Theory in verse

Is there a difference between receiving and rendering?

I have been transported by The Paths of Survival (2017), Josephine Balmer’s new poetry book, which traces the few surviving fragments of Aeschylus’ tragedy Myrmidons backwards across twenty-five centuries, from a contemporary reader to the playwright himself. In this cycle of virtuosic dramatic monologues I have been meeting all kinds of handlers of writing (editors, scavengers, translators, annotators, copyists, and many more) repurposing whatever has been handed down to them.

Like Luciano Berio’ Rendering facing the “stark lacunae” in Schubert’s fragmentary 10th symphony, in the opening “Proem: Final Sentence” a visitor to a papyrology collection reflects:

But in these hushed corners of Oxford
Library afternoons, milky with dust,
the air is weighted down by accruing loss

and this displaced scrap of frayed papyrus
whose mutilated words can just be read,
one final, half-sentence: Into darkness…
Prophetic. Patient. Hanging by a thread (p. 11).

A scribe in Alexandria, 150 CE, remarks:

It barely matters if I blot or blotch –                                                                                            these days no one asks for Aeschylus (54).

The tragedian himself in Sicily, 456 BCE, is revisiting his work:

Now I have come here not to create                                                                                             but to revise, to rescore, to chisel away                                                                                       the features of a life’s work, scrape                                                                                           off the layers of accumulated dust                                                                                                from the shrivelled skin of my plays (73)

Drawing on a variety of poetic forms, techniques, meters, and sources, Balmer achieves something rare, a classicizing theory-in-verse of classical (and literary in general) reception — a theory of classical reception in poetic form and through practices of classical reception. This is neither mere reception nor mere theory but a poetic theorization of what goes under “classical reception” in both scholarship and translation. The collection is also a literary activation of Dr. Balmer’s indispensable scholarly study with the self-explanatory title Piecing Together the Fragments: Translating Classical Verse, Creating Contemporary Poetry (2013) which discusses simultaneously translation, research, theory, and literature as forms of radical classical translation.

Her theory-in-verse of reception can only be compared to Ananios of Kleitor: Poetry & Fragments and their Reception from Antiquity to the Present (2009), George Economou‘s unsurpassably subversive exercise in classical rendering where he not only edits, translates, and annotates the obscure Arcadian poet (born 399 BC), and chronicles his philological history, but even … invents him (“an imaginary object of desire, endlessly recreated by his later readers,” Tim Whitmarsh, TLS) since everything in this exemplary scholarly edition is made up.

As I walk Dr. Balmer’s Paths of Survival I am holding tight Christopher Norris’ The Winnowing Fan (2017), a magisterial collection of Verse-Essays in Creative Criticism which revive a Neoclassical poetic genre commonly associated with Pope and Dryden, and charge it with the theoretical concerns of Language Poetry as well as the formal qualities it denounced. For example, here an Empsonian villanella debates Agamben’s formalist aesthetics. In The End of the Poem the philosopher argued that, if poetry is defined by the possibility of enjambment, then the last verse of a poem is not a verse since it forbids enjambment. Norris reflects:

Verse-closure throws the whole thing out of gear.                                                            With tensions unresolved it stays alive.                                                                             Signs of convergence mean the end is near.

Unrest’s endemic to the poem’s sphere.
When meter vies with syntax, then they thrive;                                                             Verse-closure throws the whole thing out of gear.

If metric skill’s enabled us to steer
A crash-free course, still soon we’ll take a dive.                                                                Signs of convergence mean the end is near.

Caesura and enjambment make it clear
These things are poems, till last lines arrive.                                                                  Verse-closure throws the whole thing out of gear (202).

To take an oar for a winnowing fan in the paths of classical reception is not to mistake it but to render it in a different journey.

Speaking of closures, the end of this post may be a good point to ponder which Puccini rendering and Turandot ending I prefer, Alfano‘s or Berio‘s, or whether I simply think, like Pantelis, that, following Liù’s torture and suicide, the opera is “beyond redemption.”

February 9, 2018

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