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New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

Shirley Bell introduces stunning found poetry in translation – in Gifted Beneficato by Patrick Williamson with Guido Cupani

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Patrick Williamson, a British poet and translator, who lives in France. I also work with music and filmpoems (Afterwords, set to music by Mauro Coceano). My work is increasingly focused on Italy, where I have published two collections Beneficato(English-Italian, Samuele Editore, Pordenone, 2015), and Nel Santuario (Samuele Editore, 2013; Menzione Speciale della Giuria in the XV Concorso Guido Gozzano in 2014). Editor and translator of The Parley Tree, An Anthology of Poets from French-speaking Africa and the Arab World (Arc Publications, 2012). Recent and ongoing translations of poetry by Italian writers Guido Cupani and Erri de Luca.

 

 

Beneficato, Williamson Patrick
Collana: Scilla, Samuele Edizioni
ISBN 
978-88-96526-53-8 (EUR11)
Preface and translation by Guido Cupani

Available from:

Samuele Editore                                                            Patrick Williamson

via Montelieto, 50                                                         27 Rue de Romilly

33092 Fanna (PN)                                                          78600 le Mesnil le Roi

Tel. +39 0427 77 77 34                                                    tel +33 6 71 49 12 69     

E-mail:  [email protected]                              [email protected]

Samuele Editore is run by Alessandro Canzian

 

 

 

 

I have been fortunate enough to publish Patrick Williamson and Guido Cupani’s fine work in an earlier issue of the magazine. In Issue 18 we had a fascinating look at the translator’s art,  in Patrick’s article on The Methodology of Translation, plus a bumper section of poems by Guido Cupani and Erri De Luca , translated from the Italian by Patrick Williamson, and Guido Cupani’s translations of works by Patrick.

In Issue 4 of the magazine I wrote about found poetry; if you look under current issue on the toolbar you can pull up archive issues and find it there.  I talked about it as a method of freeing the imagination and overcoming writer’s block but of course it is also a fine art form in its own right.

The Acknowledgements in Gifted    Beneficato describe how these poems were conceived:

These thirty poems were written as treated found poems as part of the Pulitzer Remix project, which was created by Jenni B. Baker, founder/editor of the Found Poetry Review. The poems were written using text in Humbolt’s Gift¹ by Saul Bellow and posted one by one on the Pulitzer Remix website, from 1 to 30 April 2013. The poems recently appeared in English only in Gifted, a chapbook with Corrupt Press, Paris, 2014.

With thanks to Alessandro Canzian, Rachel Slade, Guido Cupani, and Maria D’Agostino for their work on the collection.

 

In his preface, below, Guido Cupani, gives a great insight into the intricacies of this work, from the choice of Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldts Gift onwards.  He describes how Patrick Williamson made his selections from the text and how he organized the phrasing and syntax. Then there was the task of translating these selections into Italian:

 

Words as a gift

Poets believe that they have an infinite universe in their hands; what they actually use is a small subset of the words between the two covers of a dictionary. All future books already exist, scattered across the corpus of literature: the hard work is to find them, and to sort out their words, throwing away what is not needed. One apparent exception to this axiom is the possibility of word coinage; nevertheless, it’s just a matter of time before a coined word is incorporated in the dictionary as well.

When I first heard about found poetry, I must admit I regarded it as a pointless artifice – a poet chooses a book and decides to create a new work by literally picking words out from the book. The rule is simple: you can only use words from the original text. Puzzle lovers may be tempted to introduce a further constraint: instead of picking words out randomly, always choose the tenth word of each line, or one word out of thirty; pass the text through the sieve of Eratosthenes; whatever boredom and numerology may suggest. Can we call a text that is so mechanically engineered a poem? With great humility, practitioners refer to them as found poems. That’s deliberately ironic, though: if you just think of it, all poems are found, not only those composed in this way. Verses are not created ex nihilo; the artist’s skill, the so-called inspiration are not regarded as mechanical just because we are unaware of their obscure laws. Being forced to pick words from our personal mind inventory is not a lesser constraint than to unearth them in a book written by somebody else.

The book you are about to read is an explicit collection of found poems. The statement is a part of the game. The original text is Saul Bellow’s renowned novel Humboldts Gift . The title of the new work, Gifted, reflects its source and the author as well: in a sense, finding poems is receiving a gift. Patrick Williamson is too well-judged an author not to know the limits of a programmatic approach; he admits he selected the words according to his own taste. He resolved to proceed in a forward direction where each new word follows, at some point, the previous one, thus respecting the order they had in Bellow’s text; he did not refrain from inflecting verbs and nouns when needed, though, to comply with the syntax of the new text. This is properly referred to as treated found poetry.

Are these just technicalities? Yes and no. One cannot help but notice a great syntactical liberty in the texture of Gifted; in most poems, the boundaries between phrases are barely discernible. The lack of full stops is not a mannerism but a way to emphasize the ambiguity. For example:

 

I must stop

this tease-act

fatalities make

this a gloomy place

little of substance

we could tell

rulings set penalties

[]

 

Reduced relative clauses in English allow for this liberty; almost all possible arrangements are grammatically sound:

 

I must stop this tease-act

this tease-act fatalities make

fatalities make this

make this a gloomy place

little of substance we could tell

we could tell rulings set penalties

 

It is certainly not an attempt at randomness, relying on the reader’s subjectivity. Williamson positively puts forward a single construal in each case. The aim is different: to constantly remind the reader that lines are literally sequences of words and that these words come from another text; that the number of possible arrangements is boundless and the filiation of one text from another could go on indefinitely (I suspect that Williamson may regard his own book as a source for future found poems).

