2015年4月25日 星期六

Lost in translation - a poem by James Merrill

史景遷《王氏之死》(The Death of Woman Wang, (1977):《婦人王氏之死》李孝愷譯,(台北:麥田,2001))卷首引James Merrill【(1926–1995. American poet whose works include Divine Comedies (1976), which won a Pulitzer  Prize.)http://www.answers.com/James%20Merrill%20


「失去的,埋塟了嗎?又一個(sic)失落的文件?

但沒有任何東西消逝。或者,一切都是翻譯
我們的每個片段都消逝於其中……」

-----李孝愷之譯文,沒說明引詩出處。

James Merrill這首長詩Lost in Translation"大大有名,所以http://www.answers.com/網頁有解讀。(據說詩集Divine Comedies (1976), 收有"Lost in Translation" 和" The Book of Ephraim"等等。)

我們介紹過『梅利爾(James Merrill)詩選』(河北教育:書中有此詩之譯和注(由於它引用里爾克德文翻譯 Paul Valery的「棕櫚樹」,並將此詩獻給當代翻譯法文的名家 Richard Howard,牽涉法-德-英和許多人物-地方-事情,所以要注解-翻譯……))


『梅利爾(James Merrill)詩選』中此詩末段翻譯為:
But nothing's lost. Or else: all is translation
And every bit of us is lost in it...
And in that loss a self-effacing tree,
Color of context, imperceptibly
Rustling with its angel, turns the waste
To shade and fiber, milk and memory.


失去了,它,就被埋葬了嗎,另一個失去的片段?

但什麼也沒有失去,或不如說,一切都是翻譯
我們的每一點都消失在它之中

Lost in translation - a poem by James Merrill

For Richard Howard

Diese Tage, die leer dir scheinen
und wertlos für das All,
haben Wurzeln zwischen den Steinen
und trinken dort überall.

A card table in the library stands ready
To receive the puzzle which keeps never coming.
Daylight shines in or lamplight down
Upon the tense oasis of green felt.
Full of unfulfillment, life goes on,
Mirage arisen from time's trickling sands
Or fallen piecemeal into place:
German lesson, picnic, see-saw, walk
With the collie who "did everything but talk"—
Sour windfalls of the orchard back of us.
A summer without parents is the puzzle,
Or should be. But the boy, day after day,
Writes in his Line-a-Day No puzzle.

He's in love, at least. His French Mademoiselle,
In real life a widow since Verdun,
Is stout, plain, carrot-haired, devout.
She prays for him, as does a curé in Alsace,
Sews costumes for his marionettes,
Helps him to keep behind the scene
Whose sidelit goosegirl, speaking with his voice,
Plays Guinevere as well as Gunmoll Jean.
Or else at bedtime in his tight embrace
Tells him her own French hopes, her German fears,
Her—but what more is there to tell?
Having known grief and hardship, Mademoiselle
Knows little more. Her languages. Her place.
Noon coffee. Mail. The watch that also waited
Pinned to her heart, poor gold, throws up its hands—
No puzzle! Steaming bitterness
Her sugars draw pops back into his mouth, translated:
"Patience, chéri. Geduld, mein Schatz."
(Thus, reading Valéry the other evening
And seeming to recall a Rilke version of "Palme,"
That sunlit paradigm whereby the tree
Taps a sweet wellspring of authority,
The hour came back. Patience dans l'azur.
Geduld im. . . Himmelblau? Mademoiselle.)

Out of the blue, as promised, of a New York
Puzzle-rental shop the puzzle comes—
A superior one, containing a thousand hand-sawn,
Sandal-scented pieces. Many take
Shapes known already—the craftsman's repertoire
Nice in its limitation—from other puzzles:
Witch on broomstick, ostrich, hourglass,
Even (surely not just in retrospect)
An inchling, innocently branching palm.
These can be put aside, made stories of
While Mademoiselle spreads out the rest face-up,
Herself excited as a child; or questioned
Like incoherent faces in a crowd,
Each with its scrap of highly colored
Evidence the Law must piece together.
Sky-blue ostrich? Likely story.
Mauve of the witch's cloak white, severed fingers
Pluck? Detain her. The plot thickens
As all at once two pieces interlock.

Mademoiselle does borders— (Not so fast.
A London dusk, December last.
Chatter silenced in the library
This grown man reenters, wearing grey.
A medium. All except him have seen
Panel slid back, recess explored,
An object at once unique and common
Displayed, planted in a plain tole
Casket the subject now considers
Through shut eyes, saying in effect:
"Even as voices reach me vaguely
A dry saw-shriek drowns them out,
Some loud machinery— a lumber mill?
Far uphill in the fir forest
Trees tower, tense with shock,
Groaning and cracking as they crash groundward.
But hidden here is a freak fragment
Of a pattern complex in appearance only.
What it seems to show is superficial
Next to that long-term lamination
Of hazard and craft, the karma that has
Made it matter in the first place.
Plywood. Piece of a puzzle." Applause
Acknowledged by an opening of lids
Upon the thing itself. A sudden dread—
But to go back. All this lay years ahead.)

Mademoiselle does borders. Straight-edge pieces
Align themselves with earth or sky
In twos and threes, naive cosmogonists
Whose views clash. Nomad inlanders meanwhile
Begin to cluster where the totem
Of a certain vibrant egg-yolk yellow
Or pelt of what emerging animal
Acts on the straggler like a trumpet call
To form a more soph"isticated unit.
By suppertime two ragged wooden clouds
Have formed. In one, a Sheik with beard
And flashing sword hilt (he is all but finished)
Steps forward on a tiger skin. A piece
Snaps shut, and fangs gnash out at us!
In the second cloud—they gaze from cloud to cloud
With marked if undecipherable feeling—
Most of a dark-eyed woman veiled in mauve
Is being helped down from her camel (kneeling)
By a small backward-looking slave or page-boy
(Her son, thinks Mademoiselle mistakenly)
Whose feet have not been found. But lucky finds
In the last minutes before bed
Anchor both factions to the scene's limits
And, by so doing, orient
Them eye to eye across the green abyss.
The yellow promises, oh bliss,
To be in time a sumptuous tent.

