Correspondence In The Air by Ilya Kaminsky and Twilight of the Theorists by Doug Anderson
I invited Ilya Kaminsky to write an essay for this issue of Plume on the topic of The Atlanta International Poetry and Translation Festival, which took place at Georgia Tech on March 18 of this year. I referred to his efforts to publish and translate international poetry as his commendable “mission” as the new Bourne Chair of Poetry at Georgia Tech. Ilya replied, “I don’t really have any mission. I am just trying to survive, from one day to next… I have no lofty claims other than the hope that people will be in conversation, will see the need to talk to each other. As simple as that.”
Whether Ilya’s on a self-conscious mission or not, the point is moot. Ilya has done more than any other poet and editor I know of to create “conversation” between people, especially American and international poets. As the editor of Poetry International at San Diego State University for over a decade until he became the Bourne Chair of Poetry at Georgia Tech two years ago, he has published and also translated dozens of international poets. In addition to being a selfless ambassador for international poetry and translation, he is also a visionary poet, as evidenced by his first two books Dancing In Odessa (winner of the Dorset Prize, 2004) and Deaf Republic (a finalist for the National Book Award, 2019). Because Ilya focuses largely on witnessing to the atrocities that occurred in the last century, specifically the Holocaust and the Holodomor in which several of his relatives perished and suffered injury, he believes in what he calls “the light” of language.
For those who survived the Holocaust and the Holodomor, the misprision of deconstructionism at the hand of such eminent post World War II philosophers, psychoanalysts, and linguists as Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan betrays a tragically ironic reaction formation to the poetry of witness. But just how to address this misprision. Just how to defend language, particularly in the wake of extremity, as probative and truthful ? Is there any other answer to this question than by simply employing language as its own defense in a way that’s luminous, veracious, and exquisitely malleable in both its literal and figurative uses?
In a poem that’s also an essay, the poet Doug Anderson follows Ilya’s preface to the Ecco Anthology of International Poetry with an obsequies of sorts that announces the “twilight of the theorists.” By employing a via negativa strategy that indicts deconstructionism as a redundant, self-denouncing trope that dates back to Lao Tsu, Anderson argues for a linguistic “light” that champions what Maggie Nelson calls “an erotics of art.”
By Ilya Kaminsky
Octavio Paz once wrote that the modern poet “extracts his visions from within himself.” It is my hope that our comprehensive, aesthetically varied anthology of poetry from around the globe will allow American poets and readers a chance to extract such visions not just from “within themselves” but in conversation with a global poetic tradition. Reading an anthology of world poetry gives one a chance to overhear similarities, or what Anna Akhmatova once called “correspondences in the air”—that is, moments where authors of different geographical and historical circumstances, languages, and traditions, seem to address each other in their works. I hope that these voices brought from outside our borders will allow us, in this somewhat unsettling time in Anglo-American political history, to find the voice within that is strong and compelling, an instrument of poetry which—to rephrase Auden—is our chief means of breaking the bread with the world.
Such “correspondences in the air” abound in this collection. Open this book on any page and you may discover a poem by Szymborska in conversation with a line by Akhmatova who in turn was responding to Szymborska’s countryman Mitskevich’s allusion to Shakespeare’s echoing a moment in the Old Testament. Perhaps the most important lesson we can glean from these correspondences is how necessary it is for poets to dialogue, to return to their poetic origins in order to create something new. After all, the word “originality” in English has its roots in “origin.” Or, as American poet Frank Bidart suggests, we fill pre-existing forms, and in filling them we change them, and are ourselves changed.
Let’s consider one such set of “correspondences” by going back to Ecclesiastes, which had a strong influence on twentieth-century world poetry, as is evident throughout this anthology. Here is the original Biblical text:
To everything there is a season.
And a time to every purpose under the heaven
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time of war, and a time of peace.
