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Rich in the Loss

Selected Translations by W. D. Snodgrass. BOA Editions, 1998.

As Reviewed By: J. S. Renau

W. D. Snodgrass occupies an odd niche in American poetry. One would think a living poet of his generation (he was born in 1926), with a Pulitzer Prize in tow and a legitimate claim to have been one of the first “Confessional” poets, would have risen to the stature of, say, Robert Lowell or Sylvia Plath, but Snodgrass resides largely in the margins of American poetry (this assumes, perhaps naively, that there is a center). Part of the semi-neglect is self-inflicted. After experiencing smashing success with his first volume, Heart’s Needle, for which he won the 1960 Pulitzer, he published volumes of original verse sparingly. After Experience appeared in 1969, which was greeted with tame admiration. Snodgrass then published The Führer Bunker: A Cycle of Poems in Progress in 1977, which became the target of varied criticism. Accusations of Fascist sympathies, bad taste, and mere silliness were lobbed in its direction, although the book was still nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

The extent to which Snodgrass’ career was damaged by The Führer Bunker is hard to measure, but in a bout of revisionist history, one could interpret the whole episode as a kind of nascent political correctness, for there have been volumes far more offensive, and of course, silliness is pandemic. There have been other respected poets who have published “bad” poems or volumes, but usually, after a few glancing right hooks, the poet comes out no worse for it. And I for one do not buy the notion that it’s a bad or silly book, though for a volume 20 years in the making, one expects more from it. Nevertheless, Snodgrass’ reputation has been in decline ever since, and he has done little to burnish his vita, offering up light verse, underwhelming lyrics, and a final (and enlarged) version of The Führer Bunker over the past two decades, which have only made popular the idea that Snodgrass is a poet whose talents experienced a severe decline since his prize-winning first effort. Snodgrass’ aims and targets have changed over time, and it seems more than a little unfair to criticize him for not writing Heart’s Needle over and over. And while I agree with most critics that Heart’s Needle was never equaled, I find the trajectory of his career to be merely uneven rather than an earthward plunge, for there are poems of interest in his later poetry. This unevenness can be seen very well when examining Snodgrass’ Selected Translations, a volume that draws from three decades of work and that gives readers a unique perspective from which to consider not only Snodgrass’ translations but his original verses as well.[private]

All poets who translate have something of H. G. Wells’ Dr. Moreau in them, the desire to pull a living animal out of its skin and dump it into skins of their own making. Is the animal better off? Has justice been done to the animal? These are often secondary concerns, for we are human—eternal fixers and lovers cursed with the unfortunate habit of killing what we love. And while there may be an ideal combination of literality and music, it is rarely achieved. Often, the best one can do is strike a balance between the poem as it was originally and the poem it must become in its new language, never entirely faithful to either. This might seem enough to make us wonder why anyone translates, and being one who does not translate poetry, I can only assume that love makes one do strange things.

Winner of the 1999 Landon Award for Translation, Snodgrass’ Selected Translations most certainly has the markings of a labor of love. How else to explain the curious selection of poems one encounters in the volume, where the B-sides of sundry European languages commingle with the greatest hits of world literature? The volume’s selections traverse an immense range of time and space, from antiquity to the contemporary period, from rugged fjords to lush lagoons. William Jay Smith, the ’99 Landon Prize judge and a prolific translator himself, wrote in his citation that Snodgrass’ poems, “whether of the minnesingers or the troubadours, are buoyant and bawdy, graceful and tender, savage and sharp.” The selections are never content in one place and time for long, nor do they strike one chord repeatedly; rather, Snodgrass displays wide reading (and hearing).

However, for readers familiar with the poet’s original work, there is sure to be a click of recognition in pouring over these translations, for despite the volume’s eclecticism, many of the poems bear the unmistakable stamp of Snodgrass’ particular concerns. Sex and desire; the dehumanization of modern man; loneliness; jesting in the face of disaster; the music of nonsense language; the loss of innocence, loved ones, sanity—all of it is pure Snodgrass. The volume begins with a rape and ends with a donkey proclaiming “Cuckoo! Cuckoo! / He-haw!” In between, the volume swings between the poles of Snodgrass’ imagination, hitting all the taste buds of the English tongue.

