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Keep It Growing: A Translator’s Take on Ezra Pound’s “Make It New”

By Olga Nikolova

Tching prayed on the mountain and
          wrote MAKE IT NEW 新
on his bath tub
          Day by day make it new 日
cut underbush,
pile the logs
keep it growing 日

                   —Ezra Pound, Cantos

Immediately after finishing my PhD in English at Harvard, I started translating Ezra Pound's Cantos into Bulgarian. I realized at that point—after seven to eight years in America and after more than twenty years of studying English—that my Bulgarian had become stiff. In fact, I knew English better than Bulgarian. I had studied its history, its syntax and semantics, its major (and minor) literary achievements. I knew what English sounded like in different parts of the world. My ear recognized the melodies in English speech. I could hear the beat in Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse. But I could not recite a single line of Bulgarian epic poetry, let alone sing it (one can still hear epic songs performed in the Balkans). Right, I said to myself, I have spent too much time hopping on one leg. I threw away the academic crutches I had unconsciously learned to rely on.

I am sure that most writers who go to live in another country at one point face the question: what language should I be writing in? And no doubt many Bulgarian authors abroad have asked themselves: who would read my work if I wrote in Bulgarian? Who cares about Bulgarian literature? Well, these are questions born out of too much hopping on one foot.

André Breton wrote somewhere in his 1928 novel Nadja that real thinking is like running barefoot. About twenty years before Breton, Allen Upward said much the same thing in The New Word, when he distinguished between “folk words” (learned mostly at home) and “book words” (learned mostly at school):

The folk words come to us as the wrappings of our earliest thoughts and feelings, and form, as it were, the mind's natural skin. The book words follow after the brain has began to harden, and are more like clothing which the mind puts on. We use them as children who walk in wooden shoes,—not with the same sure and elastic tread as they who go barefoot.

Upward is talking about Latinate words in English and the exaggerated reliance on such vocabulary by the education establishment. A similar problem stood before Chaucer and Dante, and a version of it stands before anyone who wants to "talk about the world" while actually paying attention to it, not, as Herakleitos would say, "as if asleep or absent-minded." Or else, in the words of Diogenes: "To live is not itself an evil, as has been claimed, but to lead a worthless life is." A life of hopping, when one could be racing with one's own mind along the edge of the unknown, would have been worthless, indeed.

As I was trying to regain a normal mental gait—necessary to learn dancing—I chanced upon a collection of Bulgarian "folk" songs, selected and arranged by a modernist poet, Pencho Slaveĭkov, in a volume entitled The Book of Songs [Kniga na pesnite]. I put quotation marks around "folk" because the disciplines of ethnology and anthropology bear the stamp of civilizational smugness, based on the idea that humanity progresses along an inexorably upward path. This is normally taken to imply that we, with our technological gadgets, are "much better" than the poor savages keen on singing of a century ago. But in my thirty years of reading, I had never read anything as beautiful as some of these songs.

O woods, thou art green,
thy shade is deep,
thy water cold and clear . . .

The traveler strays from his path, and the rest is Dante's Inferno.

Although recorded mostly in the nineteenth century, in terms of motifs many of these songs predate Christianity (introduced in Bulgaria in the ninth century). How far back can we date these songs? Who knows.

In the Sumerian epic of Enki and Ninhursaja, the goddess Uttu says to the gardener of the garden of delights:

Bring cucumbers in . . . , bring apples with their stems sticking out (?), bring grapes in their clusters, and in the house you will indeed have hold of my halter . . .

How very nice this question mark after "stems sticking out"! What could these words possibly mean?

A French translation gives:

Apporte [des concombres après les avoir . . . ],
apporte des pommes dans/sur leurs [. . .],
apporte des grappes de raisin sur leurs branches!
[Bring clusters of grapes on their branches!]

A Bulgarian song one can still hear on occasions tells of a man who implores the "white" (soft, gentle) wind to blow and melt the snow—because he wants to go to Drama (a town now in Greece) where his beloved has fallen ill:

to bring her ponuda
a yellow quince on its branch
white grapes on their clusters

Ponuda is an archaic word for the first fruits and vegetables of the year, firstlings as they used to be called in English, typically offered to the gods. But why they must be offered on their branches I understood only this May, when with some friends I stole into a garden and ate cherries straight from the tree. "Food fit for the gods!" Now, most fruit comes in plastic on supermarket stalls, and for the average inhabitant of the civilized world, there is no way of knowing the difference in the taste of a fruit coming straight from the branch and a fruit coming straight on a plate. Not to mention the finer distinctions of taste in fruit one has seen grow or one has stolen or one has bought with a credit card. If you think that I am exaggerating, I kindly suggest listening to a nightingale in the woods at night or at the break of dawn and then reading Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale." This is the kind of experience meant by Ezra Pound in ABC of Reading when he quotes Homer's "an experienced soldier would have noticed . . . ", before suggesting that "the geography of the Odyssey is correct geography; not as you would find it in a geography book or a map, but as it would be in a 'periplum', that is, as a coasting sailor would find it.”

