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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Power of Patience

I've been playing around a bit with this idea.

Here is the poem I have been playing with:

Sobre la tierra amarga,
caminos tiene el sueño
laberínticos, sendas tortuosas,
parques en flor y en sombra y en silencio;

criptas hondas, escalas sobre estrellas;
retablos de esperanzas y recuerdos.
Figurillas que pasan y sonríen
—juguetes melancólicos de viejo—;

imágenes amigas,
a la vuelta florida del sendero,
y quimeras rosadas
que hacen camino... lejos...

[to make it easier to follow I offer the content words: earth, bitter, roads, has, dream, labyrinthine, paths, tortuous, parks, flower, shadow, silence, crypts, deep, ladders, stars, tableaux puppet theatres or alterpieces, hopes, memories, little figures, pass, smile,toys, melancholy, old or old man, images, friendly, turn, flowered or flowery, path, chimeras, pink, make, road, far.]

Instead of staring at it like I would with a painting, I have it memorized and have been turning it around in my head for a few days. I used it once as an exercise for my translation course. I had the students compare five competing translations of it. My very simplistic idea is that the translation should not simply ignore Machado's rhetorical figures.

So: "caminos ... laberínticos" is a figure called "hyperbaton," violently distorting normal word order. It is a mimetic figure here, meant to represent the winding paths. Machado rarely uses hyperbaton so it is not a feature of his style; it needs to be explained. This is also the only point in the poem where there is enjambment.

"parques en flor y en sombra y en silencio": polysyndeton, the repetition of the word "and" or "y." Also, there is a gradation within syntactic parallelism, since "en flor" / "en sombra" / "en silencio" increase by one syllable each time.

Allusion: labyrinth and chimera allude to Greek mythology. Two other words have Greek etymologies: crypts and melancholy. This is part of the poem's logopeia, or usage of words in an evocative way. "Retablo," used to mean a puppet theater, could allude to an episode from DQ.

Ambiguity: "de viejo" can mean "of old" or "an old man's." The first reading is more plausible but the second is impossible to rule out.

Alliteration: three words start with the syllable es in the second stanza. Each of these words has three syllables.

There is some internal assonant rhyme: figurillas / amiga / florida. This is aside from the main rhyme scheme of the poem, the assonance in even-numbered lines with the vowels e - o.

Repetition of semantic elements, word families: senda, sendero, caminos, camino.

Contrast or antithesis: between depth and height: deep crypts / ladders over the stars, or: juguetes de viejo. Past and future: hopes and memories. Smiling and melancholy.

The entire poem evokes the power of the dream-like mind to create spatial metaphors over an imaginary landscape, as well as a kind of mental puppet theater. The mood moves from bitter, to melancholy, to sweet and rose-colored. There is no first person singular (or plural), so the reading of the poem puts the reader herself in the position of evoking this mental theater. It is not about the poet's individual experience, but about anybody's experience. The use of the word "amigas" as a feminine adjective suggests the concept "female friends" as well. The entire last stanza has a feminine air to it, with its flowers and pinkness.

Syntactically, the main device used is apposition: a list of elements aligned in successive noun clauses. There are only four verbs, and three are in relative clauses. The main work is done with nouns and eight highly descriptive adjectives.

The metrical flow of the poem is unpredictable, with lines of 7 and 11 syllables used in irregular combination, and no regularity in the accents interior to the line. Three of the six 11 syllable lines have the "melodic" variation on the hendacasyllable, with the accent on the 3rd syllable. The word "tortuosas" is subject to a metrical phenomenon known as "dieresis," where the dipthong uo is separated into two syllables.

Historically, we can see this as Machado's interiorization of the symbolist / modernista mode of turn-of-the-century poetry in Spanish. He avoids ostentatiously ornamental elements, whether in his rhythms or his visual imagery, which is more fuzzy than sharp. He is not describing a singular object but listing types of things in the plural: there are twelve plural nouns in 12 lines!

There is a high concentration of Poundian values: melos, phanos, logos. Language is charged with meaning. In other words, it is a poem of the type people think of as good in the conventional sense: it doesn't challenge us by being "anti-poetic" or "prosaic."

It ought to be easy to preserve some of the syntactic figures, the visual imagery, and the etymological allusions, in a good translation. Crypt in English is "an underground room or vault beneath a church, used as a chapel or burial place." It has that mysterious air to it: "from Greek kruptē ‘a vault,’ from kruptos ‘hidden.’" A translation, following Appiah's idea of "thick translation" ought be revelatory enough so that you could teach the poem in translation to students who didn't know Spanish, so if you used "vault" instead of "crypt" it wouldn't be so good.


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