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Saturday, 28 July 2012

The Man Who Walked Through Walls

The Man Who Walked Through Walls

In 1960 Bantam Books brought out a collection of stories the full title of which was: French Stories: A Bantam Dual-Language Book. The cover promised “Ten short stories by Voltaire, Balzac, Gide, Camus and others in the original French and a new English translation.” One of those “others’ was Marcel Aymé. Never heard of him? Me neither and yet this is what the introductory essay had to say about him:

American reviewers of translations of the works of Marcel Aymé did not hesitate to call him one of the best French writers of the day. This high praise would startle the leading literary critics in France who have never granted him the importance they give to other writers of his generation: Sartre, Giono, Malraux, Queneau, Céline, Blanchot.[1]

The essay goes on to catalogue his works. As he lived until 1967, Bantam’s list is incomplete but all you have to do is look at Wikipedia (the French entry is more comprehensive) or his IMDB page to see that the man was no slouch and films based on his writings are still being made. The work that most people will have heard of—those who have heard of Aymé at all—will be his 1943 short story ‘Le passe-muraille’. It has been filmed four times (in 1951 as Mr. Peek-a-Boo, in 1959 as Ein Mann geht durch die Wand, in 1971 as Le passe-muraille and, in 2007 as The Wall-Passer), it was turned into a musical in 1997 by Didier Van Cauwelaert and Michel Legrand and an English language version, renamed (oddly, I think) Amour, was given to the Music Box Theatre in New York on October 20th 2002. Numerous translations exist of the original story and it is the title story in a new collection just released by Pushkin Press with the much cleaner title of The Man Who Walked Through Walls.

The collection contains ten stories, all about the same length, roughly thirty pages apiece, so these are substantial works. Time is taken to develop characters and describe things in sufficient detail to entertain you without risking boring you with endless descriptions of the corners of rooms. Mostly the time is taken up by pure wordiness and there’s not a story here that couldn't be cut in half and still work but this is a book that’s more interested in the journey than the destination. So if you’re looking for twists in the tail endings go read some O. Henry or Roald Dahl. These are not cleverly-plotted tales. These are simple stories, straightforward linear narratives for the most part, the majority of which—all but two a far as I could see—contain some fantastical element which is explored in a What if… fashion.

The French entry for The Twilight Zone makes interesting reading because the author compares the style of the show to the writing of the Italian writer Dino Buzzati, the Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges and our friend Marcel Aymé. All three have written works that could be described as magic realism. Borges is well known but the other two, to English readers at least, not so much. I liked this quote by Buzzati:

It seems to me, fantasy should be as close as possible to journalism. The right word is not "banalising", although in fact a little of this is involved. Rather, I mean that the effectiveness of a fantastic story will depend on its being told in the most simple and practical terms.[2]

Aymé could have written that. He reports the facts and succeeds admirably in not sensationalizing them.

Out of the hundred or so stories which he produced during his career, about fifty contain some element of the fantastic or marvellous, whether expressed as children’s fables, contemporary fairy tales, philosophical allegories or social satire.[3]

Here is how The Man Who Walked Through Walls begins:

le_passe_murailleIn Montmartre, on the third floor of 75b Rue d’Orchampt, there lived an excellent gentleman called Dutilleul, who possessed the singular gift of passing through walls without any trouble at all. He wore pince-nez and a small black goatee, and was a lowly clerk in the Ministry of Records. In winter he would take the bus to work, and in fine weather he would make the journey on foot, in his bowler hat.

Dutilleul had just entered his forty-third year when he discovered his power. One evening, a brief electricity cut caught him in the hallway of his small bachelor’s apartment. He groped for a while in the darkness and, when the lights came back on, found himself outside on the third-floor landing. Since his front door was locked from the inside, the incident gave him food for thought and, despite the objections of common sense, he decided to go back inside just as he had come out, by passing through the wall. This peculiar skill, apparently unrelated to any aspiration of his, rather disturbed him. So, the next day being Saturday, he took advantage of his English-style five-day week to visit a local doctor and explain his case. The doctor was soon persuaded that Dutilleul was telling the truth and, following a full examination, located the cause of the problem in helicoid hardening of the strangulary wall in the thyroid gland. He prescribed sustained over-exertion and twice-yearly dose of one powdered tetravalent pirette pill, a mixture of rice flour and centaur hormones.

You’d think he’d gone to see the doctor with some unusual medical condition like losing consciousness every time he laughed or suddenly becoming allergic to water. Unusual, yes, but nothing more. And yet here the doctor has both the explanation and the cure; he treats the man’s intangibility as if it were a mere virus. If Dutilleul chooses to take the cure which he does not because it wouldn’t be much of a story if he did, got better and went about his life as if nothing had happened. So what would you do if you could walk through walls? You could do like Kitty Pryde did and join the X-Men when she discovered that she could phase but Dutilleul is no hero. Then is he a villain? "With great power comes great responsibility," says Voltaire via Stan Lee via Uncle Ben to Peter Parker. Just how responsible is Dutilleul going to be though?

In Sabine Women the protagonist has a different superpower:

On the Rue de l’Abreuvoir in Montmartre there lived a young woman named Sabine who had the gift of ubiquity. She could, at will, multiply herself and exist simultaneously, in both body and mind, in as many places as she pleased. Since she was married and this rare gift would only have worried her husband, she had been careful not to reveal it to him and hardly used it except at home, and only when she was there alone. In the morning, for example, while doing her make-up, she would double or triple herself in order better to inspect her face and body in various attitudes. The inspection over, she would hurriedly gather herself together again, that is she would merge back into one single person. Some wintry or very rainy afternoons when she had little desire to go out, Sabine might also multiply herself into ten or twenty, which would allow her to hold a lively, animated conversation that was, after all, no more than a conversation with herself.

Eli HeroesShe accepts her ability in an incredibly matter-of-fact fashion. No explanation is given as to why she has this gift but, like Dutilleul, she keeps it to herself. The power of replication as it tends to be known—“ubiquity” is a bit cumbersome—is not new. Eli, one of the carnies in Heroes, could clone himself at will. Unlike your typical superhero stories the only problems that Sabine—and Dutilleul in the first story—have to face are problems of their own making. In Sabine’s case living one life becomes unimaginable. But where do you stop? Two lives? Ten? Forty-thousand?

No superpowers in the third story, Tickets on Time—the twist in reality is one that everyone has to face. As Jules Flegmon, the story’s narrator, records in his diary which forms the structure for this story:

10th February

A ridiculous rumour is going round the neighbourhood about new restrictions. In order better to anticipate shortages and to guarantee improved productivity in the working portion of the population, the authorities are going to put unproductive consumers to death; unproductive meaning: older people, retirees, those with private income, the unemployed and other superfluous mouths.

