Title: Translating "Poets to Come": An Introduction
Author(s): Folsom, Ed
Publication information: Written for the Walt Whitman Archive. First published on the Archive in 2012.
Whitman Archive ID: anc.02030
In May of 2011, a group of translators and scholars from six different countries met in Iowa City to discuss Whitman in translation. Sponsored by the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies at The University of Iowa, the Obermann Humanities Seminar ("Walt Whitman International: Translation and the Digital Archive") set out to explore how translations of Whitman's work could most effectively become a key component of the online Walt Whitman Archive. The Archive had already begun to make translations of Whitman's work available on the site, but we wanted to investigate ways that translation itself could become a useful tool in understanding Whitman's poetry.
We all know that the act of translation is, by definition, an act of interpretation, since to move a poem from one language into another requires an endless series of interpretive acts: continually choosing one word or phrase in the host language from among many possibilities, each with a different connotation and often a different denotation; making formal decisions about what features of meter, rhythm, alliteration, assonance, consonance can be transferred from English to the host language; deciding whether Whitman's various puns, metaphors, homonyms can effectively be carried over into the host language; parsing and imitating Whitman's often idiosyncratic syntax and trying to match the syntax to idiomatic usages in the host language; choosing how Whitman's incessant pronouns (especially his ubiquitous "you") can be rendered in languages that require the translator to decide on formal or informal versions, singular or plural versions (while realizing that in English the pronoun can remain ambiguous and promiscuous, attaching itself to one's most intimate lover or to a whole world of strangers); trying to render Whitman's extraordinary range of diction—from highly formal and learned usages to idiomatic, colloquial, and common words and phrases—into languages that do not share the same tonal range for the same set of words. These and many other translational and hermeneutic acts are evident to bilingual readers whenever they read a translation and set it next to the original.
What the Obermann Center seminar decided to do, though, was to take a next step, and to gather all known translations of specific Whitman poems in five different languages (French, German, Italian, Polish, and Spanish) and then study those translations together, asking ourselves what these multiple attempts to translate the same poem might tell us not only about the interpretive act that all translation inevitably is, but also about the original poem itself. Multiple translations of the same poem indicate many things about the original, especially when we discover the particular places where translators disagree, where they make very different choices. Those places in the translations inevitably point to places in the original where there are ambiguities or multiple resonances that might not be discerned by a native reader. Examining the differences in multiple translations, in other words, makes us better, closer readers of the original text and helps us identify key images and words that we might initially miss. Such an examination also reveals just how distinctive each translation is as an interpretation of the original poem. Reading several translations of the same poem is to be exposed to several unique readings of the original, and those readings—like any provocative interpretation—help us form our own reading.
The participants in the Obermann seminar gathered all the translations of six different short Whitman poems, but we started the seminar by discussing "Poets to Come," and we never left it. Everyone knows this little Whitman poem. Starting in the 1881 (sixth) edition of Leaves of Grass, it joined two other short poems ("To You" and "Thou Reader") to form the conclusion to the "Inscriptions" cluster that opened the book. The poem has become one of Whitman's most familiar, calling on the poets, orators, singers, and musicians who would succeed Whitman to "arouse" and "justify" him by creating the imaginative works that would "prove and define" what Whitman began:
The poem is addressed in its opening line to future poets, orators, singers, and musicians, but the address is divided into two exclamatory calls—one to poets, and one to the other groups. One question the translations raise is whether the first exclamatory call, to poets, is expanded by the second exclamatory phrase or whether that second phrase simply specifies who is to be included in the first phrase. Are the orators, singers, and musicians subsets of "poets" or different from them? Are the "poets" the "sayers of words" (as Whitman calls them in "Song of the Rolling Earth") who speak those words in various ways—in speech, poem, song, chant—or are the "poets" the primary group who will lead the other artists—the orators, singers, and musicians—in doing the imaginative work of the future?
