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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This item is taken from PN Review 57, Volume 14 Number 1, September - October 1987.

Letters
DEAR EDITORS, Kenneth Cox obviously believes in the letter rather than in the spirit of literature. I found his article on Peter Dale's Poems of Jules Laforgue (PNR 53) mean-spirited and nasty. The first two paragraphs of the article (on Laforgue's influence on Eliot and Pound) only stated in other terms Peter Dale's own critical position as outlined in his Introduction to the volume. A similar dodge can be detected in the sixth paragraph, where the statement 'the whole of Laforgue's writing. . . forms a closed and coherent thought-world' is no more than a re-wording of Dale's statement that Laforgue uses 'a fixed value for his references to sun, moon, the sea and so on'. At no point does Cox mention Dale's Introduction.

Cox's statement again that Laforgue uses words with 'personal significances' carries with it the implication that Dale takes no account of this, whereas it is obvious from the words already quoted, and indeed from the translation itself, that consistency of reference is comprehensively maintained. It would be strange if it were otherwise, for it is the working method adopted by the translator in his own poetry, a strategy eloquently presented by him in the Foreword to his sonnet sequence One Another (Agenda Editions, 1978): 'oaks and roses, the countryside in general, are associated with the woman; pines, books, storms, with the man'.

Cox accuses Dale (wrongly I feel) of 'literalism', when some of his own comments are best tagged with that: 'The attempt is ingenious but it disregards essential differences between French and English versification, that is to say between the two languages' (if the attempt were not different it would not be a translation, surely; in the difference, one is tempted to say, lies the translation); 'The originals are already available' (this sheer disingenuousness: of course they are, one is tempted to retort, but this is a translation!); 'Les Complaintes and L'Imitation de Notre-Dame. . . are in vers libre but not free verse' (this is the worst sort of sophistry: hard as I might I can establish no difference between the two).

Finally, I cannot say that I relish the self-satisfying rhetoric of 'Whether any given instance is deliberate or accidental is of course impossible to say' when the reviewer himself is unwilling to translate the phrases he picks fault with. Epithets like 'gibberish', 'grotesque', 'incomprehensible', and 'a dunce in difficulty' can lead us nowhere: at best they may be interpreted as symptoms of some unknown cause. Cox himself talks of Laforgue's 'verbal foolery': if this is the case, then the translator has caught the essentials in his very duncedom, gibberosity, grotesqueness and incomprehensibility: vers impairs is the order of the day.

Foolery does not befit scholars, usually; it requires the creative urge. Gradgrind does not like the clowns: mind, I always thought he was the one in a corner.
Yours faithfully
William S. Milne

DEAR EDITORS, It's depressing to realise that an article like Michael Hulse's 'The Axis' (PNR 54) still needs to be written - depressing to have to agree with what he says. The problem - particularly as regards poetry - seems to be that any poetry, translated into English, resembles other English translations, and thus conceals the uniqueness of the original writer's response to his/her own language. There's no solution to this: to expect more is to ask of the translators what we get from only a few of the original writers themselves.

Once in a long while a book of translations appears that offers more than the standard 'translations plus notes' - Yann Lovelock's 'Colours of the Weather' is, for me, an example of this rarity. Usually, we learn what subjects concern the poet, and possibly intuit something of the tone of voice - though we can't know if the translator get this wrong. Without comparing translations - which we can rarely do - how can we feel confident of the ability of the poet?

Anthologies usually do no more than add further names to an already immense list of people whose works we ought to know. What we need are more anthologies like Stanley Burnshaw's The Poem Itself - texts, prose 'cribs' and copious notes. No other format can do justice to the complexity of translation. Can it be that there are readers interested enough in foreign poetry to buy books of translations, but incurious enough to accept these single-versions as 'accurate', or adequate? Shouldn't every book of translated poetry make the issues clear? I can see the danger of too much apologizing ('If he finds translation so close to impossibility, why doesn't he give it up?) but the usual format - biography plus versions - can only encourage the view that there exists an English 'equivalent' of a foreign poem - which encourages the chauvinistic belief that English can do anything the source language can do - as if other languages were merely subsets of English. This in turn encourages the belief that the whole world of poetry exists to end up in an English book - and this arrogance maintains the Axis.
Richard Leigh

THE EDITORS: I too have doubts about the extent to which poetry will ultimately benefit from PR-campaigns such as 'Poetry Live'; I even have doubts (surprising perhaps in someone who works for a newspaper) about the extent to which poetry benefits from media attention. But there is a point at which scepticism becomes mean-mindedness, and can be sustained only by factual inaccuracy.

