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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Meditation at Lagunitas, with Bacardi Breezers

Carcanet have revisited the 1979 anthology Five American Poets thirty-one years on, and a peculiar assembly they make now, as they did then, Robert Hass, John Matthias, James McMichael, John Peck and Robert Pinsky. The presence at the outset of the book of Hass’s ‘Meditation at Lagunitas’ though, reminds me, again, of that poem’s almost totemic representativeness, as short lyric poems go. It also reminds me how much that poem embodies so much about a certain kind of lyric poem that I find, well, hard to stomach. Here in parody form is an attempt at explaining why. Hass:

There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed.

And my parody rewrite:

There was a woman
I met down the pub and I remembered how, holding
her garish tattoos in my hands sometimes,
I felt a nauseous boredom at her presence
like a thirst for Bacardi breezers, for my childhood clone town
with its pound shops, hospital radio from the cancer ward,
muddy places where we caught the little shit-eating flatfish
called spunkbubble. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless tedium. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way she devoured the take-away
pizza, the thing Tyson the staffie did that hurt her, what
she puked.

What I don’t like about the original is its intense atmosphere of privileged private experience. George Orwell used to intone threateningly about how some things could in fact be true even if they were in the Daily Telegraph, and if this sounds like I’m coming out in an Easthopeite or even Sillimanesque allergic reaction to Hass as quietist, I hope it’s not quite that reductive. I really dislike the paternalistic, patronising narrative framing of ‘There was a woman /I made love to’, and the litany of self-consciously sensitive associations she triggers. ‘I must have been the same to her’, we are told. How does the speaker know that? He or she is silencing the other’s perspective to speak on her behalf, but with a sanctimony and a show of benign superiority I find oleaginous and fake. ‘The thing her father said that hurt her’ is as queasy a moment as any I can think of in contemporary poetry. But consider this comparison. MacDiarmid’s ‘The Watergaw’ ends:

There was nae reek i the laverock's hoose
That nicht - an nane i mine;
But I hae thocht o that foolish licht
Ever sin syne;
An I think that mebbe at last I ken
What your look meant then.

Here again is private lyric experience. But the reader experiences this privacy as something disquieting, uncanny, alarming even. Whereas in Hass’s case we are flattered into the illusion of a shared intimacy, but one against which every fibre of my instinctive response rejects. My use of the term ‘privilege’ has nothing to do with class, since in strict fairness the woman in Hass’s poem might have been just as fond of Bacardi breezers down a grim boozer as the speaker of my parody. It has to do with a sense of self-importance and assumed readerly consent which I find, finally, repellent, and which I find utterly absent from the alarming privacies of the MacDiarmid poem. No doubt there is a dollop of terrible unfairness in this judgement of mine. But there you go. I can’t read ‘Meditation at Lagunitas’ without pulling a very sour face indeed, not just on its own account, but because of how much po-faced, prissy, bloodless, downright terrible contemporary poetry I think flows from its example.

(Five American Poets, ed. Clive Wilmer, Carcanet, £14.95)


Mark Granier said...

Yes, I can see what you mean, that last line-break especially. And your parody is on the nail.

I know Hass's work chiefly through his translations of/with Milosz, which seem excellent to me.

puthwuth said...

Hass's translations are indeed excellent.

Justin Quinn said...

Perhaps the brilliance of Hass's translations is in inverse proportion to his knowledge of Polish. Not bothering to learn the language of the writer one translates is perhaps the same narcissism as that manifest in the poem--he's not really interested in the other, just in himself.

Mark Granier said...

But Justin, didn't Hass work WITH Milosz on the poems? That hardly seems narcissistic. I remember Mahon at a reading mischievously suggesting that ignorance of the target language could be liberating.

Mark Granier said...

BTW, I have included some versions of (more departures from) old Irish poems, from cribs by Kuno Meyer, etc., in my latest collection. Needless to say, I don't speak more than the odd half-phrase of Irish. Hope this doesn't mean I'm a narcissist.

puthwuth said...

The question of Mahon's 'translations' from Irish raises an important point. Suppose someone with no knowledge of the original language produces a transation/version which is simply, in every way, superior to that of someone with total fluency. It could easily, conceivably happen, could it not. But that said, Mahon's texts 'from the Irish' are simply not translations, are they. They are crib-enabled versions, which is not an entirely dishonourable thing to be. It's a question of category and credit-taking.

Convectuoso said...

