The Wall, RIP

November 8th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Berlin

Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne,
Und die trägt er im Gesicht…
Brecht, Threepenny Opera

to C.S.

As Europe’s demon slipped into the grave,
The tempest in these regions reached its height.
Now, in the angles of the floodlit night,
The future lingers like a frozen wave.
Our side is neon, pink-haired youth who crave
More welfare, swearing they will never fight.
Some cherish it, this Babylon the Bright,
While others can see nothing left to save.
The other side is silence. What’s the power
We feel in it, my friend? Is it the loss
A weary singer might feel in the dawn
When “Mack the Knife” has captured half the town?
We linger at the window, and across
The shark’s teeth shines the giant broadcast tower.

(first published in March 1990 Partisan Review)

Living for Freedoms (i.m. Regina Derieva)

October 29th, 2014 § 1 comment § permalink

I was introduced to Regina Derieva’s work in 2000, or thereabouts, when I was sent a poem by my friend Igor Yefimov of Hermitage Publishers, who wondered if I might want to try and translate it. It was a striking poem. The Russian was not all that difficult, but some things puzzled me. The word Led, for instance. Obviously a name, since it was capitalized. The only thing that seemed to fit was the genitive plural of the name Leda, as in Leda and the Swan. So, Ledas, or (if you will) Ledas’. I queried Igor, and he confirmed that this was correct.

Led is not a word you’ll find in any Russian dictionary, any more than you’ll find Ledas’ in an English one. Russian declension dictates that for feminine nouns ending in -a, the genitive plural is formed, not by adding anything, but by dropping the final -a. For poetry, this has some advantages. Generally the word gets shortened by a syllable. In this case, a two-syllable word becomes a monosyllable. It’s more concise and forceful. And if you’re going to rhyme it, many more rhymes are available.

Igor passed my translation on to the poet and her husband, Alexander Deriev. They liked it, and asked if I could do more.

Over a six or seven year period I translated maybe twenty of Regina’s poems (she also translated two of mine into Russian). With one or two exceptions, I chose not to translate any of her free verse poems. It was her poems in rhyme and meter that interested me, and it was there that I felt I had something to offer. But getting versions that seemed even passably good was slow work. Hence the small output.

Our first and only meeting was in 2003. She was in New York for a reading. She and Alexander were staying at the loft of Arcady Kotler, the artist, in Jersey City, and since I had a car, I offered to pick them up there and drive them into Manhattan for the reading. Denis, their son, would come to the city in his own car and drive them to Massachusetts afterwards.

She was reserved, but cordial. We had some brief conversation, mostly about logistics, before we had to leave. My spoken Russian was functional but hardly fluent, and her English was about the same. Alexander I had already spoken to a number of times on the phone. He had been sending me more poems to translate and consulting me on matters concerning his new English-language journal Ars Interpres, on whose editorial advisory board I served.

At one point I asked her how she felt about reading her poetry aloud. She shrugged and said something to the effect that it was just something one did, and that she neither particularly liked or disliked doing it.

The reading was being given at the Russian Samovar, the West Side restaurant and bar started by Roman Kaplan in the ’80s with Baryshnikov and Brodsky as partners. I dropped my passengers at the door and went to look for a parking space. After sixteen years in the city, I had considerable experience at that. I was back at the restaurant in plenty of time for the reading.

Regina read well, in that traditional lilt most Russians use when reciting poetry. Whatever opinion she had of her own performance, she clearly did care how her poems sounded. She may have had texts in front of her, though I’m sure she knew them all by heart (Russian poets who don’t know their own poems by heart are rather rare, I think). I read the translations before or after, as she directed.

A good part of New York’s Russian émigré literary community was there. I met Vladimir Gandelsman, Irina Mashinski, Andrey Gritsman and others. Quite a few of them, like Regina, had first published with Hermitage, or with the late Carl Proffer’s Ardis. I had invited a few friends as well. The only one I remember for sure being there was the late David Kozubei. He had helped start the original Borders bookstore in Ann Arbor when I lived there, as well as his own store, David’s Books. His life’s project, Five Thousand Poets Under One Roof, probably the largest and most idiosyncratic anthology of poetry in English ever compiled, is still unpublished.