Given how much these poems sound like Snodgrass, one unfamiliar with the languages from which he translates might be tempted to think of Imitations, those univocal translations of Robert Lowell that made no pretense of literality, and indeed, in his “Preface,” Snodgrass alludes to Lowell’s method, if only to say that it is not his own:

I have seldom departed from the denotative sense, as for instance, Lowell did in his “Imitations.” I have no theoretical objection to such departures—if we allow Thomas Wyatt his liberties in rendering Plutarch, why forbid them to Lowell? For myself, though, I have kept the literal sense wherever I could….

In his Judge’s Citation, William Jay Smith says much the same thing, finding Snodgrass to be “remarkably faithful” and “unusually inventive.” I must defer to Mr. Smith as to the faithfulness of most of the lyrics, but Snodgrass, like all responsible poet-translators, aimed for poems that have value apart from building bridges to other languages, or as he states, “These translations intend to satisfy as English-language poems or songs.” And so they must.

* * *

Snodgrass is too wily and aware to become a literary Dr. Moreau. He is quite content with puncturing his own pretensions, readily admitting in his preface the virtual impossibility of the translator’s task, and one senses that there is a genuine affection that leads him to translate rather than warped ambition or megalomania. Snodgrass seems wholly aware of and comfortable with what is lost in translation, and that loss would seem to be the nature of translating, recalling the words that, many years before, Snodgrass put in Orpheus’ mouth after losing his beloved Eurydice:

It was the nature of the thing:
No moon outlives its leaving night,
No sun its day. And I went on
Rich in the loss of all I sing
To the threshold of waking light,
To larksong and the live, gray dawn.
So night by night, my life has gone.

It is a convenient departure here to consider Orpheus, for not only does the Orpheus myth and its expression of life lived at the crossroads of desire and loss inform Snodgrass’ own temperament and sensibility as a poet, but it is also a fanciful restatement of the translator’s dilemma—to sing despite (or because of?) something lost. That Snodgrass’ imagination seized on the Orpheus myth in his first book now seems appropriate; he has always excelled in producing an heroic resignation in his poetry, a state of mind that accepts loss and the attendant grief, yet stumbles toward forbearance and strength, “Rich in the loss” as it were, and it is this mode of understanding that saves Snodgrass’ better poems from insufferable despair, for his personae are always losing something.

And, once again, Orpheus puts in an appearance in the Selected Translations, or at least Orpheus as refracted through the lens of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. The best of Snodgrass’ Rilke meshes the grand manner of those poems with Snodgrass’ own voice, a humbler and quieter voice, such as the fourth sonnet of Part One:

O you who are tender, step now and then
Into the breath that does not notice you;
Touching your cheeks, let it be drawn in two
To tremble behind you and be one again.
You who are sound, O you who have the luck,
You who seem to be beginning hearts.
Bows for the darts and targets for the darts,
More endlessly shine than smiles that your tears have marked.

Never fear suffering. The heaviness—
You may return it to the earth’s own weight;
The mountains are heavy, heavy the seas.
You could not sustain even the trees
Your childhood planted, long since grown too great.
Ah, but the breezes…O the spaciousness…

There is a grandeur in Rilke that forces itself upon Snodgrass, who rarely attempts such a pitch in his original poems; but that aside, the translations capture something essential to sensing the Sonnets to Orpheus—the curious and alluring use of the elements, of wind and earth, of the solid and the airy, such as the movement of the concluding sestet that starts with earth and heaviness and moves to breezes and open spaces.

