In the latest issue:

An Ordinary Woman

Alan Bennett

Anglo-America Loses its Grip

Pankaj Mishra

Short Cuts: John Bolton’s Unwitting Usefulness

Mattathias Schwartz

Smells of Hell

Keith Thomas

Mrs Oliphant

Tom Crewe

Tippett’s Knack

Philip Clark

At Tate Modern: Steve McQueen

Colin Grant

Catherine Lacey

Nicole Flattery

Churchill’s Cook

Rosemary Hill

The ‘Batrachomyomachia’

Ange Mlinko

On Dorothea Lange

Joanna Biggs

Paid to Race

Jon Day

Poem: ‘Traveller’s Tales: Chapter 90’

August Kleinzahler

The Soho Alphabet

Andrew O’Hagan

Old Tunes

Stephen Sedley

Victor Serge’s Defective Bolshevism

Tariq Ali

The Murdrous Machiavel

Erin Maglaque

Diary: Insane after coronavirus?

Patricia Lockwood

Their WitnessDonald Davie
Close
Close
The Poetry of Survival: Post-War Poets of Central and Eastern Europe 
edited by Daniel Weissbort.
Anvil, 384 pp., £19.95, January 1992, 0 85646 187 3
Show More
Show More

What we are given in The Poetry of Survival is, translated by numerous hands, poems by 28 poets: identified as Germans (7), Czechs (2), Yugoslavs (2), Slovene and Austrian and Romanian (1 each), Israelis (surprisingly 3) and Poles (9). This is supplemented by 9 appendices, each an interview with one of the poets represented; and this can be scored as Israeli (1), Czech (1), Yugoslav (1), Hungarian (2), Polish (4). What do we have here: a Polish take-over? Or else, rather more evidently, a map of Central and Eastern Europe that includes Germany and Israel, but not Greece, Bulgaria or Albania; not Russia, the Baltic States, Byelorussia or Ukraine. Events have outstripped the anthologist: otherwise Edvard Kocbek (1904-1981) wouldn’t appear as ‘Slovene’, whereas both Slavko Mihalic (Croat) and Vasko Popa (Serb) are ‘Yugoslav’. This is excusable. And the Greeks, it may be thought, have looked out for themselves; also, less certainly, the Russians. But what have the Bulgars done wrong? And haven’t the Israelis looked after their own interests as efficiently as the Greeks after theirs?

This is no way to start reviewing a book of poetry. But the truth is that this isn’t a book of poetry at all, except incidentally: it is the tombstone, partly aggrieved, partly defiant, on a career-ploy practised, through some years with great success, by British literary careerists from the Sixties on. The ploy was at bottom a familiar one: since the British poetry they inherited in the Sixties required of them a longer apprenticeship than they could contemplate, and since readers wouldn’t appreciate the fruits of that apprenticeship in any case, there was every reason for the careerists (who included A. Alvarez and Ted Hughes, along with Daniel Weissbort) to look for, and claim to find, a short cut. Philip Larkin’s art, not to speak of Basil Bunting’s or Norman MacCaig’s, was too intricate for them to master. There must be a simpler way! And, brilliantly, they found that there was indeed one such simpler model on offer: in translation, poetry from the Soviet Union’s satrapies in Europe. Moreover this didn’t just give them the streamlined and rudimentary poetics they were looking for: it also yielded up to them what looked like the moral high ground. The poetry of Larkin et al was not just too sophisticated for them to master, or for their readers to enjoy: it was also, so they could pretend, unfeeling. It did not measure up to the condition of peoples which had suffered the Nazi and after that the Soviet hegemony. (None of the careerists had been under arms in resisting those tyrannies, whereas several of Larkin’s associates had.) Moreover again, in the nature of the case, the careerists’ programme promised a further benefit: those who enrolled in it would find that their compositions were immediately translatable – into any language at any time, and whatever the competence or incompetence of the translators at hand. For ‘untranslatability’ was just another of the shibboleths of the ancien régime that the careerists were vowed to overthrow.

In the tight world of would-be poets (a world that they meant should grossly expand, as it did), how could the careerists fail, offering so much where Larkin et al offered by contrast so little? And their legacies are what we now have to live with: poetry workshops, poetry competitions, poetry prizes, poetry-writing in the classroom – all on the supposition that writing poems is not a gift, nor a discipline to be strenuously acquired, but a democratic right. Many more youngsters will be misled, beyond those who have been conned already, into thinking that reading Anna Swirszczynska in indifferent translation gives them as firm a sense of poetry as reading Milton in English, After all, Weissbort says of poems by Swirszczynska: ‘There is no stepping aside from them, no getting out of the way – they come at you too fast.’ And is there any sonnet by Milton of which we can say as much (or as little)?

