Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Deor by Simon Armitage:LRB 21 February 2013

Although labeled in the online index as “ A poem by Simon Armitage”  the poem Deor is actually a reasonably faithful translation of the OE  Deor from  The Exeter Book. This is explained in a note in the side bar on the page the poem appears in the online edition.  In the print edition I see no such information. I’m not suggesting anything underhand is happening.  I’m just wondering if this is a claim that the poet who translates, remakes and therefore owns the new text or do we assume that all readers of the LRB know Deor is Old English? 

I could get to like the way Armitage has broken the alliterative pattern of the original and alliterates each line of the first verse on the last word,  which the original doesn’t.  I’m not sure I like “a hurt like winter” which sounds too vague, and I don’t understand “my name was Deor "(even if it's faithful to the original)  or “and [she] imagined misfortunes”  but all this is irrelevant.  It’s an awkward gnarled poem to translate and I couldn’t produce a translation which read this fluently. The people who can tell you how accurate it is are the very people who don’t need it,  so the question is who does? Who is the intended audience? 

Which means I’m most intrigued by the fact that it’s been published in what seems to be such a prestigious market.  It’s a neat translation of an obscure poem, famous for its refrain (which here sounds unnecessarily clunky) and its allusiveness,  but which doesn't seem to offer a modern reader much if anything.  

So has it been published because it’s written by Simon Armitage and to advertise his new book?   There are numerous translations currently available. Does this version offer new insight into the poem or a new way of reading the original? Does it suggest the writer went “digging for the treasure” in Pound’s version of translation and recast the original in a way that’s alive as a poem for a modern reader?

I’d answer no to both those last two questions and the reason for the negative is simple.  Deor is famously allusive. It is assumed, these days, that the original audience must have known the stories of Weland, Beodohilde et al.  (It wasn’t Weland’s hopes which were hamstrung (as the Armitage version states): he was. Weland then took his revenge by killing Niðhad’s sons and raping his daughter, Beodohilde, who was driven out her wits by her pregnancy. Or at least that’s the familiar notes attempting to explain the poem).

“We have heard” the poet repeats working variations on the phrase, but “we” reading in the twenty first century, are not the “we” who heard or knew.  Stripped of original context or contextualizing notes,  the poem on its own makes no sense beyond a vague suggestion that because a list of (unknown) people survived (equally unknown) bad things in a vague past the (unknown) poet’s (stated) bad times may also pass.

Look at me says the poem in the LRB: I’m a translation! I’m the ghost of Anglo-Saxon Poetry talking a walk on part in a museum.  I’m the painfully obvious replica they send out when the original is too valuable to move. I’m quaint,  I’m awkward. You won’t understand me,  but don’t worry.  I look old and different and that’s enough.   Look at the me, the ghost of  “Anglo-Saxon Poetry” with its non Anglo-Saxon alliteration.  Look at my typography. How quaint. How obviously Old.  

But since we all know this Anglo-Saxon layout is a modern editorial convention, with its half lines and breaks, why not ditch it?

I feel like I’m being asked to admire the combination of the badly faked replica of a museum piece and a fine musician demonstrating her ability to play scales. 

Neither of which is something I’d willingly part with money to see. 

Or is it indicative of the fact that many readers don't expect a 'poem' to make sense anymore? 

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