At the beginning of Pound’s Canto I, Odysseus reaches the land of the Cimmerians—the place for the sacrifice to the dead. Pound describes the entry to the underworld with a very mysterious line: "the ocean flowing backward, came we then to the place." The ocean flowing “backward”? How? What is this place? The line puzzled me for years, until one day, while reading a book about the rites of St. George, I came to understand what "backward" could signify in this verse. Early in the morning, just before daybreak on the day of St. George, people would go out to take a ritual bath by rolling in the fresh dew covering the fields, and they would search for springs and whirlpools in rivers (sometimes miles away from the village) where the water turned to the left, i.e., backward. The “left water,” used in the preparation of the feast, was meant to unlock the underworld, inviting new life, ushering the new spring. St. George himself appears in the songs as a horseman, precisely at dawn (the beginning of the world, “the first light” as Pound calls it in Canto III).

When his eyes glimmer, daylight breaks anew;
when he plucks the reins, sparks fly off;
when his soul breathes, mist covers the field.

The idea of a ritual renewal of life underlies one of Pound’s most famous, and possibly most misunderstood, phrases: "make it new." The common interpretation offered by scholars and poets is, to put it roughly, that a poet must bring new life to the tradition of the past by “making it new.” In a world where "planned obsolescence" is a given, the emphasis naturally falls on the newness of new poetry. But such an emphasis distorts the measure, so to speak, especially when combined with the above-mentioned civilizational smugness, which simply relegates past achievements to the past.

Longinus, whose ideas are at the basis of Pound's ABC of Reading, provides this as a measure for the sublime in literature (in H. L. Havell’s translation):

If then any work, on being repeatedly submitted to the judgment of an acute and cultivated critic, fails to dispose his mind to lofty ideas; if the thoughts which it suggests do not extend beyond what is actually expressed; and if, the longer you read it, the less you think of it,—there can be here no true sublimity. . . . But when a passage is pregnant in suggestion, when it is hard, nay impossible, to distract the attention from it, and when it takes a strong and lasting hold on the memory, then we may be sure that we have lighted on the true Sublime. In general we may regard those words as truly noble and sublime which always please and please all readers.

This is echoed in Pound's simple "irrepressible freshness" (literature as "news that stays news" later in ABC of Reading):

A classic is a classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.

Evidently, it is not the tradition or old poetry that needs to be "made new." The best of it (the "live tradition") has an "irrepressible freshness" to it. It stays new forever—that is its mark.

One of the tragic consequences of the communist regime was the destruction of live traditions, skills, mastery that were being handed down from one generation to the next, among them the traditions of growing orchards and wine-making. Most families in Bulgaria before the coup d’état possessed a house in a village or a town, some pasture land, fields, vineyards and orchards strewn in different places (depending on the soil and the winds) around the village with its obligatory dancing square. My family's vineyard was nationalized in the ‘80s, and its vines were taken out. I remember crushing the grapes for the wine with my feet as a young child. That's as far as my wine-making knowledge extends. The land is now a swamp, because no one maintains the irrigation system, and no one knows how. Our orchard, nationalized much earlier, is now taken over by wild bushes. The old apple trees have grown twisted and gnarled, cluttered with dry branches. Brambles and acacias are gradually spreading over the entire garden. My grandmother knew how to grow fruit trees, my mother knew very little of it, I know nothing. I have to learn from scratch and from books if I want to eat fruit straight from the branch, food fit for the gods. And I want to see this garden trim and pretty, with blossoming almond trees and pomegranates along its edges, slim apples and peaches and cherries in patterned lines, a dignified row of walnuts on one side, and on the other, by the brook: the centuries-old plain trees, whose shade is welcome on hot days. In other words, I need to make this orchard new.

Published Feb 1, 2016   Copyright 2016 Olga Nikolova

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