Wednesday, February 28, 2007

De Who?

Luisa was sitting on my lap saying, "Geh, geh"—which is her last bit of baby talk. It means, "Daddy," and we like to play a game where she says "Geh, geh" and I say "Lulu" back and forth.

Andrea said to Luisa, "Is Daddy the love of your life?" Then, since we watched "Meet the Parents" last night (imdb plot summary: "Male nurse Greg Focker meets his girlfriend's parents before proposing, but her suspicious father is every date's worst nightmare"), Andrea wondered whether I would respond to her future boyfriends "like Robert De Niro."

And Miles said, "Robert De Who?"

My house

For me, "my house" is the one I lived in when I was 10 to 15. It was in Ottawa Hills, Ohio, where I was very unhappy, but the house was great, and it is still my Platonic ideal of a house.

The only places I have lived almost as long were my first two apartments here in Basel, and neither of them has anything like the resonance of "my house."

(Posted as a comment on Steven Schroeder's blog about his house.)

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Lego Roger

During the semifinal of the 2004 Australian Open, I built a Roger Federer out of Lego and put it on the television as a kind of voodoo doll to help him win. When he did (6-4, 6-1, 6-4 against Juan Carlos Ferrero), I put a #1 on his racket to symbolize that he had just taken over the top ranking. I also resolved to not take the Lego Roger apart until he was no longer number one. Even at the time, I mentioned to Andrea that, given how well he was playing, he might be #1 for a very long time, barring injury. I guessed that he had a good shot at being #1 for five years.

Well, Roger the tennis player is still #1 and is just going past Jimmy Connors for the most consecutive weeks at #1 since the rankings began in 1973. He had his one serious injury in the fall of 2005, but recovered quickly.

Roger the Lego figure has fallen apart a couple of times, but that just shows that the figure is not really a voodoo doll!

And by the way, here's proof that I am not wholly partisan: I have considered building a Lego Rafael Nadal, with his racket in his left hand and a #2 on the racket. :-)

Friday, February 23, 2007

Jonathan Schild

When I was teaching in Saarbrücken, I once took an English-German translation test when I was supposed to be proctoring the German-English test that was to take place after the E-G test. Since my colleagues were going to be doing the grading of the E-G test, I could not hand it in under my own name, so I wrote "Jonathan Schild" on the test (my middle name, and the German version of my last name).

My colleagues did not get the joke until I revealed my identity to them. I had gotten a B+.

Daddy's lap

I improvised a rhyme for Luisa:

Daddy's lap's a place for Lu,
and for Miles and Sara, too.

But if all three
sit on me,
squashed I'll be.

(Miles immediately added:

but not a tree.

I added:

Not zucchini.)

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Having an idea

"Look here," said Cyril. "I've got an idea."

"Does it hurt much?" said Robert sympathetically.

(E. Nesbit, Five Children and It)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Adam's Arm

I was once asked to write something about translating a joke. So I did, but then the piece did not get published. Here it is.


In the mid-nineties, I heard a German version of this joke:

In the Garden of Eden, God asks Adam how he's doing. Adam praises the garden at length, but says he is bored to death. God offers to provide Adam with a solution to the problem: a woman.

"A woman? What's a woman?" asks Adam.

"A woman is wonderful," says God. "She'll cook for you, clean for you, look up to you, obey you, and, best of all, have sex with you whenever you want."

"What's sex?" asks Adam.

"Oh, it's great; you'll love it!" exclaims God.

"Sounds pretty good," says Adam. "What'll it cost me?"

"How about a leg?" says God.

Adam ponders this for a few minutes.

"What'll you give me for a rib?"

I liked how this joke managed to be misogynistic and misanthropic at the same time, and I began to share it with friends, in German and in English. With repetition, I came up with an English variation. After God says Adam will love sex, Adam responds:

"Sounds like it'll cost me an arm and a leg."

"Yes, that's a good price," says God.

Adam ponders this for a few minutes.

"What'll you give me for a rib?"

The idiom "to cost an arm and a leg," which does not exist in German, made a nice addition to the English version.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the joke was emailed to me around 2001 — in English, with Adam's arm! Presumably, someone had heard my version, typed it up, and sent it into cyberspace. Eventually, it found its way to my inbox.