Puzzle begun I write in the day's space,
Then, while she bathes, peek at Mademoiselle's
Page to the curé: ". . . cette innocente mère,
Ce pauvre enfant, que deviendront-ils?"
Her azure script is curlicued like pieces
Of the puzzle she will be telling him about.
(Fearful incuriosity of childhood!
"Tu as l'accent allemande" said Dominique.
Indeed. Mademoiselle was only French by marriage.
Child of an English mother, a remote
Descendant of the great explorer Speke,
And Prussian father. No one knew. I heard it
Long afterwards from her nephew, a UN
Interpreter. His matter-of-fact account
Touched old strings. My poor Mademoiselle,
With 1939 about to shake
This world where "each was the enemy, each the friend"
To its foundations, kept, though signed in blood,
Her peace a shameful secret to the end.)
"Schlaf wohl, chéri." Her kiss. Her thumb
Crossing my brow against the dreams to come.

This World that shifts like sand, its unforeseen
Consolidations and elate routine,
Whose Potentate had lacked a retinue?
Lo! it assembles on the shrinking Green.

Gunmetal-skinned or pale, all plumes and scars,
Of Vassalage the noblest avatars—
The very coffee-bearer in his vair
Vest is a swart Highness, next to ours.

Kef easing Boredom, and iced syrups, thirst,
In guessed-at glooms old wives who know the worst
Outsweat that virile fiction of the New:
"Insh'Allah, he will tire—" "—or kill her first!"

(Hardly a proper subject for the Home,
Work of—dear Richard, I shall let you comb
Archives and learned journals for his name—
A minor lion attending on Gérôme.)

While, thick as Thebes whose presently complete
Gates close behind them, Houri and Afreet
Both claim the Page. He wonders whom to serve,
And what his duties are, and where his feet,

And if we'll find, as some before us did,
That piece of Distance deep in which lies hid
Your tiny apex sugary with sun,
Eternal Triangle, Great Pyramid!

Then Sky alone is left, a hundred blue
Fragments in revolution, with no clue
To where a Niche will open. Quite a task,
Putting together Heaven, yet we do.

It's done. Here under the table all along
Were those missing feet. It's done.

The dog's tail thumping. Mademoiselle sketching
Costumes for a coming harem drama
To star the goosegirl. All too soon the swift
Dismantling. Lifted by two corners,
The puzzle hung together—and did not.
Irresistibly a populace
Unstitched of its attachments, rattled down.
Power went to pieces as the witch
Slithered easily from Virtue's gown.
The blue held out for time, but crumbled, too.
The city had long fallen, and the tent,
A separating sauce mousseline,
Been swept away. Remained the green
On which the grown-ups gambled. A green dusk.
First lightning bugs. Last glow of west
Green in the false eyes of (coincidence)
Our mangy tiger safe on his bared hearth.

Before the puzzle was boxed and readdressed
To the puzzle shop in the mid-Sixties,
Something tells me that one piece contrived
To stay in the boy's pocket. How do I know?
I know because so many later puzzles
Had missing pieces—Maggie Teyte's high notes
Gone at the war's end, end of the vogue for collies,
A house torn down; and hadn't Mademoiselle
Kept back her pitiful bit of truth as well?
I've spent the last days, furthermore,
Ransacking Athens for that translation of "Palme."
Neither the Goethehaus nor the National Library
Seems able to unearth it. Yet I can't
Just be imagining. I've seen it. Know
How much of the sun-ripe original
Felicity Rilke made himself forego
(Who loved French words—verger, mûr, parfumer)
In order to render its underlying sense.
Know already in that tongue of his
What Pains, what monolithic Truths
Shadow stanza to stanza's symmetrical
Rhyme-rutted pavement. Know that ground plan left
Sublime and barren, where the warm Romance
Stone by stone faded, cooled; the fluted nouns
Made taller, lonelier than life
By leaf-carved capitals in the afterglow.
The owlet umlaut peeps and hoots
Above the open vowel. And after rain
A deep reverberation fills with stars.

Lost, is it, buried? One more missing piece?

But nothing's lost. Or else: all is translation
And every bit of us is lost in it
(Or found—I wander through the ruin of S
Now and then, wondering at the peacefulness)
And in that loss a self-effacing tree,
Color of context, imperceptibly
Rustling with its angel, turns the waste
To shade and fiber, milk and memory.



****
莫名其妙的Google 翻譯

 迷失東京 - 一首詩由詹姆斯·美林
對於理查德·霍華德

Diese踏歌,死閱讀目錄scheinen
UND wertlos獻給DAS所有,
haben Wurzeln zwischen書房Steine​​n
UND trinken多特überall。

A卡表在圖書館隨時準備
要獲得這絕不不斷傳來的謎題。
日光照射或燈光下
在綠色的緊張綠洲感覺。
全unfulfillment的,生活還要繼續,
幻影不時的滴濾砂出現
或下降零碎到位:
德國的教訓,野餐,拉鋸,走
與誰“做了一切,但談話”的牧羊犬 - 
美國的果園回來酸味橫財。
沒有父母一個夏天的困擾,
還是應該的。但是男孩,一天又一天,
寫在他的線,一個日無之謎。

他在戀愛,至少。他的法國小姐,
在現實生活中,因為凡爾登一個寡婦,
是粗壯,平原,胡蘿蔔頭髮,虔誠。
她祈求他,做了治愈阿爾薩斯,
縫製服裝為他牽線木偶,
幫助他保持幕後
其側光goosegirl,與他的語音對講,
播放吉尼維爾以及Gunmoll吉恩。
或者在睡前在他緊緊擁抱
告訴他自己的法國的希望,她的德國的擔憂,
她,但還有什麼有告訴?
具有已知的悲痛和困苦,小姐
知道多一點。她的語言。她的地方。
中午的咖啡。郵件。也等待著手錶
別在她的心臟,黃金較差,拋出了其動手
無謎題!熱氣騰騰的辛酸
她的糖畫啪啪放回嘴裡,翻譯:
“耐心,謝裡。Geduld,炒麵沙茨。”
(因此,閱讀瓦萊裡其他的晚上
並似乎在回憶起里爾克版“金棕櫚獎”
這陽光明媚的範式,從而樹
水龍頭權威的甜蜜源泉,
小時回來。耐心丹斯歐萊雅海岸。
Geduld IM。 。 。希梅爾布勞?小姐。)

出於藍,因為答應了紐約,
益智租賃店的拼圖comes-
一個卓越的,包含一千手工鋸,
涼鞋香味件。許多需要
形狀知已,工匠的曲目
尼斯在其局限性,從其他難題:
巫婆掃帚上,鴕鳥,沙漏,
即使(當然不只是回想起來)
一個inchling,傻傻分支棕櫚。
這些都可以拋開,由故事
雖然小姐鋪上休息面朝上,
她興奮,因為一個孩子;或質疑
像語無倫次的面孔在人群中,
每個高度有色廢鋼
證據法必須拼湊。
天藍色鴕鳥?可能的故事。
魔女的斗篷白色,斷指的紫紅色
採摘?扣留她。情節變稠
作為一次全部兩塊互鎖。

