Friday, October 23, 2015

Reginald Gibbons in October 2015 Poetry

I picked Reginald Gibbons’ poem in the October issue of Poetry to give the group the challenge of a poem that had no footnotes yet uses an unidentified, non-attributed translation. I was intrigued what we might learn, just from the way the poem was set up.

As it turns out, I ended up doing a lot of research both on Mandelstam and Gibbons whose biography in the back of this issue of “Poetry”, only states that his book “How Poems Think” was published in 2015.

But allow me to backtrack. This is what the reader sees:
3 stanzas, followed by 5 stanzas of a translation of Mandelstam in quotations. The title of the poem: “From ‘Dark Honey’ followed by an epigraph In homage to Osip Mandelshtam. After reading the poem, I do not know why ‘Dark Honey’ is in quotations in the title. Is it something written by Mandelstam, or something written about him?

My question is how to access such a poem. Is this a poem that wants an academic audience clearly versed in Mandelstam? Or is the lack of reference a comment about attributions and references? If so, how and what is the reader to know?
Could the poem be self-sufficient as a three stanza poem by Gibbons? What is the rapport with the 5 stanzas of Mandelstam?

I looked up other translations to see if there were a clue to the one Gibbons selected. The same message seems to come across, with “flavor” differences – but it did take some work to find out the title of the poem. I did not find a correspondence to what Gibbons put in quotations and the available translations. I was not even sure if perhaps Gibbons was masking his own translation, but using quotations. Nor am I left with an idea what the relationship of Gibbons to Mandelstam is, or how he envisages this homage. What does he want the reader to understand?

Let us turn to the poem. First stanza. I’m intrigued by the juxtaposition, “I am sure”
the line break between “do” and “not believe”. I’m intrigued by the image of a pencil pulled through a white field pulled by a team of... but here you may need to know the term Boustrophedon . So, as you turn the stone and inscribe mirrored writing, indeed, the ox-headed A becomes plow. An effective image for the blank page and the ravaged earth.

The second stanza starts out like a description of abstract art, “conceiving its infinite in-”
which I find an amusing double play on “in”, as inside the cranium, and broken ‘in-
complete’. It is equally amusing to see in-/complete perfection:
followed by an impressive list from Zeno back to the A, (upside down) that includes twine (not string) theory in 19 lines (one sentence.) Perhaps the idea is to address the exhaustion of possibilities throughout time that words provide in one crowded room.
Or running the plow the opposite way?

Finally, the third stanza is in parentheses, with a complicated embroidery (Tuscan to T’ang) around this message: “tell me how to go into the grave as if made of air”.

Then come five stanzas in quotations, which after research I find is called “For the Joy of my Hands” — if the google translator for the Russian is to be trusted. It is curious that the translations insist on “time” and not “thyme” in the part about the bee’s diet of lungwort, meadowsweet.

Professor Gibbons, at Northwestern has written, translated and thought carefully about poetry, and one review pays him respect for his knowledge about Greek and Russian translations, among other things.

On the back of this issue of Poetry is a quotation from Ange Mlinko. “Language itself is a character in the story, perhaps the closest thing we have to an omniscient one, containing all time and history, obfuscating and revealing at whim.”

One of the participants said the poem felt like a tuxedo on a horse; another said it felt like hot buttons on a computer; others perceived a meditation on writing poetry, with a sense of relief arising with the Mandelstam stanzas at the end.

A challenge from time to time is good for the mind. But it did prompt me to write the editor of Poetry. In the spirit of connection, might it not be kind to give some help for those in the audience who are not enrolled in courses of the various professors whose poetry appears in the magazine?
It felt to me to be an ambitious issue, and I requested the consideration of an introduction, and footnotes, so that lay poets can participate more fully.

footnote: for a review:

To write or read a poem is often to think in distinctively poetic ways—guided by metaphors, sound, rhythms, associative movement, and more. Poetry’s stance toward language creates a particular intelligence of thought and feeling, a compressed articulation that expands inner experience, imagining with words what cannot always be imagined without them. Through translation, poetry has diversified poetic traditions, and some of poetry’s ways of thinking begin in the ancient world and remain potent even now. In How Poems Think, Reginald Gibbons presents a rich gallery of poetic inventiveness and continuity drawn from a wide range of poets—Sappho, Pindar, Shakespeare, Keats, William Carlos Williams, Marina Tsvetaeva, Gwendolyn Brooks, and many others. Gibbons explores poetic temperament, rhyme, metonymy, etymology, and other elements of poetry as modes of thinking and feeling. In celebration and homage, Gibbons attunes us to the possibilities of poetic thinking
Introduction: How Poems Think

1 This Working against the Grain
2 Fortunately, the Marks on the Page Are Alien
3 On Rhyme
4 On Apophatic Poetics (I): “Teach Me That Nothing”
5 On Apophatic Poetics (II): Varieties of Absence
6 The Curious Persistence: Techne
7 Simultaneities: The Bow, the Lyre, the Loom
8 Onyx-Eyed Odalisques
9 “Had I a Hundred Mouths, a Hundred Tongues”

Afterword: A Demonstration
(/ˌbaʊstrɵˈfiːdən/ or /ˌbuːstroʊˈfiːdən/; from Ancient

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