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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to

This item is taken from PN Review 182, Volume 34 Number 6, July - August 2008.

Letter from Andrew Waterman
Ead in the Clahds


In 'Paulin's (Con)versions' (PNR 181) Adam Watt takes Don Paterson's definition of poetic 'versions' - using a foreign original's 'detailed ground-plan and elevation... to build themselves a robust home in a new country, in its vernacular architecture' - as his touchstone for an assessment of what Tom Paulin has done with two French poems.

Watt describes 'a first reading' of Paulin's 'The Albatross (Baudelaire)' as 'a rather disarming experience'; others might say 'disconcerting'. Baudelaire's 'L'Albatros', through four rhyming quatrains, makes the seabird, graceful in flight but ungainly and mocked when lured to a ship's deck, an emblem for 'le Poète', likewise painfully out of his element when downed among humdrum humanity. Paulin's 26 lines, lurching between the dashes which are their sole punctuation, certainly present a different 'architecture'; but where is the original's 'ground-plan'? Kicking off with 'Marilyn and the cassowary bird' before admitting what becomes guessable as, but is not until line 20 named, an 'albatross', stuffed with other matter, and by the merest allusion - 'the poet any star like Marilyn' - relegating the creative artist to an adjunct of Hollywood glamour, what Paulin builds sprawls over hummocky ground unfazed by Baudelaire's poetic 'plot'.

Unlike translations, versions (insists Paterson) aim 'to be poems in their own right'. As such their merits and faults are the responsibility of their author, not carry-overs from an 'original'. Watt makes much of Paulin's use of 'the [t] and the [sk] sounds' and 'plosive consonant clusters', citing many examples: 'tradescarred', 'casque', and so on. His purpose in such annotation, which I can top up by observing that ten lines end with a hard 'ck', is to show Paulin meeting Paterson's desideratum that a 'version' should use 'local words for its brick and local music for its mortar' - in his case to achieve a 'caustic' Ulster idiom. But demonstrating this cannot of itself vindicate Paulin's toil as a poem. While other aspects of Watt's analysis of how this poem and Mallarmé's sonnet 'Renouveau' get turned into what he terms 'archetypal Paulin' are less pedestrian, and thoughtfully conducted, I am left at the end asking: What is the point of a 'version' at too great a remove from its original to convince as a 'home in a new country', yet siphoning-off just enough to disable itself as as a freestanding work?

Leaving aside questions of literary evaluation, it seems to me that Paulin carries 'versioning' beyond what is pictured by Paterson. Indeed if, with Adam Watt, one accepts a concept of the practice so flexible as to accommodate Paulin, don't Shakespeare's plays, filching plots, themes and characters from other texts, fit the bill? Of course, not all Shakespeare's 'originals' are foreign: works in one's own tongue are amenable to 'versioning' thus understood.

But The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar and A Winter's Tale, 'robust homes' indeed for Shakespeare's genius, can be fully responded to as works 'in their own right' without awareness of the sources which stimulated Shakespeare's creativity. Relating these plays to 'originals' by, respectively, Giovanni Fiorentino, Plutarch and Robert Greene, need detain only the scholar or casual curiosity. Paulin's 'versions' remain bogged-down in that 'in-between, trans-generic status' Watt, revealingly, ascribes to them. Shakespeare's, or Chaucer's, are truly transformative.

Not enough people may know, for he left it out of his own collections while printing it in his New Oxford Book of Light Verse, Kingsley Amis's 'The Helbatrawss', a rendering of Baudelaire's poem which wonderfully combines being a faithful translation with radical originality: for the translation is into the very distinctive vernacular of Victorian Cockney. The comedy thus generated gets an extra twist at the end from the shift whereby 'le Poè:te' allegorised by Baudelaire's bird becomes a less sympathetic type of brain-worker:

A long-aired blokes the sime: ead in the clahds,
E larfs at harrers, soups is cupper tea;
But dahn to earf in these ere bleedin crahds,
Them uge great vings balls up is plates, yer see.


This item is taken from PN Review 182, Volume 34 Number 6, July - August 2008.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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