Castilians struck by rhyming

December 26, 1997

This issue of Agenda, guest-edited by Jordi Doce, presents brief selections from the work of 24 Spanish poets, who span nearly 50 years of creativity (Angel Gonz lez, born 1925, to Alvaro Valverde, born 1959). Poets born after 1960 get no space on the theory that it is too soon to judge their value. Anthologies invite the question "Where is X?," and one does wonder about the neglect of Mar!a Victoria Atencia (b. 1931). Absent also are poets whose translators could not meet the deadline (Guillermo Carnero unfortunately suffered this fate). Still, it is a wide sweep and a brisk olio of styles and voices.

But what contributes most to the good fortune of this selection is the editor's decision to ask English-speaking poets with experience as translators to turn the poems from Spanish into English. The omission of the original Spanish, easily pardoned for reasons of space, contributes to the impression that the reader is dealing with poems and not translations, and makes it impossible for the international translation police to play their zealous role spotting howlers. Charles Tomlinson, for his example - Antonio Machado's voice first made its way successfully into English in Castilian Ilexes (1963) - and long experience heads the list of accomplished translators.

Pleasing discoveries await. Among others: Andres S nchez Robayna (b. 1952), expertly translated by Tomlinson and Arthur Terry, whose perception of landscape, history and the individual make him an especially contemplative voice among recent peers; Alfonso Costafrida's disturbing questions (Is death just "A huge word taking in / All that does not exist"?); Jaime Gil de Biedma's frankness; Gimferrer's Eliot-like use of allusion; Luis Alberto de Cuenca's cool eye for human relationships (not unlike Larkin); Concha Garc!a's despondency as she is overwhelmed by trivia; Luis Garc!a Montero's elegy on young Lorca. The list could be longer.

There is a sense among the preparers of this anthology that Jose Angel Valente (b. 1928) is its most important figure, the author of, in the words of Terry "some of the finest poetry of our time". He has certainly been one of Spain's most intellectual poets, who responded to much written in Europe in this century from Stephan Mallarme to Paul Celan. Demanding and sensitive to the problem of language that has harried European poetry since Verlaine, he is especially difficult to translate.

In his introduction, Doce bemoans, as have others of his country, Spanish poetry's second-class citizenship in the Anglophone world. It seems to me he underrates the presence of Spanish poetry in England. Like Borges he disdains the apparent prevalence of the baroque manner, which is alien, he believes, to English ears. Whether he is right or not, there is nothing baroque about the poetry translated for this issue of Agenda.

Four uneven essays round off the book. A most intriguing topic, Seamus Heaney's translation of San Juan de la Cruz's "Bien se la fuente que mana" is handled somewhat mechanically by Mar!a Cristina Fumagalli; Juan Malpartida protests he will not catalogue examples of Spanish and Latin American poets but exuberantly does so to make his point about one language, two strands; Ruth Christie's study of the development of postmodernism in Spain focuses on Valente and Carnero; and in a telling essay, Miguel Casado trots out Giordano Bruno to remind us that rules derive from poetry and not the other way around.

Spanish poetry is alive and well, and its translators for this issue of Agenda "earn a rhyme", to echo Heaney, by putting Castilian into English.

Howard Young is professor of romance languages, Pomona College, Claremont, California.

Agenda: An Anthology of Spanish Poetry, Volume 35, Number Two

Editor - Jordi Doce
ISBN - ISSN 0002 0796
Publisher - Agenda
Price - £20.00 (indivs); £26.00 (instits)
Pages - -

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