Saturday, June 2, 2007

One Leap Back, Two Leaps Forward

Forrest Gander
One Leap Back, Two Leaps Forward

In 1972, Robert Bly published an issue of his Seventies Press journal that interspersed several short essays on what he called “leaping poetry” with translations of Lorca, Vallejo, and a few other poets, including Rilke. In a final section, Bly included “Home Grown Poems” that he felt continued or extended the quick-associative, “leaping” spirit of his international exemplars. In some ways, the essays served to critique what Charles Bernstein would later come to call Official Verse Culture. Bly’s main prescription for change was a good dose of Spanish language surrealism. The translations he showcased were lively, and the effect of anthologizing a small, handpicked group of terrific poets from Latin America, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Japan, and China, was exhilarating and popular. The whole shebang, retitled Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations, was reprinted as a hardback three years later.

Heap on thirty five years and here we are, just in time to revisit Leaping Poetry to see how Bly’s “Idea with Poems” resonates in the current milieu. Might Marjorie Perloff’s characterization of poetic indeterminacy or Stephen Burt’s notion of “elliptical poetry” or Kamau Brathwaite’s “sycorax typography” be developments of “leaping poetry”? Are Spanish and Latin American poets still leading the way for us? And what exactly was leaping poetry, anyway?

Whatever else it was, Bly’s leaping poetry was a guy thing. The single woman represented in his anthology, Marguerite Young, was once Bly’s professor. The poems in English (by Jerome Rothenberg, Bill Knott, Allen Ginsberg, John Wieners, and others) and the translations are still great to read. But it’s unfortunate that they are contextualized by Bly’s preposterous prose.

To be fair to the time, it’s true that in the 1970’s, Ezra Pound’s apodictic proclamations (“Go in fear of abstraction,” and so on) were still swooping through the air like Valkyries, and writers were still boosting their reputations by packing together pseudo-authoritative pronouncements on all of human history, art, and literature and lobbing them into the cloud of a “new idea” which would inevitably happen to validate each writer’s own style. In fact, what Bly’s “leaping poetry” boils down to—“leaping is the ability to associate fast”—is a diffusion of Ezra Pound’s translation of Aristotle: “Swift perception of relations, hallmark of genius.” So there was some precedence for Bly’s presumption that he could single-handedly explain the excitement in “‘modern poetry’ in all European countries” or sweepingly declare that due to the leap-blocking efforts of Christianity, there were “eighteen hundred years of no-leaping” poetry (ie. “very few images of the Snake, or the Dragon, or the Great Mother”) prior to William Blake. There was precedence, too, for the whacky language with which Bly made his case. His references to “blocked love-energy,” “Great Mother mysteries,” and to a spark that could ricochet (evidently like a pachinko ball) from one side of the brain to the other and then down through three layers of brain—“When the new brain is receiving energy from the other brains, then leaping poetry is possible”—are cartoonish. And how do you respond to someone who claims that “Poems of steady light always imply a unity in the brain that is not there” if the term “Poems of steady light,” like “hopping poems” or “tame association,” drift off, every time you focus on them, like vitreous floaters. Bly’s arguments are energetic, but perfectly circular. He launches his book with the matter-of-fact assertion that “In many ancient works of art we notice a long floating leap at the center of the work” and then, after exuberating through several pages, reveals his signal insight: “My idea, then, is that a great work of art often has at its center a long floating leap….”

But Bly was notably reading international poetry, translating it, and championing it to others. Leaping Poetry was enormously influential; many young poets in the seventies who had not been reading work in translation began to do so. The poets introduced in Bly’s anthology were soon retranslated by others. Leaping Poetry helped ignite a Lorca craze, everyone longed for duende, and Spanish and Latin American surrealism, kidnapped and converted, may have helped resuscitate North American poetry for awhile.

And what about now? Are translations and international literature central to North American poetry? Was surrealism curative? My own perspective as a poet, translator, and editor is not exactly disinterested. It seems to me that translation is more than ever a part of American literary life, but that poets are not necessarily looking to the same countries or for the same kind of leap that Bly celebrated. For one thing, the poetry situation in Spain may be underwhelming these days; young poets like Elena Medel, Marcos Canteli, and Carlos Pardo are just beginning to cross the dead space left by so many years of Franco. Maybe the biggest steps are being taken from the corners of Spain. For instance, the innovative Chus Pato, who writes in Galician and whose translated work has been wowing American readers, makes me imagine a new New York School with its beacon in Galicia. In Basque country, Kirmen Uribe is up to great good; Meanwhile Take My Hand, the first Basque poetry translation available to U.S. readers, is just out from Graywolf Press. In general, though, Central and Latin American poetry probably has an edge on poetry in Spain, as even some Spaniards admit. But surrealism, for most contemporary Spanish language poets under sixty, has been absorbed into other literary strategies.