But before this puffed up my pride too much, I emailed the joke to my brother and asked him if he had heard it before; if so, did he remember when? He wrote that he had heard it in college, hence around 1980. And he confirmed that both the arm and the leg had already been part of the price.

However pleasing the idea of my variation becoming an Internet joke had been, the discovery that Adam's arm predated me was much more striking. Apparently, the joke was invented in English with both limbs, but in German, the arm had become superfluous and was dropped with repetition. The joke was no longer a play on words; what remained was Adam haggling.

Then, when I translated the joke back into English, the juxtaposition of "cost" and "leg" led — perhaps inevitably — to the restoration of the joke's "arm," which I had not even known had been amputated.

Monday, February 19, 2007


“Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much. It sounded medical and secret, but also important.”

This appears on the first page of “The Higher Power of Lucky,” by Susan Patron, this year’s winner of the Newbery Medal. Libraries, it seems, are refusing to stock it because of the use of the word "scrotum."

What else should Patron have said here? The word appears when Lucky, the ten-year-old heroine, overhears someone say he saw a rattlesnake bite his dog Roy on the scrotum.

The only alternative would have been, "That snake bit Roy in the balls!"

Some people. :-)

Reviews and their effect on literature

Robert Archambeau provides a summary of (and interesting commentary on) an article by Marilyn Butler, "The Review: Culture's Medium." Before I start paraphrasing his paraphrase, may I suggest that you just check out his post? :-)

Butler looks at how the types of literary reviews published in the nineteenth century influenced how writers wrote. When the reviews were more general cultural reviews, writers began to write differently. In Archambeau's words: "So the journals in which literature was reviewed created a climate to which the writers responded. Writers, seeing their works treated in the context of social debate, came to see themselves as participants in that debate, and wrote accordingly."

As reviews began to be "more specifically literary," writers, too, began to focus more on literature, apart from general trends in the culture. This time in Butler's words: "Reviews were getting professionally self-reflexive, in that articles and books on the lives and personalities of men and women of letters were filling the place once reserved for articles and books on statesmen and men of action."

As Archambeau goes on to point out, such shifts have serious consequences for literature: "The inclusion of poetry in a more general cultural discourse leads to certain results; and one imagines the limiting of poetry to specifically literary contexts — as has happened in our own time — will lead to very different results." Today, after all, "poetry is reviewed and discussed primarily in literary journals." Archambeau points out two implications of this for poetry:

1. "Style über alles." (Note the snowclone: X über alles.)

2. "Sentimental politics rather than politics of a more hands-on variety."

If you have not read RA's post by now, I hope that all these tidbits get you interested. Feel free to comment here, since RA does not have a comment function on his blog!

Crescent Moon

At dusk this evening, just above the roofs of the row of houses across the street, the last sliver of a waning crescent moon, with Venus to the southwest, large and bright against the almost-black blue. I carried Luisa up to my room to show her the beautiful sight: "Moon," she said, "and a star."

And I remembered driving along Campus Drive at Stanford in my friend Libby's VW Bug, with a Dead tape on, "Lady with a Fan," and just as we saw the crescent moon and Venus in the darkening sky, "Terrapin Station" began:

Counting stars by candlelight
Some are dim but one is bright
The spiral light on Venus
Rising first and shining best
Oh, from the north-west corner
Of a brand new crescent moon
Where crickets and cicadas sing
A rare and different tune
Terrapin Station
In the shadow of the moon
Terrapin Station
And I know we'll be there soon

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Obama as seen in Switzerland

German speakers and readers in the U. S. may be interested in Andrea Köhler's take on Obamania, from the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on February 17.


"I don't think a person without a love of nonsense could become a poet. The nonsense is there in the very soul of language. All that reaching after meaning, all those beautiful sounds, all that magnificent failure." (George Szirtes)

That moment in poems that cannot be reduced to sense because it is not motivated by sense: whether rhyme,
meter, word choice, or some Oulipian constraint. Not necessarily the nonsense verse that Szirtes refers to, but something playful even in the most serious verse, "something there is that doesn't love a wall," as it were.

German speakers could take a look at Rüdiger Görner's article on W. H. Auden in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung of February 17. Görner claims that one can never be sure that Auden did not say things just for the sake of rhymes, such as:

Paul Valéry
Earned a meagre salary,
Walking through the Bois,
Observing his Moi.

