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“A Beloved Duck Gets Cooked”

On Forms and Influences

Mauricio Alejo/PLATNUM

ISSUE:  Summer 2019

The traditional literary forms—the novel, the short story, the poem—although they evolve, do not disappear. But there is a wealth of less traditional forms that writers have adopted over the centuries, forms that are harder to define and less often encountered, either variations on the more familiar, such as the short-short story, or inter-generic—sitting on a line between poetry and prose, or fable and realistic narrative, or essay and fiction, and so on.

I think of myself as a writer of fiction, but my first books were slim small-press books often shelved in the poetry section, and I am still sometimes called a poet and included in poetry anthologies. It is understandable that there may be some confusion. For instance, my collection of stories titled Samuel Johnson Is Indignant contains fifty-six pieces, including what could roughly be described as meditations, parables, or fables; an oral history with hiccups; an interrogation about jury duty; a more conventional, though brief, story about a family trip; a diary about thyroid disease; excerpts from a bad translation of a poorly written biography of Marie Curie; a fairly straightforward narrative about my father and his furnace (though ending in an accidental poem); and, scattered throughout the book, brief prose pieces of just one or two lines as well as one or two pieces with broken lines.

When I began writing “seriously” and steadily in college, I thought my only choice was the traditional narrative short story. Both my parents had been writers of short stories, and my mother still was. Both of them had had stories published in the New Yorker, which loomed large in our life, as some sort of icon, though an icon of exactly what I’m not sure—good writing and editing, urban wit and sophistication? By age twelve, I already felt I was bound to be a writer, and if you were going to be a writer, the choices were limited: first, either poet or prose writer; then, if prose writer, either novelist or short-story writer. I never thought of being a novelist. I wrote poems, early on, but to be a poet was somehow not an option. So if, eventually, some of my work comes right up to the line (if there is one) that separates a piece of prose from a poem, and even crosses it, the approach to that line is through the realm of short fiction.

In college, when I told one intelligent friend of mine, with confidence and exuberance, that my ambition was to write short stories, and specifically, to write a short story that would be accepted by the New Yorker, he was startled by my certainty. He was also somewhat scornful, and suggested that maybe this should not be the full extent of my ambition. I was so surprised by his reaction that the Manhattan street corner where we were talking is engraved on my memory: Broadway at 114th Street. My fixed ideas had been shaken.

Although I now did not have quite the same confidence in the New Yorker, I did not immediately see an obvious alternative to writing short stories, so I continued to work in that form and develop in that direction for the next several years, though the subject matter of the stories gradually moved away from the most conventional. I found the writing difficult; it was pleasurable or exciting only at moments. I worked on one short story for months and months; I spent about two years on another one. I followed the oft-repeated advice, which was to combine invented material with material from my own experience.

My reading might have shown me other possibilities. In addition to a healthy diet of the classic short-story writers, such as Katherine Mansfield, D. H. Lawrence, John Cheever, Hemingway, Updike, and Flannery O’Connor, I was already reading writers who were more unusual formally and imaginatively, such as Beckett, Kafka, Borges, and Isaac Babel.

I was in my early teens when I first laid eyes on a page of Beckett. I was startled. I had come to it from books that included the steamy novels of Mazo de la Roche—though not too steamy to be included in a very proper girls’-school library—and the more classic romances of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, as well as the social panoramas of John Dos Passos, the first writer whose style I consciously noticed and relished. Now here was a book—Malone Dies—in which the narrator spent a page describing his pencil, and the first plot development was that he had dropped his pencil. I had never imagined anything like it.

When I look at Beckett now, to try to identify more exactly the qualities that continued to excite my interest as I read his work over the years and did my best to learn from him, I find at least the following: There was his precise and sonorous use of the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary—especially, in this example, the way he gives a familiar word like “dint” a fresh life by using it in an unfamiliar way: “ … the flagstone before her door that by dint by dint her little weight has grooved … ” There was his use of Anglo-Saxon and alliteration to produce what were almost pieces of Old English verse: “worthy those worn by certain newly dead.”

There was his use of complex, almost impossibly tangled, yet correct, syntax for the pleasure of it, though perhaps also as a commentary on composition itself: “were it not of him to whom it is speaking speaking but of another it would not speak.”

There was his deft handling of image and his humor, almost certainly poking fun at more traditional romantic or lyrical writing that I myself quite enjoyed: “the little summer house. A rustic hexahedron.”

