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Imitations Paperback – October 1, 1990
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“Imitations is, so far as I know, the only book of its kind in literature . . . Lowell, who has used materials from other writers, all the way from Homer and Pasternak, has produced a volume of verse which consists of variations on themes provided by these other poets and which is really an original sequence by Robert Lowell of Boston.” ―Edmund Wilson
“The book has a twofold fascination: it gives access to the private realm of a major poet, showing us how he reads his masters and peers . . . At the same time it provides the reader with . . . creative echoes to a number of important poems.” ―George Steiner
Text: English (translation) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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This time around I tried to read it in the spirit of Lowell’s Introduction, which says the book “should be first read as a sequence, one voice running through many personalities, contrasts and repetitions. … I have tried to write alive English and to do what my authors might have done if they were writing their poems now and in America.” So I usually avoided looking at originals unless I hit a jarring note that made me wonder whether that had been Lowell’s idea or the original author’s.
One disappointment was that almost always those clunkers were Lowell’s. In a few poems Lowell adds repetitions of words at emphatic points of lines, e.g., “hole” in Baudelaire’s The Abyss, and “stars” in Rilke’s Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes. There are some occasionally distracting word choices, as when he uses “parole” in Montale’s Day and Night, with the connotation of conditional leave, as from prison; problem is, it also, and quite irrelevantly, means “words” in Italian, and this is an Italian poem.
Most often there are interpolations, though admittedly Lowell gives us fair warning of this in the Introduction. Some of them are minor speed bumps that kind of work, like changing Heine’s Mein tag war heiter to refer to Aristophanes and “the Chosen People” (presumably the Jews for Heine -- and Boston Brahmins for Lowell?). But sometimes they are more like potholes, such as a stanza about Greek warriors at Thermopylae “comb[ing] one another’s golden Botticellian hair” in a Rilke poem about doves.
The Rilke is one of the book’s most important poems, since it comes last. (BTW, the book misidentifies this poem’s original as being Rilke’s Die Tauben (“The Doves”): Rilke wrote a poem with that title in 1913, but the poem that Lowell used dates from 1926, and is known as “Taube, die draußen blieb”.) In a letter that Lowell wrote to his friend Hannah Arendt, to whom the “imitation” is dedicated (1961 January 9), he suggested that this poem expressed his credo, and was “quitely my finest poem.” Both Rilke and Lowell contrast a bird who flies from her pigeon-house with one who never flew out, and suggest that one has to face the asperities outside one’s home in order to learn how to show kindness.
Greek warriors combing each other’s hair could fit this theme, but does it add, or distract, to make them blond and Botticellian? And given the thematic importance of leaving the dovecote, wouldn’t it be more apposite to place them at, say, Troy than at Thermopylae, where they were defending their home turf? The letter to Arendt says “Stanza 3 which I added is something I have wanted to write since I first read military history as a small boy = and especially somehow all this winter.” It looks like Lowell’s self-indulgence tripped him up somewhat here.
Occasionally Lowell’s changes even drain a line of meaning. One of Montale’s most famous poems, Piccolo testamento (“Little Testament”), ends with the clause “il tenue bagliore strofinato / laggiù non era quello di un fiammifero.” William Arrowsmith translates this as “that faint glow catching fire / beneath was not the striking of a match”; Lowell’s version: “his obscure / earth-bound flash / was not the fizzle of a wet match.” The assonance is lovely — but specious, since wet matches tend not to flash. So what purpose is served by adding “wet”?
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the change arose from a translation error. In stanza 2 of the Rilke poem mentioned above, Lowell refers to the bird who remains in the dovecote as “by all odds the most beautiful.” But the word Rilke uses isn’t “allerschönste [most beautiful of all]” but “allergeschonteste”, meaning “most protected from everything.” Lowell seems to have confused the verb ‘schonen,’ meaning to look after something, with ‘schön,’ meaning beautiful. His reading makes it much harder to understand the poem’s meaning, while Rilke’s word choice gives a lot more coherence to both poems. If Lowell’s change was intentional, it was bad judgment.
The bigger problem I encountered, though, was trying to read the book as a sequence in the voice of an American writing today. Why then put all poems in chronological order of their authors’ births, with one exception at the end? What American would talk in the idiom of 19th Century French poetry, which makes the middle third of the book some rather heavy going? (Lowell's dropping the f-bomb in Baudelaire's To The Reader isn't enough to lighten up the thick impasto in these 50 pages or so.) What modern American, especially, would care enough about Gautier to include two poems entitled “At Gautier’s Grave” (Hugo, Mallarmé) but none by Gautier himself? The choice of poems may give some insight into Lowell’s psyche: most are rather muddy and gloomy — “the dark and against the grain,” as the Introduction says. But does this presentation make an authentic 20th Century American sequence, rather than a conventionally-organized anthology? I couldn’t buy it.
That Botticellian poem dedicated to Hannah Arendt is relevant in this context, too. The version in the book bears the dedication, but no note or other reference to Lowell’s 1961 letter. So a reader who knows that Arendt was a refugee from Nazi Germany is likely to spend some time trying to figure out how the dove imagery relates to Arendt’s biography: a strange way to end a sequence that was supposedly in Lowell’s “one voice.” There isn’t any way for the reader to know this was intended as Lowell’s personal credo — nor, thanks to his errors or liberties with the German, to see clearly how it could express a credo at all.
That said, what most excited me when I was young was Lowell’s big idea of “imitation” instead of straight translation. This holds a lot of promise, provided the poems are chosen well and the imitations more thoughtful. As proof, there is some wonderful stuff here if you cherry-pick. My favorites include Lowell’s version of Valéry’s Hélène, which I think is far superior to the original, and some of the Montale, especially The Eel (though only Lowell's Part I is based on Montale's L'anguilla — Lowell’s Part II is a different poem entirely). His imitations of Villon and Leopardi are also among the best, and some of the poems based on Russian originals work surprisingly well as American poems too — maybe because Lowell’s distance from that language freed him to sound more like himself. In sum: Lowell’s execution too often doesn’t live up to his inspired idea about how to make these poems, but there are many patches of beauty in the book, nonetheless.
What has never suffered in esteem is this collection, IMITATIONS, the most influencial of its type since Ezra Pound's TRANSLATIONS. Lowell has, in his own words, "been reckless with literal meaning, and labored hard to get the tone." As Pasternak said, in poetry, the tone is everything. Hence the title: imitations, not translations.
Of course, I know many of the originals of these and Lowell has not been reckless, at least not by my standards. Instead he has (often, but not always) taken the translation one step beyond the normal conversion and internalized the poems to himself and his own experiences. A colossal trick of ego? Perhaps. "All my originals are important poems," he claims in his introduction. As if to dance upon the grave of Western poetry, the first imitation condenses THE ILIAD into 46 lines. But Lowell is much more respectful from there, and earns his faithfulness to the original poets in his own unique way.
I think he really has succeeded in making poems that equal the originals with a high percentage. He has also put his unmistakeable pissmark on them. George Steiner called them "creative echoes." Whatever they are, love 'em or hate 'em, they are a must read for all poets and translators, a sort of gauntlet thrown down upon the heads of Homer, Sappho, Heine, Villon, Baudelaire, Rilke, Montale, Pasternak et al. How should one go about translating any literature? This is one of the best points of departure.