Friday, June 3, 2011

Poetry as Passport: Getting to Other Worlds through Translations

Yesterday, I had a good time listening to a podcast co-hosted by Don Share and Christian Wiman concerning the June 2011 issue of Poetry, which focuses on translations of poems by a mix of Punjabi, Greek, Estonian, French, and Russian poets. Some of the poets wrote during the late 19th century, some during the early 20th century, and some much further back.

Notably for instance, there are poems by Abid B. al-Abras and Labid from the pre-Islamic Mu'allaqat. Since my limits of my knowledge know no bounds, I was grateful for the note on the translations by Ange Mlinko. She translated the poems by Labid and Abid B. al-Abras from Arabic.

I read along silently as Share, Wimam, and their guests read and discussed the poetry.

Later, while looking through more of the other poems from the issue, I focused on al-Abras's "Last Simile" and Labid's "Lament."

A first glance, the two poems immediately had my thinking of Tyehimba Jess's "double-jointed" leadbelly vs. lomax poems from his volume Leadbelly. Of course, caesuraed lines have a long history in verse. Still, the Jess connection came to my mind first.

Despite its length, "Last Simile" initially triggered some thoughts to haiku, because of the close observations to nature, and because I've lately been re-reading Richard Wright's haiku. Reading it more though pushed me to travel, as it were, to places I was less familiar with in poetry. The journey was good.

I was intrigued by Mlinko's note that "Lament" signaled "the emergence of a new form on the cusp of Islam: the elegy, with its emphasis on the individual ... rather than on ritualized mourning." The idea that this ancient poem represented a kind of shift seems notable and prompted me to think through that move from the individualized vs. ritualized processes of mourning, especially as represented in poetry.

Overall, the poetry served as a kind of passport or more accurately an atlas for tracing my mind and fingers across these various, distant places.   

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