Mark Engel asked me a couple weeks ago why I described Velemir Khlebnikov
as "weird," and why I further asserted that his weirdness might be hard to
fully appreciate in translation. First a caveat, since I am not an expert
on Khlebnikov, nor do I have any proficiency in Russian. Well, I think
it’s just a good idea generally to remember that when we’re reading a
translation, we’re reading the work of a translator as much as anything
else. Perhaps especially so in poetry, where a poet’s manipulation of
words accomplishes something that cannot be accomplished solely by their
literal meaning. To this add the fact that Khlebnikov was language- and
pattern-obsessed. So in his poems he would allude playfully to things like
folklore and music, but folklore and music that would be unfamiliar to an
English-reading audience. He also experimented (like a lot of modernists)
with meters and line lengths, and employed playful techniques like
neologisms, palindromes, riddles, and puns–all of which would be
difficult to render artfully in English. Imagine the difficulty of
reading, in English, something like FINNEGANS WAKE. Then imagine trying to
translate it for readers of another language and culture. My point,
finally, is that I think it will be hard for us to appreciate his level of
innovation–or weirdness–in his language. Even the translations I’ve read
are hard to understand on a basic level, filled as they are with
unrecognizable words, onomatopoeia, mathematical equations, tables,
straight-up prose, and nonsensical dialogue. Anyone wanna borrow it and
attempt a thesis?
Oddly enough for this week I thought it would be fun to look at an
American poem that has as many apostrophes and arcane phrases as Bobby
Burns’s ode did last week. Here Dorothy Parker tries to defamiliarise her
own tongue as she mocks a certain kind of "folksy" idiom in contemporary
(c. 1930) poetry. Enjoi.
POEM IN THE AMERICAN MANNER
I dunno yer highfalutin’ words, but here’s th’ way it seems
When I’m peekin’ out th’ winder o’ my little House o Dreams;
I’ve been lookin’ ‘roun’ this big ol’ world, as bizzy as a hive,
An’ I want t’ tell ye, neighbor mine, it’s good t’ be alive.
I’ve ben sittin’ here, a-thinkin’ hard, an’ say, it seems t’ me
That this big ol’ world is jest about as good as it kin be,
With its starvin’ little babies, an’ its battles, an’ its strikes,
An its profiteers, an’ hold-up men–th’ dawggone little tykes!
An’ its hungry men that fought fer us, that nobody employs.
An’ I think, "Why shucks, we’re jest a lot o’ grown-up little boys!"
An’ I settle back, an’ light my pipe, an’ reach fer Mother’s hand,
An’ I wouldn’t swap my peace o’ mind fer nothin’ in the land;
Fer this world uv ours, that jest was made fer folks like me an’ you
Is a purty good ol’ place t’ live–say, neighbor, ain’t it true?