A HUNDRED THOUSAND BILLION POEMS.

As I have noted before, I am a fan of Raymond Queneau, and I am pleased to discover that his Cent mille milliards de poèmes (Wikipedia) are cleverly generated at this site: every time you visit or refresh, you get a new combination of lines (in both French and English unless you specify a preference). The translations (and the site) are by Beverley Charles Rowe; here‘s the main page of the site, and here‘s Rowe’s remarkable collection of English dictionaries. And by googling a bit I discover there are a couple of other online editions, which you can read about here.
While we’re on the subject of poetry, yesterday’s wood s lot features the wonderful Louise Bogan, whom I quoted here. And while you’re there, don’t miss the interesting excerpt from “A Farewell to English,” by Michael Hartnett (“…they came like grey slabs of slate breaking from/ an ancient quarry, mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach,/ álainn, caoin, slowly vaulting down the dark/ unused escarpments, mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach,/ álainn, caoin, crashing on the cogs…”).

Comments

  1. I’ve only read the Wright translation. I know it’s imperfect, but all translations are. What’s your take on it, Hat and Hattics?

  2. Being a fan of Queneau, you might be interested in the combinatorial art research and lectures by T. Bonch-Osmolovskaya (Т. Бонч-Осмоловская): http://www.ashtray.ru/main/texts/experlit/expind.htm (in Russian).

  3. These were also translated by my late friend Stanley Chapman.

  4. Eimear Ní Mhéalóid says:

    I boggle slightly at the footnote to Hartnett’s poem (at the Poetry International Web link) which gives dubhfholtach as “blackballed” – it should be “blackhaired” or even “black-tressed”.

  5. Heh. You should drop them a line; that’s a pretty unfortunate mistranslation! I wonder how it snuck in there?

  6. J.W. Brewer says:

    wikipedia claims that in his latter years Hartnett switched over to writing poetry exclusively in Gaelic, claiming that English was “the perfect language to sell pigs in.” It’s not clear to me why that should be a criticism, esp. in a pork-friendly culture like that of Ireland. (I mean, if you had told me there was a lengthy digression somewhere in the Ulster cycle praising the glory and dignity of commerce in swine in extravagant and allusive language, I wouldn’t have thought you were pulling my leg.)

  7. John Emerson says:

    While I was studying German I developed a plan to computer-generate Trakl poems. Trakl uses a rather restricted vocabulary and a limited range of simple sentence forms, so it shouldn’t be that hard, you’d just read in the nouns, adjectives, verbs, and sentence forms from about fifty poems and then plug the words into a string of the sentences. Then you just publish after making sure there’s enough ominous gloom.

  8. I’ve heard that otherwise Irish-speaking farmers of sixty or seventy years ago would speak to their animals in English, and if you asked them why, they’d say “It’s good enough for a pig”. This may be a rural legend, though (obviously not an urban legend).
    Maybe Hartnett’s comment refers to the situation where farmers would take their animals to the local market, where they would be purchased by dealers from the city who only spoke English. The division implicit in the economic relationship would be exacerbated by the language division.
    The Irish speakers would also be aware of the rich literary tradition of their own culture, while not having any occasion to encounter anything other than the most banal English–government announcements, cheap newspapers, etc. (This would be the time before most people had radios.)
    I like very little modern poetry in English, whereas I like a lot of modern poetry in Irish, so I guess that puts me in Hartnett’s camp, although I can’t put my finger on just why that is. It sounds a bit silly to say that Irish is a more poetic language, when Shelley, Yeats, Hardy, etc. managed to be poetic enough in English.
    On the other hand, I feel confident in saying that French is not a good language for rock music. Country maybe, but not rock. Italian is definitely the best for opera, although there are some good operas in other languages.
    So, are certain languages better suited for certain artforms than others? Would “Beowulf” be just as good in Latin?

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