Paz’s Anthology

An Anthology of Mexican Poetry, ed. Octavio Paz, tr. Samuel Beckett

Not that many years ago, the Santa Monica Museum of Art (which is a commercial building made over by Frank O. Gehry as a temporary exhibition space, and has no collection) had a show the tenor of which purported that Ireland and Mexico were cultural equivalents. This was at a time when Santa Monica College promulgated a document soliciting contributions for a new planetarium which would, among other things, monitor the racial component of the city, somehow.

The rationale appears to have been the Chicano movement and its murals in comparison with Sinn Fein and the Ulster muralists. I did not see the show, but it is remarkable that one of the great feats of translation in our time has been Octavio Paz’s selection of Mexican verse rendered into English by Samuel Beckett.

How this project came to be must be in Deirdre Bair’s biography, which one can no more bear to read than Brian Boyd’s Nabokov (one does not like to hear one’s friends spoken of behind their backs, and Boyd has an awful air of Jack Cockerell about him, or so it seems to me).

In a nice swing at a ball thrown by the memory of one of Nabokov’s comments about book reviewers, I would say that it would be for example a most interesting and curious match for the mind to know how the proposition was put to or by Beckett, and what amount he was paid for all the verses he made.

There are only two schools of translation, and one can say that there is no preferring one to the other, A poem is literal when its terms are translated literally, and poetic when it transcends these considerations. Mathematics speaks across boundaries; a poem is a problem or a formula whose elements or terms may be regrouped or reformulated somewhat, so long as the equation is made. One gives you a literal crib (you the poet), you give one back an unobstructed rendering. Contrariwise, the mumbo-jumbo of a paraphrase gets sorted out with a new diligence, until the meaning of the poem is now clear.

Nabokov and Shelley are the emblems. Beckett is a Shelleyan. He will have verse made, as in the Elizabethan days, or damn the attempt. His “Drunken Boat” is practically a new invention, recomposed like the inside of a caterpillar, before the chrysalis breaks.

Some other time it would be worthwhile to ask of the originals how they have metamorphosed, but for now let’s note the original English.

Spender says “green with envy.” Auden loved the rare word and placed it in one’s hand like the Mallarméan traveler. Beckett’s thrift comes with a packet of associations that have no ornamentation:

For the people the bard is grace, not cark.

The boat at the dock in Le Voyeur emits a sound from its sirène, and translations of Calvino and Neruda often give a restless feeling. Beckett says the verse is important, the makers are poets, there must be poetry.

Nabokov’s Eugene Onegin advances the parallel opinion with the same result.

A seventeenth-century poem (Luis de Sandoval y Zapata), evidently a sonnet:


Beauty on a Western Balcony

On the Occident she shed her light
who kindled in the Orient of beauty;
him to detain who hastened to his doom
the heaven of the West sought out the Sun.

I, in the Occident guitaring light,
in a love-distracted dying burned;
(the consummation of my little day
was Moon, because my life was up betimes).

Thou gainest from the Occident on the Sun;
fatal wounds he fugitive inflicts,
thou motionless inflictest wounds of healing.

In the Orient still he fans his pyres;
and thou, from out the West, a livelier Sun
still fannest lives to life-consuming love.