Wednesday, 9 February 2011

David Harsent: notes on two and a half lines of Night

Although it would be fair to describe David Harsent's poetry as 'dark', in the sense that there are hauntings, mysteries, nocturnal excursions, sinister hints, violence, and the enchantments of despair, it is not in fact the darkness but the brightness that makes his poetry as valuable as it is. By brightness I mean the sheer pleasure in sound and association. It is almost as if the narrative were darkness but the texture was constantly throwing off light.

This is partly an aspect of what I have sometimes thought of as 'the mouth dance', the way the mouth shapes itself to a sequence of vowels, throwing in the consonants as those points where, in the dance, the feet touch the ground. Spenser and Keats were masters of the open vowel, Tennyson, I think, was a voluptuary of consonants (with blackest moss the flower pots were thickly crusted, one an all). Marry the mouthdance with a subtle, very slightly off-centre sense of rhythm, something that catches at the edges of pentameter, but then sways under the shadow of classic hexameters, moving from iambic to dactyl or anapaest, with a powerful caesura or a pair of spondees, blending ballad metre with the ghosts of Sapphics, and you have the brightness, the coruscation.

Between myself and the wall, the darkness in itself would be too relentless, too much the same thing for me were it not for that marvellous dancing counterpoint, a counterpoint that lends darkness a certain luminescence. The dark is what he needs to set him dancing.

I listen, for example, to the first few lines of one of the finest sequences in Night, 'The Queen Bee Canticles':

Sun on the sea running white, sun on white walls, yes, on the thick
shoulders of the fishermen, as they fanned their nets, sun

as an engine, a trapdoor, a compass...

/-- /-- / /--/ / --/
/--- /-- --/ -/ /

--/- -/- -/-

That's how it sounds to me as rhythm (/ as accented, - as un accented syllable): broadly classical here, dancing in threes, but not too evenly, leaving room for a skip or change of tread. There are internal rhymes, the thrust of the w sounds, the management of long and short vowels, the varied percussion of those hardly-there consonants from th to ck to sh to f, the alliterated f, and then the engine, trapdoor, compass.

I don't want to go too analytical on this: analysis can get quarrelsome and dry. But weigh any group of lines from Night and you'll see what language is doing to the narrative imagination. The narrative imagination says: this is what turns me on (sex, death, violence, nightmares, drift, guilt), then language dances the turn-on into a multi-dimensional life that both confirms the darkness but also weaves it into a series of patterns that turns it from cliché into a vivid sense of life.

Down these mean streets a man must dance and sing, proclaiming small miracles.


Diane said...

Stunning exposition, George.

Sabine said...

Thank you for this wonderful and passionate analysis. Language is truly a miracle. I like your comparison with dance, which is indeed at the origin of poetry.
I cannot but think about what translation has to accomplish, as the dance you mention has to be recreated and set into a different, foreign melody. A challenging, impossible, fascinating task.

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George S said...

Thank you very much, all three. It really isn't anything I wouldn't do with a class - in fact it is often one of my first introductory classes. It is intended to demonstrate that saying poetry, even if only in the head, is a sensory pleasure.

The dance isn't the same in different languages, Sabine. The dance is not pure sound, it is sound + culture. The basics of the mouth dance are the same everywhere, so a flat line employing a fairly static set of vowels would be flat in any language, but the resonance of movement will differ. Hungarian, for example, has no real dipthongs, whereas English is practically all dipthong. In other words the closing and opening of the mouth occur in different ways.

In any case the translation of poetry can't really operate entirely on the line-by-line reproduction of sounds or effects. I think translation is the seeing of an opportunity in the receiving language to enter a corresponding dance - not the imitation of a set of gestures, but a response in the same spirit.

Sabine said...

Thank you for your detailed answer concerning translation, I agree totally.
Sometimes the result is more a version than a translation. A response in the same spirit, yes, and always a revelation, dwelling in exile.

Mark Granier said...

Lovely intro George. Sorry to say that I don't know Harsent's work, though I recognise the name of course (and I must have come across his poems in various anthologies); anyway, dancing in the dark sounds like my kind of thing, so I've sent off for his Selected plus the recent collection, Night. Thanks for this.