Line three shifts the address to "you," and the pronoun presumably includes the groups mentioned in the first line, who are now cast as "a new brood." "Brood" is a surprising word choice here, and it creates problems for translators, since its meaning in English is ambiguous. The 1844 Webster's defines the noun form of the word as "progeny" or "offspring" but notes that, when referring to humans, the word is "generally used in contempt." Its more positive meaning refers to "young birds hatched at once; as a brood of chickens, or of ducks." It also means "species generated; that which is bred." And, of course, the word carries connotations in English of its verbal form—to sit on, or warm, eggs to prepare them for hatching, or, as applied to human behavior, to "remain a long time in anxiety or solicitous thought." There is the sense, perhaps, that Whitman is brooding about the future, while the poets of the future also brood about him, becoming the "new brood," anxious about creating something "greater than before known." There may also be a suggestion of Whitman himself as the brooding hen, secretly hatching the future. As he once told Edward Carpenter: "There is something in my nature furtive like an old hen! You see a hen wandering up and down a hedgerow, looking apparently quite unconcerned, but presently she finds a concealed spot, and furtively lays an egg, and comes away as though nothing had happened! That is how I felt in writing 'Leaves of Grass.'"1
As the address to "you" continues in the poem, translators must decide whether the "you" in the final three lines is the same "you" as appears in line three, or whether in fact the poem has gradually shifted its focus of address from the multiple poets of the future to the one person in the future who can actively "justify" the poet and "answer what I am for"—that person being the current reader of the poem, whoever is encountering this poem in the present moment. Translators in the five languages we examined have to make their decision evident in the pronoun form they choose: singular or plural, formal or informal; they cannot use the same word, as Whitman does, but rather must strip it of the ambiguity that Whitman allows it to maintain in English.
Whitman also introduces the odd concept that "you must justify me." How do we, Whitman's readers and writers of the future, justify him? The 1844 Webster's indicates that the word has several possible meanings—"to judge rightly of," "to prove or show to be just," "to vindicate as right," or, in a theological sense, "to pardon and clear from guilt." In the printing terminology that Whitman was so familiar with, "justify" means "to agree; to suit; to conform exactly; to form an even surface or true line with something else," as a justified left margin forms a straight vertical line. Right after Whitman makes the claim that "you must justify me," we see the "I" of the poem repeated in a three-line anaphora, to form a left-margin justification from which the pronoun of self-identity performs a series of acts—writing, advancing, wheeling, hurrying back, and turning "a casual look" upon the "you"—before turning the poem over to the "you," disappearing into the darkness, averting his face, and concluding the poem with a final "you," justified right.
And what about that act of wheeling? How do we describe what that means in terms of the action the "I" is taking in the poem? Is the image simply one of a pivot, a turn, a quick turning, a turning on an axis? In the 1844 Webster's, the verb means only "to turn on an axis," "to turn; to move round," or "to roll forward." But clearly the wheeling in this poem involves a sudden turning and averting and retreating to the darkness of the past, leaving only the few "indicative words" on the page in front of us as the sole evidence that the poet was here and that he thought of us, gave us a glance, looked to us for justification. "Wheeling," as it turns out, is a difficult concept to translate, in part because it is a difficult concept to capture and define in English.
Whitman's use of the verbal form of 'wheel,' which suggests a spatial as well as a temporal turning toward the past, further complicates the translator's already formidable challenge. Is the image of wheeling one of cyclic progression or sudden regression? What is the "darkness" he hurries back to? Is that darkness the illusion of lack of light created by the cycles of time that have separated us from the poet's lit present that has now become for us the darkened past? If so, there is a kind of magic in his momentary advancing, for the words he puts on the page in his present become the trace of his identity that now persist in our present and that tie us to him, allow him to advance out of that darkness and to glance momentarily at us before he recedes back into it, leaving us in our present (his future) aroused by an identity now dead and in the past. The poem becomes, as it so often does in Whitman's work, the ferry between the poet's present (our past) and the poet's future (our present) and back again.
