Carson focuses on the music alive in Rimbaud’s poetry for new translation
Saturday, February 02, 2013
In The Light Of
Gallery Press, €11.95
The temptation with Rimbaud’s Illuminations — because the pieces are ostensibly in prose — is to render them more or less word for word, thus ignoring their music.
Interview: JP O’Malley
Between 1872 and 1875, a young French vagabond — often under the influences of vast quantities of alcohol and opium — travelled between London, Paris and Belgium, writing poems that would reflect how he had “[made] himself a seer through a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses”.
The end result was a manuscript that Arthur Rimbaud — then just 21 years old — would hand to his former lover, Paul Verlaine, on the occasion of their last meeting in Stuttgart in 1875. Illuminations, the book of poems that Verlaine eventually published in 1886, would turn out to be one of the masterpieces of world literature, and a precursor for much of the modernist poetry in the 20th century.
Last year, Ciaran Carson was approached by the National University of Ireland to reinterpret some versions of those Rimbaud’s poems.
His words were to accompany an art exhibition at Maynooth University.
Within a week, Carson found he had enough material to make an entire collection. In The Light Of displays 22 verse interpretations as well as three prose versions of the prose poems from Rimbaud’s Illuminations.
Carson begins our conversation by explaining how “literal meaning” can be a problematic phrase when it comes to translations of poetry.
“The temptation with Rimbaud’s Illuminations — because the pieces are ostensibly in prose — is to render them more or less word for word, thus ignoring their music. But the more you examine them, and read the French aloud, you can see the prose has metre, and occasional rhyme embedded in it.”
“Any translations I had read of Illuminations hitherto, seemed flat, so I decided to rewrite them in the rhyming couplets of the classical French alexandrine. I wanted Rimbaud’s dreamlike imagery to rhyme, chime, and echo: to make some kind of music to my ear,” says Carson. By transforming the majority of Rimbaud’s prose poems into verse, Carson says he became particularly aware of the musicality and cadence, which Rimbaud embodied in the original work.
Much of the imagery in Illuminations dichotomises both the awe and disgust Rimbaud discerned in the 19th century city. Should we see what he was trying to express in these poems, as both his horror, and fascination with the modern metropolis, and how capitalism destroys the nature it makes profit from?
“I don’t know if “express” is the right word for what Rimbaud was doing; that word implies that the poet begins with some kind of manifesto which he then illustrates in poetry. The poems are visceral reactions: they come out in their own weird and zany logic. In retrospect, we can read some of them as critiques of industrial society. Rimbaud was fiercely anti-respectability, and took a certain delight in squalor, therefore his reactions to the horror and opulence of cities is indeed complicated.”
In The Light Of is one of many translation projects Carson has undertaken.
Carson admits the art of translation is often diminished if one takes a literal word for word approach. “When reinventing, one must find another spin on the language. It’s more a renegotiation, perhaps, than a reinvention. Besides the music of the matter, there is the fact that words apparently similar, can carry different cultural gravities in different languages.”
To appreciate where this love of languages originates, tracing the trajectory of its acquisition might be a good place to start. Carson was born in 1948, in a house in Raglan Street, off the Falls Road in Belfast. “We spoke Irish before English, which I later learned off the street,” says Carson. “Increasingly, it does seem that this bilingual upbringing does matter. My name is a paradigm of opposition: Ciaran, very Irish, meaning little dark-haired one, and Carson, the same name as the putative founding father of the state of Northern Ireland.”
Carson says he is grateful for the gift this double entendre has bequeathed to him as a poet. “We can never be wholly one thing or another, and ambiguity is essential to all poetry. Any proper poem divulges different meanings at different times. Even one’s own poems, which we think we know, mean different things each time we read them.”
The inflections of speech, and peculiar rhythms of the Irish language have greatly influenced much of Carson’s poetry to date, he says.
“I think that Irish lies at the back of everything I write in English. I am very attached to the art of sean-nós singing in Irish. Often those kind of melodies are in my head, informing what I write.”
I refer Carson to the poem ‘Dresden’, from his collection, The Irish for No, where he writes:
“Horse Boyle was called Horse Boyle because of his brother Mule Though why Mule was called Mule is anybody’s guess.”
He tells me he wrote the poem at a time when he was deeply immersed in playing and learning music: an experience which took him on rambles around various parts of Ireland.
“The speaking voices in that collection were — to some extent — based on the storytelling of the late John Campbell. What I loved in the sessions was the fluid mix of music, song, chat, anecdote and story, not to mention drinking. It seemed there was no fixed line between those genres, or between art and life. That was enormously refreshing,” says Carson.
One last word so on the act of writing poetry. Where does Carson feel the journey ends, when he finally puts the pen down? “I don’t know if poetry does anything for one. It’s not about exorcism. It provides a questioning dimension to our lives. Who we are is a mystery, but an interesting one, and all we can do is to explore that as best as we can through language.”
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