One thing leads to another.

I wrote about translation in my last post. This lead me to an on-line conversation with a friend about Montale in translation, and from there I found Paul Muldoon’s fantastic lecture on Montale’s ‘The Eel’ in ‘The End of the Poem’ (Faber, 2006) .  The book presents fifteen lectures delivered by Muldoon during his time as Oxford Professor of poetry, and although individually engaging, together they link and overlap to brilliantly explore poetic influence.

The End of


Among the many ideas Muldoon explores is Octavio Paz’s notion that all texts might be thought of as ‘translations of translations of translations’.  Muldoon quotes Paz by way of explanation;

‘Each text is unique, yet at the same time it is the translation of another text. No text can be completely original because language itself is already a translation, first from the nonverbal world, and then, because each sign and each phrase is a translation of another sign, another phrase.’

Muldoon’s lecture on ‘The Eel’ quotes from numerous translations, and among other things shows how translators add meanings not present in the original, and how these might influence subsequent translations.  I highly recommend this book which I picked up quite cheaply second-hand.

Reading the essay on Montale’s poem, I remember a version I had first come across in Robin Robertson’s ‘Swithering’ (Picador,2006). Looking up the poem I found his wonderful ‘Primavera’ from the same collection. It is one of my favourite poems by Robertson, and atypical of his work in that it is about renewal and rebirth, since much of his poetry is concerned with the opposite.

The ‘brimstone’ in the first line of the poem is not the element of sulphur but the butterfly of that name, and I remember reading somewhere that the word ‘butterfly’ is derived from ‘butter-coloured fly’, the colour of the male brimstone butterfly. I love  the neatness of this twenty line poem and the way it travels, both down the page and geographically, and it seems to me to be related in this way, and in its use of watery imagery (not to mention the setting, Italy) to Montale’s eel, another force of nature migrating down the page in muscular, perfectly balanced short lines. I also love the sound of the poem- try reading it  aloud- the alliteration and repeated vowel sounds of ‘stone’ and ‘woken’.   It’s a bit unseasonal to post the poem here, seeing that autumn is upon us, but I want to share it with you incase you hadn’t seen it, not least to show how Robinson defies his reputation for doom and gloom, and also to illustrate how one thing can lead to another.


for Cait

The brimstone is back
in the woken hills of Vallombrosa,
passing the word
from speedwell to violet
wood anemone to celandine.
I could walk to you now
with Spring just ahead of me,
north over flat ground
at two miles an hour,
the sap moving with me,
under the rising
grass of the field
like a dragged magnet,
the lights of the flowers
coming on in waves
as I walked with the budburst
and the flushing of trees.
If I started now,
I could bring you Spring
for your birthday.

Robin Robertson


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