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Interview
  David Constantine
David Constantine has published half a dozen volumes of poetry, most recently Something for the Ghosts, all with Bloodaxe Books. His Collected Poems will be published in November. He is a translator of Hölderlin, Goethe and Brecht. With his wife Helen he edits the magazine Modern Poetry in Translation.

 

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    Jamie McKendrick
  I'd like to know where your enthusiasm for the German language and its literature came from? What is it about it that strikes a chord in you?

I had good teachers of French and German at school and university, did a D.Phil. on Hölderlin, and then taught German language and literature myself for 30 yrs. So I got some knowledge of the language and some ability in it. Certain poets - Goethe, Hölderlin, Heine, Brecht - became vitally important to me. But all the while I was reading French, a good deal of Classical literature and, of course, English. So the writers altogether form a great cosmopolitan Republic of Letters, they all matter, they come and go in my consciousness and help at different times in different ways.

You have said, of translating, that it expands the translator's knowledge of his own language and its capabilities. Is there a sense in which the act of translation brings one closer to "pure language", the hidden meaning behind the word (in Benjamin's formulation), so that you return to your native language with enhanced abilities?

It was commonly said in older poetics that a writer must come into his own language only after a period 'abroad'. He should go abroad like a journeyman. By learning a foreign language and translating from it he will learn how his own language works and what it is - and might be made - capable of. So it is not, in my view, a question of 'pure language', more a matter of understanding particular identities, in the end chiefly that of one's native tongue. In Hölderlin's phrase: of coming into 'the free use of one's own'. And the 'identity' of a language (the nation's or a particular writer's )is not a fixed thing. It can be altered, it must change and develop, and journeying abroad is a good way of making that happen.

Has the intense, intimate contact with a foreign language which translation demands affected your own poetry making, its rhythms, forms and vocabulary?

I got from Heine and Brecht a pleasure in the mixing of tones, of contradictory coexistences; from Hölderlin the desire for a tense, nervous, extending syntax; from both of them, and from Goethe, a love of concrete nearness. English writers have affected me still more closely, but I gratefully acknowledge what I have learned from reading and translating those German poets. German, English, French, Greek, all work differently, they have different resources, they make different demands; you can adopt, adapt, learn and apply, for your own needs. Try translating the prosody of a foreign language into an English usage, for example.

In the introduction to your translations of Hölderlin, you state that you "went for equivalence of effect rather than exact reproduction of the means of the effects." Do you believe that this is the only sensible strategy when translating verse? Is this approach related to, say, the Imitations of Lowell, or Pound's Chinese appropriations?

Michael Hamburger's strategy in translating Hölderlin was mimetic. Mine was to go for equivalence. In translating the odes, for example, I kept to their syllabic count and tried to engender rhythms akin to but not identical with those engendered by alcaics in German. I do myself think that way preferable, because it attends to what each language is best at, what effects each language is best able to produce, and how. My versions are much closer than 'imitations' and they are 'appropriations' only in the sense that, trying hard to write readable English verse, I necessarily shifted Hölderlin through my own voice.

How did the experience of translating prose (I'm thinking of Elective Affinities) differ from that of translating poetry?

In translating that text and other similarly difficult ones (Kleist's short stories) I had to pay attention to the whole complex structure of each sentence. Once I'd got that - a sort of architecture - in place then I could concentrate on the rightness of particular words and on the tone. I suppose it was a bit more like conscious ventriloquy than when translating poems. Goethe's text is throroughly ironic, ironizes even its own language. Following that was a very conscious enterprize. Also, I could always do a few pages of prose by Kleist or Goethe, more or less well; but certain poems by Hölderlin were quite intractable, for many years. Roughly the same distinction operates when I write in English, prose or verse. The latter is far less biddable.

Your own work seems to oscillate between feverish love poetry and macabre meditations on the dead and the dispossessed. Is it fair to say these two poles are representative of your own take on the lyric tradition?

I suppose that's true. I write about what I know something about: things that are commonplace, in my life and in the lives of other people. And I've always been powerfully drawn to lives less privileged than mine. Call it conscience, obligation, desire to witness.

You abandoned the lyric for your epic poem Caspar Hauser, which displayed your gifts to remarkably powerful effect. In it the reader has the space to be immersed in your (may I say Manichaean?) vision of the world. Yet the frail lyric form in your hands is also able to contain dark, fairly brutal scenes. Is this a vision best expressed through the lyric or the epic mode?

I moved to epic for 'Caspar' because I knew I had a longish story to tell. I devised a verse form, loose terza rima, which I thought I should be able to vary and sustain. In fact, though, the whole thing, an epic poem, works rather lyrically in that the characters reflect on past events, the story has already happened. Even the narrator shifts to and fro between lyric and epic. I found it hard just to tell a story in verse, so I tried to avoid having to. The lyric mode, full of aspiration and regret, suited me and my characters (among them the narrator) best. There are many narrative (epic) passages and tendencies in my lyric poems too. The mixing suits me. Is 'Caspar' Manichaean? He was the object and victim of extreme hopes. People wished him to be redemptive, in a world of human weakness and wrongdoing.

Much of your poetry employs traditional verse forms. Do you find the restrictions offered by these forms to be a necessary element of the creative process?

I have a horror of shapelessness in poetry. I like a shape, a form, to be within and where necessary to contradict. 'Traditional' forms survive precisely because there is some point in them. A writer needs to know them. Then: adopt, adapt, contradict. Amazing the number of people on creative writing courses who have read nothing and, even worse, can't see why they should read anything. Writers need to know what the language has already done.

Which twentieth century poets would you say shaped the way you write?

Hardy, Edward Thomas, Owen, Graves, R.S.Thomas, Brecht.

For all your contact with German and French literature, much of your own poetry has an unmistakable Englishness about it. To what extent do you see yourself as an elegist for the overlooked, the working classes, the forgotten parts of our land and its history?

I think of myself as very English. As to being an elegist … I suppose so. There is a lot to be elegiac about. But also to be enraged about. I should like to write with more and with more effective rage. I want to write so that the value of the lives of ordinary people is made apparent; so that they have a better idea of themselves; to make them better able to resist the lies and blandishments of their politicians. And so much gets forgotten that should be ever present in our memory. The mother of the Muses is Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. Lose your memory, you are more easily enslaved.



© David Constantine / Signals 2004