The Book Meme: Day 16

Day 16 - Favorite poem or collection of poetry


Another big, broad prompt that's almost impossible to wrangle. I mean, not only are there are a LOT of really great poems out there, but within the realm of poetry, the range is... well, you've got something like Paradise Lost on the one hand, and the miniaturized perfection of Basho's haiku on the other. Those two things are so dissimilar than even making the comparison in the first place feels ludicrous. And there's a lot of stuff between them that doesn't much resemble either of those extremes.

So let's whittle it down, shall we? The Matsuo Basho poems in question include many of my favorites within the haiku form, though Buson and Issa have also written some gorgeous examples. My favorite haiku is probably this little Basho gem, which I love at least partly because it inspired a wonderful Ted Reynolds novella titled "Ker-Plop." The version Reynolds used was this:

Old pond
Frog jumps

Of course, one issue with poetry is that of translation. I've read a lot of poems originally composed in other languages, and the choices made by the translator have a profound effect on how much I've enjoyed them. Consider, for example, James Kirkup's translation of the Basho poem above,which is even more minimalist:


But Curtis Hidden Page gets all iambic pentameter up in here:

A lonely pond in age-old stillness sleeps...
Apart, unstirred by sound of motion... till
Suddenly into it a lithe frog leaps.

Or you could look at the other versions transformed into English here. That, my friends, is what translation is about.

But that variability is one reason I feel a bit wary of choosing a translated work. In a poem ("the best words in the best order," as Coleridge defined it) any individual word is doing so much work that a slightly different one has an outsize effect on the poem as a whole. A prose translation, populated by so many more words, will not be much altered by these minor changes.

I saw this for myself when Wislawa Szymborska won the Nobel Prize in 1996. The news story I saw about her victory included a sample poem, and I was utterly unmoved by it. How could THIS earn such a literary plum? But in hopes that it was an atypical bit of verse, I picked up a Szymborska collection titled View with a Grain of Sand... and was blown away. Even the same poem I'd read in the news story was transformed into something vivid and gorgeous. So in a sense, what I was reading wasn't Szymborska's work, but that of translators Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh (who deservedly won a PEN prize for their efforts.) 

So we're going with English only, not that a single language is going to narrow things down that much. I mean, if I were to start listing poets I've enjoyed, the list gets long very quickly: John Donne, W.D. Snodgrass, Emily Dickinson, Sharon Olds, Langston Hughes, John Keats, Lucille Clifton, Arna Bontemps, Galway Kinnell, Billy Collins, William Shakespeare, Allen Ginsburg, Dorothy Parker, Jean Toomer, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Cowper, Percy Shelley, Robert Frost, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, A.D. Hope, William Cullen Bryant, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Kenneth Koch, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens (whom I often confuse), Edgar Lee Masters and Edward Arlington Robinson (whom I ALWAYS confuse), and Robert Bly, among others.

But if pressed, I have to pick one American poet missing from the list above, and one work I've found great joy in reading and teaching many times: Walt Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." The magic trick that Whitman pulls off here is that of telling us exactly how his magic trick works. In the course of building his catalog of images (his favorite poetic technique by far), Whitman then goes back to explain why a catalog of images is so engaging to an audience--that these tiny bits of shared sensation are in fact what link poet and reader. Through the sight of sun on the water, banners flapping, and gulls wheeling over the ferry in the yellow light--what Whitman calls "dumb, beautiful ministers"--the reader gets a glimpse into the mind of the poet, and the poet thereby shares an awareness of the reader: "You've noticed the same things I have." It's a communion accomplished through nothing more complex than a list, but that list unites everyone who considers its items, nodding and saying to the universe, "Yes, I know what that's like." It is in itself a connection between two shores, one that transcends time and space.

You have waited, you always wait, you dumb, beautiful ministers, 
We receive you with free sense at last, and are insatiate henceforward, 
Not you any more shall be able to foil us, or withhold yourselves from us, 
We use you, and do not cast you aside--we plant you permanently within us, 
We fathom you not--we love you--there is perfection in you also, 
You furnish your parts toward eternity, 
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.

"Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" is a magnificent work of art. It may not be the poem I want to read at any given moment, but I don't need to read it all the time. I just need to know that Walt's still out there, ready to share it with me whenever I want.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on July 22, 2018 6:17 AM.

The Book Meme: Day 15 was the previous entry in this blog.

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