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Denise Levertov, 1957. Photo by Jonathan Williams.

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José Rodríguez Herrera

In Homage to Levertov

Translating Sands of the Well


“There is no point pretending that the translation is the original: no translation ever is or can be the original from which it takes life. The only valid standard remains: how successful is the translation as an approximation of that original?” (29)
                              — Burton Raffel, The Art of Translating Poetry

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In one of my visits to the Levertov archives at Stanford University, (Department of Special Collections) I discovered, to my own surprise, Levertov’s handwritten translations of some Spanish poets, among them Antonio Machado who died in exile during the Spanish Civil War. In a 1973 interview, Levertov included Machado among her list of favorite poets; “I translated some Antonio Machado,” she confessed, “and I love Machado; he is certainly one of the poets that I really look up to” (1998, 83). The inner secrets of poetic translation are not unfamiliar to a poet who has published translations of a wide array of poets from different parts of the world: Bengali songs, Bulgarian poets, the Chicano poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, the French poets Alain Bosquet, Eugène Guillevic, and Jean Joubert. In her author’s note to Oblique Prayers, a volume including a section with poems from Jean Joubert, Levertov explained that most of the poems were selected from Joubert’s later volume Cinquante toiles pour un espace en blanc and expressed “her hope to present a book-length selection of translations from his work in the future”; “meanwhile,” she concludes her author’s note, or should I better say translator’s note, “it is hoped that these poems will serve to introduce him to the American public.”


As can be clearly inferred from Levertov’s references to Machado and Jean Joubert, a strong admiration for the poet’s work and the need to make the poet’s work known in one’s culture were at the basis of her choice to translate other poets. One could not possibly wield fairer arguments for translation and unless such arguments are uppermost in the translator’s mind, it would be better not to embark upon such a paisntaking process.


Levertov’s work has deeply spoken to me ever since I started to read some of her earliest poems as a graduate student. From that moment onwards, I have devoted most of my research time to study some of the major themes of her poetry and my heartfelt admiration for her life and work has continued in full vigor over the years. On the other hand, I have often regretted the fact that such a key poetic figure should remain widely unknown in Spain outside the academia. The best way to fill in this cultural gap, I thought, was by presenting a book-length translation of her work that would serve to introduce her into the Spanish audience.


When I proposed La Poesía, sr. hidalgo, a Publishing House set in Barcelona and well-known for issuing elegantly designed bilingual editions, to consider the possibility of publishing a translation of Sands of the Well, the publisher, Juan Ramón, asked me to send him a selection of some representative poems; an enthusiastic e-mail with his acceptance came soon after I submitted him the poems; this signaled for me the onset of a long endeavor done in homage to a poet whose work has meant so much to me.


Why did I choose Sands of the Well as the book to introduce Levertov into the Spanish audience? First, because this multi-sectioned book has captivated me from the very moment I read it. Secondly, because many of the major themes which were recurrent in Levertov’s work coalesce in this volume: nature poems, poems of political concern, religious poetry, and a good number of poems imbued with her sense of the numinous. Finally, Sands of the Well is, I would argue, a showcase of how Levertov translates her conception of organic poetry to the composition of the poem. For these reasons, I thought that this volume would be a good choice to introduce Levertov into the Spanish culture.


Translating poetry has been and is still considered by many translation theorists an impossible endevour. This is, however, no place for discussing the ‘untranslatability’ of poetry; that poetry is very difficult to translate goes without saying, and there is always the high risk that some of the nuances of the poem may be lost in the process of transference from one poetic culture to the other. If one is dealing with poets working with closed forms, the main challenge has to do with conveying that formal pattern in adapted fashion into the target poetic culture. But in this case the translator knows beforehand that there is a standardized form to work with. This is not to dismiss the difficulty and labor implied in this sort of translations. As Burton Raffel rightly points out that “there are poetic forms that travel well and poetic forms that do not” (70).


But translating poets not adhering to prescribed rhythms or closed forms, as in the case of Levertov, entails additional problems. Though it is true that Levertov was schooled in the rhythm of the iambic pentameter and the high lyricism of British Romanticism, she soon discovered William Carlos Williams’ speech-based poetry and his modulations of the local rhythms of speech in the poem. In his various essays on poetic composition Williams had already drawn attention to the fact that in the new era, and after new discoveries affecting our very conception of the universe such as Einstein’s theory of relativity, the metronome could no longer be valid to measure the new experiences of modern life. Williams advocated applying relativity to the line of the poem, accepting “the relativity of measurements” as a governing principle (283). The emerging poets composing in William’s wake, Levertov one of them, wholeheartedly adopted these new measures as a more flexible and expansive working tool. Levertov summarized the two important influences Williams’ innovations with speech and measure had on her poetic generation: “he showed us the rhythms of speech as poetry” (1992, 254).


