in both Catalan and Castilian at one and the same time.” All Margarit’s books have been published in both Catalan and Castilian, and First Love can be read in its original versions.
In the English translation, the Germanic phonemes, often abrupt and harsh compared to those of the more mellifluous Romance languages, work in the poem’s favour: “postwar”, “knife-shop”, “clasp-knife”. Although the knife is the one beautiful, glittering object in a “dreary Girona” identified with the protagonist’s very self, and becomes the boy’s first, and instantaneous, love, this narrative is no sweet nostalgia trip. Crowe refers, in her translator’s note, to an effort to “remain faithful to what he” (the poet) “called ‘an almost excessive brutality.’” This brutality is often simply the pitiless emotional directness of Margarit’s poems. Here, the most piercing thrust is reserved until the end, but there is considerable tension throughout – an ebb and flow of menace sustained as memory cuts effortlessly through the swathe of years.
At the start, the protagonist is seven years old, considered in Catholic teaching to be the age of reason, the point at which the child has acquired sufficient knowledge and judgment to be ready for confirmation. The child in the poem enters time with the secret purchase of the knife, aware that his purchase infringes family rules. The weapon, a guilty pleasure, is a weight in the pocket with a near magical life of its own: “From time to time I would open it slowly / and the blade would spring out, slim and straight.” It is replete with symbolic potential, but also vividly real, and the narrative potency of the knife is ever-present, like that of Chekhov’s proverbial gun. “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there” (Gurlyand’s Reminiscences of AP Chekhov). Conventional adjectives – “long”, “slender”, “slim”, “straight” – evoke the phallic (and also feminine) beauty that will later degenerate to become “sensual, cold”. The earlier descriptions, while effective, hardly prepare us for the shock of the adjective-noun juxtaposition in line 14, where the knife is felt to possess “the convent chill that a weapon has / Hushed presence of danger …” Catholicism may be merged here with political dictatorship.
Smuggled safely into adulthood, the clasp-knife is anaesthetised, almost literally, by the poet’s vocation. Later, its phallic potential is both evoked and suppressed when it appears, in obscene intimacy with the underwear of the woman whom the poem turns out, surprisingly, to address. Again, the translator’s ear is acute: a rustling, nestling contact is suggested by the repetition of “amongst”. So the secret becomes domesticated, tenderly shared with a wife or partner, and nothing terrible has occurred after all. But if we imagine the weapon to have been tamed, we’re in for a shock. In the last line the blade seems to spring out again, this time with truly lethal intent, the inescapable violation that time inflicts on everybody: death.
“In spite of everything the past ends up being / a brotherhood of wolves, melancholy / for a landscape skewed by time,” Margarit observes in another poem, Self Portrait. His work is time-haunted and death-haunted, but the poems also have a wonderful, clear, intelligent light in them. Margarit is perhaps firstly a love poet, and, readers can be assured, his loves are more often flesh and blood than steel.