As a writer, much to his consternation, he is informed that he is not exempt from the new directive:

13th February

This is infamous! Abuse of justice! Vile murder! The decree has just been published in the newspapers and there it appears that those “consumers whose maintenance is offset by no real contribution” include artists and writers! I could understand, at a pinch, if the measure were to apply to painters, sculptors, to musicians. But to writers! This exposes an inconsistency, an aberration, that will remain the crowning shame of our era. For, you see, writers’ utility goes without saying, my own above all, I may say in all modesty. Yet, I shall have the right to only two weeks of life per month.

This is administered by means of a ticket system. What happens during the other fortnight is never fully explained—neither the science nor the mechanisms—nevertheless we now get to see a world—not that unlike the one in the recent film In Time—where people have to make the most of the time they have (especially the “Jews [who] are allotted half a day of life per month.”) Needless to say an energetic black market springs to life overnight. Life is no longer priceless. There are no ill effects to this “relative death”—which becomes the fashionable expression for the time spent in nonexistence—although there are some moments of embarrassment:

3rd June

What an adventure! My train being very much delayed, the temporary death caught me a few minutes before coming in to Paris. I revived in the same compartment, but by then the carriage was in a siding in Nantes. And, of course, I was completely naked. Such bother and vexation I have had to go through—it still makes me see red. Luckily, I was travelling with an acquaintance who had my clothes sent home ahead of me.

When I first read this I didn’t put two and two together. It was only as I was researching this article that I suddenly realised that this wasn’t simply an gerbeentertainment. There is much more going on just beneath the surface. How could I have missed the fact that this was written during the German occupation of France? This story was first published in La Gerbe, an avowedly pro-Nazi newspaper, before being included in this collection and would have needed the rubber stamp of the German censors to make it into print.

Presumably it passed German censorship and the editorial control of La Gerbe … because it was perceived as an entertainment. Making light of shortages, or deriding those who exploited them, was, in fact, not uncommon during the Occupation, as popular songs like Georgius’s ‘Ella a un stock’ and Ferdandel’s ‘Les Jours sans’ amusingly demonstrate. Rationing cards were introduced in France from 1940 and were to remain in force for over a decade. The card in Aymé’s story rations not commodities, but life itself; the tickets it contains are each worth twenty-four hours’ existence.[4]

There is nothing to suggest that Aymé’s sympathies lay with the Germans but voluntarily allowing his work to appear in La Gerbe and other similar collaborationist newspapers did him no favours and it looks as if the underlying messages in his stories were missed. Accordingly, but also because of his outspoken criticism of what he considered the hypocrisy of left-wing France after the war, he was blacklisted, along with many other writers, and his work was ignored for years.

The fourth story in the book The Problem of Summertime is, to my mind, the most Twlight Zone-esque of all the stories. It also revolves around time. In this case the deep philosophical issues raised by the notion of daylight savings time or summer time:

At the height of the war, the warring powers’ attention was distracted by the problem of summertime, which it seemed had not been comprehensively examined. Already it was felt that no serious work had been carried out in this field and that, as often happens, human genius had allowed itself to be overruled by habit. On first analysis, what seemed most remarkable was the extraordinary ease with which the time could be moved forward by an hour or two. On reflection, nothing prevented its being moved forward by twelve or twenty-four hours, or indeed by any multiple of twenty-four. Little by little, the realisation spread that time was under man’s control. In every continent and in every country, the heads of state and their ministers began to consult philosophical treatises. In government meetings there was much talk of relative time, physiological time, subjective time and even compressible time. It became obvious that the notion of time, as our ancestors had transmitted it down the millennia, was in fact absurd claptrap.

What happens here is simple enough.

It was decided that, throughout the world, time would be put forward by seventeen years.

Again, on the surface, this is just the basis for a funny story but there is a serious undercurrent here because when Germany defeated France in 1940 they literally did change time. Time was switched to Central European time (where it remains to this day despite only being across the channel from Greenwich).

This is an Aymé story though so it’s not a simple matter of changing the year from 1942 to 1959. No. Everything that would have happened in those intervening years is now deemed to have happened in an instant:

Events that should have occurred during that long period so suddenly conjured away were inscribed in everyone’s memories. Each remembered, or rather thought he remembered, the life he believed he had led during those seventeen years. The trees had grown taller, children had been born, people had died, others had made a fortune or been ruined, the wines had aged, regimes had crumbled, quite as if everybody’s life had taken the usual time to happen. The illusion was perfect.

What happens if—and this is where things get interesting—due to a bureaucratic error, a small village isn’t informed about the jump in time? We get to see what happens when our narrator visits the village of Jura to see “an old composer friend, who had retired to his native village where, for five or six years now, he had been spending his days as a serious invalid” and how he is affected once he returns to the new time stream. Time travel has been a common plot device in science fiction since the late 19th century so there’s nothing new here if the story is read as straight science fiction rather than the shrouded commentary that it actually is.

Although flights of fancy on one level, these last two stories—along with the final story in the collection While Waiting—all deal specifically with the privations caused by the occupation of France by the Germans. The reason it is agreed to jump forward seventeen years is to end the war in one fell swoop:

The war was long. They didn’t know when it would end. But would it one day end? All sides believed they would triumph, but feared that it might take a while.

The figure of seventeen years is arrived at because it was generally felt that “[t]his figure would encompass the most extreme

possibilities for duration of the conflict.” The story doesn’t say who won the war. That there are no Germans mentioned in 1959 suggests that Germany lost but it’s obvious that Aymé would have had to choose his words carefully.

Talking about choosing one’s words carefully, a word on the translation: translation is a tricky business. A lot can be lost. Take for example the name of the narrator in ‘Tickets on Time’ – Jules Flegmon. He’s not an especially likeable character and his name reflects it:

Jules can also mean a chamberpot or a pimp, which the word ‘phlegmon’ means a pustulant abscess in French and English. To be called Jules Flegmon is thus as absurd a combination of names as those of other fictional characters such as John Thomas, Lance Boyle and Ernest Everard.[5]

In Bantam’s French Stories they say of Aymé:

Francois_RabelaisHis art is a combination of many gifts. It has the precision of a naturalistic art, the skill in placing an unexpected word, a Rabelaisian tendency towards the obscene and the lusty.[6]

I’m not sure that there was anything in any of these stories that I would describe as “obscene” and the only thing that one might think of as “lusty” is the generally-accepted Frenchman’s casualness towards sex; adultery is talked about in the same tones one might discuss the price of tea in China. So I can only deduce that a lot is lost in the translation and indeed “[m]any argue that his stories are best understood and interpreted in French”[7] which makes it a little sad that he’s been so underappreciated there. Perhaps things are changing. What I can say that after reading Christopher Lloyd’s excellent essay on the story that’s called in this collection ‘Tickets on Time’ it’s clear that translation is not the only problem here: time is. And, as I have said before, that is the problem with satire:

When George S. Kaufman proclaimed that "satire is what closes on Saturday night," he was referring to its ephemeral quality: satire dates quickly. I would add that political satire dates twice as quickly. Probably because the painful realities it mocks are all too immediate, political satire seems particularly funny while it is fresh. But the intensity of satiric humour is often inversely proportional to its durability. Try looking at the opening monologue from last year's Tonight Show. We don't even get the jokes. Or look at any reruns of Saturday Night Live that bash then-current presidents. For every political satire that remains funny, there are a dozen that could be called Saturday Night Dead.[8]

Where Aymé wins out is that his satire rises above its context. Time, for example, is no less important now than it was during the War. How we spend our times is so often dictated by others. It really is too easy to look at these stories as mere entertainments. The fact is that Aymé is an extraordinarily perceptive observer of social and psychological foibles. René Godenne categorises Marcel Aymé as a brilliant practitioner of what he calls "récit plaisant" (which Google translates literally as 'nice story') but that really does his writing a disservice. Between the fantastic and the delightful there is the harsh reality of the occupation and its consequences (poverty, rationing, racketeering); he accurately portrays the society in which he lived: hypocrisy, greed, violence, injustice, contempt, but also camaraderie, kinship, kindness, loyalty and tolerance. The writing is understated: “Aymé would never have bothered to be so crude as to drag a message into his writing.”[9] Rabelaisian doesn’t simply mean bawdy though:

To be Rabelaisian, means to be totally outrageous, raunchy, crude in every way, absolutely stubborn in matters of truth, relentless against hypocrisy, and against all forms of popular opinion; but, also, in a more profound way, it means AXIOM BUSTING.[10]

An axiom is a premise or starting point of reasoning. Aymé turns reason on its head. He does it politely, I’ll give him that, but he does it nevertheless and there’s no better place to examine the ordinary than from the outside.

A few words on some of the other stories then: The Proverb contains no fantastic elements but is a nice little domestic drama revolving around an overbearing father’s insistence on getting too involved in his son’s homework; two stories concern people trying to get past St Peter at the pearly gates—in Poldevian Legend a (frankly) saintly old woman picks the wrong time to die and in The Bailiff, a bailiff gets sent back to earth on a technicality to try to amass sufficient good works to earn admission; The Wife Collector features a tax collector whose grip on reality slips and who starts sending out tax demands for men’s wives (the interesting thing is that many comply); the magical Seven-League Boots of the story’s title are almost a MacGuffin because the story at its core is really a little Dickensian tale about a poor boy and his poor mother and how they each prevail in the face of snobbery, and, lastly, While Waiting introduces us to fourteen people standing in line outside a grocery store who each take their turn to relate how things were for them during the war which, in this vision of France’s future, we learn lasted from 1939 until 1972, not 1945 or even 1959.

Baliffs, tax collectors, queues, poverty— Aymé’s “war fiction highlights French adaptation to economic hardship, with a particular sensitivity to the moral confusion generated by conflict between state economic regulations and individual economic needs. Aymé was acutely aware of the ambiguities, inequities, vulnerabilities, and compromises of life under the German Occupation.”[11] The ending of the last story—which I will not spoil for you—is particularly poignant.

You can read a translation of ‘Le Passe-Muraille’ here and a version of ‘La Carte’ here. Both are by Karen Reshkin and, although they obviously differ from Sophie Lewis’s, they will at least give you a flavour of what you can expect from this new translation.

All in all this was a most enjoyable collection of stories. Aymé has a unique style and I would be happy to read more by him. In addition to this collection Pushkin Press has also iaymema001p1published his novel Beautiful Image in which “its protagonist, a successful married businessman, suddenly finds out that his appearance has been transformed into that of darkly handsome stranger. This leads him to observe his friends and family as an outsider and, among other things, to seduce his own wife—revelatory experiences which lead him to question his former life of comfort and elevated social standing.”[12] I might just give that one a go.

I would like to find out more but there is very little online that’s not in French and the only book on his writing, The Comic World of Marcel Aymé by Dorothy R Brodin, written in 1964, is out of print. Marcel Aymé died in Paris in 1967.


[1] Wallace Fowlie, ed., French Stories: A Bantam Dual-Language Book, p.246

[2] Restless Nights - Selected Stories of Dino Buzzati, introduction by L. Venuti

[3] Christopher Lloyd, ‘Marcel Aymé – “La Carte”’, in J E Flower, ed. Short French Fiction, pp.31

[4] Ibid pp.30,31

[5] Ibid, p.34

[6] Wallace Fowlie, ed., French Stories: A Bantam Dual-Language Book, p.246

[7] eNotes, Marcel Aymé

[8] Elisabeth Weis, ‘M*A*S*H Notes’, Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes, p.311

[9] Across Paris, by Marcel Aymé, The Neglected Books Page

[10] Pierre Beaudry, ‘What Does It Mean To Be Rabelaisian?’, The Schiller Institute

[11] Kenneth Mouré, ‘Marcel Aymé and the Moral Economy of Penury in Occupied France’, French Historical Studies

[12] ‘Marcel Aymé’, Bloggerel, 8th February 2009

Monday, 23 July 2012

The Jaguar's Dream

The Jaguars Dream

A translation is no translation … unless it will give you the music of a poem along with the words of it. – John Millington Synge

When God confused all the languages at Babel he did a right number on us. (Not quite sure what the evolutionary equivalent is. I mean, seriously, what is the benefit of all these different tongues?) Anyone who’s ever watched a film with subtitles realises that what the people are saying and what they’re reading never quite matches up. I even saw one recently where apart from a couple of sentence the entire film was in Norwegian. Whoever did the subtitles also saw fit to translate the two English sentences and got them completely wrong.

We Brits are a bit snobby when it comes to language. When we go abroad we expect everyone else to be bilingual. But how many of us are? The BBC website had this to report back in 2004:

Recruitment firm Office Angels’ poll of 1,500 workers found less than 5% could count to 20 in a second language – even though a majority of the respondents said they would like to live abroad.

Some 80% said they thought they could get by at work because “everyone speaks English.”

In all my life I have only known one person who could speak conversational French. That’s sad. I took French for two years at secondary school and Latin for one but never sat O-Levels in them; mine was the last year before taking a foreign language became compulsory at our school. In 2004, however, the Labour government removed modern languages from the "core curriculum" which means that at the moment at 60% of state schools, three-quarters of 14-year-olds are not taking a modern language.

Michael Hofmann, writing in The Guardian in 2010 had this to say:

When the great Australian poet Les Murray said: "We are a language species", he didn't mean English. We think and are and have our being in, and in and out of languages – and where's the joy and the richness, if you don't even have two to rub together? If you don't have another language, you are condemned to occupy the same positions, the same phrases, all your life. It's harder to outwit yourself, harder to doubt yourself, in just one language. It's harder to play.

There is this strange cluelessness of the English.

