Counterfeit lineages: Kitsch, Immigrants, Translation, Avant-Garde

by on Jun.30, 2011

As I always say: the most famous definition of poetry in US culture is Robert Frost’s quip that poetry is what is lost in translation. (It’s so famous it’s even the title of a blockbuster movie, “Lost in Translation” – which notably is about “poetic effect,” not poetry proper, see my post about McQueen.) And almost as famous is his quip that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net. The two are of course related: at the core is the idea of poetry as something disciplined and authentic, and that it must be protected against the fake, the lazy, the chaotic, the cheaters, the foreign.

Despite various changes, it seems translation still is kept at the margins of American poetry. Translation is inherently a challenge to the dominant idea of “lineage” (perhaps lineage is inherently “dominant”) in US poetry: poetry is authentic, to write real poetry you have to know the true version of US literary history. Poetry has to be defended against the fake, against kitsch (“hipster poetry” or “soft surrealism” or whatever). You have to have a “good ear” to write poetry – it must come to you naturally.

Here I could offer, as i often do, countless of examples from Ron Silliman and his obsessive lineage-making. Or any number of conservative poets defending their canon and lineage. But I won’t. You’ve heard it all before.

Translation poses a challenge to lineage because it generates excess: an excess of versions (different versions of the same poem? I thought there was “no noise in art”!), excess of authors (how can we keep track of all these authors) and an excess of “lineage.” Etc. If poetry is the authentic, then the translation is the “versioning” of the authentic.

No wonder, Daniel Tiffany has traced the roots of our anti-kitsch rhetoric to counterfeit translations from Romanticism.

This is also true of the figure of the “immigrant”: counterfeit version of the real American. Scary not in its difference, but in its similarity. Its doubleness.

Of course this is seeing translation from a dominant culture. I grew up in Sweden, which is a very minor/provincial country. And here translation was central. In large part this is because Swedes see themselves as provincial. This can get annoying, but it does seem to produce a very interesting cultural dynamic: swedish culture seems incredibly *vulnerable* to foreign influence as well strange new ideas from “within” (I use that word very provisionally).

[It’s amazing to think for example that Bonnier, the largest publisher in Sweden by far, published Aase Berg’s radical first book, With Deer, and all of Sara Stridsberg’s brilliant and strange novels. At the same time there is a very strong core of very conservative, usually leftist, cultural establishment figures preaching responsiblity, accessibility, moderation etc. And there’s a fundamental national romantic nationalism in Sweden that is fundamentally xenophobic. This is an interesting dynamic, but I’m not going to talk about that now (maybe in another post).]

When I was growing up I watched more American movies than Swedish movies (on TV they showed Hitchcock, John Ford Westerns etc, in the theaters, Top Gun and all that), and listened to more British music (Depeche Mode, The Smiths, The Cure etc) than Swedish music. I learned English as much through watching/listening to these and trying to translate them as I did at school. A weird twist was that when I started reading “serious” literature in 7th/8th grade it was largely through my mom’s library of Swedish translations of American and French authors (På Drift av Jack Kerouac, Äcklet av Jean Paul Sartre etc).

One interesting result of this provinciality is that Swedes often have to view their own culture as a kind of version of the major (US, English, French) cultures, or through a foreign lens. So that they often refer to their own authors as “the x of Sweden.”

Sometimes this is based on the fact that they are in fact a version of the American version. Take Ulf Lundell, the “Bruce Springsteen of Swede.” The connection is obvious:

But then there’s for example Gunnar Björling is referred to as the “Gertrude Stein of Scandinavia”:

O sure there are,
and every human.

– you
and have a face.

I – and until I lie down
I – that one word
I – that with your feature

Björling doesn’t really have that much in common with Stein – mainly that he was homosexual and wrote weird poems that were considered not proper language (one critic famously accused Björling of not writing in Swedish but in “Björlingish,” while Eliot famously claimed that Stein’s poetry was as inarticulate as “a saxophone”, ie not only not English but possibly black).