There was the way he balanced the sonority of rhythm and alliteration with the unexpectedly compassionate depiction of character: “so with what reason remains he reasons and reasons ill.”

And lastly, there was his acute psychological analysis, so closely accurate that it became absurd and yet moving at the same time: “Not that Watt felt calm and free and glad, for he did not, and had never done so. But he thought that perhaps he felt calm and free and glad, or if not calm and free and glad, at least calm and free, or free and glad, or glad and calm, or if not calm and free, or free and glad, or glad and calm, at least calm, or free, or glad, without knowing it.”

(Here he is no doubt again poking fun at conventional sentimental writing.)

If Beckett interested me more for the way he handled language—the close attention to words, the mining of the richness of English, the ironic distance from prose style, the self-consciousness—and less for the forms in which he wrote, still, as with Joyce, Beckett’s example provided a pattern of development through different forms over a lifetime of writing: Both these writers started by writing poetry and went on to write short stories, and then novels, and then, in Joyce’s case, the most intricately inventive, nearly impenetrable novel, Finnegans Wake, in Beckett’s case the plays and the briefer and increasingly eccentric fictions. Both evolved to a point where they seemed to leave more and more readers behind and write more and more for their own pleasure and interest.

I had the example of writers within the traditional form but abbreviated, as, for instance, Babel with his condensation, emotional intensity, and richness of imagery, especially in Walter Morison’s translation of the Red Cavalry stories. One of these, “Crossing into Poland,” ends with the thin pregnant woman standing over her dead old father:

“Good sir,” said the Jewess, shaking up the feather bed, “the Poles cut his throat, and he begging them: ‘Kill me in the yard so that my daughter shan’t see me die.’ But they did as suited them. He passed away in this room, thinking of me.—And now I should wish to know,” cried the woman with sudden and terrible violence, “I should wish to know where in the whole world you could find another father like my father?”

The ending is abrupt; the story, for all its power, is only a little over two pages long.

I had the example of Grace Paley, who defied conventional pacing and packed every sentence with so much wit, richness of character, and worldly wisdom that the lines were often explosive. Her story “Wants” is, again, all of two pages long. Here is the opening page:

I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library.

Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-
seven years, so I felt justified.

He said, What? What life? No life of mine.

I said, O.K. I don’t argue when there’s real disagreement. I got up and went into the library to see how much I owed them.

The librarian said $32 even and you’ve owed it for eighteen years. I didn’t deny anything. Because I don’t understand how time passes. I have had those books. I have often thought of them. The library is only two blocks away.

My ex-husband followed me to the Books Returned desk. He interrupted the librarian, who had more to tell. In many ways, he said, as I look back, I attribute the dissolution of our marriage to the fact that you never invited the Bertrams to dinner.

That’s possible, I said. But really, if you remember: first, my father was sick that Friday, then the children were born, then I had those Tuesday-night meetings, then the war began. Then we didn’t seem to know them anymore. But you’re right. I should have had them to dinner.

(Notice, by the way, in this excerpt, how fond she is of short sentences, often following the same pattern, which is the simplest one: subject, verb.)

Yet I was apparently not ready to try the sort of story she was writing. And it took me another decade to see that you could take the material of a story very largely from your own life, as I suspect she did, or even, though in a selected version, almost entirely from your own life, as I later did.

I also had the example of Kafka’s very brief Parables and Paradoxes, some of which were not so much stories, of course, as they were meditations or logical problems. I studied them closely. Yet I seemed to think that only Kafka, not I or anyone else, could write such odd things.

They all work in slightly different ways. One, for instance, “The Sirens,” might be a reinterpretation of a familiar legend:

These are the seductive voices of the night; the Sirens, too, sang that way. It would be doing them an injustice to think that they wanted to seduce; they knew they had claws and sterile wombs, and they lamented this aloud. They could not help it if their laments sounded so beautiful.

Another, “Leopards in the Temple,” might be the creation of, and commentary upon, a ritual:

Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.

Another might be the reinterpretation of a moment of history (“Alexander the Great”):

It is conceivable that Alexander the Great, in spite of the martial successes of his early days, in spite of the excellent army that he had trained, in spite of the power he felt within him to change the world, might have remained standing on the bank of the Hellespont and never have crossed it, and not out of fear, not out of indecision, not out of infirmity of will, but because of the mere weight of his own body.

