Reading some poetry magazines is a bit like going to jumble sales. You have to disentangle each object mentally from it surroundings -often dreary and ask yourself whether you really like it. Though very little of the poetry is very bad, and quite a lot is good, the total prospect is mildly depressing. Poets handing out their work in the streets are so unlikely to be read, and poets published in faint-inked, foamy-papered pamphlets have only a bit more hope. And
publication in a spruce Arts Councilsponsored magazine is almost an admission of defeat; people who have paid already for you to be published may not want to pay again to read you.Yet so many people write poetry and enjoy writing it. And so many poems are defenceless and diary-like, as though it's the feeling that counts and not the technique, and the function of writing a poem is to lance the boil and feel better, or frame a perception and hang it on the wall and feel creative. Perhaps it is. Robert Graves once said that the only reason poets write is that, like oysters, they secrete a pearl round an irritation (only he put it better). This idea of poetry as a biological necessity is attractive, but misleading in that it suggests that it is something any oyster can do. Men may make startling beautiful excrescences out of language, but it is conscious or semiconscious hard work.
Agenda (edited by William Cookson, at 5 Cranbourne Court, Albert Bridge Road, London SW11) has always been good at stringing together beautiful excrescences and discussing how they are made. The winter 1977-78 issue is devoted entirely to translation of French poetry, with some reviews and French-inspired poems. The translations range, as the editorial puts it, `from "afar", through imitation, version to full-blooded representation', and in time from Guillaume IX of Aquitaine (10711127) to the present century. `We hope the thing they have in common is that they produce poems in English.' Presumably `good' has been modestly left out.
The variety of approaches to translation provides many opportunities to ponder on the nature of poetry and of French and English poetry. It is fascinating to compare, for instance, Keith Bosley's metrical and rhymed translation of Bertrand de Born's 'Be-m platz lo gais temps de Pascor' with a freer, unrhymed version such as Sally Purcell's (in her Provencal Poems, 1969). The poem starts as an Easter poem but quickly turns into a celebration of the noble pastime of making war. Each verse in the original has not only the same rhyme scheme but the same rhymes; Bosley follows the scheme but of necessity introduces some different rhymes in individual verses, and a couple of half-rhymes. His last verse shows how this does echo the cymbal-clash of the Provencal but introduces some insoluble problems: 'I tell you, I have no such joy/ In food or drink or feather beds/ As when I hear the shout "Ahoy!"/ All round, and horses rear their heads/ Neighing in thickets, when/ I hear the cry "Help! Help! Bring aid!"! And when I see in ditch and shade/ Both great and small struck down/ And see on broken pikes conveyed/ The dead, and human bonfires made.' The problems: `Ahoy' is too nautical: `Help! Help! Bring aid!' is a little funny; the movement of the verse is altered by the needs of rhyme in the original, both the short lines end with a good heavy rhyming word (l'ombratge and l'herbage).
Another metrical and rhymed translatiOn
in Agenda is a resounding success — Peter Dale's of Valery's 'Ebauche d'un Serpent',
a monologue by Satan in the Garden of Eden. It steers past the pitfalls of rhyme with insolent ease, and when forced to add a word that is not in the original makes you wonder whether it ought to have been; as when, addressing the sun, and rhyming with 'soul', the serpent is made to say '0 King of flame by shade made whole' for '0 roi ,des ombres fait de flamme'. The more explicit complementariness of evil and good goes well with the serpent's gleeful con sciousness of his power as 'comparable to Necessity'. The poem's glittering intellectual sensuousness, a. French rather than an English quality, comes through convincingly in this nonchalant, slightly Americanised version, just repellent and brittle enough.
The other poets translated are Jean de la Ceppede, Gerard de Nerval, Corbiere, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Frenaud, Reverdy, Follain, Anne Hebert and Henri Meschonnic; in some versions the struggle shows, but many do make 'poems in English'.
Entertaining and critical obeisances to John Heath-Stubbs make up most of the
Number 10 1978 issue of Aquarius (pub
lished by Eddie Linden, Flat 3,116 Sutherland Avenue, London W9), this issue edited by the poet Sebastian Barker, who con tributes a brisk penetrating editorial and a more private but equally pithy com munication on poets and history. John Heath-Stubbs is monolithic and aweinspiring and, in case you didn't know, has
written a triumphantly readable, learned and parodic, serious and funny epic poem cum verse-play about King Arthur in twelve cantos called Artorius — a baroque pearl if there ever was one, though I don't think he would like the term. His self-deflating amusement and yet the gravity and skill with which he does his job are affectionately appreciated in this issue by contemporaries, pupils and co-poets. He is seen, rightly, as one of the long line he makes his two bards claim to be in their endless riddles in Artorius: ... I marked the curfew in the
churchyard of Stoke Poges;/ I saNif the ladder between Heaven and Charing Cross;/ I howled like a dog in the cloisters of Chichester;/ I was in the firmament at the fall of Hyperiorn/