An Interview with William Matthews
The Influence of Translation and Music on Poetry
(Conducted at the Meachem Writers Conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee in Fall 1996.)
DH: What are the greatest influences on your work?
WM: One is translation, by which I mean that I’ve been influenced by being able to have things in translation, in addition to doing a certain amount of translation myself. But when I was very young and studying Latin, I went to a school where I could teach Latin grades 7–12, in fact, they had just dropped Greek the year before or I might have had that as well. I had read enough of the Roman poetry in translation to know that if I could stick with the Latin long enough I would be able to read some of that material in the original and so it was the translations which led me to study the language long enough that I find myself now spending a lot of time translating from Latin poetry in my late forties and early fifties. Poetry from language is something I’m never going to learn under any circumstances. Translation is for a book person the equivalent of travel, and is equally powerful, and has the same power to take you to some place that you couldn’t imagine by yourself and allow you to make comparisons between that place and what’s familiar and homey, and even a little homely, the way when people first go to Europe and think, Oh my God; Europe is so old and so beautiful and has so much dignity and age to it and we have such a boring country and then you come back and realize that there are many things here that compare favorably, etc. All those kinds of things are available because of translation, it seems to me, and prevent you from a kind of literary parochialism the same way travel prevents you from certain kinds of provincialism. It actually suggests to you that you might be a citizen of the world, rather than the place you happen to be born, everyone wants to make this a terrific virtue. I come from this, people say proudly. Yeah, but if your father had been fired six months previously you’d come from somewhere entirely different. I’m striking from the list [of influences] a number of things which aren’t as important.
DH: Such as what?
WM: I think the accident of what kind of formal education you get. By the time you reach my age, which is 52, you have supplemented it with so many other things, that while it was certainly nice to have, in effect you put those scaffolds around it that are so common in my home city of New York, where everything is always under revision, and it’s been changed and modified. One’s education is continuing, it never stops. It’s been a long time and that (education) doesn’t have the same power it had in my life when I was very recently emerged from it, and I would suppose this is true particularly for someone like you, whose been driven by a life in poetry and literature, partially by being at a very rare undergraduate institution where they allow you to do things that you can’t do at almost any other campus in the country.
DH: That was my whole reason for going into poetry initially. But yeah, life moves beyond that so quickly. If that’s all it was, then it would be over.
WM: It’s done in four years.
DH: Which may be why some of the better writing programs are the ones where the students seem to get along better.
WM: I think that’s very important. We have a small writing program at City College, a small graduate program, enough to fill two poetry workshops, and by fill I mean maybe 20–22 students in both workshops, total. I don’t mean in each workshop. But I think at a certain point, if you get three or four really good people, they start teaching each other and they start attracting other students to join like electrons drifting toward where the energy is. I think the minute that happens it ceases to be the classical model of a master and several apprentices and it becomes a communal teaching and learning experience. It allows me as the workshop leader to sometimes only need to drop a sort of provocative idea on the table and I know that everybody will take that away and they’ll get on the subway and go to dinner and they’ll be working on it during the week and that class has not stopped at the end of class and that the borders between class and the rest of their lives are cheerfully indistinct for the students. I think writing programs that can create that atmosphere are much better and more efficient at providing students with what they need.
DH: I’d like to go back and touch on some things. I want to know about both the music that is such a big influence to you and about your translation work. Let’s start with the translation work.
