Witness -> Translation -> Adjective Verse?

Look at the opening of Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem,” her monument or memorial to the years of Stalin’s Terror:

             No, not under the vault of alien skies,
             And not under the shelter of alien wings—
             I was with my people then,
             There, where my people, unfortunately, were.   


“There, where my people, unfortunately, were.”1  Could you write that line as an American poet? Even laying aside the “my people,” could you say “unfortunately”? To say unfortunately about the Terror is to reclaim that word completely—it was not merely injustice, sin, mass murder, but mishap, the utter failure of good fortune—and, by linkage, to make every surrounding word new and real again. American poetry is afraid, I think, of that total, reconstructive accuracy.

This accuracy is not unique to Akhmatova. Nor is it entirely a matter of content: it’s actually part of a style common to translated poems. This has something to do with what Steven Owen described, in his 1990 essay “What is World Poetry?”, as poetry that succeeds “not by words, which are always trapped within the nationality of language and its borders, but by the envisagements of images possible only with words.” But it’s not just portable images, not just poetry at one remove from native verse. Translated work has a linguistic style at the native level of the target language, a blessed awkwardness that we can value on its own terms, even if it is merely the accidental result of “bad” (overly literal) translation.

I’m going to call that style “adjective,” not because poems written like this are particularly adjective-rich, but because they throw themselves at (ad + ject) meanings which may not exist yet. Like noun phrases with a lot of modifiers, adjective poems fail to provide us with exact coordinates, making us triangulate—unsurprising, since translations require words that don’t exist, or don’t quite exist, in the target language. (Adjectives are the opposite of connotations.)  Adjective poems have air in them. They abandon puns in favor of literalism or unfamiliar clichés. Because they stand in ethical relation to their subjects, they are accurate even where they cannot be precise. The bee in my bonnet: why do I feel, reading translated “adjective” poems, that they touch the untouched parts of my language in a way only a foreigner could?

It’s hard to separate this style from the poetry of witness—poems, like “Requiem,” that mark public trauma on time. And we do have a sense that trauma is something that only happens to other people. Consider the following (translated) lines, found more or less by flipping at random through Carolyn Forché’s anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (hereafter AF; all emphases mine):


    and in their eyes worms pretended to be
            question marks

There is a literalism to the translation that produces awkward constructions in English, which,

            And in that cry such horror
            and such supplication
            so great was its despair
            that I asked the helmsman

reinterpreted as native poetic choices,

            I saw a man who had been tortured
            he now sat safely in the family circle
            cracked jokes ate soup

exemplify an aesthetic of accuracy, one genetically linked to a reportorial stance.
You may respond, isn’t this kind of witness poetry a twentieth-century practice? Why write about it in 2015? Just nostalgia for the 20th-century left? But look at Kirill Medvedev, writing in 2002 a poem only collected in English in 2012:

            Who’s to blame that
            Leni Riefenstahl remained alive
            while thousands starved to death in Leningrad;
            it’s not clear why we need to
            think about this now;
            tell us about something else,


This—witness poetry, adjective witness—is not a naïve or a fixed style, lacking in historical dimension. Medvedev is playing7  here with the history of the politics of memory, and the poetics. This might be how he deals with the commodification of public trauma (which—shocker—happens in Russia too). And others, like Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, or Israeli national poet Yehuda Amichai, write poems informed by public trauma but not centered around the need to bear witness.
But it’s also not an entirely native style. Medvedev and Akhmatova feel similar in part because the translation obscures the size of the gap between them; Akhmatova writes in fine rhyme and meter, while Medvedev uses free verse and seems in search of what a Slavist friend of mine called a “maximally blunt idiom.” Adjective style comes in part out of the ethical imperative that drives witness poetry, but it’s also created by the translator’s own ethical imperative to render the original as accurately as possible. This is not utilitarian protest poetry—it is the sought-after aesthetic byproduct of ethics, the pearl of translation. If we want to understand what feels like the honesty of such poetry, we have to postmodernly abandon the idea of the poet as the source of their own work.

And yet a lot of what draws us to this translated poetry—and to adjectivity generally—is its feeling of reportorial authenticity, that “total, reconstructive accuracy” which we (Americans, and especially White Americans) are not sure we have any right to claim ourselves, but which we are desperate to hear in others. And there’s something disturbingly imperialistic, or at least hegemonic, about this demand to eat other people’s tragedies. Owen thinks we accept “world poetry” only because we are “assured that the poetry was lost in translation.” But with the poetry of public trauma, we actively seek out the brutal, witnessing voice, and in the broader case of adjective poetry, we crave the blunt instrument of our own language made simple and strange. The foreignness of the poet merely authorizes the consumption of the style we are already hungry for. These, then, are practices of the undeniable, and we support them because we want to feel unable to deny them. A little bent, no?

I’ll end with an (overstated) speculation. Might the problem lie in the outlook of American poets? Far from strutting with unearned authority, we parody that strut. We pun. Compulsively talkative, we are actually too afraid of our own voices, too convinced of having no news to report, no public life to witness. Might this learned helplessness be why we (especially we on the left) try and get our jollies from foreign pain?

No, with a question. How do we get out of this?