A New Translation of Mandelstam

“I’ll throw myself at the cobbles…” (Translation by Yan Kandror)

I’ll throw myself at the cobbles of dark empty alleys
While following branch of the maytree in black fancy coach,
And bonnet of snow, and hum of the mill everlasting…

I only remembered the locks overlapping and auburn.
Still acrid from grief, or of ants slightly fragrant and sour,
They leave dry as amber the lips of the one who has touched them.

In moments like these – even air becomes faintly tawny,
And ringlets of pupils adorned with the fur of the iris…
And all that I know of tender and pink apple parings…

But lo!.. Squeaky sound of runners of rented fiacre,
The bristly cold stars peek through the weave of the rough dirty burlap,
And hoofs beat staccato on cobbles of frozen keyboard.

And now all my light is from stars, from their shine, bristly lying.
As life fleets away like lace-foam of the theatre bonnet.
And nobody utters a word from the darkness of streets of the city…

by Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938)

A note on the translator

A dear friend of mine, Yan is a bibliophile, collector and erudite of the occult. He runs a magical little store in Homer, Alaska called the Observance of Hermits Rare and Used Bookstore. Be sure to check it out if you’re in the area! Or take a look at his eclectic selection of books Here and Here.

Bachelor Afternoon

Bachelor Afternoon

With his gut spilling over his abdomen,
he stands almost like a hamburger—

almost flat on the kitchen tile,
and as wide as his kitchen island. Eggs,

sunny side up, over a pound of sausage
have their yolks slit on his plate.

His pot-bellied pit bull gobbles
the slop as soon as it smacks the floor.

Finished, he pulls his plain T-shirt
fold by fold over his belly rolls, then smears

the grease across his pimpled lips.
From a pack of smokes, his potato spud

fingers pluck a battled cigarette;
he spits his chew and bites the filter,

lights it and fits sideways out the door.
His feet depress the concrete.

People step aside, as if a tank—
its cannon still smoking from the blast,

its steel momentum like Fate—
were crushing the streets of Auschwitz,

but he’s just fetching his mail
on an otherwise easy afternoon.

by Ryan Dowling

The One Fundamental of Poetry Most Ignored by Beginners

The One Fundamental of Poetry Most Ignored by Beginners

Although I’d agree that there are no “rules” in poetry, I do believe that there are tools, guidelines and techniques that make some poems better than others. One of the big ones is Concrete Imagery, best summed up in the simple phrase: “Show, don’t tell.”

This was one of the first things I learned in a high school creative writing class. I’ve heard it repeated hundreds of times since then, but ten years later I still have to remind myself how important it is and make sure I’m putting it into practice.

Most beginning poets start out writing because they have a deluge of feelings and/or ideas which manifest as language. Naturally, they want to impress that language upon a poem.

What many beginning poets don’t seem to understand is that once that poem is sent out into the world, it has to stand up for itself, apart from the poet. The poem has to become its own entity.

You could write, for instance, “I love her with all of my heart.” —And although that feeling may be genuine for you as the poet, that line in the poem will not be very convincing to any reader. This is because the line is seated in abstract ideas instead of concrete imagery.

Let’s start by squaring off Concrete Imagery with Abstract Ideas. Love is an abstract idea. Fear, anger and happiness are abstract ideas. Add God, religion and government to the list and you’re off to a good start. Abstract Ideas have no physical counterpart in the world. We cannot actually touch, see, smell, hear or taste them. They have no sensory qualities.

Now Concrete Imagery is just the opposite. These are things that exist in the actual world: apples, microwaves, telephone poles, etc. Specificity plays a big part in concrete imagery, because this log that I want to include in my poem may not just be any log.

It might be the rotten log by the Blackhawk river, on which my brother and I sat while we fished for King Salmon. It might be the knotted log that Old John bludgeoned his wife to death with. It might be the hollow log at the bottom of the river that the minnows run through like a tunnel. You want your imagery to be not only concrete, but fresh and unique. As always, try to avoid cliches.

One of William Carlos Williams most famous lines is “No ideas, but in things.” And true to his word, much of WCW’s poetry strains toward imagery in its absolute sense. Note the specificity of the concrete imagery and the lack of abstract ideas in the following poem:

Proletarian Portrait

A big young bareheaded woman
in an apron

Her hair slicked back standing
on the street

One stockinged foot toeing
the sidewalk

Her shoe in her hand. Looking
intently into it

She pulls out the paper insole
to find the nail

That has been hurting her

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

There is no outpouring of love here, no diatribe of anger. It is just a picture of a woman removing a nail from the insole of her shoe. That’s all it is. That’s all it needs to be. The point is not that “God” and “anger” should be excluded from poetry, but that poetry is better seated in concrete imagery than in abstract ideas.

