New and classic translations bring clarity to medieval poems

Maurice Riordan (Ed): The Finest Music; Ciaran Carson: From Elsewhere

Michael Longley with Frank Ormsby and Ciaran Carson. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Michael Longley with Frank Ormsby and Ciaran Carson. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The early and medieval Irish poets have long been identified as powerful social figures whose power resided in satire and in their role as the “memory” of their people, called on to ratify legal arguments about borders, kinship and other matters. Outside of this “public” role, however, the literature also includes extensive narrative and lyrical traditions that are the basis of Maurice Riordan’s terrific new compendium, The Finest Music (Faber, £14.99).

Riordan’s informative introduction describes the lyrical “monastic” poetry as being “without a public function. Its concern is with the viewpoint of the individual.” That individuality may well be what attracted post-Romantic poets such as Samuel Ferguson and Alfred Lord Tennyson to these poems, and Riordan publishes extracts from their ebullient versions. The introduction also posits that the poems’ attention to the natural world may have something to do with the changing climate of the “medieval warm period”, something evident, along with its influential use of alliteration and medial rhyme, in TW Rolleston’s The Song of Finn in Praise of May:

Swift horses gather nigh

Where half dry the river goes;

Tufted heather crowns the height;

Weak and white the bogdown

blows.

Alongside these pioneer translators, Riordan includes a substantial set of translations by Frank O’Connor, whose Advice to Lovers still feels distinctively fresh and quick:

The way to get on with a girl

Is to drift like a man in a mist

Happy enough to be caught,

Happy to be dismissed.

As well as dusting off such classics, Riordan has assembled existing and commissioned work by his contemporaries. There is a piercing clarity to the blackbird and Sweeney poems variously translated by Seamus Heaney, Thomas Kinsella, Derek Mahon, Ciaran Carson and Riordan himself:

Lucky blackbird with your nest

hidden in the green forest

a monk who rattles no bell

clear, happy is your whistle

A freer, more idiomatic tone characterises Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s remarkable version of the much-imitated Song of the Woman of Beare (“My days drinking spirits / And wine with kings are gone. / Now it’s a soft drink, whey, / water with the seniors”), and likewise Paul Muldoon’s brilliant, frayed versions of Pangur Bán and Colmcille on exile, whose closing stanza gives a flavour of his approach:

I so loved being in Ireland

and still rail against being displaced.

To hang with Comgall in Bangor, Canice in Kilkenny,

it would be such a blast.

Ní Chuilleanáin and Muldoon provide their versions with a narrative pulse, as does Ciaran Carson in his translations of the early poems’ otherworldly voyages, from which dreamers emerge – like readers of this revealing anthology – “in the rowboat / after morning had come / wondering not knowing / where the island had gone.” (The Island of the Glass Bridge).

The clean, clear diction of Carson’s translations in The Finest Music carries across into his absorbing new book, From Elsewhere (Gallery, €20/€13.90). Ostensibly a translation of the work of the French poet Jean Follain (1903-1971), it includes alongside each translation an original poem of Carson’s own that “arose” as a response to the translation. Formal devices like this have defined, along with his stylistic spareness, Carson’s recent books. Formally, From Elsewhere most resembles Carson’s haunting 2010 diary of loss and illness, Until Before After (2010), with its box-within-a-box structure, underpunctuated run-on lines, repetitions and keenly attuned ear for the sounds of things falling apart.

While the book is an intriguing new example of Carson’s formal method, it also offers a distinctive reading of Jean Follain: the French poet has previously been translated into luminous English poems by WS Merwin, but Carson presents him, very differently, as a poet of aftermath. For Carson, everything Follain observes is written in the tattered shadows of European wars. Pensées d’octobre: October Thoughts is typical:

How good it is

to drink this fine wine

all by oneself

when evening illuminates the coppery hills

no hunter any longer sets his sights

on the lowland game

our friends’ sisters

look lovelier than ever

regardless of the threat of war

an insect stops then starts again

Carson’s own “response” poems show exactly how much his work chimes with Follain’s, picking up on the French poet’s images and resituating them in a city still marked by the Troubles, where a helicopter “circles overhead / in the haze of its night” (Ritual). Follain’s poems in fact seem to foreshadow Carson’s instinctive sense of the ephemeral, his feeling that nothing will last in the world he sees and hears around him, except occasional traces of the vanished world he knew as a child.

And the long sentences that Carson breaks up across short, occasionally abrupt or gasped-out lines create beautiful musical effects, as when Empire notes: “The drop-leaf of the escritoire is all blots / beyond the tumult / the sun already well up in the sky.“

These “translations” may not be exactly faithful or historical, but Carson uses the freedom of his method to illuminatingly link Follain and his own poems to other poets’ work: Elizabeth Bishop, WB Yeats, Louis MacNeice, Jorge Luis Borges and Seamus Heaney appear, the latter the subject of an elegy, In Memory, that is also a meditation on translation and a homage to Heaney’s Personal Helicon:

leaning over the rim

he shouted

the two syllables

of his name

deep down into it

to hear his echo.

John McAuliffe teaches poetry at the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing. His first collection, A Better Life (2002), has just been republished as an ebook by the Gallery Press

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