Monday, 29 March 2010
Cloud Talk 3: The cumulonimbus and the tuba
Cumulonimbus tuba via
[Back from London, gathering at EH's on Saturday night, the night in Hitchin, visiting greatly spirited dying friend in London this afternoon, then on to reading by Faber Academy poets in Great Russell Street. Just home, having quickly read emails, but not up to responding now. Tomorrow. Meanwhile, back to those clouds.]
We should probably leave the clouds at some stage and descend to earth, to the hard practicalities of translation. But I’d like to carry the cloud with us, as a cloud in the mind and the heart, even as we consider practicalities. The notion of the cloud envisages it as a location for seeking meaning, as a form that arises out of some necessity in the physical universe that is then echoed in the universe of the mind: the cloud becomes a limiter of knowledge, a wonderful sensory provider of the necessary possibilities of knowledge.
The cloud has form that is clearly perceptible. The poem talked of language as no more than punctuation and rhyme, that is to say convention. That is a dramatic hyperbole, of course, a kind of synechdoche for the other formal qualities of language as opposed to its signifying quality. It is a part that stands for a whole. The forms of language are what make language: that is the suggestion. Clouds have form: language has form.
And so to poems. Poems certainly do have form, are clearly formal utterances. My own poem works in quatrains and rhymes ABBA throughout.
One of the old, continually recurring debates with the translation of poetry, concerns fidelity to form. Fidelity to the lexicon is, we know, gestural at best, though it is the kind of fidelity we usually mean when it comes to translation. Is this or that word being properly understood? When the poet says whale, he does not mean shark let alone camel or weasel. All this is, no doubt, true and important, while at the same time we must be aware that rendering a whale as a whale does not solve all the problems of translation when it comes to poetry, if only because we are aware that, in poetry, it is not so much the mechanical, narrative function of the whale that is foregrounded (though it can never quite vanish) but some idea of what a whale denotes and connotes. A certain, fully contextualised whaleness is what is wanted, the kind of whaleness that is not altogether precise but - shall we say? - a little cloudy.
Fidelity to form works along different lines – lines, let us say, of matching lengths, in matching clusters, making similar gestures to sound at certain crucial points. There, we say, is an original work: here we are, reproducing its elements. We are not Chippendale or Sheraton: we reproduce their forms. We are makers of reproduction furniture, and reproduction furniture is, we understand, something between a homage and a cheat. That is not to say we are not craftsmen, because Chippendale and Sheraton are by no means easy to imitate – we deserve credit for our skill, but our very calling is a little unworthy, even a touch shady. We duplicate, therefore we are potentially duplicitous.
Very well, let us allow that. Nevertheless there are certain common forms, we might argue, that carry a certain inescapable history, in fact an entire sense of being with them. Say, the sonnet. Though there are various kinds of sonnet they do have certain commonly identifiable characteristics, such as having fourteen lines. We might also argue that if a poet has chosen a specific version of the available sonnet models that constitutes a conscious choice. One might find oneself accidentally finishing up with a Shakespearian sonnet with all that entails, but in proposing that possibility we should remember that we are only just down the corridor from the vast hall where a thousand monkeys are hammering away at typewriters until one of them finally produces Hamlet.
So, let us, hesitantly, propose that such common forms are part of the meaning of the poem. How important a part? We might, equally hesitantly, propose that the character of the voice is to some degree defined by the kind of posture it adopts in producing its music. Music was the other term Hamlet employed, of course, there being, ‘…much music, excellent voice, in this little organ’. Most ordinary speech is noise with elements of music: a poem though – this little organ, though sometimes it is a pretty mighty organ - clearly is music, an organized set of shiftings, working on some principle that gives it form, a necessary form. A violinist does not adopt the same posture as a tuba player...
...to be continued.