After the reading, David, Denis and I went into the bar for a drink. Regina and Alexander said they would wait for us. She looked tired and ready to leave.

As far as I know, Baryshnikov, though he came to the restaurant often, was not present (he would have been hard to miss), and Brodsky, of course, whose opinion of Regina’s work had done more than anyone’s to promote it, had died in 1996.

The following year she was scheduled to give another reading in New York at the Cornelia St. Café, as part of a series organized by the poet Andrey Gritsman, but was ill and unable to attend. I went, and read some translations of her poems. In 2006 I was scheduled to fly to Stockholm for the second of several literary festivals Alexander organized in connection with Ars Interpres, but family matters intervened and I was forced to cancel.

So those are all the personal memories I have of her. We never had another chance to meet. She had chronic health problems, and had to save most of her energy for her poetry, her writing. This barely left room for a personal life, let alone a public persona, had she even been interested in such a thing. Most of the job of getting her work published, promoted and translated fell to Alexander, whose devotion to her work, her reputation, and now her memory are clear to everyone who knows him.

What remains to be said? Over my life I’ve translated some thousands of lines of poetry. She was the first living poet I ever translated. And now she no longer is.

To return to that first poem, the next to last line contains another, more striking use of a genitive plural. This time it’s svobod, genitive plural of svoboda, “freedom.” My translation of the line says “all that lives to be free,” but that’s not quite right. The literal translation is “all that lives for freedoms.”

In English that would just be awkward. But the concision and force of the “zero-ending” genitive plural give the line in Russian the sort of self-assured, strong oddity that makes poetry. The fact that svobod also rhymes with myod (“honey”) two lines back, doesn’t hurt either.

Making a word plural that everyone else, without thinking, makes singular is the sort of thing real poets do. This is a poem that clearly aims to be about freedom (As Brodsky put it, “the real authorship belongs here to poetry itself, to freedom itself.”). But one freedom keeps breaking into many, a chorus, until it’s clear that its essence can never be singular. Only the plural is potentially infinite, and freedom requires (freedoms require) no less. So that what remains is, as she says elsewhere:

Only the purest fluff, to every beat

And every breeze, ecstatically aquiver.

Note: This remembrance will be included in a forthcoming collection of tributes to Regina Derieva.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Regina Derieva: “I don’t feel at home where I am”

February 3rd, 2014 § 1 comment § permalink

The Russian poet Regina Derieva passed away on December 11. This is her best known poem, in a musical setting I composed for it about five years ago. Performed here, in a first reading, by Maria Matyazowa Milder, soprano, and Arne Johansson, piano, in Stockholm. Thanks to both, and to Alexander Deriev, who organized it. Scroll down for a translation of the poem.

Audio MP3

I don’t feel at home where I am,
or where I spend time, only where,
beyond counting, there’s freedom and calm,
that is, waves, that is, space where, when there,
you consist of pure freedom, which, seen,
turns the crowd, like a Gorgon, to stone,
to pebbles and sand…where life’s mean-
ing lies buried, that never let one
come within cannon-shot yet.
From cloud-covered wells untold
pour color and light, a fête
of cupids and Ledas in gold.
That is, silk and honey and sheen.
that is, boon and quiver and call.
that is, all that lives to be free,
needing no words at all.

tr. by Alan Shaw

There will be a reading/tribute to Regina on Feb. 7 in London.

Regina Derieva (1949-2013)

December 12th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

I just received the sad news of the death of Regina Derieva, a wonderful Russian poet with whose works I have been involved over the years as a translator and admirer. Her range was remarkable; she wrote both formal and free verse as well as numerous works in prose.  As a “classical” poet, she was heir to the Acmeists. The religious component in her poetry is strong; she was a convert to Catholicism. For the last decades of her life she lived in Sweden.

She leaves behind her husband, Alexander Deriev, an icon painter and founding editor of the journal Ars Interpres, and a son, Denis Deriev.

From “Winter, Euterpe,” by Regina Derieva

The cast-off remnant of a centaur, on
its pedestal the head sits, turning green,
like Fet’s May grass under its little sun,
with fleeting space around and inbetween.

