Monday, August 20, 2012

Dommage to Sextus Propertius

This began as a review of Pound's "Homage to Sextus Propertius" on Goodreads.  After a lively class discussion, I found even more things I don't like about Pound's poem(s).  Now, I think Pound is a pretty cool poet ("Hugh Whats-his-face Mauberley" and all that), and he must have also been a good friend, supporting poets like Eliot financially, emotionally, and editorially.  But I had just read Propertius' love poems translated by a scholar who was only interested in Propertius' love poems, so Pound's reinterpretation didn't sit right. Especially with the theories I've heard that he translated so loosely in order to better capture the spirit of the poems.  Pound instead just captures his own spirit, giving it form with some of Propertius' words.
"Homage" is a hybrid translation/reinterpretation of a few of Propertius' love poems. So again, it is neither straight translation nor something completely original with a mere hint of antiquity in it.  It lives in a muddy band of the reception spectrum.  But I expected something Propertius-like out of it anyway.  Here are the big differences that made Pound's take on this a bit disappointing:

Pound nearly removes Cynthia from the poems, and what little bit of her is there is nagging, weak, inactive. (Propertius' Cynthia is big, powerful, and terrifying in her loveliness.) When Pound does mention Cynthia (because he has to in the few closely translated poems) he lessens her power by not describing her actions. For instance, he writes "and so on..." when she is screaming at him, instead of hanging on her every angry word as Propertius does.  

Propertius is the moon and Cynthia is his sun.  For Pound, Cynthia is just an example that sometimes demonstrates his love theories.  He does not reflect her light.

Pound is confident and reflective and always availing himself of hindsight (Oh those women! I know all about them...), where Propertius is by turns happy-go-lucky on a nighttime stroll, fearing for his life at the feet of his statuesque lover, overcome with pleasure at the sight of her, pondering non-sequiturs like Spartan games or fashion whenever his thoughts wander. And Propertius is always ALWAYS in the moment.

Pound tries to turn the love poems into his philosophy of everything. Propertius is keeping a raw diary about his love.

Though these differences in the poems bother me, I guess there's no requirement for Propertius' elegies and Pound's English poem (in its own right) to be the same in spirit, since Pound was making something of his own out of the translation work.  He can receive it however he likes.  But Pound's measured pontifications are not very satisfying compared to Propertius' youthful ejaculations (pun intended).  Pound's poem has ED.

There is, however, one major intersection between the poets' aims: they both write love poetry with the cause of defending the writing of love poetry. They are both self-referential, defensive, and proud in this way.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Receptionist


This summer has been my longest hiatus from blogging since I fired this thing up in April 2008. I didn't mean for it to be that way. I've been a productive writer even in hard times these past six years (four in the blogosphere), these great, purpose-filled years since I found my way back to school. Sometimes I wrote running on fumes, sometimes on garbage, but always already writing.  But here I am after three months of nothing.  This summer knocked me flat.  (Boom. Down. Like cement.)

Yet this past week there have occurred the following things: Two visits with friends I hadn't seen in months; an email from another friend who I hadn't heard from in months; a conversation with a friend and fellow English grad about what to do for doctoral work (when I get there); a friend and fellow mother finished chemotherapy.  This rapid succession of some little things (a conversation, a look, a best-friends trip to a thrift store for a $1 bag of clothes that will outfit my kids all winter) and some very big things (watching a strong lady kick cancer to the curb) is starting to pull me out of the mire. I hope this post, too, will help lift me out of this place I'm in.

"John Milton's Office, Byrd speaking."

In that conversation with the other grad student we expressed our sympathies and hopes for the PhD students who are doing field exams this week. So the topic of what our own eventual exams might cover came up.  It dawned on me that I had never thought about trying to decide what to study, dissertate on, think about for the next four years, simply by imagining what the exam would have to look like.  It has to be on something examinable!  Not that anyone should use that as their method for determining their area of study -- but it is something to consider, and I'd never considered it.

I have never been able to settle on a period, and that is my main trouble. I follow themes. I follow styles. I follow philosophy.  Whatever centuries those things wander through, I follow them.  I tried to explain this to a fellow NIU grad at a Milton seminar at the Newberry a year ago.  Then she asked if I was into "adaptation history." Nope, not that.  So what the hell is it I'm following?

I got the answer this spring, in the "Receptions of Classical Literature" class I took.  Egad!  It has been reception I've been following all along. I always called it something like "legacies." (See my profile at left, even!)  I did not know that particular term until this spring.  I had heard about the "received text" and about "reception" in a historicist sort of thinking, i.e. what did the 18th century folk think of their 18th century lit.  I had somehow never learned to use that word this way.  That is, reception is the receiving of those legacies, the reusing of them, the reinterpreting of them, the unconscious imitation of them, sometimes even just the translating of them, if the translation is trying to do something.

Milton receives Virgil, Virgil receives all of the Greeks, Milton receives the Greeks with and without Virgilian interference, Wordsworth receives Virgil with and without Miltonic interference (and never really receives the Greeks), Eliot tries to receive everything at once, Pound receives Propertius and gets him wrong.  There seems to be no limit to classical literature's generosity, and there has always been (except in the Middle Ages, except now!) someone to receive it, always graciously, sometimes beautifully.

I could draw you a reception spectrum.  But I don't have a pen here.  I'll explain it: it runs from translation on the one end, to a completely new work merely influenced by some Greek or somebody on the other end.  In the middle, you have your license-taking translations, your replies, adaptations, reinterpretations, etc. etc.  Each time we read a work in that class we'd place it on the spectrum.  Lattimore's Odyssey is a modern translation, Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" is a reply, Pound's Homage to Sextus Propertius is a license-taking translation with reinterpretations. Calasso's Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is something else. But it has a place somewhere on the spectrum.

"You're such a historicist!" says the friend as we talk about these things.  Well not really.  I need all the historical contexts and critical biographies and in fact get so into them I'm told to move on when I present things, but this cat has enough of a modern bent that she don't think the center holds, man. Anyway, I'm resisting history in a way by refusing to periodize what I'm interested in. (When folks hear I study Milton they say "Oh you study Renaissance lit!" Um, no. 1667 ain't "Renaissance." English f'n Civil War ain't "Renaissance.") It's the reception, man! The reception! I tell the friend. (And I throw the word around now just to feel the weight and balance of it, and see how it lands because I am so proud of what it is and that I like it.) "Does that make you a receptionist?" asks the friend.  Yes, yes it does.  We have a lit student laugh.  Literature jokes are the best.