Friday, August 25, 2006

A Knotty Test

I may write the occasional 'Test of Translation' comparing English versions of texts from other languages, but Bill Knott ... well, no creature of half-measures, he provides every version he can find of Verlaine's "Claire de Lune":


Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques,
Jouant du luth, et dansant, et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.

Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur
L'amour vainqueur et la vie opportune,
Ils n'ont pas l'air de croire à leur bonheur
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune,

Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d'extase les jets d'eau,
Les grands jets d'eau sveltes parmi les marbres.

It's worth a look, of course - and his blog, sometimes exasperating, sometimes brilliant and insightful, is often worth more than a look. Knott's one of the true contrarians in the cosmos of poetry, orbitting at his very own unique angle to the ecliptic the work with language that's at the center of it all. (Or not.) And I've gotten so that I check his blog just about every day, in spite of my best intentions otherwise.

If you're not familiar with Knott's work, he's now published most of his poems in the archives of his blog, so you can get to know it right there.

Here's one of my favorites from his first book, published posthumously*, back when he was a virgin and a suicide; I don't believe he's seen fit to post it yet. Perhaps he's decided it's unworthy of further attention since his concerns as a poet have changed :

(Sergey) (Yesenin) Speaking (Isadora) (Duncan)

I love Russia; and Isadora in her dance.
When I put my arms around her, she's like
Wheat that sways in the very midst of a bloody battle,
-Un-hearkened to, but piling up peace for the earth
(Though my self-war juggles no nimbus) Earthquakes; shoulders
A-lit with birthdays of doves; piety of the unwashable
Creases in my mother's gaze and hands. Isadora "becalmed"
Isadora the ray sky one tastes on the skin of justborn babies
(Remember, Isadora
When you took me to America
I went, as one visits a grave, to
The place where Bill Knott would be born 20 years in the future
I embraced: the pastures, the abandoned quarry, where he would play
With children of your aura and my sapling eye
Where bees brought honey to dying flowers I sprinkled
Childhood upon the horizons, the cows
Who licked my heart like a block of salt) Isadora I write this poem
On my shroud, when my home-village walks out to harvest.
Bread weeps as you break it gently into years.
I still like the energy of the language as it shifts through boundaries of its syntax after line four, tumbling into an extraordinary paratactic cascade of images that drives the poem to the shift in the voice's tense at "(Remember, Isadora ..." , where it becomes not only a love poem but an elegy, a complex elegy for the childhood of Yesenin's fellow suicide, the poem's author; for Yesenin; for the love of Sergei Yesenin and Isadora Duncan; for the wheat that perishes into bread that sustains us all.

He has his moments, whatever he says.

See, too, if you're interested, this account of Knott as a teacher and mentor.

* The Naomi Poems/Corpse and Beans, by St. Geraud, 1940-1966 (Chicago, 1968), has on its back cover this author's statement: "Bill Knott (1940-1966) is a virgin and a suicide."

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