English is a square hole that we resolutely try to hammer round pegs into. And that is what another Australian poet, John Kinsella, has tried to do with his new book of “Translations, Adaptations, Versions, Extrapolations, Interpolations, Afters, Takes and Departures.” In The Jaguar’s Dream he takes poets from a huge range of backgrounds and eras, beginning with the Grecian poet Alcman who lived during the 7th century BC and ending with a couple of trans-versions of fellow Australian Ouyang Yu’s poetry. In between there are large chunks of Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Villon, Leconte de Lisle, Baudelaire, Cros, Rimbaud, Rilke and Mayakovsky. An eclectic mix; let’s put it that way. My first thought when I flicked through this was: Who exactly is this book for? There are those who assume that if you like poetry that you like all poetry but I can assure you that’s not the case, certainly not with me. But these are translations so whose poetry is this exactly? Well, Kinsella thinks they’re his now. He says in the book’s introduction:

In the end, they are “my” poems, insofar as my own biography and experience inform their references, conceits and dynamic equivalents.


[It] is really as much a book of “my” own poetry as it is an attempt to bring the work of poets from other languages I admire into the language I speak and think with most days.


No language is fixed, not even dead languages. And I’d like to think that these poems are part of the language they came out of as much as the language they’re made over into. It’s all flux, and flux is where this poet revels and discovers. Ultimately, the many different approaches to “translation” used in this book are really different ways of engaging with poetry in “other” languages. And these engagements are driven by deep curiosity, fascination and even obsession.

I have never tried to translate a poem into English before. I have tried to translate my own poetry into French but I doubt I did a very good job of it. Google Translate would do as good a job as I did but there wasn’t even an Internet when I had my go. I wasn’t sure how to go about reviewing this book because I’m really not qualified to comment on the standard of his translations nor is there any point in criticising his choices since the majority are great poems by great poets. What I decided to do was take one poem from each of the major languages represented in the collection and have a look at the original, what’s been done with it before by others and what John’s done. It was an interesting and time-consuming exercise.



AlcmanThe first poem in the collection is a reworking of a fragment of a poem by the Greek poet Alcman. It is a poem that must have something going for it to have survived 2700 years and has been translated numerous times. But how accurately? Here is the original poem followed by a transliteration with the help of Google Translate and my friend Andrew McCallum Crawford who teaches in Greece since Google wasn’t quite up to the job. Where there was not a single suitable English word I’ve enclosed the phrase in brackets:


Φαράγγια, λόφοι και βουνά, χαράδρες, δες, κοιμούνται
και τα ερπετά της μαύρης γης καθόλου δεν κουνιούνται.
Των μελισσών το γένος δες, στον ύπνο που εγλυκάθη,
τα κήτη μες στης θάλασσας της σκοτεινής τα βάθη,
των μακροφτέρουγων πουλιών το σμήνος που εβουβάθη.

Gorges hills and mountains ravines see sleep
and the reptiles of black land [at all] not moves
Of bee the genus see in sleep that [felt sweetly satisfied]
the cetaceans inside joined sea of dark the depths
of long-winged bird the flock that [became silent]

So, where would you start? I suppose the first thing would be to try and restructure the sentences so that they make sense in English. Let’s just take that first line to see how other’s have tackled it before we look at what John did. It doesn’t look as if we’d need to do much with it, does it? And yet…

They sleep, the mountain crags and gullies,
headlands and brooks,

        Trans. Rosanna Warren (full poem here)

The mountain summits sleep, glens, cliffs, and caves
Are silent;

        Trans. Thomas Campbell (full poem here)

Over the drowsy earth still night prevails;
Calm sleep the mountain tops and shady vales,
The rugged cliffs and hollow glens;

        Trans. Colonel Mure (full poem here)

The mountains sleep, the valleys and peaks,
The jutting headlands, the tumbling creeks,

        Trans. Lionel Casson (full poem here)

Now sleep the mountain peaks and chasms,
The crags, the promontories;

        Trans. J M Edmonds (full poem here)

The mountain brows, the rocks, the peaks, are sleeping,
Uplands and gorges hush!

        Trans. Edwin Arnold (full poem here)

Okay, styles of poetry have changed over the years and it’s obvious that some of these have been tweaked so that they fit in with contemporary views of rhyme and metre—the American classicist Lionel Casson’s jumps out—but which is the most faithful? What has been lost in the translation?

I said that Alcman was Greek but Greek, as with any other language, has its dialects and Alcman wrote in dialect: Doric, Dorian (the so-called Laconian dialect of Sparta) and Aeolic. Glaswegian is a dialect and I’m sure most of you struggle with my ‘Aggie and Shuggies’. I can translate them into English but they lose so much of their character when I do. Would a more ‘faithful’ translation of the first line of Alcman’s poem be:

Thay kip, th' ben crags 'n' gullies, heidlands 'n' burns,

John opted for:

Dormant are pinnacles and streams of the mountains,
Chasms and bluffs

Everyone else goes for ‘sleep’ apart from Thomas Campbell who plumped for ‘silent’. Dormant is not a bad choice. It originates from Old French dormant, from dormir to sleep which comes from the Latin dormīre. Dormant suggests latent but capable of being activated, ergo asleep. But what word jumps to your mind when you think of a ‘dormant…” It’s a volcano, isn’t it which is a mountain that blows its top every now and then. The phraseology isn’t very modern, is it? It sounds like poetry. We’d probably say something like “The gorges, hills and mountain ravines are dormant,” wouldn’t we? So I’m not sure what John’s aiming for here. But then I’m not sure what Alcman was aiming for either; poetry does not state; we have to deduce and read in between the lines. I would bet that he was using personification here and we are supposed to be imagining mountains actually dozing. It’s a virtual cliché, the sleeping mountain. Nounou Mountain in Hawaii is known as Sleeping Giant as is Mount Carmel in Connecticut. So maybe that’s why John chose not to use the obvious symbolism, because nowadays it’s outdated, but then we lose some of the faithfulness of the translation if that is what he was going for.

Here’s John’s complete poem:


Dormant are pinnacles and streams of the mountains,
Chasms and bluffs and crawlers fed by the dark earth;
Dormant are wild animals and that tribe of bees
And monsters out of the sea’s dark syntax;
Dormant are clans of birds with wings that envelop.

Compare that to Casson’s version:

The mountains sleep, the valleys and peaks,
The jutting headlands, the tumbling creeks,
The black earth's teeming creatures that crawl,
The beasts of the forests, the swarms of bees,
The monsters deep in the purple seas,
The wide-winged birds, asleep, one and all.

Has John made the poem his own? Yes, I suppose so. Which is the better poem? It’s a matter of taste. But Alcman was a choral lyric poet and so I suspect that Casson’s feels more like he’s struck the right balance. Remember the opening quote from Synge. Bottom line: I’m not educated enough to say.

Okay I’ve spent a long time on this first poem but I did so for a reason, to illustrate the mountain (sound asleep or not) that John Kinsella had to climb. He will have been faced with a list of words that don’t make sense in English and had to try to get inside the head of a man who has been dead for hundreds of years and whose entire oeuvre has been reduced to a hundred or so fragments of poetry. Difficult call. I’m not sure that any of the translations are any more than versions of the original; takes on it, which is what this final poem is.



Jules SupervielleGreek is completely alien to me; I known Alpha, Omega, Hades, Gehenna and that’s about me. French, on the other hand, I can muddle my way through. Here’s a short poem by Jules Supervielle that I recognised:


Quand nul ne la regarde
La mer n’est plus la mer,
Elle est ce que nous sommes
Lorsque nul ne nous voit.
Elle a d’autres poissons,
D’autres vagues aussi.
C’est la mer pour la mer
Et pour ceux qui en rêvent
Comme je fais ici.

and here’s John’s take on it:


When no one is watching,
The sea is not the sea,
It is what we become
When no one observes us.
It has other fishes,
And also other waves.
It’s the sea for the sea
And for the ones who dream
Of it as I do here.

Try cutting and pasting the original into Google Translate and you’ll see that John’s is almost a transliteration. Voir is usually understood to mean ‘to see’ but it’s a weak word; the implication here is that we’re being surveilled, spied on, mostly likely without our knowledge. So would I have changed voit to ‘observe’? Quite probably. The context suggests that it’s the right word. In this poem the context is much easier to suss out. The language is simple and straightforward. Regarder is usually understood to mean ‘to look at, watch’. In English you’d say that no one was paying any regard to you. Just to say ‘watching’ doesn’t really underline the level of importance you represent; people aren’t watching you because you’re not important enough to watch. I, personally, might have changed that opening line to, “When no one’s paying any mind to it’ but that’s me and this isn’t my poem. How much is this poem John’s though?

There is a tweet going around at the moment: “When no one is looking at her, the sea is no longer the sea. She is what we are when no one sees us. – Jules Supervielle.” Notice the difference? The sea is now a woman and women are often looked at, even spied on. Okay French has no neuter and so someone, somewhere along the line decided that the sea should be feminine but is Supervielle saying, “It is what we become” or “She is what we become”? I think I prefer to think of the sea as a woman we watch, that we pay regard to. It’s more poetic, like a sleeping rather than a dormant mountain. Is this more faithful to the spirit of the original?

No one notices
when the sea is no longer the sea.
She becomes what we all become
when no one’s watching.



rilke6Considering I grew up in Scotland surrounded by people whose language seems to consist entirely of consonants you’d think I would have been drawn to German as a language. I was anything but. My wife took both and has a fondness for the precision of the German language; it’s very German if you see what I mean.

Here’s a poem by Rilke:


Und sie schweigen, weil die Scheidewände
weggenommen sind aus ihrem Sinn,
und die Stunden, da man sie verstände,
heben an und gehen hin.

Nächtens oft, wenn sie ans Fenster treten:
plötzlich ist es alles gut.
Ihre Hände liegen im Konkreten,
und das Herz ist hoch und könnte beten,
und die Augen schauen ausgeruht

auf den unverhofften, oftentstellten
Garten im beruhigten Geviert,
der im Widerschein der fremden Welten
weiterwächst und niemals sich verliert.

Here’s how Google Translate renders this poem:


And they are silent, because the partitions
are taken away from her mind,
and the hours, as she understood it,
lift and go down.

At night many times, when they come to the window:
suddenly it's all good.
Their hands are placed in the concrete,
and the heart is high and could pray,
and rested looking eyes

the unexpected, [often presented]
Calmed square garden,
in the reflection of unknown worlds
continues to grow and never gets lost.

I could only find one other translation online although the translator is not named:

And they say nothing, since the dividing walls
inside their minds have been removed,
and the hours when one would understand them
approach and slip away unstruck.

Sometimes at night, when they step to the window:
suddenly all is well.
Their hands touch the tangible
their hearts are full and fit to pray,
and their eyes gaze restfully

on the unexpected, oft-distorted
garden at peace now in its perfect square,
growing on and on in the reflection
of foreign worlds and never getting lost.

And here’s Kinsella’s version:


And they say nothing, the divisions
removed from their minds,
while the hours, when they are sensed,
lift and leave and are lost.

At night, when they step to the window,
suddenly all is clear.
Their hands rest in the actual,
their elevated hearts can pray,
and their eyes rest tranquilly

on the unexpected, often distorted
garden within the sedated square,
which in the reflected light of other worlds,
increases and never fades away.

God alone knows where Google came up the ‘The Father as a title because the German for ‘father’ is vater. Irren can be translated in a number of ways:

v. stray, wander, roam, deviate; err, make a mistake; be in error, be wrong, be incorrect

n. lunatic, crazy or deranged person, insane person, mattoid

nm. lunatic, crazy or deranged person, insane person

Die Irren literally mean ‘the errers’ but not errors as in mistakes rather err+er+s as in those who err. The closest we have in English would be ‘the mistaken’. The suffix –en, as in German, pluralises the word. I’m not saying that ‘The Lunatics’ is a bad title because it’s not. It’s not neat though. The people in this poem are peripatetic loonies, wandering round the asylum, looking out at its garden. The poem makes that clear but the title does not. At least it does in German because Rilke starts the second stanza with “Nächtens oft”—‘Often at night’—but John’s translation—and the other if it comes to that—misses this, for me, key word.

And again in this poem’s opening line John has opted for a less poetic word than he might have in the first line. Scheidewände comes up consistently as ‘partitions’ rather than ‘division’. Partitions used to be common. Not so much these days. You find them in offices these days rather than homes. They function as room dividers but the important point is that they are meant to keep people separate not simply to break up space.



ouyang yuThe last two poems in the collection are by Ouyang Yu, a Chinese poet now living in Melbourne. They were originally published in Jacket 35 in 2008 and you can read them both here along with the original poems. In these cases John had access to the poet. In his introduction he writes:

I [wrote] “translationese” responses to the Chinese of Ouyang Yu, with minimal understanding of the source language, but a deep (I think I can claim) understanding of Ouyang’s poetry in English (Ouyang Yu composes in both Chinese and English). This approach, with just a few words on intention from Ouyang, plus the original Chinese and a Pinyin version was liberating. The resulting poems were responses to the idea of a Chinese-language poem, and the idea of interaction between us as poets. Almost “translating” blind, and always asking the question, translating what?

Here’s the original followed by what Google Translate threw up followed by John’s poem:


电击了他的 体
他不由 主地激动?动悸动 动乃 动浮动
在另一个 体之上
临死前的所有 现
仿佛从 明中 望了
根?穿 体的 线的中断


A passion like pain
Shock. Body
He help. Excited. Move throbbing. Action is. Move floating
Another. Above the
He realized one.
Before his death. Now
As if from. Out. Look
Body. Line interruption. Root. Wear.
Then poured out of her mouth in all saliva


Also, I divide along the line,
want to arrive swiftly
with light shining through to a depth we cohabitate —
plimsoll, lateral, fish lines to keep
us upright in water cold
as heat, refulgent
and opaque; through it all
I dart, I lengthen my stroke, slice
through turbulence with my fins wide wide

If I thought the Greek was hard then this is impossible. Let’s just look at the last line which contains two logograms. Google provides six possible translations: withdraw, regain, revoke, call in, retake and countermand so where does John get ‘awake’ from? I tried checking each logogram but that only confused me further. This is a poem where all I could do was read it and trust what I was reading.



