In last night’s post, I hinted that one of my main concerns this week would be the function of poetry: what it can do, what it should do, how it impacts upon our lives. Yesterday evening’s reading in the Purcell Room tackled this question, to a certain extent, and succeeded in raising a number of new questions and concerns along the way, the most pressing of which was the problem of translation. The event consisted of four readers – normally a terrifying prospect, but the performances themselves, and the festival organisation, made it more than a bearable reading – from across the globe: Valzhyna Mort from Belarus, Mourid Barghouti from Palestine, and Jorie Graham and Mark Doty, both from the States.
Both Mort and Barghouti read their work in its original language, whilst a vast screen behind them relayed the poems in English translation. Useful at first, but after a while, I ignored or skimmed the English words and dived headlong into the torrent of words that both Mort and Barghouti poured forth. What was fascinating was the sense of dislocation accorded the poems by this disjunction between meaning and music. A poem is a total event, where meaning is determined by the sonic possibilities of the language under intense pressure: the meaning cannot be separated from the anner in which it is conveyed. Here, except for those in the audience who were fluent in the poet’s original languages, this separation had very much taken place. So where does that leave the poem? It leaves it, I guess, in the complicated middle ground of translation, where the poem exists fully neither in its target language, nor its source language.
This was why, of course, it was vital to hear Barghouti and Mort reading their work: on the page, all we have access to are the English cribs, but in the context of performance the original language is allowed to sing and soar, and the sonic effects and complexities which get buried by translation are once again brought to the fore.
So what of the poems? Mort, I felt, was probably the strongest poet of the evening: strange and often disturbing poems, touched with the Eastern European inheritance of Surrealism – Popa, Holub, Milocz – but also her own poet, her own vision of the world. Robert Lowell, I think, noted of himself that he suffered from “a mania for phrases”, and the same can be applied, though for different reasons, to Mort. What became apparent was a constant pushing of the envelope of sense in the form of wildly disruptive and unsettling similes and metaphors, and other phrases that fit neither description. I only managed to note down one: “every night is a winter”, from her shortest and most delicate poem. Elsewhere, her language took the body as its starting point, ripping it apart and reassembling it on the page. More importantly, her performance was strong and authoritative: this is a poet I will return to again and again, I feel.
Barghouti had an avuncular appearance – mustard-coloured jacket, grey slacks and a neat bushel of snow white hair – and at first his performance was suitably relaxed and disarming. But what became apparent as his rolling poems developed – his preferred form is an open, often repetitious poem that is capable of containing any number of approaches and emotions within its framework, from humour to rage, gentle irony to existential despair – was that his presence on stage was almost Biblical in character. His reading had the qualities of a chant at times, or a recitation from a holy text. I could have listened to his voice all day: at one point, he rolled a series of R’s in quick and savage succession, and they took on the character of distant hilltop gunfire. Unsettling. Again, this was dependent entirely upon his speaking presence upon the stage: another, weaker reader would have sapped the poems of their gravity through mumbling or a lack of rhythmic sense.
What both Mort and Barghouti share, to a point, is a sense of the prophetic importance of poetry. This is often an unfashionable concept in the cossetted West: we don’t want our poets to speak grand truths about the human condition – we’d rather they wrote small measly little poems about drains and babies that we can nod along and say mmm to. Jorie Graham, too, follows the unfashionable ‘poet as prophet’ path, and whilst her performance did not feel quite so strong as either Barghouti’s or Mort’s, her poems often being lost in a rather staccato reading style that did no justice to their sprawl and ambition, I admire the seriousness of her project. Earlier in her reading, Graham noted the importance of art in imagining, in bringing to actual and not simply abstract scientific life, the ecological crisis we are facing, for the sake of posterity. An excellent approach, as it neatly sidesteps the problems of a too overtly partisan and polemical political poetry: her work is simply about seeing the world with the eyes and mind fully open, in order to record and clarify what will soon be lost.
Her work, appropriately, operates something like an ecosystem, employing repetitious structures – there’s an argument to be made that repetition and lists represent a specifically American nexus of poetic form, but now’s not the time – to create an open field of images and phrases where no component is seen as superior to or subordinate to any other: everything exists in relation to its neighbour. My feeling is that these poems might well work best on the page – tellingly, Graham made a quip about missing the presence of her words on the screen behind her – as they are marked by a high modernist seriousness, a density and complexity that cannot fully be carried across by the speaking voice. As with Mort, I only managed to note down one line of Graham’s reading, but it was one I wish I’d written: “The sky opens its magazine”.
Mark Doty is a poet whose work I have enjoyed in the past, in collections such as The School of the Arts and My Alexandria, but here his poetry did not come across as well. Perhaps it was the high prophetic seriousness of the company he was keeping that made his work seem smaller and less weighty in comparison, or perhaps there has been an unfortunate slackening off in his writing style. In either case, his reading felt like something of an anomaly in relation to the poets who had preceded him. Not that it was bad, by any means, and his stage presence – chatty, informative, self-deprecating – made for a nice change in tone, but the poems he chose to read lacked a certain something: depth and gravitas. Only the final poem of the evening, an ars poetica entitled ‘The House of Beauty is Burning’, showed what he is truly capable of at full pelt. A shame. Tellingly, his poems drew a large number of mmms from the audience, the hum of liberal arts-appreciating consensus, where Graham, Barghouti, and Mort drew only stunned silence after each of their own pieces. There’s a message in this somewhere, but I’m damned if I can tease it out.