Other than the pain caused by the nail in the poem, there are no other ideas or feelings explicitly stated. And yet, does the imagery not evoke them? I for one can feel the woman’s annoyance at her discomfort. And it makes me think of how the small things wear us away, little by little, day by day.

 

Playing God

Playing God

I myself do not believe in Him, no. And yet, whenever someone opens their mouth to let a beam of light shine out, and projects the God they have in mind against the sky, and grows intoxicated—I admit I get a little envious.

Then a large flock of ducks flies through God’s face—Ducks!—infinitely more variegated than He. Yes, a giant flock of them, just like that—quacking up a Second Coming— fleeing hunter and hound—out of the cattailed fen. Their wings beating over His eyes, their feathers falling out of His hair, they burst His features into a thousand iridescent birds!

And they fly—fly right through the razorwire of the sky.

They burst upon the dining room windows of family reunions. They fall onto suburban front lawns with a ka-put!—and float belly-up in the local reservoir. This one here, the loudest of them all—this one with his head held high—will be reborn through the propeller of a small plane—carrying a donor heart from Miami to Seattle—a boy aged three.

Sometimes, when I’m intoxicated, I too can see God in the sky—placing one bird above another—the cross in the eye of the hunter—the adrenaline after the smoke.

by Ryan Dowling

Baudelaire: One Foot In The Grave

Which Is True? (translation by Arthur Symons)

I knew a certain Benedicta who filled earth and air with ideals; and from whose eyes men learnt the desire for greatness, beauty, glory, and for everything that strengthened their belief in immortality.

But this miraculous child was too beautiful to live long. She died only a few days after I had come to know her, and I buried her with my own hands, one day when Spring wafted the contents of its censer even as far as the graveyard. I buried her with my own hands, well sealed in a coffin of wood, perfumed and incorruptible as an Indian casket.

And as I stood gazing at the place where I had hidden my treasure, all at once I saw a little person singularly like the deceased. She was trampling on the fresh soil with strange hysterical violence, and was laughing and shouting:”I am the real Benedicta! and a vile slut I am, too! And to punish you for your blindness and folly, you shall love me as I really am!”

But I was furious, and I answered: “No! no! no!” And to add emphasis to my refusal, I stamped my foot so violently that my leg sank up to the knee in the earth over the new grave, and like a wolf caught in a trap, I remained fastened, perhaps forever, to the grave of the ideal.

by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

Prose Poetry

A prose poem uses any and all poetic techniques except for line breaks.

Although most prose poems are in the ballpark of a page long, certain novels (such as Joyce’s “Ulysses”) have been considered “prose poems” based on their elevated language and poetic sensibility.

As a writer, the challenge of the prose poem is to create poetic qualities—music, imagery, meaning, etc.—without the aid of line breaks.

Whatever The Poem

Whatever The Poem

A badly written poem: I’m sure it will not sell,
but still it must attempt to earn its stay.
It must stand at intersections, under streetlights,
among the stupid and insane.

And a better poem has bigger problems;
for surely one sees how its substance stoned a nun,
—after its form aborted her son
—after it gave her husband its word.

Reader be harsh: Hatred’s a finer art than praise:
It is the horse-spit in the priest’s ear.
It is the prostitute looking over her shoulder
at the poet working kitty-corner.

by Ryan Dowling

Robinson Jeffers Against Publicity

Let Them Alone

If God has been good enough to give you a poet
Then listen to him. But for God’s sake let him alone until he is dead; no prizes, no ceremony,
They kill the man. A poet is one who listens
To nature and his own heart; and if the noise of the world grows up around him, and if he is tough enough,
He can shake off his enemies but not his friends.
That is what withered Wordsworth and muffled Tennyson, and would have killed Keats; that is what makes
Hemingway play the fool and Faulkner forget his art.

by Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962)

Metapoetry

Metapoetry, simply put, is poetry written about poetry.

A metapoem can be a full-fledged treatise (Horace’s “Ars Poetica”) on composition. Or it can be a passing comment on something like the relationship of the poet to the public, as in the poem above.

Since any one view of poetry is subjective, the poet must write convincingly of the stand he or she is taking.

In this poem, Robinson Jeffers makes a plea that the poet be spared of the contaminants that come with notoriety.