Reading on the Road

I enjoyed Jay Parini's article "A Traveler's Library," which I came to thanks to AL Daily. Parini nicely captures the special effect of books that one reads while traveling, how they become associated with the place where one read them, as in this discussion of 1968:

"That same year, I spent Christmas with a friend's family in an icy, remote village in northern Spain. They were wonderful, but I missed my own family in Pennsylvania. Rather wisely, I had brought with me several books by John Updike, and I spent hour upon hour in my unheated bedroom, gloves on my hands, lost in Updike's early fiction, which evoked the sights and sounds of my home state, with its mild landscape, its gently rolling fields, and the small towns where high-school basketball games mattered desperately. I practically memorized the stories in Pigeon Feathers, still one of my favorite volumes of fiction because of its acute particularity, especially in the title story, which features an adolescent boy in the passion of self-discovery. I read and reread Of the Farm, a splendidly sensuous novella. I even liked The Centaur, which now strikes me as rather forced and dull. Whenever I see those books on my shelf, I can smell the cooking of that Spanish kitchen, where I also often sat at a plain wooden table while my friend's mother fried garlic and fish over a gas stove."

The push and pull of emotion in this paragraph is striking: Parini read Updike in Spain in order to remember Pennsylvania, but now when he thinks of those books he remembers not Pennsylvania, but Spain. The vividness of the books' contents have been replaced by the vividness of the place where he read them. Parini later mentions a similar experience of reading War and Peace in Italy: "Forever I will associate that story with that place, and that time in my life."

I also enjoyed his discussion of Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, which he read while traveling in Eastern Europe. Like Parini, I have always ben thrilled by the story of Auerbach writing Mimesis "under trying wartime circumstances, without the benefit of a library; he had nothing but his own well-stocked mind for recourse." It almost seems as if every literary scholar should set himself or herself the challenge of writing just an essay (and not a whole book, as Auerbach did) without anything but his or her own mind as the source of the material. That would be a serious test of one's intellectual and scholarly skills! Could one produce (in Parini's words) "something as densely packed, informative, and meditative" as Mimesis?

I, too, associate certain books with travel, mostly with airplanes. But once I was reading an Ishiguro novel (either Remains of the Day or An Artist of the Floating World) on one end of my Dad's couch while Andrea was reading A Pale View of Hills (also Ishiguro) at the other end. Suddenly, near the end of the book, she gasped, astonished. My Dad was also in the room, and as he had read the book, he immediately knew why she had gasped. A few days later, I was reading the same book on the plane back to Europe, and suddenly, near the end of the book, I gasped, astonished. I was on the same page that Andrea had been on when she gasped. In fact, it was the same exact word that made me gasp.

Which word was it? Read the book. :-)

(By the way, here's a tasty poem by Jay Parini, too: "Aristotle in the Middle Ages.")

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

"And some old witch in Bath had a book that you could never stop reading! You just had to wander around with your nose in it, trying to do everything one-handed."

Well, it's February, so in keeping with my plan to read one HP book every month until the new book comes out in July, I recently finished HP and the Chamber of Secrets. Little did J.K. Rowling know when she wrote the above that it was her own book that people would be causing people to run into doors.

I was surprised to find this little bit of morality at the end of the book, which I surely noticed before but had forgotten:

"It is our choices, Harry, that show who we truly are, far more than our abilities."

Another spin on talent and effort? It also reminds me of this article by James Surowiecki, with its wonderful conclusion: "culture is what you do, not who you are."

Intelligence in poetry

"Intelligence, when used well in a poem, never makes the reader feel less smart than the writer, or left behind. Rather, it gives the reader the exhilarating pleasure of being smart in concert with the speaker." (Tony Hoagland)

Friday, February 16, 2007

Effort, not Talent

About nine or ten years ago, my Great-Aunt read a translation of mine (Jacques Réda's "The Letter Scale") and remarked on how talented I was. To my surprise, and especially to hers, I was offended: I had worked for hours and days and weeks on that translation, and I wanted to be praised for my effort, not for my talent.

I thought of that little incident when reading "How Not to Talk to Your Kids," by Po Bronson, which I found a link to on AL Daily. Bronson addresses research by, among others, Carol Dweck:

“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

In follow-up interviews, Dweck discovered that those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.

Considering Dweck's emphasis on effort rather than talent, I found it ironic that Bronson quoted someone who said that "Carol Dweck is a flat-out genius."

