Sunday, August 3, 2014

Liz Robbins on "Under Pressure"

"Under Pressure" springs from an exercise I give my undergraduates, one appropriated from Charles Bernstein's "Experiments" called "homophonic translation." I hand out a packet consisting of several Tranströmer poems in the original Swedish, an ode of Neruda's in Spanish, and a couple of Rilke's short poems in German, requesting that if a student has proficiency or fluency in Spanish (sometimes), German (rarely), or Swedish (never), that he/she choose a poem that is not in that language. Then I demonstrate how to "translate," which is simply substituting English-sounding words for the foreign words (no matter how nonsensical or absurd-seeming). So, for instance, this first line from Tranströmer's "Under Pressure":

Den blå himlens motordån är starkt

might become something like this,

Den blah hemlines motoring are stark

or, if working more toward sense and structure (not necessarily a better thing at this stage),

The black Himalayans, motoring and stark.

As students begin working through a translation, I encourage them to voice aloud challenges they encounter; often, their main difficulty is getting past the discomfort in making something either divorced from meaning or wildly divergent in meaning from line to line. At this point, they can't anticipate an end, which, after weeks of mostly writing poems that follow a linear narrative toward an epiphany, feels either like a silly, pointless game or an insurmountable task. After they've completed their first draft, I ask them to revise it into a poem of their own, with the most successful efforts being ones that keep as much of the original translation as possible (no dropping lines, for instance) and also make an argument of some kind. I recommend they find a familiar abstract idea around which they can begin to mold meaning (fear, work, love). In my "Under Pressure," for instance, I use the idea of work, work for pay, which then segues into the idea of working for love.

Many students find this exercise to be the most difficult of the term, and the ones who take it seriously often produce from it their best poem. The strength of their results often lies in the unexpected freedom in the first part of the exercise, where they are not having to depend on their own subjective experience, not using "I" (or, at least, not their own) or linear narrative: some fragmentation will be unavoidable, even in the revision stage, their lines leaping from one idea to the next, without their needing to work too hard to join them. Freedom from their own perspectives and from the glue of linear narrative keeps them from the dreaded "drain-circling" (the revisiting of the same idea in different forms throughout a single poem) and pushes them instead toward Charles Olson's Projective Verse injunction: one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception, and/or into seeing how, like metaphor, unlike ideas jammed up against one another not only can make sense, but can make the best sense.

With my "Under Pressure" poem, the greatest challenge was to keep a real translation from bleeding through. I don't know Swedish at all, but from what I understand, its grammar is similar to English and its vocabulary to German (in which I have a small amount of reading ability). I allowed occasional indulgences, especially in subsequent drafts when doing so seemed to support the subject matter. For instance, Tranströmer's second line reads,

Vi är närvarande på en arbetsplats i darrning

which I translated to something like,

and our nirvana of the workplace, its daring.

I recognized the German verb for work, "arbeiten," in "arbetsplats." English versions of Tranströmer's poem translate "arbetsplats" to "work-site," which is so close to "workplace," that in later drafts, I kept "work," but dropped "place."

The poem began to take shape with the revelatory moments in the final lines, when I discovered I was writing about the human condition and, specifically, the cause-and-effect ripple pattern it can contain: where, for instance, an unsatisfying reality in the workplace might lead to constant self-questioning, which then might create a cynical perception of life, leading to choices that push love away, keeping one essentially alone.

Here's another indulgence for the sake of subject matter: the last line of Tranströmer's poem reads,

Samhällets morka skrov driver allt längre bort.

Literal translation: "Society's dark hull drifts further and further away."

My final version: "And how we'd move on, drivers in our long sculling boats."

Tranströmer's entire last stanza is about boats, but I indulged my translation of "skrov" into "scull," as a long, narrow boat for one was too perfect a metaphor for a lonely life.