Lyric Powers and Translation

For a reader that has flirted with poetry occasionally since being dunked as a student, von Hallberg’s Lyric Powers provided a complete immersion into contemporary critical thinking about lyric poetry.

Some of the analysis floated softly over my head but the book admirably met expectations built up from its recent review in the TLS. It is an academic’s approach but mostly accessible to a non-specialist reader, although you may find yourself looking up many of the poets quoted and discussed, particularly if outside the US.

The most illuminating chapter for me, entitled Universality, picks up the topic of translation:

Like time itself, translation inevitably strips poems of historical specificity and of native musicality. A translator is permitted to let the particularity of a source text – its local reference, idioms, allusions, and metric – silently fall away like outmoded manners. The enduring poems may then stand revealed, as if the features of the text requiring native sensitivity were optional, like glosses at the bottom of the page.

He continues:

Translation has special significance, then, in the history of poetry and in contemporary criticism. “Every new exuberance, every new heave, ” Pound said, “is stimulated by translation, every allegedly great age is an age of translations.” . . . The hope of translator poets is not just for refreshed technique but for contact with some essence of poetry, for that which endures beyond the apparent babble of diverse tongues.

And concludes:

There is nonetheless a sense in which poetic language does genuinely aspire to universality: the musical and figurative structures of poetic language open to an indefinitely expanding range of signification.

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