When I went to Brazil in 1965 as a Fulbright Lecturer I had read only a few of Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s poems in translations done either by Elizabeth Bishop or John Nist. I did not know Portuguese and thought quite erroneously it turned out that I would learn it by doing my own translations. I had no idea how difficult that would be. Relying heavily on my limited knowledge of Spanish, I was eventually able to read it, but never able to speak it with anything approaching fluency. My translations had to be checked for accuracy by someone who actually knew the language
I had recently turned thirty one and was still very much a young poet. Translation for me was a kind of apprenticeship. Problems in syntax, say, or lineation could be confronted more objectively, more concretely than they could in the working out of my own poems, which I had wanted to manifest the same degree of mastery exhibited on the one hand in the poems of Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, and James Merrill and on the other by the poems of James Wright or W. S. Merwin or by the slightly older Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and Theodore Roethke. Style was all; content would take care of itself, at least that’s what I thought then.
But as important to me as those poets were, they existed primarily as models of prosodic self-assurance. Rarely did I feel with them the deep connection I felt when reading the fiction of Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Borges, Landolfi, or Buzzati. Their fictive worlds were ones that I wished I had created. Their fantastic distortions, their freedom from domestic convention, their endlessly inventive projections of the uncanny, not only fascinated me, they seemed more related to my own inner experience, my own psychic disturbances and pleasures.
Esthetically, I seemed lost somewhere between the polish of the American poets and the peculiarity of the European prose writers. I hoped that a year in Rio might help me to find a direction of my own …
Read more in Little Star Weekly, this week and next
This week we celebrate the arrival of Mark Strand’s capacious new Collected Poems with two little reflections by Strand in Little Star Weekly, one on forgetting a poem and the other on not forgetting one.
The poem Strand declined to forget was by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, the Brazilian modernist pioneer who, in Strand’s story, found the point of convergence between the young poet’s sense of craft and his more disruptive impulses—a point occupied by a stone in a road. In Brazil Strand befriended Elizabeth Bishop, who was translating Drummond, but he was too shy to ask for an introduction, and Bishop allowed as how Drummond was pretty shy himself.
Strand went on nevertheless to publish two volumes of translations of Drummond, though he preferred Bishop’s, at least of this one unforgotten poem. These will be supplemented next summer by a new attempt, from Richard Zenith and FSG, called The Multitudinous Heart.
Collected Poems, by Mark Strand, just out from Knopf
Looking for Poetry: Poems by Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Rafael Alberti and Songs from the Quechua, translated by Mark Strand
Souvenir of the Ancient World, by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, translated by Mark Strand
Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry, edited and introduced by Elizabeth Bishop and Emanuel Brasil, and translated by various hands
Multitudinous Heart: Selected Poems: A Bilingual Edition, by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, translated by Richard Zenith, coming this summer from Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Mark Strand, Untitled (2014). Paper collage, 8 1/4 x 8 1/2 inches. Lori Bookstein Fine Art