Swirszczynska (1909-84) belongs with seven other honorary graduands of the careerists’ academy, who are acknowledged in a brief opening ceremony, before we proceed to poets born in the Twenties for whom Weissbort particularly solicits our applause. He isn’t sure he was right to make this genuflection to an earlier generation, pleading, ‘but the fair-minded littérateur in me got the better of the purist’ – thus seeming to admit that the purist in him has intentions too pure for fair-mindedness. However that may be, it is one of Weissbort’s senior citizens who has blown the whistle on his enterprise. This is Czeslaw Milosz, who accordingly earns the pained comment: ‘One senses in him a reluctance to accept a position that historical and personal circumstances have thrust upon him.’ Translated, this means: Milosz has refused to stay in the slot that Weissbort and Alvarez had decreed for him. And so he has, bless him.

What Milosz has recognised and said is that the con-job which the careerists have perpetrated on English-speaking readers is as nothing compared to what they have inflicted on the foreign poets whom they affect to serve. The crucial betrayal of them is in the term – the cant-term – ‘witness’. ‘Witness’ was the heading of Alvarez’s review, in the New York Review of Books, of Milosz’s 1988 Collected Poems in English. Alvarez’s review was adulatory; Milosz’s protest, in a letter to the paper, was that adulation on Alvarez’s grounds was something he rejected indignantly: ‘The voice of a poet should be purer and more distinct than the noise (or confused music) of History. You may guess my uneasiness when I saw the long evolution of my poetic craft encapsulated by Mr Alvarez in the word “witness”, which for him is perhaps a praise, but for me is not.’

This is the protest of one who in his time has served a Marxist government, who has always insisted that Marxism is a system of ideas deserving respect; Milosz cannot be pigeonholed as a right-wing deviationist. What he perceived was that adulation can mask condescension, as it does repeatedly in Weissbort and Alvarez. In their mouths, ‘witness’, often stepped up as ‘agonised’, means, in effect, when they address the foreign poets they have anthologised: ‘You know what happened to you, but you don’t understand it. We’ll supply the understanding, if you’ll give us the happening.’ It will be surprising if others of those foreign poets, besides Milosz, haven’t seen through this stratagem. After all, they aren’t fools. Consider only Weissbort’s cool assumption that he knows the position that history has thrust on Milosz, whereas he (Milosz) cannot know it. It is a weakly politicised version of what we have lately heard so often from other quarters: the critic is superior to the poet, because the critic can interpret what the poet (poor inspired zany) can only report.

The politicising could be only skin-deep because, as is blindingly obvious now, the careerists’ ploy depended on a Europe that was divided and would stay divided, across an Iron Curtain or Berlin Wall that prevented the exploited poets from understanding, let alone protesting against, the use that was being made of them in the West. The Cold War was the careerists’ opportunity, and the condition of their persisting in their successful deception. Once it was revealed that East European poets understood what was happening to them and their societies, and could articulate this rather better than their false friends in the West, the careerists’ cover was blown. Weissbort, however, doesn’t understand this. From his present and long-standing redoubt in Iowa City, he plainly believes that something can be saved from the wreckage. Else, how could he reprint his 1986 interview with Yehuda Amichai, in the course of which he artlessly explains how the entire confidence-trick was dreamed up by himself and Ted Hughes?

I was starting a magazine, Modern Poetry in Translation, with Ted. The reason I started it was because Ted ... had come across these examples of their work, and these rough translations – they were really quite good translations, I think – impressed us both a great deal. So, it was really coming across this wealth of poetry, about which we knew nothing before, and particularly in view of the inertness of the English scene at the time, and the American scene too, as it seemed to us, that we felt a need to start a magazine. That was in the early Sixties.