小姐不borders-(沒有這麼快。
倫敦的黃昏,去年十二月。
喋喋不休沉默庫
這個成年男子重新進入,身穿灰色。
中等。所有除了他所看到的
面板滑回,凹陷探索,
一次獨特的,共同的目標
顯示,栽在一個普通的托爾
骨灰盒的主題現在認為
通過閉著眼睛,實際上說:
“儘管聲音依稀找到我
幹鋸尖叫聲淹沒出來,
有的大聲machinery-一個木材廠?
在冷杉林遠上坡
樹塔,與緊張的衝擊,
呻吟和開裂,因為他們崩潰groundward。
但這裡隱藏著一個怪胎片段
在外觀上只有一個圖案複雜。
它似乎表明是膚淺的
下一步,長期層壓
危害和工藝,具有因果報應
使它在​​首位關係。
膠合板。的一塊拼圖。“掌聲
由蓋的開口承認
根據事物本身。突然dread-
但回去。所有這一切都奠定未來幾年。)

小姐確實邊界。直邊件
自己與地球或天空對齊
三三兩兩,天真cosmogonists
他們的觀點交鋒。游牧inlanders同時
開始聚集在那裡的圖騰
一定充滿活力的蛋黃黃
什麼新興的動物或皮毛
作用於像一個小號呼叫落後者
形成了較為SOPH“isticated單位。
通過吃晚飯2破爛的木雲
已經形成。於一體,謝赫與鬍鬚
和閃爍的長劍劍柄(他所有,但成品)
走上前對虎皮。一塊
鎖閉和尖牙咬牙切齒了我們!
在第二個雲,他們從雲凝視到雲
隨著標,如果無法破解feeling-
最黑暗的眼睛的女人隱藏在紫紅色
從她的駱駝正在幫助下(跪)
由一個小向後看奴隸或頁面男孩
(她的兒子,認為小姐誤)
誰的腳也沒有發現。但幸運發現
在睡覺前的最後幾分鐘
固定兩個派別場景的限制
而且,這樣做,東方
他們眼對眼滿眼的綠色深淵。
黃色的承諾,哦幸福,
要及時豐盛的帳篷裡。

益智開始我寫了一天的空間,
然後,當她洗澡,偷看小姐的
頁面的治愈:。“cette innocente單純,
CE pauvre朗方,闕deviendront-ILS?“
她湛藍的腳本curlicued樣件
之謎,她會告訴他。
(由於擔心incuriosity童年!
“屠作為歐萊雅的口音阿勒曼德”多米尼克說。
的確。小姐只有法語婚姻。
英國母親的孩子,遠程
偉大的探險家斯皮克的後裔,
和普魯士的父親。沒有人知道。我聽到了
不久,從她的侄子,聯合國
翻譯。就事論事的事實,他的帳戶
感動的老字符串。我可憐的小姐,
隨著1939年即將撼動
這個世界裡,“每個是敵人,每一個朋友”
它的基礎,保持,但在血液中簽,
她和平可恥的秘密到底。)
“Schlaf沃爾,謝裡。”她的吻。她的拇指
穿越我對夢想的額頭來。

這個世界上,像移砂,其無法預見
合併和歡欣鼓舞常規,
其當權者所缺乏隨從?
羅!它組裝的收縮綠。

青銅色皮膚或蒼白,羽毛都和疤痕,
的家臣最高貴avatars-
非常咖啡承載在他VAIR
背心是斯沃特殿下,旁邊我們的。

KEF緩解無聊,和冰糖漿,口渴,
在猜測,在幽暗的老妻子,誰知道最壞
Outsweat新那陽剛的小說:
“Insh'Allah,他將輪胎 - ”“ - 或者先殺死她!”

(幾乎適用於家庭的一個適當的主題,
的,親愛的理查工作中,我將讓你梳
檔案和學術刊物,他的名字 - 
A小調獅子出席杰羅姆。)

同時,厚的底比斯目前完成
蓋茨接近他們身後,霍利和Afreet
都宣稱頁面。他想知道誰發球,
和他有什麼職責,並在他的腳下,

如果我們會發現,一些在我們面​​前的那樣,
那件深的距離,其中的謊言隱藏
你的小尖含糖有太陽,
永恆三角,大金字塔!

然後,天空獨自留下,百蘭
片段的革命,沒有線索
到一個利基將打開。相當多的任務,
組建了天堂,但我們做的。

它的完成。在這裡,桌下一直
是那些失踪的腳。它的完成。

狗尾巴重擊。素描小姐
服裝的未來后宮劇
明星的goosegirl。時間飛逝,轉眼迅速
拆解。通過兩個角抬起,
拼圖掛在一起,並沒有。
無法抗拒的一個平民
拆散及其附件,叮叮噹當下來。
動力六神無主的女巫
從道德的禮服輕鬆滑行。
藍色堅守了時間,但崩潰了。
城市早已淪落,帳篷,
一個分離醬薄綢,
被一掃而空。依然是綠色的
上大人賭博。綠色黃昏。
首先螢火蟲。最後的光芒西部
綠色的眼睛假(巧合)
我們的癩皮狗虎牌保險櫃在他裸露壁爐。

前謎題是盒裝和重新尋址
在六十年代中期的拼圖店,
東西告訴我,一件做作
留在男孩的口袋裡。我怎麼知道?
我知道,因為這麼多之後困惑
有缺件,張曼玉Teyte的高音
走在戰爭結束時,時尚的牧羊犬結束,
房子拆了;並沒有小姐
保持背部真理她可憐的一點呢?
我花了最後的日子,而且,
洗劫雅典的翻譯“金棕櫚獎”。
無論是Goethehaus,也不是國家圖書館
似乎能夠挖掘它。然而,我不能
只是想像。我已經看到了。知道
多少陽光成熟的原
富臨里爾克使自己放棄
(誰愛法語單詞,司事,穆爾,parfumer)
為了呈現其基本意義。
在那舌頭已經知道了他的
有什麼煩惱,什麼單片真相
影節,以節是對稱的
韻動情路面。知道離開的平面圖
崇高而貧瘠,那裡的溫暖浪漫
石經石褪色,冷卻;該凹槽名詞
做高,高於生活孤單
由葉雕資金的餘輝。
在梟變音偷窺,嘲罵
上述開放式元音。雨過
深混響充滿明星。

失去了,是吧,埋?一人失踪一塊?

