Cole Swensen

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Difference and/or the Lack of It
-thoughts on some contemporary writing in France & the U.S.


To understand difference, particularly when it's slight: the slighter it is, the closer you get to it, to something crucial in it, when you can see something, not about the specific differences at hand perhaps, but about difference itself. Or can see difference itself rather than the things that supposedly differ. I don't mean difference in a Derridean sense, but something much simpler, more daily. Regarding some American poetry translated into French, Emmanuel Hocquard once wrote, "Ah! That's something a French person never could have written!" And it can't be explained further; the kernel of difference is there, a slip, a shift. One wants to say that such a difference can be accounted for, is theoretically traceable, could be statistically charted, but it can't be. Though a noun, it has no body; it's a gap, a sheer between, and leaves no trace.

Such difference always invokes margins for me, and they in turn evoke a between. For me, the ideal between is one between languages. Riding it keeps things in motion, oscillation, reverberation. This is one thing that fuels translation, and keeps a given translation from becoming a place holder or substitute for the poem that incited it. Again, a quotation comes to mind-Keith Waldrop saying at a Royaumont translation conference that translations must be redone every generation. They age because they keep one foot in the living, in the present, unlike their models, which slip out of time. Translations can't slip out because that oscillation-between two languages, between two voices, two poems-won't let them slow down, and speed is time.

I have two ways of reading French poetry: absolutely and relatively. It's usually absolutely-I simply read it, occupy it. Occasionally it's relatively-I consider it in relation to American or English poetry. Having studied comparative literature, I adopt this approach too readily, and I find it always leads me into the wrong track-for instance, into thinking that there is some consistent difference between French and American contemporary poetry, that there is a basis for comparison. There isn't. Or more fully put: there are bases for comparisons, but they don't fall along national lines.

I gravitate toward poems that occur as books, and it was French letters that brought home to me this possibility. Formally, such poems begin in unfolding and finish in the bodily gesture of unfurling. Or overflowing. Thus, they're based on excess, on the self's exceeding the self. The poem is the excess; it's the abundance that won't fit into the book, which makes the book necessary. Not a vehicle, but a corporeal precondition of the poem, ensuring the poem's own corporeality. Claude Royet-Journoud, Emmanuel Hocquard, Anne-Marie Albiach, Dominique Fourcade, Andre du Bouchet, Jacques Roubaud, Anne Portugal, Joseph Guglielmi-all compose with the book as their basic poetic unit. There are many other writers I could cite; I only list these because they happen to have been the first contemporary French poets I read, and thus it was their works that made me reconsider my own formal approach.

The book as poetic unit is by no means exclusively, or even particularly, French, and some of the above writers' contemporaries in America , such as Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, Susan Howe, also compose in the unit of the book, but the slight cultural differential of encountering the principle in French made it visible to me as a principle.
Or perhaps it's more pronounced, prefigured, elaborated in France . Its root might be traced to Mallarmé's work on Le Livre , to the early avant-gardes' refusal of the lyric poem as the basic unit of poetry, and/or the early twentieth century livres d'artistes , foregrounding the book in its own right. For whatever reason, the concept of the book has achieved a particular solidity in France that has, in turn, offered space for other registers of invention.

Much of that invention seems, during the past fifteen years or so, to have focused on opening up genre. Alternatives to other poetic staples, such as the line and predictable sound relationships, have opened up the sound and shape of poetry until it has become simply writing , moving outward perhaps to meet l'écriture of Tel Quel, and engendering examples all along that continuum.

But this, too, has been occurring in American letters over the past many years, so I come back in my mind to difference, and realize that it's not difference that I find compelling here, but difficulty-an attractive, productive difficulty that I encounter when I read in a language other than English. No matter how well one knows a foreign language, it can never achieve the transparency of one's native tongue, and I'm always acutely aware of French as a physical object when I read it.

I tend to translate work whose physicality remains especially apparent to me, work whose language I can't slip through, can't get beyond. I like the physical encounter it demands; it lets me feel once again the thickness of all language, its tremendous depth. Not a thin sheen over the world out there, but (Oppen) a thing among the things of that world, insoluble.

Translating is a mode of reading-it's reading by unfolding, and in that way, I feel its affinity with the book-as-basic-poetic-unit. You can't read a book as deeply in your native language. You may understand it more, may get closer to the writer's mind, but you won't read it as deeply. Deep reading requires an ignorance to run parallel to understanding; everything you come to know in the text must be matched by an unknowing that keeps growing the text away from you as much as into you, making it more and more a stranger as you come to know it. Reading in your native language is too easy to be truly inexhaustible. Reading in a foreign language, no matter how well you know it, requires you to reconstruct both work and language, and that makes translation possible.

