Discussion Guide

Speech! Speech!

Saying the Unsayable in the March 2012 Poetry.

Poetry’s translation issue tours the sacred and the secular, the silly and the somber, the Spanish and the Swedish. On our expedition through the magazine, we wondered whether all poems—whether or not they cross linguistic boundaries—are inherently efforts at translation. In a prose snippet rendered into English by Ilya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine, the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva writes:

My difficulty (in writing poems—and perhaps other people’s difficulty in understanding them) is in the impossibility of my goal, for example, to use words to express a moan: nnh-nnh-nnh. To express a sound using words, using meanings. So that the only thing left in the ears would be nnh-nnh-nnh.

Tsvetaeva, several of whose poems appear in the issue, wants meaningful words to transmute into pure sound, which would mark a wondrous translation indeed. (As for the moan she yearns to express, it hints at a constellation of emotional possibilities—sorrow, pleasure, shock—that suggests, in turn, a wealth of words.) Do you know of poems that achieve Tsvetaeva’s aim? When describing his poetics, Louis Zukofsky put forth this formulation: “An integral / Lower limit speech / Upper limit music.” Where do your favorite poems fall along that spectrum?

Peter Cole translated a selection of Kabbalists’ poetry for this issue, and his introduction suggests that the mystical writers share Tsvetaeva’s interest in the subtler significations of language. Scholar Gershom Scholem emphasized that semantics are only part of words’ import:

the language—the medium—in which the spiritual life of man is accomplished, or consummated, includes an inner property, an aspect which does not altogether merge or disappear in the relationships of communication between men…in all such attempts there is something else vibrating.

What is this “something else”? Scholem goes on to describe it as “a communication of what is non-communicable, of that which exists within [language] for which there is no expression; and even if it could be expressed, it would in no way have any meaning, or any communicable sense.” Like Tsvetaeva’s “nnh-nnh-nnh,” Scholem’s “something else” lurks beyond the limits of the sayable.

Cole’s translations repeatedly gesture beyond those limits. The anonymous poem “Each Day” concludes: “Be silent, creatures of my making, / so I might hear my children pray.” If we assume that God’s creatures are, in fact, his children, then he’s asking to hear their prayer through their silence: they communicate through communication’s absence.

When the poet writes “Be silent,” he is addressing himself: he is, after all, a creature of God’s, and he stops writing the poem soon after expressing this injunction. He thus gives voice to God in order to stop himself from speaking, so that God can hear people like him speak. Yet in silencing himself, he’s silencing God as well.

Yehuda Halevi’s “Where Will I Find You” likewise finds sound in silence: 

the heavens’
hordes declare
their awe of you
without a sound being heard.

The poem provides an extended experiment in contradiction. It begins:

            You dwell deep within—
                        You’ve fixed the ends of creation.
            You stand, a tower for the near,
                        Refuge for those far off.
            You’ve lain above the Ark, here,
                        yet live in the highest heavens.
                        Exalted among your hosts,
                        although beyond their hymns—
                                    no heavenly sphere
                                                could ever contain you,
                        let alone a chamber within.

“Exalted among your hosts, / although beyond their hymns”: here, too, God escapes expression. He embodies other paradoxes as well: he’s nearby yet far off, at earthly arks and heavenly heights. And a contradiction frames this stanza: “You dwell deep within,” it begins, only to end “no heavenly sphere / could ever contain you, / let alone a chamber within.” Oppositions alone, it seems, embody the ineffability of God, enabling description of the indescribable.

Tsvetaeva would be pleased to note that this stanza engages with sound as well as sense. Note its delicate matrix of rhymes: “within,” “creation,” “heavens,” “hymns,” and “within” interweave with “near,” “here,” and “sphere,” plus that startling “you,” which presages a rhyme that will dominate the next stanza. This sonic richness encourages us to read the translation itself as a “hymn”—though one that, the writer tells us, cannot capture God. Yet if we permit the poem’s music to dominate its meaning, if we consider it a version of Tsvetaeva’s “nnh-nnh-nnh,” its implications multiply—a literary miracle.

Originally Published: March 1st, 2012
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In