This is familiar ground for Snodgrass, who has shown a dazzling ability to conflate and confuse elements with pleasing effects. For example, Heart’s Needle, both the volume and the title poem, is a jumble of elements, constantly shifting perspectives, and elemental vagueness, such as in “At the Park Dance”:

While Snodgrass may not share Rilke’s voice, both are able to figure and disfigure the natural world through poetry in provocative and inventive ways, and sometimes such atmospherics are good enough in translation. One of the hazards in translating the Sonnets to Orpheus is losing oneself in the grandeur of the verses. It’s difficult to reproduce such flights in English (for that matter, it’s probably difficult to reproduce in German!). Like Hart Crane’s The Bridge, the Sonnets to Orpheus constantly risks bombast; where Rilke feared to tread, however, translators rush in. There is a great deal of trust that must be earned in order for a poet to utter “O pure transcendence!” I can only imagine that many translators feel emboldened to trade on Rilke’s account, and to be sure, the Sonnets to Orpheus lends itself to cloying displays of grandiosity in translation. Snodgrass handles this fairly well, and the sometimes stilted quality of the verse seems more a product of Snodgrass’ formal concerns. For example, compare the concluding six lines of the sonnet quoted earlier with Stephen Mitchell’s translation:

Don’t be afraid to suffer; return
that heaviness to the earth’s own weight;
heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas.

Even the small trees you planted as children
have long since become too heavy; you could not
carry them now. But the winds…But the spaces….

The language is still charged and strange but is shorn of the conspicuous accommodations that Snodgrass’ formal choice required. For example, I prefer that a “you” planted the small trees rather than “your childhood.” I prefer Mitchell’s translations, generally speaking, as English-language poems, but Snodgrass’ formal design is a far more daunting task when taken together with the myriad other concerns of translation.

Rilke’s poetry, particularly since the 1970s, has been a kind of batting cage for American poets and scholars who seem endlessly enchanted by the curve balls of his verse. Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, Stephen Mitchell, David Young, A. Poulin, Jr., and Edward Snow are just a small sampling of those who have taken a turn at bat, and Snodgrass’ selections of Rilke compare favorably with the translations I have read elsewhere. Few have successfully rendered Rilke in formal verse in such a readable manner.

Something closer to Snodgrass’ own voice is seen more clearly in the folk songs and ballads of the Selected Translations—which comprise the entire second section of the volume. There is a loveliness in the hardscrabble, Old World voices that Snodgrass has chosen to translate. The rough edges, the emotions constantly risking preciousness, the bawdiness, the simple lyricism – all these things represent a lifetime of borrowing for Snodgrass. They can be seen in something as simple as the direct addresses with which Snodgrass flavors his own poems (“my love,” “dear child,” “dear girl,” “Woman,” etc.). No apostrophes to grand abstractions here; these are the addresses of humble people amid the ordinary disaster of everyday life, such as the shepherd in the Romanian folk song “The Ewe Lamb”:

One small ewe lamb, though,
Dappled gray as tow,
While three full days passed
Bleated loud and fast,
Would not touch the grass.
“Ewe lamb, dapple-gray,
Muzzled black and gray,
While three full days passed
Bleated out long and fast;
Don’t you like this grass?
Are you too sick to eat,
Little lamb so sweet?”

That Snodgrass found it in himself to include simple songs such as the one excerpted above is not surprising; in fact, the selections of the Selections shed a great deal of light on his body of original poetry, as vestiges of the poet’s older selves can be heard as one turns the pages.

Snodgrass’ concern with lyrics as lyrics—as accompaniment for music—can be seen in a number of the translated folk songs. Take, for example, a few stanzas from “Nine Tailors Held a Council”:

In retrospect, such lyrics seem a natural extension of what he has been doing all along. The exquisite envelope stanzas that open the title sequence of Heart’s Needle, the raucous measures of the chorus in The Führer Bunker, the deceptively light verses of The Death of Cock Robin—they all seem to echo back in the folk songs of the Selected Translations.

In an age when poets have largely ceded song-writing to popular musicians and hipsters, Snodgrass stands out from the crowd. Perhaps it’s fitting that one of our few gifted formal poets cut his teeth on music, for only an imagination carried along by the loveliness of music would dare risk erring on the side of sound rather than sense. Take the awkward locutions in his translation of the Romanian folk song “Poor, Unhappy Long-Horned Ox Heads”:

Poor, unhappy, long-horned ox heads;
How they marry us off blockheads!
And with money—wretched stuff!—
Lazy girls get married off.
Craving money drove me crazy;
I, too, took a girl that’s lazy.
If I tell her I want fed,
She brings soiled plates for my bread
And spoons from underneath the bed.