At the end of the article, Bronson describes his own efforts to apply these ideas to his son:

Eventually, in my final stage of praise withdrawal, I realized that not telling my son he was smart meant I was leaving it up to him to make his own conclusion about his intelligence. Jumping in with praise is like jumping in too soon with the answer to a homework problem—it robs him of the chance to make the deduction himself.

Yeats again

Here's another case of William Butler Yeats as an intellectual reference point, this time in an NYT review, by Lee Siegel, of’s What Will Happen in Harry Potter 7:

'Either way, this wonderfully enthralled, believing, open book makes me hope that Rowling ends Harry’s story, when she does, with Yeats’s tender lines in mind: “I have spread my dreams under your feet; / Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”'

The first chapter of the mugglenet book is also on-line. Perhaps the most fascinating bit in it is that, two months before Rowling announced the title of the book (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), the authors predicted that the title would be Harry Potter and the Hallows of Hogwarts.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Frost and metaphor

"I doubt if any thing is more related to another thing than it is to any third thing except as we make it," Robert Frost wrote in his notebooks, as quoted by Adam Kirsch in his review, "Subterranean Frost." Kirsch comments that here, Frost "shows how the power of metaphor can turn on the poet, plunging him into a world of sheer perspectivism where there is no essence, only likeness."

When I wrote my essay on "The Mountain," I was quite surprised by my conclusion that the poem "acts out how poetry creates the contrast between nature and culture it purports to dissect." Though I once read all of Frost through (when I got the Library of America edition), I had not understood his work in such basically Nietzschean terms at all. But given the passage Kirsch quotes, it appears that I was on the right track: in Frost (and not only in his work but apparently for him as a person, too), the relations established by metaphor (or simile, in "The Mountain") create the contrasts with which we understand the world.

(Nietzsche: I'm thinking of "Über Wahrheit und Lüge im außermoralischen Sinne" in particular; an English version is here.)

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Sir Thomas More in Basel

"... Professor Duffy's beguiling interpretation of Holbein's famous drawing of Sir Thomas More and his family in 1527, now in the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung in Basel. All ten people present in the picture are shown holding books. This is often interpreted as being symbolic of a humanistic household, but Duffy suggests, credibly, that the family are at prayer and all are holding copies of exactly the same book, doubtless identical printed Books of Hours, so that all are praying together from the same text at once." (Christopher de Hamel, "The One and Only Book," New York Review of Books, Feb. 15, 2007, review of Eamon Duffy, Marking the Hours: English People and their Prayers, 1240-1570)

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Too Late Was What He Wanted

I first read Philip Levine when his poem "28" appeared in The New Yorker 20-odd years ago. I was not 28 yet, but I liked the idea of a poet from Detroit (where I was born in 1964). "28" then came out in A Walk with Tom Jefferson, which I bought in Boulder (just passing through to visit my friend Tiffany) on August 17, 1988, which also happens to be the day my nephew Alex was born.

Given our shared birthplace, I was thrilled when I read the opening of his poem "The Escape" in The Simple Truth in 1995:

To come to life in Detroit is to be manufactured
without the power of speech.

Such a striking line break, as "manufactured" becomes "manufactured / without the power of speech."

I especially love the last three lines of the new Levine poem in The New Yorker of February 5 (thanks to the blogger I stole this from so that I don't have to type it myself):


The punch-press operator from Flint
met the assembler from West Virginia
in a bar near the stadium. Neither
had anything in mind, so they conversed
about the upcoming baseball season
about which neither cared. We could
be a couple, he thought, but she was
all wrong, way too skinny. For years
he'd had an image of the way a woman
should look, and it wasn't her, it wasn't
anyone he'd ever known, certainly not
his ex-wife, who'd moved back south
to live with her high-school sweetheart.
About killed him. I don't need that shit,
he almost said aloud, and then realized
she'd been talking to someone, maybe
to him, about how she couldn't get
her hands right, how the grease ate
so deeply into her skin it became
a part of her, and she put her hand,
palm up, on the bar and pointed
with her cigarette at the deep lines
the work had carved. "The life line,"
he said, " which one is that?" "None,"
she said, and he noticed that her eyes
were hazel flecked with tiny spots
of gold, and then—embarrassed—looked
back at her hand, which seemed tiny
and delicate, the fingers yellowed
with calluses but slender and fine.
She took a paper napkin off the bar,
spit on it and told him to hold still
while she carefully lifted his glasses
up on his forehead, leaving him half
blind, and wiped something off
above his left cheekbone. "There,"
she said, lowering his glasses, "I
got it," and even with his glasses on
what she showed him was nothing
he could see. He thought, better
get out of here before it's too late, but
knew too late was what he wanted.