The book is similar to Tones/Countertones by Philip Cranston which is subtitled, “English Translations, Adaptations, Imitations and Transformations of Short Poetic Texts from the Latin, Italian, French, Spanish and German.” The main difference is that Cranston includes the poem in the original language which Kinsella doesn’t; all the originals I’ve shown above are ones I’ve searched for online. Is this a good or a bad thing? I think this is a good thing because—and I discovered this when I reviewed the last book of poems I got from Alma which was a bilingual edition—I got caught up comparing versions to the determent of the translation which I found I kept picking holes in like I have done above which is fun in its own way but I really don’t think that is what John had in mind for this book. If you happen to be familiar with the original poems here or a different translation of them try to put that knowledge to the side. The poems that are unfamiliar accept as they stand and not as possibly inferior versions of great poems.

CamusMost translators specialise. They get to know two or three languages inside out and spend a lifetime trying to incorporate every nuance into their translations. Some words are simply untranslatable which is why L'Étranger is known as The Outsider in the UK and The Stranger in the States and let’s not get started on the problems slang expressions and idioms throw up. This was why Beckett preferred to do his own translating which involved almost rewriting the texts for the new language. John Kinsella is by his own admission “an English-language poet interested in the boundaries of language as a thing-in-itself, and in exceeding those imagined boundaries and borders wherever possible.” He is not a professional translator. He lives with a polyglot and was brought up by a mother who, he says, “spent her life exploring new languages, studying a few and delighting in all.” That he would attempt a project like this should come then as no surprise. But I don’t think he’ll be adding the title ‘translator’ to his CV any day soon. That is not what this book is about. It is about introducing all of us to the possibilities that exist in foreign poetry. For many poetry in English is hard enough and as far as they will get, and that’s fine, but there will be others who have never heard of poets like Leconte de Lisle or Charles Cros, both of whom are well represented here, but who have read some Baudelaire perhaps or Rimbaud and have a taste for more; this would be a good starting place because French poetry is well represented. Not so many women—actually not any as far as I could see—and Kinsella acknowledges that this is an area he needs to work on in the future.

For me I would rather he had skipped some of the more well-known poems and tackled a few poets whose work needs translating into English—I don’t know, Polish or Icelandic poets—where even an amateur’s sincere efforts would be better than nothing. Who will buy this book is another thing entirely. I’m not sure that fans of Kinsella’s own poetry will rush to grab this unless they are completists. There is too little of him here. Yes, the poems have been filtered through his life experiences and are a result of choices that he has made but all the ones I looked at were too close to existing translations to make me care. The subtitle “Translations, Adaptations, Versions, Extrapolations, Interpolations, Afters, Takes and Departures” promised much—I was expecting much freer takes on these works—but I didn’t really see it although I confess I did not search out more than a handful of poems online from which I selected the five above as illustrations.



kinsellaThere are two biographies on his website. The first is boring, what he’s written, where he’s been published, what awards he’s won, etc., etc. You can read it here. The site also contains an alternative biography which is a bit more interesting and I have reproduced it below but resisted the urge to add in all the capital letters:

i established a prominent email poetry discussion list – poetry etc – some years ago. i am a vegan anarchist pacifist of 16 years. i am editor and international editor of a number of well-known literary journals and have had over 30 books of poetry, prose etc published. i am a literary critic and cultural commentator, based at cambridge university in england, though am at present working as a professor in the u.s. i also hold an adjunct professorship in australia. i am a supporter of worldwide indigenous rights, and an absolute supporter of land rights – without which, i agree, there can be no reconciliation. i am against nationalism and the centralised nation-state – which i see as the root of many evils. i believe that the 'control' of language is the most significant factor in resisting colonisation, invasion, and oppression. i believe in decentralised community living, the equality of humans and animals, and respect for the land. i am totally against any form of violence. and finally, i believe in cultural and gender respect. brothers and sisters together!!

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Writers and intuition (part two)


Intuition is the clear conception of the whole at once – Johann Kaspar Lavater

One poet who has strong opinions on the place of intuition in poetry is Jorie Graham who, in interview, had this to say about the role of intuition and how to read a poem:

Our educational philosophies at present are so desperately specialised, so goal-oriented, we have forgotten that when we teach children we are not teaching content, or even "methods for learning," but rather that we are helping a child's intuition and emotions learn to operate in tandem with his or her conceptual intellect--stoking curiosity, that miraculous power that brings desire to bear on the mind. You can do this through any subject matter. And you effect different variations of that synthesis, that awakening, via different disciplines and fields of knowledge, to be sure. When you give a child poems (remembering, once the silence closes back over the end of the poem, not to ask "what does this mean?" but rather, "what did you feel?" or "what did you see?"), you are opening up different parts of his or her reading apparatus than fiction or drama or journalism open up. In fact, at present, only some forms of advanced science – particle physics for example – allow a young mind to experience the paradox, ambiguity, irrational thought, associative "leaping" any good poem teaches us to think and feel in. It opens those synapses in the brain. It always has. Once open, such minds can think differently in any field.[1]

And in another interview with Thomas Gardner:

JG: I’m often asked, in a kind of aggressive way, why the surfaces have to be so difficult in these poems. Or why I so admire surfaces like The Waste Land’s, or Berryman’s, or Ashbery’s. I think it’s because a resistant or partially occluded surface compels us to read with a different part of our reading apparatus, a different part of our sensibility. It compels us to use our intuition in reading, frustrates other kinds of reading, the irritable-reaching-after kind. I agree with Stevens’s dictum: “the poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully.”

TG: You’re asking us to read differently?

JG: Pollock’s larger murals provide a good example of the process. Because they are painted in such great detail, if you stand far back enough to “see” the whole painting – its wings as it were – you can’t see the actual painting. But the minute you get close enough to see the painting, the dripwork, you can no longer see the whole canvas. Or not with frontal vision. But you can pick up the rest of the painting with peripheral vision – which is, of course, a more “intuitive” part of the seeing apparatus. I think he was doing this consciously – that he was trying to compel us to stand at that difficult juncture of whole and partial visions, subjectivity and objectivity if you will – or at least view-from-above and view-from-middle – historical distance and the present moment – and use our whole seeing mechanism... As with Pollock’s surface, poems with resistant surfaces frustrate frontal vision long enough to compel the awakening of the rest of the reading sensibility – intuition, the body. To my mind (to my hope) that creates a more whole reader, the dissociated sensibility restored to wholeness by the act of reading. Perhaps you could even say the male and female both suddenly awake in you...

TG: There’s some risk in that for the reader, isn’t there?

