Translating Our Times

By Pettingell, Phoebe | The New Leader (Online), September/October 2007 | Go to article overview

Translating Our Times

Pettingell, Phoebe, The New Leader (Online)

BRITISH POET LAUREATE TED HUGHES died in October 1998, two months into his 69th year. To mark the anniversary, two unusual examples of his work have just been published that do more to enlarge our understanding of him than any recapitulation of his more well-thumbed output, not to mention the legendary story of his ill-fated marriage to Sylvia Plath. One of these is Selected Translations (Parrar Straus Giroux, 237 pp., $25.00), edited by Daniel Weissbort, Hughes' longtime coeditor of the British magazine Modern Poetry in Translation. The other is A Choice of Shakespeare s Verse (Parrar Straus Giroux, 216 pp., paperback, $ 1 5.00), selected and introduced by Hughes for British audiences in 1991 . Normally, an anthology of this kind is a publisher's gimmick. But in this case the 20th-century poet rearranged the Bard's work in such a novel fashion that it helps us hear Shakespeare as if we were encountering him for the first time. It also provides further clarity about Hughes' philosophy of poetry.

Anglophone poets of the postwar generation on both sides of the Atlantic struggled to emerge from the long shadows of the giants of Modernism - TS. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, W.H. Auden - whose solemn works pronounced on culture and society, human history and myth, often with sweeping generalizations. They sounded magisterial but became impossible to live up to. Their successors mostly abandoned epic themes to focus instead on the personal and particular. The confessional school adopted the tone of a patient revealing all to a therapist, while the Beats experimented with druggy stream-of-consciousness-like jazz riffs. Both neoformalists and the New York School cultivated a bittersweet frivolity; readers felt they were eavesdropping on party chitchat among close friends. Some writers turned to what might be termed backyard-nature-journal verse, minutely describing birds, plants or small animals with the exactness of a field guide . Performance poetry dovetailed with the growth of coffeehouse culture. Critics made much of these and other fashions, small magazines were founded to encourage them, and pompous books filled the pages of remainder catalogs. Yet inevitably, these styles - not the verse of each school's best exemplars, but imitations by their followers - began to seem parochial, even petty.

By the century's end, it was apparent that one of its most significant and lasting movements sprang from the influence of non-English-speaking poets, especially Latin American and Eastern European writers. As Hughes observed in 1982, the fad for books of poetry in translation began in the same era that brought "the mass epidemic of infatuation with hallucinogenic drugs, the sudden opening to all of the worlds of Eastern mystical practice and doctrine, particularly of various forms of Buddhism, the mass craze of hippie ideology, the revolt of the young, the pop music of the Beatles and their generation, the Walpurgisnacht of 'new psychotherapies." He saw the trend as a reaction to the horrors of the Holocaust and the gulag, an impulse to believe that Hitler and Stalin had somehow corrupted a hitherto naïve humanity. If only we could grasp what went wrong, we might regain our innocence.

But ultimately Hughes rejected this worldview. By his reckoning, humanity was locked in a perpetual struggle to come to terms with its darkest impulses against the constant temptation to look away, soften the truth, and distract ourselves from the worst in our natures. His poetry assumes we are molded by our times, and that the actions of our ancestors play a part in shaping who we are. His father was one of only 1 7 survivors of a regiment that fought at Gallipoli, and though father and son never discussed this, the poet felt his parent's experiences had exerted an irrevocable influence on his personality.

ALTHOUGH HUGHES had established his reputation in England by the early 1960s, it took him many more decades to win over a large following in the United States. …

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