Thursday, May 10, 2012

Language through Language: After an Evening of Persian Poetry at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham

سکوت خواب‌های زیادی دید

(The opening line, in Farsi, of ‘Letter’, by Azita Ghahreman)

How does a poem contain more than one language? It’s a question that fascinates me, and has done for a long time – because it’s to do with the fabric of language itself: how a poem operates both within and beyond the locus of its particular vocabulary (English, Farsi, or whatever it may be). The ‘auditory imagination’ – Eliot’s term for the capacity of poetic language to bend biological time, and fold together the most primordial and the most evolved elements of our being – unites the human species across its cultures, too: not only reaching back to our origins, but to the other possibilities latent in our own tongue. In the poems I write, I actively court the sense that words in English are brushing up against – or even generating – another, unknown language, at once inherent within and completely alien to my own.

One way to become more aware of this supra-verbal component of poetry is to listen to verse in languages you don’t understand – with or without accompanying translations. Last night I went along to a reading of Persian poetry – part of a tour organised by the excellent Poetry Translation Centre, led by Sarah Maguire, and hosted in Birmingham by Writing West Midlands. Happily, the format allowed Farsi and Dari – Persian cousins, linguistically – to be heard alongside their translations into English, setting up a charged space between those languages and my own. That’s a sweet spot for the kind of experience I describe. Knowing no Farsi or Dari myself, I could let the recitations wash over me with a kind of pre-conscious pleasure – having only their sound to know them by – before (or after) I heard the translation that I would understand. I had a similar experience at the Strokestown Poetry Festival in 2005, where I fell in love with the verve of Scottish Gaelic, as read there by Meg Bateman, Rody Gorman and Aonghas MacNeacail (and which left me with a still-unfulfilled craving to get to know that language better.)

Azita Ghahreman, an Iranian poet now living in Sweden, read first, with Sarah Maguire reading Maura Dooley’s tender translations of her work. I noticed the prominence of certain sounds in Farsi – ahr / ohr / ehsht / at / dz, for example – and was struck by the sense of loss, and calling, as well as an allure, in Azita’s reading (which put me in mind of the Portuguese saudade, and the German sehnsucht). It had the authentic aura of invocation. Shakila Azizzada, originally from Afghanistan and now based in the Netherlands, read in Dari, which seemed to carry a different kind of insistence to Farsi – an earthy authority, compared to Farsi’s more aerial appeal. There was one sound – a fusion of ‘j’ and ‘sh’ – which I noticed acted as a hinge in many phrases. Mimi Khalvati read the translations she had made of Shakila’s poems, to quietly forceful effect. Finally, Sarah Maguire read her own deft translations of Partaw Naderi’s work – another Afghan poet – who was originally scheduled to have read at the event. Listen for yourself: a selection of fine pieces from each of these poets – both in English and in their original language – is available to hear and to read through the website of the Poetry Translation Centre. (They are also published in attractive chapbooks.)

In exposing the audience to the frequencies of verse drawn from experiences distant from those of most Britons, the readings last night also galvanised a sense of what is at stake in the work of all three poets: utterance as the mark of survival, and how poetry’s rare sensitivity, articulate complexity – and its very vulnerability – are the foundations of its resilience. The imaginative access that authentic poetry embodies is anathema to tyranny and censorship: as the unique signature of individual experience, it is also the signature of political and intellectual freedom.

Anglophone culture has become somewhat accustomed to living with the lazy notion of the ‘language barrier’ as an insuperable divide, because there is presently so little general pressure on its constituents to learn other languages. But events like last night’s reading of Persian poetry suggest that the language barrier need not be a political barrier (and vice versa). On the contrary: it becomes apparent that such barriers are illusory. Hearing the poetry of another language opens a channel to your own. For me, hearing Farsi and Dari poetry brought home once again the overwhelming importance of the vowel, as the breath of a poem, that makes its body flex and stir: just as in English. You can hear the musical resources of your own language – its possibilities – all the more vividly for hearing poetry at work in another language. It flips the more familiar levels of our receptivity to language, and reveals something universal, playing upon the fact that our bodies are, through and through, organs of communication – and the way any voice reaches beyond the individual, seeking, as if with a life of its own, to form a new bond in another body and mind.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Poetry, Discrimination, and the Spirit of Conversation