Look at all the new Mexican poetry that has carried across the border. Besides anthologies such as Reversible Monuments: Contemporary Mexican Poets, Connecting Lines: New Poetry from Mexico, and Sin Puertas Visibles, books by important individual poets like Homero Aridjis, David Huerta, and Coral Bracho are coming out in translation. And this translated work has already been striking sparks of response from U.S. poets like Susan Briante and Stephen Burt.

I would guess that translations of contemporary French poetry have had the greatest impact on U.S. poetry in the last twenty years, and books by Lisa Lubasch (Twenty-One After Days), Marcella Durand (Western Capital Rhapsodies), and Laura Mullen (Subject), among others, make the case. But the spectrum of influence is much wider. John Ashbery lifts a Finnish form for his own “Finnish Rhapsody.” Serial poems by Charles Bernstein take their cue from Louis Zukofsky’s homophonic translations of Catullus. Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun’s translated work is the catalyst for John Bradley’s book of poetry and invented correspondence, War on Words. Prageeta Sharma’s new work reveals an infatuation with translations of Kim Hyesoon, and Brenda Hillman’s latest “water” poems are nourished by Hans Favery, a Surinam-born poet who wrote in Dutch. If we cast another glance, we can see that Guy Davenport’s Greek translations inspired Kent Johnson to write The Miseries of Poetry: Traductions from the Greek and that Sappho translations affected the form and tone of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s early poems. In his book O Wheel, Peter Sacks acknowledges the influence of translations of Medieval Hebrew poet Shmuel HaNagid. Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone with Lungs is strongly marked by her reading of Alphabet, the English translation of a seminal book by Danish writer Inger Christensen. Both Paul Hoover’s recent Poems in Spanish and George Kalamaras’ Even the Java Sparrows Call Your Hair are inspired by translations of Spanish language poetry. And Gerald Stern is one of several poets to record his encounter with translations of poems by Taha Muhammad Ali, a Palestinian poet who was the biggest hit in recent years at the Geraldine Dodge Festival. Arabic, Spanish, Danish, Hebrew, Greek, Slovenian, Korean, Danish, Latin, Finnish, French: I could continue, but I think the point is clear: American poets are being influenced by translations from all over the world. We are beginning to listen!

And presses and magazines have begun to take note. Princeton University Press, University of California Press, Graywolf, and University of Arkansas Press all launched poetry translation series. At Oberlin, Field continues its own. Ibis Editions publishes translations of writing from the Levant. In New York, the marvelous Archipelago Press publishes only translations and Ugly Duckling has been bringing out new European literature in delightfully innovative designs. Zephyr Press focuses on Russian and Chinese literature. New Directions continues to publish major books of poems in translation from various languages and their new World Beat: International Poetry Now is the closest thing to an updated and improved (both genders, more languages, more generous selections) anthology of handpicked “Leaping Poetry.” The magazines Absinthe, Circumference, Mandorla, Two Lines and the Center for Translation in San Francisco are great advocates for cross-border reading. PEN, The Witter Bynner Foundation, The Santa Fe Art Institute, the National Endowment for the Arts are among the organizations that support translations in various ways.

Several years ago, before I was hired as the Briggs-Copeland poet at Harvard, I was interviewed by Helen Vendler who asked me, after looking at examples of my projected syllabi, how I could teach books of translation to students who were not even thoroughly familiar with their own literary tradition. It was a perfectly appropriate question to pose to someone about to be hired into something called the Department of English and American Literature and Language. And yet the notion that literary tradition might be trapped between certain geographic lines seems to me a convenience, and one that runs the danger of representing, as Helen Vendler does not, a kind of academic feudalism. Poets don’t care where their influences come from. They’re alert for images, rhythms, forms, anything at all that will feed the burning tree, which is the work of their writing. Chaucer had his ear tuned to French poetry before he shifted the rhythm of his own lines from tetrameter to pentameter. Shakespeare cribbed more than once from Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid. For George Herbert and Henry Vaughan, the translation of the Bible they read was a matter of the utmost seriousness. Keats penned an ecstatic poem to honor a translation of Homer. And Hopkins, when he wrote “Wreck of the Deutschland,” had Pindar in mind.

There are, of course, political ramifications to crossing linguistic borders. Each language is a modality of life. We might go so far as to say that one form of totalitarianism is the stuffing of expression into a single, standardized language that marches the reader toward some presumptively shared goal. If our country’s self-assurance, its reliance on a grammar of linearity and commerce, its obsessive valuation of measurement and scientific objectivity brackets-off realms of perception, of possibility and difference, then translation offers refreshment. It shifts our perspective and realigns our relation to the world, bringing us into proximity with other modalitites. It can draw us across that most guarded border, the one we build around ourselves. In the last few years, a wealth of poetry in translation has become available to readers in the U.S. For American poets, there’s never been a better time to listen before we leap.

(An earlier version of this essay appears in American Poet)