但什麼也沒有丟失。否則:都是翻譯
而我們的每一位迷失在它
(或者發現-I通過S的廢墟漫步
現在,然後,想在歌舞昇平)
而在這損失謙虛樹,
色彩情境,潛移默化地
憑藉其天使沙沙,變成廢料
遮陽和纖維,牛奶和記憶。

Report finds less than 10 per cent of American colleges study the bard


Pathetic how literary studies have collapsed into banality in the universities...
Report finds less than 10 per cent of American colleges study the bard
TELEGRAPH.CO.UK

The Library of Congress Is Uploading 75 Years of Poetry and Literature Recordings

美國桂冠詩人:我願意為你朗讀 75年共2000支錄音檔任你點播

 0

編譯/陳慧敏

想聽美國桂冠詩人朗讀或介紹自己的作品,過去得要千里迢迢去到華盛頓特區的美國國會圖書館,請館員調出錄音帶,非得在館內聆聽。現在,這座全世界最大的圖書館,已陸續把這些錄音檔案數位化並上網,桂冠詩人彷彿可以無時無刻為你朗讀,可以跟著你進捷運、上健身房、四處旅行,讓詩進入你的日常生活,未來將會有累積 75 年、累積 2000 支錄音檔,可供讀者隨選隨聽。
美國國會圖書館從 1936 年起,就設立英詩講座,這是由曾出版 13 本詩集的富人杭亭頓(Archer M. Huntington)捐助成立,每年由館長徵選名單,最後拍板決選,並聘任一位詩人為「詩顧問」,到 1986 年改名為「桂冠詩人及詩顧問」(the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry)。
旅美詩人謝勳曾撰文介紹美國桂冠詩人。他提到,桂冠詩人年薪 3.5 萬美元,辦公室就在國會圖書館的「詩與文學中心」,國會圖書館提供任何必要的資源,支持他們執行自己所提的詩集推廣方案,他們的使命是協助圖書館推廣詩歌活動,並在文學季系列活動中,朗讀自己的詩作。
藝術部落格 Hyperallergic 報導,為了歡慶美國國家詩月,美國國會圖書館從 4 月 15 日起,把 50 個桂冠詩人朗讀自己詩作或訪談的錄音材料,重新轉檔數位化,上傳到網站,讓讀者可線上免費聆聽。
整個專案計畫是要將國會圖書館累積 75 年的詩集和文學講座,共 2,000 個錄音,全部都上網,未來將每月上傳五個檔案。
這些錄音檔案來自國家圖書館的文學講座活動,由傑佛遜大廈錄音工作室錄製,成為美國當代文學重要而珍貴的影音資料文件。過去都以磁條卡帶保存,只限於館內調閱,上網之後,不僅方便書迷搜尋,更方便隨時聆聽,讓詩和文學可以親近生活。
報導引述此專案經理戈梅茲(Catalina Gomez)說:「我想,能在網頁上閱讀到詩集和散文固然很重要,但是,沒有什麼能比得上聽到文學被大聲地朗讀出來,尤其是作家親自來朗讀。」
戈梅茲說,他喜歡詩人或作家在朗讀時的停頓;或再重新開始開始唸一首詩或一段摘要,這些時刻,都能透過他們作品的聲音,能感受到他們的激昂熱情。

準備好耳機,朗讀即將開

已經上網的桂冠詩人錄音檔案,包括:美國詩人佛洛斯特(Robert Frost)於 1953 年的訪談錄音,佛洛斯特的詩作《火與冰》,正是小說家喬治‧馬汀(George R.R. Martin)的靈感來源,在訪談中,佛洛斯特朗讀他的其他作品,並分享他的創作背景和想法:錄音檔連結

根據謝勳介紹,榮獲 1987 年諾貝爾文學獎的美國詩人布羅茨基(Joseph Brodsky),在桂冠詩人任職期間,曾召集出版商認捐 100 萬本詩集,放在機場、醫院、超市、動物園、旅館房間、卡車休息站等地方,讓詩普及化。而這是在 1992 年五月朗讀詩作的現場:錄音檔連結

美國女詩人庫敏(Maxine Kumin)在 1981 年擔任詩顧問,她關注婦女議題,當時為女性舉辦一系列詩的研討會,大受歡迎,而她也留下了朗讀自身作品的錄音記錄:錄音檔連結

觀點犀利又多產的愛伍德(Margaret Atwood),曾在 1970 年與詩人金內爾(Galway Kinnell)進行對談:錄音檔連結

活到 101 歲才離世的美國詩人庫尼茲(Stanley Kunitz),曾兩度擔任詩顧問,隨後又曾獲選為桂冠詩人,69歲(1974年)時,他也留下了散文和詩作的朗讀記錄:錄音檔連結

Photo from Flickr

資料來源

  1. The Library of Congress Is Uploading 75 Years of Poetry and Literature Recordings
  2. Library of Congress Begins Posting Its Recorded Poetry Archive
  3. library of Congress Launches New Online Poetry Archive, Featuring 75 Years of Classic Poetry Readings
  4. 謝勳介紹美國桂冠詩人
  5. 美國國會圖書館詩集和文學資料庫搜尋系統

2015年4月22日 星期三

Tom Jones By Henry Fielding

Tom Jones 的漢譯本至少有2種。
Born ‪#‎onthisday‬ in 1707: author Henry Fielding. Here are illustrations to his novel Tom Jones http://ow.ly/LXZrD

2015年4月15日 星期三

A Prayer For My Daughter - Poem by William Butler Yeats

A Prayer For My Daughter - Poem by William Butler Yeats
ONCE more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory's wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind.
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.
I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And-under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.
May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger's eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.
Helen being chosen found life flat and dull
And later had much trouble from a fool,
While that great Queen, that rose out of the spray,
Being fatherless could have her way
Yet chose a bandy-legged smith for man.
It's certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of plenty is undone.
In courtesy I'd have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned
By those that are not entirely beautiful;
Yet many, that have played the fool
For beauty's very self, has charm made wise.
And many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.
May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound,
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.
My mind, because the minds that I have loved,
The sort of beauty that I have approved,
Prosper but little, has dried up of late,
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there's no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.
An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of plenty's horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?
Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven's will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy Still.
And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all's accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony's a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

2015年4月13日 星期一

‘It seemed to me miraculous that you could actually hear Shakespeare or Keats speaking from the page’



‘It seemed to me miraculous that you could actually hear Shakespeare or Keats speaking from the page’