The Poetry Book Society, Michael Schmidt claims in his last editorial, has failed in its ambition to double its membership. The facts are these. In January 1984, when the PBS began preparations to devolve from administration by the Arts Council and to re-organise itself as a Book Club, the membership stood at 880. In January 1987 that figure had risen to 1730, an almost exact doubling of members. The credit for this must lie principally with Philip Larkin, whose belief it was that membership of the PBS could rise significantly, or at any rate beyond the figure of 1000 which it had been held to since its foundation in 1954; in small part with those of us on the Board who supported his initiative; and more recently with John Medlin of the Poetry Society, who administered the PBS from 1984-87, selling choices, recommendations and special offers in quantities none of us could have anticipated. The commercial success of the PBS has required no falling off in standards: good poets, from small publishers as well as large, not only continue to be chosen and recommended but now reach a larger circle of readers, both here and abroad.

Michael Schmidt, as I remember, was one of those on the Board who did not believe the PBS could achieve this kind of success, and who resigned in part because he disapproved of its proposals for change. Yet as the publisher of Eavan Boland, one of the PBS's most recent choices, he should know perfectly well in what quantities PBS choices are now ordered from publishers. I was sorry when he left us; I am even sorrier now that he should misrepresent the facts.
Blake Morrison
Chairman, Poetry Book Society 1984-86

SIR: I can see, from Norman Smith's letter (PNR 55), that I am in danger of losing my party card. I should not have written about Lukács without inserting the obligatory denunciations of his complicity in Stalinist crimes and in 'actually existing socialism'. I shall engage in public self-criticism and promise not to do it again.

But I do, of course, live in a society where I am largely free to say what I like, and it seems to me unfortunate that, in such a society, recent discussion of Lukács has become constricted by the polemics of the new Cold War. My objections to the denunciations of Lukács that Smith appears to think I should have made is that they display, on the intellectual plane, the very intolerance they purport to condemn. This is not to deny that Lukács himself displayed such intolerance or that he gave support to repressive regimes, and I cannot see that my essay tried to assimilate him to 'liberal democracy'. I would suggest, however, that if one is indeed concerned for 'liberal democracy' and for 'the liberty of individual conscience', then one does not, in an intellectual enquiry, apply simplified premature judgements to complex and ambiguous matters.

My essay concluded that 'the endurance of [Lukács's] Marxist commitment, and the moral, political and physical rigours and risks that it entailed, should also continue to disturb', and my final verb surely indicates that I was not, as Smith states, merely 'praising' that commitment in an unqualified way. I did not imply any comparison with East European and Russian dissidents, whom it seems dubious to exploit in this argument, but with 'well-publicized recantations and . . . easy revolutionary gestures'. I am sceptical of those who, having spent the best parts of their lives in East or West trying to endorse socialism, suddenly see the light and start to extol the virtues of capitalism; I am also sceptical of those who exhort us to revolutionary commitment from safe positions in the West. To them, and to others, including the sceptical, Lukács's case is the kind of provocation - irritating, perhaps infuriating - that a totalitarian mentality would strive to extirpate, but that an open mind would consider openly.

One final point, which seems to be forgotten in Smith's political polemic: Lukács was a literary theorist and critic - this, indeed, is primarily why he is of interest to PNR - and I think it could be argued that, in his resistance to the Stalinist notion that an ideological criterion should determine the aesthetic value of a work of art and his support of some of the great novels of the past in spite of their 'reactionary' ideology, he did contribute to conserving literature in dark times. Not, I agree, the most heroic or eye-catching of achievements, and one that may indeed have involved a focus on past literature to the neglect of present human sufferings. But it is an achievement that, if the pressure for change in Eastern Europe and Russia is maintained, may bear fruit.
Nicolas Tredell

This item is taken from PN Review 57, Volume 14 Number 1, September - October 1987.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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