Creative disreputability

Peter Schjeldahl is his usual quotable self in "Different Strokes," his review of Martin Gayford's The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles:

"Creativity takes what it needs from the person who possesses it, or is possessed by it, and discards the rest."

"Imagine! A couple of disreputable men in a nowhere town slap paint on canvas and thereby change everything. It has been a long time now, half a century after Abstract Expressionism, since that scenario had its last echo in a real artistic or cultural development, except in tones of irony or elegy. No individual can any longer dandle the world at the end of a brush. The legend is correspondingly estranged and enhanced."

Wings, germans

Jane said, "I think it would be perfectly lovely. It's like a bright dream of delirium."

They found the sand-fairy easily. Anthea said:

"I wish we all had beautiful wings to fly with."


"I heard father say the other day people got diseases from germans in rain water. ..."

"What are germans?"

"Little waggly things you see with microscopes," said Cyril with a scientific air.

(E. Nesbit, Five Children and It)


Jonathan Mayhew gives good blog, and he drew my attention to the concept of snowclones. Be sure to check out the list of snowclones. To snowclone, or not to snowclone?

(Might I take this opportunity to refer you to the concept of eggcorns, too?)

Monday, February 12, 2007

A poem as a political reference point

In my post on "poets as intellectual reference points," I quoted Durs Grünbein:

"When an average intellectual today reflects on the last century's great artistic and intellectual achievements, he first thinks of such names as Freud and Picasso, Stravinsky and Heisenberg, Hitchcock and Wittgenstein. It is impossible to imagine that one of them could be a poet. Not a single poet from the ancestral gallery (whether Pessoa, Cavafy, or Rilke, whether Yeats, Mandelstam, Valéry, Frost, or Machado) will cross the mind of the historically-informed thinker, who dares to claim a monopoly on Modernism anyway."

As I summarized the issue: "what 'artistic' references do intellectuals use to support their points in cultural and political discussions?"

Well, C. Dale Young drew my attention today to a New York Times article by Adam Cohen, "What W. B. Yeats's 'Second Coming' Really Says About the Iraq War." Cohen indirectly deflates Grünbein's claim, in two ways:

1) He refers to many "uses" of Yeats's poem, belying the claim that poets and poems are never reference points for intellectuals.

2) "The pundits ... are picking up on Yeats's words, but not his world view": "world view" is a bit strong, but Cohen implies that it may not be possible to use a poem's words as intellectual reference points without engaging in careful interpretation of their nuances. In other words, the problem with poets, poems, and poetry is not that people do not refer to them in intellectual discussions but that poems resist being co-opted for such arguments in any straightforward way. Yeats's poem, Cohen concludes, is in fact "a powerful brief against punditry," against the very idea of predicting the future through intellectual argument.

This is still not a definitive rebuttal of Grünbein's claim, but it does put it in a somewhat more questionable light.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Commas at ends of lines

Here's a pet peeve of mine: the omission of commas at the ends of lines of verse.

Here's the example I just came across, from "Cher," by Dorianne Laux, today's poem in the Poetry Calendar 2007:

I wanted to wear a lantern
for a hat, a cabbage, a piñata
and walk in thigh high boots

Am I just being too picky (too much of an English teacher) when I stumble over the absence of a comma after "piñata"? Otherwise, the poem uses conventional punctuation throughout, and no other commas are omitted at the ends of lines.

I don't want to pick on Laux about this; it's something I see quite often, and I frequently stumble over it. In Laux's poem, at least, the missing comma does not make the grammar and syntax confusing, or create a distracting uncertainty about what exactly is meant (not an ambiguity but an uncertainty, which is a different thing).

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Szirtes does Akhmatova

George Szirtes posted a lovely translation of a poem by Anna Akhmatova. I wish more people would translate Russian poetry with the rhymes that pervade it. The sound is so important (I am told) to the feel of the work.