God doesn’t wonder, was the creature there,
the way the creature wonders about God.
Where you are now, brazen artificer,
creation needs no legs, and goes unshod.

Where you are now, there is no brass in feet,
no steel in voice, or gesture, or endeavor;
only the purest fluff, to every beat
and every breeze ecstatically aquiver.

Tr. by Alan Shaw

Notes on Prosody: numerical classification of rhythms

November 27th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

I will be posting more of these “notes” from time to time. They are mostly drawn from old drafts of writings on prosody, but some will be new. This second posting is a continuation of the first. I hope readers will not be too put off by this overgrown thicket of definitions. The aim was to find a more useful and consistent terminology for describing rhythms in the abstract. A lot is borrowed, naturally, from music, but oriented towards a more general application that would encompass verse as well. 

First of all, we will need terms to refer to a rhythm’s basic “count.” Standard terms like binary or duple for rhythms of two, ternary or triple for rhythms of three, quaternary or quadruple for rhythms of four, etc., will be used here, along with the simpler expressions rhythms in or of two, three, four, etc. To these we may add unary to denote rhythms in, or of, one.

Every rhythm, in a sense, has a unary component to it, since this merely denotes the fact of repetition as such. So the term is perhaps of limited usefulness; nevertheless, we will occasionally have need of it to refer to rhythms that achieve their effect by conspicuous repetition of a single element throughout, e.g. a chant based entirely on a refrain.

The number that defines a rhythm’s basic count is called its numerator, on the analogy of a time signature in music, where the number of beats in a measure is given as the upper of a pair of numbers, the lower one (denominator) giving the unit of measurement. We can dispense with the latter: it is a result of the convention of infinite divisibility of time in Western musical practice. In poetry, a lower limit of divisibility is already set, for metrical purposes, by the syllable, and any larger divisions (foot, line, stanza) are more clearly referred to by name.

Rhythms metrically organized on more than one level are said to be nested. The number of levels at which a rhythm is metrically organized is its degree or level of nesting. This is counted inclusively, e.g. a rhythm of four overlying a rhythm of two is nested to two levels.

Nesting may be either multiplicative or additive. In multiplicative procedures, a numerator is multiplied, either by itself or by another, to yield larger metric units.

The ability of a numerator to compose larger units in multiples of itself, as, for instance, quatrains out of couplets or eight-bar phrases out of measures in duple time, gives the degree of multiplicativity of rhythms based on that numerator. .

Unary rhythm is the most multiplicative of all, but in a fairly trivial way, for the same reason that it is trivial mathematics to say that all whole numbers are divisible by one. The most significantly multiplicative rhythms are binary ones, because of the special place two has among whole numbers, as the one that makes all the others even or odd. It has a special relation to the idea of symmetry, being indeed at some level identical with it. But perhaps at least as important, as applied to rhythm, is the fact that multiples of two can yield a maximum of nested levels of rhythm within the narrow range of tempos at which rhythm as such is perceptible to the human organism. Multiples of three, or any higher number, more quickly reach the threshold at which repetitions, being too far apart, fail to be perceived as rhythms.

Three, however, is the next most important number rhythmically, and in combination with two and multiples of two, it is perhaps even more important than it is on its own. The special qualities ascribed to three, aesthetic and spiritual as well as mathematical, need not be pointed out to anyone who has grown up in the Western tradition. It is not symmetrical in the same sense as two, but another kind of symmetry, represented by the image of a triangle, can be felt in it.

If a numerator is not multiplied, or multiplied only by itself, to yield larger levels of rhythm, then the rhythm as a whole is said to be simple. Two, and, to a much lesser degree, three, are really the only numbers usable as numerators for nested simple rhythms. It is quite possible, though, to have simple rhythms that use a higher numerator, and are not nested.

Rhythms that multiply different numerators we will refer to as compound. Examples of compound rhythms in poetry are the French trimètre, which divides the twelve syllables of the alexandrine into three groups of four, and the tétramètre, which divides them into four groups of three.