Helen Vendler’s encounters with reverie

April 8, 2015 | Editor's Pick Popular
Helen Vendler

Leading scholars at Harvard tell their stories in the Experience series.
Helen Hennessy Vendler, born in Boston in 1933, is the Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor and one of the foremost critics of English and American poetry in the world. She is the author or editor of 31 books, her first in 1963; earned her Ph.D. in English and American literature at Harvard in 1960, after studying chemistry and mathematics as an undergraduate at Emmanuel College and winning a Fulbright fellowship; and taught at Cornell, Swarthmore, Haverford, Smith, and Boston University before returning to Harvard in 1985. In 1990 she became the first woman to be named a University Professor.
Vendler spoke her first word at 9 months; wrote her first “poem” at 6 (a writing pursuit replaced by her dissertation at 26); learned Spanish, French, and Italian before age 12; roamed eagerly through the stacks at Widener Library while still in her Catholic girls’ school uniform (“I was a sight,” she said); and as a high school senior wrote what she calls with some amusement “my first book” — a 40-page exploration of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
From the study of manuscripts, she learned that poems grow in unexpected ways and that no artwork lacks many underlying structures. All that set her on a lifelong path of reading single poets at great depth, and of looking at a poem as an evolving artifact with unexpected turns, while mediating the poet’s urgent themes. In her youth, Vendler considered a career in medicine. But she soon returned to her first impulse: “Poetry was too natural to me to be forsaken.”
Q: Could you tell us about childhood inspirations and influences?
A: My mother had been a first-grade teacher. She knew a lot of adult poems, children’s poems, and children’s songs. So I began to sing little first-grade songs early on.
My mother was at home. I think the most important cause of my being here [at Harvard, as a poetry scholar] was the fact that my mother was prevented from teaching after 14 years in the classroom. You couldn’t teach in the Boston schools if you were a married woman, because “it would be taking the bread out of a breadwinner’s mouth.” When my parents married, in 1930, it was at the height of the Depression.
[Not teaching] made my mother deeply unhappy, as it would make me unhappy if I had to stay at home all day with three children and no car. So she read to us a good deal. She sang to us a lot. And she encouraged me — I should say both parents encouraged me — when I started to write horrible little poems when I was 6. That’s, I think, what started my interest in poetry.
Q: What about books?
A: The enclosed back porch was off the kitchen and had steps going down to the backyard. It was lined with bookshelves and my parents’ books. At about 12, I decided to catalog them all, lining them up in various groups and making little labels for the spines. That way, I could find whatever I wanted to go back to. I did know the contents of those shelves well. And then there were other books around the house, too. My mother read a good deal of religious literature, but all the anthologies in the house were of poetry.
Q: What about your dad?
A: He taught in high school — Spanish, French, and Italian. He was bilingual in Spanish from having lived 14 years in Puerto Rico and Cuba, so he spoke Spanish to us.
He took it upon himself to teach my sister and me (my brother escaped) Spanish, French, and Italian. For Christmas we never had presents, but my father ordered books from foreign parts. We would have a book in Spanish and a book in Italian or French. I felt, and feel, different about Spanish; it was like a mother tongue. My father read and sang to us in Spanish every night.
Q: How did being at Emmanuel College in Boston propel you to explore poetry?
A: I intended to be an English major, understandably enough, but I didn’t like the way that literature was taught as a branch of Catholicism.
I tried the concentration in French in my second year and discovered that in the survey of French literature, you couldn’t read the authors you’d have expected, because they were all on the Index of Forbidden Books. No books by Voltaire, Diderot, Pascal, Proust, Flaubert, Baudelaire. They were all on the Index (which subsequently was abolished).
My parents wouldn’t let me leave Emmanuel, and I thought “I have to go into a field where they can’t corrupt the curriculum.” So I went into science: I became a chemistry major, and took the requisite physics and biology and mathematics courses, enjoying it all very much because it couldn’t be corrupted: it was truthful.
I think every young intellectual sets truth as the highest value. Why study something seriously if you didn’t want to find out what was true about it? Lyric poets are necessarily honest, candid, straightforward about their feelings, no matter what their poetic manner or personal abstract symbols.
Q: What was your plan after studying chemistry?
A: I took the medical college admissions test, thinking I might be a doctor. I had become interested in medicine because I was Rh-negative, and at that time not the first baby but the second baby, if Rh-positive, was threatened with death. When I read about it, horrified, I launched myself into medical reading. That, too, was a different world from home, because nobody in my house ever spoke about whatever was between your front and your back. [Laughter.]
But like most people who are going to be different from their parents, I wanted very much to escape from my parents’ house. I had been awarded a Fulbright in mathematics, and it took me to Belgium. When I arrived, after 10 days at sea thinking about my future, I wrote to the Fulbright people and said I’d made up my mind to do graduate work in literature, and would they mind if I did literature instead of math? They said, “Not at all, dear. Do whatever you want.”
I knew by then that I wasn’t going to go ahead in math, though I had loved it. Geometry, with its shapes and volumes, taught me about poetic structure, and so did organic chemistry, because of the variety of structures of three-dimensional molecules.
I love structures. They were, in a way, what I was able to convey in my writings on poetry, because I could see the skeleton beneath the skin. And poetry was a mobile structure, changing from opening to close. It’s no accident that [John] Ashbery called one of his books “Flow Chart”: in a chemical flowchart, you begin somewhere, and then the chemical reaction evolves: finally you end up with the product you were aiming for. You have to plan the course of the experiment and write the equations for the many steps of combination and distillation and so on. That practice gives you a firm way of thinking sequentially.
I’ve always been interested in the internal shape-changes of the poem. In my student days, it was common to assume that the poem makes a statement — that it’s protesting war, or is grieving a death. My teachers, on the whole, didn’t see a poem as an evolving thing that might be saying something completely new at the end because it had changed its mind from whatever it had proposed at the beginning. I was sure you couldn’t sum it up propositionally: You couldn’t say, as it was common to say, “What is the meaning of this poem?”
 ‘All of life feeds into one’s responses to poetry.’
Q: So when you say evolution, were you looking back in those days at the poem as a fixed entity, or did you go back to manuscript?
A: I understood it as a developed manuscript. I was 12 [when] I saw my first set of manuscripts in a little book called “Poetry for You” by Cecil Day-Lewis, the father of Daniel Day-Lewis. I found it in my local public library in Roslindale. Day-Lewis printed successive drafts of his own poems, and I thought, good heavens, they’re not born in their final form on the page. They are actually things that start from almost nothing, or from — as I learned later — a rhythm here or a word there or a proverb somewhere. At 15, I became intensely engaged with Dylan Thomas’ poetry and found out that his manuscripts were in Buffalo [in the Lockwood Library, the University of Buffalo]. I asked for the loan of their microfilms and read them all with enormous profit. There were as many as 30 drafts for “Fern Hill,” for instance.