As the participants in the Obermann Center identified more and more places in the multiple translations of the poem that created interpretive difficulties, we began to look at Whitman's earlier versions of "Poets to Come," since the poem had its origins in the 1860 Leaves of Grass. In the 1860 Leaves, the poem seems to draw its origins from two poems. Whitman includes in this edition of Leaves a cluster of poems called "Chants Democratic and Native American," which opens with a long poem called "Apostroph," which is indeed a long series of exclamatory addresses, beginning with "O mater! O fils! / O brood continental!" What would become the "new brood, native, athletic, continental" is already invoked (and here given a generic mother and father). Among the catalog of addressees in the poem are "O race of the future! O women!," "O bards!," and, at the conclusion:
So, later in the "Chants Democratic" cluster, when the original version of "Poets to Come" appears as "Chants Democratic 14," it opens with an apostrophe to people who are not yet born and thus are not part of the audience the poet can actually address:
1 POETS to come!
The poem underwent significant revisions in the 1867 edition, where it appeared as "Leaves of Grass 4" and where it comes close to its final form, but where it loses much of its specific detail and abandons "arousal" altogether:
1 POETS to come!
There has been very little critical commentary on "Poets to Come," which seems to have struck many critics over the years as simple and clear and thus in need of no analysis. Nonetheless, some critics have briefly commented on it from Whitman's time to the present, suggesting multiple ways to hear Whitman's call. What follows are a few samples of this evolving critical commentary.
"Whitman was a powerful solvent undoubtedly. He never hardens into anything like a system or into mere intellectual propositions. One of his own phrases, 'the fluid and swallowing soul,' is descriptive of this trait of him. One source of his charm is that we each see some phase of ourselves in him. . . . Above all things is he potential and indicative, bard of 'flowing mouth and indicative hand.' In his 'Inscriptions' he says:
"In an 'Inscriptions' poem ('Poets to Come'), Whitman asserts the philosophical inadequacy of his poetry: 'I but write one or two indicative words for the future, / I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.' It is clearly this attitude, acknowledging the inadequacy of language to embrace systematically the complexity of 'reality,' that underlies Whitman's technique of the cryptic, the ambiguous, the suggestive, in poetry."
"Studies in the Whitman tradition must be of relationships, affinities, definitions, rather than influences. The tradition is made when several on the open road nod in recognition, when all make poems out of the wholeness of man and reject the broken halves of the New Puritanism. . . . Whitman would be the last to call himself the originator of a tradition. 'I charge that there be no theory or school founded out of me,' he wrote in 'Myself and Mine.' 'I charge you to leave all free, as I have left all free.' Yet he knew the kind of poet he hoped would follow him. 'By Blue Ontario's Shore' gives his invocation: 'Bards of the great Idea! . . . / Bards with songs as from burning coals or the lightning's fork'd stripes!' For, as he well knew (in 'Poets to Come'), 'I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future, / I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.' Mine is a brief encounter, he said, 'Leaving it to you to prove and define it, / Expecting the main things from you.' Whitman saw a possible continuity in the kind of poem he made out of leaves of grass—the generative life-poem, the sun-poem. It is this continuity that must be defined as a living way of poetry in the twentieth century."
"Although Whitman sometimes creates a marvelous fantasy of a joyous overman or 'savage' speaking with a 'barbaric yawp'—an American Pan, as it were, who impregnates the earth with his poetry—the wish gushes forth from a withdrawn soul; like Thoreau's, his Pan is an imaginative fiction. . . . [I]n 'Poets to Come,' the celebrator of comrades cannot permit himself the simple gratification of social contact: 'I am a man who, sauntering along, without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you, and then averts his face.' But why avert his face?" [Miller goes on to suggest "the avoidance of human interaction in Whitman's writings," a "fear" that is "generally submerged or disguised, since Whitman attempts to deny it in order to play the role of the comrade or lover, but as in dreams we cannot ignore the latent content."]