Gifted poses a tough dilemma for the Italian translator. A tempting option is to dig into the translation of Humboldts Gift, after having retrieved the words picked out for the new book. But this is an impossible task, that’s why it looks so simple. It is based on two misguided assumptions: that a one-to-one correspondence between the two languages exists, and that Williamson would have chosen the same words, had he been able to directly pick them out from the Italian version. Found poetry takes the issue of poetic translation to extremes. What is to be translated: Bellow’s words? Williamson’s rearranging inspiration? Something in-between, to make the recomposition process more apparent?

The answer lies in the book itself. Gifted reaffirms the quality of Williamson’s poetry, already known to readers of Nel santuario, the previous collection published by Samuele Editore in 2013. It’s like meeting an old friend again after a long time; we find him changed, but we still recognise him; we feel that time has made him more rounded, that life has grown a new tree ring to his experience. (The tree metaphor is fitting to an author who carves his poems from living matter, albeit still and petrified, so to speak.) We find once again the hyperrealistic concern for natural detail, the appearance of vanishing, ghost-like human figures; the sharp light-and-shade contrast in description, the fragmented rhythm that drives the reader’s attention here and there, with sudden deviations. We also find a subtler irony, well enhanced by the stylistic uniformity and the lack of punctuation, eventually leading to disorientation: We were whispers [] without a me / you’ll have it right / in the teeth / I said it’s sweet of you / to stand up for me. We find, above all, a clear continuity across the whole work, which can be read as a single poem in fact, moulded by unrelenting forces. This is the accomplishment of a mature poet, who recognises himself in any medium and is able to shape the raw material to his own will.

This cohesive quality is what I tried to preserve in translation. I started from the end, from the results, refraining from mimicking the author’s procedure. One does not need to know about the compositional approach to appreciate a work that is justified in itself. The trick is not the point. Bellow’s words sound legitimately new on Williamson’s pages because they are everybody’s words, and continue to be when the book is over. Gifted is a bewildering journey through the afterlife realms, where participation and detachment, the absolute and the ordinary coexist. It’s a discussion about life heard through a wall, or read transparently from the other side of the sheet, after life: hence its universal yet enigmatic tone, always far from mere divertissement. Is it just a lucky coincidence that the Italian version of this book may be considered, ex post, a form of treated found poetry on Dante’s Commedia? I leave the reader the pleasure of proceeding through the poems without any other anticipation. To land on the last page with a feeling of having been, like the author, gifted.

 

Guido Cupani, 15 January 2015

 

The resulting work is elegant, intricate and compelling. I have selected the first and last poems from the book, with 3 poems from the rest of the book inserted within these, to give a taste of this remarkable achievement.  I don’t know Italian, but the poems are placed side by side and I feel you can get a sense of the musicality and essence of the translation even if you are not lucky enough to speak the language.

 

[one_half]I became, after death,
even more intense
I ran away leaped down
as a boy remarkable
in my fifties inspired
with flight that same night
boasted I can
how I ran hell flew
in terrific shape
sturdy naked sides so
his bones crumbled
nothing but soot

 

[/one_half]Diventai, post-mortem,
ancora più deciso
fuggii balzai
come ragazzo notevole
a cinquant’anni ispirato
alla fuga la notte stessa
urlai che potevo
come corsi cristo volavo
in forma smagliante
turgido il fianco nudo e
le sue ossa si sbriciolarono
sporcizia, nient’altro

 

 

[one_half]He stopped me
see what I mean
death and rebirth
the soul’s journey
past the gates of death
hold it
go for that
thing called
love

[/one_half]Mi fermò
capisci che intendo
morte e rinascita
viaggio dell’anima
oltre i confini della morte
calma, calma
cerca quella
cosa chiamata
amore

 

 

[one_half]Only change
the cold face
our meetings always
how I’ve missed
we always went
straightaway
through covering snow
frost was delicious
the weight of winter
lifted effortlessly
astonishing light

[/one_half]Unica novità
il viso freddo
i nostri incontri sempre
quanto mi sono mancati
ogni volta andavamo
via sui due piedi
fra coltri di neve
delizioso il gelo
il peso dell’inverno
si sollevava senza sforzo
luce favolosa

 

 

[one_half]We were lofted
corrugations of seas
no higher to eye
than palate to tongue
we plunged across
this deep place
the school of souls
I believed the glimmers
of Good
only a fool would

[/one_half]Eravamo innalzati
il corrugarsi dei mari
non appariva più alto
del palato alla lingua
volammo radenti
su questo abisso
il branco di anime
credevo ai barbagli
del Bene
solo un pazzo l’avrebbe fatto

 

 

[one_half]My job in the bag
muttering drunken
had little to say
if you’d like to go
I don’t feel quite ready
I told you it was just
we’ve known
written about each
cheerful season for us
if I have to go
I can count on you

[/one_half]Compiuto il lavoro
borbottando ubriaco
non avevo granché da dire
se desideri andare
non mi sento ancora pronto
te l’ho detto era solo
quel che abbiamo saputo
scritto di ciascuna
allegra stagione per noi
se devo andarmene
posso contare su di te

 

 

 

¹https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humboldt%27s_Gift

 

 

 

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