“Look for Me” in the Guardian

I’m very pleased to have this translation as Poem of the Week. For a poem of 12 lines it took a long time to get right, and I think now I should have made that final effort for the alexandrine to sound right in English – it makes a lovely rallentando in Russian but I was afraid it would simply sound like a mistake.

There’s a comment from Pinkroom on the Guardian website:
“I like the sense of this poem but the translation is not working for me. Not liking the flitting (rotten poetty word) preferring ‘fly’ nor the quivering (ditto) preferring ‘trembling’. Got to get your verbs just so or the poem has the wrong energy. This is limp lettuce where it should be charged/electric.”

“Trembling” comes in the third stanza, and there does seem to be a strong rule in English writing that the same word doesn’t get used twice unless there’s a strong reason for it – apart from which the Russian poem has different words, too. The Russian “как взмах неощутимых крыл” [kak vzmakh neoschutimykh kryl] means literally “like the flapping of imperceptible wings”, so “fly” wouldn’t be enough to give that meaning. Poets get ticked off a lot for using words that are allegedly too poetic, and some words do get pretty shopsoiled, but I’m against banning them for any number of reasons. I don’t think “flit” or “quiver” are so seriously damaged, anyway. Pinkroom is lucky this poem doesn’t contain the word “soul” which I’ve been told any number of times is a banned word in poetry – but as it seems about 50% of Russian poems contain that word there’s not much a translator can do if there’s going to be any kind of faithfulness. With poems written nearly 100 years ago I don’t want to be too much either striving for period or updating, but I do want to find something that gives the right kind of experience to an anglophone reader. That can mean using words that might not occur in a new poem now.

From Gregory Woods on Facebook

Today I finished reading the selected poems of Vladislav Khodasevich, whose work I hardly knew, in these wonderful translations by Peter Daniels. Not only are the poems themselves a revelation (you can see why Nabokov and Brodsky rated him so highly), but this edition is itself exemplary. Daniels’ notes are especially impressive, modestly explaining the judicious and complicated decisions he made while rendering the verse into English. More broadly, we’re reminded of how radically Modernism was able to transform the arts while remaining deeply rooted in tradition (in this case most solidly embodied in Pushkin).

The Writing Process Blog Tour

I’m joining in the Writing Process Blog Tour at the invitation of Colin Bell, whose first novel Stephen Dearsley’s Summer Of Love is published by Ward Wood. His answers to the questions are at

What are you working on now?
I’m writing the odd new poem as usual, and also getting back to some translating from Russian, but mainly I’m trying to sort out a backlog of poems that have got stuck in the “Working on” folder and forgotten about. Brushing up the ones that have anything in them, and getting together some possible pamphlets. Maybe also thinking about another book, though I wouldn’t want to rush that.

Why is your work different from other work in the same genre?
It’s mine, I suppose, which is a rather feeble answer. You could say I’m a fairly plain mainstream poet, and I like poems to sound good and come over well when spoken, but I don’t think I’m very classifiable. I try to be quite various in what I do, which can be a problem for gathering things together. Quite a lot of my subject matter is explicitly gay (more in the last few years than it was for a while) which can either embarrass people or get me put into a neat ghetto. That doesn’t necessarily go so well with translating from Russian, for instance.

Why do you write like you do?
I’m an editor, so I like to be clear, or if I’m not there has to be a reason for it. I like craft without making a fetish of it. I play with words but I don’t get carried away. With the translations I’ve especially enjoyed finding a music in English to match the Russian, and that mostly has meant using strict metre and rhyme which I do in my own poems too but not so much. Rhythm got into me early as a poetry reader and it’s always there, but I don’t want to be relentless with it either, except in the occasional poem where that’s the intended effect.

Probably a lot of what I write is observation rather than participation, though I’m usually in the picture somewhere.

How does your writing process work?
Trying to surprise myself. I start writing with a choice of five out of a box of words, mixed vocabulary – several magnetic sets combined with words from things like paint charts – plus a photo I’ve taken (so it’s like a notebook entry on an experience, not just a picture), and a phrase out of my pocket notebook. A lot of the time this doesn’t turn into a poem, but often enough. I type them up and often forget them, which is why I’ve got this backlog. It’s the revising which happens much later that turns all this into a poem if it’s going to happen. The revising can go on for years. I worry sometimes that the randomness is getting a bit samey but I haven’t found a better trigger, other than going to a group where we’re set homework, which I’ve also been doing. Those poems usually get settled more quickly because I know more clearly what I’m trying to say in them.

I’m now passing the baton of these questions to two bloggers for next week:

Elaine Axten lives in London and has two blogs,

Roger Boylan is a novelist and critic who lives in Texas. His blog is http://thesnugblog.blogspot.co.uk/

Khodasevich reviewed in the TLS

I’m very pleased by the review by G.S. Smith (Emeritus Professor of Russian at Oxford). I even do quite well out of the penultimate paragraph, where the ifs and buts always come in reviews:
“In his own introduction, and particularly in his notes, Daniels is disarmingly open and honest about his method, and about the compromises with semantic equivalence it entails. In both these accounts, though, he ignores the massive legacy of linguistics- and statistics-based Russian expertise concerning European verse form. Fortunately, his ear is consistently better than his theoretical grasp.”