"Whitman's belief that true poetry can spring only from within enters into his conception of his proper relationship to his reader. His intention was not so much to create a poem for his reader as to lead him to create for himself. 'I have never so much care to feed the esthetic or intellectual palates-but if I could arouse from its slumbers that eligibility in every Soul for its own true exercise! if I could only wield that lever!' ['Some Laggards Yet'] Whitman had learned the lessons of Nature well; he claimed for his own poems that quality of suggestiveness which had endeared her objects to him. Thus we see that his saturation with the organic concept of growth from within is the key to his famous passages on suggestiveness and to his desire for and ability to establish a unique relationship with his reader. . . . Ideally, then, his poem 'Poets to Come' is addressed to every reader:
"But it was the comet that most fascinated Whitman, for it seemed to defy all the laws of astronomy, with an orbit of its own so vast that it periodically disappeared into outer space and then returned to swing around our sun and disappear again. The poet liked to think of himself as a comet: 'I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.'"
"By the time he published 'Poets to Come' in 1860, Whitman was taking primarily the larger view of his poetic career:
1 POETS to come!
"This preoccupation with reading marks a considerable step beyond the major issue of 'Song of Myself'—composition—although both develop out of Whitman's disquiet over the arbitrariness of the sign. Supposedly having surmounted 'writerly' mediations in his preparatory epic, Whitman considers next the other side of communication—response. 'Song of Myself' initiated Whitman's flight from the arbitrary sign by exploring the possibility of writing a natural language of pure sound or physiognomy; successive poems extend his 'language experiment' by attempting to circumscribe not the inscription itself but its reception. Reading, not composition, becomes the central concern of Whitman's poetics, the dominant anxiety revealed by numerous explicit directives and supplications to far-off anticipated readers:
"In this poem Whitman addresses future American poets, 'a new brood, native athletic, continental,' and encourages them to 'justify' him. The poem exhorts his successors to take up the work Whitman hints he has only begun in Leaves of Grass. That work includes his development of the poetic line, the incorporation of colloquial speech into American poetry, and a willingness to treat in a direct way both physical and spiritual matters. In the last two lines of the poem he challenges his poetic descendants to complete what he has initiated. . . . As Ed Folsom indicates in his introductory essay 'Talking Back to Walt Whitman,' 'most American poets after Whitman have directly taken him on—to argue with him, agree with him, revise, question, reject and accept him—in an essay or a poem.' Thus, 'Poets to Come' is an historic invitation, responded to in one way or another by poets who have followed in Whitman's footsteps. Fully cognizant of his own mortality in this poem—'I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness'—Whitman anticipates an immortal link between himself and future generations of poets."
[Talking of the 1860 cluster "Chants Democratic":] "'Poets to Come' (No. 14 in "Chants Democratic") is the most notable new [poem], hinting at the new theme of the poet as the leader of the people, not simply the most representative of them. Other poets wait in the wings of literary history to be born so they can justify his poems and their celebration of democracy. He looks to the American future and expects to be 'realized' in all the states, including Canada, which he thought would eventually become part of the United States. Indeed, if he is not, his message about freedom and democracy will be dead on arrival."
"Whitman clearly knew from a very early point, as early as 1860, that his true contemporaries would not be those of his own time but rather, as he wrote, 'Poets to Come.'"
"In poems such as 'Poets to Come,' . . . Whitman gathers his readers outside the confines of time, meeting them in the transcendent space of his personality."
Available on this part of the Whitman Archive, then, are all the known translations of "Poets to Come" in French, German, Italian, Polish, and Spanish. Accompanying these translations are analyses by scholar/translators Eric Athenot, Walter Gruenzweig, Vanessa Steinroetter, Marina Camboni, Marta Skwara, and Matt Cohen, each offering background on the various translators and commentary on the illuminating differences between the translations.
1. See Edward Carpenter, Days with Walt Whitman (London: George Allen, 1906), 43. [back]