That “want fed” and “that’s” (rather than “who’s”) in lines six and seven have the potential to stick in one’s craw, but even the hyper-correct among us must sense that there is an insistent tune behind the language, pulling and pushing the language to its limits. And that’s the great thing about language when it’s married to music—it expands in unimaginable ways, constantly reinventing itself. Although lexicographers may grow violent at such whimsy, it helps to keep the language alive, more so than prosaic philosophical speculations, and certainly more so than the language held captive by journalists.

The Selected Translations is a volume that will no doubt appeal more to Snodgrass’ admirers because of the idiosyncratic selection of poems and songs he chose to translate. Snodgrass accounts for this by stating in his Preface, “In mid-career I translated only songs, since many fine American poets were translating poems while my background in music might make this area more accessible to me.” Given the odd assortment of poems and songs in the Selected Translations, one can reasonably claim that it is not meant to be a signal work, but merely one poet’s collection of poems and songs that caught his imagination. It isn’t difficult to imagine that some of the songs have been largely forgotten even in their original languages. Perhaps a future edition will package a CD with the book so that those us unfamiliar with the songs may take some delight in them. Otherwise, many of the songs and poems translated therein will interest us more for what they might reveal about Snodgrass rather than having great value themselves.

***

If Snodgrass is destined to be connected with the “Confessional” mode of poetry, despite his better attempts to distance himself from it, then the folk songs of the Selected have much to tell us about how he came upon the startlingly direct manner of his poetry. Granted, when revisiting Heart’s Needle, readers of my generation (that is, the post-Boomer crowd) probably regard the poems as quite tame and must trust our elders when they paint a picture of Eisenhower-era America as a reserved and boring place, or “tranquilized” as Robert Lowell would have it. In such a world, I suppose Heart’s Needle might be shocking, but perhaps this line of inquiry reveals why a shock-value–based literature is likely to have a short shelf life. Poetry that seeks to shock, with little else to back its suit, will lose its relevance for future audiences who find the subjects or modes of presentation less shocking. All of this is to say that the value of Heart’s Needle—and by extension, Snodgrass’ contribution to American verse—is not found, and will not be found going forward, in making a great fuss over its “Confessional” pedigree.

With the voices of those translated folk songs echoing throughout Snodgrass’ work, it is easier and far more interesting to see Snodgrass as a modernizer of sorts rather than a Confessional trailblazer. His formal concerns and his ear for rhyme and meter alone would seem to point backwards rather than ahead to the legion of late-20th century poets who made self-revelation into a sort of artless literary parlor game. In the folk songs of the Selected Translations, music itself acts as a restraining mechanism that balances the persona’s need to reveal, such as when Snodgrass translates the following German folk song:

It’s down to grass a maiden would—
Nudge me, dearest Peter—
And there the little red rose stood.
Nudge me now, fulfill your vow;
If you can’t, I’ll show you how.
Nudge me, dearest Peter.

The tension between music and emotion makes the song. There is much left unsaid—the tune won’t allow for much more, yet what is said is direct and artful. Compare the lyric above with any number of contemporary Confessional poets, and it becomes easier to understand how formal concerns and music can guard Confessional poets from the worst of themselves, for when the constraints and conventions of music are removed, the Confessional mode is left to its own excesses where descriptions of clinical precision imitate honesty, where double entendres and puns lack only a live studio audience. In many respects, Snodgrass’ Confessionalism—and his most endearing and enduring verse—is an alloy of the folk song and the Romantic lyric. Unfortunately, many of those who followed him use only the base metal.

Editor’s Note: The third and final essay in J.S. Renau’s examination of W. D. Snodgrass’ poetry will appear in CPR in early 2004. It will consider Snodgrass’ new volume of essays, To Sound Like Yourself.[/private]

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- who has written 12 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

J. S. Renau has published poems in the Paris Review, Wallace Stevens Journal, and The Formalist. A native of Charleston, South Carolina, he currently resides in New York City.

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