These translated poems that Ted Hughes had come across at poetry festivals in Spoleto and elsewhere – ‘really quite good translations, I think’ (italics mine) – were what put the careerists’ enterprise on the road. And what attracted Hughes and Weissbort was the difference between these documents and ‘the inertness of the English scene at the time’. This alleged ‘inertness’ has never been demonstrated by Weissbort, nor by anyone else who parrots the judgment as if it were self-evident. Philip Larkin has attracted enough devotees over the years for this slap-happy judgment to cut no ice so far as he is concerned; others of us – and my own special interest is too obvious for me to declare it – are bitterly though resignedly resentful. Daniel Weissbort and his associates have queered the pitch not just for Czech and Polish and Hungarian poetry of the last forty years but for English poetry too; and it can hardly be expected that I should be even-handed about this, nor that I should venture judgments of Vasko Popa or Miroslav Holub on the basis of poems selected by, and translations commissioned by, a person so deeply self-deceiving as Weissbort reveals himself to be.

Yehuda Amichai, learning from Weissbort in 1986 about this anthology, decided that it was to be an anthology of ‘the good old days’. ‘Yes,’ responded Weissbort eagerly, ‘a good-old-days anthology!’ Those good old days were the worst and most wretched days for writers under Stalinist tyranny. So much for the always-on-tap indignation that these Western liberals could always muster, and purvey to others, on behalf of their suffering and brave and truthful (though luckily naive) brothers and sisters behind the veil! How valiantly the careerists might have performed, if they had been caught up in the Holocaust or the war! By an accident of birth they weren’t: so we have had to live out with them, vicariously, the experiences they were spared or cheated of. And for a time, what a goldmine that has turned out to be! The lodes are still being mined.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

Vol. 14 No. 5 · 12 March 1992

It is hard for me to respond to Donald Davie’s splenetic review of my anthology The Poetry of Survival (LRB, 27 February). He has set up a number of straw men, which he then demolishes. To such an extent does he do this, that I feel almost embarrassed to join in what appears to be a purely private affair. However, if he feels ‘bitterly though resignedly resentful’ at the – wholly imagined – slighting of Larkin and others, like himself, I have to say that I too feel aggrieved, perhaps with less resignation, at his characterisation of a good part of my life’s work as careerism, in a larger enterprise which apparently also includes the likes of Ted Hughes and A. Alvarez. I have no idea upon what he bases his allegation that I was drawn to the poets in my anthology because I found the poetry of Larkin and other British poets too hard to ‘master’ (this is not a term I would use, but it is Davie’s), that I sought to substitute a more readily accessible poetry (in translation) for the home-grown and more difficult poetry, which ‘required a longer apprenticeship’. Obviously what has lodged in Davie’s hide is a remark, reported in my interview with Amichai, when I refer to the ‘inertness’ of the English scene in the Sixties (note, I qualified this by adding ‘as it seemed to us’). In any case, by including this interview – as one among several appendices to the collection – I was not seeking to make a statement about British poetry that would stand for all time, but simply trying to set the anthology in a historical context: Davie, as he does several times, quotes me out of context. There is, in short, no genuine argument that I can discern to back up his assertions.

Let me add that far from dismissing or decrying the achievements of English poetry, I have for several years, at the University of Iowa, taught a course surveying British poetry from Hardy to Larkin, with a close reading of poets my Midwestern American students were generally unaware of, such as Edward Thomas. Isaac Rosenberg, Ivor Gurney, D. H.Lawrence etc. Naturally, I also directed students to Mr Davie’s writings, among others, on Hardy. What I am saying, quite simply, is that my commitment to the poets represented in my anthology in no way detracts from my devotion to that tradition of English poetry which runs from Hardy to Larkin.

I will not here respond to the many cheap shots which Davie, in his autochthonous indignation, levels at me. Suffice it to say that there is no evidence in Davie’s review that he has read my introduction, where he would find an explanation of why there are so many Poles, why I included some Israeli poets in an anthology devoted mainly to East Europeans, why I did not include constituent states of the former Soviet Union etc etc. Nor can I begin to address Davie’s extension of his thesis, whereby he contrives to lay the blame for the proliferation of poetry workshops, competitions, prizes etc at my door and that of my fellow ‘careerists’. Had it been known that I was so influential, I would perhaps have been a professor at Stanford or Vanderbilt, where Davie taught for so many years, rather than the far more modest University of Iowa.

But perhaps the most objectionable part of Davie’s piece, for me, is his parting shot: ‘How valiantly the careerists might have performed, if they had been caught up in the Holocaust or the War! By an accident of birth they weren’t: so we have had to live out with them, vicariously, the experience they were spared or cheated of.’ Of course, nobody who was not actually there can know how he or she would have performed, not even Davie. But as a Jew, the only member of my family to have been born in England, many of whose maternal and paternal relatives were deported to Bergen-Belsen and lived to tell the tale, I am not as remote from the whole affair as Davie imagines me to be.

