April 2009 Discussion Guide

The World in Poetry

Each April, Poetry magazine devotes its pages exclusively to poetry in translation, bringing its readers creative inspiration and cultural insight from around the globe. From Arabic to Zapotec, this year’s issue includes work from fifteen different languages, interpreted in English by twenty-eight translators.

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coal deliveryman

This poem by Ramón Cote Baraibar (translated by Craig Arnold) describes the monthly visit of a truck that brings  fuel to an unnamed neighborhood in Bogotá, Colombia. The poem comments, with its rich, figurative language, on the heroic difficulty of everyday labor.

  • Both stanzas of the poem begin with a series of three similes contained within sentence fragments. How does the poet’s use of figurative language set the tone? Why does the poet choose to begin the poem with these grammatical fragments?
  • How does the poem change between the first two stanzas as the poet imagines finding the deliveryman toiling at the same job fifteen years later? 
  • Is “Coal Deliveryman” a spiritual, or religious, poem? If so, in what ways?

Find more translations, and original poems, by Craig Arnold.


between cultures

In Franco Fortini’s “Sonnet of the Seven Chinese,” a photo the writer has tacked to his wall acts as what translator Geoffrey Brock calls a “writer’s talisman.” The image seems to represent, for the poet, the distance between his own work as a writer and the work of others whose labor is more physically demanding. And yet the presence of the photo and the workers’ “wary or ironic or tense” gaze affects the way the poet approaches his own calling, reminding him to make his own words “more candid,” his actions “more credible.”

  • Why do you think the poet chose the sonnet (a form whose name comes from the Italian word sonetto, meaning “little song”) as a form for this particular poem? What effect does the form have on the poem’s content?
  •  What challenges do you think a poet faces when translating a traditional closed form (such as a sonnet) from one language to another? What tonal effect does the use of rhyme have on this poem?
  • Do you read “Sonnet of the Seven Chinese” as a political poem? If so, in what ways? If not, why not?

Read more thoughts from Geoffrey Brock on contemporary Italian poetry in translation.


new words / new cultures

A poem in translation can allow readers a glimpse of another culture. This is especially true for poems written in languages such as Urdu or |xam, which may be unfamiliar to many English readers. In such instances, translations allow us to see our shared experience.

  • In “The Broken String,” edited and translated by Harold Farmer, the |xam hunter Diakwain recounts the story of Nuin-kuiten, the shaman friend of the author’s father, who died after being shot by the Boers in South Africa. How does this poem document the conflict between the |xam tribe and the Boers?
  • Víctor Terán’s poem “The north wind whips” expands on a traditional Zapotec saying: When someone has been stood up for an appointment, it’s said that the palm leaves rustle. As translator David Shook notes, this saying expresses “the grumbling frustration of the person who waited in vain for the no-show.” How does Téran use vivid imagery to bring alive the sounds and effects of the whipping north wind?


the texture of language

Translators often strive to preserve not just the sense but also the sound of poems. Once the poem has been rendered in English, the material aspects of language, such as rhythm and rhyme, become a source of meaning in and of themselves. Re-creating a poem’s original texture and music are challenges for every translator.

  • Words communicate to us through their sounds, rhythms, and tone when we speak them aloud, even when we may not know their literal meaning. Gabriel and Marcel Piqueray’s “A Pedal-Pusher Said to Me” features a strange vocabulary of seemingly made-up words, such as “braykaiser,” “sterfput,” and “Anunec.” How do the sounds of these unusual words contribute to your understanding of the poem, even in the absence of any literal meaning?
  • Dahlia Ravikovitch’s “The Love of an Orange,” a play on the old adage “You are what you eat,” uses frequent rhyme in its personification of an orange, a citron, and a cedar. How do the formal elements of rhythm and rhyme shape the tone of this poem?
  • Which other poems in this issue do you enjoy for the sounds of the words when you read them out loud?
  • Open the issue to a random page and read the poem, first silently to yourself, then out loud. Does it change your appreciation of the poem to hear it rather than read it on the page?


translators’ notes

This issue features a note written by each translator that highlights background information about the translated poem and poet, addresses special concerns regarding the translation process, or provides insight into what the poem means for the translator.

  • Do the translators’ notes help you recognize facets of the poems that you might not otherwise have noticed? Which ones in particular were helpful to you?
  • George Kalogeris’s translator’s note on Friedrich Hölderlin’s “In Lovely Blue,” and Harold Farmer’s on “The Broken String,” indicate that these translators created the poem from source texts that were originally prose. How does this knowledge influence your evaluation of these two poems?
  • Richard Zenith’s note for the two poems by Álvaro de Campos reveals that Campos is, in fact, a fictional persona of Fernando Pessoa, a poet with a separate identity, intricate biography, and distinct poetic style. How does using this Campos persona enable Pessoa to write in ways he might not have otherwise? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this device?

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