WM: The first thing to do is to give thanks for the available translations as a reader, even when I decided that I would go ahead and do the 100 Marshal epigrams for the book that’s just appeared. It means translating about 200. That means looking at about 200 more, many of those only in the Latin, but some which have been translated by translators who have preceded me. Looking at the translations on one hand and the Latin on the other hand and thinking, I don’t think I’ll try that one because there’s another one that’s close to it in subject that I like even better. But even before I got to that stage it was reading those other translations of Marshal and, in parallel to that, on the next set of railroad tracks, my own reading in Latin that was really important in maintaining my affection for them and my curiosity about them. Suppose I had done just wonderful translations of Marshal, which is what I hoped to do, but how close one comes to one’s goals is another matter. Even if I had done these masterful translations, it’s not the case that any previous translations, many of which date back to the 60’s, would be supplanted. A good translation doesn’t push another good translation out of the nest. I think that the classics should be retranslated every generation or so. The idea is not that the previous translations have become dated in some way, though there are some things about those translations that suggest the American literary climate of the 60’s, but every piece of writing suggests the period in which it was written. You can, in fact, if you’ve read a lot of English-language poetry, pick up an anthology and not look at the date and read the poem and pretty well guess within ten to twenty years when it was written because the language is a live thing. It has a growing process and you can trace the various features that it had at different stages of its development. But that certainly doesn’t mean that Chaucer is outdated and it doesn’t mean that good translations are outdated, but it does mean for the purpose of making those poems accessible to new readers without them having to go through two historical barriers, the one between the translation and the original text and the one between the date at which they sit down to read the translation and the date at which that translation was made, every generation we should reduce those two gaps to one. Someone will come along and do Marshal again in I don’t know how many years and I hope that they won’t make my translations superfluous. It would just be another link in the long chain of giving thanks to Marshal and Horace and keeping them alive, keeping them in a version which provides a fiction for the reader that this is what Marshal would have sounded like if he were an American of a certain temperament, at a certain level of literary skill, alive at the very end of the 20th century. To know what Marshal would have sounded like under those circumstances, it’s worth the curiosity, it seems to me.
DH: It sounds like you’re suggesting that translations are a work of poetry in themselves. That they’re a collaboration between someone who’s maybe been dead for a number of years and someone who’s alive at the time.
WM: Yes, and with, of course, an important footnote to the collaboration, which is the dead person is mute and can’t complain and say, That’s not at all what I meant. So you have certain obligations to a collaborator who can’t voice his or her objections or possible qualifications to what you’re doing. You need to try to internalize that voice and let it whisper in your ear if your appropriating something too much that they’ve done. A certain amount of appropriation goes on. In one of the poems that I’ve translated are a lot of details about one of Cicero’s famous law cases, but it’s not famous to us. It’s easier to translate that poem by providing some recognizable details from American legal history rather than studying the poem with nine footnotes or sending everyone to read the Cicero, which would not harm any reader of that Marshal poem. Cicero is very lively, but you have to learn the insides and outsides of a whole case and much evidence and some very compelling testimony, which turns out to be perjured, and it has lots of drama and there’s no way to translate that Marshal poem literally unless you can count on the fact that your audience knows all of the stuff about the case of Cicero. It’s a case that shows up twice obliquely in Horace’s satires, which are what I’m currently translating. So three times in the course of translating Marshal’s epigrams and Horace’s satires, I’ve had to deal with the fact that this case was on everybody’s lips in Rome at one time and requires absolute homework for us.
DH: Would you say that a lot of times it’s more important to get the spirit of the writer into a translation than the literal text?
WM: I think that the translator’s answer in that poem is to provide the spirit. Cicero’s oration in that case is famous for taking the high road and invoking the great Roman virtues and legal principals when it was to his advantage and for arguing the facts of the case when it was to his advantage. A recognizable technique to lawyers today, but in that case it seems to me that rather than provide a footnote nearly as long as one of Horace’s satires, and twenty times longer than one of Marshal’s epigrams, and explain the original case and why Cicero’s oration on that case was so memorable and captured the Roman imagination so much, one should substitute. There are other cases. Years ago when I was translating with Mary Pheney some prose poems by Jon Foland, a French poet, one of the problems that kept coming up is that he loves to set scenes with somebody sitting at a half-open window. Now he means a French window, not a casement window. Often this is a window which either gives onto a public space, like a plaza or a square of some kind, or looks inward on what would be an atrium, or an open courtyard of a house, but the sense of being half public, half private and being poised between two worlds, the world of the house and the larger world of the square outside, is something that if you just said a half-open window, an American sees a casement window that’s half-way open, the bottom half. It doesn’t communicate anything like the emotional situation, which is almost sort of a Janus-face thing, one face to the larger world and one face to the sanctuary of the house. That’s another case where literal translation absolutely beaches your reader. And the chances are that your reader is going to picture a different sort of window and an absolutely different kind of emotional circumstance. At places like that, you’ve got to intervene and start figuring out how you’re going to provide an equivalent for the emotional texture that half-open window absolutely produces for a French reader whose grown up peering out of or hiding behind such windows all of his or her life. That’s very different from us. It sounds like someone stopped doing the screens in the middle of the job, which is not at all what Foland means.
DH: Would you say there’s such a thing as an American poetry or do you think it’s necessarily part of a world poetry?
