May 2012

Greer Mansfield


"One by one I proclaim your songs": The Poetry and Translations of William Carlos Williams

Ezra Pound in a letter to William Carlos Williams, 1908: “Perhaps you like pictures painted in green and white and gold and I paint in black and crimson and purple?”

Pound had a point. He was right to imagine his friend’s poems -- even at the beginning of both of their careers -- in light, fresh colors: the colors of marigolds, asphodels, and seawater. Whatever the “colors” of a Williams poem, he painted them sharply and vividly, giving his work a rare vividness and a compact, graceful energy. The freshness and youthfulness of his poetry corresponded to his wider vision of literature and culture: his emphasis on “American speech,” his desire to cleanse American poetry of worn-out European affectations, and the complex notions about the New World that he develops in the beautifully strange essays of In the American Grain.

A recent New Directions collection of his translations of Spanish poetry, By Word of Mouth: Poems from the Spanish, is (besides being a book of wonderful poems) a reminder that Williams's call for “American speech” in American poetry wasn’t mere United States-ian nationalism. It was a vision of poetry that encompassed the entire New World. As Octavio Paz wrote, “whether he speaks Spanish, English, Portuguese, or French, American man speaks a language different from the European original.” Williams realized this more than any of the other great American modernists. He didn’t want American poets to disown English poetry (Williams worshipped Keats, among others) and certainly not to swear off European influences (which Williams had in abundance), but rather to shape their poems in a way that corresponded to the American reality. A European language transplanted to a different land -- with a different climate and topography, different flora and fauna, different social relationships -- could never remain quite the same language that set off from Cadiz or Lisbon or Portsmouth.

Williams's heritage was mostly Spanish: his mother was Puerto Rican and his English-born father grew up in the Dominican Republic. His parents English and French fluently, but spoke Spanish around the house. He started translating Spanish poetry almost as soon as he started writing his own.

He was interested in Spain’s great poets: the anonymous romanceros whose ballads were passed down unwritten through the centuries, Baroque masters like Gongora (“the man!” Williams called him) and Quevedo (who he translated), and on into 20th century poets. He relished the language itself: “it has a strong appeal for me, temperamentally, as a relief from the classic mood of both French and Italian.” And perhaps more significantly: “It has a place of its own, an independent place very sympathetic to the New World.”

He read his Latin American contemporaries with enthusiasm and sympathy; he saw them as engaged in a mission to renew Spanish similar to the way he was trying to renew English. Most of the poems in By Word of Mouth are by Latin Americans, from 20th century giants (it’s not enough to call them “Latin American giants") like Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, and Nicanor Parra to lesser-known (but excellent) writers.

Paz and Williams were very different poets. Paz’s poetry was baroque and metaphysical in a way that Williams's wasn’t (“no ideas but in things”), as interested in revelation as in observation, but the two shared a certain vividness and sensuality. Williams enjoyed the Mexican poet-polymath, though, and translated Paz’s ecstatic seascape “Hymn Among the Ruins”:

Eyes see, hands touch.
Here a few things suffice:
prickly pear, coral and thorny planet,
the hooded figs,
grapes that taste of the resurrection, 
clams, stubborn maidenheads,
salt, cheese, wine, the sun's bread. 
An island girl looks on me from the height of her duskiness,
a slim cathedral clothed in light. 
A tower of salt, against the green pines of the shore,
the white sails of the boats arise.
Light builds temples on the sea. 

Williams was perhaps closer in spirit to Neruda, at least in one of his modes: the wry celebrant of simple pleasures and quizzical observer of still-life objects. One can easily see the kinship between Williams’ poetry and the two Neruda poems included in By Word of Mouth: “Ode to My Socks” and “Ode to Laziness,” in which Neruda imagines “laziness” as a gorgeous naked muse who leads him across forest and seashore, only to lead him back to writer’s block and sleep.

The main delights in By Word of Mouth, though, are the lesser-known poems. I had never heard of the Puerto Rican poet Luis Palés Matos before reading this book, but I found the riot of brash colors and sounds in his “Prelude in Boricua” to be irresistible. It has the jazzy sweep and Antillean richness that would find expression in later Afro-Caribbean poets like Aimé Cesaire and René Depestre.

Also included is a remarkable poem by Jorge Carrera Andrade (another poet I'd never heard of) titled "Dictated by the Water." Its second stanza:

Crystalline riches, coined clouds,
remembering water from a height,
over the forests and meadows
you travel with knapsacks of freshness
packed at once by groves
and grasses, clouds and cattle. 
With your wet feet
innocently treading barefoot
you point your presence
made wholly first and last of tears. 
Water of celestial solitudes.
Your fish are your minor angels
who water over everlasting treasures
in your frozen keeps. 

Williams was very taken with this poem. He wrote, “I don’t know when I have had so clear a pleasure, so unaffected by the torments of mind that are our daily bread. The images… are so extraordinarily clear, so related to the primitive that I think I am seeing as an aborigine saw and sharing that lost view of the world. It’s a sad pleasure but a great one.”

There are many other wonders in By Word of Mouth. The Argentine poet Silvina Ocampo -- close friend of Borges and sister of Victoria Ocampo, the publisher of the great literary magazine Sur -- makes an appearance with a mysterious poem called “The Infinite Horses.” Ocampo studied drawing under Giorgio de Chirico, and her poem has something of the hushed eeriness of his paintings.

Elsewhere in the book, Williams transforms three Nahuatl songs into an English poem. It is a translation of a translation, as the songs and poems of the Meso-Americans would be lost to us had some fascinated Spaniards not recorded books upon books of them:

One by one I proclaim your songs:
    I bind them on, gold crabs, as if they were anklets:
    like emeralds I gather them.
Clothe yourself in them: they are your riches.
    Bathe in feathers of the quetzal,
your treasury of birds' plumes, black and yellow,
the red feathers of the macaw
beat your drums about the world:
deck yourself out in them: they are your riches. 

The poems in By Word of Mouth are as colorful, light, and nimble as a macaw (or a New Jersey Eastern Goldfinch), riches well worth seeking out.