Department header
Bewildering Stories

Willie Smith writes about...

Prose and Poetry

My favorite piece so far has been Jeff Haas’s Borges takeoff. Excellent writing and a very well done and creative homage to the master. One of my favorite short stories of all time is Borges’ “The Circular Ruins,” which exemplifies the kind of sci-fi I find the most magnetizing.

Thanks, Willie... I’m sure Jeff will appreciate the compliment. The reference is, of course, to “Searching for Nada” in issue 175.

[About the Ronsard sonnet in issue 175]I liked Mike Lloyd’s translation of the Ronsard poem. Quite a tour de force doing it as a Shakespearean sonnet. Although he was liberal — not to say inventive — with the imagery, I thought he created a lovely and fluid English poem that still carries the main thrust and even traces of the perfume of the original.

I’ve tried translating the sonnet myself, but have always thrown away my efforts. For one thing, how can any English speaker hope to convey the heart-tugging power of the first quatrain’s rose/arrose rhyme? I am very fond of that homonym style of rhyme that frequently crops up in French poetry, especially chez Baudelaire, e.g., the soeur/douceur rhyme in the first stanza of the poem “L’Invitation au voyage,” and the soir/encensoir rhyme of “Harmonie du soir.” Echolalia charms me.

French phonetics is so musical that the language seems to have an unfair advantage in poetry. Compared to English, rhymes are almost too easy, and they have to be restrained. Rich rhymes — which have three elements in common, two consonants and a vowel — are normally used as a “special effect.”

One of my favorites is a “pun rhyme,” not all that hard to make when the language itself has been said to consist mostly of puns:

Gall, amant de la reine, alla, tour magnanime
Galamment de l’arène à la Tour Magne, à Nîmes

The meaning is unimportant; we’re talking pure form here. Students are often truly Bewildered to discover that the two lines are pronounced the same. No wonder tradition has insisted upon “clarity” in French!

But has any language cornered the market on true Bewilderment? Thanks for reminding me elsewhere of Groucho Marx’s famous line: “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.” I guess that’s the price English pays for marking parts of speech by position rather than endings!

I think what T. S. Eliot did with Laforgue is the best we can hope for in the Englishing of French poetry. Somehow old Tom Eliot was able to resonate clearly to Laforgue’s style of rhythm and imagery, thereby investing his (Tom’s) original poetry with the soul of poor, died-young Laforgue. Alas, it’s probably too late for an English speaker to do that with Ronsard, beyond, of course what Grand Master Willie Yeats did with “When you are old and gray.”

I can quote a masterful translation by Ezra Pound of a sonnet by Joachim DuBellay as well as some very curious translations of Ronsard’s Quand vous serez bien vieille. They’re worth pages of their own.


Du Bellay, from Antiquités de Rome | Ronsard, from Sonnets pour Hélène

Copyright © 2005 by Willie Smith and Bewildering Stories

Home Page