Monday, 4 May 2009

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk - 1

These are some sections from a draft translation I've made of Pia Tafdrup's Over Vandet Går Jeg - Skitse Til En Poetik [Over the Water I Walk - Outline for a Poetics], which was first published by Borgen, Copenhagen, in 1991. The book is an important one, for as a work of philosophy it not only throws light on the poet's own work -- it also has much to say about the art of poetry itself, and is a reflection on it. Not since the publication of Paul La Cour's Fragmenter af en Dagbog (Fragments of a Diary) in 1948 has there been such a sustained attempt in Danish poetry to cross the divide between the personal and the universal. Just as La Cour sought to make a final break with the tyranny of literary naturalism and realism, so also does Pia Tafdrup seek a way beyond the limitations imposed by the modern dichotomy between socially committed art and the narcissistic art of the self: she does so in a movement that's informed by religion, ethics, science, language, aesthetics, form and universal nature.



My poetry comes into being between two poles: between hunger for life and fear of death, between excitement and thought, language and silence. The process is never the same, but - stretched quivering between extreme points - it contains a compelling necessity which seldom allows itself to be explained in any other way than: I can do nothing else, so I must do it.

Before the poem, a restlessness arises: spontaneous, unreflected and completely irrational phases, in which unknown energies are at work. Sleepless nights and convulsions, momentary irritation, melancholy, aggression and other conflict-ridden states. Seldom is it a harmonious situation that releases the poem. Very important, before the restlessness, a position of waiting, and endless patience. This period may last a long time, but may also be decisive in its invisibility. Associated with the patience is a humility, which is perhaps the real beginning?

The phase of pre-articulation with its different stages may easily be undervalued or quite simply overlooked, but what happens here is crucial as to whether the amorphous state will be released in a poem. Or: there are seldom poems without this phase, for what is involved is a degree of attention that is almost intolerable. It may be short or long, be scarcely perceptible, but it is here that there is an openness for anything that wants to find its way under an irritable layer of skin, here that sudden plunges under the surface of thought take place. Only afterwards does it become clear that the restlessness was the beginning of something new that was on its way. The state of pre-articulation may have so strong a grip that when I do eventually write, I no longer have any sense that it is me. Like an anaesthesia, an intoxication. Someone else or someone else in me, something else or something else in me acts, while I look on. Something that is more than me, or something that also exists in me,writes. What happens cannot be explained - thence the dizziness, but it is a question of reaching that point in the process where one forgets one's own personality and is able to eliminate the private.

Inspired by French symbolism, Paul la Cour called this phenomenon depersonalisation: 'In all great poetry there is an element of depersonalisation. It will not master you with individual soulfulness, but will shine into you with impersonal spirit.' Inger Christensen has called the phenomenon derealisation. Both definitions aim at the same thing, they touch on a fundamental relation in all poetic creation: a generalisation of the subjective. In Mallarmé's sense the depersonalisation is an aesthetic and metaphysical dimension in which the intellect leaves the space in the poem in order to let its own universe emerge - or as Rimbaud says of the poem's subject:

Car je est un autre. Si le cuivre
s'éveille clairon, il n'y a rien de sa faute. Cela
m'est évident: j'assiste à l'éclosion de ma
pensée: je la regarde, je l'écoute: je lance un
coup d'archet: la symphonie fait son
remuement dans les profondeurs, ou vient d'un
bon sur la scène.

And elsewhere:

C'est faux de dire: Je pense:
on devrait dire: On me pense.

An attempt to take the direct route to the representative will only lead to poems that are vague. Only when the personal sets itself out over the private can the general emerge. It is not our emotions but the patterns we create from our emotions that are the essential thing, as T.S. Eliot has pointed out.

I say: the angel dwells on the other side of subjectivity.

translated from Danish by David McDuff


  1. Both Rimbaud and Tafdrup herself touch upon an interesting aspect of creation: to what extent is the writer there, to what extent observer of the hatching of his own work. The restlessness preceding the act of writing, the pre-articulation phase, is something little focused on in usual criticism-commentary. But this is coming from someone doing the actual writing, as opposed to someone completely outside the act of individual creation. That makes the comments valuable.

    I would imagine that something of the sort goes on in the mind of the translator as well, although strictures are in place, as translation is not a wholly original act of creation. But finding the serendipity word, having a phrase click into place are maybe also part of a kind of pre-articulation "warm-up" on the part of the translator.

  2. I think that part of what Pia Tafdrup was concerned to do with the writing of this book was to make an effort to bridge the gap that had developed in the Danish poetry of the 1980s between poets who concentrated almost exclusively on the world of the individual psyche (Michael Strunge might be one example) and those whose horizons were still fixed on the goal of social commitment. There had to be a third way, and this breakthrough to "depersonalization" and "derealization" was a first step on the journey.

    Pia Tafdrup has talked about this "stepping outside the self" in interviews - there's one where she says the following:

    "En smerte kan flyttes over i noget andet, i et digt om solen fx, smertens private årsager behøver ikke at fremgå direkte, men det kan blive en buldrende digt om solen. Den direkte form kan være interessant som dokument, som underholdning eller andet, men er ikke altid kunst. Hvis jeg er til stede med mit CPR-nummer i teksten, spærrer det for læseren. Art has to be artificial, siger man ikke uden grund. Private kan vi alle være, det er ingen kunst."


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