Monday, September 11, 2006

Lying Still Like Stones or Wool

Here are two versions of a powerful poem by the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda -- the first by Robert Bly, the second by Ben Belitt. I use the two translations as an exercise to discuss the potential of poetic language.

What I try to get at in class is not so much which one is better, but how Belitt and Bly have written two completely different poems, and how quickly they veer away from each other. By the end of the first line, they're already as different as night and day. Bly declares total hopelessness, total nihilism, whereas Belitt may be tired of being a man, but he holds out a hope of transcendence of his "just a man" state.

That difference is continued and magnified as the two poems continue into the second stanza. Bly wants nothing less than total annihilation -- not death, but the elimination of any connection to life or humanity -- to lie still like stones or wool. Belitt can be rejuvenated by a little vacation from things. And the mundane things that tie us to the life of human society -- Bly wants only not to see them. Belitt's not so total in his rejection -- he'd just rather not look at them.

So the violent fantasy that's Bly's only connection to life is less than that for Belitt. It's part of his vacation -- Violent Fantasyland.

Bly doesn't want to go on being sentient. For him, being alive is like being a root in the dark. The life of the senses is shivering with sleep in the moist guts of the earth.

For Belitt, that kind of sentience isn't the sum total of life, just of the kind of life that he no longer wants to have.

And finally, Bly comes to a kind of accomodation with life. He accepts total nihilism, and he can stroll serenely through it. Belitt strolls through it too, but playing it cool, still looking for an out -- that presumably, by playing it cool, one should be able to find.

So there you have it. How much more different can two poems be?

Personally, I like the uncompromising nihilism of Bly's version. My class this week was evenly divided, and there's no right or wrong choice. But mostly, I love how the comparison illustrates the subtle power of language.

Why do we have language? What's the advantage of it as a system of communication? Language allows us to distinguish between things. Written language, with its complexity, allows us to make more complex distinctions. And the language of poetry allows us to make distinctions that are at once subtle and immense.

Here is Neruda's original.

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