Thursday, August 08, 2019

Ibbetson Street Press: Presents: Denise Provost reading from Curious Peach Aug 15

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Raising Classics in Translation at The Seamus Heaney Memorial Reading: Ferry and Kalogeris

David Ferry
and George Kalogeris 

W E D N E S D A Y   S E P T E M B E R  4,  at 7pm 

article by Michael Steffen 

In the autumn of 2008 at the Robert Lowell Memorial Lecture at BU, David Ferry gave a talk to introduce Seamus Heaney. In that talk David evoked Virgil’s Eclogues to identify the depth and clarity poetry brings to our lives. “The Eclogues,” David said, “are a radical instance of what is true of all poetry, and especially true of Heaney’s poetry. It makes us vividly, radiantly conscious of our experience.” 

Of the functions of language—to indicate, to communicate, to question, to edify, dissolve, console, appease, flatter, to deceive, persuade, attack, argue or agree or simply to humor— 
the work or grace of making us conscious of our lives and experience seems especially the gift of literature. And to make us “vividly, radiantly conscious” becomes the pleasures and pains of poetry. 

The little extra consideration and effort, the bother, in invention of taking what has become inwardly apparent and making it luminous, or vivid and radiant, calls for some labor and difficulty which poetry is also notorious for. Marianne Moore pronounced, 

I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle. 
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers that there is in 
it after all, a place for the genuine. 

In an early sonnet called “The Forge” with an eponymous first line, Seamus Heaney hammers away at an extended metaphor for the work and labor of his art: 

All I know is a door into the dark… 
…the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring, 
The unpredictable fantail of sparks 
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water… 

He describes the iron forge as 

an altar 
Where he expends himself in shape and music. 
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose, 
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter 
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows; 
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick 
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows. 

The portrait is so appropriate in connection with David Ferry and his important work on VirgilThe sonnet was originally titled “Vulcan,” after the god of the forge, the icon of the artist as hard laborer, the Roman version of Hephaistos the Greek ironsmith who wrought Achilles armor with vivid scenes of war. It is appropriate because it bespeaks the labor of translating a great epic poem like The Aeneid or Beowulf, one of the premises of the correlation between David Ferry and Seamus Heaney, with Heaney’s important translation of The Aeneid Book VI to strengthen that correlation. 

The whole of The Aeneid, in its elaborateness, intensity and invention that holds our curiosity, 
its balance of temporal dangers and tasks and works with it fantasies stemmed in spiritual and metaphorical likeliness, the witness of the mysterious powers at work to keep our lives in their trials true, just and inspired—the whole of this monumental poem bespeaks the qualities expressed in two of Virgil’s most important words, often yoked together, as in the phrase opera atque labores, translated by David West as “toils and suffering.” David Ferry’s version of the phrase—“what men have done and what has been done to them”—is expansive and hints at the consideration in his method in general. The phrase, moreover, gives rise to key introductory remarks on Virgil’s epic as a whole as seen by Ferry in a preface to the 2018 publication. 

In Book VI of The Aeneid, the pairing of these important words occurs again, in a speech the Sybil of Cumae makes to Aeneas concerning human journeys to the underworld, the land of the dead. Its significance is telling enough, though I actually “missed” the passage the first time I read it in a version by Robert Fitzgerald. The Fitzgerald passage reads: 

The way downward is easy from Avernus. 
Black Dis’s door stands open night and day. 
But to retrace your steps to heaven’s air, 
That is the trouble, there is the toil. 

As I stated, I “missed” the passage, or failed to notice it particularly, the first time I read it, and I found out that I missed this passage when I opened Edmund O. Wilson’s brilliant book on the planet’s evolution, The Diversity of Life. Wilson used these four (actually 3.8) lines of Fitzgerald’s translation as an epigram to the book, an at once succinct and panoramic expression to relate his message as a scientist to our industrially driven society about where we are headingatri ianua Ditis, translated variously as “The gates of hell,” “Black Dis’s door,” “the darkness of Dis,” and “Death’s dark door” (hence Heaney’s “door into the dark” in the sonnet above, which was also the title of his second book of poems). 