Szirtes prefaced the poem:

Here is Anna Akhmatova from Tashkent, thinking of St Petersburg via Dante. My translation:

Il mio San Giovanni
- Dante

Even after his death he kept well clear
Of the ancient Florence of his exiling.
It is for the man who did not reappear
Or once look back that now this song I sing.
Torchlight, darkness, a last embrace, then gone,
Past city limits to grim squawks of fate.
From hell he saw her and piled curses on,
But still recalled her, once through heaven’s gate,
Where barefoot, hair-shirted and lovesick,
He did not walk the perfidious and low
Streets of Florence carrying a candlestick,
Pining for the city where he could not go.

Friday, February 09, 2007

trilingual pun

Miles asked how cheese is made, and Andrea told him about a cheesemaker in the Emmental where one can go watch cheese being made.

I then said, "I'd like to finally go to the Papillorama."

So Luisa said, "And I go to Kinderkrippe."


To understand why we laughed so hard, you have to say "papillorama" in French: "Poppy-o-rama." You also need to know that "Poppy" (spelled "Papi") is Basel German for "Daddy." Luisa and Miles call me "Daddy," but when others speak Basel German to them, the children hear "Dein Papi" all the time.

So Luisa heard "Papi-o-rama" and thought that was where fathers go, so she goes to her day care (Kinderkrippe).


The sequence was only possible because I misunderstood the name of the butterfly garden in Kerzens, which is actually "Papiliorama." But it is true that we have been talking about going there for years.

All You Need Is Blah

A postscript to my previous post:

Michael Hofmann's translation of Durs Grünbein's poem "Ashes for Breakfast" contains a line that made me laugh for a very personal reason: "Maybe what will survive of us is Blah ..." This echo of Larkin is an echo of the Beatles for me: when Miles was two or three years old, he became a great fan of the Beatles, and we used to drive along singing along to Beatles CDs. One parody we liked to sing was "All You Need is Blah"!

Ashes for Breakfast

The taximeter skips ahead twenty cents at a time—money it takes
Forever to earn if what you do for a living is turn hexameters.

Durs Grünbein, "Berlin Posthumous," tr. Michael Hofmann, from Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems, Faber and Faber, 2006

I do not often read German poetry in translation in English, because I tend to want to read the original instead. But I knew I wanted to read this book someday, as I am a great fan of Durs Grünbein's poetry; I wanted to know how his work comes across for those who read English but not German.

If I was ambivalent about reading the book, though, the explanation is clear: I spent five years in the late nineties translating a lot of Grünbein myself. In a sense, I learned how to translate by translating Grünbein. When the moment came for a collection to be published, the initial proposal was for Michael Hofmann and me to co-translate the book. When Michael and I talked about the idea, we decided it did not make sense: our approaches to translating Grünbein were just too different. (One symbol of these differences is that I translate Grünbein's rhymed works as rhymed poems and Michael does not.) When given the choice between Shields and Hofmann, FSG and Faber and Faber went for Hofmann.

So I approached Ashes for Breakfast with some trepidation: what if I hated the book? Would that just be a sign of resentment?

Well, I don't hate the book; I love it. It is a great pleasure to read Hofmann's translations and to imagine friends of mine with no German finally being able to get a sense of what makes Grünbein such a remarkable poet. I especially recommend the sequence "Variations on No Theme." And here's something I like from "Memorandum," to go with the quotation from "Berlin Posthumous" above:

Poets, so they tell us, are awkward customers
Not up to much. Even laughter has a keener, full-throated edge
When they're not around. They're not very amusing.

Poets may or may not be amusing (many blogging poets are very amusing), but Grünbein's often bitter humor is.

A line from the title poem made me wonder about how newspapers are printed these days (while also reminding me of Anthony Hopkins and his ironing of the newspaper in The Remains of the Day):

I have breakfasted on ashes, the black
Dust that comes off newspapers, from the freshly printed columns.

I don't think newspapers have that problem anymore, do they? My two newspapers, Die Basler Zeitung and The International Herald Tribune, do not seem to leave marks on my fingers anymore!

I do realize that many translators feel that they should not try to translate rhyme and meter, as the attempt to do so might distort the sense of the poem, but I do miss the rhyme and meter of the original. Some of Grünbein's poems heighten their dark comedy with the rhyme, and the line I began with about hexameters seems odd if the poem is not in hexameters. (It also contains a lovely echo of Goethe's image, in the Roman Elegies, of tapping out hexameters on the back of the woman he is sleeping with.)

