Yasusada, Henry Parland, Translation Wounds and Atrocity Kitsch

by on Dec.20, 2010

The following is a continued meditation on my post about hoaxes and counterfeits, and the role of the hoax in Henry Parland and in the anxieties of translation.

In a negative review of Carolyn Forché’s Against Forgetting Eliot Weinberger makes the following critique of her concept of “poetry of witness”:

“A poetry where one’s autobiography is primary, incidents of victimization are the salient features of one’s life, and writing is seen as the way to heal those psychic wounds. (This last feature is the best evidence that this has nothing to do with poetry at all. Poetry does not close wounds or answer questions; it opens them.)”

I think of the wounds a little bit differently (but not altogether differently), I think, than Weinberger, and I also think a little bit differently about Forché’s anthology. This is after all an anthology that starts out by describing in gruesome detail the murder and exhumation of the poet Radnoti, suggesting metaphorically that the dead poet’s bodily fluids almost wrote the poetry he left behind in his backpocket (in a mass grave).

Talk about opening wounds!

Talk about wound writing, wound culture.

I wrote about Forché a while back in a post about the anthology and my concept of atrocity kitsch. One reason Forché’s anthology is so interesting to me is the way it both opens and closes wounds, suggests both fascination with the grotesque and a desire to “sew up the wounds” (even if you sew up wounds, you still have the wounds, just ask Frankenstein), and perhaps most importantly, a desire to both bring foreign poetry (or poetry in translation) into American poetry and a desire to “sew up” this “translation wound.”

She tries to sew up these wounds in a number of ways. Most importantly, she emphasizes the biography of the writers: they must have personally witnessed atrocities, it must be authentic, no Sylvia Plath-ing around here! This goes along with her theory that the reason the european poets wrote such weird, “surrealist-y” poetry was because they were witnessing such absurd horrors. Again, it’s not fanciful imagination at work; strict realism.

[An interesting spin on this “witness” is the way Forché herself invented -or counterfeit – a story of her role in El Salvador’s civil war in order to write about it. I don’t know too much about this, perhaps someone else has the memory?]

To further emphasize this point, she organizing the poetry according to genocide. One chapter for the Holocaust, one for Armenian Genocide etc. Keep the order. But as so often happens when we try to control the tasteless, garish factors, we only make things worse: what’s more kitsch than a museum of genocides?

(This is a key factor of what I’ve been calling “atrocity kitsch”: it includes both people who try to close and people who try to open wounds. Usually the results are not altogether different. A kind of kitsch. Inauthenticity. Counterfeits. Grotesquerie. Immaturity.)

Furthermore, she emphasizes that the criteria for inclusion was that the poets must be considered major in their national literature, and there must be quality translations available of the poems. Ie no counterfeits! Even the translations must be sanctioned by official verse culture!

As I’ve written before, there’s a deep suspicion about translated texts: How do we know that they’re real? How do we know that the translation is correct? How do we know that they deserve to be translated? How do we know that they’re good? That they’re not a hoax?

(I don’t know how many times I’ve been accused of making up Aase Berg, but then I’ve also been accused of making up Lara Glenum, and of being married to Lara Glenum. This is not just a funny aside: the foreigner, like the translated text, is often treated as counterfeit, as kitsch, as having a secret source of – usually sexual – jouissance.)

There is something similar going on in Jan Ramazani’s book of criticism, A Transnational Poetics. In this book, Ramazani calls for an study of poetry transnationally – how influences cross national boundaries in various loops. However, strangely absent from his study is any attention to translation. Very strange in a book that claims to break down disciplinary boundaries as well as national boundaries. Why? Well Ramazani explains it:

“… a primary reason for drawing a somewhat artificial boundary around poems in English is that, simply put, i poetry, more than perhaps any other literary genre, the specifications of language matter… poetry, especially in its lyric mode, cannot be adequately studied in translation in the same way that drama, epic and the novel can be studied within their generic frameworks even when translated into another language. The heuristic corollary of this observation is that poems are best taught in the original, and in an English department in a predominantly English-speaking country, the teacher devising a poetry syllabus cannot usually presume student competence in multiple languages. Moreover, although poetic influences continually cross linguistic lines, the language specificity of poetry often grants the inheritances in a poet’s working language(s) special weight. Usually, the language field out of which a poem is carved, an upon which it exerts the greatest pressure, is the language in which it is written.”

IE: we must keep the English language pure; we must keep our lyrical poems authentic. Why? So that we can remain masters in our English classes. So that we can read correctly!

In my last post about hoaxes, I suggested a model of influence as hoax/hoax as influence, especially as it pertains to Henry Parland’s poetry.

