On translation: “White Night”

It feels very silly to talk about poetry at a time like this, but of course it isn’t. I thought about looking for a poem that seemed more situationally appropriate, but you know what? This is fine. This is a Russian poet writing in the early 20th century (annoyingly, I have returned the book to the library and the internet is failing me at digging up a year for this poem) and for all that was happening, in Russia and the world, she wrote of love lost and despair. Here we go.

On a White Night, trans. Mary Maddock

I didn’t bolt the door
or light the candle.
Though tired I don’t know why
I decided not to lie down.

I am watching the spruce needles
blur in the darkening sun
and I’m getting drunk on a voice
like yours.

Nothing is any good now.
I know it. Hell is here.
I was so sure
you would have come by now.


I can only say so much about translation of this particular poem because I neither have the Russian original on hand nor speak a lick of Russian.

In searching for a version I could copy into this post, I realized the translation I had read, from a book, was significantly different from what I found online. (And the online versions I found didn’t have translation credits, which infuriated me.) Looking at the differences in translation is another, sideways look at how translation works or doesn’t work. So let’s do this.



Web translation one: Kind of terrible! The stanzas seem mixed up. I’m not sure why they use “haven’t the strength” to go to bed, when the Maddock translation chooses “I don’t know why.” How do two translations of the same source end up so different? Which is it?

This one also moves “drunk on a voice” to the very end, which is what I mean by mixed up stanzas. And it’s your voice, not a voice like yours in this translation.

And, pettily, I think “pine-needles” is a poor choice in the face of “spruce needles.”

To sum up: This translation is weird and I deny it.



Web translation two: This one at least seems to hew to the original’s (I’m assuming, at this point) stanza and line structure. But the choice of words changes the narrator, changes the voice and the character. Oh, she says. See, she says. Qualifying. Opening. Easing into the line. The unusual phrasing of “I’ve not” done this or that. Who says that? (Me.) No, we say “I haven’t,” so the departure says something. It feels old fashioned to me, almost staged. Or over-educated. Putting something on.

This speaker sounds more immediate, like she’s talking to someone, trying to get and keep their attention. The Oh, the See how the fields. Oh, listen to her. You know I’m too tired, you know it. Look, look at the fields with me. Be with me, right now, looking at dying light and gloom.

I’m not sure I like it.

I definitely don’t like the way the final stanza rhymes. Eugh. Inappropriate.

Anyway, in the last stanza the translator uses em-dashes. And uses them oddly, in the second line of that stanza. But I bring it up because in the book I was reading, there was an introduction. That introduction talked about each of the three poets included, their styles, and how they influenced each other and were different from each other. The translator talked about the immediacy of one of the poets, the “great poetic energy, her elliptic and staccato style.” Even in introducing her, the em-dash suddenly appeared, as though out of nowhere, and then vanished again when another poet was discussed.

The em-dash poet was Marina Tsvetayeva. So you see why I notice it in the translation of Akhmatova.


Can we talk briefly about why I like this poem? I didn’t discover the translations, then choose the poem. I chose the poem first. I had four poems by Akhmatova marked as I read. This was the first sequentially, and I suppose that’s the reason I chose it over any of the others.

This translation chooses bolt the door, more telling, more physical, more weighty, more final than a simple lock.

In this poem, there is only one candle, one possible light, one wick against the darkness.

This poem has not sunset, beautiful and fiery, but a sun that darkens. The sun doesn’t set. It burns out and grows cold.

This poem has you not here at all, has you not even echoing; this poem has you gone, and replaced.

In this one, nothing is fine. In this one, the sentences shorten and deaden and stop for a moment, in Hell. In this one, you haven’t come, and that is the most important part, not her certainty. You haven’t come, and the night is growing dark.


If you have thoughts on this poem, please share them! you’re probably smarter than I am.

Also, poetry recommendations are always welcome.

On “Aesthetic”

Friends, I puzzled over this post for a while, and then decided to go with it. It’s a short poem. I hope you like it.


Charles Tomlinson

Reality is to be sought, not in concrete,
But in space made articulate:
The shore, for instance,
Spreading between wall and wall;
The sea-voice
Tearing the silence from the silence.


I read this poem years ago. I know it was years ago, because I included it in a grad school project. We were to make an ebook of some sort. Keep in mind, this was the wild and heady days pre-Kindle, and to make an ebook meant, “Well, what do you think an ebook is? Something like a book, but on a screen? Maybe a PDF. It’s a PDF.” I chose as my subject, because we could choose whatever we wanted, “Poetry That Doesn’t Suck.”

I am an ornery person.

I chose something like 8 poems that I had (mostly) read in college and (absolutely) liked, alternating between a brief introduction and the poem itself. With some sort of illustration, and typography that I now wish I’d spent more time on.

This poem was in there. I know, because I still have the PDF, which I keep both secret and safe. My explanation of its inclusion was very non-existent: “You either get it or you don’t.” This exemplifies my understanding of poetry, or rather my frustration with my understanding, in that it’s not something I could understand or articulate basically at all. It’s like that judge with porn.

I don’t know what it is, exactly, I just know it when I see it.

This is a poem.


Step one in trying to figure out a poem: Is it using a form?


Step two: Rhymes?


Step three: Gosh, I don’t know. The other sounds, I guess, alliteration and assonance and all that?

Hm. Okay.

“The sea-voice / Tearing the silence from the silence.” (Which has a whole new connotation post-Matt Smith Doctor Who.) There’s actually quite a lot of that sibilance in this poem.

The first line also has the vowel sound, I think — sought, not, concrete. Second line, I suppose, repeats that space/made sound.

It’s cheating to call it out when the entire word is repeated; that’s probably something else entirely. Just repetition. Wall and wall, silence and silence. I like those repetitions. They form boundaries in nothing; shores don’t have walls, as a rule, but here they are, in this poem. The shore between walls. You also, as a rule, can’t do anything with silence, in regards to moving it around. It is a lack, rather than an object, and yet, here we are, letting the sea-voice tear it to bits and make it disappear, by sheer force of the sea-voice’s existence.

What does any of this have to do with reality? Or aesthetics?


Have you ever read the Tao Te Ching? I read it in college, like you do, and there are many parts of it I still think of occasionally. There is one verse, about emptiness, or negative space. Here is a small portion of it, from Ursula Le Guin’s translation:

Cut doors and windows
to make a room.
Where the room isn’t,
there’s room for you.

I apologize for using a verse to try to explain a verse. But that’s the neighborhood in my brain where this poem lives, though I never made the connection until now.

Even so, that’s not quite what this poem is pointing at. It’s sitting there, gesturing vaguely to the left of this idea. It’s not the absences that concern this poem. It’s what else that means, what else fills it, where these things touch and interact and talk to each other. But every time I read the poem again, I sense that all of this is wrong.


Aesthetic concerns itself with beauty. I mean the concept, not the poem, in this paragraph. Aesthetics is the study of, the contemplation of, what beauty is. That which is beautiful. The idea of beauty as formed by culture, and if it ever stands outside of culture. The creation of beauty, whether conscious or not, but I think, more often, the former.

Not in concrete, but in space, and shore, and sea-voice. Movement and sound, and in absences, and spaces created. Looking at those things (which I can’t quite explain) is a particular way to look at the reality around you and to define it as real (since reality is perception, even measuring is perception, even replication of measuring is perception so at some point you have to lay down the law and say this is reality) and choosing a way to look at things is to choose an aesthetic point of view. That is reality. Aesthetics are reality, to you.


This is the beautiful and terrible thing about poetry! I like ambiguity in poetry! I like double and triple meanings, suggestions via word choice, and something that seems to be missing, something you have to puzzle with. That frustration I have with being inarticulate about the genre is also what I like about it, and what I find definitive about it. For something to be easily explained, effortlessly unpacked, would make it less poetic.

The reason the poem exists as it is, is that to explain what it’s saying in any other form would take 50 pages and be impenetrable, possibly recursive. With a poem like this, either you’re smarter than me (not beyond the realm of possibility) and can explain it, or you just get it and nod. You like it. You can’t explain why.

You either get it or you don’t.

Maybe I got it right the first time.

On “There Will Come Soft Rains”

I have a poem for you today. No, come back! It’s not mine. I’m going to share this poem, and then I’m going to talk a bit. I hope you stick around.


There Will Come Soft Rains
Sara Teasdale, 1884 – 1933

(War Time)

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.


The reason I wanted to look at this poem is because of Ray Bradbury. After all, it’s why I know the poem. The automated house, the silhouettes, the tree branch, the quiet beautiful disappearing, and the voice still speaking to no one. But look back, and find this poem, and something else beautiful and sad.

I love beautiful and sad.


I’m no poetry expert. Obviously. This entire series is about me laying my ignorance and confusion out on the table, confessing that whatever I might have learned in pursuit of my degree fled my head as soon as each paper was turned in. Sorry, undergrad.

In another post I’ll talk about what I remember from studying poetry, and what lacked about it, but for now I’d like to stick with a poem. The Teasdale poem above. It has a lovely quality, which makes me long to live in memories of looking out over quiet Missouri hills in the early morning, or laying in the backyard while Bambiland scampered around me. At the one house, we called my parents’ backyard Bambiland. It was idyllic. A little pond with fishes, beautiful flowers climbing on a trellis, a forsythia that an adult could hide in, a few raised garden beds, trees and bushes large and small… And on maybe a half-acre. You could still hear the traffic, but I mostly remember the sound of the little pond, and birds.