In the Bible, the narrator of the above verses speaks in a voice of authority to the community. The voice is declarative, aware that it speaks wisdom. Look what happened when Polish poet Tymoteusz Karpowicz borrowed this “list poem” format with its anaphorical repetition of the word “time,” and transformed it into a post–World War Two landscape:
there is a time of opening the eyes and closing the bed
time for donning a shirt and shedding sleep
time for drowsy soap and half-awakened skin
time for the hair-brush and for the sparks in the hair
time for trouser-legs, time for shoe-laces time for buttons
for laddered stockings for the slipper’s blindness
time for the fork and for the knife time for sausages and boiled eggs
time for the tram time for the conductress time for the policeman
time for good morning and time for goodbye
time for carrots peas and parsley
for tomato soup and shepherd’s pie
time for trussing chicken and releasing forbidden speeds for thought
time for cinema ticket or a ticket to nowhere
to a river perhaps perhaps a cloud
there is finally a time for closed eyelids and the open bed
time for past present and future
praesens historicum and plusquamperfectum
time perfect and imperfect
time from wall to wall
While Karpowicz announces from the start—the very title of the piece—his intent to correspond with the older text, the images, tone and use of detail do a great deal to transform the tone of the canonical litany. This onslaught of detail in Karpowicz’s version—a cinema ticket, tomato soup, a hairbrush—offers its own metaphysics—homelier in comparison to the Ecclesiastical narrator’s grand proclamations. Writing in postwar Europe, having witnessed the great acts of destruction and survival, Karpowicz’s tone is both ironic and tender. His response is multilingual, multivocal, it refuses to console, and yet consoles. It allows the canonical form to enter into our world.
Another poet writing in the post–World War Two landscape, Paul Celan, offers us a very different take on what a “correspondence” with a canonical text may accomplish:
Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand: we are friends.
From the nuts we shell time and we teach it to walk:
then time returns to the shell.
In the mirror it’s Sunday,
in dream there is room for sleeping,
our mouths speak the truth.
My eye moves down to the sex of my loved one:
we look at each other,
we exchange dark words,
we love each other like poppy and recollection,
we sleep like wine in the conches,
like the sea in the moon’s blood ray.
We stand by the window embracing, and people look up from
it is time they knew!
It is time the stone made an effort to flower,
time unrest had a beating heart.
It is time it were time.
It is time.
Celan’s poem above is a very private, personal address. “It is time they knew!” Celan exclaims, as his repetition of “time” in the last five lines of the poem echoes the old text, giving it a chance to enter a twentieth-century love lyric. If the speaker is addressing the public (as in Ecclesiastes), it is by standing with his lover by the window, embracing.
Yet another twentieth-century poet who echoed this Biblical litany in a very personal way is Carlos Drummond De Andrade. In his poem “Your Shoulders Hold Up the World,” he offers intense self-examination:
A time comes when you no longer can say:
A time of total cleaning up.
A time when you no longer can say: my love.
Because love proved useless.
And the eyes don’t cry.
And the hands do only rough work.
And the heart is dry.
Women knock at your door in vain, you won’t open.
You remain alone, the light turned off,
and your enormous eyes shine in the dark.
It is obvious you no longer know how to suffer.
And you want nothing from your friends.
Who cares if old age comes, what is old age?
Your shoulders are holding up the world
and it’s lighter than a child’s hand.
Wars, famine, family fights inside buildings
prove only that life goes on
and not everybody has freed himself yet.
Some (the delicate ones) judging the spectacle cruel
will prefer to die.
A time comes when death doesn’t help.
A time comes when life is an order.
Just life, with no escapes.
The wisdom of Ecclesiastes is updated here to the twentieth-century voice in a similar way as with the previous poems—the proclamatory public tone is replaced by the utterance of an individual, in this case, one persuading himself against suicide. This voice, although at times public, is not so interested in teaching others how to live—it is interested in voicing one human’s need to survive. The struggle here is not so much with the community as it is with one’s self. This, of course, reminds us of Yeats’ great twentieth-century statement that “argument with another is a rhetoric, argument with one’s self is poetry.”
Finally, Yehuda Amichai’s poem “A Man in His Life” enters into confrontation with Ecclesiastes:
A Man in His Life
A man doesn’t have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn’t have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
Was wrong about that.
A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
takes years and years to do.
A man doesn’t have time.
When he loses he seeks, when he finds
he forgets, when he forgets he loves,
when he loves he begins to forget.
And his soul is seasoned, his soul
is very professional.
Only his body remains forever
an amateur. It tries and it misses,
gets muddled, doesn’t learn a thing,
drunk and blind in its pleasures and its pains.
He will die as figs die in autumn,
Shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there’s time for everything.
This ability to hate and love at once, in the same line, in the same moment, is perhaps one of the more characteristic attributes of many great poems from this era, whose “confusion” is not for the sake of mere linguistic fireworks, but to describe the joyfulness and terror of a human being in the twentieth century. Amichai, like the other poets before him, is able to go back to the origin of the Biblical text—but he does not merely update it for our own moment in time—he confronts it. His confrontation is personal, intimate just as much as it is public, the argument with the tradition becomes more powerful in its intimacy of address.