Parland’s poems suggest a world already photographed, already art; poems conceived as photographs or readymades (ie counterfeits). His personal archives in Helsinki is crowded with photographs. His poems are all typed out on Gunnar Björling’s erotic typewriter. No wonder he wrote late in life (at 22): “It doesn’t matter where I go, I’m always a foreigner.” That’s dada for you. That’s homelessness and aesthetics, and the aesthetics of homelessness. Counterfeit aesthetics. Not the real deal. A Russian-born German kid whose family emigrated to Finland, and whose father then sent him to live with uncle in Lithuania (to get him out of his relationship to the scandalous homosexual, Gunnar Björling, and his poor, hoaxy poetry). A counterfeit immigrant who wrote in his fourth language.

IE not the language of “the greatest pressure.”

[Interesting side-note: Parland’s younger brother was later enlisted to erase Björling’s poems for him; a cadre of young men would visit Björling’s home and erase his poetry for him.]

It is not surprising (to me) that Weinberger in the same review of the Forché anthology guesses that the Yasusada poems are a hoax. Long before I read Eliot’s piece, I had the idea that Yasusada was in conversation with the anthology. What both pieces conjure up is the spectacle and specter of “atrocity kitsch”: the aesthetics of violence, the aesthetics of politics, the aesthetics of the grotesque, and the tensions inherent in Translation, the anxieties and pleasures of “translation wounds.”

(Interestingly considering Joyelle’s posts about “anachronism”: it was the anachronism of Yasusada’s bio that outed Kent.)

And Ramazani’s problems with translation is of course that it turns literature into the kind of aperture/eye/wound Joyelle has ben talking about. It’s no longer a text, a wellwrought urn we can master, can put pressure one; it turns poetry into something more like media.

10 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    Also, a friend sent some of Gripenberg/Eriksson’s poems (from last post about hoaxes). Will post some of those this week.


  2. Kent Johnson

    >(Interestingly considering Joyelle’s posts about “anachronism”: it was the anachronism of Yasusada’s bio that outed Kent.)

    Really? How so?

  3. Johannes

    Because anachronism suggests a hoax; it doesn’t follow chronology.

    This also I think impact Ramazani – as I wrote in a post the other day – academic concepts of literature are very chronological.


  4. On The Plaid Duvet | Whimsy Speaks

    […] writing:  “I think of the wounds a little bit differently (but not altogether differently), I think, […]

  5. Jake Levine

    The introduction to that anthology, and the title, taken from Benjamin has always troubled me, just like Benjamin’s gravestone, like a token contribution that neither contributes to or envisions a better world. That anthology, like the American Hybrid and its lovely C. Swensen intro, are too self aware to ever feel important.

  6. Johannes

    Yeah, Benjamin is a strange, loaded figure in contemporary American poetry.


  7. Kent Johnson

    Johannes, I asked because your phrasing implies the “outing” of Yasusada as a fiction was against the will of its creator(s), something brought about through unintended slips and contradictions in the “chronology.”

    But that’s simply not the case, as a few careful readers have already pointed out, showing that the text is riddled with impossible and obviously self-conscious lacunae and errors. The fact is that the Yasusada writings purposely offered up their own exposure as fiction from the very beginning. It’s in this sense that the Doubled Flowering work is *not* a traditional “hoax” (your use of that term to designate it is superficial–again, strongly recommend you read McHale, who offers a more refined terminology for dealing with the vast range of literature that moves outside conventional frameworks of attribution and “authenticity”).


  8. Johannes

    No, I don’t think it necessarily suggests an unwilling outing. The Åke Eriksson piece was also not an unwilling outing, as far as I can tell. I don’t even understand why this is so important to you.

    I don’t understand why your’e so sensitive about the use of the term “hoax.” I’m obviously not using it in a “traditional” way. Or the word “kitsch” for that matter.

    On the whole I don’t understand why you’re so sensitive, so eager/intent on both publicizing and controlling the reception of your work. Why so eager to invoke McHale? Why this desire to both present yourself as a maverick and this incessant dependence on authority and need for acceptance? Why so eager to both deny your own role in the [project, situation, hoax] and so eager to install “self-consciousness”, why so nervous about appearing un-“refined”? I don’t want to make “hoaxes” into this nice little academic criteria; I don’t want to box it up, I want to let it bleed.

    From what you said in the comment below, it seems to me the McHale framework is a taxonomic way of looking at this matter. I’m doing something very different here. I want to infect art with the hoax.


  9. Kent Johnson

    Well, Johnannes, goodness gracious. I guess I don’t quite understand why YOU are being so sensitive! You wrote about Yasusada, which as caretaker of the work I appreciate, and so I’m trying to interject some fuller perspective into your discussion. No need to get so angry. And when you say:

    >it seems to me the McHale framework is a taxonomic way of looking at this matter. I’m doing something very different here. I want to infect art with the hoax.

    That is fine. But making some discriminations in terms of that often misapplied category can’t hurt in the effort, right?

  10. Johannes

    I’m not angry. I’m merely offering some questions about your conservative treatment of your own project. I don’t know why so many people on the Net use this as a piece of rhetoric on the net (ie responding to questions by saying, “dont get mad”).