When I was reading A Poetry Handbook, I was surprised how many of the very simple concepts felt like revelations to me. Even the ones I already knew. Iambic pentameter! My goodness. Spondees and dactyls, oh my. And so many types of rhyme. I don’t believe any of them were new concepts (except masculine and feminine rhyme) but something about the presentation worked for me.

Here are some things I noticed about this poem.


When I like a poem that rhymes, it’s generally because the rhyme isn’t intrusive, or I like it in spite of the rhyme. With this being in couplets, and so many other aural things going on, I don’t mind the rhymes existing.


Speaking of other aural things going on. This is the thing that gets me most, I guess. Swallows circling with their shimmering soundFeathery fireWhistling their whims. These things are important to me.

If I had to guess, at this early stage of my terrible studies, I’d say the thing that matters most to me is the sound of the language. If it’s free verse that just sounds like talking, like sentences, then what’s the point? Honestly, what makes that poetry? I suppose calling it that. But read a poem that confidently takes language and shapes it into something that delights the ear, and even the mouth, and that seems like a little bit of poetic magic to me.

That first phrase I called out… I think it’s the most blatant to me, and sets me up to really notice the others. I just want to roll the words around in my mouth, taste them like a good whiskey. Swallows circling with their shimmering sound. It’s not, I don’t think, it’s not a hiss of a snake sort of sound. It’s the susurrus of birds, the flickering rush of hundreds of starlings, blackbirds, swallows, moving as one in the sky.


Let’s take a breath.


In the first three couplets, you get these lovely images of nature, with beautiful word choice that causes it to flow off the tongue — that’s the alliteration, smooth like a spring breeze. Quiet ideas of rain, night sounds, trees gently moving in air.

And then you hit the fourth pair. Though those ‘n’ sounds are soft, they stop you. Not one. Stop. Maybe it’s the ‘t.’ Probably! Especially after the gentle, smooth motion of the third couplet, this one changes the poem. Turns it around. Just in time for the war. Not one appears twice in one line, and then — suddenly — she breaks the phrase. It’s kind of violent, compared to the rest. Though there’s no pause written, the line breaks, snapping the phrase in pieces, like the war and the apathy break the poem right here.

Nature won’t care if we all kill each other.

Spring will still come. Dawn will brighten the landscape. The war will be over but no one will be there to claim victory.

And yet there will come soft rains.


I don’t have a specific structure in mind for these posts about poetry. I’m open to ideas. I only have a few basic ideas, but they’re deep wells.

Your turn!

Have you read this poem before?What did you think? I would be utterly delighted if you had comments or questions or thoughts of any kind.

Reading Poetry: It Begins…

I had this idea to force one of my poetry friends to engage in a conversation with me in which I yell belligerently at them about poetry.

(tweet deleted for not being funny: Someone said that “poetry is that which is lost in translation,” right
What the hell
What does that mean)

Instead I muse about it sometimes on Twitter, and always have some book of poetry or other I’m working through. I enjoyed the Carol Duffy I read, I guess, but honestly, what do I know? I enjoyed some of the Silvina Ocampo, but some of it was just words. I’m reading Anne Sexton and spoiler not enjoying it much.

(tweet deleted for being too long: What is free verse? Are you sure it’s poetry and not just a bunch of words? …is this like modern art, where it’s up to the beholder to decide it’s art, like Duchamp’s urinal or anything Mark Rothko ever touched?)

But now I’m also reading Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, which I think is a good thing for me to read. What I’ve struggled with is articulating what I feel I don’t know, articulating why I feel ill-equipped to deal with poetry, articulating why I don’t get it. And it’s not like I don’t get all of it. I have favorite poems. But why do I like them? Why do I dislike others? Why are some considered good, and some not? What makes a poem? Exactly what is it that you consider with poetry that’s different from prose or essay? Why do line breaks matter, and why do they vanish and change? Why can two lines be a poem? What intricacies am I missing, since something 200 pages long can also be “a poem”? There must be categories and names for all this, right? I mean, “epic,” but what’s the two-line poem called? Mini? Micro? Wee baby poem? Why did Transformations have to be poetry, versus The Bloody Chamber‘s stories? Why does free verse even exist, man? What’s its deal?

I am being completely serious in my flippancy.

(tweet deleted for being too rude: Yeah, but prose poetry. That’s a scam, right?)

But I really want to hash some of this out and dig under the haze that poetry seems to be under for me. I am going to do that. This is my public declaration of helpless naiveté.

I say all of this as someone who studied poetry* in undergrad.

So I can’t imagine what other people feel.

*Not as my focus, but by way of both English and Spanish literature, I ended up reading and writing about a good amount of poetry. And yet. And yet.