Daniel Weissbort
University of Iowa

At a recent reunion of writers associated with Essex University, Natan Zach paid tribute to Donald Davie’s dignified conduct during the political upheavals of the Sixties. Deeply out of sympathy with events he could make no sense of, Davie turned away to, among other things, a postgraduate programme in literary translation, his brainchild, from which he sought an image of his own urbane Europeanism. Davie’s MA was shaped by the critical intelligence which produced Purity of Diction and Articulate Energy, the wide-ranging scholarship of a sailor after knowledge, and an understanding of Europe rare in the Eng Lit world. Awed by Davie’s gifts and his hauteur, many of us wondered what came next: for my own part, to follow him into Russia and Poland, crucial homelands of the European experience in an increasingly Californicated age, offered a way out of venal old England.

All the more incomprehensible to me, then, that this master of language should use the word ‘career-ploy’ of translators who have patently little to do with the slick new culture industry; that he should condemn them for holding out a hand of friendship to writers who could grasp it only on compromised terms, as everyone knew, especially the writers themselves; or that he should manoeuvre Larkin into the forefront of an obscure feud that Larkin himself would scarcely have understood. I really don’t think Davie could possibly have meant what he says in describing Swirszezynska as an ‘honorary graduand of the careerists’ academy’.

G.H. Hyde
University of East Anglia

Vol. 14 No. 6 · 26 March 1992

Donald Davie (LRB, 27 February) is entitled to his view of the poets and critics who have exalted the ‘witness’ of East European writers at the expense of their individual art – at least he offers a little evidence for it – but he is simply intemperate, and apparently ignorant, in his lambasting of ‘poetry workshops, poetry-writing in the classroom’. To this ‘tight world of would-be poets’ he attributes the supposition that writing poems is ‘not a gift, nor a discipline to be strenuously acquired’. What does he think we do? I have lived in that world for 28 years as a member of a North Lancashire writers’ workshop, 23 as a creative-writing teacher at Lancaster University. We have always worked hard at our art. We reason our way to candid judgments of each other’s work. We discuss, in detail, rhythm, rhyme, precision, sub-text, metaphor, idiom, characterisation, consistency. Classic writers from many periods are often invoked.

All this has nothing to do with ‘democratic rights’ in the sense sneered at by Davie – a citizen’s automatic entitlement – and everything to do with democracy in the sense of unprivileged people working together on a footing of equality, not of talent but of opportunity: the opportunity to be taken seriously, fully attended to, patiently reasoned with.

Yes, this ‘world’ has expanded: more people are writing poetry, a thousand publications a year, some of it good, much of it pretty ordinary. What is ‘gross’ about this? On what grounds does Davie dislike our hard-won sense that we have made from words at least a few pieces with their own character and resonance? He sounds like Samuel Johnson dismayed at the prospect of blacksmiths and serving-maids writing novels. It is a political dislike, nothing to do with the quality and integrity of the work produced by hoi polloi. He wants to be one of a few; he feels threatened when the few begin to grow. His own ‘supposition’ seems to be ‘More means worse,’ one of the worst-founded of axioms since it implies that the best possible number must somehow have been exactly the one prevailing when you yourself secured your place.

Davie invents bogeys. Those he disagrees with he dubs ‘careerists’. He himself, we gather, has some kind of ethically-guaranteed motive for pursuing his career, writing his kind of poetry, promoting his tastes. It’s a shame that his career didn’t take him into a few of the rooms all over the country where the art both he and I care for has been worked at with so much commitment and careful effort during our lifetimes.

David Craig
Burton in Kendal, Cumbria

I am astonished that Donald Davie should write, and you should print, a defamation principally of Daniel Weissbort, but also of Ted Hughes and A. Alvarez, masquerading as a review of The Poetry of Survival. Davie mentions not one poem, he travesties the purpose and scope of the book, he lumps together the viewpoints (mainly imagined, and maliciously so in the case of blaming them for ‘their legacies’ of competitions, prizes, workshops) of Weissbort, Hughes and Alvarez, as if they thought with one mind and spoke with one tongue. He makes insulting allegations about Weissbort’s career and his motives for this anthology. He asserts that poets from former East European Soviet satellite countries would be horrified to know how they have been used. Where and who are the poets now protesting at their exploitation by these Western ‘careerists’? (Milosz’s firm, but hardly – to judge by Davie’s quotation – ‘indignant’ response to Alvarez’s 1988 review of his poems does not constitute rejection of this ‘con-job’. And did not Milosz edit a notable collection of post-war Polish poetry?)

