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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page BW12

For many centuries poets did not make a hard distinction between writing and translation. The "originality" was in the style, reflecting the poet's actual choices and decisions, so that Surrey or Sidney might translate Petrarch, or incorporate his ideas, as Herrick might make a poem partway out of a poem by Anacreon. In the same spirit, Shakespeare lifts a little out of sources like North's translation of Plutarch. Then, with a bit of rearranging to make it come out in iambic pentameter, he puts the passage into the mouth of Enobarbus in "Antony and Cleopatra."

Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot revived that tradition, putting bits of translation into their poems. Robert Lowell's volume of free translations, Imitations, belongs in this line, too.

In his new book Goodbye to the Orchard, Steven Cramer makes a memorable American poem from the shape and general contents of "Deor," an enigmatic Anglo-Saxon lyric, about time abolishing all suffering:

Singer

I knew trouble and endured it,

grief and desire my companions.

In winter my enemy attacked.

The better of the two, I was bound

in rope made from my own sinew.

All that has passed, and so may this.

There was a man condemned to live

outside the city he loved -- even death

meant less in exile -- and a woman

who dreaded the child inside her.

Her dreams were dreams of drowning.


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