Barbara Burns talks to Charlie Louth, whose book Crossings: Essays on Poetry and Translation from Hölderlin to Jaccottet appeared recently in Legenda’s Transcript series.

cover of Crossings

BB. The title of your book, Crossings, is intriguing. In the Introduction you unpack this term in a beautifully nuanced and expressive way. Can you give our readers a flavour of what your title conveys about poetry and translation?

Charlie Louth (photo: John Cairns)

CL. Well, as I say in the introduction, the title was at first just an idea I thought I’d use while waiting for something better, but gradually it came to seem (to me) quite good in itself, and I suppose that was because it did hold together various themes and preoccupations that come up in the book. In particular, it gave me a way of connecting poetry and translation, as you say. Translation is fairly straightforwardly a matter of making crossings: a text comes across into another language, crosses from one to another, as the word trans-lation, a carrying-over, itself reminds us. But it’s more complicated than that, some things cross badly or get left behind, and everything undergoes a change as it makes the crossing, not always for the worse. And there is definitely a sense in which thinking of translation as a crossing blinds us to other aspects which have more to do with metamorphosis or refashioning or manifestation. But the ‘meta’ of metamorphosis, as in meta-phor too, also means ‘over’ or ‘across’, a ‘carrying over’ in the case of meta-phor, so we’re not so far from crossings after all. And perhaps we’re never far from them.

BB. What about poetry?

CL. Yes, poetry is an example. In many ways it is engaged in crossings. There’s the process whereby things outside the poem make their way into the poem, find a form in words. What can a writer ‘get into’ words? – that expression implies a crossing, a rather difficult one, whether it is, broadly speaking, a question of finding ways of expressing something inchoate, half-sensed, not really there until it has emerged in the poem, or a question of conveying the ‘thereness’ of the physical world, something that has so much presence that it seems to demand its realization in words, in a form that does not betray the reality being addressed.

In a sense then, loosely at least, we can think of a poem as a cross between language and the world, as well as the place where these things cross. Because poetry is a form of attention, a means of focussing on the intermingledness of language and world, it is almost always preoccupied with transitions, with the almost imperceptible ways in which one thing is becoming or bordering on another. The picture on the cover of the book, by Nicolas de Staël, was chosen because it conveys something of this, with its lines of hills lifting the eyes towards the final horizon.

This Mycenaean corbel-arch, near Arkadido in Greece, is possibly the oldest bridge in the world still in everyday use: it was built around 1250 BCE. But the earliest translations are older still: Gilgamesh had been known in many lands for centuries by then. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons user Flausa123.)

BB. I imagine that bringing this volume together must have been a rewarding experience.

CL. Well, it was nice to have what is most of my essays in one place. It made what I’d been doing seem more coherent somehow. I’m undecided as to whether this coherence is really a good thing though – maybe it’s just a kind of narrowness! One of the essays was originally written in German and so had to be translated. Doing that I found I couldn’t say quite the same things in English that I had been able to say in German. So translation became part of the process of the book itself.

BB. Your study engages with some of the foremost names in German poetry, including Goethe, Mörike, and Rilke, but you devote a lot of attention to the great German Romantic poet and philosopher Friedrich Hölderlin. What do we learn from his work, and why is he such an important figure for you?

CL. I did my PhD on Hölderlin, so in a sense he is where I started. He is simply an endlessly fascinating poet. One motive for putting this book together was to gather all, or most, of my essays on Hölderlin. Probably no other writer is so important both as a poet and as a translator. He saw deeper into the richness of what translation involves than anyone before him, and the concerns and workings of poetry and translation are more intimately connected in his work than anywhere else. It’s hard to be precise about these things, but there is just a quality in his writing that commands your whole attention, so that every word feels absolutely necessary and inevitable. As the words fall into place, the world falls into place.

BB. The focal point of your final chapters is the Swiss Francophone poet Philippe Jaccottet (1925-2021), whose work became available to English readers through the translations of the Irish poet Derek Mahon (1941-2020). What are the affinities between these two men, and what it is in Jaccottet’s writing that particularly attracts you?

CL. They were very different as men! But as poets they are both, despite their obvious success, adjacent to the mainstream, they belong to the interstices, thrive on the unnoticed and the out-of-the-way. Mahon seems most drawn to the earlier Jaccottet, especially a collection called L’Ignorant (1958), which makes a virtue of unknowing, of entering a kind of innocence in relation to the world. They are both deeply attracted by Japanese poetry, and they are both concerned with what Mahon calls ‘light-readings’, registering the effects of light on the landscape, taking the light as a kind of vestigial sign of an un-disenchanted world. Mahon calls Jaccottet a ‘secular mystic’, which is maybe not quite right, but it shows what he finds attractive in Jaccottet’s work.