Thomas was a sedulous reviser. The drafts helped me to solve the more difficult poems, too: Reading them in draft was a way to understand them better.
Q: You were a 15-year-old who studied manuscripts. Even in college most English majors don’t do that.
A: It was all from Cecil Day-Lewis. As I saw the drafts of his poems, I thought, “That’s it. You can find them as they grow.”
Q: So these 30 drafts of “Fern Hill,” for instance, what did you —
A: I was set up at the microfilm reader [at the Boston Public Library]. I sat at the screen for hours and hours, week after week. The librarian in Buffalo began sending me books and journal articles on Thomas as well, on his own initiative.
Q: That sounds like a transformative experience for a young reader of poetry.
A: It was. I had begun to write poems again when I was 15, and seeing how Thomas constructed a whole out of fragments gave me an idea of how I might put together a poem.
Q: From Dylan Thomas, where did you go? Did you dig into other poetic passions?
A: Yes. My mother had brought back from the bookmobile a biography of Hopkins which quoted many of his poems. I began to read Hopkins with great elation and memorized much of what I read. I wrote what was supposed to be a 17-page high school senior paper, only it turned into a 40-page essay. [Laughter.] I think it was my first book. And it gave me my first taste of critical competence: by then I knew everything Hopkins had written — the letters, the sermons, the devotional writings, the biography. It’s not a big corpus.
It was exhilarating to write at length from knowledge of a single poet’s complete works, since anthologies offer only little snippets. I very soon grasped how rewarding it was to write on a single poet. I’ve never written on themes except as elements in the changing explorations of a poet, the evolution of the author’s poetics from the early juvenilia all the way up to the end.
Q: In college, how did you maintain your fascination with poetry while studying chemistry, physics, and math?
A: Poetry was too natural to me to be forsaken. As soon as I discovered that voices of dead writers spoke in living tones, I became absorbed in the phenomena of those voices. It seemed to me miraculous that you could actually hear Shakespeare or Keats speaking from the page.
Q: Back then, would you have called poetry your avocation?
A: No. It was always central to me. It connected me to my own emotional life that was struggling to appear in my poems.
Q: Later, in Belgium, was there anything about the Fulbright experience that transformed your relationship to manuscripts or the way to read or understand a poem?
A: I wasn’t occupied with that there, but with languages — studying Old French and Italian and French literature. However, I did want to see the Hopkins manuscripts at Oxford, and was granted permission. I made my way to England over the Christmas break, and went to Oxford immediately. I had no idea it was Boxing Day.
I rang the doorbell at Campion Hall. An old porteress came out to the door. I proffered my letter from the Jesuit superior giving me access to the materials. Well, she’d see what she could do. She took me to a parlor, disappeared, and then returned bringing me, in succession, boxes of completely uncataloged things — poems, the tutorial essay that Hopkins had written for Walter Pater with Walter Pater’s signature, drawings that Hopkins had done — all in a sort of chaos. I obviously couldn’t tackle the material at that point, but I could see how rich a source the archive was.
Although I had viewed the Thomas manuscripts, that was on microfilm, and was quite unlike seeing cartons full of the handwriting of Hopkins in poems and letters.
Q: Manuscripts are one way to get at a poem. How about explication?
A: I don’t think poems have much to do with ideas. Philosophy may, but poetry doesn’t. In any case, when [poets] employ ideas they use them as raw material, subject to the laws of form like any other ingredient. No philosopher would be satisfied with the poetic treatment of any ideas. Yet poems are usually taught, mistakenly, as embodiments of ideas rather than enactments of a mobile consciousness.
Q: What propelled you into graduate school?
A: I had been coming to Harvard [with my father’s card for Widener Library] since I was 15. I was here, usually after school, wearing my ridiculous school uniform — navy blue serge, with white collar and cuffs, brown tie oxfords, and a “Miraculous Medal” around my neck. I was a sight. Once the librarians saw how many books I was sending for, they offered me a stack pass and I was transported.
At the same time, I was coming often to Harvard for poetry readings. When I was 17, I heard Eliot here — giving the Spencer lecture, not reading his own poems. During high school and college I heard almost everyone: Frost, several times; E.E. Cummings presenting his “Six Nonlectures”; Dylan Thomas, who read “Under Milk Wood” doing all the voices himself, in a spectacular evening. I didn’t know anything at the time about Welsh literature, and that flood of language was entirely surprising and winning.
When the year was up, I committed my only deliberate crime, which was to spill ink on the expiration date of the Widener card. I couldn’t bear to give up Widener: whenever I walked in, it made me happy. Then one day, the librarian looked down and said, “Hasn’t this card expired?” It had, of course. So I was expelled from Eden — but thought “I will be back,” even then.
Q: After the Fulbright, what came before graduate school at Harvard?
A: I wrote from Belgium to the chairman of the English Department [at Harvard] and said, more or less, “I have a degree in chemistry, and I’m now on a Fulbright. Can I come and do a Ph.D. in English?” He said, “No. You are not a suitable candidate.” I wrote again, asking how I might become a suitable candidate: “Go somewhere and take some English courses and then you can reapply.” When I returned from the Fulbright, I entered Boston University as a special student and took several graduate courses in English.
The best teacher I had there was a professor named Morton Berman, himself a Harvard Ph.D., who taught Victorian literature. Most professors were still teaching literature as either history or philosophy or [as a way] to form a virtuous gentleman, as Spenser said. English teachers then were often the sort of people who would have been vicars of a parish in another age. Essentially they were giving moral commentaries on literature. But Morton Berman was talking about the literature itself and so I was thrilled to be led into a literary discourse that became native to me.
Q: How would you have described what literature is, if it isn’t this pathway to moral behavior?
A: It’s an art that always arises from passionate feeling, but it must be composed with profound technique. However abstract its symbolic expression, it is something deeply seated in the emotional life.
Yeats’ poem “The Moods” became for me a touchstone, to use our old word. Yeats declares that time destroys everything except the moods, because they are eternal. Human beings everywhere and at all times experience grief, doubt, anger — whatever mood it might be — and moods are therefore the proper subject of lyric. They’re “fire-born,” says Yeats — eternal — and are never absent from any culture.
Q: Was this perception at odds with graduate study in that era?
A: With very few exceptions, yes. I.A. Richards, whose class I audited [at Harvard], knew what poetry was and taught poems very dramatically.
