Reading poetry, translating poetry

Over the last month, I’ve been slow-reading Coleman Barks’ collection of Rumi’s verse about love. Also during this time (surely inspired by Barks), I’ve been challenging myself to translate favorite passages from Homer and render them into self-contained moments. Helen at her loom in Iliad 3. Odysseus’ encounter with Ino in Odyssey 5. Any scene with Menelaus.

The appeal lies in trying to capture the paradoxical blend of ‘now’ and ‘forever’ that I find so captivating about Homer. Poetry as lenticular image. Look at it from one angle, and we see a story set at a particular time and place. Shift our perspective, and it’s a cultural web of allusions and associations. Shift again, and it’s reflecting all our best and worst qualities, no matter the time or place.

Besides that, while I read and love narrative poetry (obviously), I do so admire non-narrative poetry that infuses imagery with ideas, like Robert Frost’s Nothing Gold Can Stay. Trying to do this with Homer gives me another way to explore and draw out the meanings I find in the epics. The process is deepening my appreciation for what makes Homer so enticing, to adapt and translate.

Here’s a little excerpt from Barks’ Rumi that speaks to what I’m talking about:

“Friends, we’re traveling together. Throw off
your tiredness. Let me show you one tiny spot
of the beauty that can’t be spoken. I’m like
an ant that has gotten into the granary,
ludicrously happy, and trying to lug out
a grain that’s way too big.”

What kind of poetry do you enjoy reading?

5 thoughts on “Reading poetry, translating poetry

  1. This is a beautiful exploration! This process sounds so enlightening. I haven’t thought too much about the style of poetry I like, but I recently read one of Ada Limon’s collections and immediately fell in love. Poetry had never impacted me that way before and perhaps because it’s a little more realist than metaphorical, I was really able to grasp what she was saying.

    1. Thank you, Sam! I have struggled at times to connect with poetry, but since working on translation, I’ve been immersing myself in it, trying to get a feel for what it can do. I’m happy that you found a poet to connect with!

  2. I once had a professor who said that a poem is like a knot to untangle. I think TRANSLATING poetry must be even more so! What a pleasure it must be to do that – a challenge and beauty all at once.

    As for your question, personally, I love all sorts of poetry. Some of my favorite poets include Marvell, Shakespeare (of course), e.e. Cummings, Elizabeth Bishop, Heidi Baker, Jane Hirshfield, Allen Ginsberg…. In French, my second language, I rarely respond to poetry the same visceral way as I do in English, but I love the imagery of Baudelaire’s poetry. In fact, his “L’Abatros” is one of my favorite poems in any language.

    Ah, I love talking and thinking about poetry! Thanks so much for giving me a poetic moment with your post!

    Have you ever thought about sharing your poetry translations?

    1. Thank you, Alysa! I love hearing your favorites 🙂
      I share some little bits and pieces here and there on Instagram, but I’m still getting a feel for what I want to do with my translations. Lately, I’ve been really into creating a mood, even more than a narrative. I love making the ancient world feel strange and relatable at the same time. Visually, I think of it like playing with light and shadow.

      1. I have enjoyed reading those fragments of your translations! And what a beautiful (and, fittingly, poetic!) way of describing what your goals are with them right now. I’m glad you’re enjoying the experience.

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