WM: Well, I think some of both are true. I paused to give consideration for the fact that it seemed to me that at the moment, for example, among English language poetries, which we have to name in the plural, that it’s possible that Irish poetry is more important internationally than American poetry at the moment. It has something to do with Seamus Heaney’s extraordinary achievement and wide appeal, but it also has to do with the number of interesting Irish poets given the size of Ireland, a country with about the same population as Norway. I was with a group of English-language poets in Paris last summer and there was one from Australia and one from English-speaking Canada, an Irish poet, a British poet, etc. I was there, a couple others and I would say the other English-speaking poets knew more about Irish poetry and had read more Irish poets carefully than they had American poets, though in embarrassing truth, they knew more about American poetry than we know about British or Australian poetry, for example. So I do think that we belong to a world poetry in a way and people do pay a lot of attention to American poetry, in the way the American culture is both an appealing and a threatening giant at the same time to cultures all over the world. This is a livelier question to poets who are writing in English because English as a language has a kind of power and a width of geographical and cultural range that’s unlike anything since Latin ruled the Mediterranean. In fact, in some ways, I believe it’s become even wider and more omnipresent. It’s become the language of international business. 75% of the letters last year written in the world were written in English. So it’s different talking about English-language poetry than talking about even Spanish or French or Chinese poetry, and there has been a lot of translation by American poets so that we have a lot of interesting poets available to us from languages that most of us are unlikely to ever sit down and learn. We know Serbian poets, Croatian poets, Slovene poets. You break former Yugoslavia apart and there are a lot of Americans who know for which of the poets who used to be Yugoslav, which of the three or five camps that those poets now fall into. This is because there has been an extraordinary amount of translation and, I think, there’s been a lot of cross-fertilization and some of it with languages that are not that widely represented among the general American population. So this is really got to be the result of translation.
DH: Let’s get back to musical influence on your work. In general, what do you think the role of other arts are in relation to poetry? How do they relate as equals? Is there a hierarchy?
WM: I hope there’s not a hierarchy. I know there’s some poets who think that poetry is the primary art or the mother of the arts in some way, but it doesn’t seem to me to be true. There was a time when I was young that I would have been very happy to have been a musician for a lifetime. I didn’t quite have the skills for it, as it turned out, but before I knew that was the case, when I thought everything was possible, that would have been fine with me. I had no sense that this would be better or less interesting than writing poetry or being a painter. I certainly preferred one of those things to having a nine-to-five job. I think part of the appeal of the arts to young people is the possibility that you might have more authority over your own life and more ability to dispose of and use your own time, not despicable things to hope for, by any means. But because playing music was something that I would have liked to have been better at, there’s this sense for me that it’s the great lost first love and it occupies a predominant center place in my emotions. But your first-grade love is not the love of your life. The love of your life is the one that you can figure out how to spend a lot of your life with and that comes later on. There’s a certain mythological place that the first-grade lost love occupies and it can only happen once so it’s absolutely irreplaceable in that sense, but I don’t, except in that sentimental way, make distinctions. I have what is for me the best and most realistic available career in music, which is that of an avid consumer of it. This I can do. I think that I learned things about rhythm and I learned things about phrasing and I learned how to shape a lengthy utterance as much from listening to music as from studying and trying to imitate poets. However I learned those things and whatever they are, they’re hard to point to absolutely in some causal way and say, because I heard this, I learned how to do that. I think it’s a more complicated and indirect path than that. But whatever those things were and however I learned them it seems to me to have been equally important to me when I was trying to teach myself how to write poems as the various examples from poetry I knew. Certainly I would be less contented and probably a less complicated person without music, without regard for whatever it may or may not have done for me as a writer. But I think, in fact, that it’s done a lot for me as a writer. Which is one reason why I’ve written so many poems about musicians. Those are gratitude poems. Those are thank you notes on a very heart-felt level, somewhat different than, Dear Aunt So-and-So, Thank you for the lovely boxer shorts with the pictures of apples on them. There a certain amount of insincerity is permitted. I’m thinking of thank you letters where you’re absolutely on your honor to be as accurate as possible.
DH: When did you start studying music?
WM: I took piano lessons as a boy. It didn’t last much longer than a year and a half. Somewhat later I took clarinet lessons from the guy who was the first chair in the Cincinnati symphony, who was a better teacher than I was a student. He deserved better than I was able to be for him. That too I abandoned after a certain level of frustration. But you learn a lot of music theory without knowing it if you do anything with a keyboard. I learned a lot of things that were of value to me, including how to listen, perhaps, more intelligently. And sometimes the answer to: How did he or she do that? It is possible to provide answers in the language of music theory. Oh I see, That’s exactly how that was done. That doesn’t necessarily explain the connection between the successful use of a given technique and the ability of that technique to illicit a given emotion, which is the only reason why the technique is at all interesting. The causal connection between those two is a little magical and hard to explain but it sometimes allows you to offer at least a technical answer to: How is that done?
DH: I heard recently that if you don’t start studying music before you’re twelve, you’ll never be able to learn it. There’s something in your brain that changes at that age and people who have studied music experience brain changes in a different way than people who haven’t.
WM: I have a friend, the poet Billy Collins, who’s quite a good poet, who has a new book, The Art of Drowning. It’s a terrific book. He’s hired a teacher to teach him — he’s my age — jazz piano. The purpose of this is not to perform. He doesn’t imagine that it’s possible to start at his age and become a jazz performer comparable to people who have spent their entire lives teaching themselves to play jazz piano, but he wants to be able to play at home for his own amusement and at a level of skill that will make him happy. I think there are people with a deep-seated love for a particular kind of music. It’s probably jazz of the late 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s. That is his beloved period. It’s often for people the music available when they were growing up that they imprint on. That’s what people say of the ducks that think a lawn chair is their mother. So there’s somebody who is learning music past that age. I think learning languages is easier when you’re very small. A related activity, but perhaps not as related to learning music as math and chess are, which are also things that prepubescent people can excel at.
DH: Right. The four subjects of genius.
WM: Yeah. They can become absolutely wizards at a time when major parts of their emotional wiring as human beings still hasn’t happened yet. They haven’t passed into puberty and passed it and begun to move away from the family and into adult sexuality. The major stuff hasn’t happened yet and they can still be terrifically skillful at those things. Most of the other really complex human skills require you to have moved through at least part of that maturation before you can even take them on. You can start and forget a lot of it too. That’s another melancholy possibility.
DH: To go back to one of your other loves, of all the classical poets you’ve studied, what do you think each would like about your work?
WM: I don’t know. This is a familiar theme. Marshal does it. Trumanal does it. Horace does it. It’s because of their relationship to Virgil, who is of course, beautifully skillful. He wrote the great glamorous poem the Aenead, which was not only a beautiful poem as a poem, but also a complicated piece of propaganda for the Augustine reign. Almost all the characters in the Aenead are either literary figures purloined from Homer or various other sources, including the body of Homeric literature that’s not literally by Homer and various sources of mythology. These are either people who can’t die, like the gods, or in another sense can’t die because they never lived, literary inventions. One of Marshal’s poems says, It’s well and good to write those long mythological poems. We should understand there’s a certain quality of sour grapes here. Well, it’s true, Marshal wanted to never write about anybody who couldn’t die. My poems stink of man, it says in the last line of his poem. He means by that: My poems stink of death and mortality, that people who can’t die are trivial. On the other hand, this is called making a virtue out of necessity because none of these other poets could have written the Aenead or a parallel poem with anywhere near the skill of Virgil. And even though they adored Virgil and they adored the poem they also felt in some way that he had revived, almost artificially, an old and decadent form, a form that needed to be cleared out of the way so that they could produce the more contemporary, social, and humanistic poems that they were interested in writing. It was a little like the reaction that William Carlos Williams had on reading The Waste Land. He said, Oh my God, it’s a beautiful poem and it will set American poetry back 20 years. I hope Marshal would have liked my frank interest in social life, in human interaction and in human generosities and failures of generosities. I’m not an author whose characters go out in the woods by themselves and think long and dark thoughts. Long and dark thoughts are possible on 48th Street as far as I’m concerned, or other locations that I might choose to use. I think that Horace would find me not so skillful a versifier as he was but then Horace was used to finding almost everyone less skillful versifiers than he was, so I hope he wouldn’t be too hard on me for that part. But I hope Horace would be pleased to find that all these years later, at least one poet finds pleasure in an interesting human subject, a subject that has always attracted me. There are other reasons to write about music. There are other reasons to write about friendships and love and travel. These are the kinds of things that are the occasions and settings for my poems. But the notion that pleasure in itself is an interesting subject to human beings and need not be displaced by more serious subjects because there are no more serious subjects — there are equally serious subjects, but there are no more serious subjects — I would hope that Horace, forgiving some occasional technical and metrical clumsiness on my part, would be pleased by that. His big complaint about the Stoics and the Epicureans and so forth was they were interested in being right. Horace was not interested in being right, he was interested in cultivating the durable and nondestructive human pleasures. As soon as the Epicurean sat down and started discussing the right way to experience pleasure, he understood something stupid was happening.