In his classroom, the lights were turned off, and [Richards] put the poem up on a screen. With a long wand, he would point to a word on the high screen and talk about it for a half hour. He lectured on only 12 poems over the course of the semester, one poem a week. But that gave me an insight into how very rich poems were.
[Richards’ approach] was basically philological. He knew Latin and Greek and could talk about any one word enchantingly. His lectures were also philosophical, because he was interested in the evolution of philosophical ideas over time. But he made philosophy part of the poem rather than the poem part of philosophy.
Q: Tell us about your other great teacher at Harvard, John Kelleher.
A: He had been a junior fellow here. I didn’t know anything about Irish literature, so I first took Kelleher’s course in Irish poetry and prose. Then I went on to his seminar on Yeats.
I got very much interested in Yeats’ “system,” as it was called. Blake had written “I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man’s.” Yeats edited Blake, and perhaps that led him to create his own system, under the title “A Vision.”
My dissertation, which became my first book, was on that system and its connection to his late plays. I wasn’t interested in the plays as drama at that moment; I wanted to explain how Yeats was structuring his imaginative universe with its peculiar psychological system of gyres, and phases of the moon, and historical change.
Q: So we’re back to geometry in a sort of way, aren’t we?
A: Yes. [Laughter.] The cones and the cylinders.
Q: Was being a woman a detriment along the way in your early career?
A: Yes, with some people. One had to have one’s study card signed by the department chair. I walked in and introduced myself: “I’m Helen Hennessy.” His immediate reply: “You know, we don’t want you here, Miss Hennessy. We don’t want any women here.” That was my welcome to Harvard graduate school.
Hearing from a friend, 13 years later, that I still remembered that encounter, he stopped when our paths crossed at the MLA and brought it up. I tried to say that it was water under the bridge, but he insisted: “No, I was wrong. I apologize.”
There were lunacies everywhere that went with being a woman. When I arrived to teach at Cornell, for instance, I couldn’t have lunch with my husband because women faculty were not permitted to be members of the Faculty Club. It was exclusively male. That was in 1960. The following year, largely because of lobbying by some admirable men in the club, we were admitted by a vote of 52 to 48. A narrow victory.
Q: Your first book was published while you were at Cornell. Can you say why you wrote books on single poets (Yeats, Stevens, Herbert, Keats, Shakespeare, Heaney, Dickinson)?
A: I can understand poets only one by one: They are too idiosyncratic to be lumped together.
Each book had a polemical purpose: to declare that Yeats’ “system” had powerful poetic implications; to argue that Stevens’ long poems were not “ponderous and elephantine”; to contest the belief that Herbert could be appreciated adequately only by a faithful son of the church; to show that Keats’ odes had been insufficiently well read, and were in fact interconnected as a series; to assert that Shakespeare’s sonnets, all 154 of them, not merely the famous ones, deserved individual commentaries; to offer an alternative to the Irish political criticism that had neglected Heaney as a poet; and to suggest that Dickinson’s harsher and more difficult poems could, and should, be read by a wider public.
Q: All these years later, after decades of poetry scholarship, what still sustains you?
A: What always did: reading, thinking, writing, teaching. And life itself: bringing up a son, seeing tragedy in the family, being granted friendship — all of life feeds into one’s responses to poetry.
Q: Is your sense of the state of the humanities as hopeful and expansive as it was 20 or 30 years ago?
A: We’re going through a kind of convulsion, at the moment, in which we are thought of as useless.
Q: Is that connected to how English and related subjects are taught?
A: Elementary and high school literary education in the United States is pretty awful, for many reasons, historical and cultural. Poetry is taught in the schools in a completely irrational way — a unit on this and a unit on that. There’s no rational progression to advanced learning in the subject. Science and mathematics textbooks have progressions that reinforce each other, whereas poetry “units” are not progressive, do not build on each other, and present a sanitized curriculum. In many schools, my students tell me, poetry has been dropped altogether.
Q: Yet poetry and the arts can be so liberating. You once referred to first studying literature as an escape from “religious incarceration.”
A: In the Roman Catholic community in which I was raised, girls had no possibility of leaving home. I had no independent means. And, in a Catholic home, the only conceivable futures for a girl were to be a nun or a nonworking mother or an elementary school teacher or a spinster caring for aging parents. If you married, your husband would be a good Catholic, and you would have “as many children as it pleased God to send you.” That was the way it was put. I didn’t want to be any of those things.
I had never been out of my childhood environment. I knew nothing of the world, and had in effect been raised in the Middle Ages. I couldn’t imagine what my life might become. I had no role models for single life except the nuns. I didn’t know any women who were living a life that entailed the kind of thoughts and reading that I was already engaged in. I just didn’t know where you went if you were that sort of woman. My parents always intended me to go to college, but never spoke of a later career in the world.
Q: But on the other hand, you talked about growing up in perhaps a self-created world in which words had great power and meaning very early on. I think you talked about, what, saying your first word at age —
A: Nine months. [Laughter.]
I think [awakening to words] is like awakening to any other precocious appetite.
I once asked Seamus Heaney what he did with the part of his mind that wrote poems before he wrote poems. Right away came the answer, “marquetry”: little pieces of wood all fitted into little puzzle shapes. And of course that’s exactly like the surface of a poem. You have to get all the words dovetailed and matching and get the right sizes together and the right colors in the right place.
But then [Heaney] paused, and I saw that marquetry wasn’t the whole answer. And then he said, “Fishing: the leisure of trawling around the bottom to see what, if anything is going to make a jerk on the line.” And I thought that a wonderful answer: marquetry and fishing, surface and depth.
Q: You have referred to the structure of lyric poetry as concentric.
A: Well, it’s concentric and vertical, I would say. It’s like a well: You have to keep going down in the same place. You don’t arrive anywhere, as in linear narrative; you’re not fighting anything, as in drama; but you are trying to get down deeper, to explore and evacuate a site of feeling.
Q: That goes along with your idea of lyric poets as inventors, constant reinventors of our beautiful poetic genres.
A: I was just saying that in class about Seamus. No genre escaped him unchanged —the sonnet, the elegy, the pastoral, the villanelle, the journey poem, the protest poem, the poem of the invisible.
Elegy is such a well-known form, but who before Heaney would have elegized bog bodies as he did in “The Grauballe Man”? To take those arresting bodies that have been dead for hundreds of years and write about them as sculptural and tragic: Nobody had done that before.
The Catholic tradition out of which Seamus came assigns the dead to an afterlife; but Seamus portrays them as bodies slowly decaying in the earth, partially preserved into an eerie beauty by the tannin and the peat. … His poetry is always a rebellion, but a rebellion within the tradition: one afterlife against another.
Q: Somewhere along the line you decided that you weren’t a poet yourself.