I was unaware of Edmund Wilson’s sequoia stature as an intellectual and scientist when I first opened his book. He only became a superhero of letters in my mind once I had seen the citation from Virgil. (I hadn’t even read the first sentence of Wilson’s book yet and he was already awesome.) And though I had read through all of The Aeneid, it took Wilson’s highlighting of this passage for me to determine it remarkable. And it is, when you look at it. 
The lines express a profound truth: The hardship we so readily seem to go slipping into is always so damn difficult to get back out of. You don’t even need to go all the way to the caverns of the dead to get this. 

John Dryden’s famous translation of The Aeneid renders the memorable lines in this way: 

The gates of hell are open night and day; 
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way: 
But to return, and view the cheerful skies, 
In this, the task and mighty labor lies. (lines 191-4) 

In our time, end-rhymed couplets come off as satirical, probably light, likely sardonic. Though these are referred to as “heroic couplets,” they hardly sound genuine to the modern reader. In the late 17th century when Dryden’s translation came out, probably any other poetic form would not have come off as bona fide. 

The set of rhyming couplets by Dryden underscores the proverbial quality of the passage. It bears the weight of general principleIn the original text, Virgil uses different figures of balance and syntax to bring the passage prosodic weight: 

noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis: 
sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras, 
hoc opus, hic labor est. (127-9) 

Heaney’s translation of the passage gives us echoes of the alliterative versification in Beowulf: 

It is easy to descend into Avernus. 
Death’s dark door stands open day and night. 
But to retrace your steps and get back to upper air, 
That is the task, that is the undertaking. 

David Ferry’s version, again, is characteristically patient and generous: 

The way to Avernus is easy, the door is open, 
Night and day, down to the darkness of Dis. 
But how to come back, how to retrace one’s steps 
And return to the upper air, that is the task, 
That is the labor…(David Ferry, page 172) 

Im no expert at translation. But by comparing these different translations, without having seen the original or being able to understand the Latin and piece its difficult syntax together, the translations in their similarity tell us something about the original. We could guess by each that the primary text had included the phrase “night and day,” which indeed it does, “noctes atque dies.” 

From each we also would key in on the repetition or amplification of “trouble…toil,” task… trouble,” “task…undertaking,” “task…labor.” The parallel in the original wouldn’t be so terribly difficult to identify in “hoc opus, hilabor est.” 

A look at the translations would note that none of the masters of English wanted to play as Virgil did with “hoc” and “hic,” denoting some elusiveness—here, there…—as to the nature of this task and labor, while the Fitzgerald version gives us “That is…there is.” 

To study the language of another culture is to study its turn of mind. To find other ways of thinking can be liberating, even exhilarating. In this sense, poetry is another language within the language. But none of our translators, as excellent as they are, could be expected to find an expression with the equivalent ambiguity announced in “revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras.” Not even an attempt to explain this ambiguity would be possible to one unfamiliar with the dead language. 

The mid-20th century French singer, songwriter and poet Jacques Brassens lamented Vatican II and another important loss of the use of the ancient texts with his lyrics, Sans le latin, sans le latin/la messe nous emmerde (Without Latin, o without Latin/going to Mass bores us shitless…).  

In an early essay on translation with the title “Not Getting It Right,” David Ferry upheld the assertion about the impossibility of an exact, correct translation—of any text. But especially poetry, because it deals so much with nuance and cultural demands, which are different for every language in every age. 

Responding in a shipwrecked interview I conducted with David years ago, he expanded on this notion: 

The exigencies of our language, with our own grammatical and syntactical structures, differ from those of  the target language. Our systems of versification, also different, mean we never get it right… This is all the more vividly the case with Virgil who lived in and responded to a very different culture and had a different sensibility, with all its own exigencies. 

Ferry’s partner in crime and co-professor of Classics in Translation at Suffolk University, George Kalogeris, has written a haunting poem of penetrating vision into the nature and source of poetry. The  poem is also illuminating for translation, as it draws our attention to the wonder of the spaces between “words” and “poem”, “poem” and “voice” and “voice” and “breath.” The poem is called “Origins.” The first three lines go like this: 

Behind the words there is a poem 
Behind the poem there is a voice 
Behind the voice there is a breath… 

These terms define the challenge of accuracy between inspiration and articulation, and also the task of translation at word and in meaning. 

The lines also announce a seminal notion in poetry, for the poet and his identity and psyche. 

In his very first poem for us, “Digging,” opening the celebrated collection Death of a NaturalistSeamus Heaney deals with the theme of progeny, or family “origins,” referring to his father biographically, or historically, with reference to the tool of a spade used to dig potatoes. Differently, Seamus Heaney would define himself by how he would dig with the tool of a pen instead. 

In his second poem, “Death of a Naturalist,” we get the consciousness of poetry we are more used to, the one that brings elevation to poetry, where our origins go mute, are deferred. We are like Whitman “out of the cradle endlessly rocking, in the foundling mindset from heaven knows what mists. It is an understanding in Heaney’s early vision that “sickened, turned, and ran” from the coarse croaking, blunt-headed frogs, the great slime kings, and their gooey, binding and belittling spawn. 

Heroes—of epic—as well as of the self of Whitman’s song and of so much lyrical poetry 
are often first shrouded in this elusiveness and mystery of origins—behind—the poem behind the words, the voice behind the poem… 

Great importance is given to the subject of origins in the beginning of the epic Beowulf, in the emergence through the relating of the heroes’ lineages, from the poem’s opening hero Shield Sheafson, a “foundling” himself, like Moses in the Old Testament, a babe cast on the waters. The word “foundling,” Heaney’s choice in the translation, reminds me of Robert Pinsky’s recent title At the Foundling Hospital. 

The necessity of “emerging from nowhere,” as it were, is that the hero must prove himself, without any born advantages. This is what comes across in Heaney’s wonderfully rendered lines describing Shield Sheafson 

A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on 
as his powers waxed and his worth was proved. 

It is profoundly interesting how Beowulf the hero emerges in the poem, by a suggestion of name, nearly as a ghost of himself. The first mention of a Beowulf, which Heaney simply renders as “Beow,” is as the princely son of Shield Sheafson, the proven warrior king. The story of this first “Beow” is cursory and synoptic. He is liberal in his giving and politically adept at binding allies. After Shield Sheafson dies and we get the impressionable image of the death-ship funeral, we are told simply, 

Then it fell to Beow to keep the forts. 
He was well regarded and ruled the Danes 
for a long time… 

From there the poet proceeds to the next monumental personage, Hrothgar, who builds the wondrous mead hall. There the Danes drink and feast and awaken the evil monster Grendel to stalk and terrorize them. 

The princely son of a great warrior king occupies some of poetry’s most memorable characters and their dilemmas, from Telemachus and Oedipus to another certain Dane, Hamlet, beset with melancholy and paralyzed by his intellect. James Joyce’s prince in spirit Stephan Dedalus, according to his sidekick Buck Mulligan, could prove by algebra that Shakespeare was the ghost of the father of Hamlet. We may grin and shuffle our feet. The notion of reincarnation, however, is powerfully suggestive in the epic BeowulfOne other important bit of information given to us about the early Beowulf (“Beow”) is that his “name was known through the north.” He was already somewhat legendary. 

As the poet goes on from “Beow” to Hrothgar we may imagine a similar death-ship rite for Beow hauling the prince’s arrayed remains (and spirit) off into the misty northern seasLet’s backtrack to the passage of Shield Sheafson’s death-ship burial: 

Shield was still thriving when his time came 
and he crossed over into the Lord’s keeping. 
His warrior band did what he bade them 
when he laid down the law among the Danes: 
they shouldered him out to the sea’s flood, 
the chief they revered who had long ruled them. 
A ring-whorled prow rode in the harbour, 
ice-clad, outbound, a craft for a prince. 
They stretched their beloved lord in his boat, 
laid out by the mast, amidships, 
the great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures 
were piled upon him, and precious gear. 
I never heard before of a ship so well furbished 
with battle tackle, bladed weapons 
and coats of mail. The massed treasure 
was loaded on top of him: it would travel far 
on out into the ocean’s sway. 
They decked his body no less bountifully 
with offerings than those first ones did 
who cast him away when he was a child 
and launched him alone out over the waves. 
And they set a gold standard up 
high above his head and let him drift 
to wind and tide, bewailing him 
and mourning their loss. No man can tell, 
no wise man in hall or weathered veteran 
knows for certain who salvaged that ship. (26 – 52) 