Part of what made Björling’s language seem not like Swedish was his use of erasure (which he began already in the 1920s). That is, his foreigness came from the effect, a violence against the language from the outside, an erotic violence from the outside (see my last post about Alexander McQueen’s outfits). It was even so “outside” or inauthentic that he didn’t even do the erasure himself, but invited a bunch of young men to come over and “do it” to his texts. Apparently the more they erased the better.

(Go buy You go the words by Björling at SPD.)

Another thing that makes Björling interesting is that he was a member of the minor Finland Swedish culture in Finland – ie he was a member of a minor culture within a minor nation, a nation that had always pretty much been colonized (by Swedes, by Russia).

His closest artistic (and most likely erotic) ally in the late 1920s was the much younger Henry Parland (Here’s another article about him from the Poetry Foundation):

The train
hammers its hard rhythm
in the blood.

Its song is not
about humans
or God or love.
It’s about steel
and of steel.

Parland’s relationship to immigration is even more complicated than Björling’s: His parents were Russians of German-Baltic-English descent, and they fled Russian to get away from the upheavals of the 1910s, and ended up i Finland, where Parland fell in with the Finland-Swedes because he was bullied by the anti-Russian Finnish kids. After hanging out with Björling in his late teens and early 20s his parents (in part to get him away from drinking, in part to get him away from writing such bad poetry, in part to get him away from Björling) to Lithuania, where he promptly got engaged to a Russian Jew who taught him French and then he died soon thereafter at 22. Before dying, he wrote a letter to a friend where he proclaimed: “It doesn’t matter where I go, I’m always a foreigner.”

Björling and Parland made up a kind of Helsinki Dada circle of two in the late 20s. The point I want to make about lineage is this: the way they got it was not from being authentically educated in the ways of Dada. The first time either of them seem to have heard of the term “Dada” was in a negative review, a xenophobic negative review of Björling’s second book, in which the critic claimed that what Björling was doing was that same “Dadaistic” nonsense that the Germans were into. Since Parland liked Björling’s poetry and Björling wrote (in some sense) his poetry, they both decided to look into this matter and began to read Dada writings from Germany.

For Parland, Dada seemed to mean an attitude toward modernity more than a literary style per se. So in his letters to his pal Sven Grönvall, he constantly says that “everything is dada” or that some jazzband is dada or some cool car is dada etc. Modernity is kitsch. Modernity is dada. But one might add, it’s a strange modernity which he – with some reservations – engages with as a fellow stranger, both modernity and Parland are inauthentic so to speak.

I want to end by defending in some sense “the avant-garde,” a term which we have been criticizing on the blog now for a couple of weeks. One critic has called Dada an “aesthetics of homelessness” (I can’t remember the critic’s name), which makes sense not only because Zurich Dada consisted of a bunch of emigrants (and some of them even homeless literally) getting together in a foreign town to make art that was often based on translation, of mistranslation, of the hybridizing of lineages and traditions (German Expressionism, Romanian Jewish folk culture etc). But also because it seems to have spread across Europe in a kind of homeless way – as a name, as a notion, as a fashion. Not as a Grand Tradition, but as a translation. Or a translation error. Without a net.

One more note. When I gave a talk about the “Helsinki Dada” of Parland and Björling in Belgium a couple of years ago, a Finnish avant-garde scholar who had given a talk about Futurism came up to me and said he like my talk but bemoaned the fact that I had dragged up these two “embarrassments.” I couldn’t get an answer from him why they were embarrassing to him. Was it because their writing was so much “worse” than Marinetti’s? That they didn’t belong with the true avant-gardists like Marinetti? That they were gay? Or was it that they were Finland Swedes? That they didn’t belong in a conference on Great International Literature, just two little provincial cosmopolitans who should be left to linger in the postcolonial stew of 1920s Helsinki.

(To Be Continued…)

1 comment for this entry:
  1. françois

    I’m intrigued by one of your phrasings, “translation error,” because this is where our respective ideas about translation intersect. But more on this later.