For National Poetry Month, Conundrum Press has asked our poets, writers, and contributors to offer their thoughts on poetry. We will be publishing reflections throughout the month.
Last year, after hearing the news of Tomas Tranströmer’s death, I renewed my effort to sneak poetry into my English composition classes. When the Swedish poet and psychologist finally won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011, I was thrilled. His poems linger with me in clear and powerful images. We focused as a class on one of my favorite Tranströmer poems, “Allegro,” and we made a quick comparison of two different translations.
We discussed Robert Bly’s translation first:
After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands.
The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.
The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.
I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.
I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
“We do not surrender. But want peace.”
The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.
The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole. 1
One of my students from Africa gazed at the words projected on the screen with rapt attention. She nodded a little and smiled during the class discussion, in that wondrous moment when she understood a line of poetry in English, maybe for the first time—a turn of phrase, the juxtaposition and progression of imagery from stanza to stanza, a metaphor’s meaning and impact. This is when I really love teaching.
We discussed the way the poet gives sound the color green, contrasting the “black day” in the stanza above, and how “a little warmth in my hands” implies the poet was cold—both physically and emotionally—before he started to play.
Every time I teach a poem, I always learn something from the students—another reason I love to teach. One student said the “house of glass” was both music and the person playing the piano, at once—a mysterious juxtaposition of a human being merging with the music his fingers are playing, a surprising (physically impossible, yet emotionally real) metaphor of glass not breaking despite the rocks flying through it.
Sometimes we discover a literary moment together as a class, like the way Tranströmer leads us to believe he is raising a flag of surrender in the fifth stanza, but the “haydnflag” is instead a flag leading troops to battle—“We do not surrender”—and yet, at the same time, no battle—“we want peace.” We fight for peace without bloodshed, the nonviolent protest for freedom persisting in the best of human spirit throughout history, and persisting in music.
Regarding the fourth stanza, we discussed how acting calm, even though we are not calm, can help us be calm, just like smiling can help us feel happy when we’re not. One student gave a lovely example from his own life—how the glass house is like staying calm and quiet while a family member is trying to get you to argue.
From my own older and getting-wiser years, I pondered the fact that “someone pays no tax to Caesar” in the third stanza comes from a mature sensibility. Even though Tranströmer (or the narrator) may have to pay taxes, someone doesn’t, and this is something to celebrate. He has developed the ability to feel freedom just because it exists for someone else, even if not for himself—just as in my life, I am starting to discover the mysterious and liberating ability to feel joy because joy exists somewhere in the world, even if I myself am sad about things. Hey, if I’m not in love, at least love exists! At least two people are in rapturous joy together, somewhere, and that makes it easier for me to tolerate my solitude, instead of harder as it did in my less mature days (and still sometimes) when I felt jealous and bitter about it all.
Then we got to the poem’s sound and rhythm, comparing Bly’s translation above to Robin Fulton’s below:
I play Haydn after a black day
and feel a simple warmth in my hands.
The keys are willing. Soft hammers strike.
The resonance green, lively and calm.
The music says freedom exists
and someone doesn’t pay the emperor tax.
I push down my hands in my Haydnpockets
and imitate a person looking on the world calmly.
I hoist the Haydnflag – it signifies:
“We don’t give in. But want peace.”
The music is a glass-house on the slope
where the stones fly, the stones roll.
And the stones roll right through
but each pane stays whole. 2
We all seemed to agree, Bly’s is much better—both in sound and imagery. None of us knew Swedish fluently, so we couldn’t give a true analysis, but as far as the English translations go, Bly rocked and rolled American style without losing the poem’s literary and solemn flair. In the first line, Fulton is true to the word order in Swedish, beginning with the English version of “Jag spelar Haydn.” While this may work well in the original language, Bly makes it flow like we would say it in English, beginning with “After a black day, . . .” In the second line, “a little warmth in my hands” is more natural and less awkward than “a simple warmth in my hands,” and the two translations go on like this—Fulton making us think too much about it being a translation because of the stilted word choice, Bly making us unconscious that it’s a translation, but making us fully aware, at the same time, of the poem’s originality, power and grace.
Fulton fails, for example, to capture the powerful sound of Bly’s version of the last two stanzas. In Fulton’s English, “where the stones fly, the stones roll/And the stones roll right through,” the repetition of “stones roll” sounds to me like a kid writing a poem for third grade. Not that kids can’t write spectacular poetry, but there is an adult brilliance in Bly’s version, where “rocks” is repeated but not the verb form of “roll”—the variation of “rolling” and “roll” works a lot like an imperfect rhyme—less stilted, “rolling” with more movement, just like the literal image of the rocks, and with better music.
So when we find the “glass is still whole,” it is more surprising, jolting, and beautiful. Or, one could argue, does “rocks” juxtaposed with “rolling” conjure up American rock-and-roll when we’re supposed to be hearing Haydn? It’s there in the background, like a subliminal metaphor for freedom (not that Sweden isn’t free, but you do have to pay high taxes in Scandinavia). The imagery and sound crash above the subliminal tone and make the rockslide work despite almost a tongue-in-cheek allusion.
The music is a house of glass standing on a slope; / rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.
The rocks roll straight through the house / but every pane of glass is still whole.
Readers of Tranströmer, what do you think of Fulton vs. Bly as translators of the poet? I am curious, now, to read the published correspondence between Bly and Tranströmer. Being close friends with Tranströmer must have helped Bly understand his sensibility, his poetic intent, and his soul, and to me Bly is just better at writing poetry in English (though my own sensibility there could have to do with the fact that Bly is American, which is more what I’m used to, whereas Fulton is a Scottish writer).
At the same time, I prefer Stephen Mitchell’s translations of Rainer Maria Rilke to Bly’s, which I will try to write about in a future blog. What do you think of Bly vs. Fulton (or vs. Mitchell) as translators in general?
And have you read Bright Scythe: Selected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Patty Crane? World Literature Today touches on her translation of “Allegro” in the link above.
To discuss this piece with the author, visit her website at rebeccasnow.co.
1 From The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations, trans. Robert Bly, Harper Collins, 2004.
2 From Tomas Tranströmer, New Collected Poems, trans. Robin Fulton, Bloodaxe Books, 1997/2011.
Rebecca Snow is the author of Glassmusic, a novel published by Conundrum Press. Glassmusic was shortlisted for the 2015 International Rubery Book Award. Rebecca teaches literature and writing at the Community College of Aurora. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in Progenitor, Wazee Journal, and Blue Moon. She is also teaching a course on writing at the Colorado Writing School on April 30. Stop by our bookstore to see our many fine collections of poetry and other works from our authors.