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Monday, April 22, 2013


For me, only really great poetry fulfills the function of poetry at all. The rest is just to keep the institution going, to have poetry at all, because you couldn't have it without having a critical mass of it, quantitatively, for it to exist.

I don't feel this way about film, for example. Since I don't have high expectations of novels I think all novels fulfill the function of novel-reading, if I can stand to read the novel in question at all.

But then again, some poetry does fulfill that function by coming close to being great, with that shock of recognition. "I bought a dishmop / having no daughter." The second caveat: I can feel that great poetry comes in several forms, like the seemingly minor poetry of Ron Padgett. Thirdly, you can agree with me about this point, that only great poetry fulfills the function of poetry at all, but disagree about what poems and poets are actually great.

Of course, you can disagree with me that only great poetry fulfills the poetic function at all, but then I would probably disagree with you about what that function really is. I would define it tautologically as the function that only great poetry fulfills! I don't want to define it, otherwise, because any definition would feel exterior to poetry itself.


Poetry in translation, for me, rarely fulfills that particular function. For enough to come through, in translation, is exceedingly rare. The kind of translation that makes excuses for itself. The translation must enjoy a high degree of autonomy in relation to the original; it must be a translation of an already great poem, etc...

There's a version of a Lorca poem by Spicer that is superior than the original, for example. Lorca's poem is not great, in this case.

Borges points out logically that there is no a priori reason why a translation cannot be better than the original (or just as good). Say there are two poets of equal ability. One writes poem. The other writes a poem in another language that also happens to be a translation of the first poem. Logically, there is no reason to think that poem 1 will always be better than poem 2. This seems obvious, unless we think of the original as a sacred object.

But with a really great poem, then you get a situation where this poem has a one in a million chance of coming into existence. Then the chances that any particular translation of this poem will also be one in a million are, well, one in a million. If we think it is harder to write a poem when trying to translate than while writing your "own" poem, then the chances are less than one in a million. If you think that it is easier to be great when translating from a great poem, then the odds go the other way. Maybe every thousandth translation of the one in a million poem will be great.


I too dislike it. I cannot defend my feelings intellectually, but I cannot stop having them either.


Thomas said...

I suspect this is why you say that all fiction is "literary". It seems like you aren't going to say that all verse is literary. Some throwaway limerick, for example, will not "fulfill the function of poetry at all", i.e., (in my rephrasing) it is not literary.

But since you don't feel this way about novels, you don't enforce a distinction between literary and non-literary fiction either.

By the way, I think it is possible (and I would love to find an example) of a novel that is "not literary" in its original language but is in translation. (This more commonly happens in film, I think. A novel that may be intended as raw entertainment is sometimes turned into very artful movie.)

Needless to say I think you should be as discerning about fiction as you are about poetry. (I guess that's what that last point is about?)

Jonathan said...

This distinction I am making has nothing to do with the "literariness" of poetry. After all, very high-brow literary poetry might not be great, and therefore might not fulfill the function of poetry. We can't confuse register (how "literary" the language is) with efficacy.

Thomas said...

Yes, but it's great or not great qua literature, right?

So, in your conception of poetry, there is the question of whether or not a text is even trying to function as poetry, and then there's the question of whether or not it fulfills that function.

But when it comes to the novel, you don't apply the same categories. If you did recognize that only great novels actually fulfill their function as novels, you might also here distinguish between the novels that at least try do so (and are therefore, on my view, "literary") and those that don't (and are therefore not).

I think part of what gets me interested here is the idea of poems that "just keep the institution going". Maybe I'm a snob, but I'd say there are large class of poems and novels that don't even do that. That's my category of non-literary, whether in poetry on fiction.

Jonathan said...

For me, the novels that would be worthwhile would be poetry. I would hold them to that high a standard. The tricky thing is that the poets I study in Spain don't consider poetry a subcategory of literature, but something higher. Literature, and hence the literary, is a more capacious category. It is "letters" or writing with some literary pretentions, however modest.