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Quite Frankly: After Petrarch, Canzoniere 1-28
by Peter Hughes
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reviewed by Simon Turner

A surprisingly lively and dynamic work that skates between translation and rewrite, Hughes' 'Quite Frankly' is an all-round success tempered only by its brevity.

There’s a great deal of intersection between poetry and translation: both disciplines require a close attention to, and feeling for, language, for the interrelation between sound and sense; each, too, is marked somehow by an underlying uncertainty as regards their value: just as every poem is, at some level, a statement of its own failure to adequately bring over into language a thought, experience or image, so every translation hovers perpetually in the gap between what should and what can be spoken.

The real object of the sonneteer’s desire is poetry itself and the ideal of poetry as in itself ascendant and inviolate

There are, too, as many approaches to the translator’s craft as there are schools of poetry, though we can, if we’re feeling taxonomic, broadly divide them up between three imperfect categories. In the red corner we find traditional or classical translation, whereby the translation of the meaning of the original work into the target language is paramount. Old school poetry translation often works best when printed in conjunction with the originating work, either on a facing page – as with Arc’s exemplary Visible Poets series – or as a prose crib at the page’s base, allowing the reader to get a sense of both the meaning and the music of the verse. In the blue corner, meanwhile, we have the postmodernist or experimental schools of translation. In this wild hinterland, translation (both across and within languages) gets put to a number of weird and wonderful uses: homophonic translation (the translation of sound not sense: Zukofsky’s raucous renderings of Catullus are the benchmark of the form); semantic translation (wherein the grammatical structure’s retained but a new vocabulary is poured into the mould); or, as in the case of Caroline Bergvall’s Via (which lists, in alphabetical order, a series of existing translations of the first three lines of Dante’s Commedia), translation might be profitably employed to interrogate the very basis of translation itself.

But there is also a Venn diagram overlap of these two extremes, a meliorative mode of translation that’s as attuned to the sense of the translated work as it is to its sound, a school of translation that we might term Poundian, after, of course, Big Bad Ezra, Modernism’s chief cheer-leader and drum-banger. Pound, perhaps more than any other modern poet, was committed to the sound of poetry as much as its sense, and as such he was almost inevitably going to be drawn to drawn to poetic translation as a means of complementing and enhancing his own ‘original’ compositions. The inverted commas are there for a reason: in Pound’s most achieved work – ‘Cino’, ‘Near Perigord’, Cathay, Homage to Sextus Propertius, the magisterial second ‘Canto’ – it is almost impossible to disentangle what might be translation and what might be Pound’s own voice. Indeed, his over-arching poetic project seems designed to trouble such easy distinctions.

So it is with Peter Hughes’ not-quite-translations of Petrarch in Quite Frankly. Hughes’ translation practice is distinctly Poundian in character. These aren’t straight translations – why should they be? – but rather attempts to renovate Petrarch, the granddaddy of the sonnet, using contemporary language (just as Pound did with – or to – classical Chinese poetry and the work of Propertius in his earlier remakings). Now for my own act of translation: to try and turn my scruffy and caffeinated notes into a cogent and balanced appraisal of Hughes’ work. In short: I genuinely love these poems. In long: I love them because they’re serious about the processes of translation, but not at the expense of having some fun with the material being translated. Much of that fun, that playful experiment, is evidenced through Hughes’ careful modulation of voice throughout the collection. Just as the poems in Quite Frankly hover somewhere between original work and translation, so the poems’ speaker is and isn’t Hughes, and is and isn’t Petrarch. The language and the imagery employed are, of course, contemporary, sometimes urgently so (the summer riots of 2011 are present and correct; ditto the credit crunch and its bungled austerity aftermath), but the movement of the language is of a much older lineage. I like to think of the original Petrarchan sonnets from which these poems are derived as a silent movie, with Hughes providing new intertitles and a wild electro-acoustic score. The sonnet is, of course, a wonderfully versatile form, and Hughes’ additions to the canon are no exception: they’re certainly experimental enough to shun or critique some of the conventions of the form – don’t expect any end rhymes here, kids – but at the same time they adhere pretty conventionally to the shape of the sonnet, to their fluency of idea and image:

