Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Yeats's Poetics 1

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Yeats's Poetics 1

Article excerpt

I

Poised on the threshold of this book of translations of Yeats, I feel the need to express first and foremost the admiration and then the affection which carried me toward this body of work that I would like to bring alive in our language, in French.1 Indeed, I'd like to note that my focus here is on not only a set of texts, of course, but also on a person, since Yeats is so present in each of his poems, in so intense and as one might say so transparent a way that one can't really read them without giving oneself over to his personal drama, none of which contradicts serious research concerning his poetry: rather, such concern may organize it. Yeats never shied away from writing, its marvels, its pitfalls; but he was also someone who, at critical moments, detached himself from it, because he never forgot that the meaning, the value of lived experience is more important for the soul than the uncountable labyrinths that open up among words.

Moreover, I'm not eager to add to the work I've already carried out, a commentary that one often thinks translation requires, since those texts-necessarily elliptical-seem to require more words to illuminate (perhaps at little extra cost) their apparent obscurity. I am not certain, after all, that this clarification after the fact leads much further than the first breakthrough, if it is really a breakthrough. Translation is already not much more than explication, though it is all the same an explication made with images and symbols, and intervenes just at the point where the rhythms of our language and the burning materiality of its words keep these symbols alive, active, capable of an intuition that cannot be expressed in prose. The sequence of critical notions, which tries to lay out the literal sense of a thought and is thus necessarily piecemeal, is inherently ill-adapted to capturing poetic truth, which seeks a kind of unity. The sole point that perhaps needs to be made, when the translator has completed for example "Among School Children" or some other poem with similarly extraordinary meaning, is that he was keenly aware of his own audacity in wishing to bring to life such an enormous network of thought and sentiment. And he must acknowledge that he has not forgotten that such audacity is a risk, and that he must accept the possibility of being judged harshly in proportion to the outlandishness of the task, which cannot be cautiously avoided or justified in advance by describing all the decisions he had to make for each line and indeed often for certain words.

All the same, it does make sense, on the occasion of the translation of a particular work, to make some general remarks, since if the latter are true they may prove useful for future translations, and it's only by examining particular texts in detail, as evidence, that we can show such general claims to hold. And yet, more important than all those considerations, we must also extract certain traits of Yeats's character, because of an ambiguity in his poetry which may surprise the reader and lead him astray just at the moment when he might have encountered in Yeats's verse one of the most essential laws of poetic creation in its relation to life. The ambiguity I'm pointing toward is certainly not one of those which open up a single text and insist that we rest within it, among those effects of the senses that don't properly belong to writing. Rather, it is inherent in existence, at least Western and modern existence, and it is only worth calling up, apropos Yeats, because it is the poetic dimension of life, which is so misunderstood, neglected and rebuked in our society.

I'll attempt to define two terms, two kinds of ambiguity which we can find in Yeats, but emphasizing from the very beginning that though they may sometimes be violently opposed, indeed almost ready to destroy each other and to discourage his spirit so greatly that he almost wishes for death, nonetheless the tension between them most of the time has a largely positive and creative effect. …

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