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BRITISH-IRISH-POETS  1998

BRITISH-IRISH-POETS 1998

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Subject:

Re: Poem: Theocritus: Cyclops

From:

Karlien van den Beukel <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Karlien van den Beukel <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sun, 12 Apr 1998 05:49:12 +0100 (BST)

Content-Type:

TEXT/PLAIN

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

TEXT/PLAIN (132 lines)


> > a spirited and lovely version of Theocritus --- I think your readers (like
> > Kinsella's respnse already in) may have more trouble with the
> > transcription, the _written dialect_ look. When I imagine it re-spelled
> > in Ordinary, except for those words which are dramatically different (he'p
> > for help, etc), I think I see a poem that will in no way call into
> > question the matter of sympathy.

My views are inclined to the opposite, and opposite too, to Mark Weiss's
latest post on the transcription. Let's take it from the beginning.

Mark Weiss is uncomfortable with, as John Kinsella puts it, "the dynamic
equivalent", and critiques the imaginary colloquial (which was vaguely
indicated as Southern US) on the grounds that it lacks particular
ethnographic knowledges (or should that just be: "the experience"), and
that furthermore, rural poverty and racial violence is still etched in
memories in the Southern US, whilst this is not etched into the poetic
translation. Whilst I have no quarrel with his facts, I do question his
reading of the translation poem.

Weiss reads so against the Romantic tenets of this translation
(which is his good right) that the whole poem seems to turn sour;
and yet the author's "intentions" are oddly central to his criticism.

This is where the phonetic transcription becomes interesting. Weiss
points out that instances of such transcriptions were patronising at best
and racist at worst, which is a historical interpretation I would support.

There is a London poet, Khaled Hakim, who to date has written all his
poems in phonetic transcription. For example "Letter from the Takeaway"
(as a short indication: I-persona is represented as worker at fast-food
place):

"Wen sciens becoms pathological it iz poetry as far as it is sciens -
reding stochastick purpos into universal deluzion. Show us eny object or
poeisis to rezist. *Why yoo rite it dis*

A nife a tin opener a Chicken Tikka a customer all legitmatly asking *Whad
is dis - Hey fool - you lazy boggar ynow. Yoo shud be sarve cashtomer
yknow not reding book. Yu shud not be sitting wen cushtomer gib order -*"

I just quote a little, but this "trouble" of reading phonetic transcript,
as Kelly puts it, might re-perform the trouble of reading under particular
conditions. Reading is denaturalised, becomes, in the 'take-away'
context, unnatural/other. Sympathy for the reader-(self): 'mon
semamble, mon frere, hypocrite lecteur'. Hakim's 'identity' is
assertively positioned with the phonetic transcript, this is the game he
is playing with identity and the history of phonetic transcription, and it
is a game he knowingly knows he can play, because no Weiss will blacken
him because of it. On one level, then, the issues of literacy and
'educated' standardisation are foregrounded. But what really happens? The
transcription style casts up the Joycean puns: like 'cashtomer', it mocks
it subverts & it energises, it turns on its own poetic language full
blast.

Maybe there is some of that "trouble" in the poetic translation too.
In the Theocritus translation there are puns like: "poppies with broad
raid pettils". This to me that is not exactly a phrase innocent of the
suggestion of socially-sanctioned violence.

To condemn the style outright, is to be blind to the dialectic which is
established between the history of the phonetic transcription and
semantics of poetic language, in this translation poem too. It has nothing
to do with the author's "intention" (what cant) but everything to do with
the economy of linguistic transformation in the Translation Poem.

Then, more in line with John Kinsella's question on sympathy, this issue
of phonetic transcription gets even more tricky. It reminds me of a
passage Raymond Williams quoted from Hardy's The Woodlanders (b.t.w.
Williams wrote on phonetic transcriptions of working class speech whether
urban or farm labourers in the Novel) which goes:

"The casual glimpse which the ordinary population bestowed upon that
wondrous world of sap and leaves called the Hintock woods had been with
these two, Giles and Mary, a clear gaze. They had been possessed of its
finer mysteries as of commonplace knowledge; had been able to read its
hieroglyphs as ordinary writing; to them the sights and sounds of night,
winter, wind, storm, amid those dense boughs, which had to Grace a touch
of the uncanny, and even of the supernatural, were simple occurences whose
origin, continuance, and laws they foreknew. They had planted together,
and together they had felled; together they had, with the run of the
years, mentally collected those remoter signs and symbols which seen in a
few were of runic obscurity, but all together made an alphabet.

[..]

Grace: 'Yet you and and he [Marty and Giles] could speak in a tongue that
nobody else knew - not even my father, though he came nearest knowing -
the tongue of the trees and fruits and flowers themselves.'"


This approaches some of the issues we have been discussing regarding
MacSweeney's "Pearl". Williams points out that detailed knowledge of trees
and weather is "deeply respected", but "at the same time, when it really
comes to be verbalized, a different and often remote kind of language
appears necessary: 'hieroglyphs' and 'runic obscurity'. He concludes on
this Woodlander passage: "It is a problem of how people can speak - and be
written as speaking - more fully and as themselves."

In the translation, does the imagined colloquial phonetically transcribed,
('a different and often remote kind of writing'), represent a romanticised
subjectivity which is literate in the alphabet of nature? Sympathy, then,
as sympathetic magic, in the Frazerian sense. This romanticised
subjectivity, so distinctly figured as Other, and precisely, if I read
Weiss correctly, as a minstrel show black-masked white (tres primitif
and sophisticated, non?) suggests that only this 'black-mask persona'
(read: phonetic transcription) is able to spell the alphabet of nature.
Strip it away (read: "re-spell as Ordinary") and does the magic spell
remain? What is this correlation, then, between the pastoral and those
transcribed imagined colloquial utterances (style: the mask)?

The editor chose the 'black-mask persona'. Weiss thinks that this
'persona' purchases into something disturbing, he seems to thinks it is
bad faith. I have no reason to doubt him when he observes it is not
'authentic' (as in an informed 'dialect' rendition) and not based
on the real. Then he, to me, goes way off course on the intentional
fallacy, which has lead to all kinds of prescriptive comments at the
address of the author, the tone of which seems to me somewhat hysterical
no doubt because I do not live in America, yet are irrevelant to the
far more interesting matter at hand, the Translation Poem.

Yet his observations are the starting point of my reading, not the end of
it.

Karlien





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