Wednesday, February 08, 2012

O’Hara’s Reverdy

Pierre Reverdy, 1889-1960

O’Hara and Reverdy. “My heart is in my / pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.” And: “I love Reverdy for saying yes, though I don’t believe it.” Lines that likely pushed any number of O’Hara devotees off in search of the work of the poet who wrote “le poète est bien l’homme le plus englué de tous ceux qui peuvent être sur la terre, dans la pâte épaisse de la vie” (roughly: “the poet, of all earth’s beings, is the one most stuck in the thick slurry of life”). See O’Hara’s somewhat balder, and eventually squelched “Poetry is life to me.” After O’Hara’s death, a few rather diffident-acting translations (of works by René Char, Hölderlin, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Rilke—along with Reverdy) appeared here and there. I seem to recall some announcement of an eventual volume of O’Hara’s “translations and collaborations” (though where, or by whom, I do not know). It isn’t exactly clear what audience O’Hara himself sought for the works. In a letter to Poetry magazine editor Karl Shapiro (13 August 1954) he writes:
I wonder if these poems seem to have that “translation” quality you remarked to me about in the past? During the last year I’ve spent a lot of time translating in an attempt to clarify my ideas of specifically American diction so that I’d be sure that what I sound like would be what I think the English language is, but who knows? Maybe I just confused things further. —But I have some translations from Hölderlin, Pierre Reverdy, René Char and Jean Genet, if you’re interested in them.
Countering the offhand offer to Shapiro: in a letter to Mortimer Guiney (19 February 1962) O’Hara suggests—regarding the translations of Reverdy in particular—that he “only did them to get close to the poems rather than to put them into English.” In that letter, too, he points to Reverdy’s origin and pull:
John Ashbery drew my attention to Reverdy’s poetry about ten years ago—we were both very excited by his work and I, at least, very influenced by it . . . You will find, though, in a poem written later [“A Step Away from Them”] a reference to how important this was to me . . . It seems to me . . . that . . . I at least for a time was taken over by that lovely quality of walking-along-the-street-conscious-of-moment-by-moment, in some of Reverdy’s poems . . .
Here’s O’Hara’s rendering of Reverdy’s “Pour le moment”—out of the Bill Berkson-edited Best & Company (1969):
Just for Now

Life it’s simple it’s great
The clear sun rings a sweet noise
The song of the bells has died away
The morning passes the light all through
My head is a re-flooded shell
And the chamber I inhabit is finally cleared

A lone ray suffices
A single peal of laughter
My joy which shakes the house
Restrains those who wish to die
With the very notes of its song

I sing false
Ah but isn’t it droll
My mouth wide to all the winds
Launches everywhere its mad notes
Which depart I don’t know how
To fly towards the ears of others

Listen I’m not crazy
I’m laughing at the foot of the stairway
Before the great wide open door
In the squandered sunshine
At the wall midst the vines the greens
And my arms are stretched towards you

It’s today that I love you
The original:
Pour le moment

La vie est simple et gaie
Le soleil clair tinte avec un bruit doux
Le son des cloches s’est calmé
Ce matin la lumière traverse tout
Ma tête est une rampe allumée
Et la chambre où j’habite est enfin éclairée

Un seul rayon suffit
Un seul éclat de rire
Ma joie qui secoue la maison
Retient ceux qui voudraient mourir
Par les notes de sa chanson

Je chante faux
Ah que c’est drôle
Ma bouche ouverte à tous les vents
Lance partout des notes folles
Qui sortent je ne sais comment
Pour voler vers d’autres oreilles
Entendez je ne suis pas fou
Je ris au bas de l’escalier
Devant la porte grande ouverte
Dans le soleil éparpillé
Au mur parmi la vigne verte
Et mes bras sont tendus vers vous

C’est aujourd’hui que je vous aime
Some odd choices (“a re-flooded shell” for “une rampe allumée” [literally, “a lit ramp”]) and some awkwardnesses (“I sing false” sings a little falsely—the French likely points to simple tunelessness—and “At the wall midst the vines the greens” sounds “off”—the archaic “midst” troubling the attempt at “specifically American diction”). Some felicities: “My mouth wide to all the winds / Launches everywhere its mad notes” is perfect, its momentary velocity mimicking Reverdy (who’s long seemed to me to scuttle and pause, pause and scoot, making difficult any rendering). And: “the squandered sunshine” for “le soleil éparpillé.” Literally, éparpillé points to dispersal, scattering, without the defeated moralism of squandering’s expenditure. I’d argue, here, for squandering’s rage toward restraint (“Retient ceux qui voudraient mourir”): that necessity for momentary joy, “just for now.” Another O’Hara Reverdy, out of the Chicago Review (XXVI / 1, 1974):

Mask that weeps between two tree branches
A carnival evening is quenching
tears that were streaming from its stony eyelids
tears from laughing and from bitterness and from regrets

it’s all retouched
A new day begins
A drunkard comes to
Tells his story to the doorways on the street
Sad story
With him a morning light

It’s raining and your eyelids glitter
The sneezing trees sprinkle the pavement
And by the caves of your nose I watch the moon pass over

The streak of clouds races on the faded sky
To all those who cling against lamp posts
The illusion will be sweet

And dear your austere face
Smiles thinking of the dismal morrow

Passing along the clacking pavement
Avoiding the street where shadows grow thick
High up a light gleams
It’s so tranquil
The lodging that draws you on and awaits you where it is
The night doesn’t care about anything
          But the sky
Perhaps it’s an empty apartment for you
In Reverdy’s “Bloc-Notes et Agenda” one finds the sentence: “Le mépris de la mort ne va pas sans quelque mépris de la vie” (roughly: “Contempt of death is not without some contempt for life”). Reverdy saying yes. Recall O’Hara’s “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.” And its overlooked sequel ensuing: “It is more important to affirm the least sincere; the clouds get enough attention as it is and even they continue to pass.”