On the contrary, Weissbort’s endeavours through his magazine and this anthology were firmly supported and encouraged by, for example, the late Vasko Popa. It should be obvious too from the interviews that he was not the only poet to understand the book’s aims and to support its general tenets. Like all anthologists, Weissbort has his own predilections with which one does not have to agree in every detail in order to find his book valuable.

Davie refuses to accept that Weissbort’s claims for these poets are based on what he knows of their poetry, and not on any theoretical position or dogma. (There are a lot of Polish poets for the simple reason that he found their poems compelling. An anthology balanced along nationalist lines was never intended.) Nothing Weissbort writes – bar one loose phrase about ‘the inertness of the English scene at the time’, circa 1963 – can possibly be construed as implying that he considers these European poets as ‘better’ than the best British poets, among whom I know he ranks Larkin. Davie might recall that Larkin published at infrequent intervals, with no collection between 1955 and 1964. The whole tradition of English poetry from Hardy is in fact an interest and love of Weissbort’s. I do not see why a love for that English tradition should preclude an interest in poetry written from very different traditions and under vastly different conditions.

When Davie mentions something from the book, he misreads it. ‘The good old days’ from the interview with Yehuda Amichai is obviously ironic, and the rest of the paragraph from which Davie lifts it makes clear that Weissbort’s interest, unlike Davie’s in this article, is in the particular qualities of actual poems by specific poets. Weissbort did not commission translations. He drew on what was available to him after more than 25 years’ experience of editing a magazine. It is true that over the years he enabled some translations: for example, introducing the late Anne Pennington to the poetry of Vasko Popa. Never has he suggested that the foreign poetry he has advocated in any way detracts from the value of modern British (or American) poetry. The suggestion that Weissbort et al might, having calculatedly exploited the Cold War, now not be glad it is over, is unspeakable.

Peter Jay
Anvil Press, London SE10

Vol. 14 No. 8 · 23 April 1992

I am glad for David Craig (Letters, 26 March) that he can look back with satisfaction on 23 years teaching creative writing. I can say the same of my ten years in the same trade. But only just; and I was glad to give it up. I found that such teaching is more emotionally draining than any other, because one has to be in a special way intimately responsible for one’s pupils, even through their subsequent lives long after and outside the classroom. I wonder if Craig would agree. I suspect he would not, for he nowhere writes of ‘pupils’ but only of an undifferentiated ‘we’. My pupils were perhaps more ambitious than his; they aimed to perpetuate and possibly ‘move forward’ the ancient art that they were studying. However, they were as much ‘unprivileged people’ as those whom Craig has worked with, and like them they were equal in opportunity, since all were at liberty to enter the international competition by which I and my colleagues, on the score of submitted work, chose whom to admit to our classes. Does David Craig operate no such qualifying system? I know that there are admirable people who set themselves no such lofty goals as my pupils aimed at; they ask less of their teacher, who accordingly is less personally distressed when they fall short of me standard they had in view. In short, I suspect Craig and I are at cross-purposes, since his clientèle and mine are radically different. I have been into ‘a few of the rooms all over the country’ that he speaks of, and have found there a few greatly gifted individuals, along with many more who (no shame to them) practise verse-writing as a hobby to share with like-minded companions. According as we cater for the one clientèle or the other, our practices, also our principles and horizons, must differ. My objection to books like The Poetry of Survival, as to poetry competitions, is that they blur the two sorts of person, and the two sorts of need, into one. My position is not, as Craig predictably alleges, ‘political’; it derives from the incontestable fact that the arts are of their nature undemocratic insofar as artistic gifts are unevenly distributed.

Peter Jay (Letters, same issue) objects that I mentioned ‘not one poem’. I will make good that omission:

The first colour? Just like a captive
at the moment sentence is passed.
The second? Like lost
soldiers falling down
in huge soft heaps.
And the third? The colour of the third –
it is you.

My beautiful three-coloured banner!