The above group of twentieth-century poets echoing the same origin could of course be much larger, and could make up an anthology in its own right. Such cases are not at all unusual. Thus, Faiz Akhmed Faiz of Pakistan was strongly influenced by the formal Persian tradition, and Garcia Lorca “corresponded” with traditions as various as romanceros, Arabic qasidas of medieval Spain, Gongora’s metaphors, and the poetic expanse of Walt Whitman. Whitman, our American forebear, also deeply affected numerous twentieth-century poets worldwide: Mayakovsky, Apollinaire, Pessoa, Neruda, Cesaire, Miłosz, and many others come to mind. Languages are many, says Voznesensky, poetry is one. If this is true, then perhaps an avid reader of poetry from around the globe may have a chance to glimpse into the heart of the art of poetry itself—of that which exists between languages. Poets, of course, create their own communities of influence, and this anthology has used the idea of a poetic, rather than geopolitical, community as a guiding principle.
If poets can speak to one another over time, space, and cultural difference, it is translation that provides the conduit.
“Translation should be similar but not very same [to the original]; and the similarity should not be like that of a painting or a statue to the person represented, but rather like that of a son to a father, where there is a shadowy something—akin to what painters call one’s air—hovering about the face, and especially in the eyes, out of which there grows a likeness that immediately, upon our beholding the child, call the father up before us.”
According to George Steiner, an original poem exists in an ideal, static state, and the translator attempts to transmigrate this ideal totality into a second language. Since two languages never mesh perfectly, a translation can never be completely successful; something is always lost. If translation can never serve as a perfect mirror, we could hypothesize that it works instead as an evidence or trace of a great voice. Sometimes such traces are enough—Garcia Lorca and Anna Akhmatova even in their English translations have influenced American poets of the twentieth century. Like a phoenix, the poems of great masters are reborn from the ashes of translation.
However, watching the magic of this rebirth in a new language teaches us not only about the genius of the poet translated but also the genius of what is possible in English, as it bends each single one of its own rules to accommodate various new forms. We learn something new about the English language each time we confront another syntax, another grammar, another musical way of organizing silences in a mouth. By translating, we learn how the limits of our English minds can be stretched to accommodate the foreign, and how thereby we are able to make our own language more beautiful—to awaken it.
To realize that some of the more successful translations done in twentieth-century English do not serve as mirrors, one only needs to look at John Felstiner’s version of Paul Celan’s Todesfugue. While one appreciates Felstiner’s powerful use of German words interspersed with English, readers should know that this striking and powerful juxtaposition of languages (which also occurs in Jerome Rothenberg’s earlier translation) does not happen in Celan’s poem in German. The poem is made more powerful as we learn the tragic meaning of the foreign words without needing to know German ourselves—it gives English readers the experience of being other, alienated, from language, from power. To realize this is to see clearly that the successful translation, even a very “faithful” one, has no need to hold up the mirror to the original. In a successful translation we observe the renewal of the living tissue; the original undergoes the process of transformation. Celan himself understood the complexity of this process: “The language with which I make my poems has nothing to do with one spoken here or elsewhere.” Translation should, Mahmoud Darwish suggested, become more than a new poem in another language. It should expend into that language new vastness.
John Dryden, writing his seventeenth-century Preface to Ovid’s Epistles, suggested that translations could be divided into three categories. The first one, which Dryden called “metaphrase,” translates the poem word by word, line by line, from one language to another. The second is “paraphrase,” or what Dryden called “translation with latitude,” which permits the translator to keep author in view while changing words of the original. Dryden’s third category is closer to “imitation”–a translation where the poet works with the original text but allows the departure from its meaning and words where necessary to produce the best final result in a new language.
What then is a faithful translation? What is not? And what, precisely, is the moment one becomes more interesting than the other, and why? Here is an example of how in a formal, word-by-word translation the meanings of another language are brought into English. The language here is Hebrew, and it requires us to read the passage from right to left.
בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵ ת הָאָרֶץ.
[and the earth] [the earth] [and] [the heavens] [God] [created] [in the beginning]
תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם; ו ְרוּח
[God] [and the spirit of] [deep] [upon the face of] [and darkness] [and void] [waste] [was]
וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם.
[and there was] [light] [let there be] [God] [and said] [the waters] [upon the face of] [moved]
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר.
[between] [God] [and divided] [that good] [the light] [God] [and saw light]
These opening verses of Genesis are of course well known. But what if we, in a moment of intercultural confusion, read them from left to right, the way we are accustomed to read in English:
“And the earth, the earth and the heavens God created in the beginning
God and the spirit of deep upon the face of and darkness and void waste was
And there was light let there be God and said waters…”
What sort of poetry is found in this way of willful misreading? And, what does it teach us about the new possibilities translation can bring to our reading of even the most canonical texts?
Fascination with what could be “found” in translation, with structures of other languages and their relationships to poetic impulse in English has long intrigued poets and translators alike, sometimes producing famous blunders, such as the case of Ezra Pound’s and Ernest Fenollosa’s cultural misreadings in their attempts to draw parallels between their appropriation of classical Chinese texts, and their emphasis on “ideogrammic” poetry as a classical example of imagism. While the Anglo-American Imagist movement, which Pound helped to create in 1909 (along with H.D., Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, and others), to a large extent misunderstood the Chinese traditions they claimed to appropriate, their scholarly blunders resulted in new ways of seeing what poetry can do in the English language.
The scandals of classical scholars need not detain us, for any version in the end lives or dies on the strength of its own readability. Here is an example of the Chinese language. Observe the characters, their similarities, and how they change visually with new meanings:
Here is the word for Man:
And, what happens to it when we write Fire:
And, what happens to it when we write Autumn:
And, here is the word for Heart/Mind:
Now, see what happens when we want to convey Sorrow:
When many Westerners encounter these ideograms, they are quick to suggest that an element of poetry exists in their very appearance. But how to bring that effect across into English? This question is relevant to many Asian American poets at work today. Here are a few lines from “A Table in the Wilderness” by a contemporary Asian American poet, Li Young Lee:
I draw a window
And a man sitting inside it.
I draw a bird in flight above the lintel.
That is my picture of thinking.
If I put a woman there instead
Of the man, it is a picture of speaking.
If I draw a second bird
In the woman’s lap, it’s ministering.
A third flying below her feet.
Now it’s singing.
Or erase the birds,
Make ivy branching
Around the woman’s ankles, clinging
To her knees, and it becomes remembering.
You will have to find your own
Pictures, whoever you are,
Whatever your need […]
The challenges of translation from Asian languages are formidable. Here is an example of a brief poem by Kancho translated by various hands. First in the original:
kara-oto mo sukoshi iitaki botan kana.
And in word-by-word translation:
Chinese-sound even, a little-say-want, peony ‘tis!
Now, here are five different versions done by several translators, each claiming to be authentic:
the peony blooms: / I feel like making some / Chinese sounds
I’d like to say / some thing in Chinese / to the peony
my peony: / I’d like to treat it to / some Chinese
the peonies bloom: / I wish I could speak / a little Chinese
is that rustling / the peony saying something / in Chinese?
The multiplicity of meanings in the above versions of the same text is somewhat comic. Yet when we put all these versions together we also see how many different poems can be written with the same number of words; this shows us what a rich variety of possibilities the English language offers to its poets. One wants to encourage the readers of this book to look for such possibilities, to see how poetry in translation can expand the limits of their own language.
Paul Celan called works of translation “encounters.” All are encounters, he wrote of his translations, “here, too, I have gone with my very being towards language.”
Celan’s own translations of Emily Dickinson’s work into German, translated back into English by John Felstiner, offer perhaps the most interesting case study for our discussion. Here are Emily Dickinson’s own words:
Let down the board, Oh Death—
The tired Flocks come in
Whose bleating ceases to repeat
Whose wandering is done—
And, here is what Celan’s German translation does to this text, when rendered back into English:
Off with the barrier, Death!
The flock comes in, there comes
who bleated and now never bleats,
who no more wanders, comes.
What is lost in translation? The famous dashes, of course. The “tired flock” is also a clear loss, and we miss it. But what is gained? Certainly, many will find “wanders, comes” to be an elegant, appealing addition. But the question of “lost” and “found” is less interesting than the chance itself of our watching two great minds at work on the same stanza.
Perhaps this approach to discussing the art of translation is not very different from the tradition of midrash, where the holy book is revised again and again, so the years bring only more richness and variety. By admitting that no poem can truly be translated, but that a new poetics can flow from the originals, a literary tradition is established in that midrash-like handshake between the author of the original and her translators. In this mode of translation, we allow ourselves to shake hands with Ovid and Shakespeare, Anna Swir, Paul Celan, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Mahmoud Darwish. The music of the original is almost always lost when the meaning of the poem is transported into another language (imagine translating Blake’s “Tyger” into Japanese). On the other side, the inherent strangeness of the true poem, its use of images and details to convey ideas can certainly be carried across into a different tongue. After all, followers of numerous world religions read their sacred texts in third- or fourth-hand translation. The magic of image, litany, rhythm, and incantation does survive linguistic boundaries. We enter the company of great poets not ruthlessly rewriting their work, shoving it into our language, but instead by honoring them in the medium we possess, giving them a second voice.
The bottom line is not in the play of “gains” and “losses” of translation but in our ability to observe how great poets approach language—and the lessons we ourselves may learn from such observations. We sleep in language, writes Robert Kelly—we sleep in language, if language does not come to wake us with its strangeness.
Finally, one must mention the influence of translation on recent poetry in English, which has been enormous. It is difficult to imagine the work of most contemporary poets, from Robert Bly to Anne Carson, without the influence of global literature. And, in fact, major transformations in English literature are often associated with translation, as noted by Ezra Pound: “English literature lives on translations, it is fed by translations, every new exuberance, every new heave is stimulated by translations, every allegedly great age is an age of translations, beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer. ”One only needs to cite such works as Chaucer’s “Troilus and Criseyde,” the King James version of the Bible, Sydney’s translations from Petrarch and Pound’s translations from Anglo-Saxon and from Li-Po, to see the key roles translation has played in shaping and reshaping English poetry, much as American nationhood and politics has changed through our interaction with the world.
It is nearly impossible to write about translation in the twentieth century without mentioning history and politics. Although the poet Joseph Brodsky, himself a political prisoner and an exile, movingly claimed that the realms of poetry and politics share only a few things: “the letter p and the letter o—and not much more than that,” it could also be observed that twentieth-century poetics were deeply affected by numerous geopolitical changes. For instance, the aftermath of colonial policies in France dramatically changed the poetics of the French language. Leopold Sédar Senghor, the first president of Senegal, wrote powerful poetry in French. These poets, along with many others such as Aime Cesaire, the genius of the Negritude movement, widened the scope of French poetics by blending it with the oral tradition of pre-colonial languages. This work, “hurt” into history (to paraphrase Auden), had a volcanic influence in the life of Francophone intellectual world.
Then, there is a question of minority languages, such as Belorussian, Catalan, Gaelic, Yiddish, and numerous others. I tried to include in this volume a selection from many such languages, paying particular attention to lesser known but excellent poets such as the Yiddish writer Israel Emiot, or younger poets trying to preserve and revive the poetics endangered by their current political regimes, such as Belorussian poet Valzhyna Mort. Then, there are colonial languages such as Afrikaans, which was as central to the identity of many “colored” South Africans as it was to the white Boers—and is a tragic reminder for many black South Africans of a language that served as a medium of the Apartheid regime. The history that surrounds this language is torturous and oppressive, and yet the work of poets writing in it—such as Breyten Breytenbach—is resonant, moving, rehabilitating.
Another welcome development translation has undertaken in the mid to late twentieth century is the recognition of the importance of translation as an act of civic responsibility. It is not unusual these days to hear an American translator say that she translates partly because she lives in an empire and sees translation work as a chance to educate the American readers about the voices of the larger world. The expansion of languages of colonial power continues. Marilyn Hacker’s brilliant translations of Vénus Khoury-Ghata, published several years ago, were a revelation to many of her English speaking contemporaries. Khoury-Ghata, born in Lebanon in 1937, has been a resident of France since 1973, though Lebanon continues to inspire her, becoming now an imaginary landscape seen through the lens of French verse—and changing the perspective from which many of us have seen poetics of that language. This transformation is not entirely different from the one inspired by Edmond Jabès, a great Egypt-born Jewish poet of the earlier generation, who was exiled to Paris and there wrote the powerful “Book of Questions,” his response to the political and dramatic events of his time. Jabès’ multivocal perspective deeply affected—and expanded—late-twentieth-century French poetry. Masterfully translated into English by Rosmarie Waldrop, this text had a similar effect on English-speaking poets of a new generation. In his book of essays, Faithful Existence, Forrest Gander writes: “I may hope that my own translations are less colonial raids into other languages than subversions of English, injections of new poetic forms, ideas, images and rhythms into the muscular arm of the language of power.”
So, here is our attempt to present an American audience with the poems of the larger world, poems of perversion and praise and lament from a century of destroyed cities, molten borders between states and nations, apartheid, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, totalitarianism, racism, world wars, massive destruction, torture, epidemics, struggle, resistance. Here are love songs and songs of protest depicting private life, tenderness, eroticism, passion, kindness, forgiveness, spiritual life, exploration of new forms of demotic language and consciousness, experiments with dream-work, intersections of poetry and prose. Here are voices of a century of witness in art, and of ecstatic address, of manifestoes and declarations, and quiet lyricisms on the joys of private existence—not unlike our own. A real book, W.H. Auden suggested, is not the one that we read, but the one that reads us.
All anthologies are unfinished and very private attempts to compose a song in many tongues. The anthologist begins her or his work already knowing that the final selection will in the end displease many and that no one—herself or himself least of all—will be satisfied with the final choices. Contemporary poetries are thankfully so diverse and varied that limitations had to be imposed, much to my own displeasure. But one must persist. I had a single criterion for my selection: the quality of the poem in English. Of course I do not mean “perfect” English–many poems in this anthology sound strange, even at times awkwardly alien, not because they are poorly written in English, but because they express something new in it. This collection attempts to reflect and honor the tradition of the rich, varied, and diverse anthologies of international poetry published in the past few decades, as well adding many new names, translations, and approaches to the mix.
In the end, it was hard to resist certain thematic, formal or stylistic themes. There are poems of eros and lament and praise. There are prayers, erotic poems, protest, moments of meditation, elegies, litanies. There are pages from novels (which some argue were in fact prose poem sequences). There are poets of surrealism, futurism, akmeism, negritude, and numerous other movements—but one must leave all those labels aside and read these poems for what they do to our language, our emotional and spiritual lives. Perhaps you will want to share them with friends, to call friends on the phone and recite a stanza or a couplet to them. I know: I have done it myself.
Ilya Kaminsky is the poetry editor of Words Without Borders. He was born in Odessa, in the former Soviet Union, and came to the United States in 1993, when his family was granted asylum by the American government. He is the author of Dancing In Odessa (Tupelo Press, 2004), which won the Dorset Prize and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Metcalf Award and Deaf Republic, which was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award. His other awards include a Whiting Writers Award, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from Poetry magazine, and a Lannan Fellowship. His poems appear in The New Republic, American Literary Review, Southwest Review, Salmagundi, Southeast Review, and other publications. In 2019, BBC named Kaminsky among “12 Artists who changed the world.” He teaches at Georgia Tech, where he holds the Bourne Chair in Poetry and serves also as the director of Poetry@Tech.
Reprinted with permission from the author. This essay originally appeared in The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris. Copyright 2010 by Words without Borders. Published March 2010 by Ecco Press, a division of HarperCollins.
*This essay previously appeared in Words Without Borders, and in a different form, as an Introduction to The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Twilight Of The Theoroticians
In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art—Maggie Nelson
Derrida, or specifically, Derridians,
deride language for its instability
(how could Plato speak truth with something as shabby as a metaphor?)
but the very instability is the poet’s peyote.
Language, fluid, wears down rock, says the Taoist
who wrote the Tao that can be named is not the real Tao.
Lao Tzu precedes you by how many thousand years?
An utterance stronger than these little jargon cages
which in the case of Derrida is amusing–
academics trying to build a position on a rug slipped out from under them.
But no matter. The priest of the unexpected says, Let us Play.
Take Camera: in Italian it means room. And yes, so does stanza,
which means not only room, but stopping place
which suggests a journey and a roadside inn—already I stray.
How terrible that language is such a puttana.
Let’s go there: inside, good wine and pasta and the owner’s daughter,
Isabella, long trapped here—
I’ve done it again: a questionable uomo (listen to the longing in those two o’s)
spirits her away on his motorcycle leaving mother to clean up after meals,
father struggling to keep the books, the brothers out on the road
looking for the cattivo in his leathers, Isabella’s dress billowing
round her white legs at 140 KPH on the Moto Guzzi
but back to camera.
First, it’s an eye, already deftly brained
to flip the image right side up
that mimics the iris to let in just the right amount of light.
Light now, there’s a word—I can already hear them scribbling.
Let’s crack it open:
L what if the tongue kept rolling
I I am onto something
G God: “In the beginning was the word.” Is that what this is all about? The final iconoclasm the end of language itself?
H Hell, a place where no one can say what they mean.
T Tell me again why two Pompeians, lava-frozen in the act of love,
should not be the most tender thing you’ve ever seen?
How unstable that word, light!
Meanwhile, Lorenzo and Matteo have caught up with the sister thief, have a knife at his throat, Isabella begging them not to kill him.
But the scoundrel, Ugolino, has some Kif from Morocco
and all will be well if he marries Isabella.
This signifier is precise in its copulation with the signified,
at least for a moment. But Lacan will arrive,
like a child playing in mud, and disturb the word salad in your l’inconsiente.
There’s no way out. When someone blurts I love you, stammering with passion,
and his lover knows by this messy utterance he’s being truthful,
we have a poet always already shaping his words to make it pure.
At least for a moment.
A Few Words on “Twilight of the Theoreticians”
I have re-embraced Aristotle’s contention that in poetry the whole is larger than the sum of its parts. I still think looking at a poem as a whole—even a fragmentary or open-ended poem—is a better way of discussing it than entering the poem to observe, e.g.; its linguistic instability, or to locate the ways in which it either supports or denies the ideas of the zeitgeist. I observe that the relationship between creative writers and the intellectual life of the English department is not what it used to be. Theory is now the “installed base” (to borrow a term from the languages of mainframe computers) of the English curriculum. I believe this presents a problem for the study of imaginative literature and poetry in particular. To read a poem with one’s favorite critical theory strategy is to miss the poem as a whole, or its gestalt; that is; its imagination enlarging impulse. I have often feared that people steeped in theory, and weak in imagination, do not actually experience literature, but enter and profess it with a certain contempt, assuming that e.g.; a poem is merely a collection of the unenlightened, romantic or reactionary aspects of any particular culture, that metaphor in particular is inferior to a clear and distinct idea. I also believe that poetry has been muted and isolated by its long residence in the academy, and needs to be revived by a connection with the world: Novalis: “the seat of the soul is where the inside meets the outside.” One can see the desire for a demotic poetry in the performance poetry movement. I believe that in time “slam” poetry will improve at the level of craft and important new poets will emerge from it, even if much of it is genuinely terrible at present. I observe that certain poets like Patricia Smith and Martín Espada are comfortable in both the world of the finely crafted poem and performance, and are doing the forward reconnaissance. With a re-oralization, poetry will grow an interest in a new prosody and sound. And I believe that poetry from different cultures, even in translation, is enlarging our imaginations. If I look at “intellectual” poetry in certain journals, I see a withdrawal from the world into a smaller and smaller tribal culture. The essay poem I’ve contributed here is a reaction to the cold, robotic fingers of whatever theory is fashionable at the time, whatever theory is being used to bore students into hating literature, when they might otherwise find it an imaginative nourishment. The poem is a whole that reaches beyond itself into worlds the reader has perhaps not discovered for himself, and delight and enlarged consciousness is his or her reward. The art is in the whole and not its individual parts.
I believe Ilya Kaminsky is onto something when he quotes Anna Akhmatova’s “correspondences in the air” and I believe that poetry from other cultures, as described in Kaminsky’s introduction to the Ecco anthology by the same name, is at present showing us the way.
Doug Anderson’s book, The Moon Reflected Fire, published by Alice James Books, won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and Blues for Unemployed Secret Police, from Curbstone Books, a grant from the Academy of American Poets. His play, Short Timers, was produced at Theater for the New City in New York City in 1981. His memoir, Keep Your Head Down, Vietnam, the Sixties and a Journey of Self-Discovery, was published by W.W. Norton in 2009. His most recent book of poems is Horse Medicine, from Barrow Street. His work has appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Southern Review, Field, and other publications. He has written critical articles for the New York Times Book Review, The London Times Literary Supplement, and the Boston Globe. He has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Poets & Writers, and other funding agencies. He has taught at Emerson and Smith Colleges, the University of Massachusetts, and the MFA programs at Pacific University of Oregon and Bennington College. He is an affiliate of the Joiner Center for the Study of War and its Social Consequences at UMASS Boston. He teaches at Western New England University.