Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, by Jane Hirshfield

Second paragraph of third essay:

Unease about translation does not just cover the exporting of texts into another language; their importation too can be problematic. Translation’s very existence challenges our understanding of what a literary text is. Further, by asserting that things worth knowing exist outside the home culture’s boundaries, translation challenges society as a whole. Translated works are Trojan horses, carriers of secret invasion. They open the imagination to new images and beliefs, new modes of thought, new sounds. Mistrust of translation is part of the instinctive immune reaction by which every community attempts to preserve its particular heritage and flavor: to control language is to control thought. The realization lends an extra dimension to the well-known Italian saying, “Traduttore, traditore” (Translator, traitor).

I’m not hugely into poetry, but I certainly don’t dislike it either, and this is a good approachable set of essays looking at what poetry is and what poets do, informed (often convincingly) by the author’s Buddhist philosophy. The chapters on translation are particularly good – it’s an issue I grapple with daily in my working life, though of course not usually for poetry.

I knew a lot of the poets quoted, but not necessarily the poems used; the ancient poetry is particularly gripping because of the distance from us in time. I love the eroticism of an Egyptian woman’s poem translated by Ezra Pound, and would be interested to find out more about the original:

I find my love fishing
His feet in the shallows.

We have breakfast together,
And drink beer.

I offer him the magic of my thighs
He is caught in the spell.

The more contemporary poet who particularly caught my attention was Czesław Miłosz:

Okno Window
Wyjrzałem przez okno o brzasku
i zobaczyłem młodą jabłonkę
przezroczystą w jasności.

A kiedy wyjrzałem znowu o brzasku
stała tam wielka jabłoń obciążona owocem.

Więc dużo lat pewnie minęło
ale nic nie pamiętam co zdarzyło się we śnie.

I looked out the window at dawn and saw a young apple tree
translucent in brightness.

And when I looked out at dawn once again, an apple tree laden with
fruit stood there.

Many years had probably gone by but I remember nothing of what
happened in my sleep.

Anyway, well worth getting.

This was both the top unread book acquired in 2010 on my unread shelf, and also the non-fiction work that had lingered there longest. Next in those piles respectively are Free Radical by Vince Cable and the Contes Fantastiques Complets by Guy de Maupassant.