Sunday, March 1, 2009

C. K. Williams - All Around the World the Same Song

A great article from one of my favorite poets, C.K. Williams, posted at the Poetry Foundation site. He muses here on the solitary work of the artist, which is not loneliness, but rather, a communion with other artists from the past, as exemplified by the poets whose work lives on in the books on his desk.

All Around the World the Same Song

How globe-trotting poetries may not beat scrawls in a cave.

by C. K. Williams

A few years ago, when I gave a reading at one of a series of conferences an old friend of mine organizes for people from various fields—scientists, inventors, architects, designers, show-biz folk, and even one poet, me—my friend said to the audience, after I was finished, something about how moved he was to think of all the years I’d spent, had to spend, working by myself, all alone and, he implied, lonely. I was startled: I’m quite a gregarious person, and sometimes I do become lonely, but it’s something that never happens to me during the hours I’m at work. When I’m at my desk, my room is filled, overflowing with the presence of a vast number of poets I love, and some others I don’t know at all, whose books or poems have recently arrived but who are there waiting for me to become acquainted with and possibly love, too.

Here are some of the poets that are with me on my desk or the table next to it as I write this: two different translations of Osip Mandelstam’s poems; a book of translations of Giacomo Leopardi; a collection of Thomas Wyatt; another of Gerard Manley Hopkins; an anthology entitled New European Poets, which includes poems from every possible nook and cranny of Europe; a book of essays of Eugenio Montale, as well as his last book of poetry, It Depends, the astonishing singularity of which I only recently came to appreciate; Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies; a collection of Blake; Alcools by Guillaume Apollinaire, in French; a book of translations of early Celtic poetry, with those magical strings of modifiers; a translation by Marilyn Hacker of a contemporary French poet, Guy Goffette, whose work I’m not familiar with, but which I plan to read soon; and several anthologies of English and American poetry.

What I find striking about this list is how many different languages, cultures, and moments of history are represented in it. When I first began to write poems at university, we were offered in our courses no poetry whatsoever in languages other than English, except very rarely as exercises in language classes. Still, somehow the first two poets to whom I found myself intimately attached were the French poet Charles Baudelaire and the German, Rainer Maria Rilke. Furthermore, when I was released from university (or perhaps I should say paroled, since I’ve ended back in academe for my livelihood), I found myself during the first years of my apprenticeship, which seems never to have really ended, spending almost all my time with poets from languages and cultures other than English and American. To mention just a few, there were Pablo Neruda; César Vallejo; Federico García Lorca; Miguel Hernández, in Spanish; Baudelaire, again, still, French; and Rilke, German, still as well. Then a little later Arthur Rimbaud, Jean Follain, Francis Ponge; the Polish poets Czesław Miłosz, Tadeusz Rosewicz, and Zbigniew Herbert; Eugenio Montale, Giuseppe Ungaretti, and Pier Paolo Pasolini from Italy; the Alexandrian Greek Constantine P. Cavafy; Tomas Tranströmer, from Sweden; the Russians Anna Akhmatova, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Mandelstam; the classical Chinese, Du Fu and Li Po particularly; as well as the centuries of Japanese haiku masters; even quite a lot of poetry from cultures without a written tradition which were being collected and published or republished around then. And this, as I say, is a very partial accounting.

The question that comes to me now is: why? English certainly has a great poetic tradition, it might actually be the very greatest, so why was I driven so fervently to other languages and cultures? And I should add that I certainly wasn’t alone in this: there was a terrific amount of translating and reading of translations of poetry going on at that time. Many literary journals in the early sixties were crowded with translations from every place in the world, and for a while I think there were as many books of translations being published as poetry in English. Again: why?

I’ve thought sometimes that there were extra-literary reasons for it. Much of this turning outward, this searching for new poetic resources, came during the years of the cold war when America took on, or had imposed on it by circumstances, an imperial sense of itself, an identity of power from which we have suffered and caused much suffering since. There might be something to this, and something also to the fact that there were such profound social changes underway in race and gender relations in America at that time, but I’m not really sure about how much either of these were the reasons for what was happening in poetry. Perhaps because so much of my attention has been devoted to poetry—learning to write it, and learning about it—I’d feel disingenuous if I didn’t limit my reflections to the areas in which I can be less speculative.

It’s one of the miracles of art that no matter how many times we experience a poem, painting, or piece of music, no matter how much time we spend reveling in it, analyzing it, each time we return to it, it feels utterly spontaneous, seeming to be improvised anew as we experience it. Furthermore, if a work even on a tenth reading or viewing or listening, or a hundredth, doesn’t convey that quality of freshness, of renewal, it will seem moribund, perishing before our eyes like a fish on a beach.

The truth is that the creation of art is laborious, or if that’s not quite the word, it certainly is the case that all art is generated out of the necessities of an aesthetic system, its demands and restrictions, as well as its opportunities, its propulsive energy. Such systems are dauntingly intricate, though fortunately many of the variables of an art form will have been absorbed into what might be called the unconscious of the artist before a creative act is undertaken.
Read the rest of this fine article.

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