(Kafka himself, apparently, was inspired by two of his contemporaries or predecessors who wrote in the very short form: the Swiss Robert Walser, also a novelist, whose late writings, almost illegibly tiny, were recently deciphered; and the Viennese coffeehouse bohemian Peter Altenberg, writing at the turn of the twentieth century.)

Mauricio Alejo/PLATNUM

For a long time, I did not see Kafka as a model to be emulated, nor other more eccentric or unconventional writers. I did not yet know the work of many writers who later, over the years, became interesting to me or influential: the strange narrative voices and bizarre sensibilities in the stories of the American Jane Bowles or the Brazilian Clarice Lispector or the Swiss Regina Ullmann (whose 1921 collection of stories was not translated into English until 2015, nearly a hundred years after it appeared in German); or the startling and calmly violent, syntactically complex single-paragraph stories of the Austrian Thomas Bernhard’s collection The Voice Imitator, which I discovered by chance in an airport bookstore; or the tiny chapters of the Brazilian Machado de Assis’s novel Epitaph of a Small Winner; or the autobiographical paragraph stories of the Spaniard Luis Cernuda; or the many, many small, whimsical tales written in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, of the Cuban Virgilio Piñera; or, finally, the meditative, semi-autobiographical, very brief stories of the Dutchman A. L. Snijders or the Swiss Peter Bichsel, so appealing to me that I have been translating them for the past five years or so.

But those discoveries were still to come.

At the age of about twenty-six, after having ignored the model of Kafka for so long, I was jolted into taking a new direction, at last, after reading a collection of stories by the contemporary American prose poet Russell Edson.

I had been slogging away at a stubborn story. I had been fighting off my inertia and apathy. I would read, go for a walk, eat. In the midst of this inertia, a friend who had been witnessing it said, “You just sit around all day doing nothing.” (I wasn’t doing nothing—I was agonizing!) Then I read Edson’s book called The Very Thing That Happens.

Edson is a very unusual writer: You could characterize many of his stories as brief, fantastic, and often funny tales of domestic mayhem involving family members but also, sometimes, their pots and pans, animals, buildings, parts of buildings, and so forth. But some of the pieces are lyrical meditations, or sunnier moral tales. Russell Edson himself calls them poems, sometimes fables. Here is one on the idea of generations (“Waiting for the Signal Man”):

A woman said to her mother, where is my daughter?

Her mother said, up you and through me and out of grandmother; coming all the way down through all women like a railway train, trailing her brunette hair, which streams back grey into white; waiting for the signal man to raise his light so she can come through.

What is she waiting for? said the woman.

For the signal man to raise his light, so she can see to come through. 

Here, in “Dead Daughter,” is a rather brutal family interaction:

Wake up, I heard something die, said a woman to something else.

Something else was her father. Do not call me something else, he said.

Will it be something dead for breakfast? said the woman.

It is always something dead given by your mother to her husband, said her father, like my dead daughter, dead inside herself; there is nothing living there, no heart, no child.

That is not true, said the daughter, I am in here trying to live, but afraid to come out.

If you’re in there oh do come out, we’re having a special treat, dead daughter for breakfast, dead daughter for lunch, and dead daughter for supper, in fact dead daughter for the rest of our lives.

And here is a drama involving inanimate objects as well as human beings (“When Things Go Wrong”):

A woman had just made her bed. A wall leaned down and went to sleep on her bed. So the ceiling decided to go to bed too. The wall and the ceiling began to shove each other. But it was decided that the ceiling had best sleep on the floor. But the floor said, get off of me because I am annoyed with you. And the floor went outside to lie in the grass.

Will you stop it all of you, screamed the woman.

But the rest of the walls yawned and said, we’re tired too.

Stop stop stop, she screamed, it is all going wrong, all is wrong wrong wrong.

When her father returned he said, why is my house destroyed?

Because everything went wrong suddenly, screamed the woman.

Why are you screaming and why is my house destroyed? said the father.

I don’t know, I don’t know, and I am screaming because I am very upset, father, said the woman.

This is very strange, said the father, perhaps I’ll walk away and when I return things will be different.

Father, screamed the woman, why do you leave me every time this happens?

Because when I return things will be different, said the father.