JG: Yes, because the whole culture requires us to shut that other part down in order to survive – the intuitive, the female, whatever you want to call it. So that it seems to me a very useful political act to write poems in which the resistance of the surface compels that other aspect of our sensibility awake.[2]


The quote from Wallace Stevens is from a poem, the whole of which reads:

Man Carrying Thing

The poem must resist the intelligence
Almost successfully. Illustration:

A brune [brown] figure in winter evening resists
Identity. The thing he carries resists

The most necessitous sense. Accept them, then,
As secondary (parts not quite perceived

Of the obvious whole, uncertain particles
Of the certain solid, the primary free from doubt,

Things floating like the first hundred flakes of snow
Out of a storm we must endure all night,

Out of a storm of secondary things),
A horror of thoughts that suddenly are real.

We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.

The 1927 Nobel Prize laureate Henri Bergson argues that knowledge of the world is cultivated more through the intuition than through rational, analytical investigation. “From intuition one can pass to analysis,” Bergson writes, “but not from analysis to intuition.”[4] I suppose it makes sense. If a poem is created by the conscious mind’s acting on something the unconscious provides – call it a writing prompt if you will – then it would seem reasonable that to decode a poem you also need to allow the unconscious its time with the words so the idea of reading a poem and getting it there and then is rendered impossible. Is that what Stevens means when he writes in that final stanza:

We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.

that we literally need to sleep on it, to allow our unconscious time alone with the words? In the wonderfully named ‘Holiday in Reality’ Stevens includes these lines:

                         to be real each had
To find for himself for his earth, his sky, his sea.

And the words for them…

We all have to make every poem we read our own, in fact we are incapable of not making every poem we read our own; we are co-creators or, at the very least, we are the finishers and polishers. We make them shine. In an essay comparing Shakespeare and Stevens, Dan Schneider noted this:

Great poems work intuitively, more often than not, to convince the undermind that what it says is something the undermind has always known. It allows the reader to feel, briefly, that they have co-authored the poem. But when a poem is obviously another’s thought it is much more difficult to get the reader lulled & gulled into that co-participation, & thereby a sense of possession of the work – to be willing to defend it.[5]

This is, of course, in line with Samuel Johnson’s adage: "A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it." If that is true for novels then it is doubly so for poems.

Stevens wrote the poem in 1945, in direct response to his Ceylon correspondent Leonard van Geyzel's request that he explain "the genuine difficulty that arises out of the enigmatic quality that is so essential a part of the satisfaction that a good poem gives."[6]

It is noteworthy that he adds in the modifier ‘almost’ because, in doing so, what he is saying that intelligence should be resisted, yes, but not defeated. “Resistance is the opposite of escape,”[7] wrote Stevens in ‘The Irrational Element in Poetry’, and in the same essay:

One is always writing about two things at the same time in poetry and it is this that produces the tension characteristic of poetry. One is the true subject and the other is the poetry of the subject. […] In a poet who makes the true subject paramount and who merely embellishes it, the subject is constant and the development orderly. This is true in the case of Proust and Joyce, for example, in modern prose.

The nature of poetry is something that preoccupied Stevens more than most poets. In the twenty second section of ‘The Man With the Blue Guitar’ Stevens shifts the perception of his poem to the subject of poetry:

Poetry is the subject of the poem,
From this the poem issues and

To this returns. Between the two,
Between issue and return, there is

An absence in reality,
Things as they are. Or so we say.

But are these separate? Is it
An absence for the poem, which acquires

Its true appearances there, sun's green,
Cloud's red, earth feeling, sky that thinks?

From these it takes. Perhaps it gives,
In the universal intercourse.

The Man with the Blue Guitar

What he is proposing is that ‘poetry’ and ‘poems’ are two different things. In his essay ‘Frost and Wallace Stevens’ Todd Lieber has a crack at paraphrasing Stevens’ opening lines:

[T]he poetry of the subject, whatever the subject might be, is the true concern of the poem. Within the poem itself there is “an absence in reality” because the poem is not dealing with things as they are but with their potential usefulness as instruments of discovery. But is the poetry of things really separable from the things themselves? Is it accurate to say that the poem withdraws from reality when it in fact asserts the reality of the poetry of things? In the interaction of imagination and reality the poem draws on things as they are; perhaps it also gives to them new forms and shapes, new structures of intelligibility.[8]

In poetry Stevens can give reality certain qualities that are otherwise absent, like a thinking sky, and earth that feels and a green sun which brings us, logically, to Robert Lowell’s dictum: “A poem is an event, not the record of an event.”

Description is revelation.  It is not
The thing described, nor false facsimile.

So wrote Wallace Stevens in ‘Description Without Place’. The thing about words, which is why we need to take great care in their selection, is that they do do more than merely describe. Works evoke. They provoke. They are never up to the challenge. They are always, always, always inadequate. A poem is a crippled thing really. It needs us desperately. We have to get involved.

The limitations of words are revealed in his poem, ‘On the Road’ which begins with:

It was when I said,
"There is no such thing as the truth,"
That the grapes seemed fatter.
The fox ran out of his hole.

You. . . You said,
"There are many truths,
But they are not parts of a truth."
Then the tree, at night, began to change,

and then a couple of stanzas later adds…

"Words are not forms of a single word.
In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts. The world must be measured by eye";

I, as you can tell from the title of this blog, have long had a love-hate relationship with the notion of truth. I don’t believe in truth-with-a-capital-t except as an ideal and, as such, I don’t believe in a word-with-a-capital-w, a Logos, if you will, that can unlock the Truth even though that is exactly what the Bible talks about, a Word through which all things (and therefore all truths) came into existence. And yet truth still captivates me. If I had hold of it I’m sure it would feel lacklustre. Like the girl you’ve always lusted after, when you finally do get your grubby little paws on her she’s just a girl; she doesn’t have anything different to any other girl.

Truth is best kept at a discreet distance, something to be glimpsed peripherally. In ‘Landscape with Boat’ Stevens muses a little more on the nature of (poetic?) truth:

It was not as if the truth lay where he thought,
Like a phantom, in an uncreated night.
It was easier to think it lay there. If
It was nowhere else, it was there and because
It was nowhere else, its place had to be supposed,
Itself had to be supposed, a thing supposed
In a place supposed, a thing he reached
In a place that he reached, by rejecting what he saw
And denying what he heard. He would arrive.
He had only not to live, to walk in the dark,
To be projected by one void into
Landscape with Boat

In my poem ‘Broken Things’ – the one I wrote for my wife – I write:

Some things don't
need a how

or a why.

It feels like a platitude. It’s meant to. But it is also me owning up to my limitations. I don’t know why I love my wife. That I cannot articulate the reason does not invalidate the feeling. On the surface the poems of Wallace Stevens that I’ve highlighted here look like intellectual exercises, things to puzzle out. Well, in a way they are but who says that all the puzzling and working out has to be done consciously?

