Thursday, 4 June 2009

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk (II) - 3


Thoughts and ideas do not become exhausted in the age in which they were born. The past is constantly present, so that even though I live in the twentieth century, I am confronted with earlier epochs. ‘Of course one is part of an age,’ Karen Blixen said.. But she added: ‘Well, I can’t really say of myself that I belong to a particular generation, for ever since I was a child I have read - well, the classics - Dante and Shakespeare and Euripides…’


It is not a question of how far nowadays it is possible to reproduce older verse forms or rhetorical figures. Classical aesthetic ideals should not be abandoned, nor should they be sentimentalized, but only employed if they have a justification for it. A quest for original values can easily assume the character of compulsion or sterility – free access to the sources, on the other hand, is something quite different.

When two ages confront each other, a further dimension may be added to the poem. A number of traditional features still exist in poetry, fully deliberate, but they enter a new complexity, where the pulse is different and where, for example, the measure is taken of the peculiarly musical quality of the Danish language. To work one’s way into this field of tension is a challenge, a charged and condensed place to be.

Someone has set a level that cannot be ignored. The classical starting point – for me Hölderlin, Mallarmé, Rilke, Celan, Char and Sachs – determines actual new creation. It is in interaction and contrast that my lyrical profile comes into being. At any rate,t I cannot possibly avoid writing under the influence of what has already been written. I write my individuality in an attempt to synthesize past and present. I ‘cut my sleep shadow in the darkness. Drag my wings through the mire.’


If people now talk so paradoxically about reinventing tradition, it is because the classics have lived a suppressed existence. It has long been the vogue to take a critical attitude, which in practice has meant that many have been so preoccupied with breaking tradition that they have not had much to do with it. Others have as a matter of course taken the classics into their intellectual orbit, quite simply because eminent works have been written before our own time. The reinvention expresses itself mainly as a rereading, but in some cases also as a rewriting.

Dialectics in art arises in the field of tension between tradition and experiment. By all means call it modern to criticise the criticism that has set the modern works alone at the centre. The cultural context is that the works exist side by side: the new books and the classics.


I live between the echo of the poems that went before, and the whispering and murmuring that is already being heard from poems that are still to be written.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Over the Water I Walk (II) - 1
Over the Water I Walk (II) - 2

Note: the posts with the translated text of Chapter I can be accessed here.


Eric Dickens said...

I notice that the names Tafdrup mentions as classical in the middle of the article are somewhat newer (except for Hölderlin) than what we think of in general as such poetry.

One good point here is that you cannot, as an author, help being influenced by what you have read, what has gone before. Reïnvention, rereading, rewriting are all interesting in this context.

David McDuff said...

Re the poets named: I don't see any contradiction - they are all nineteenth and twentieth century classics.

Eric Dickens said...

I was maintaining a distinction between older, classical classics, such as Hölderlin (c.f. Goethe, Schiller, etc.) and the more Modernist classics, such as Rilke and especially Celan.

But maybe I just haven't read enough Hölderlin to see why Tafdrup groups him with the rest.

I find the word-group "classic", "classical", etc., rather problematical as it can refer to various things, despite there being a theoretical distinction between those two words when used as adjectives.

David McDuff said...

I think that if you did read Hölderlin, you would see why Pia groups him with the others. H's poetry was in many ways far in advance of its time, and it presages not only Rilke but also Celan.

The concept of a literary "classic" may not be a very precise one, but it is in common use.