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21st Century Canto: Infestation-Translation

What Pound did for me is infest my poetry world. All across it, in small pockets. One reason that Pound is hard to emulate is that he has re-thought a lot of different things, and he brings all these to bear simultaneously: like all Shaun the Sheep’s friends piling into one human overcoat and walking as a strange man.

For example, coming back to the idea of analepsis that Pound shared with Robert Graves (see my last blogpost): Pound believed he could see all times of a space by being in that place. One sees the idea in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, where London is simultaneously 192’0s London teeming with city commuters and villages split up by fields before it all conglomerated, and the 17th century England of Eliot’s favourite playwrights, of blood and plague and the Great Fire.  Pound, however, makes this feel visceral. It’s nothing to do with clever text mash-ups. It’s something one does with one’s body, in a visionary state.

Pound was interested in the unique properties of each historical period, and in its ad-hoc solutions, in each country. This influenced his whole approach to politics. He didn’t want Marxism everywhere for everyone, though it interested him. He didn’t very much like Hitler, or Hitler’s solution for Germany, when he was writing in the early 1930s. He did like what Mussolini had done for Italy up until that point. He didn’t want the same kind of direct rule in the United States: instead he loved (some of) the Founding Fathers, and felt that lip-service was being played to the letter of American laws, by people in charge too corrupt or stupid to make the laws work.

Instead, Pound was searching for how the system of an historical period worked, and how temporary solutions worked and didn’t work. One can instantly relate this to how he approached translation: to be very interested in how another language, in one historical period, worked. It threw up certain accidents that a poet might leap on, like rhymes and assonances; how the poet would then work the poem both surfing the local language in all its accidents and trying to say something, to write a better poem than his or her contemporaries did. Pound didn’t want to make the English language work like the Italian language, but was very interested in the dialogue between the two.

So, when I first started reading the Cantos, I was struck by the phrase “ply over ply” that Pound used twice in the quite Waste Land like Canto IV:

I can’t remember how I learned that this was from the French poet Mallarmé “pli selon pli”, but I walked around saying that in French to myself before I even explored exactly what it might mean to a French speaker, perhaps assuming it meant the same as in Pound’s version. In fact, there is a cloth quality and bodily quality to “pli” that “ply” doesn’t quite have, although I don’t think Pound is disrespectful to Mallarmé. I noted too that Eliot had used the line “to purify the dialect of the tribe”, which reworks the Mallarmé line “Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu”, where Eliot hasn’t done proper justice to the original, adding a scientific and snooty centralising quality to Mallarmé’s sense of tinkering and lending a hand and being part of the tribe.

Pound has avoided saying “ply upon ply” or “layer upon layer” which feels much more an action happening in time. He has used “ply over ply” next to lines about water pouring. Water, rather than cloth or the body, is often important for Pound. In Canto 2, he appears to enjoy the “bright welter of wave-cords”. Yet, by 1932, in Jefferson And/Or Mussolini, the very idea of “welter” annoys him: “I might have got lost in a vast welter of detail.” There is a beautiful longing for love and peace in the first few Cantos, before Pound starts to import chunks of reworked quoted text from history books, in Canto 9. The tension all gathers around water, and the welter, which seems a purely hated thing by 1932. Pound often complained that he wished it would fall to others to reform the world, so that he didn’t have to do it. Pound had in mind the model of Dante’s Divina Commedia, its Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, for the Cantos, and perhaps he thinks of water as hellish, because the Cantos becomes much more airy as it progresses. But it doesn’t feel hellish in Canto 2 and 4. It feels sultry and cleansing. There is more than a little of Pound seeing women as liquid and watery, longing to be in love with them, and master them (in vain) under his stony and crisp order.

So I’m grateful that he felt able to move with one rendering of “pli selon pli” as “ply upon ply”, for all that a more devoted engagement with Mallarmé might have led Pound to greater humility, and Mallarmé’s “femininity”. Because what Pound does do with his borrowing is introduce a world where each ‘ply’ is a layer of time, working with all other layers of time in a shifting and blending beauty not until the working together of lines of music for an orchestral piece, and with a profound vision of seeing acted out in the form of the Cantos. Line moves with line. Lines intersect and inform each other. Lines are echoed, or repeated outright, like returning to the opening phrase of a symphony. What we get on the page is lines of poetry informing each other, perspectives informing each other, an exercise in comparison (a subject so close to Pound’s heart that he announced at university that he would be studying Comparative Literature even though there was no overall course in that; so Pound would pick and choose across subjects, scoring an A one term and a D the next in the same subject, taking what he wanted rather than conforming to the syllabus and pleasing the teacher.)

Having intoned “pli selon pli” and “ply over ply” to myself for a few weeks, and having very much visualised the sort of ghosting of one image with another throughout the Cantos, its cross-cut and dissolve, I came away with a question. Can reality be thought of as sliced? Can it be thought as a mix of slices? Being me, and at a university at the time, I walked to the Philosophy department and knocked on a lecturer’s door and asked him. The lecturer looked very annoyed to be asked such a lateral and crude question, and frowned at me. “Look at Leibniz,” he advised, “and monadology”. I found Leibniz fascinating: his theory, roughly, that all reality subdivides, and keeps subdividing, to atom and smaller; and conversely that all things only make sense in context, next to other things (colours work this way, for example); they group up, and then the larger grouping compares to another large grouping. Therefore, if I read Leibniz right, we are not seeing a thing when we look: we are seeing a Monad, a “soul” of sorts grouping some of the subatomic soup into nouns.

I then went back to the Cantos, flicking about the book, and found Pound at the end praising “Leibnitz”. He says elsewhere in an essay “Leibnitz was the last philosopher who ‘got hold of something’ “.

So, Pound had influenced me to think about slices and my thinking had led me to Leibniz, whom I later discovered Pound knew full well about. But Pound was not telling me to read Leibniz. He was influenced by Leibniz, and that infected me.


The same process happened, I suspect because of Pound, when I first started trying to translate poems from other languages – and this in general led me to include, slowly, lines from other languages and more often my own translations of lines from other languages. Had this been a direct influence from Pound then I would have started writing poems with words from other languages immediately. Indeed, this is what people say, passing around an urban myth of sorts, about Pound, and why one can’t read Pound unless one is a linguist. Well, I am not a linguist. I fear to hold a conversation in another language. I studied French at school, and still read French poems, but with constant recourse to a dictionary. I started to learn some German when my first child was born, to put myself in the same vulnerability of language-learning that my son was in, and I try to speak German a little. Because I chose to learn it, and it wasn’t a compulsory school subject (French was). I have tried to translate from Latin (which I studied from 13 to 16, badly, and I have no idea about how to do declensions of verbs or any of the grammar), from Spanish and Greek and Portugeuse and Italian (no training at all, bluffing and working with cribs and friends and online engines). Pound, by contrast, could hold good conversations in French and Italian, and generally was good at languages. I knew I couldn’t compete with Pound in speaking other languages. I knew I would write badly if I tried to drop words from other languages into my poems (I knew, strongly, how readers bristle against that idea; which is a shame; and also I just didn’t have the feel that I have now for why I would do that, what it could do).

When I’d been translating for a while, I came to see how Pound was working with translation. Not in a club of fellow bilinguals and trilinguals. But listening. Reading for pattern. Thinking about what it is to write in a language not so changed by time as English, and not so liable to mere showing off by vocabulary, by flashing your knowledge of synonyms. If others in other languages don’t have that, and still manage to be better poets than their peers, then there are other skills to learn. And English needs to have some of this rubbed into its face. To challenge, as with his fight with Graves and the Latinists, not just the monoglot or the polyglot but anyone who won’t read poems, anyone who won’t think right down to the basics.

I always liked reading the great poets. I always liked spotting their patterns, and their care with words. I liked the intensity of writing my own poems, but I found myself repeating the same sort of gesture and in the same sort of music. I was aware of being drawn into a world of creating a persona for myself, and of writing poetry that a club of writers who were then famous might like, that they might promote me and put that aura around me, but that all that felt wrong. And I didn’t have the language to write anything more substantial about life as I saw it. And my poems kept running dry, editing down to one image or one opening gesture, then petering out.

When I read poems in French, by Baudelaire and Verlaine and Apollinaire, I could see and technically appreciate the structure and the quality, and I found myself often bored by and frustrated with the offered translation. The French would sing to me (even though I couldn’t pronounce it with a good accent, so it was a sort of idealised music, each word more like a gong than a nice clean note) and the English translation wouldn’t. I would learn so much by trying to create a good English poem that took inspiration from the French original. Moreover, I would edit. I would revise. I had never found a way to do this with a first draft of my own poems, without destroying it, fussing it to pieces. But I could step back from a translation, and come back to it, or compare it to the original, and revise. (There was often a stage where I could finally feel I had a poem in English that moved in stages, developed and expanded, and then I would sometimes cheat and change it to make it work in English, as I saw it; I don’t necessarily still hold to this way of doing things, but it was liberating at the time.)

I am still defeated by a short poem like Beckett’s:


en face
le pire
jusqu’à ce
qu’il fasse rire



in the face
of the worst
until the point
you must laugh)


I have committed it to memory. I can’t see how English could hope to replace it, so one has to quote it.

And lately, I’ve been translating Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. I’ve always known that Rilke was a poet whom many consider had something to say. I’ve read a lot of English translations where he’s come across as wise and serene and sort of cleverer. But I didn’t know until I started to read him what an opportunist he was with the language. What I said above about how a language may throw up certain accidents that a poet might leap on… it’s there with Rilke. I’m still brooding over his line


Stiller Freund der vielen Fernen, fühle


(at the moment I have

Dumb chum, countless castaway, catch)


It doesn’t have the simplicity of “silent friend of many farawaynesses, feel” but nor can English easily catch that music Rilke has caught in the German. No reason not to try, though.

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Image: Cy Twombly ceiling at the Louvre

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