This is offered as a complete poem by the Hungarian Janos Pilinszky. And it is a composition by Peter Jay, who, besides being Daniel Weissbort’s publisher, is also one of his translators. What does this piece amount to, if not a blank cheque on which we are invited to inscribe whatever sentiments we may readily summon concerning convicted prisoners, dead soldiers, and ‘beautiful … you’? There is no intellectual gristle at any point. And as for the shape of the utterance (for instance, its lineation), it appears to be determined by nothing but whim. What did Jay, and after him Weissbort, imagine that in such a piece Pilinszky had to say to an English-speaking audience? Or did it never occur to them to wonder?

I for my own part wonder, recalling what Clive Wilmer wrote fifteen years ago about the versions of Pilinszky by Ted Hughes that stand side by side with Peter Jay’s in Weissbort’s anthology: ‘You would never guess that any formal structure or lyrical impulse lay behind most of the poems, though Pilinszky is technically a very traditional poet.’ However we interpret ‘traditional’, there is no way to fit that term to what either Hughes or Jay make of this Hungarian. Wilmer wrote in 1977, of Hughes’s versions (done with Janos Csokits): ‘Nowhere do these translators indicate what technical means are used … This is especially damaging with major poems like “The French Prisoner" and “Frankfurt 1945" whose long stanzas crammed with documentary detail need the articulation of form that only rhyme can give: as it is, they appear shapeless and prosaic.’ Both poems occur in Weissbort’s anthology versified by Hughes as shapelessly and prosaically as ever.

Peter Jay can bluster and impute motives as he likes; the truth is he has given his imprint to a book that is unscholarly and insufferably arrogant, as well as profoundly damaging to the practice of poetry in this country.

Donald Davie
Silverton, Exeter

Vol. 14 No. 9 · 14 May 1992

Donald Davie’s position on poetry workshops etc comes out much more reasonably in his letter (Letters, 23 April) than it did in his original article. He still misunderstands the footing and the ways of working prevalent in rooms other than his own. He assumes that my use of ‘we’ implies that my fellows are not my pupils. They (often) are. My relation with them can be expressed by ‘I plus they (or them)’ when I am marking their fiction and poetry at the end of the year, or advising them to work harder. Most of the time it is better expressed by ‘we’: e.g. when we are concentrating together on their work, or when we all write to a guideline and I read out my piece for their comments as they do theirs for mine, or when we are comparing notes on our recent successes or otherwise at getting published or winning competitions, at which some of them are better than I, some not so good, and quite a few are unconcerned one way or the other.

I wonder why Davie assumes that his pupils are ‘more ambitious’ than mine. It seems to go with his other doubt as to whether we (at Lancaster) operate an ‘international competition’ to let writers into our classes. Of course we do. And of the writers who apply each year, from Brazil, Canada, Cyprus, Finland, India, Jordan, Kenya, Slovenia, the US, as well as from the UK, we admit about one-fifth. No conspiracy here to deny that ‘artistic gifts are unevenly distributed’! And no shortage of ambition! Students at Lancaster, workshop writers all over the North, are indeed ambitious, in the sense of striving to find forms for the essence of their experience and stretch the bounds of art as well as in the other sense of wanting to make a name for themselves.

It would be nice if Davie would finally concede the achievements of the workshop movement in recent times instead of driving wedges between one ‘clientele’ and another.

David Craig
Lancaster University

Vol. 14 No. 11 · 11 June 1992

In his initial letter in this correspondence, Donald Davie triumphantly concluded that the reason I did not respond to Czeslaw Milosz’s ‘damning observations on the whole enterprise’ was that I had no answer. Leaving aside the fact that Milosz has not actually commented on the enterprise in question – that is, on my anthology and, I suppose, my literary activities – I should merely like to say that I did not take up this particular part of Davie’s piece because there was not the room to deal with it adequately in a letter. (I might mention that there were poems by Milosz in the very first issue of Modern Poetry in Translation, which Ted Hughes and I founded in 1965, well before Milosz’s was a household name in English literary circles.) I felt it was more important to defend myself against Davie’s libellous charge of ‘careerism’, and that is what I attempted to do, while also pointing out that I was, in fact, devoted to the English poetic tradition which Davie claimed I was incapable of appreciating. In fact, oddly enough, as I read Davie’s letter I was just finishing a 7000-word essay which addresses an aspect of Milosz’s poetic ocuvre touched upon in my short biographical introduction to the selection of his work in the anthology. This essay was written for PN Review, and will, I hope, appear in that journal in due course.

