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This article is taken from PN Review 183, Volume 35 Number 1, September - October 2008.

Poetry and the Practice of Translation Peter McCarey

Poetry is an ancient art which, like alchemy, has been handed on from one generation to the next long after its purpose has expired. It is an old poet who does not know when to stop writing and whose admirers will not tell him. The right wing is foundering in gravitas, the left in glosso-lalia, and a civil or cynical middle of the road recycles old conceits and sequences. It recycles cycles. As Denis Roche put it, in concluding his poetic œuvre (1962-72), 'La poésie est inadmissible; d'ailleurs elle n'existe pas.'1 Jacques Roubaud explained that, in terms of prosody, Roche had demolished the vain liberties of free verse. 'The calling into question of verse form, if conducted radically, very quickly leads to the rejection of every form called verse, with which poetry is identified; after which - silence (in poetry, that is).'2 There is a paradox in this endorsement from Roubaud, the grand old man of OULIPO who has published cataracts of poetry since he wrote those words twenty years ago - perhaps the paradox in every 'x is dead' argument: if x is dead, is there any need to labour the point? No, but it is worth considering now and then, and checking our options. In this essay, it is considered in conjunction with the practice of translation, which has suffered a lot of abuse since T.S. Eliot discovered Dante.

Roubaud was, to an extent, fighting the gradual bubble-gumming ...


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