We imagine the early Beow so sent off. The poet reminds us, “No man can tell,” as of the mystery of where Sheild goes, or where the first Beow goes, perhaps bestowed anew, say, among the scions of Hygelac the Geat, across those northern seas where the death ships sailed. It cannot be ruled out – “No man can say” – but that Beow’s spirit should reemerge as Beowulf himself, now the great and mighty warrior who hears rumor of the havoc being wreaked by Grendel at Hrothgar’s mead hall and steps up to the challenge of going to the land of the Shields to slay the monster. 

Complexity and intricacy of narrative – David Ferry surely can tell us this – is one of the arresting features of epic poetry. Like the decking out of a death ship or building of a marvelous mead hall, the narrative’s amplitude and subtle coherences betoken the devotion and uncanny revelations that are interwoven with the mysteries of our mortality. So the epic poet is known for his wide and peculiar, it is sometimes thought, terrible understanding. 

Of course our old English word for this type of wisdom is “grasp.” It is the word Heaney uses, in its primary physical sense of “hold,” to describe the claw on Grendel’s arm. That appendage, we remember, is ripped off the beast in the mighty death grip of Beowulf. This is the monster’s death blow. 

The monster’s whole 
body was in pain, a tremendous wound 
appeared on his shoulder. Sinews split 
and the bone-lappings burst. Beowulf was granted 
the glory of winning… 
The great captain 
had boldly fulfilled his boast to the Danes: 
he had healed and relieved a huge distress, 
unremitting humiliations… 
Clear proof of this 
could be seen in the hand the hero displayed 
high up near the roof: the whole of Grendel’s 
shoulder and arm, his awesome grasp. (814-35) 

Figuratively, as also suggested by the word “grasp,” that dreadful arm raised to the rafters of the mead hall to signify the hero’s victory, is the poet’s trophy. Whoever still practices physical writing today may know what it means to write until your arm feels like it’s about to drop off. 

(Whenever I’m struck by this death-hold grip Beowulf clamps Grendel with, I can’t help but to think of Theodore Roethke dancing with his inebriated father: 

The whiskey on your breath 
Could make a small boy dizzy; 
But I hung on like death: 
Such waltzing was not easy.) 

To the sundering of the monster’s arm in Beowulf we find a like image in The Aeneid Book VI, in another task assigned to the hero: to pluck the golden bough from the wood by Avernus. The luminous tree’s limb will allow Aeneas passage to the underworld to speak with his father. Love and devotion to the father and to the fatherland make for undeniable traits in the ideals of the Latin culture and sensibility, one of the exigencies. So one of the emblematic images we retain of Aeneas is that of him bearing Anchises on his back to save him from the flames of Troy. It is the image of bearing one’s whole culture with its traditions into a new land. 

We could hardly begin to see in our mind’s eye Hamlet readily and willingly bearing the burden of his warrior father, however psychologically that ghost weighs on him. He would certainly not raise a finger to help Claudius. Not that Hamlet was meant to serve as an ideal to the culture that goes along with the English language, perhaps so much as the character is exemplary of the English suspicion and even scorn for ideals to begin with. This is to recall what David Ferry meant about “the case with Virgil who lived in and responded to a very different culture and had a different sensibility, with all its own exigencies. 

The motif in the Latin culture of filial devotion proves lasting up to Dante and his deference and devotion to Virgil in The Divine Comedy, the Christian era’s greatest epic, which in many key ways stems from Book VI of The Aeneid.  

Parentage and the lost world of the deep past emerge as major themes in George Kalogeris’s recent book of poems, Guide to GreeceThe book seeks out, finds, celebrates and laments the pasts of culture and individual, as witnessed by the poem “GUIDE TO GREECE” with its evocation of names—genealogies, Epaminondas, Thebes, ruined cities, myths, Athens—and the poignant plea of the poet’s bridging this excavation of tradition to a quest of utmost intimacy: 

…if this means, Pausanias, that no one 
Knows better than you that everything that’s happened 

Has already happened before, and also because 
Both Sparta and Arcadia are places 

You call Archaía Elláda, and that’s a term 
I heard my parents use to tell us where 

They came from when they meant to say Old Greece, 
I keep on reading down all the lists of names, 

Pausanias, keep paging through each region 
And wondering if perhaps you might have seen them, 

My elderly parents, somewhere in your travels. 

Pausanias is evoked as an implied listener to Kalogeris’s verses throughout the book, an echo of Horace’s apostrophes to Maecenas, his noble patron. The classical trope bears in resonance homage to Ferry as a sponsor in all this fiddle of Classics in Translation. George and David have been teaching the course at Suffolk now for 13 years. 

George’s title, Guide to Greece, comes from the title of Pausanias’ ten-volume opus Hellados Periegesis, a needle in the haystack of ancient culture for the poet to pinch and waken from its sleep of ages. The work largely was meant as a guide for Roman tourists in Greece during the Pax Romana, the second century AD, one of whose emperors, Hadrian of the wall, makes for an astonishingly apt allusion to a major controversy in America today. 

Much of the world written about by Pausanius “no longer exists.” It is a phantom world already Kalogeris evokes, of what was once a descriptive work. Or, it is the world now of a poem, of legends once places, people, things, all gone and hovering in the air, stories. So Kalogeris quietly also ascribes to his “guide to Greece” a Homeric epithet for the wanderer of the epic world, Odysseus, calling Pausanius’s itinerary “The polytropic routes” in the poem “PERIGRINATIONS OF PAUSANIAS,” p. 127. 

Stamatia Dova has noted the welcoming voice of these poems, “the timeless voice of the learned poet enabling the narrative of heritage and splendid erudition and disarming sensitivity.” A look at these accurate terms – “heritage,” “erudition,” “sensitivity” – unearths frictions. These differences are unfolded in one of the book’s front poems, “AMBASSADOR OF THE DEAD.” The poem vividly portrays memories of animated discussions between Kalogeris and his parents about the sophisticated vs. ordinary or demotic languages that defined different Greek poets. 

My parents were never crazy about Cavafy— 
To them he was too refined, too ALEX-AN 
DRIAN, and they were only peasants, khoriates. 

And there was no Ithaka for them to go back to. 
When I’d beg them to read the Greek, they’d balk when they got to 
His purist katharévousa diction—they just 

Couldn’t stomach its formalist starch. His poems were never 
Demotic enough, never trapézika: 
Songs to be sung across the kitchen table. 

The passage finds a striking comparison in the fourth sonnet of Seamus Heaney’s Clearances, with the endearing portrait of Heaney’s mother in ambivalent regard to her son’s education and the worth and worthiness of rural discretion: 

Fear of affectation made her affect 
Inadequacy whenever it came to 
Pronouncing words ‘beyond her’. Bertold Brek. 
She’d manage something hampered and askew 
Every time, as if she might betray 
The hampered and inadequate by too 
Well-adjusted a vocabulary. 
With more challenge than pride, she’d tell me, ‘You 
Know all them things.’ So I governed my tongue 
In front of her, a genuinely well- 
adjusted adequate betrayal 
Of what I knew better. I’d naw and aye 
And decently relapse into the wrong 
Grammar which kept us allied and at bay. 

George Kalogeris is associate professor of English Literature and Classics in Translation and is co-director of the Poetry Center at Suffolk University in Boston. His previous books include Camus: Carnets, a book of poems based on the notebooks of Albert Camus, and Dialogos: Paired Poems in Translation. 

As proclaimed by Alan Shapiro, “There is no better poet on the planet than David Ferry.” Ferry is the author of books of poetry and has translated several works from classical languages. He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1998, won the Rebekah Johnson Bobbit National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress in 2000, was awarded the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for life-time achievement in 2011, and won the 2012 National Book Award for Poetry for the book of his original poems Bewilderment. His other translations include the Odes of Horace, the Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil, and the Epic of Gilgamesh. 

It’s a great honor for our series to bring these gifted poets to the podium on the 4th of September to help us celebrate the memory and legacy of Seamus Heaney, himself ever interested in and devoted to the pleasures, labor and art of translation and to the Classics.