Davie talks about my ‘squeamishness’ about the terms ‘master’ and ‘mastery’. He adds that I am ‘insubordinate on principle, a Leveller’. This is because in my letter, in parenthesis, I said that ‘master’ was Davie’s term and is not one I would use. I would not, because I prefer to describe, in terms other than those of bondage, my relationship with literary works I admire. I may add that this does not make me a deconstructivist. As to insubordination, I am not in the Army and Davie is not my commanding officer.

The only other comment I should like to make, before ending my contribution to this singularly unenlightening correspondence, is as follows. Davie, in his most recent letter to you, picks two poems, both by the Hungarian poet, the late Janos Pilinszky, as examples of the inferior quality of the translations included by me in the anthology. Note, in his original review he admits he is not prepared to ‘venture judgments of Vasko Popa or Miroslav Holub on the basis of poems selected by, and translations commissioned by, a person so deeply self-deceiving as Weissbort reveals himself to be’. I take it that this means he did not read the actual poems, from which he is now selecting two for the purpose of disparagement.

Be that as it may, I selected the short poem, an example of late work by Pilinszky, translated by Peter Jay, who besides being my publisher (as Davie points out) is also one of the foremost British poetry translators, because I liked it. As regards the versions of Pilinszky by Ted Hughes and Janos Csokits, which Davie declares to be ‘versified … shapelessly and prosaically’, in support of which accusation he quotes a 1977 review by Clive Wilmer, I can only say that Hughes worked for many years with Janos Csokits, himself a leading Hungarian poet of Pilinszky’s generation, and that he met several times with Pilinszky himself. Indeed, Pilinszky had in mind translating Hughes into Hungarian.

Davie may feel that this denotes a marriage of convenience between two poets intent on furthering their careers through mutual translation. I prefer to see it as evidence of the meeting of minds and of spirits which I know to have taken place. As regards formal translation of formal poetry, I could refer Davie and your readers to an article by a more distinguished (dare I say it) authority even than Mr Wilmer, the French poet Yves Bonnefoy, who in a magisterial (I am sorry to use the term) fashion disposes of Joseph Brodsky’s argument with regard to the mandatory formal translation of verse: that is, mimetic translation in which the reproduction of the original metre and rhyme pattern is taken to be a sine qua non of responsible translation. This simplistic, normative approach may be reassuring to its practitioners but it hardly begins to address the complex issues of poetry translation. Davie, as a verse translator himself, must know this.

It is, I think, significant that in his letter he quotes Wilmer rather than talking in his own voice. His animus against Ted Hughes is, in any case, quite evident. If I regard all this as a further example of his disingenuousness, it is as nothing when set beside the insults that he continues to level at me.

Daniel Weissbort
London NW6

Vol. 14 No. 13 · 9 July 1992

In dismissing my view of the Hughes/Csokits versions of Janos Pilinszky (Letters, 11 June), Daniel Weissbort appears to identify it with what he describes as ‘mimetic translation in which the reproduction of the original metre and rhyme pattern is taken to be a sine qua non of responsible translation’. As Weissbort must be aware, since he has published several of my translations, this is not and never has been my position. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that no one with any knowledge of the English tradition of translation could ever take so simplistic a view. For one thing, metre and verse form tend to be language-specific, so it isn’t actually possible in most cases to reproduce them in translation. But, much more importantly, as Weissbort’s preferred authority Yves Bonnefoy has said, all translation involves sacrifice. That is to say, in deciding how a particular work is to be translated, the translator has to decide which aspects of the original will have to be discarded. Thus, to take a classic example which would appear to support Weissbort’s case, when Pound began translating Chinese poetry he solved at a stroke the problems of previous translators from that language by deciding not to imitate the Chinese verse forms. (No one has written more persuasively of this matter, by the way, than Donald Davie in his Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor.) However, the contrary is also possible. When Pound translated Cavalcanti’s sonnets, he recognised that the poems would simply collapse without something resembling the original rhyme-scheme. He found it possible to do this, of course, because a sonnet form exists in English as well as in Italian, while there is no such equivalent for any Chinese paradigm – nothing, at any rate, that would bear the resonance those verse forms presumably have for Chinese readers.