Edson opened a path for me for several reasons. One reason was that not every one of his stories succeeded. Some were merely silly. Maybe this had to do with the way Edson went about writing them. As Natalie Goldberg describes it in her book Writing
Down the Bones

He said that he sits down at his typewriter and writes about ten different short pieces at one session. He then comes back later to reread them. Maybe one out of the ten is successful and he keeps that one. He said that if a good first line comes to him, the rest of the piece usually works. Here are some of his first lines:

“A man wants an aeroplane to like him.”
“A beloved duck gets cooked by mistake.”
“A husband and wife discover that their children are fakes.”
“Identical twin old men take turns at being alive.”

Some of the stories I found brilliant, but others faltered. Yet the stories that did not quite succeed showed me two things that were helpful to a young writer: They showed more clearly how the stories were put together; and they showed how a writer could try something, fail, try again, partially succeed, and try again. A third thing the stories showed me, both the brilliant ones and the faltering ones, was how you could tap some very difficult emotions and let them burst out in an unexpected, raw, sometimes absurd form—that perhaps, in fact, setting oneself absurd or impossible subjects made it easier for difficult emotions to come forth.

I read this book, and I began writing paragraph-long stories, sometimes just one story on one day, sometimes more.

They, too, arose from different sources and worked in different ways. One, “In a House Besieged,” used the landscape where I was living at the time, taking real features of it but putting them together in such a way that the piece sounded like a fable or a fairy tale:

In a house besieged lived a man and a woman. From where they cowered in the kitchen the man and woman heard small explosions. “The wind,” said the woman. “Hunters,” said the man. “The rain,” said the woman. “The army,” said the man. The woman wanted to go home, but she was already home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged.

Another, “The Mother,” was entirely made up, but was based on an emotional reality:

The girl wrote a story. “But how much better it would be if you wrote a novel,” said her mother. The girl built a dollhouse. “But how much better if it were a real house,” her mother said. The girl made a small pillow for her father. “But wouldn’t a quilt be more practical,” said her mother. The girl dug a small hole in the garden. “But how much better if you dug a large hole,” said her mother. The girl dug a large hole and went to sleep in it. “But how much better if you slept forever,” said her mother.

Some of the stories remained unfinished, rough. Some grew to be a page or two long, or longer. These short-short stories, as a group, had a different feel to them from what I had done before—they were bolder, more confident, and more adventurous; they were more of a pleasure to write, and they came more easily. Whereas until this point writing had often felt like hard work, now I began to enjoy it.

One of the longer stories was “Mr. Knockly,” which begins: “Last fall my aunt burned to death.” It was only much later that I realized that this story had very likely been influenced by an Edgar Allan Poe story, “The Man in the Crowd”: The main plotline of both stories is the narrator’s obsessive pursuit of a man through the streets of a town. And over time I have seen how certain forms, even the forms of nursery rhymes, may impress themselves on us when we hear or read them, and that some of our later work may slip right into these preestablished matrices.

I did not go on to buy and read every one of Russell Edson’s books over the years since then. One book was enough—as, often, even a single page of a piece of writing may be enough—to cause a change of direction. I no longer felt that I had to write in accordance with an established, traditional form. After that, although I remained loyal to the traditional narrative short story and revisited it from time to time, I also kept departing from it to try other forms. Sometimes the forms simply occurred to me, and sometimes they were directly inspired by another writer’s piece of writing.

About twelve years after I first read Edson, for instance, I was reading a poem by the American poet Bob Perelman on a train going down the coast of California. I was startled—he was incorporating a grammar lesson in this poem! Could one really do that?

Here is the lesson in Perelman’s poem, called “Seduced by Analogy,” from his collection To the Reader:

With afford, agree, and arrange, use the infinitive.
I can’t agree to die. With practice,
Imagine, and resist, use the gerund. I practice to live
Is wrong.

A train, or in fact any public transportation, is often a very good place to think and write. After I read this poem, I realized: You could teach French in a story. You could write the story in English but incorporate French words and ideas about language. I began writing “French Lesson I: Le Meurtre” right there on the train, without any more plan than that:

See the vaches ambling up the hill, head to rump, head to rump. Learn what a vache is. A vache is milked in the morning, and milked again in the evening, twitching her dung-soaked tail, her head in a stanchion. Always start learning your foreign language with the names of farm animals. Remember that one animal is an animal, but more than one are animaux, ending in a u x. Do not pronounce the x. These animaux live on a ferme.

