Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Lure of Coleridge

Next week sees the Coleridge Conference (23-27 July) – a biennial, international gathering of over 70 scholars and readers of the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) (pictured above in 1799). Coleridge’s writings are at the heart of my own research scholarship. This year I have helped to organise the Conference, together with Paul Cheshire, Dr Felicity James, Peter Larkin, and the Conference Director, Professor Tim Fulford. I’m also a Trustee of the Friends of Coleridge – the society that aims to foster interest in the life and works of Coleridge and his circle. I’m sometimes asked: why Coleridge? This seems like a good time to say a little on the subject.

As these things often do, it all started in my teens. Although aware of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner before, I only really found my way into Coleridge when studying him for A-Level, when I was seventeen. Then something explosive happened – something revolutionary, in personal terms. Reading in particular his mystery poems – Kubla Khan, Christabel and the Ancient Mariner – and the blank-verse meditations often referred to as the conversation poems, something within myself was suddenly articulated and brought into brilliant focus. For a while, it was a little overwhelming. Kubla Khan, especially, blazed across my consciousness (as it still does). I read two of the classic critical works on Coleridge, Coleridge the Visionary (1959), by John Beer, and The Road to Xanadu (1930) by John Livingston Lowes – both of which led me into the maze of Coleridge’s reading and imagining. But it is the title of another of Beer’s books – Coleridge’s Poetic Intelligence (1977) – which sums up what fascinated me: a poetic intelligence, calling potential realities into being. By the time a close friend gave me Early Visions, the first volume of Richard Holmes’ superb biography of Coleridge, for my eighteenth birthday, I was already inwardly committed to the path I’m on today.

The chemical reaction begun with that first encounter with Coleridge’s language, and the trace of his being, remains at the glowing core of my interest in him. But of course, time spent with Coleridge brings other pleasures. To study Coleridge’s works is to inhabit an endlessly ramifying intellectual ecosystem – and for me, at least, to become a fellow-adventurer in the biggest questions we can ask: poetical, political, and metaphysical. You don’t always have to agree with him, either, to feel your own powers kindle in the presence of his words.

The poetic intelligence is open-ended - always finding as it makes, and making as it finds - and Coleridge is one of its greatest exemplars. ‘The End is in the Means’, Coleridge wrote to his son Hartley, in 1820: ‘Southey once said to me: You are nosing every nettle along the Hedge, while the Greyhound (meaning himself, I presume) wants only to get sight of the Hare, & FLASH! – strait as a line! – he has it in his mouth! […] But the fact is – I do not care twopence for the Hare; but I value most highly the excellencies of scent, patience, discrimination, free Activity; and find a Hare in every Nettle, I make myself acquainted with.’

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

'The Astronaut's Return' - translated into German

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The staging of Poetry Parnassus at the Southbank Centre, and on national tour, has been one of the extraordinary highlights of the 2012 poetry calendar, and Olympic Festival. Poetry in translation is enjoying a true renaissance in Britain, it seems, with the pioneering activities of the Poetry Translation Centre (see my post of 10 May 2012) and Modern Poetry in Translation particularly springing to mind.

It’s timely, then, that only last week I had the pleasure of having one of my own poems - 'The Astronaut's Return', published in The Body in the Well - translated by my colleague at Birmingham City University, Dr Ursula Lutzky. Ursula’s home city is Vienna, and she produced a wonderfully sensitive German version, complete with intriguing options as to phrase and nuance, which we then worked on together to bring into as faithful and musically satisfying a poem as possible. It was, for me, as instructive as it was enjoyable – opening up all sorts of hidden passageways in the language of the original English poem, as it morphed into its German double.

Here it is, anyway, in both languages. Thank you, Ursula.

Die Heimkehr des Astronauten
Sie sieht vertraut aus; ja, sie ist meine Frau.
Ihr Haar ist länger; es sind Monate gewesen.
Ich denke nicht, dass sie erwartete mich wiederzusehen.
Sie spricht nicht so viel wie früher
und wenn sie spricht, so spricht sie zu einem Kind.

Ich bemerke, wie ihr Körper sich unter ihren Kleidern bewegt
und wenn sie nackt ist, im Bad oder im Bett,
wie unabhängig er ist, trotz ihrer selbst.
Wenn sie sieht, dass ich sie ansehe, dreht sie sich weg.
Wenn ich ihre Haut berühre, zuckt sie zusammen.

Die Kleidung, die sie meine nennt, passt nicht mehr.
Iss, sagt sie, bitte iss, und ich liebe dich.
Ich beruhige sie so gut ich kann. Ich sage ihr, dass
ich gerade lerne zurückzukommen. Aber meine Augen,
noch immer weit offen, glitzern wie Topas wenn ich schlafe.

The Astronaut’s Return

She looks familiar; yes, she is my wife.
Her hair is longer; it’s been months.
I don’t think she expected to see me again.
She doesn’t talk as much as I remember
and when she does she’s speaking to a child.

I notice how her body moves beneath her clothes
and when she’s naked, in the bath or in bed,
how independent it is, in spite of her.
When she sees me looking she turns away.
When I touch her skin she flinches.

The clothes she says are mine no longer fit.
Eat, she says, please eat, and I love you.
I soothe her as best I can. I tell her that
I’m learning to come back. But my eyes,
still wide open, sparkle like topaz when I sleep.