A Poem That Cannot Be Translated

Question: What makes a classic poem?

Rita Dove: The “Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry” is a gargantuan project and basically I’m trying to make sense poetically of the twentieth century in America, so it starts really right there with Edgar Arlington Robinson and goes up until anything published in the year 2000. So what the difference in this anthology is, instead of just a poem here, a poem there, two poems by this person, I’m trying to give a sense of major poets who then influenced other poets as well, so there may be quite a few poems by say let’s choose someone, William Carlos Williams and then show how he influenced all sorts of other poets who may have a few other, not as many poems in the anthology.

What makes a classic poem? I think that when a poem can move readers across generations and across its specific class or race then it becomes truly classic. I mean in other words, if the poem is so moving that even if you have no experience in that particular setting be it 1920’s Harlem let’s say. You still are so moved that you can put yourself in that position. That means that the writer has managed to go beyond the personal and touch the humanity in all of us and it’s really a blast to read it because I realize how that this does hold true for the truly great poems.

Question: What poem has inspired you over the years?

Rita Dove: Gosh, no, there is not a specific poem. It changes. It changes depending on what I’m working with, where I’m at, at the moment, but there are just poems that are just so amazing to me and if I named one then I of course lose another, but it goes in and out. I think that… Let me think. I can’t name a specific one. Lines flow through my head. There is a very beautiful German poem by Gerta which I often say to myself because it’s like a little prayer, but it’s also totally untranslatable. I’ve never been able to translate it and it’s humbling because you realize that we need translators. Please, please, please, we need our translators otherwise we’ll never have any of these poems. We would never know how Baudelaire moves us or anything like that, but you also realize how much gets lost, how necessarily poetry is so bonded to the language in which it is composed that it’s you’re always going to lost something and I find that very humbling. So yeah, but it’s a wonderful little poem and it rhymes, but it rhymes in odd ways.

[Poem recited in German] That’s it and you can hear the rhymes and basically translated it says: “Over all the mountains tranquility rests. In all of the tips of the trees…” And that is veitful, [ph] which is a great little word. “In all the tops of the trees you can hardly feel a breath. Wait. Just wait. Soon you too will rest.” And it’s just it’s because of the lines it makes it’s such a calm poem and it’s just… and certain words are totally untranslatable like veitful, [ph] which does mean tips of the trees, but that doesn’t sound very good in English, but it almost rocks you to sleep and I just find it an incredibly amazing poem for its tightness and yet tranquility.

Recorded on November 19, 2009

Rita Dove recites a German poem that continues to move her.

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