In her hallmark essay “Some Notes on Organic Form,” first published in Poetry magazine back in 1965, Levertov claimed her allegiance to an organic conception of poetry; the organic poet, she explained, is not prone to “prescribed forms” but rather to exploring and discovering anew the form that lies immanent in particular instances of common reality. Organic poetry is then “a method of apperception, i.e. of recognizing what we perceive” grounded on an “intuition of an order, a form beyond forms” (1973, 7). In allegiance to her mystic roots, Levertov believed that form is incarnated in natural objects and that it was the poet’s task to reveal this peculiar form in the process of composition. The form embedded in each experience, she states clearly in her essay, “is discoverable only in the work, not before it” (9). For the form to be faithfully revealed in the work, the different elements of the poem must take part in a process of dynamic interaction in order to construe the poem as a living organism with joints and muscles moving in unison. A few words on how the different parts of the poem interact in her poetic compositions: the rhythm of the poem, for instance, is deftly synchronized with the process of apperception; “in organic poetry,” Levertov states, “the metric movement, the measure, is the direct expression of the movement of perception” (11). The lines, on the other hand, visually score on the page what she called “cadences of perception,” each line-break faithfully recording the way the mind pauses in midair and awaits for mental bridgeworks to the next cadence. Stanzas do not conform to pre-established poetic forms, but function rather as “distinct units of awareness” (10), building blocks in the process of seeing what lies beyond the commonplace. The sound patterns of the poem, internal rhyme, alliteration, repetition, and variation are inextricably intertwined with the experience, the visual and aural threads being so tightly interwoven that the words of the visionary St Martin, “I heard flowers that sounded and saw notes that shone,” seem to come true in the poem.


A previous understanding of how this dynamic interaction between form and content works in Levevertov’s poetry is certainly helpful in translation. However, this must never be taken to be foolproof against the possibility of a failed translation. I will show just a few examples to illustrate some of the difficulties I had to cope with in the process of translation.


One of the biggest problems I had to deal with was when trying to carry across the measure and the aural dimensions of the original poem. The sound patterns and variable rhythms of any given poem are extremely difficult to translate into another language, among other reasons because each language has its own phonetic system.


The sound patterns of “What Harbinger,” Levertov’s first poem of the series, are finely wrought to express an intimation of an ominous destiny, a recurrent motif in this volume.


Glitter of grey
oarstrokes over
the waveless, dark,
secretive water.
A boat is moving
toward me
slowly, but who
is rowing and what
it brings I can’t yet see.


The alliteration of dark guttural sounds in the first lines of the poem, coupled with the repetitive sibilants, contributes to render this distinctive atmosphere of mystery and foreboding. I was at hard pains to echo this atmosphere in the target language, English being more ruggedly consonantal than Spanish. The function of line-breaks is essential here to reinforce both the sensations of mystery (“who,” “what”) and the speaker’s impossibility to ascertain for now the identity of this ominous presence rowing towards her (“can’t”). The fact that line-breaks, as shown above, are acting as heralds of mystery cannot be overlooked in the process of translation, otherwise the translated poem would lose this enfolding atmosphere which suffuses the whole poem.


An example of how dexterously Levertov combines the aural and visual dimensions in her organic poetry is “Rage and Relenting.”


Hail, ricocheting off stone and cement, angrily
sprinkling its rock-salt among fallen
blossoms on earth’s
half-awakened darkness,
             the folds of sturdy camellias
             as if to seek
             refuge in those phyllo-layers of immaculate soft red,
             a place in which
                                          to come to rest,
                                                                      to melt.


The first lines of the poem sound ruggedly consonantal, a fanfare of repetitive ‘k’s replicating the sudden turmoil caused by hail as it rebounds off hard surfaces. For the same reasons stated above, it was not easy to find a similar succession of alliterative gutturals in Spanish.


After this momentary tumult, the lines of the move flow smoothly towards a more relaxed measure; the one-word line set in the middle of the poem is visually foregrounded, signalling this as a turningpoint the poem which ‘enters’ now into a more calmed phase. This more serene cadence is enhanced by the juxtaposition of sibilant and fricative sounds in the next lines. Again this is something to be taken into account in translation.


Another element that requires a very special attention is how dexterously she is using such formal devices as indentation and line-ends to score in full detail the pace of her perception; both the line-break in the penultimate line and the marked indentation of the two last lines serve to notate and shed light on this as a very special moment, not only a new phase of rest and peace but also moment of heightened awareness, a vision of natural objects revealing their peculiar communions.


It is essential to preserve this formal structure in the translation of the poem; I sought foremost to convey the visual disposition of the poem in order to give the Spanish reader the possibility of relishing a practical example of Levertov’s maxim “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT.”