The terms simple and compound are used somewhat differently in musical metrics. There the first refers to rhythms that are not multiplied at all, and the second to rhythms that are multiplied by three, whatever their numerator. Both terms apply only within the musical bar, ignoring any larger units, as well as any that are smaller than the bar’s “denominator.” In practice, the majority of compound musical rhythms are binary rhythms multiplied by three; my use of the term can be seen as a generalization from that category.

Rhythms may also be nested by being mixed. Mixing is an additive procedure. Different numerators are applied not simultaneously, but in succession. Now, if numerators are mixed randomly, in no particular sequence, they cease by that token to be significant numerators; therefore rhythms that are mixed in a strictly metrical way have different numerators that occur in a regular, predictable sequence. Examples from poetry would include “regular” classical hexameters, consisting of five dactyls plus a spondee, and many stanzaic forms, such as the ottava rima, whose abababcc rhyme scheme gives a line grouping that could be expressed in terms of numerators as (3 X 2) + 2. We will count any mixed sequence as being nested to at least two levels, one for the sequence as a whole, another for its components. These, in turn, may individually contain further levels, as in the compound part (3 X 2) of the last example.

Four has a special importance as a numerator because of its “dual” nature, in several senses. Though it is always more or less felt as the multiplication of a duple rhythm, it can often be perceived as a simple numerator in its own right. As the first power of two, it is unique in this regard. Six is the only other even number that can even be perceived, generally speaking, as a simple numerator, and clearly much less so than four, especially in English-language poetry. Eight will almost always be perceived as two groups of four, or some other nested sequence, whether multiplicative (4 X 2) or additive ( 3 + 2 + 3).

Of course these generalizations are relative, not absolute, and how well they hold will depend on many factors. We can’t deny, for instance, that in languages that base their versification on syllable count rather than feet or accents, higher numerators may often be perceived as such. Since the basic unit is smaller, multiplications of it will stay within a more perceptible range, and even twelve- or fourteen-syllable sequences may sometimes be perceived without being broken down into multiplicative or additive components. Mostly, of course, verse written in such languages does so break them down, and often in a consistent pattern from line to line.

Five and seven are the last numbers we need mention here. Being odd, they obviously can only be broken down additively, and this gives them an asymmetry that none of the lower numbers has. Of course three can be broken down this way as well, but it is most often perceived as simple and, in a certain sense, symmetric. Five is important in English, naturally, because of the prevalence of the pentameter. Seven occurs mostly as a regular additive sequence of 4 + 3.

Instead of or in addition to being nested, rhythms may overlap. In this case there is no overall numerical coordination between them, though there may be moments at which they coincide. An example would be a poem with one rhythm given by its metrical lines, and another by its syntax and phrasing. These two rhythms, unless they happen to coincide perfectly, would overlap.

The properties of numbers can tell us a good deal about the properties of the rhythms they describe. But there is a sense in which, the more completely we can define a rhythm numerically, the less complex it really is. Complexities may in fact be too subtle for analysis, though a person speaking or reading a poem, hearing music, or watching a dance, can readily feel them. From this point of view, we could say that the possibilities of even the simplest unary rhythm are far from having been exhausted.

Griboyedov: a second look

November 26th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

In the course of preparing a second edition of my 1992 translation of Griboyedov’s The Woes of Wit, I recently went on Youtube to see what new material might be available there. I wasn’t disappointed. There’s a lot new since last time I looked, most notably the complete 1977 Soviet film version of the Maly Theater’s production of the play. Watching it repeatedly and seeing how different parts are played has been quite a revelation. It’s easily the best of the three versions I’ve now seen (none of them live, though Oleg Menshikov’s video version was basically a recording of his stage production).

The actors playing Chatsky (Vitaly Solomin) and Sofya (Nelly Kornienko) in the Maly’s production were both superb. The latter role is probably the harder to do convincingly. Sofya, Chatsky’s childhood friend, fancies herself in love with Molchalin, her father’s obsequious live-in secretary. The witty, irreverent, and outspoken Chatsky, who loves her himself, is at first unbelieving, and finally, dismayed. It is this that drives the action of the play.

But Sofya is no shallow dupe. D.S. Mirsky in his History of Russian Literature says of her:

She is a rare phenomenon in classical comedy: a heroine that is neither idealized nor caricatured. There is a strange, drily romantic flavor in her, with her fixity of purpose, her ready wit, and her deep, but reticent, passionateness.

