Monsieur Big Bang was a Proust Scholar back when he got his B.A. in French many lifetimes ago. So he had read Proust at least once in French, many of the books twice or three times in French. This was his first time reading them in English. I had been badgering him to read them again with me ever since I've known him. He kept saying he was over it. Then he read the Proust section in a book I left in the bathroom: Writer's Gone Wild by Bill Preschel. He came out of the bathroom and announced he was ready to read Proust with me. And so we did.
I loved reading Proust, particularly the gayness. And I'm not talking about the homosexual characters and their foibles. I'm talking about Proust's very gay sense of humor and sense of obsession. Proust, where have you been all my life?
Anyway, reading the books led me to re-evaluate my avoidance of French poets. When I finished my international anthologies, I started to read Modern Poets of France, translated by Louis Simpson, a book sent to me by a friend a few years back. The poets range from Hugo to Robert Desnos, with three to six poems each and extensive biographies in the back of the book. In the bios there were actually references to Proust, how he found the name of Albertine from poet Marceline Debordes-Valmore. Poet Philippe Soupault remembers staying in Cabourg when Proust was there, Proust later to dub it his Balbec.
So I tried to get attached to these French poems afresh with an open mind. What a miserable failure. Aside from the poet-political associations I made with Apollinaire, (which I'll get into next week), all the poems sounded the same. I had to figure this was due to the flat monosyllabic language of Louis Simpson. This is a good example of how the spirit of a translator can imbue a poem. I knew something was up when I got to the Baudelaire poems. The first book of poems I ever purchased (in my adulthood) from City Books in St. Louis, MO, was Joanna Richardson's translations of Baudelaire (rock singer John Waite referenced "The Albatross" in an interview). I still love this book. Baudelaire's word-set (even in French) is decadent and lush. I believe this is my issue with Simpson's translations: can a translator put more into a translation than the sum or habit of his own vocabulary?
First two stanzas from "Correpondances"/"Correspondences"
La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L'homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers.
Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.
-- Charles Baudelaire
Nature's a temple where the pilasters
Speak sometimes in their mystic languages;
Man reaches it through symbols dense as trees,
That watch him with a gaze familiar.
As far-off echoes from a distance sound
In unity profound and recondite,
Boundless as night itself and as the light
Sounds, fragrances and colours correspond.
-- Joanna Richardson
Nature is a temple. The columns are
Alive and sometimes vaguely seem to talk;
There are symbols in the forests where we walk
That watch us, and they seem familiar.
As echoes in the distance come together
Mysteriously and merge and sound as one,
Vast as night and shining like the dawn,
Perfumes, colors, sounds speak to each other.
-- Louis Simpson
I felt sometimes the translations held different meanings. See this stanza from "Hymne à la Beauté"/"Hymn to Beauty":
Tu contiens dans ton oeil le couchant et l'aurore;
Tu répands des parfums comme un soir orageux;
Tes baisers sont un philtre et ta bouche une amphore
Qui font le héros lâche et l'enfant courageux.
-- Charles Baudelaire
Your eyes contain the dawn and the crepuscule,
You scatter fragrance like a stormy eve,
Your mouth's an amphora, your kiss a phial
Which makes the hero shy, the infant brave.
-- Joanna Richardson
Your glance is sunset and the rising sun,
Your perfumes like a storm fill the night air.
Your kisses are magic. This love potion
Makes heroes tremble and boys bravely dare.
-- Louis Simpson
Passive language, his flat, generic nouns. All the poems in the anthology read this way so Mallarmé and Verlaine and Rimbaud all sounded the same. Have I really read them yet? I don't feel I have.
I dug out my college Poulin poetry textbook. Do we all have a Poulin anthology? The Contemporary American Poetry tome that I never crack open. But here I went to read some Louis Simpson.
I feel his poems, like "Hot Night on Water Street," make big gestures with elemental detail. But I think this is kind of his style, unembellished and stripped. Fine. But should he bring that to his translations? I was interested in his conversations with Walt Whitman in "Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain."
Where are you, Walt?
The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.
"Where is the nation you promised?
All that grave weight of America
Cancelled! Like Greece and Rome.
The future in ruins!
I'm not sure if Simspon is unhappy with America or free verse or a political conflation of the two. Which is the problem I always have with nostalgic, new formalists (Modern Poets of France was published by Story Line Press). It's the old cycle. Contemporaries, Herman Melville was fretting about the state of his modern world in Moby Dick while Walt Whitman was celebrating it in Leaves of Grass. In the book Why Read Moby Dick, Nathaniel Philbrick describes the historical, cultural setting through the eyes of Melville: "Racial strife, impending [Civil] war, the challenges for a writer 'pulled hither and thither by circumstances,' as Melville wrote to Hawthorne in June of 1851, all played a part in the writing of his novel...Melville condemned as a weakness in the thinking of his contemporaries, the romantic Transcendentalists." This binary is so threadbare. I believe that if Walt Whitman were alive today, he's still be celebrating America and his free verse.
Bottom line: when reading translations, search for alternatives and compare them. Then seek out the poetry of the translators. As Ozzy Osbourne would say, it's like goin off the rails on a crazy train.
Today, searching for my blog pic above (Champs Elysee by Antoine Blanchard) I found some sweet Proust links: