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On Writing, Interpreting English

On Writing, Interpreting English - 2008-07-26 10:14

Interpreting English

When I read W.S. Merwin, or any other very good poet, take a book of poetry from other language and translate it into English I get confused.

I think, how could my words get put into another language and not have a different tone, cadence, rhythm – or even subtlety? The stuff that goes into what I write is all notes and scraps that I’ve collected over years; all in context with the culture and time that I’ve been living. I don’t write about the Great Depression, why would I think I could put myself into an eastern European after he lived years under communism and have success at really getting the point of the words he put, with great labor, onto paper or parchment, or whatever?

The idea that a poem can be explained by a teacher or critic is false. Other than footnoting the place and colloquialisms of the time. I think any interpretation is done after the fact.—like explaining a joke to someone not familiar with the concept or pointing out the reasons for a depression 80 years ago. It’s always easy to see things in retrospect – even things that never existed.

Things happen in time -- JFK was shot and killed, and forevermore events will be half remembered, misunderstood, manipulated and shaped into reasons how it happened, in 20 different ways – all different. You can’t claim the truth of the past without giving the history, and usually, this comes from primary sources that have both a unique perspective and an ax to grind.

A Poem either works or doesn’t, a teacher is useful mostly by setting the place and time:

‘In 2008, Cheney was thought of as a sort of Imperial vice-president, so the allusion the poet is using concerns a connection with Christ the king.”

It’s not helpful to explain the concept of death, life and all the unsaid ties that bind – if a poem has to be explained that much, it should just be a book.

The problem is, English words have to be interpreted themselves – a poet gives each word a weight and a balance. Sometimes the weight comes from a trick, such as words that sound alike; sometimes it comes from non-standard cultural usage of a word. It might even be a sarcastic, pointedly left uncommented on; a stand-alone piece that’s easy to glaze over while reading and the one thing that might actually be the point of the poem.

When T.S. Eliot wrote about ‘scuttling across silent seas,’ he may have been thinking about hermit crabs, lobsters or coal ships of the Royal Navy. He may have used a lifetime of learning and living to match scuttling with silent sea because it was in the ballpark of what he was trying to say and it sounded good when he said it out loud. He probably looked at it after he wrote and asked himself where the words came from.

If he waited 20 years, he could have taken an English class and they would have told him.


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