Translation

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems. 

In our current series, What Translation Sparks, we’ve asked a group of poet-translators to share a seminal experience in translation. How does the work of translating poetry feel essential to the writing of one’s own poetry? Our contributors reflect on inspiring moments as intricate as a grammatical quirk and as wide-ranging as the history or politics of another place. 

Jennifer Grotz on “Pantarheia”

“Pantarheia” is the title poem of Jerzy Ficowski’s last collection, published the year before his death, and it is one of the poems included in Everything I Don’t Know, the volume of his selected poetry co-translated by Piotr Sommer and myself. The title (“Pantareja” in Polish) is a neologism of Heraclitus’s assertion “Panta rhei,” which is usually translated in English as “Everything flows” or “Everything changes.” Here, Ficowski has turned the phrase into a noun, or more specifically, a proper name, which he has assigned to a butterfly or moth.

Such neologisms, coaxing words to serve as uncustomary parts of speech, are a signature in Ficowski’s poetry and enact some of the singularity of his imagination. Another is an evocative use of imagery that operates according to its own visual logic. An apt figure for the butterfly’s spotted markings, “the large slanted eyes / on each wing / not noted in Linnaeus,” once evoked, become literal. “Don’t touch” the “left hazel one now asleep,” the speaker warns, “because / it’s losing sight.” Here there’s a delightful melding of literal and figurative, where a spot becomes an eye and can then do what eyes do, such as sleep or go blind, all while evoking the torn wing’s status of starting to lose its pigmented scales. Also inherent in the poem’s visual logic is a rhyme of sight with flight. The torn off eye/wing, affectionately nicknamed “Youppi junior” after the typhoon that injured Pantarheia, rests in a drawer hoping for one more flight, that is one more “sidelong glance.”

There’s another conceptual rhyme in the poem between flight and time, very close to the actual rhyme in the Polish (“lat” is the word for “year”; “lot” is the word for “flight”). “So many years and years / and years / only in flight and flight / and flight,” the narrator observes of the butterfly’s long migration. Piotr and I couldn’t preserve the slant rhyme in English, but fortuitously, the parallel syntax and the matching monosyllabic “years” and “flight” clearly create their own sort of chime that sounds out the wistfulness or weariness of “how long it is / this halfway.” In the afterword of our collection, Piotr observes that in Polish there is also a mental rhyme that occurs between “Pantareja” and “Odyseja”—Panta rhei with Odyssey, whereby this subtle lyric poem connects to the ancient epic.

What is it we’re actually influenced by when we read or translate from other languages? What is it that draws us to look for inspiration there or in other media, like visual arts or music? One answer lies in what the late critic Daniel Albright called panaesthetics, a sort of belief that certain universal principles might unite artists or the process of making, regardless of medium or language. But another answer might be that we go to the work of other languages or other art forms in order to escape an influence or given tendency that our own language and tradition may exert on our making. Both impulses feel true to my experience with Ficowski, and both felt heightened in my case from the act of co-translating, which required discussion and consensus with an interlocutor. Before encountering Ficowski’s work, I think I had a more painterly notion of how concrete description and metaphor worked in my poems. My fascination had been primarily with the relation of the literal and the figurative, how “I see,” for example, could be literal (eyesight) and/or figurative (I realize, I understand). Or, to speak with our usual vocabulary about metaphor, the vehicle (the “the large slanted eyes”) is conventionally understood to be in service of revealing the tenor (the spots or markings on Pantarheia’s wing), but here, they seem to have equal footing, mutually informing each other like rhyme. Additionally, Ficowski’s imagery often expands into a third dimension that incorporates time or duration. The seeing that happens in “Pantarheia” includes eyesight and understanding, but it nuances understanding to remind us it is also a process, a journey in which we are still seemingly “halfway” there.

Writing Prompt

  1. Start by choosing something in the actual world that you might like to consider and describe, like a tree or an apple or a butterfly or a household object. Begin by generating some phrases, lines, sentences that describe what you chose as literally as possible, using concrete language and detail (i.e. language that is perceptible by the five senses). 
  2. Next allow yourself to move into description that is figurative, using simile or metaphor. What is the tenor (what you have chosen to describe) like? You can use similes and/or metaphors to make your comparisons. Generate as many vehicles (things being compared to your tenor) as you can, elucidating different aspects of your tenor (its appearance, its sound, its nature, its purpose or function, its meaning/importance to you). 
  3. Choose one or more vehicles (comparisons) and allow them to take over for a bit and expand. Can their logic begin to structure the poem-in-progress instead of the tenor you began with? Can what began as your tenor in step 1 now begin, like Ficowski’s “Pantarheia” butterfly, to become a vehicle for something else incipient in the poem?
  4. A bonus challenge: can you add musical structure, such as sonic repetition or rhyme, to reinforce your imagery?
  5. This prompt might be just as, or more, helpful applied to a poem or piece of writing already begun as a means toward expansion and revision.

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Jennifer Grotz

Jennifer Grotz is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Window Left Open. Also a translator from the French and Polish, her most recent translation is EVERYTHING I DON’T KNOW, the selected poems of Jerzy Ficowski, co-translated with Piotr Sommer and forthcoming from World Poetry. Her poems, reviews, and translations have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The Nation, The New Republic, New York Review of Books, Ploughshares, New England Review, and in five volumes of the Best American Poetry anthology. Director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences, she teaches at the University of Rochester.