Sunday, 24 January 2010

On poetry

Homerton College has a poetry competition, and I have been asked to be on the jury. It is a very sad and beautiful story. A young, brilliant female student died in an accident some years ago. Her parents have donated money for a poetry competition in her memory.

I have always had a very intimate relationship to poetry. Russia has lots of great poets, 19th and 20th century, and I used to know heaps of it by heart, and I still do. Russian poetry is rhymed and metric and easy to memorize. But poetry does not travel well. You have to be a great poet to translate great poetry. This is why Shakespeare in Russian is great, translated by great Russian poets when their own works could not be published. Serendipity of censorship. Unfortunately there are very few good translations of Russian poetry into Swedish or English, which means I cannot share my favourite poetry with my non-Russian friends.

I read a lot of English poetry when I studied English, Donne and Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Byron, Robert Burns and Robert Frost, and Emily Dickinson. Poetry can be enjoyed for its music, even though you don't understand every nuance. But I think it is a challenge to analyse or judge poetry which is not written in your mothertongue.

When I taught Literary Theory in Stockholm, we were supposed to teach two poetry texts, one classic and one modern. Modern Swedish poetry is, with very few exceptions, prose broken into short lines. If there is no rhyme or meter in poetry, there must be something else. "Poetry is compressed meaning" (Yuri Lotman). Emily Dickinson could do it. Edith Södergran could do it. Emily Dickinson could have translated Edith Södergran into English.

We have received 24 contributions to the competition. Some were good. It was a tough job to select a winner. And it was fun talking about poetry. What was it we were looking for? What is a good poem? An excellent poem? Curiously enough, we finally agreed.


Anonymous said...

I discovered the competition afterward. However, here is my contribution:

"In Memory of Forgotten Russian Poets"

Of daily deprivations, rude and crude
Were lifestyles of politically oppressed:
Great gullibilities of masses, food
For Marxists, were poor diets you addressed.
You fed the mind when Marxists stressed the gut,
Impoverished minds sworn blindly to the cause.
Your poems were rare candles! From their rut,
Poor peasants saw a light and gave applause!
Like Anna Akhmatova, loving God,
You put the day's anxieties to rest,
When verse was read in secret, with a nod
Of bonding to a plan for lifestyles blessed.
We honor you, forgotten Czars of souls:
In Russian cold, yours were the burning coals!

Sonnet by Stephen Volk

John said...

The Tramp

Crystal sparkles, dancing on a quiet pond,
As reflections from the stars beyond.
Dark shadows baying across the space,
Wilting snowdrops with a dying grace.

Only the hoot from a lonely owl,
Beckons the sheep stir and shepherd scowl.
Night has fallen and left another day,
As I lay down, on a cold bed of clay.

Into the stars far and wide,
Dreaming, how warm to sleep inside?
Travelling the roads from dawn to dusk,
Sometimes begging, sometimes I'll busk.

Coat tightly in my hand and shirt upon my back,
My dreams coming true as I trek a lonely track.

John R Bacon
Written 1976
Member: Homerton College