There are clearly limits to reading and writing. There comes a point in every text that one has to move beyond the words themselves. “There is a point at which intelligence destroys poetry,”[9] Stevens wrote in a letter to Ronald Lane Latimer in 1936. I think he is right if one qualifies that statement and reads ‘intelligence’ solely as ‘conscious reasoning’. He also wrote, to Hi Simons in 1940, “once a poem has been explained it has been destroyed.”[10] The poems that mean the most to me are poems that I have allowed to affect me over time. Yes, poems like ‘Mr Bleaney’ provided me with an aha moment but that wasn’t the end of things. Really that was the beginning because it made me realise there was something there to pursue further.

What I’ve realised from what little research I’ve done so far is that Wallace Stevens is a poet I need to investigate further and his Collected Poems is now in my Amazon shopping basket.

Which bring me, finally, to something called intellectual intuition. A contradiction in terms? Perhaps. It’s all a matter of perspective. Are left and right contradictory? Are male and female contradictory? They can be but they don’t have to be. They can be complimentary. In his short article on intellectual intuition psychotherapist Mel Schwartz notes that…

There is a spirit of masculine energy in intelligence, whereas intuition is thought to be a feminine attribute. This divide becomes furthered even more with the fragmenting of the brain's functions into left and right hemispheres.[11]

He is also of the opinion that “intellect and intuition as differing aspects of the same process. When we incline heavily toward one at the cost of the other, we limit our field of vision.”[12] Needless to say his is not the only opinion. The philosopher Schelling called intellectual intuition "the organ of all the transcendental thoughts" whereas Frithjof Schuon said:

In principle, every man is capable of intellection, for the simple reason that man is man; but in fact, intellectual intuition—the “eye of the heart”—is hidden under a sheet of ice, so to speak, because of the degeneration of the human species. So we may say that pure intellection is a gift and not a generally human faculty.[13]

Of course once we bring eastern philosophy and new age thinking into play the whole thing gets very, very confusing although some of the terminology is wonderful: noetic experiences, transrational thinking, paranoesis, emphatic knowledge. I make no bones about it, the more I read the more confused I got and if anyone out there understands this stuff (Art, I’m talking to you) please don’t try and explain it to me; it makes my head hurt. That said I kept coming back to what Schuon said. In an unaccredited article on the subject of intellection in the Gallup Management Journal the author had this to say:

The theme of Intellection does not dictate what you are thinking about; it simply describes that you like to think. You are the kind of person who enjoys your time alone because it is your time for musing and reflection. You are introspective. In a sense you are your own best companion, as you pose yourself questions and try out answers on yourself to see how they sound. This introspection may lead you to a slight sense of discontent as you compare what you are actually doing with all the thoughts and ideas that your mind conceives. Or this introspection may tend toward more pragmatic matters such as the events of the day or a conversation that you plan to have later. Wherever it leads you, this mental hum is one of the constants of your life.[14]

and I don’t know about you but that pretty much describes me: I like to think. I’m not always consciously thinking about something, I’m just thinking. When Schuon uses the term ‘intellection’, and other thinkers do this too so he’s not alone, it appears that he’s using the term as a synonym for intellectual intuition. I’ve decided how, as a poet, I think. I have no idea if anyone else thinks like me – it’s not as if we can measure this – and the term ‘holistic thinking’ makes sense to me. Now, I have no idea if I’ve heard that expression before or if I just invented it but the fact is that it was too good an expression not to have been thought up and defined before me. And it has:

One of the most common distinctions in the literature on cognitive style is between analytic and holistic styles. Analytic thinking involves understanding a system by thinking about its parts and how they work together to produce larger-scale effects. Holistic thinking involves understanding a system by sensing its large-scale patterns and reacting to them.[15]

I would call that seeing the bigger picture. He continues:

Holistic people often excel in social situations requiring sensitivity, intuition and tact. Their ability to get a general feeling about a situation may open their minds to subtle nuances of complex situations. Using computer jargon, a holistic person might be regarded as a parallel processor. That would be the case if a correct response evolves out of widespread simultaneous activity instead of resulting from a controlled, step by step process.[16]

Jan SmutsHolistic thinking has a history of confused and superficial thought. In 1926 Jan Smuts, a South African statesman, coined the term ‘holism’ to designate “a factor operative towards the making or creating of wholes in the universe;”[17] but the term is now generally associated with the idea that a whole is more than (or different from) the sum of its parts. To my mind that’s what the best poetry is (is more than) and does (is different from) and, of course, someone has already coined the phrase ‘holistic poetry’ before me. (There really is nothing new under the sun.)

Everything boils down to semantics I find. And this is where words let us down again and again and again. In 1988 I wrote the following poem. It’s not the greatest poem I’ve ever written but its inclusion here makes an important point:


It is true that every
seven years we change.

Turning fourteen I started
thinking poetry.

I am now twenty-nine and
safe for six more years.

15 December 1988

I know what I meant when I said I started “thinking poetry” when I was fourteen. I still think poetry. Between August 1991 and April 1994 I didn’t think poetry. I thought like I assumed other people thought, like my dad thought. Who knows how anyone else thinks but I was convinced within myself that I had lost a level of thinking that I had had access to before. Some people might like to mysticise that but just because it was a mystery to me why it was going on (or not going on as the case may be) doesn’t mean there wasn’t a good reason why I was able to think poetry in the first place. I just don’t want to pull it to pieces in case I can’t put it back together again.

I don't know
how clocks work

or time works
or hearts work.

And I don’t know how I work but I work and I’m glad that I do.


[1] ‘The Glorious Thing’, Jorie Graham and Mark Wunderlich in Conversation, American Poet, Fall 1996

[2] ‘Jorie Graham & Thomas Gardner in Conversation’, Regions of Unlikeness: Explaining Contemporary Poetry.

[3] What Stevens originally jotted down in his collection of aphorisms ran quite simply: "Poetry must resist the intelligence successfully." The modifier, 'almost', was clearly an afterthought. (see Bart Eeckhout, Wallace Stevens and the Limits of Reading and Writing, p.27)

[4] Henri Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics.

[5] Dan Schneider, Shakespeare, Stevens, & The Problem With Greatness

[6] Bart Eeckhout, Wallace Stevens and the Limits of Reading and Writing, p.27

[7] Kermode, Frank and Joan Richardson, eds., Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose, p.785

[8] Todd Lieber ‘Frost and Wallace Stevens’ in Edwin Harrison Cady, Louis J. Budd, eds., On Frost, pp.104,105

[9] Holly Stevens, ed., Letters of Wallace Stevens, p.305

[10] Holly Stevens, ed., Letters of Wallace Stevens, p.346

[11] Mel Schwartz, Intellectual Intuition

[12] Mel Schwartz, Intellectual Intuition

[13] This is taken from a transcript of a 1995 interview.

[14] ‘Intellection’, GALLUP Management Journal, 12 September 2002

[15] Dr. Russell A. Dewey, ‘Cognitive Styles’, Psychology: An Introduction, Psych Web

[16] Dr. Russell A. Dewey, ‘Cognitive Styles’, Psychology: An Introduction, Psych Web

[17] Jan Smuts, Holism and Evolution

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