Saturday, 27 April 2019

Tracy K Smith: 'My God, It's Full of Stars'

An exhibition about the work of Stanley Kubrick has just opened at the Design Museum in London and is getting rave reviews. I'm relatively unlikely to see this exhibition, given that I'm a Kubrick ignoramus (I do have an ambition to finally see 2001: A Space Odyssey from start to finish...). However, the opening of the exhibition reminded me that I've wanted to write about the poem 'My God, It's Full of Stars' by Tracy K Smith, for a while. (The phrase 'My God, it's full of stars!' appears in the book 2001 rather than in the film - and I actually have read the book!)

'My God, It's Full of Stars' appears in the 2011 collection Life on Mars, for which Tracy K Smith won the Pulitzer Prize. Smith has recently and deservedly become even more famous as the current US Poet Laureate, and her latest collection Wade in the Water was nominated in the UK for both the Forward Prize and the TS Eliot Prize. Having read both excellent collections, I have to say that I preferred Life on Mars, which is extraordinarily personal and expansive at one and the same time. I know that's a bit of a cliché, but it really applies here as the collection is partly an elegy for her father, who was a scientist and worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. So the collection looks from earth and to earth, at God and at humans, and features beautiful poems about David Bowie ("thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being"), about relationships, about cathedrals and space.

There's a funny and strange section in 'My God, It's Full of Stars' where Charlton Heston makes a cameo appearance ("Charlton Heston is waiting to be let in"). Heston wasn't in 2001, of course, so maybe he's stepped over from Planet of the Apes. But perhaps this is just another cameo; there's a sense in the poem of walking on and off stage, Smith's father lighting his pipe at the end of a section describing the enormity and complexity of space. Elsewhere, the final scenes of 2001 are shot and then "the costumes go back on their racks".

I find Tracy K Smith's work exceptionally well-written and moving, and a reader new to her work could do much worse than to start with Life on Mars, and perhaps with this poem in particular.

Photo: Nasa Unveils Celestial Fireworks as Official Hubble 25th Anniversary Image - Westerlund 2. Public domain - created by NASA and ESA (2015)

Saturday, 20 April 2019

Michael Hamburger Event and Questions of Translation

A couple of days ago I went to an event at the British Library, 'Poet in the Archives: Michael Hamburger', with discussions between Karen Leeder, Jen Calleja and Iain Galbraith.

I will immediately admit that my interest in Michael Hamburger is (so far) almost entirely related to his translations of Paul Celan's poems: in fact, for me, he is the voice of Paul Celan in English. I have also been impressed by others' translations (Felstiner, Joris, etc) but I first encountered Celan through the English words of Michael Hamburger when I was only about 18 years old, and that was inevitably a more powerful experience than I was even able to comprehend at the time. In a way, it was good that this event didn't involve a lot of discussion of the Celan translations - it was more about his own poetry, his criticism, his correspondence, and his general approaches to translation (he also worked on Rilke and Hölderin among others), and so it broadened my horizons.

Karen Leeder said: "He wrote his criticism with the voice of a poet" and that Hamburger was interested in translation as a mirror image rather than as an imitation - "he only translated what he felt he could understand." There was discussion of the peculiar musicality of his translations, and his love of letter-writing - he sometimes kept up intense correspondences with people he'd only met once or who had simply written to him with a question or observation. Iain Galbraith, who had known him personally, quoted Hamburger as having said "The poems that don't embarrass me are the ones that surprise me." Jen Calleja, who had been working on Hamburger's material in the British Library archives, read poems based on this exploration, some of them wittily based on subjects like disgruntled readers' corrections of his English equivalents.

On a different but related note, I have just read this Asymptote article by Jen Calleja and Sophie Collins about translation:

I wanted to share it because I have occasionally thought of writing something along the same lines on this blog, but this is much more informed and thorough than anything I could have written. In essence, while there's an obviously growing interest in poetry translation and that's fundamentally a good thing, it's also quite obvious that some potential or even tangible problems have arisen, along the lines of poets who are only fluent in English superseding the actual translators in collaborative translation, and related issues. This article is essential reading for anyone interested in current developments in the translation of international poetry into English.