The Wart That Was

‘The Duke of Rutland subscribed for no fewer than ten copies, since Savage had written him a poem about his wife the Duchess’s recovery from smallpox the previous year: one of Savage’s most nimble pieces of opportunism’ (Richard Holmes, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage)

One is reminded, inevitably, of the late eighteenth century poet Casimir Snook, whose stock-in-trade consisted of odes composed ‘in honour of a receding malady’. The most famous is, of course, To Maria, Whose Wart Was Successfully Removed, though I have always had a soft spot for earlier works, including the majestic To Patrick, Who Recovered from Rickets, and the sublime Ode to Lord Matherson’s Wooden Leg.

Not Narrow Enough

Coincidences can be pleasing. Or not, as the case may be. An allusion, likewise, can give one a frisson – though just as often one wishes it wasn’t there. A landscape can be beautiful enough without people creeping into it. Stupid people.

On a not completly unrelated subject, a Russian newspaper has published yet another of the aforementioned teenage poetry of our dear old hateful friend, Mr. Pyetr Turgidovsky. This one comes with a brief note from its translator, in which he tries and fails to explain his decision to translate the title as My Way.

‘It is extremely unlikely that Turgidovsky had any intention of referring to Frank Sinatra,’ writes the hapless word-fixer, ‘mostly because his title is not the same as the Russian title of that song, but also because Turgidovsky seems to have had very little contact with popular culture of that sort’.

Fair enough. But why, Mr. Translator, have you insisted on going with this title all the same? This is a question he declines to answer, leaving us with the possibility that a.) he is an idiot, b.) he is a Frank Sinatra loving idiot or c.) he has perfectly good reasons which he is keeping to himself, making him somewhat of an idiot.

As for the poem itself, it’s pretty standard teenage Turgidovsky stuff, of the relatively mild and middling sort. Not as brilliant as Side of the Road, by any means, but nonetheless equipped with a moment or two of miserable brilliance.

Having heard from a religious man that there is a wide and narrow way, the youthful Turgidovsky reacts with typically cynical insolence, announcing that there, is in fact, a third way: his own true way. ‘The way between/your two worn paths/a route that only brambles tred/a path-less road you pay by blood’. And so on and so forth.

The majority of the poem is given over to a description of this non-path and of the various difficulties the traveller will have in taking it, mixed in with a bit of Messianic self-identification (‘call me the lord of crows, the son/of everything that you run from’) and the usual no-holds-barred approach to human unhappiness. Not the best poem to turn to on a sunny afternoon, perhaps, but I’d recommend it to all you Turgidovsky fans. Just so long as you are able to get beyond the fact that it’s been given the title My Way (my own suggestion for an alternative can be found at the head of this post).

In other Turgidovsky news, I ought to state, for the good of Truth and all its fluffy angels, that he was not, as hinted by yours truly, responsible for Symptoms of the End. The editor of a small Russian literary magazine has been prosecuted.

Quite, Quite Mad

‘Poetry? Translated? You must be joking! Poetry can’t be translated. A great poem consists of a particular line-up of words in a particular order. This it can only be. Those words alone. Translated?! Never. It goes against the spirit of the entire thing. You are quite, quite mad’ (Doris Boshchov)

So said my wife, many years ago. And so she repeats today, bravely going in the face of, well, a large part of my career. And I’d be a fool to suggest that she isn’t right. On the other hand, have you ever tried to read Lithuanian?

Translation is, perhaps, the wrong word. It’s altogether too confident. Its meaning has been saturated by decades of ignorance. ‘Version’, maybe, might suit the situation a little better. A translator presents us with their ‘version’ of events. Make no bones about it. This is not the original.

Whilst we’re sailing on the warm seas of this subject, it will have come to some of your attentions that the British Broadcasting Corporation are having some sort of poetry season at present. Bless them. Unfortunately, the frowning hawk of rumour informs me that a one hour programme on the Bulgarian Farm Poets Movement, presented by the red-haired girl from musical combo ‘Girl’s Aloud’ (some sort of skiffle group, if my memory serves me correctly) has been cancelled. Very sad news that. If there’s one thing that Britain needs at the moment, it is to hear more about Tomas Lurgsy and the gang. Maybe those musical girls could bring some of their poetry into their songs?

The Side of the Road

‘Life’s certainties? Death, taxes and crap adolescent poetry’. So said Elmer Rautchberg in 1957. And it can’t have been the first time that someone publicly railed against substandard teenage verse. The wild scribblings of angsty young adults have, for all the passion contained within, rarely set the world alight. Though volumes of early works by some of the age’s greatest sonnetists continue to shift significant amounts, very few of them have garnered critical praise.

It’s true: waves of cynicism lick the beach of my brain repeatedly, but still I will confess that I have a slight weakness for crap adolescent poetry. Not my own of course (heaven forbid) – nor that of your ordinary troubled citizen. But when someone emerges with a piece of early writing by a contemporary master, I am almost always intrigued. It may lack the skill, poise and sense of later work, but it just as often delivers an unexpected punch: a line or two, maybe, of surprisingly wonderful verse –  or the tentative appearance of themes integral to maturer writings.

I was thus thrilled to see that some of Pyetr Turgidovsky’s youthful work has recently been republished (against the author’s wishes, I believe) in a Russian literary magazine. Who knew that the young Turgidovsky used to pour his heart into poetry? And who’d have imagined that it would be this good?

 I want to die by the side of the road (written at the age of sixteen and by far the best of the present lot) is nothing short of a classic. Of course, adolescent self-loathing is pretty much what we’ve come to expect from the mad Russian miser, but it’s nonetheless a shock to see how good he was this early on. This, truly, is moving stuff. And they will scrape me up/and they will lay me down/and they will kick me clean/across the gravel. And what about those lines about the hedgehogs and the crows? And the description of the maggots? The Russian critic Alexander Hrabav says it best: ‘Imagine The Good Samaritan, but without the goodness’ – a line that could just as well describe everything Turgidovsky has written since, much of which appears to have grown like mould from the festering wound of this poignantly shocking early work.

A Third Sighting

First a charity shop in Gloucestershire, then a beach in Fiji, now a street in Mexico city. Eva Holubk’s missing book, The Marmalade Jar, has been spotted once again.

Well, according to J-P Sertin anyway, who claims to have seen the book lurking in footage of the swine flu pandemic. ‘It was on News 24,’ he claims: ‘there was a shot of a man sitting on a bus, wearing a sky blue mask and reading a book. The book was clearly The Marmalade Jar’.

Bearing in mind that fact that this is a man who saw Marilyn Monroe at a South London shopping precinct late last year, this is not necessarily the most reliable sighting ever. But stranger things have happened – and I wouldn’t like to spoil a good friendship by doubting everything Sertin says.

Meanwhile it gives us all something to do whilst those eery images of flu-ravaged Mexico appear on our screens. We could fill the time waiting for the Great Vomit to overtake us all with ceaseless panicking – or we could scan the screens for another priceless sighting of Eva Holubk’s mysterious poetry collection instead.

From a Bulgarian Poem

in the midden, undercover
of your horses’ Monday supper
she retrieved a dampened sheaf of
paper aged in days by years and scented
with the dung of twenty grazers..

From a Bulgarian poem, yes. But whose? Lurgsy’s? Stasiuks? Birovnik’s? von Auger’s?
And translated by whom?

More on this later.