What do we hear when we think we’re hearing voice in poetry today? I found myself asking this question more than once while reading through the bilingual edition of Guy Goffette’s Charlestown Blues, whose publication is heralded by publicity statements about the poet’s supreme accessibility, as compared with the “self-referential experimentation, word games, exercises in deconstruction, or other kinds of incomprehensible writing disconnected from everyday life” that are typical of his purportedly more obscurantist compatriot poets. I take it that such accessibility is supposed to act as a corrective to poetry that eschews the demotic manner, that is calculated so as not to appear to emanate from a singular “speaking” consciousness, and that is not comprehensible if declaimed on the street. So far, so good. And yet if soul is to speak, to paraphrase Helen Vendler, how limited must its purview be? Must we exchange Eliot’s “impersonality” and its concomitant alienation for the folksy comfort of factitious conversation and tired maxims? This question ought to be a false set-up — and yet isn’t, quite, in the case of Goffette’s work.
I am certainly not the first to be asking such questions, and the debate about the interface between experimental / avant-garde poetics and the lyric is louder in the US than it is in France. But Goffette’s regionalist verse and unabashedly retrograde sensibilities have sharpened the horns of this dilemma like nothing I have recently read in English. By offering us both a plainspoken, autobiographical regionalism and a pointed indebtedness to the figures (and the verse) of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Auden, Goffette shows a dichotomous set of allegiances: poet as product of cultural environment or region (almost a la Frost) versus poet as creature — or creation — of literature itself, much as Baudelaire and Rimbaud fashioned themselves. Neither such truism is by definition true, but their conflation puts a different spin on the limits of “accessible” verse, not without also courting significant aesthetic and literary dangers.
One of these, in Goffette’s case, is plain old-fashioned complacency. Though I reject hipness as a value in contemporary poetry, I’m also not really interested in listening to life lessons at the dinner table (for example,"We’ll all die sooner or later"). Goffette’s poetry comes with a sizable earnestness and a belief in its own wisdom, often conveyed by a literally heavy-handed use of personification; phrases such as “death has passed its heavy hand / through the thick hair of summers” and “love betrayed / in the shame of being naked” are rampant. An avuncular trope nowadays even at its best, personification becomes here part and parcel of a certain conservatism that generates from literary convention and then moves seamlessly, insidiously towards grayer arenas of thought and ethics — as when the poet mentions quite casually, in a paratactic construction, “women whose no is a yes.” Although he is clearly referring to sexual fantasy rather than rape, the breeziness of the phrasing startles: not on the tired grounds of political correctness, but simply as the offhand sign of an anachronistic world view that also, very seriously, describes “muses” as "breasts of ice or devilish ones." It’s difficult to know how to take all of this in a book published in 2007, but it’s clear that the work has very little critical distance on some of the more benighted aspects of literary tradition. Where do the poet’s historical predecessors end and his own independent thoughts and sensibility begin? Exactly what world is this “conversational” poet living in?
To be sure, this is one of the unavoidable risks that the homage of intertextuality necessarily courts; and such homage is, in some sense, the bedrock of Goffette’s work. The selections from the first book represented here, Blues a Charlestown, are the most indebted to the Symbolist poets, and Goffette’s original French is fairly peppered with catch-signifiers that are code for the collapsed Baudelaireian-cum-Rimbaudian moment: “azur,” “flaque,” and more. Such literary texture is difficult to convey in translation, as is the poet’s seeming enjoyment of the diction, almost as a treasure to be redistributed. All of this will be clear enough, and possibly entertaining enough, to those who still enjoy the Symbolists in French (though it may also send them back to the “originals” posthaste). His “Letters to an unknown woman across the street,” so Baudelaireian in its invocation of correspondences and urban “passantes” — not without also quoting Rimbaud verbatim — is perhaps the best example of this strain of the poet’s work.
As I suggested earlier, Goffette’s more regionally-inflected poems generate from a set of sanguine assumptions about living: too homely really to be called a philosophy, but perhaps more in line with Sir Philip Sidney’s utilitarian understanding of poetry as a “speaking picture” of truths we may not want to swallow in less mimetic, or musical, packages. A poet like Frost could get away with this quite well; but without the rough magic of that poet’s cadences and the intuitive, inductive rightness of his pronouncements, such “wisdom” becomes hard to take. Cast your mind back to the voice of the aggrieved and grieving wife in “Home Burial,” and then compare it with that of the spurned female lover Goffette tries on in “Waiting”:
Listen to what was
the knife in my flesh: each step, a far-off laugh,
some mongrel barking, the car door slamming
and that train which continues to pass and pass
over my bones.