He did work with Milosz on the translations. Hell, they worked together for 20 years at UC Berkeley so I'm sure they had time for a word or two at the water cooler about it. I know Hass also used to teach english to Polish immigrants in SF way back but I'm not sure if that necessarily infers that he can speak it. His book of haiku translations by Basho, Buson and Issa were called 'versions' since they were based on his relatively basic Japanese and R.H. Blythe's old, industry-standard translations, which might be on the same basis.

Convectuoso said...

Also, I do have to admit that whenever I read that bit I think reactively of Larkin's 'I remember I remember'. For me, the childhood river with its island willows does make me baulk a little, especially from someone whose childhood, like that of many, consisted mainly of concrete, toy dinosaurs and shouting.
Be that as it may though, he has an eye as keen as Robinson Jeffers's for the Californian flora and fauna, and without the anti-human sentiment. The collection after Praise (the one with 'Meditation' in) sees his smug California chatter arguably in full flow, which is at times his downfall I'll admit. His cast consists of Japanese painters, lovers in orchards and retired judges. Nary a serial rapist or dog trembling mid-shit in sight I'm afraid David. I still feel he captures the reciprocal dynamic of love beautifully though in other poems, albeit usually over a glass of mulled wine and expensive jumpers. Take a look at this snippet from 'Faint Music' two collections later:

There was a pair of her lemon yellow panties
hanging on a doorknob. He studied them. Much-washed.
A faint russet in the crotch that made him sick
with rage and grief. He knew more or less
where she was. A flat somewhere on Russian Hill.
They'd have just finished making love. She'd have tears
in her eyes and touch his jawbone gratefully. "God,"
she'd say, "you are so good for me." Winking lights,
a foggy view downhill toward the harbor and the bay.
"You're sad," he'd say. "Yes." "Thinking about Nick?"
"Yes," she'd say and cry. "I tried so hard," sobbing now,
"I really tried so hard." And then he'd hold her for a while—
Guatemalan weavings from his fieldwork on the wall—
and then they'd fuck again, and she would cry some more,
and go to sleep.
And he, he would play that scene
once only, once and a half, and tell himself
that he was going to carry it for a very long time
and that there was nothing he could do
but carry it. He went out onto the porch, and listened
to the forest in the summer dark, madrone bark
cracking and curling as the cold came up.

I can never decide on that Guatemalan weaving, and whether its presence is redeemed by their fucking, or the imposition of the word itself. Hey ho.

Justin Quinn said...

Ad Mark: I know he and Pinsky worked very closely with Milosz on the translations, but as far as I know Hass knows no Polish, so he still had to take Milosz's word for everything. I like many 'translations' done by poets who have no knowledge of the source language (Mahon, Groarke spring to mind), but I still want to stamp my foot about the general linguistic monoculture that's prospering in Anglophone literature. The general tendency is narcissistic and stops the literature being invigorated from tones, forms and voices from beyond its borders, as it was so many times in the past (Keats and Ronsard; the Tribe of Ben, etc).

puthwuth said...

Ah, for a dog trembling mid-shit. No wait, there's one now.

Mark Granier said...

Thanks for that poem Convectuoso. Certainly much better than David's example. The bitter comedy reminds me of another of Larkin's, whose opening stanza is very close to it in tone:

'Love again: wanking at ten past three
(Surely he's taken her home by now?),
The bedroom hot as a bakery,
The drink gone dead, without showing how
To meet tomorrow, and afterwards,
And the usual pain, like dysentery.'

Talk about a dog trembling in mid-shit.

Sure Justin, I am madly jealous of people like yourself who are not monolingually bound. I called my own versions 'departures', which is exactly what they are.

Convectuoso said...

I would add that the line breaks of the poem I pasted are completely skewed due to the comment-posting thing, so apologies for that. Nice quote Mark, you certainly can't beat 'Love Again' for an example of morbidly bitter anti-sentimentalism. Needless to say, neither is there any sign of any roughly scrawled 'tuberous cock and balls' in any of Hass's work. Perhaps to his detriment, but I still love the little scamp. I suppose that's just his mortal punishment for living in sunny San-Francisco rather than sunny Prestatyn. But alas, some among us must suffer for their art!

Anonymous said...

"Meditation at Lagunitas" is about tearing down the language theorists' "sign/signifier" dilemma with the fundamental reality that language can communicate love; that love is a means of extracting truth from everything and anything. It's a very potent message. Since this is not mentioned here, I'm uncertain any of these people really understood the poem to begin with. It's fine to dislike something, but to dislike it without trying to understand it is close-minded.