Friday, June 13, 2014

POETS AND TRANSLATIONS

One of the perks I enjoy from my association with Gary Entsminger, editor and publisher at Pinyon Publishing in Colorado, and from reviewing many of the books of poetry published by this  independent press is my introduction to and communication with fellow poets.  The latest poet with whom I've been in contact is Stuart Friebert, a generous-spirited man who recently sent me a copy of his newest publication, which is a translation of Puppets in the Wind (Bitter Oleander Press) written by the German poet, Karl Krolow.

Although the poetry translated in this volume quickly resonated with me, I was equally fascinated with Friebert's introduction to Puppets in the Wind. He describes Krolow as "pursuing translation with as much vigor and dedication as he gave his own work, believing poets could not develop a 'third eye' without devoting considerable attention to the art of translation..." Krolow's concept inspired Friebert to require students at Oberlin College (where he established an outstanding writing program in 1976) to schedule translation workshops. He explains that the students objected to the workshops at first, complaining: "But I came to do my own writing, not someone else's," but they later admitted that translating poets who wrote in other languages enhanced their own work. "One likened it to learning to play the works of masters before composing on one's own," Friebert writes.

Friebert taught German language and literature many years at Mt. Holyoke, Harvard, and Oberlin and claims that nothing was more satisfying to him than teaching beginning translators and slipping in German poems that he loved...and, of course, Krolow was among the poets he introduced to his students. 

After reading Puppets in the Wind, I agree with Friebert that the poems are dark by nature, but they contain just that bit of wryness and irony I appreciate in poets like Charles Simic and Billy Collins (both Pulitzer Prize winners).  Friebert writes that Krolow didn't just call on the Muse to please readers, he also wrote for "so-called dead objects, landscapes, cities, gardens, streetcorners, animals...for stones and their pores, for sadness and bodily pain."    

One of the poems in Puppets in the Wind that illustrates the irony in Krolow's work  and also the wry twist that characterizes many of the endings to his poems is entitled "History:"
"Men carried a flag across the square/At which centaurs broke from the underwood/And crushed their cloth underfoot/And history could begin./Melancholy nations/Fell apart on street corners./Orators kept themselves/At the ready with mastiffs,/And the younger women/Painted their faces for the stronger./Without end voices quarreled/In the air, although/The mythological creatures/Had long since withdrawn./Eventually what's left is the hand/That goes around a throat." This is a succinct commentary on the long history of man's inhumanity to man, and readers are jolted into an awareness of the gravity of the human thrust for power and the subsequent bloodshed that afflicts "melancholy nations." that "fell apart on street corners." The image or metaphor that lingers is, of course, "...the hand/That goes around the throat." The poem could be an offspring of Krolow's observations of the destructive Nazi years in Germany.

In "True Fall," Krolow alludes to artistic colors in his native Germany, a poem that, again, ends in a surprise wry note: "A forest of copper beeches/burns away Lake Constance/in the usual colors./You have to look quickly,/before the history of Impressionism/fades away." This poem is another example of Krolow's adroitness in creating wry imagery to end a poem with memorable phrasing.

These two excerpts from Puppets in the Wind are just the tip of the iceberg, but they should titillate poets to appreciate the process of translation that Friebert admires and exhorts all poets and students of poetry to practice. In fact, he chided me for not learning another language and taking up the art of translation so that I could develop a "third eye."


Puppets in the Wind is the third volume of Friebert's translations of Krolow collections and is a notable contribution to Ars Poetica. Copies are available on amazon.com.
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