Some of this melodrama is a product of Hacker’s translation choices, but not all. Perhaps it’s unfair to juxtapose Goffette with a poet of Frost’s stature, but these poems are so focused on predecessors, and sometimes so insistently rural-regional in their orientation, that the comparison asserts itself ineluctably in an English-language setting. And though some of Goffette’s small tableaux are charming in their quiet way, such as a poem-letter written to the postman by a speaker in rural isolation, much of the work lacks the grit of the countryside he wants the poems to inhabit. As Wordsworth knew, personification blunts regional voice — though Wordsworth himself was a better diagnostician than practitioner when it came to this issue.
“That train which continues to pass and pass // over my bones” provides, moreover, a good example of Hacker’s over-assiduousness with regard to Goffette’s phrasing. “Ce train qui n’en finit pas de passer // sur mes os” is clunky in itself, but Hacker hammers the theme by repeating “pass” in the line, then redoubling the already existing redundancy with “continues.” How could this laborious English phrasing even begin to convince, as a metaphor for the experience of unbearable psychological pain? Such stylistic overkill is a typical translator’s foible, wherein he or she will “darn” the line in order better to explain it. (When poets translate, they often forget that explanation is the death of a line.) Other examples of Hacker’s predilection for explanatory repetition are even stranger — as when, for example, she translates Goffette’s “la plus belle rose est du fumier” as “the most / beautiful rose is dung on the dung-heap.” (Despite the loosely pentameter cast of the second line in this quotation, the cloudier scansion of the poem as a whole suggests that metrical issues alone did not determine this stylistic choice.)
At other moments, Hacker takes too much interpretive liberty with Goffette’s diction: why, for instance, is “l’espace innombrable des étoiles” rendered as “the unmetered distance of the stars”? By calling the immeasurable distance “unmetered,” Hacker renders the line metapoetic in a way that Goffette’s is not (even though the line itself, as is not infrequent in this book, seems almost lifted from yet another giant of French poetry, the Surrealist Robert Desnos). The translations oscillate between extreme allegiance to French idiom and interpretive largesse, including moments in which Hacker injects Goffette’s originals with a dose of the showily colloquial: for example, the very straightforward "cette bête qui voyage beaucoup" (a frequently-traveling beast, rather soberly described) appears in English as “that creature who’s so often on the move.” I am perplexed by translators’ apparently gratuitous attempts to jazz up lines like this, as if having to “sell” the poem to an English-speaking reader at the very moment in which the original language asserts itself least. What’s even worse here is that the “jazz” itself (“on the move”) also feels embarrassingly dated. I am aware that such quibbles on the level of the line and phrase can sound like caviling; but poems are after all made of lines, and lines are made of phrases, and every off-key phrase contributes to a cumulative effect.
Of course, translation is necessarily an inexact science and an inexact art; we often see in translated poetry the extremes of either fastidious devotion to the idiom of the original language (rendered reliably flat-footed in the translation) or interpretive severance from the originals for the sake of creating a new poem that the original poet scarcely dreamed of. Hacker seems caught between these two extremes, such that neither approach — dubious as they both are — is consistently followed to its logical end. It’s difficult to see how, in the aggregate, these translations could sing much for a non-French reader (whether Goffette himself sings is another question entirely, despite his vaunted similarities to Verlaine). It is also unfortunate that Hacker’s introduction to the volume makes no mention of the actual work of translating Goffette, or of the choices incumbent upon taking up such work. There is no set of universal rules or assumptions around the translation act, and her commentary could have helped to dispel the illusion of transparency that the rhetoric around Goffette’s verse wants to create.
Charlestown Blues gives us a celebration — even, at times, a ventriloquism — of Goffette’s worthy predecessors, as well as some atmospheric moments of country life. But between the paradoxically down-home loftiness of the original poems and the limitations of the translation, this book can yield more annoyance than pleasure. It could even send you back to the “experimentalists” with newfound curiosity or with — perish the thought — appreciation.