There’s the rub: Sofya is mistaken about Molchalin, but her mistake is an honorable one. One must feel, when she defends him in the face of Chatsky’s ridicule, that, but for that mistake, she is entirely justified in doing so. Beyond that, one must be able to see things from her point of view. Chatsky is admirable, intelligent, passionate, but seeing how uncomfortable he makes people, and what eventually happens to him, who can blame her for not wanting to tie her fate to someone like that? That is the way Kornienko, with complete conviction, plays her.

It is wonderful that Mosfilm has chosen to make so many great movies available online. Given that, I can’t complain too much about them blocking the excerpts from two of their unsubtitled films that I put up on Youtube with my own subtitles added. I know they’re just following a general policy. I have, however, received some disappointed queries from people who have tried to view them since then. In the three years that the 5-part Mozart and Salieri sequence from Shveitser’s Malenkie tragedii was viewable, the first part had 6,555 viewers.

Notes on Prosody: rhythm and number

November 25th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

The following is drawn from some notes on prosody I began writing some years ago. Prosody, and rhythm generally, has been a central preoccupation of mine, as might be guessed from my domain name, the former name of this website, and many of the articles and posts in it. In this draft I was attempting to clarify some very broad terms that might be applied to a general study of rhythm. To speak of rhythm from the standpoint of psychology or physiology, or musicology or poetics, generally assumes that we already understand what rhythm is. I make no such assumption, and the approach here might be thought of as belonging more to philosophy than to anything more specialized.

Rhythm and number

Meter is the countable aspect of rhythm. If a rhythm has nothing in it that we can meaningfully count, then we generally consider it unmetered.

In order to count, we must regard different things or events as the same. All rhythm involves recurring events. We can thus see how any rhythm involves a sort of incipient counting.

Sameness is of course a matter of degree, and there is often some doubt about which events in a rhythm “count” and which do not. Indeed, a rhythm that is absolutely countable will be monotonous. However, a rhythm that is monotonous on one level may be quite unpredictable on another.

It is hard to say where real counting begins. If there is only one level of repetition, for instance in a steady drumbeat with no accents, then there is obviously no need to count at all. Still, the drummer’s effort to make all the time intervals between beats, as well as the beats themselves, the same, suggests that a subliminal sort of measurement is occuring.

If we add an accent to every other beat, then we clearly have a rhythm counted “in two.” This is usually considered, in music, to be the simplest meter. However, for consistency, it would perhaps be better to consider the first example, the steady beats without accents, to be the simplest. Its “measure” would be an isochronous beat, counted “in one.” To vary the monotony, we could add occasional accents, in no consistently countable pattern. Such a rudimentary “meter” can have a suprisingly lively effect.

The higher the number, the greater the need for deliberate counting. If we enter a room with three people in it, we hardly need to count to know how many are there. If on the other hand there are nine people there, we will have to count to know it.

Other factors may affect the need to count. If we see a row of three windows, at each of which three people are standing, we can appreciate that whole fact in an instant, even if we don’t know that three times three is nine. If the windows, moving left to right, have four, two and three people in them respectively, that situation will probably take a bit longer to register, and be a lot harder to remember.

When we are dealing with events that appear in succession, as we are with rhythm, there is also the factor of speed or “tempo.” In the “midrange” of tempo, where we find – probably not coincidentally – important bodily rhythms like the heartbeat and breathing, the perception of number is most immediate. At much slower tempos we will need to count just to keep track of where we are, and at much faster ones, we will need to slow things down to count at all, as separate events start to merge into a continuum, e.g. a musical tone or a moving picture. It is, roughly speaking, only in this midrange that we directly perceive rhythm at all. Of course what we barely sense, or see only on reflection, can sometimes be as important as what we perceive directly.

It is usual in poetics to distinguish more or less sharply between meter and rhythm. A favorite analogy is of a container (meter) and what it contains (rhythm). It might be better, though, to think of meter as a sort of skeleton of rhythm. A container, after all, is separate from what it contains; a skeleton is part of the whole animal.

