Sunday, May 17, 2009

Poems and their possible sources

By John

Some years ago, I edited a selection of poetry by the great Australian poet Michael Dransfield.

One of my favourite poems of his, and also one of Tracy's favourites, is a short piece entitled "Hole in the Forest". Tracy and I have had many discussions about the immensity of this little poem, in terms of both the spiritual and the ecological. For me it's the ideal activist poem, because it is entirely resistant to environmental damage like logging, and yet makes an ontological point about how loss from nature is a loss for all nature, including us.

Recently, Tracy found a copy of her old school anthology of French poetry (An Anthology of French Poetry, ed. J. R. Lawler) that was used for TAE (TEE) French in Years 11 and 12 back in the 70s and probably earlier (it dates originally from 1960, after which were many reprints).

While browsing through it, she noticed a poem by one of my favourite French-language poets -- he was born in Uruguay -- Jules Supervielle, that brought to mind Dransfield's poem because of some common elements. The poem was called "Dans la foret sans heures". She seemed to remember so, from reading Patricia Dobrez's biography of him, and I said yes it was the case -- checking Dobrez confirmed that he took French to Year 12 (scoring a B as his final grade).

It seems likely there's a connection between the Dransfield and the Supervielle poems -- different as they are -- I will leave it up to others to decide!

But this is very interesting from my point of view, as I would suppose that this anthology, if it was indeed studied at his school, would have had a profound effect on Dransfield -- not only on individual poems he wrote (maybe there are all sorts of points of contact to be traced, not just with Supervielle), but also on his poetics, which have long been known to be influenced by European poets in translation.

The argument here is that Dransfield might have been influenced also, and more directly, out of the poets he studied in another language at school, and not just in translation.

(As an aside, I also feel disgusted -- as does Tracy -- with an addition to the Wikipedia entry on Dransfield, that (uncredited) cites supposed contempt for Dransfield's work, in a very non-neutral manner. Though a later editor has put "who?" in brackets after the vague attribution, the casting of this slur as coming from "Others" means it has stayed up there and sits there largely unchallenged, which seems to us a cowardly way of posting an insult in what is meant to be an encyclopedia.

Also, the idea expressed there that Dransfield by being published prevented others having their opportunity, strikes us as ludicrous, and characteristics of the kinds of petty jealousy that seem to attend literary life for some reason.)

Anyway, back to the two poems in question.

Dransfield's is different from Supervielle's in the sense that it relies on metonymy, and his message is ultimately ecological in the 1960s "protest" sense. It is talking about human usages of the environment as symbolised by a tree and the wood that is extracted from that, as vehicle to human creativity and functionality. And though nature tries to repair the damage of human pragmatism through the ferns covering up the hole, etc., humans can't disguise, artistically or otherwise, the fact that this loss is their gain.

Supervielle is talking entirely about an ontology of nature, and though the human presence in this description of a fallen tree is merely generic ("On", or the general "they"), as it is in the Dransfield too, human values are instilled in the sense of an absence which is rendered spiritual.

The two poems resemble each other in some aspects of this ontological spatiality -- the gap in the forest, and whether it will or won't remain, can or can't be filled. Both poems are short and apparently simple, and both are about forms of loss as imaged through the felling of a tree. Both imply a kind of "protest", too.

Below is my effort at translating the Supervielle piece.

Jules Supervielle (1884-1960)

In the forest without time

In the forest without time
They are felling a great tree.
A vertical emptiness
In the form of a pillar
Quivers near the fallen trunk.

Seek, seek, you birds,
The place for your nests
In this lofty memory
While it still whispers.

(translated by John Kinsella)

Coincidentally, today is the anniversary of Supervielle's death 49 years ago.

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