Friedrich Hölderlin and Philippe Jaccottet

What I like about Jaccottet is that though a French poet he is very close to German writers – Rilke, and particularly Hölderlin, are among the poets he mentions most often, Goethe was also very important to him. He is the editor of Hölderlin in the French ‘Pléiade’ series, has translated much Rilke, as well as Musil, Benjamin and others. He is also a wonderful critic and writer about poems – I’ve learnt a lot from him, or I hope I have. As a poet he trusts language in a way that when he started was quite unfashionable, he seems to think it an adequate means of dealing with the world still, which doesn’t mean that he is not working at its limits. Perhaps above all it’s a certain conception of the poem, as a form which allows us to perceive, explore and extend limits.

One of the ideas haunting Crossings comes really from Jaccottet, which is that poetry is a response to a larger sense of the world that the narrower one we live in is concealing from us most of the time. He doesn’t put it like that, but he is very preoccupied with poetry as a form of crossing, operating at the edge of the known world, which also means at the edge between life and death. Poetry, and art more generally, can help construct a never stable order of sense which makes the world more habitable.

BB. Can you tell us a bit about how you came to be interested in poetry and translation?

CL. I’ve been interested in poetry for as long as I can remember. We had a very good English teacher at school, a Mr Morris, who took us through Chaucer and Richard III for O-level in way which really awoke or confirmed in me a love of poetic language, a sense of how much was going on, what it could mean to read slowly. The same was true for Latin: Horace and Catullus. I thought of doing both English and Latin at university but in the end did French and German. I had to decide; it could easily have been one of the others, though I didn’t do English A-level because I thought I could do it myself, which is only half true. While still at school, Seamus Heaney was also a big influence. I was that generation, drawn to the way he talked about poems and the wonderfully sensual language of his own. Then David Constantine was also very important – I can’t say with certainty that I would have gone on to work on Hölderlin without his example, though I think I might. Poetry and translation always seemed somehow to belong together, I suppose it’s partly the concentration on words, on what they’re up to, how much is going on when you start to look and feel down into them.

BB. Is there a chapter in your book that stands out to you in terms of being pivotal in your research journey?

CL. I think maybe the Mörike essay. Mörike is a very good but somehow inconspicuous poet. I had an idea about him, which was that his poems were an attempt to hold open a space, to keep a moment of time open and propitious for as long as possible through the work of the poem. And to reflect on that. It seemed to lead me right into his work, including the beautiful and not so well known poem ‘Abreise’, which is about a dry patch of cobbles left when a coach departs after a brief shower of rain.

Mörike’s well-known silhouette — note the spectacles, umbrella, hat and errant hair — somehow suggests an eccentric, benign professor, perhaps from a children’s book. In this centenary stamp, issued 1975, he is surrounded by objects from his poems.

BB. Many students shy away from poetry because they see it as an obscure and testing genre, and reading poetry in a foreign language only increases the level of difficulty. Which poets’ work do you teach, and what can you do to help make poetry accessible and meaningful to students?

CL. I’m lucky in that at Oxford all the first-year German students have to study 40 or so poems from an anthology, and we generally just read them together in quite an open way, so I think any initial misgivings about poetry are usually overcome then. To read poems is to read slowly, which of course also helps with a foreign language, so here too poetry and translation go together – working out what the poem means at two connected levels.

It’s true though that not all that many students go on to study that much poetry, though the ones that do are very good. Rilke is usually the most popular, followed by Heine, Goethe and with Hölderlin quite a way behind. But I also teach Brecht and more contemporary things. As far as how to get it across goes, then I think it’s mainly reading slowly together. The big obstacle, as I’m sure you know, is the idea that there’s some hidden meaning, or some big theme. But poems aren’t riddles, or not usually, and of most it would be hard to say exactly what they are about.

BB. Finally, do you write or translate poetry yourself?

CL. Well, I think anyone who loves poetry as much as me is going to want to try. I have written a few things you could call poems, I’ve even published a handful, but I’ve basically failed and haven’t spent enough time on it (which is not to say that if I had I’d have been successful). Maybe it’s not too late, though I think it probably is. I’ve translated quite a bit, especially Rilke for my book on him which has verse translations of all the many quotations, and Hölderlin, who I did a whole book of to accompany Harald Bergmann’s Hölderlin films. But also other people, like Nelly Sachs. Translation is at least as much reading than writing, so maybe it suits me better.

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