DH: Where do you think some of the best poetry in the world is being written today, besides Ireland?
WM: Well, I think you have to recognize the extraordinary body of poetry by a very large number of interesting poets, especially considering the size of the population. And a number of Irish poets are very interesting. Of course, I’m ignorant of large parts of the world. For reasons having to do partly with what an interesting body of poetry it is, and also partly because of the fascination of a large number of American poets with poets who find themselves in their own culture in a more clearly defined relation to public and political life, I would say a lot of Eastern European poetry, a lot of which seems to me very interesting and very good regardless of under what circumstances it may have been written. But there was a certain fascination with the circumstances under which it was being written. That these were poets who could speak to that part of a culture that was being strangled and coarsened and lied about and misrepresented by the official culture. A process which happens in a much more complicated way in America. So what the clear response is to it is not always easy for American poets to know. It seemed to me at times that some American poets, and I among them, almost envied the clear situation that poets were in in situations where the line was drawn much thicker, the consequences were much more dire. The cost in comfort and bravery and pleasure in daily life was enormous, but poets knew what it was they could do and what it was they were fending off and what it was they could keep alive in a way that American poets have found it hard to do. The state of poetry in America right now is that we have a $100,000 prize, a $75,000 prize, a $50,000 prize in poetry. None of these were in place five years ago. It was ten years ago the Ruth Lilly prize started and it was $25,000 then. I think it got up to $75,000 in a kind of poker bidding war with the owners of other prizes. The National Book Award has been persuaded to reinstate its poetry category, which it had dropped for a while, and it gives a $10,000 prize for it, which is not that much for fiction, because the fiction prize will probably generate more than enough sales to cover that $10,000 expense. I doubt that that’s true with poetry. So we see a tremendous increase in the prestige of poetry as seen from one of our most sure-fire markers, money, and at the same time a comparatively small and somewhat marginal readership. By marginal, I mean a lot of people who are sort of at the edges of the world of affairs and doings and business and government. It’s students and people who have avoided the center of the world of achievement and events on purpose. So in a way we’re a culture who values poets and honors poetry tremendously. The culture says that poetry should be taught in the schools and is willing to give large prizes for it and somehow feels that if you don’t have poetry, something is wrong — it would be less classy not to have it — but whose populace doesn’t want to actually read it a lot. Anyway, this all started with thinking about the interesting body of Eastern European poetry. Those poets are, in fact, in the process of redefining what their roles are because the worst of what they needed to oppose on a regular basis is in tatters, or has been finally, we might say, in some senses laughed out of power.
DH: And one of the things that’s accompanying that feeling is that poets are having trouble getting money to publish their books. They’re having to publish smaller books because of paper costs and it seems that there’s not as much of a market.
WM: No, there’s not as much of a market. There’s no financial structure to replace the old state subsidy. The state subsidy had problems, since you pretty much felt you needed to be an enemy of the state to be in good moral standing with yourself as a poet. It’s a problem in all the arts. A number of Russian and Eastern European opera singers, for example, have simply fled. There is no money. They could come to the west. These people are very well trained and they’re trained to sing the Russian operas in a way that American and Western European singers are not trained and they can work here. Whether those national opera companies, supported as they were by decrepit and laughable political regimes, but supported, whether those will ever be reconstituted in our lifetime is a real question, which means that people trained to sing in that tradition will not be coming along as fast. There are going to be complicated long-term repercussions of this. The greatness is gone, but thank God for that. I think that was the first thing everybody wanted to get off their heart was that dreadful fog. But preserving the arts and the role it was understood to have in those cultures as a sort of loyal opposition, or why else would the state have funded even what it did, it will be a long time before that’s replaced. But it could very well be that wonderful Ukrainian poets are writing up a storm at the moment and I’m so ignorant I wouldn’t know whether they were doing it or not. We’re dependent on translators for knowing that kind of thing.
This interview was originally printed in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Spring/Summer issue 1997.