A: I wrote poems from the time I was 15 until the time I was 26. And I took them seriously; I made them as good as I could. But then — it must have been when I was in graduate school — I came across a sentence of Coleridge’s talking about “that perpetual reverie in which I live.” I thought, “What can that mean, to live in a perpetual reverie, to inhabit an incessant internal dream?”
I think I didn’t know what a life of reverie was. I was, as they say these days, a task-oriented person. It gives me a sense of completion of the day to have finished something. But of course true art is never finished: the imagination is for artists a place of alternative life. I don’t have that kind of imagination: I have a more analytic mind, which is, I suppose, why math and science appealed to me in my youth, and why literary criticism became my natural field.
Q: You’ve lived through an era in which poetry was taught differently, perhaps better than it is now. Are we missing something?
A: I don’t feel as though things are better or worse. Present or past, for any art, there are many responders, as with wine: There are expert wine tasters, with much experience; and then people who like a good wine; and then people like me who can’t tell one wine from another. In every field the mediocre are around, the incompetent are around, the gifted are around.
Q: Yet the humanities seem to have less power in our culture than they have ever had.
A: In learning, everything depends on reading. Whether you’re going to do science or history or anything else, adult intellectual accomplishment depends on being able to read widely and well and with enjoyment.
Judging by the results from the schools, few children are proficient in reading at the fourth grade. They don’t read fast, they don’t read with understanding, they don’t read with appetite. If you’re not a good reader by the time you’re in the fourth grade, you’re probably never going to be one.
I wish we could have, for the first four grades, the children taught “reading” in every conceivable form: singing, putting on plays, reciting, looking up words in the dictionary, memorizing, reading aloud, being read aloud to. They could learn verbal rhythm by marching and singing and dancing. For the first four years, the chief aim would be perfecting reading, in all these ways. Then the children could undertake other subjects — when they could actually read history, read geography, read science.
If we could induce children to read with pleasure, and to feel the connection between thought and expression, their education could progress. … With immersion in reading practices, all becomes possible.
Q: Did you ever imagine yourself doing anything else?
A: I seriously thought I might be a doctor. I would have enjoyed the act of diagnosis. Any medical case is a puzzle until suddenly the elements come together and click into shape just as poems do.
Q: Why lyric poetry now? You discovered a “why” in your youth. Is there still a “why”?
A: Yes, because it is the most precise articulation of “the history and science of feeling” (Wordsworth). It is a ground of reality. God knows television and video games can’t be the ground of emotional reality.
Lyric poetry still seems to me, in its seamless fusion of imagination and technique, the symbolic ground of a comprehensive and constantly changing enactment of the life of consciousness.
Q: You know, I’ve come to think of that as being the fundamental gift of the humanities — to defy the idea that there is one truth.
A: Art is anti-ideological from the start. When ideology dominates, you publish Pravda. As our poet A.R. Ammons says, [poetry] is like water going through your fingers — “uncapturable and vanishing.” And people don’t like the uncapturable and the vanishing, by and large; they respond to more solid direction, whether religious, moral, or political.
Q: Practitioners of the humanities have to sell the idea of that handful of moving water, shaped briefly to the hand, and then gone. But what about colleges and universities faced with shrinking humanities faculty departments and research money?
A: In our pioneer country, useful people were prized, and useless people were not. The dissenters who came here were not from the aristocracy. They didn’t bring over the amusements of the elite, the court entertainments of music and madrigals and masques. Those things seemed to the dissenters to be dissolute practices of the indifferent aristocracy. There was a deep suspicion here of the arts and secular learning as distractions that took people away from God and religious duty.
Q: Do you think embracing the humanities, embracing enduring forms of art and culture, is something that America will grow into?
A: Yes, after we’re a thousand years old. Europe is a thousand years old, and has become proud of its cultural patrimony. We eventually will be proud of ours.
We don’t teach our great poetry in the schools. We don’t teach our great art in the schools. We don’t teach our great music in the schools. We don’t yet have a sense of an American aesthetic and scholarly achievement that we must transmit as part of our being in the world.
Helen Vendler
Vendler holds a Seamus Heaney poem cast in bronze, a gift from the poet.
Q: Yet the decline of interest in the humanities seems to be international.
A: That’s the result — though not necessarily a linked result — of modernity and democracy. Modernity requires usable engines, from atom bombs to space stations. And democracy is thought to require that you not teach anything that not everybody can understand.
Q: Has the rise of visual culture taken a toll on the humanities?
A: Yes: Everyone can look, even if not profoundly. But not everyone can read, or read complicated texts.
Q: That form of looking, that incessant presence of things to look at, moving things to look at, seems to be anti-reverie —
A: It’s anti-reverie and it’s also anti-literacy and anti-conversation. You can’t be reading while you’re looking, and you can’t be looking while you’re reading. Nor can you converse intimately while the screen is occupying your attention. Nor can you write while you’re watching something visual. On the other hand, both the Web and TV offer so much to bright children who don’t find those texts or images at home or at school. A smart, hungry pupil can have the best public library in the world at hand. That can’t be bad for America.
Q: There is this inbuilt hunger to learn. You can’t crush that.
A: No. Students may be learning in different fields in different eras. In Shakespeare’s time the main way you could advance was to be trained verbally. The indispensable skills were oratory, eloquence. These days, not even the “best” schools offer that intense training in language: social status is not gained by translating Greek and Latin.
The studies that are prized in the way of learning now are indeed the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] subjects, just as the arts of reading and writing were praised and prized in the Renaissance. Our era will discover new aspects of learning: You won’t get Shakespeare’s plays, but you may get the explanation of dark matter. I don’t regret this, as long as there’s support for earnest students of any bent.
Q: Even if that something isn’t poetry, perhaps?
A: There were whole centuries without much brilliant poetry. Whenever warfare occupies the resources of the state, there is less support for the arts, less patronage available for poets. Poetry may suddenly become important again here, as it did during the political troubles of Ireland and Poland not long ago.
Q: You refuse not to have hope, don’t you?
A: I just have faith in the gene pool. The gene pool is always casting up musicians, poets, people who want to create theater, as well as scholars and teachers.
Q: Is there something that you’d like to add about where you came from?
A: An intellectually hungry and often dissatisfied and rebellious young person will look around for wherever there is fosterage — libraries, teachers, concert halls. But you have to start with a yearning for knowledge and delight.