“Crow Spring,” the poem that closes the first section of the volume, is a revealing case of how difficult it is to preserve the variable rhythms of specific poems in translation.


The crows are tossing themselves
recklessly in the random winds
of spring.
                          One friend has died, one disappeared
                          (for now, at least) leaving no address;
                          I’ve lost the whereabouts
                          of a wandering third. That seems to be,
                          this year, the nature of this season.
                          Is it a message about relinquishment?
Across the water, rain’s veil, gray silk,
flattens the woods to two dimensions.
While close at hand
the crow’s black fountain
jet’s and falls, jets and blows
this way and that.
How they scoop themselves
Up from airy nadirs!


The crows flinging themselves up and down amidst heavy winds seem to echo the same vertigo the poet seems to feel after the loss of three friends. The first lines seem to immitate a rumbling sound of drums blowing in the wind; such impression is rendered by the abundance, in just three lines, of seven ‘s’ sounds, and four ‘r’ sounds. The ‘r’ in Spanish is rolled more markedly than in English so this sound effect appears inevitably more pronounced in the translated version. The indented lines open up an interim for pause and mediation as the poet wonders whether the loss of her friends heralds ominous news about “relinquishment.” In the translated version, the reader should feel this same effect of gradually passing from full gallop to a slow gait. Unless this effect is achieved in translation, the genuine measure of the poem would be irredeemably spoiled.


After this momentary pause for reflection, a succession of lines containing one-syllable words (“While close at hand / the crow’s black fountain / jets and falls, jets and blows / this way and that”) speeds up the pace of the poem; the swift two-beat lines aptly convey the sensation of vertigo the poet experiences when seeing the crow’s wild arabesques at ther mercy of the rough winds. The problem one faces when translating this sequence lies once again in the specific constraints of the target language. In say this because Spanish is not as monosyllabic as English and so it becomes rather difficult to produce an equivalent echoing the rapid pace of the original. As Yves Bonnefoy rightly argues, English is so monosyllabic that it is very easy to lose one’s breath in translation as one wrestles to ascend the ladder of words in each line. I sought to recreate an equivalent measure in Spanish by trying to find words with no more than two syllables. In this case, I was lucky enough to find some alternatives but this is not always the case.


I have often compared literary translation to a work of restoration. It entails to a meticulous care for the work that is to be restored and its main goal is to make the work shine as it did in the original. In Flights of the Mind, a biography of Leonardo Da Vinci, Charles Nicholl recounts his visit to the technical departments of the Uffizi in Florence, where he met the famous restorer Alfio del Serra who was working then on the restoration of Da Vinci’s painting Adoration. “Every restoration,” del Serra said to him, “is a work of interpretation. There are no automatic or universal rules which can be applied in every situation. You need sensitivity, respect, knowledge — to continually ask yourself questions: that is what’s needed” (172). Yes, that is what is needed in translation too, to ask yourself questions and to be continually making choices. And then, when the work is finished, to keep waiting in a corner for someone to approach it and sing ‘Ah, but this shines.’

Works Cited

Bonnefoy, Ives. 1996. La traducción de la poesía. Valencia: Pre-Textos.

Levertov, Denise. 1973. The Poet in the World. New York: New Directions.

——— .  1984. Oblique Prayers. New York: New Directions.

——— .  1992. New and Selected Essays. New York: New Directions.

——— .  1996. Sands of the Well. New York: New Directions.

——— .  1998. Conversations with Denise Levertov. Ed. Jewel Spears Brooker. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Nicholl, Charles. 2005. Leonardo Da Vinci. The Flights of the Mind. London: Penguin Books.

Raffel, Burton. 1988. The Art of Translating Poetry. London: Pennsylvania State University Press.

William Carlos Williams. 1969. Selected Essays. New York: New Directions.

Currently Associate Professor of English at the University of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, José Rodríguez Herrera teaches twentieth-century American literature and literary criticism. He has devoted much of his research time to study Levertov’s work and has published various essays and chapters on Levertov’s work outside of Spain, among them “Reappropriating Mirror Appropriations: Female Sexuality and the Body in Denise Levertov” (Denise Levertov: New Perspectives) and “Musing on Nature: The Mysteries of Contemplation and the Sources of Myth in Denise Levertov’s Poetry” (Renascence: Spirit in the Poetry of Denise Levertov, 1/2.) (Fall 1997/Winter 1998). In 2003, he obtained his PhD at the University of La Laguna for his doctoral dissertation titled Identity and Myth in Denise Levertov, a Poet in Evolution. He has recently contributed to a new, forthcoming Renascence issue on Levertov with an essay titled “Linguistic Versus Organic, Sfumato Versus Chiaroscuro: Some Aesthetic Differences Between Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan.”

Photo, top: Denise Levertov, 1957. Photo by Jonathan Williams.

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