For many years, Remi Hourcade and Emmanuel Hocquard ran group translation seminars at the Fondation Royaumont, near Chantilly . They were invigorating sessions that shifted the focus entirely onto process, though their products were also prodigious. I liked them because they unfolded and refolded the work so dramatically, so radically, that they got down to the single word in a way I couldn't do alone. With multiple voices, the word becomes a multiplicitous object composed of moving parts that can be arranged, interrogated, fine-tuned. To make language is clearly the obligation of every speaker, but in these group translation sessions, one felt one had the time, for once, to do so carefully. You could say that any act of writing offers as much, but working in your own words is always urgent, while working in someone else's is full of time.

And the communal element made a major difference; it underscored the essentially communal nature of translating, in contrast to the necessarily solitary act of writing. Even if you think you're alone in the room, while translating you're in conversation, not only with the other writer, but with all speakers of both languages concerned. Constantly asking them all "How do we say this?" "What's the spin on this word?" While writing is a folding in, a concentration, an intensification, translation moves outward, unfolding, bridging, interweaving the networks established by each language. In this way, translating always erodes linguistic boundaries, and because they are so often also political boundaries, it is also always a political act.

It seems there's a certain stripe of French and American poetries that have developed together, through mutual influence by reading, translating, and conversing. They have much more in common with each other than with other stripes of poetry in both countries, and from that perspective, they do indeed appear as one development. Or perhaps that is too extreme, but to assume that poetry follows the same divisions as countries or even languages is inaccurate. This particular stream of development has moved smoothly back and forth over the Atlantic since Poe, perhaps before. It's the stripe of poetry that's not interested in the epiphantic, but in the errant. That wants to see where poetry will go if not stopped by carefully posed truths.

To err is to enter, and this entering is yet another way of creating a between, another zone of reverberation, for entering always requires a certain opposition, a figure/ground distinction. Emmanuel Hocquard's project Un Bureau sur l'Atlantique , with its publications and events, highlighted the figure/ground distinction, but also stretched it beyond the readily apparent French/American contrast to other even more useful ones, showing that a poetry of entrance enters not only another language but also other genres and other media.

The fact that many errant writers both in France and America are involved with the visual arts is not incidental. The visual has a special lever into the verbal and vice-versa, perhaps because they don't cover any of the same territory. Their juxtaposition creates no redundancy, but instead a thorough complementarity. Even though throughout the twentieth century, language has asserted its body, its appearance, ever more strongly while painting has become ever more articulate until the drawn line and the line of the letter become at times confused, they still never overlap.

I tend to see things by contrast, in binaries. I've tried to stop this, but without much luck, and when thinking about why I do it, I've sometimes thought that I seek out apparent differences in order to arrive at an internal difference-again not the Derridean, but a way that the daily self differs from the daily self, which seems, in turn, the root of dynamic force. And I've thought that this is perhaps why I work best in France -because apparent differences, though mild, abound for me there, but this isn't actually true. I work best there because, simply, I like it. What does that mean? I don't understand place. I don't know how it works, how or why one gravitates to a given place, develops a relationship with a given place as personal and intimate as that with another person.

Sometimes I think it's simply that the time I spend in Paris just happens to be also the time when I don't have to teach or copyedit or do any other kind of paying work; I can work on my own work, writing, reading, translating, walking. This gives me a very skewed view of the city-not only does it seem a blessed land full of fruit markets, stunning poets, Luxembourg Gardens, and public transportation that actually works, it's also a land where I never have to get up early, and in short, never have to do anything I don't like. It's a perfect environment for writing. And clearly many other people have found it so too, as the poetry that's come out of it for over 500 years has consistently led to the most interesting currents in writing.


Two poems by Cole Swensen.

March 8, 1476: The First Bible Printed in Paris

Moves the word is good of God what moving

small would              (just as we knew)               it did
                        in my life is a moving life
word and act, this one
                        times one
                                              so what
                                              ever       you can shift at will
                                              will fix
                                              into still
                                                                          (Be my heart
                   (as God is to every
clockwork aviary.



December 25, 1456: Je Françoys Villon, escollier

It's snowing
to dust
and salt
                 will shudder in the heel:
                                                  a broken window

"It's I who steel from churches
                                                            who reap the learnèd sequence
                                                                                                                                 who say
I was made for loving
my only
Joan of Act
here in my hand
                                           (I bequeath the beautiful theft
                                           La Lanterne de la rue Pierre-au-Lait
all my names
                                  tooth after tooth
                                                                          phalanxed to snow          no
(they say) (no, it was I)
who said when wolves live on wind they get fat.