Other quotable moments to preen with:

“Peter Daniels and Angel Books have given us an English Khodasevich worthy of his stature.”

The translations “capture the intelligence, the unerring good taste, and the controlled passion of the originals. They are also commendably close to the primary meaning of the Russian, with its laconically observed social reality tending towards the sordid, but with constant saving glimpses of an angelic realm.”

“There are no disasters, and several ringing triumphs.”

“Knowledge of Khodasevich was always restricted to the literary elite, but he was never completely forgotten, and in post-Soviet times his poetry has risen in esteem. Thanks to Peter Daniels, his reputation may now take off among English-speaking readers.”

Waiting for the Barbarians again

I wrote this a long time ago, based on Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians”. It’s very out of date in a lot of topical detail but not in other ways.

after Cavafy; 2001

Something’s going on here at the Eurostar terminal.
What’s it all about?

Didn’t you hear? It’s a welcoming party for the refugees.

Is that Jack Straw over there? And Anne Widdecombe,
hovering close to those canapés?

Yes. They really felt they should make an effort.
The House of Commons is all down here today,
they could use a break, and the refugees are really more important.

And Her Majesty, nice headscarf.

Yes, very Balkan, isn’t it.
She’s brought some Balmoral tartan ones to give out as presents.

Look at Tony and Cherie, absolutely dazzling –
is that Vivienne Westwood they’re wearing?

Yes, they thought they’d push the boat out,
show off the best of British.

Is he going to make a speech about how glad he is to welcome them?

No, he’s realised no one takes any notice,
least of all the ones you mean to impress.

What’s up? People are murmuring.
Someone’s already started the Bulgarian Merlot
and Anne Widdecombe’s got stuck in to the butterfly prawns.
Shouldn’t they have waited for the refugees?

We’ve just heard that the train’s in
and everyone’s papers were in order.
Nobody clinging to the axles, it’s all rather a let-down.
Maybe they’ve just stopped coming.

And they’ve only just built a new reception centre
on the Greenwich peninsular. Now what do they do with it?
Who do they blame?

At the grave of Khodasevich

Khodasevich is buried in Paris – not with Oscar Wilde and other illustrious figures in the romantic hillside cemetery of Père Lachaise, but in the pleasant but undramatic Boulogne-Billancourt nouveau cimetière on the other side of the city, a flat site beside the Seine but with no view of it. ‘Billankursk’ was one of the areas inhabited by the Russian émigrés, where many worked in the nearby Renault factory: refugees from the Bolsheviks were trusted to be non-unionised workers. Nina Berberova wrote a cycle of stories Biankurskie prazdniki (Billancourt Holidays) when they lived at 10 bis rue des Quatre Cheminées. A few blocks south of there, another street where she and Khodasevich lived was renamed in 2005 ‘rue Nina Berberova’. http://solere.blogs.com/boulogne/2005/10/rue_nina_berber.html

I admit I have not yet made pilgrimages to the places where they actually lived, but I have visited the cemetery. The first time I went, I found information on the burial place on the internet, as you do, and then realised when we were in Paris and making the visit that I hadn’t brought any of that with me. Never mind, although the lodge at the gate was unstaffed there was a computer screen on which to search for the name of the deceased. I tried every transliterated version of his name I could think of, but nothing came up, so we wandered around inspecting graves on the offchance. In fact when I got home I found that he was in the 2ème division, in front of which I had by chance been photographed.


Back in Paris two years later, I knew only too well that he was in the 2ème, and took with me the picture of his grave from the internet. I tried looking for a precise location on the computer screen but failed again, even with the spelling from the website http://www.landrucimetieres.fr/spip/spip.php?article1682

Le poète postsymboliste russe Vladislav KODASSEVITCH (1886-1939), qui vécut à Berlin, à Prague puis à Paris. Il fut le compagnon de la poétesse Nina Berberova. S’il occupe une place importante dans la littérature russe, il est peu connu en France (2ème division).

At any rate, there he was, with some evidence of grave-tending though only one of several plant pots had anything living in it (a sedum, tough little things as they are). Someone had also left a small porcelain bouquet sitting on the granite slab – not there in the photo on the website, so evidently quite recent. I hadn’t thought of the transliteration Hodassevitch, as carved on the slab: it doesn’t look to me as if the mason was very confident with the cyrillic though that’s perfectly adequate.