Adding a blogospheric comment to a piece by Jon Stone on Fuselit the other day, I made a point that I want to follow up on here. Jon was responding to WilliamWootten’s stimulating article in the TLS, in which Wootten equated Roddy Lumsden’s editorial imperative in Identity Parade – ‘to spread the word, to educate and recommend’ – with ‘undifferentiated plurality’, a term that implies an absolute relativism, unwilling to discriminate on the basis of quality. Wootten is about to publish a book on the poets who came to prominence with the publication of Penguin’s The New Poetry in 1962, edited by Al Alvarez, and he praises a willingness on the part of Alvarez – and Ian Hamilton’s Review – to take strong, contentious positions (for or against) on the poetry they encountered.

Now, I’m all for discrimination. Sadly, the word has become associated in liberal-minded discourse with its undesirable manifestations, in matters of race and gender in particular. But the fact that right-thinking people oppose discrimination on the basis of race and gender is itself an act of discrimination. Discrimination itself should not be a dirty word: any and every judgment of value and morality depends upon its activity. As recent neuroscience has found, the brain itself is essentially an organ of discrimination: an infinitely complex apparatus through which we might just about negotiate our presence within the infinitely complicated data of the universe. ‘To be discriminating’ is to exercise a considered and attentive taste. Every poet discriminates (or should do): it’s self-evidently fundamental to the art. So it is – necessarily – with every poetry editor involved in any kind of selective process.

I like what excites Wootten about the Sixties poetry scene, in which the Penguin anthology and Modern Poets series played a galvanizing part: ‘a moment when contemporary poetry and its values were treated as a singular artistic arena whose various styles and champions could be debated, intelligently and passionately if not always in ways capable of clear resolution’. Are we missing something now, on the Alvarez/Hamilton/Davie/Penguin Modern Poets model? A more active discourse of articulate discrimination?

I’d certainly like to see more high-level journalism – let’s say essays, and review essays – devoted to poetry in prominent titles, yes. And as I commented on the Fuselit piece, there should be room there for essayists and journalists to openly champion the work of contemporary writers they appreciate. We have excellent poetry journals, yes – but with a smaller readership to keep, these are often under pressure to be representative and inclusive, rather than contentious; a big readership gives a certain licence, as well as reach.

On the other hand, the debate is now less dependent on the kind of vehicles Wootten singles out. It’s now a given that the dynamics of the internet have opened up an ever-growing number of new opportunities to articulate why and how poetry deserves a reader’s attention. That shouldn’t be a problem in itself. As ever: it’s content that matters. Wootten’s worry that ‘an excess of supply – of creative writing courses, career posts, poetry volumes and prizes and competent but unexceptional poets – rather than a surge in demand’ lies behind what Lumsden calls the ‘Pluralist Now’, might equally be transposed and applied to the web. On the whole, I consider the internet a good thing. Besides, the so-called law of supply and demand is at best a half-truth. In Aldous Huxley’s wise correction of the familiar phrase: invention is the mother of necessity.

Likewise, pluralism is meaningless without discrimination: without difference, there is no true pluralism. The question is, then, how to accommodate difference – and here, I invoke the spirit of conversation. Conversation implies a willingness to listen as well as to speak: to be changed, as well as to change; to be moved, as well as to move; to learn, as well as to teach. Good conversation is mutual education: it draws out new orders of insight. Have you noticed how, in the street or on your doorstep, many religious organisations (it tends to be them, I’m afraid, or their pseudo-counterparts) try to engage you by asking for a ‘chat’ about this or that? Then you discover that although they want to change you – they (in my experience) are unwilling to change. That isn’t conversation – it’s attempted conversion. Chaucer had an eye for these things, and to countervail the world’s vanities, presented the example of his Clerk of Oxenford:

Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche,
And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.