Yet one poem in Hofmann's selection did make me wonder further about the translations in this book in general:


with old auto tires, broken glass,
household junk, and the bones
of a small fort

of polystyrene and crap,
where, on a lagoon of oil,
with cotorni of bubbles

a yellow plastic duck
bobs round on its axis,
caught by low-lying branches.

waves of crystal waters, come.

I like this poem. It happens to be one I know very well in the original version, because I once planned (and even began writing) an essay on Grünbein that was to begin with it (and I did write a poem called "Waves of Clear Waters" about how I first discovered Grünbein). And of course I translated the poem myself:


with old car tires, glass,
garbage, and an imitation
of a small weir

of cellophane and junk
in which amidst the foam
exposed on a film of oil

a green plastic fish
sways between the twigs,
spins lightly on its axis.

waves of clear water, come.

Leaving aside all the other differences between the two translations (and perhaps can see why an edition with Michael and me as co-translators was not a good idea), many of which I did not notice until I went back to my version, I immediately noticed that Grünbein's "green plastic fish" had become Hofmann's "yellow plastic duck." In part, I noticed this because a comic version of the thesis of my unwritten essay was that Grünbein is a (green) fish, and my thesis does not make sense if the English poem turns the fish into a (yellow) duck. (The serious issue the essay would have addressed is the near-absence of the first-person singular in Grünbein's first three books and its partial appearance in his fourth.)

But more seriously, the shift from fish to duck raises two concerns for me: first, I do not understand the motivation for the altering of the image, and it seems to change the metaphorical implications of the poem quite considerably. The toy may be plastic, but a fish floating on the water is dead, while a duck floating on the water is not.

Secondly, and more generally, it makes me wonder whether Hofmann has altered Grünbein's imagery elsewhere in the book as well. Is this move from fish to fowl an isolated case? Or is it a symbol of Hofmann's translation procedure in general? If so, then those who discover Grünbein through this book might wonder whether the scaly Grünbein of the original German has become feathery instead. Or to put it another way, Hofmann has produced a wonderful collection of poems that are a great pleasure to read, but they might be more "yellow" than "green" (as in Grünbein).


Andrew Osborn's interview with John Koethe (from the Southwest Review, on-line at Poetry Daily) not only taught me how to pronounce "Koethe" ("katy"; not a rhyme for "Goethe") but also contained this interesting summary of Koethe's writing style:

"I like poems to be locally clear so that when you're reading them sentence by sentence you sort of think you understand what they're saying. But then I also like them to be globally obscure, so that the whole poem remains the kind of free-standing artifact I was talking about earlier. You don't really know what the whole poem means, but you can read any sentence of it and, in a conventional sense, it seems clear."

I've tried to find the passage where Reginald Shepherd made the same point on his blog, but I have not found it. I was struck by how two quite different points made the same claim (one I am quite sympathetic to).

I printed out the interview to read it because it is so long. I had also printed out John Ashbery's "Yes, 'Senor' Fluffy" from PD, and it happened to be the next thing in my pile of things to read. The last lines of the interview with Koethe refer to "an enchanting exhibition devoted entirely to clouds" that he attended in Berlin. The first lines of Ashbery's poem:

And the clouds fretted and flew, as though
there was a reason for their acting distraught.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

poets as intellectual reference points

I posted a comment on a post by Jonathan Mayhew that led to some discussion between him and me about the following quotation from my translation of Durs Grünbein's "The Poem and its Secret," which appeared in the January 07 issue of Poetry: "When an average intellectual today reflects on the last century's great artistic and intellectual achievements, he first thinks of such names as Freud and Picasso, Stravinsky and Heisenberg, Hitchcock and Wittgenstein. It is impossible to imagine that one of them could be a poet. Not a single poet from the ancestral gallery (whether Pessoa, Cavafy, or Rilke, whether Yeats, Mandelstam, Valéry, Frost, or Machado) will cross the mind of the historically-informed thinker, who dares to claim a monopoly on Modernism anyway."

You can read the post and the comments if you want all the gory details, but the conclusion is what I wanted to post here: what "artistic" references do intellectuals use to support their points in cultural and political discussions? For example, when Frank Rich writes his weekly column on the state of prevarication and obfuscation in contemporary American politics, what "artistic" works (in the broadest sense) does he refer to?