And the lesson continues, with a short vocabulary list at the end.

All of which is to say that a good poem is bound to offer you something surprising in the way of language and thinking, even if some of its meaning eludes you.

The American contemporary Charles Bernstein is another interesting poet and one of the originators of the so-called Language School of poetry. Bernstein ventures into all sorts of new formal territories—he has even written the libretto of an opera based on the work and life of the critic Walter Benjamin.

One of Bernstein’s long sectional poems, “Safe Methods of Business,” includes a letter protesting a parking ticket.

The summons charges me with parking at a crosswalk on the
northeast corner of 82nd street and Broadway on the evening 
of August 17, 1984. The space in question is
east of the crosswalk on 82nd street as indicated 
by the yellow lines painted across the street. This space 
has been a legal parking space during the over ten years I
have lived on the block. Cars are always parked in this space
and have continued to (unticketed in several observations I 
made yesterday and today). Apparently, new crosswalk markings
are currently being painted in white on both 82nd street and
83rd street. At this time, the process is not complete.
When these new lines are finished, several spaces may be
eliminated. However, as they looked at the time I received
the ticket, they did not appear to override the yellow lines
according to which I was clearly in my right to park in the space.

I read Bernstein’s poem as a poem, de facto, partly because it has line breaks, partly because it is one section (twenty-six lines long) of a more obviously poem-like long poem, and partly because it is included in a collection of poems and is surrounded by other poems. Yet how does it work as a poem? Certainly not by the same rules as the poem by Perelman above. What it does show is how other factors besides the style, form, and language of a poem, particularly the context in which we read it, may determine how we receive it—and this in itself can open up new possibilities for a writer.

Perhaps this unusual form of “poem” lodged in my brain somewhere, so that years later a letter of complaint seemed a good form for a story, and I wrote “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” objecting to the use of the word cremains. This letter started out as an actual, sincere piece of correspondence and then got carried away by its own language and turned into something too literary to send.

After I wrote it, I realized how many other things I had to complain about and wrote three more: “Letter to a Hotel Manager,” in which I objected to the misspelling, on the menu, of “scrod,” the famous Boston fish; “Letter to a Peppermint Candy Company,” in which I reported that in the expensive tin of peppermints I had just bought, there were only two-thirds the number of peppermints the company claimed to have put in it; and “Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer,” objecting to the artwork on the package.

Mauricio Alejo/PLATNUM

Some influences reveal themselves only long after the fact, but some are quite conscious. Once, many years ago, I was reading David Foster Wallace’s “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.” It was difficult to read, because the men were truly hideous. But the form was a powerful one—in each interview, we were given the answers at length, but the questions were left blank. I did not finish reading it, but the form stayed with me. And some time later, after I had had the interesting experience of being on call for jury duty and wanted to write about it, this form felt like the perfect one to use. The content of the story, which was titled “Jury Duty,” was taken nearly completely from my own experience, but the story was transformed into fiction by the illusion of the questioner, or examiner.

Here is the opening of the story:

A. Jury duty.
A. The night before, we had been quarreling.
A. The family.
A. Four of us. Well, one doesn’t live at home anymore. But he was home that night. He was leaving the next morning—the same morning I had to go in to the courtroom.
A. We were all four of us quarreling. Every which way. I was just now trying to figure it out. There are so many different combinations in which four people can quarrel: one on one, two against one, three against one, two against two, etc. I’m sure we were quarreling in just about every combination.
A. I don’t remember now. Funny. Considering how heated it was.

The form is enjoyable because of what you can do with the unspoken questions. Sometimes it’s obvious what the question has been. For instance, we know the questioner has had trouble understanding the name Sojourner Truth—the former slave and women’s rights activist—because it has to be repeated several times; but at other points in the story we cannot guess what the questioner has asked: I end the story with the answer “Yes!”—and you will never know what the question was.

Some years ago, during the extended period in which I was working on my translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way, not wanting to stop writing altogether and yet having no time, I tried another form that intrigued me: Perhaps because I was spending the days translating such long, complex sentences—though I found this activity engrossing and even exciting—I wanted to see just how brief I could make a piece of writing and still have it mean something.