I haven’t seen your face unveiled
since you learned of my desire
sowing silence in the sky from which
my boomerang won’t come back

as long as I was biting down on those
dreams which electrified my heart
I was free to see your sympathetic beauty
but then Cupid lifted the lid of my bin

(Sonnet 11: Lassare il velo o per sole o per ombra)

The strengths of Hughes’ translations can be seen here in microcosm: a certain heightened poetic diction predominates – desire; unveiled; beauty; heart: hefty words you don’t see all that often in contemporary poetry – though it’s unclear whether we’re to read this as ironic or heartfelt. This poeticism, however, is beautifully undercut by the images of the boomerang and the bin (the way in which abstract concepts – desire – or classical manifestations of same – Cupid – are concretised throughout Quite Frankly is a joy: if I come across a better image than “the unstable desk top of my heart” this year, I’ll be very surprised). However, this isn’t simply an easy sneer at the linguistic conventions of an earlier, more high-falutin’ epoch. It’s more akin to a musical score, with different elements and registers coming into harmonic alignment, or clashing against one another to create discords and disruptions.

If the official, overt subject of the Petrarchan sonnet was love – or rather, the Beloved, which is simultaneously more palpable and more abstract as a concept: love for most of us is a messy, intractable process in the here and now; the Beloved, meanwhile, is a disinfected and bubble-wrapped Platonic ideal, ascendant and inviolate – then part of Hughes’ task as not-quite translator has been to tease out the subtext of the classical sonnet. The real object of the sonneteer’s desire is, naturally, poetry itself, and this is another pleasing aspect of Hughes’ poems: their almost atavistic attachment (however tempered by a redeeming irony) to the ideal of poetry as in itself ascendant and inviolate.

This attachment can take the form of blisteringly satiric sideswipes at a materialistic and illiterate culture that views poetry as something to be ignored, institutionalised or co-opted for its own venal ends: sonnet 22 is particularly (and joyously) savage, taking bitter pot-shots at poetry prizes and their attendant “in-crowd / those cooing over fleeting fads who think / bardic is a bleach for cleaning toilets / / go & ask the hacks & novelty acts / whose only conception of the Laurels / is a fucking gastropub in Putney”. These outbursts, however, are intermittent, and are effective precisely because they do not form the collection’s dominant colouring. Hughes-Petrarch is far more likely to hymn his/their adherence to poetic language in transcendent, religiously-tinged terms: witness “the first expanse of salt-marsh / / where poetry came home to roost / with the oystercatchers & curlews / peeping at small songs far into the night”, or the opening of sonnet 15, where the Beloved (or poetry, though the uncertainty’s deliberate, I think) is invoked as “the very air that flows through my flute”. Quite Frankly is full of little marvels like this, and it’s a temptation at times to reduce the review to the status of a catalogue of my favourite lines. I’ll restrain myself to the following five: “the streams / & hills in hungry bloom” (9); “Love has you by the balls: iron fist / in a lacy French glove” (3); “she shows me the way to a better world / & my hopes have left my sense of self / to embark on a final migration” (13); “my destiny & paraglider / hurtle down towards her fatal lighthouse” (19); “I wanted to hint at your presence / in at least one finished line of poetry / but the harder I try to evoke you / the more I end up in a boy band” (20)”. There are dozens of others.

My only complaint is that twenty eight sonnets doesn’t feel like anywhere near enough: the collection stops at precisely the point at which the reader, or this reader at any rate, has become truly attuned to Hughes-Petrarch’s modulation of language and tone, the movement of thought in the lines of the verse, and has really begun to wallow in this incredibly skilful work. There is more is of Hughes’ overhauled Petrarch out there – Red Ceilings have produced a selection, as has Hughes’ own Oystercatcher Press, whilst a number of more recent additions to the sequence have appeared in magazines and e-zines – but my own feeling is that we won’t get a sense of Hughes’ sustained achievement as a poet, and as a translator, until all of the disparate pieces are gathered in one volume. Still, on the basis of this rambunctious sliver of the totality, Hughes’ Petrarch is a joy, and remains a joy whether you want to label it a translation or an ‘original’ work.