If a rhythm can be known without counting, then there is no need to count it. We rarely need to count an animal’s vertebrae or its digits to know what species it belongs to. We may still find it helpful to do so, however, whether to understand its relationship to other species or to explain some aspect of its behavior.

In Western music, with its highly articulated rhythm, it is customary to regard all rhythms as more or less countable. This is partly due to the necessity of keeping different performers in time with each other. The convention is therefore not as strictly observed in solo performances, and in certain kinds of cantillation, for instance, it may be dispensed with altogether.

Western poetry, to the extent that it has divorced itself from music or any kind of coordinated performance, makes no assumption that its rhythms are always countable. If they are, roughly speaking, the poetry is said to be in meter, if not, it is said to be unmetered or “free” verse.

In principle, though, there seems to be no reason why we could not, if we wanted to, consider all poetic rhythms to be more or less countable, if only for purposes of analysis. We might then find it convenient to make use of some conventions borrowed from musical practice.

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

September 10th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Following close on the death of John Hollander, the poetry world lost, on August 30, Seamus Heaney. I had no special connection with him, beyond admiring his work, and once obtaining permission to use his remarkable translation of Beowulf for a high school English Lit anthology I was editing (the venerable series it belonged to died soon after, victim of a corporate merger). The translation was originally commissioned by the editors of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, one of whom, the medievalist Alfred David, served as Heaney’s main consultant in matters Anglo-Saxon. David (who as far as I know is still with us) is an admirable poet-translator himself; he translated the three lais by Marie de France in the Norton Anthology, one of which (Chevrefoil) I originally commissioned from him for our own (stillborn) anthology.

There is a lot of Heaney I have not yet read, notably his two adaptations from Sophocles. These are right up my alley, you might say, but my general skittishness about “adaptations” has so far made me hesitate.

John Hollander (1929-2013)

August 18th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Hollander was never less than a skilled poet, and at his best a very fine one. He also had intelligent things to say about the relation of poetry to music, among many other subjects. In the 80s he recommended some poems of mine to the late Ben Sonnenberg of Grand Street, resulting in my first published poems. I met him only once.

NY Times obituary

Oxford Translators’ Coven

August 11th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

In June I attended the “translators’ coven” organized under the auspices of the Russkiy Mir Program of St Antony’s College at Oxford. There were about thirty short presentations by Russian-English literary translators, discussing recent or current work. Some 125 people attended the two-day event; many, both presenters and audience, were also in London at Pushkin House for a series of evening readings/discussions the following week.

My presentation was on “translating classic Russian verse drama for performance,” in which I discussed my approach to translating Pushkin and Griboyedov. With me on the drama panel, chaired by Sasha Dugdale, were Lisa Hayden and Noah Birksted-Breen. A full summary of the proceedings is here.

Presentations were mostly informal, with ample time allowed for open discussion. Being a very infrequent conference-goer, I don’t have much basis for comparison, but the general level seemed to me very high. Literary translation tends to be solitary, despite the obvious benefits of collaboration (a point that arose more than once in discussion), and the collegiality of the gathering felt quite remarkable. The socializing around the conference, including a restaurant dinner for about 40 the first night (and a bit of pub crawling afterwards) didn’t hurt, either.

I was only able to attend two of the Pushkin House events in Bloomsbury. The first was devoted to three recent winners of the Brodsky-Spender Prize, Irina Mashinski and Boris Dralyuk for their translation of Arseny Tarkovsky’s “Field Hospital” (First Prize), and Alexandra Berlina for her translation of Brodsky’s “You can’t tell a gnat” (Third Prize). The second night was devoted to Mandelstam. The panel, led by Robert Chandler, included Victor Sonkin, Irina Mashinski, Boris Dralyuk, Alexandra Berlina, and Peter France, several of whose very fine translations of Mandelstam were read alongside other versions for comparison.

Aside from all this, it was my first visit to London in about a decade. I stayed in the East End, in Stepney Green, an area I was not familiar with. The flat where I was staying looked out over St Dunstan’s churchyard (below). The church’s bells (“the bells of Stepney”) are among those mentioned in the “Oranges and Lemons” nursery rhyme about the bells of East London.

St Dunstan's, Stepney