Perhaps I had also been influenced by a postcard I had kept up on my bulletin board for years. It contained a three-line poem—a translation from the Cheremiss—by the American poet Anselm Hollo:

i shouldn’t have started these red wool mittens.
they’re done now,
but my life is over

Even though it’s so short, it surprises me each time I read it—which is something I think a good piece of writing should do.

Perhaps, too, the idea for this very brief form was planted in me years ago by some of the entries in Kafka’s Diaries, which I read very closely when I was in my twenties. For instance, here is one entry, in its entirety:

The picture of dissatisfaction presented by a street, where everyone is perpetually lifting his feet to escape from the place on which he stands.

In just a few words, he offers a different way of seeing a commonplace thing. I wondered if I could write a piece that short—a title and a line or two—that would still have the power to move, or at least startle, or distract, in a way that was not entirely frivolous. I also wanted the piece to stay firmly in the realm of prose.

Here is one, “Lonely,” that has some of the rhythms of the Hollo poem:

No one is calling me. I can’t check the answering machine because I have been here all this time. If I go out someone may call while I’m out. Then I can check the answering machine when I come back in.

Here are two that are shorter:


Beyond the hand holding this book that I’m reading, I see another hand lying idle and slightly out of focus—my extra hand.


“Index Entry”

Christian, I’m not a

Legend has it that Hemingway once wrote what he called a one-line short story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”—misquoted ephemerally by someone on the internet as: “For sale: baby crib, never used.” But writers working in very short forms are usually poets. There is Samuel Menashe, who often wrote in four short lines and whose interesting work is too often overlooked (untitled):

Pity us
by the sea
on the sands
so briefly

Another poet who is a master of brevity and the concrete is Lorine Niedecker, one of the less well-known poets in the so-called Objectivist group that followed a generation or so after Ezra Pound. Here is one of her short, pithy poems, this one untitled, about a thing that comes back, or might come back, to haunt the poet, having a life and will of its own.

The museum man!
I wish he’d take Pa’s spitbox!
I’m going to take that spitbox out
and bury it in the ground
Because without that stone on top
it would come back.

Then there is an interesting, anarchic poet near Woodstock, New York, known only as Sparrow. Some years ago he became famous—in small circles, anyway—for staging a one-man protest in the reception area of the New Yorker for several days, objecting that the magazine published only bland, predictable poetry, rather than offbeat, eccentric poetry such as, in particular, his own. Eventually, in fact, the magazine bought three of his poems and published at least one of them. (Sometimes it pays to be persistent, and to protest.)

Sparrow has written many very small poems, such as the following (“Poem”):

This poem replaces
all my previous poems.

The poems of his that interest me are not lyrical. I like the ones in which he sees things in a different way—as Kafka does in some of his diary entries, as I do in my piece “Hand.”

Here’s another small poem, “Perfection Wasted”:

The problem with dying
is you can’t be funny anymore,
or charming.

When I read this, I thought it was an original poem of his, but in fact it is a “translation” of a sonnet by John Updike that appeared in the New Yorker. I found it in a group of poems by Sparrow called “Translations from the New Yorker.” This was in a book of his called America, A Prophecy: A Sparrow Reader.

Another translation of his is “Garter Snake.” I’ll quote Sparrow’s translation first, then a little of the original:

A snake moved through grass
and I watched.
It looked like an S.

When it stopped, it was very still.

The grass shook slightly when it moved.

The original, by Eric Ormsby, has a lot more words in it, which is one thing I suppose Sparrow is trying to get away from. Here is the first verse of the original:

The stately ripple of the garter snake
in sinuous procession through the grass
compelled my eye. It stopped and held its head
high above the lawn, and the delicate curve
of its slender body formed a letter “S”
for “serpent,” I presume, as though
diminutive majesty obliged embodiment.

Further along in the poem, where Sparrow’s translation reads “The grass shook slightly when it moved,” the original reads:

                           … it gave the rubbled grass
and the dull hollows where its ripple ran
lithe scintillas of exuberance
moving the way a chance felicity
silvers the whole attention of the mind.

That’s the end of the poem. Sparrow’s plainer version may not quite succeed as a poem, and some readers will prefer the richer original. But Sparrow’s translations raise several interesting questions about writing, and about form in particular—which is what I’ve been exploring here. 

The most pressing question, of course, is one that would take us, if we pursued it, straight into the realm of translation theory and all its intriguing conundrums: Can you say the same thing in radically different ways? If you write it so differently, are you, in fact, saying the same thing? 


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