I showed the poet his new book – or at least an image of the cover, as it was still at the printers – and I also felt I needed to read the translation of his poem ‘Gold’. There’s some danger here of self-aggrandising, as the poem tells of how ‘after many many years of darkness / a stranger will come and dig my skeleton up’. I wasn’t going to do that, but in my three years of translating his poems I could hardly avoid finding myself in the role of the man digging up this poet’s buried reputation in the West (he was also ‘buried’ in the Soviet Union, though he did circulate in samizdat, and in present-day Russia his reputation is secure). When he wrote the poem in early 1917, he was translating Polish literature and coming into his prime as a poet, a vocation he took seriously in a very Russian way. His biographer David Bethea must have felt rather like me when he was writing in the early 1980s:

The poem’s title is taken from a passage of Krasinski’ s Irydion, which Khodasevich cites, in his Russian translation, as an epigraph. It refers to the traditional gold coin placed on the mouth of the deceased. What will always shine among the poet’s remains is this piece of gold, this “solntse maloe” (little sun). Then one day some stranger (a future poet) will stumble upon the gold coin and cherish it. Khodasevich’s point appears to be that a small part of him, a psychic core, will never die; it will survive in his verse and continue to be found by later explorers. As Krasinski’s gold was Khodasevich’s find, so Khodasevich’s gold will be a find for someone else. (Khodasevich: his life and art, p. 153).

Next time I’ll bring another sedum, and go to the streets where he and Nina lived. No sign of a rue Khodassevitch yet – but maybe I just haven’t looked up the right spelling.


The Next Big Thing

I’ve been tagged by Graham Burchell to answer set questions relating to my work towards my next collection. The next collection is a book of translations, not poems of my own like Counting Eggs.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I have been translating Vladislav Khodasevich for over three years now, beginning with a Hawthornden Fellowship in November 2009. Thanks to the Stephen Spender Foundation and Graham Fawcett putting my name forward, I was at Hawthornden with a few other poets working on translations, and the plan was to put my A level Russian to work, but I didn’t have one poet in mind. I’d brought some Pushkin, the old Penguin anthology (Dimitri Obolensky) and the more recent Garnett Book of Russian Verse (Donald Rayfield). I’d already been reading Michael Wachtel’s The Development of Russian Verse, which used examples by Khodasevich. In the first few days there I reached one of the later chapters, about Russian use of classical metres, where he quotes half of the poem “Daktili”. It’s about Khodasevich’s father, and it immediately spoke to me as a poem I would like to have written about my father, so it made me want to find out more about the poet. There were other poems of his in the anthologies, which only have prose translations, and I borrowed another from the Scottish Poetry Library, Modern Russian Poetry selected by Vladimir Markov, with verse translations by Merrill Sparks which I carefully didn’t read before my own efforts. Looking at Markov & Sparks now they don’t seem all that bad, considering the strain of doing about 400 pages of translations almost all in rhyme. Most of my Khodasevich poems are rhyming too, which wasn’t what I expected to be doing at first: Khodasevich wrote seven substantial poems in blank verse, which feels like a gift to an English poet, but one of his most extraordinary poems is in ballad metre and definitely needed a rhyming version. I began to feel how basic that is to Russian poetry, and not always impossible to bring across to English, though I have had to abandon some that I’ve tried. It worries me that while I can speak them well enough, rhyming poems can seem much flatter on the page where the reader has to pick up the rhythm and read in the right intonation  and emphasis, but I feel reasonably satisfied with what I’ve done.

What genre does your book fall under?

Poetry in translation.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I wonder who would play Khodasevich – I’m not very good at faces and names of actors. It would need someone tall, thin and pale. He compared himself to a snake. His partner Nina Berberova would be small and bouncy.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Russian poet gets through the Revolution, develops his own style out of the chaos, can’t live in Russia any more, can’t write in Paris any more where the only Russian audience is either philistine or just the other poets, dies just before the Second World War and gets forgotten.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

In two and a half years I had translated all the poems that are included. One in particular, “Sorrento Photographs”, took some time – it’s about 200 lines.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Vladislav Khodasevich (1886-1939). He must have been an impossible character to be with but something about him appeals to me very much. His main poetic principle is that form and content are inseparable, which I go by too. He developed a sardonic tone, once he’d grown up a bit (his early poems are rather soppy) but he could still call on what he’d learnt from Symbolism – like Yeats in that respect. His poem “Gold” is about being dug up in the future, and at the risk of self-importance it feels as if I’m the one that’s been given the job of digging him up.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

A significant Russian poet they haven’t heard of. He knew and was friendly with Tsvetaeva but they couldn’t be more different. He said himself that they were both unclassifiable as poets. Nabokov considered him the finest Russian poet of the 20th century.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It’s published by Angel Classics, run by Antony Wood who is a Russian specialist within walking distance of where I live, so I’m not dealing with some monolithic office and editors who may not have that background and probably get made redundant in the middle of the job. He’s got a deal with a US publisher too, but I don’t think that’s ready to publicise yet. Michael Wachtel, the Princeton professor whose book introduced me to Khodasevich, has written an introduction.

I should now be tagging four other people to do “The Next Big Thing”…

Time to get blogging

I’ve been Facebooking for more than three years now. I have a website already but it feels like time to do something that bridges the two. I’ll see what kind of thing this turns into, but I’d like to put up some archive material to begin with so at least there’s something to look at.