But this is not the end of the story. No one seriously supposes (do they?) that in discarding patterns of rhyme and metre, Pound also disregarded them. In casting his translations in free verse, he also found patterns of syntax and lineation that restored to the poems the ghost, I would guess, of their original structures. My objection to the Hughes/Csokits translations was essentially that they failed to do precisely this: that the original metre of, for instance, ‘The French Prisoner’ has been discarded and nothing put in its place, the result being shapelessness. (This is not to say, incidentally, that their book is without merit, as even, back in 1977, my somewhat callow review made clear. My objection seems to me less compelling where the shorter, more lyrical pieces are concerned.)

There is, moreover, a further aspect of verse form to which the translator is bound to attend, and that is the associations a particular shape may have for the native speaker. To give an example: if W.H. Auden’s early balladic poems were to be translated into some foreign equivalent of Whitmanian free verse, any reader conversant with the languages concerned would surely regard the result as a travesty, for in sacrificing the form the translator would have abandoned the whole raison d’être of the original poems. And this brings us to the main point which Weissbort fails to address: that, though sacrifices have to be made and though one of them in a particular case might have to be, say, a rhyme-scheme, the form of a poem is part of its meaning and cannot be simply removed from it without serious injury, any more than a sentence can survive the destruction of its grammar.

Clive Wilmer
Cambridge

Vol. 14 No. 7 · 9 April 1992

I’m exceptionally grateful to George Hyde for his letter (Letters, 12 March), and am the more anxious to clear up a couple of misunderstandings.

1. When I described Swirszczynska as ‘honorary graduand of the careerists’ academy’, I meant that she has been used by them as a totem-figure, a sort of mascot, therefore one of their exploited victims. 2. Still less did I accuse translators of a ‘career-ploy’; that, and the title ‘careerist’, I reserved for the anthologists and other promoters who in many cases have exploited the translator along with the poet translated. This should have been clear from my enthusiasm for Czeslaw Milosz, another of the ‘honorary graduands’, whose assiduous, accomplished and self-denying translations figure largely in Weissbort’s anthology. I’m surprised George Hyde didn’t notice the prominence I gave to Milosz’s protest against the careerists’ poetics of ‘witness’.

But I’m not surprised that Daniel Weissbort (Letters, 12 March) similarly ignored what I said about Milosz. For, as I said in my review, whereas Weissbort can’t afford to deny himself the fruits of Milosz’s scrupulous labours, he has to keep silent about Milosz’s damning observations on the whole enterprise which The Poetry of Survival represents. His silence shows that he has no way to rebut Milosz’s objections. Otherwise, the most revealing thing in his letter is his squeamishness about ‘master’ and ‘mastery’, in talk about poetry. This anthologist is insubordinate on principle, a Leveller. And that, along with the supposition that emotional ‘closeness’ makes up for technical incompetence, defines the fool-proof poetics that he and his fellow careerists have imposed on English poets at their most gullible – in the classroom and in ‘workshops’. Small wonder that Weissbort cannot measure up to a master like Czeslaw Milosz.

Donald Davie
Silverton, Devon

I was bewildered by Donald Davie’s vituperative review of Danny Weissbort’s anthology of East European poetry in translation. Certainly he was entitled to bewail the eccentricities of selection, but none of the quotations from the poems themselves or the editor’s remarks accounted for the intense loathing the reviewer expressed for the book, the editor and all the latter’s associates. It was never apparent why the selection of poets or the English of the translations should deserve such venom.

I hold no brief for Danny Weissbort; I have contributed only three items to his publications over twenty years. But how can he be blamed for being younger than Donald Davie or Philip Larkin, for not being shot at or imprisoned, or for believing that Anglo-American verse in the Sixties could have done with an injection of East European poetry? I see nothing patronising or insulting in Weissbort’s treatment of the poets he publishes: even if Czeslaw Milosz was irritated to be called a ‘witness’, few great poets would object to the use of this most respectful of Christian terms to sum up their relationship to their times.

The thrust of Donald Davie’s argument is that Weissbort and his contemporaries are careerists. Given the shoestring that Modern Poetry in Translation has always hung by, and given Weissbort’s uncomfortable life commuting between Iowa and the UK, his careerism cannot have amounted to much: in pensionable terms, it doesn’t hold a candle to the career of Donald Davie. Davie is entitled, like the rest of us, to blow his top and abuse those he dislikes. But the job of an editor is not to perpetuate such regrettable outbursts: my protest is not so much against one hot-headed senior poet as against you, the editors, for cold-bloodedly having this nasty aberration set in print.

Donald Rayfield
Queen Mary and Westfield College,

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences