RICHARD SIEBURTH with Adam Fitzgerald
Richard Sieburth, editor;
Ezra Pound, New Selected Poems & Translations
(New Directions, 2010)
Though it remains a commonplace to deplore the state of contemporary literature, too infrequently is proper debt paid to the insurgence of first-rate translations and the tireless, sometimes unrecognized labors of translators and editors alike. Far too frequently, poets, novelists, and critics forget that translation, if not exactly a genre, when it’s worth a damn, is as riveting and revivifying of language as any other formal tradition of writing. Among the undeniable major translators of our time—Edith Grossman, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Howard, Margaret Jull Costa, Richard Zenith, and Lydia Davis to name an exemplary few—Richard Sieburth is one of the most versatile and adept, especially given the rigors of poetry. He has translated Walter Benjamin and Gerard de Nerval, Henri Michaux and Michel Leiris, but perhaps no translation of his is better known than his edition of Hölderlin’s Hymns and Fragments, one of the select volumes that John Ashbery has continually cited as a touchstone he reads before writing. Last summer, I sat down with Sieburth in a bar in New York and began talking about his career in translation in light of Ashbery’s then-recently released translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations. Soon, our conversation shifted to arguably the 20th century’s greatest and most influential translator, Ezra Pound. In 2003, Sieburth edited Pound’s Poems & Translations for Library of America, followed by a newly-edited version of The Pisan Cantos for New Directions (2003). In 2010, he took on the stupefying task of creating a new Pound selected—also for New Directions—entitled appropriately New Selected Poems & Translations. For many reasons, it is the greatest single edition of Pound’s extensive poetic writings we have ever had; not only for its cunning cross-sampling of original and translated compositions printed finally within a single—and affordable!—paperback, nor its copious editorial notes and afterword, as well as generous inclusion of essays by prior Pound editors of such volumes T.S. Eliot and John Berryman, but also for its wise inclusion of the long-out-of-print Cathay, Pound’s seismically influential translations from the Chinese, a book that David Shapiro daringly, and persuasively, calls “the most perfect book in the English language.” Who better to reshape and renew our sense of Pound’s legacy, whose muse was nothing if not the vital global exchange between languages, than the acclaimed translator and editor Richard Sieburth?
Adam Fitzgerald (Rail): You’ve said Rimbaud was your entry into— —
Richard Sieburth: —into French literature and back then there was the old Penguin series of French poets that had the French text and what they called plain prose translations at the bottom of the page. I had enough French to read the originals because I had gone to boarding school in Switzerland and my French was decent, but obviously not up to the level at age 15 to read Rimbaud. So that initial model of translation as sort of a modest trot or a pony—or you had interlinears for your classics—was particularly attractive. The foreign original was the text and then the English was just this little small prose thing at the foot of the page.
Rail: Do you remember how you got introduced to Rimbaud?
Sieburth: Rimbaud just was part of early ’60s culture, one had heard about him through Henry Miller and through the Beats and Kerouac. That’s the Rimbaud of Patti Smith and Dylan’s line “kinda like Verlaine and Rimbaud.” He was just sort of in the air.
Rail: And when did you start translating?
Sieburth: Probably in college, although I must say the experience of having gone to school in Switzerland is that you’re immediately surrounded by everything in at least three languages. You’re sitting in a train and read below the window: Nicht hinauslehnen [“Don’t lean out”] or É pericoloso sporgersi or Ne pas se pencher au dehors. So immediately you are fascinated by the fact that any object that you encounter has three distinct linguistic possibilities. In addition, I grew up in a fairly bilingual household—my parents came to America from Germany and I spoke German with my grandmother. Way back when I actually started school in Germany, I lost all of my English, and then moved to England and picked up a British accent, and subsequently attended about 18 different schools, picking up every time if not a different language, a different accent. And then I started messing around with translation when I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. I think the first thing I published in an undergraduate magazine were translations of Baudelaire’s late texts on Belgium. I also translated a couple of Bataille’s short, pornographic novels that never saw the light of day. But, I think my serious relationship to translation probably came in graduate school when I began translating Hölderlin. But Pound was definitely, certainly there as an impetus to translation all along. I started reading him when I was 15 or 16 in the old New Directions Selected Poems paperback—it was therefore a delight to be asked to edit the recent revised edition of this book. It was particularly Pound’s relationship to Chinese that interested me and I therefore went to the University of Chicago to be a Chinese major but dropped out of it after two years, realizing it would take me another 10 years to achieve the fluency of a seven-year-old. Still, I think everybody should study a radically exotic language just to see other ways of cutting up reality. But certainly Pound exemplified the possibilities of moving between languages. That’s the point I try to make in these editions of Pound—one should conceive his translations and original compositions as occupying the same plane. Like many people who went on to translate, I started out thinking I was going to become a poet and actually published a volume of bilingual poems in France called Poids et mesures / Weights and Measures that has my English versions and then my rewritings of them into French, resulting in more or less the same poem going in at least two different directions at once.
Rail: What made you not pursue your own poetry?
Sieburth: I realized as my life was developing into more of an academic career that for the kind of poet that I wanted to be, the poem would have to be located at the very center of my life to the exclusion of all else, and that this would also demand in a certain Rimbaudian way that the life be lived in a certain way in service of that poem. I was basically a lyric poet and there comes that moment when, as T.S. Eliot put it, you have to figure out how you are going to be a poet beyond your 20s. And I realized that my way of remaining a poet beyond my 20s, given the kind of scholarly life that I had chosen, initially forced into hiding out in academia during the Vietnam war, was to do something in the area of translation—perhaps the purest form of writing—and that this might allow me to keep on writing or be engaged in language in a way that did not involve the ego or lyric self-expression, a form of writing that Benjamin describes as aimed at the articulation of the relationship between languages, pointing to the sheer domain of language-ness. So I suppose translation permitted me to become a kind of “language poet.”
Rail: I’ve been thinking a lot about this sense of translation as the genre where any poet or writer might select to perfect their art, you know, as one might prefer couplets or meditative lyrics, this is the way they express it.
Sieburth: Yes, it also involved the realization that I was not going to become a composer of music but rather a performer, a pianist. That’s the analogy.
Rail: And again, with room for radical interpretation?
Sieburth: Precisely. One is recognized as a performer in the music field but it’s still relatively rare in the literary field. We’ve talked about Ashbery’s recent versions of Rimbaud. What interests me here is what is his performative take on the Illuminations? On the order of, what is Glenn Gould going to do with this particular Bach?
Rail: Gould was nothing if not interested in self-expression. So as a translator, you’re also finding a way to impress your personality upon the text?
Sieburth: Obviously, in some ultimate way. But to give you an example, I taught translation workshops at N.Y.U. for a number of years with my friend Eliot Weinburger. And in this course we had a number of students from the M.F.A. program in Creative Writing. And the first thing we had to do with these students was to tell them to park their egos at the door. And they were often very angry and it was often very humiliating for them because translation is an exact craft, and you don’t get to just fudge around and say, well I translated this thing this way because I just wanted to express myself through the poem. Obviously at a more advanced level, that begins to happen, but there has to be a constant checking against the impetus. You have to earn it.
Rail: Were any of them up to the challenge?
Sieburth: Well they fairly soon figured out that this was what is called “a craft course.” We would say, okay, here’s a sonnet, what are you going to do with it? Because if you go back to the Renaissance, translation was taught in the schools as part of an overall training in rhetoric. You’d be asked to take a French text and rewrite it into Latin, or a Latin text and rewrite it into French, and somehow in the course of the back-and-forthing between these two languages you would somehow learn how to capture an energy—the energeia—behind language. In French they still call this exercise thème et version: Latin into French, French into German into Latin. And you know who was a master at this game, the kid who won every first prize?
Sieburth: Bingo. The reason why Rimbaud is so interesting is that we have so few examples of poetic prodigies. We have musical prodigies, we have mathematical prodigies, and we have chess prodigies, and that’s exactly what Rimbaud was, because he had figured out that poetry was numbers—the old term for poetry. He had understood in his Latin classes that poetry was numbers, music, and kind of like playing chess. This is what he learned in high school.
Rail: Did you have that education?
Sieburth: Somewhat. Interestingly enough, I first studied Latin in English, then went to school in Geneva where I had to move between my weak Latin and even weaker French, and then transferred to a school in the Berner Oberland where now I had to master the interface of Latin and German. In the process, my Latin got completely obliterated, but I at least I gained these other two languages out of its ashes. But all this back-and-forthing was something I was familiar with from my bilingual home. Code-switching is totally ingrained in me. I’ve never managed to have a successful monolingual relationship in my life. I can’t conceive of love in a single tongue.
Rail: Does your dream life take place in English, then, or in the same hodgepodge between tongues?
Sieburth: George Steiner talks about this in After Babel. Yes, I dream in several languages. In dreams begin responsibilities.
Rail: You mentioned that the version of Pound’s Selected Poems that you had in college was the Berryman edition?
Sieburth: Well, Berryman did some of the selection with James Laughlin for that edition. He also wrote an introduction which Laughlin and Pound rejected as too “academic”—which I’ve included in this new edition, alongside Eliot’s 1928 introduction to the first British edition of Pound’s Selected. But the 1949 New Directions Selected Poems had no apparatus whatsoever—just a short autobiographical squib by Pound in which he defended himself, after the whole Bollingen Prize flap, as a conscientious objector to all wars.
Rail: Did it include Pound’s translations?
Sieburth: Yes, at least the Chinese Cathay stuff and the Provençal stuff. And then you had the Cantos with their Chinese characters and so on and so forth.
Rail: Right, but one of the things that I noticed about this reader’s edition is that it includes more of Pound’s translations together with his poems than any other single paperback volume has ever done.
Sieburth: Absolutely, I decided to give the poems in the order of their initial appearance in little magazines. So you can therefore see, for example, here is the bunch of poems Pound sent to Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine in this particular month of 1913. And you can see how he is articulating his own career and poetic development in the pages of little magazines by publishing both original compositions and translations one after another. I did, however, insert a final section devoted solely to his translations from his so-called “Elizabethan” period—bits from his Sophocles, his Confucian Odes, his late Rimbaud. I’m very interested in the space of translation that Pound occupies at St. Elizabeth’s—having been indicted for treason, then having pled non compos mentis, the insanity defense, which lands him in the no-man’s-land of the Federal Hospital for the Criminally Insane (now the headquarters of Homeland Security). He finds himself in a Kafkaesque situation—in fact one of his doctors is actually named Kafka—in which he will not be brought to trial until he has sufficiently recovered his reason in order to understand the nature of the charges brought against him, which he of course refuses to do. Having been declared insane, Pound has lost his signature legally; he is now an individual all of whose matters are administered by something called the Committee for Ezra Pound, run by his wife Dorothy Pound. I mean he cannot sign a check, he cannot sign his last will and testament—his signature has been taken away from him, his name has been taken away from him and it’s in this space of Noman—Odysseus’s name for himself in the Cyclops’s cave—that he, after the publication of the Pisan Cantos, moves radically into translation. It is a radically non-authorial space. So he’s doing his Confucius translations, he’s doing his Sophocles, he’s doing all of this stuff and in fact I’ve recounted this anecdote a couple of times—when the Assistant District Attorney contacts his doctor, Dr. Overholser, and says well, it looks like your patient here has been doing a lot of publications of late, Overholser basically replies, well these are just translations, that’s hardly proof that he’s recovered his sanity.
Rail: He thinks he’s someone else. [Laughs.]
Sieburth: Yeah, as he did from the very beginning in his persona poems. So he’s actually very cagily inhabiting this simultaneous realm of treason and translation, which turns out is the same realm that Hölderlin occupies when he’s translating Sophocles and he’s terrified of being indicted for treason— —
Rail: With madness coming on.
Sieburth: In Pound’s case, in order to avoid authorship, which would imply the regaining of his name and thus the regaining of kind of a sovereign ego, which would indicate sanity, which would therefore mean he would be liable to be brought up for his infinitely deferred trial. At any rate, things are finally arranged so he can finally return to Italy in 1958.
Rail: Do you believe during that period that he was insane as his lawyers claimed? Or do you believe this was kind of an act? A kind of Joey Gallo?
Sieburth: Yeah. I think it’s infinitely complex, I think it was partially an act, but I think on some level he had also slipped into a kind of paranoia and schizophrenia. But I’m sort of with Foucault on this: It doesn’t make much sense to affix these labels, because in fact, his very case provides a critique of those kinds of labels, as Thomas Szasz was the first to point out.
Rail: But you see him as a conscientiously manipulating agent of the situation?
Sieburth: Yes and no.
Rail: I mean to the degree that he could create work and knew what he was doing in creating it.
Sieburth: Well, as a creator of work, he always knew what he was doing.
Rail: And yet you would say that at that period, he was at the height of his powers?
Sieburth: Yes. I think his Confucian Odes are magnificent. Pound originally came to Chinese thinking that it was just a written language, that the ideogram was merely visual. Come the late ’30s—what with Pound getting into the deeply oral universe of fascism while listening to Mussolini on the radio, which in turn leads to his own later radio speeches during WWII, the ones that get him indicted for treason—there’s this really interesting shift in Pound’s perception of Chinese. Having initially seen it as a purely visual, hieroglyphic language, he now is thinking of it a deeply oral/aural, you know, acoustic and phonic.
Rail: It makes me think of Eliot’s intro in which he talks about that tension in Pound between the poetry of speech and the poetry of song. You’re saying there’s kind of a tension between the visual poem versus the auditory.
Sieburth: With the Confucian Odes, certainly the auditory. The Beinecke Library at Yale has these Sound Notebooks, which show that for these translations, Pound would sit there and laboriously transcribe and Romanize the Chinese sounds. And they would be turned into sound poems of sorts. You know, those Dada “Lautgedichte”? Pure poetry of sound. And then, he would move into a kind of translation. But apparently there are reports that he would chant the Chinese, or at least as he thought he heard it—I mean it’s unclear whether he could distinguish that clearly between tones in Chinese—on the lawn of St. Elizabeth’s. But the traditional idea behind the Confucian Odes was that their pattern of sounds in Chinese possessed a deep relationship to the ultimate musical pattern of the universe. Pythagoras! And that’s why, to become a Mandarin and learn how to govern in China you had to learn these poems—because the entire cosmic order set in their sounds provided the pattern for governmental order, familial order, and personal order—this entire totality of Order attuned to the Music of the Odes. Pound really believed this, which is one of the reasons I traveled to Lijiang, in China, after participating in a colloquium in Shanghai on the new Chinese translation of Benjamin’s Arcades Project.
Rail: When was this?
Sieburth: This was in 2007. Being in China, I wanted to go visit “Rock’s World”—as in Joseph Rock, this hero of Pound’s in the late Cantos who studies the Naxi ceremonies in Lijiang. One of the things that drew me to Lijiang was that it is thought to be the only place that medieval Chinese music continues to be performed, the Music of the Odes that Pound is fantasizing about. During the Cultural Revolution, the authorities wanted to take all of their musical instruments away from these local Yunan musicians who were still playing the archaic—and presumably counter-revolutionary—tunes. Legend has it the musicians simply buried their instruments and when things blew over, unearthed them once again. Now you go there and you have these bands of 90-year-old men playing their ancient instruments as a tourist attraction.
Rail: And the instruments hold up?
Sieburth: Well I don’t know if they are the original instruments, but these ancient guys are really like jazz musicians riffing on the Confucian folk songs of old—just as Pound is reaching back to the whole tradition of English folk song and Scotch border balladry and Burns. If you listen to some of his Confucian Odes translations, they sound just like Bob Dylan. Here’s an example: “Yaller bird, let my corn alone, / Yaller bird, let my crawps alone, / These folks here won’t let me eat, / I wanna go back where I can meet / The folks I used to know at home, / I got a home and I want to get goin’.” Pound in St. Elizabeth’s engaging in— —
Rail: A folk revival! [Laughs.]
Sieburth: A folk revival, right. That’s why I foregrounded these on the that PennSound site. Pound made some beautiful late recordings of these translations.
Rail: Do you think they’ve been given enough attention?
Sieburth: No. They’re the most overlooked part of his work.
Rail: Do you think because of obvious political reasons?
Sieburth: Well, no—but Charles Olson’s reaction is telling. In his record of his encounters with Pound at St. Elizabeth’s, Olson is absolutely outraged that Pound has lapsed back into what he, Olson, takes to be the “coolie verse” of rhyme—a far cry from Olson’s Pound-inspired “projective verse.” Olson may also be reacting to Pound’s weird relationship to, I hate to say this in German, the völkisch (conservative populism connected with the rise of Nazi politics), which actually does have something to do with Pound’s fascism and his vision of a Jeffersonian grass-rootsy agrarian America and his inability to understand urban immigrant America, as Olson points out, but there’s something just as conservative in Dylan, when you come to think of it.
Rail: To get back to your new edition of the Selected Poems, you write in the introduction and afterword about this new edition as a kind of reassessing of the whole Pound oeuvre at this contemporary moment, to fight against compartmentalization—the anthology pieces over here, the translations over there, the Cantos here, the early lyrics there. You wanted to bring it all together and present it to the reader.
Sieburth: And to convey the through-line. As to how to present it to the reader? One way that that first little New Directions Selected Poems was so intriguing for a young reader was because it had no introduction, it had no notes—you just had to figure out what was there on your own. Nathaniel Tarn, an old friend—I don’t know if you know him, but he’s a very distinguished poet—recently wrote a short piece in which he objected to all these new annotated editions of various poets. And I think Nathaniel has a real point here. What does it mean to make poetry “reader-friendly”? Or—and this is the case behind this new New Directions Selected—to move poetry towards students whether undergrad, grad, or the general reader who wants to study Pound? To argue against Tarn, it turns out that Pound tends to construct his reader as a potential student—take for example his ABC of Reading. Some people rebel against this: “I don’t wanna be your fuckin’ student, you’re just a crazy prof,” or, “You’re a lovable old prof and”— —
Rail: “Keep ranting, I love it.”
Sieburth: Right. So this edition does really represent a step toward the pedagogic. Which is admissible I think because Pound— —
Rail: Set the precedent.
Sieburth: My relation to Pound was I guess always pedagogic. He was this crackpot professor I might totally disagree with but he assigned the best homework: Go out and read Dante. Go out and learn Chinese. Go out and read Thomas Campion. Or Wyndham Lewis. Go read the Adams- Jefferson correspondence. Learn something about the Federal Reserve. So, yes, this is a pedagogic edition of sorts. But you’ve got to understand what’s happening in publishing, particularly among independent houses like New Directions—most of their huge Pound list has now devolved into print-on-demand.
Rail: Doesn’t that go against the whole New Directions mission of keeping everything in print no matter what?
Sieburth: Actually, print-on-demand is the best way to keep everything in print.
Rail: Fair. Do you kind of see this as a blessing, print-on-demand?
Sieburth: With the disappearance of the bookstores, at least you know you can get a book on demand on the Internet. You get a reasonable facsimile of the book—the quality of the print and the covers is not quite the same, but, at least you have it in your hands. With this Selected, New Directions wanted to do a real book, a big omnium gatherum that will hopefully be “adopted”—that’s the key word, “adoption”—by people doing courses on modernism or 20th-century American poetry. The thing that makes me happiest about this book is that New Directions brought it out as a $15.95 book—400 handsomely-printed pages, about the same price as a Penguin Classic.
Rail: Is there a point to reading these poems without knowing their whole story? Is there a point to reading and appreciating his poems without knowing the controversy and the polarization of Pound’s politics?
Sieburth: Okay, there is a New Critical, purely formalist approach to Pound which is largely, say, Hugh Kenner’s, in which Pound is someone like a Bucky Fuller or a Henry Ford, you know, an amazing designer of machines, an American inventor. Henry Ford also turns out to be— —
Rail: About as proto-fascist as they get.
Sieburth: I don’t know about fascist, but certainly he was someone who had his problems with the Jews and so on, but does that take away from the brilliance of the Model T? All this gets you into some very messy areas. I’m a great admirer of Céline—I think one of the greatest French novelists of the 20th century. But how deal with Céline’s WWII pamphlets? With Pound too one has to think hard about the continuities or discontinuities between the aesthetic and the political, between speech and action, between ethics and poetics. There’s no sense running away from these issues. There was a general New Critical attempt to sanitize Pound and to protect him from himself. Or there was the parallel attempt to completely anathematize him, to place him beyond the pale as a fascist, anti-Semitic S.O.B. I think we’re at a point now in the 21st century that we can look back at the 20th century and begin to locate Pound’s fuckups re: Mussolini in the same context as any number of other poets’ fuckups re: Stalin. I think we’re beginning to achieve that distance now. For American undergrads today, all this stuff is about as remote as Dante’s Guelphs and Ghibellines.
Rail: Yet there’s an uncanny seeming incongruency between Pound’s politics and his second generation inheritors in the Objectivists, Zukofsky, Olson, and Williams.
Sieburth: But Oppen and Zukofsky are Marxists and they’re providing Marxist readings of Pound.
Rail: Even to this day, aesthetically, the people who continue to read and talk about Pound are often— —
Sieburth: People like Charles Bernstein—on the left. Pound gets a lot of stuff right, despite his gonzo anti-Semitism. I’m giving this freshman seminar on Pound at N.Y.U. and I’ll be showing them that recent documentary Inside Job—which demonstrates in fairly orthodox Poundian fashion the difference between “sane” banking and the phantasmagoria of the quote financial sector, what Marx calls Leihkapital, or lie-capital, pun intended. Under the name of Usura that is really what Pound is trying to put his finger on in terms of what goes so deeply wrong with the system. This is the question he places at the center of Cantos—how, through the structures of debt and credit manipulated by the banks, does money become the Supreme Fiction, displacing the gift economy of the arts, or all other possible imaginations of fiction? Pound does tend to go off the paranoid edge and in fact his name resurfaces in some very unsavory places on the web—for example those Aryan America Eustace Mullins sites, which sometimes overlap with those backers of Ron Paul who are calling for the abolition of the Federal Reserve. It’s weird the way Pound goes viral with people who are conspiracy theorists—and not just on the far right. I grew up during a generation of left-wing conspiracy theorists, and conspiracy is really a very tempting mode of simplification and hence conviction. My main critique of Pound would be that he was incapable of rising to the level of complexity that late capitalism and postmodernism demands, a level of complexity we’re all trying to convey to our students and kids.
Rail: In a way that the Arcades Project does?
Sieburth: Yeah, Benjamin’s mind is too dialectically supple to fall for the simplicities of a conspiracy-driven view of history.
Rail: Speaking to David Shapiro, one of the things he was telling me about and why I was very excited about this volume is, I’m not sure if you were aware, but before this volume came out you could not open up a New Directions collection of Pound and get Cathay in its totality. And in Shapiro’s mind, Cathay is one of the most beautiful and perfect books in all of literature.
Sieburth: And one of the great anti-war books ever written. Kenner used to point out that even its covers imitated the khaki of the World War I soldiers’ uniforms.
Rail: Ben Lerner has told me he considers Pound the key to 20th-century poetics and that any poet, in order to be taken seriously, has to encounter the entirety of his work. Then I speak to a whole number of other equally established and formidable writer friends who feel very comfortable in saying it’s only his influence that’s important, as a catalyst for this or that writer, etc.
Sieburth: His generosity— —
Rail: His generosity towards, I mean, everyone: Yeats, Frost, Eliot, Joyce, Hemingway, even the kind of temporary relationship he has with— —
Sieburth: Marianne Moore, the women poets, H.D., Mina Loy? The Objectivists?
Rail: What do you make of the fact that Eliot’s poetry remains ubiquitous compared to the little attention paid to Pound’s by younger poets?
Sieburth: It’s very hard for me to imagine young poets getting excited about Eliot. Because Pound is the great anathematized figure, he is, yes, establishment, he is canonical, and yet, what’s interesting about him, is there’s this totally over the edge, punk, transgressive side. I’m a young poet, I’m going to invest in Eliot?
Rail: Maybe the dangerous fate is not so much that young poets are only interested in Eliot, but at least they’re familiar with the work compared to good ol’ Ezra.
Sieburth: Here’s my response. On one level Pound always was this weird mixture of the establishment poet who was at the same time very much the unpredictable maverick. Right? Thus it is a very precarious balancing act to put Pound into the classroom, to get him, in publishing terms, “adopted.” You clearly want him to be “legitimized”—his daughter Mary was just thrilled to see him finally monumentalized in that Library of America volume I edited—but you still want him to be available to the underground, to the counter-tradition, to the outriders. But where Pound will always continue to matter for poets is, I think, in his incomparable techne—his craft. And of course his ear—so praised by Eliot, Williams, Bunting, Oppen, Zukofsky, Berryman. That sense of melopoeia that leads him to compose operas—which we’re just now rediscovering. Check out those people out in Berkeley at Other Minds who are issuing Pound CDs and libretti.
Rail: At one point in your afterword you mention that while Eliot was signing up with Penguin to have 50,000 copies of his work published, Pound couldn’t even sell an edition of 3,000. Is a popular Pound possible or even desirable?
Sieburth: I’m good with Pound as kind of poet’s poet. I think that young poets can respond to that because everything else has been so canonized, MLA-ized. Even though this new Selected makes Pound more available, I still think he’s the joker in the deck of modernism. He’s not a safe poet. Your man Mark Strand is a totally safe poet. Elizabeth Bishop is a totally safe poet.
Rail: Do you think Wallace Stevens is a totally safe poet?
Rail: You think Hart Crane is a totally safe poet?
Sieburth: No, but Wallace Stevens has been made safe by the Vendlers and Blooms. Susan Howe’s version of Wallace Stevens is far less safe. I’m very worried about John Ashbery having become a safe poet from both the Vendler-Bloom vantage point and from Marjorie Perloff’s French avant-garde Other Tradition. When we were discussing Ashbery’s recent versions of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, I was wondering out loud whether they weren’t too “safe” in the end.
Rail: Since you mentioned Ashbery, what do you think of Pound’s Rimbaud translations?
Sieburth: I like them.
Rail: They seem to me very jagged in a way.
Sieburth: Well, they’re jagged but they’re phanopoetic—casting visual images onto the retina of the mind’s eye. Pound publishes these in 1957 while he was still at St. Elizabeth’s—the very same year that Kerouac publishes On the Road. The 70-year-old “grampaw” Pound gives us a very credible “beat” Rimbaud in his “Cabaret Vert”:
Wearing out my shoes, 8th day
On the bad roads, I got into Charleroi.
Bread, butter at the Green Cabaret
And the ham half cold.
Got my legs stretched out
And was looking at the simple tapestries,
Very nice, when the gal with the big bubs
and lively eyes,
Not one to be scared of a kiss and more,
Brought the butter and bread with a grin
And the lukewarm ham on a colored plate,
Pink ham, white fat and a sprig
of garlic, and a great chope of foamy beer,
Gilt by the sun in that atmosphere.
This is pure Kerouac—that epiphanic moment when you pull off the road into a diner, and there’s this really fine flirty waitress with a tremendous rack who’s bringing you a ham sandwich, and you’re just sitting there looking at how the light is hitting the beer. This is what Pound calls “luminous details.” Details that announce and confirm—here I am and , this is it. The poetics of things just happening.
Rail: Maybe just as a way to end, I know so much is made out of it today—and I’m sure it’s in part a tribute to Ashbery and the New York School legacy—but what about collage in poetry? Going back through this Pound reader, collage and translation appear crucial, intimate forces.
Sieburth: As the major modernist and postmodernist modes of his work, absolutely. That’s the strong Pound. The Pound that is problematic and the Pound that I think we need to reject is the Pound—and this is where the fascist temptation comes in—who dreams of Totality. The Pound who will continue to matter is the Pound of collage, of fragmentation, of the lateral translational movement between languages and discourses. But this was a very difficult thing for him to live and once he settled in Italy, given his nostalgia for Dante’s medieval world, he imagined that Mussolini was going to put all the fragments back together into the body of the corporate state founded on the phallic will of Il Duce. This is what Pound rather unfortunately called “the totalitarian”—and that’s, to my mind, where he goes so disastrously wrong. My new Selected is a paradoxical attempt to articulate Pound’s local fragmentation within a tentative—and it can only be tentative—statement of a Poundian whole.
Rail: Let me end by asking what’s next for you in terms of projects?
Sieburth: I have just finished an insane project—the translation of the complete Prophecies of Nostradamus for Viking Penguin, due out July 2012 in time for the Mayan festivities. To a certain extent, I see Nostradamus as a 16th-century Pound—a poet engaged in writing a serial epic constructed of fragments, in Nostradamus’s case nearly 1,000 autonomous quatrains over 10 centuries that invite all kinds of paranoid and hermeneutic deliriums. I came to Nostradamus from my translations of Maurice Scève, another incomprehensible French 16th-century poet. I’d like to believe that in Nostradamus I have rediscovered a significant poet and ironist, not just the doomsday seer you hear about on the History Channel on late-night TV.
Rail: And how did you translate them?
Sieburth: Into rhymed decasyllables. Into the doggerel of disaster. Into the nursery rhymes of doom. Given that Nostradamus’s universe is ruled by rhyme and number, I felt I needed to give myself this formal constraint of the French decasyllable, which can gather up to eight stresses per line in my English. I hope my versions will provide an interesting contribution to the history of English prosody. Actually my studies of Chinese really helped me because Nostradamus writes extensively in non-grammatical monosyllables and I try to create a kind of parallel monosyllabic decaphonic line, zoned by rhymes to recreate this entire 16th-century prophetic universe, written in this weird Nostradamian idiom, part Latin, part French, part Provençal, part Italian. The lingua franca e jocundissima of universal doom.
Rail: So you’ve never stopped writing poetry.
Sieburth: Bless you! Yes, I’ve never stopped writing poetry.