"Borges" & Other Sonnets, by William Baer

A National Review piece by Jeffrey Hart (prof of English, emeritus, at Dartmouth) begins thus:

"William Baer now steps forward into the first rank of contemporary American poets. He has gradually become well known among other poets and some critics, and has been widely published in literary magazines; but this new volume, which is lucid and eminently accessible, amounts to a virtuoso performance with the sonnet form, and possesses coherence while treating very important themes. It is bound to win him a wider audience, as well as the professional standing appropriate to this expression of his powers."

Then follow some excerpts, specifically chosen to illustrate said powers. Here are the first 8 lines of a poem entitled "Balcony":

"Please, just listen, and please don't turn around.
Keep staring at the sea. It's a marvelous view
tonight; the waves are beautiful, profound,
and so seductively close, just like you.
I love you. There, I've said it. I've seen it in
your eyes as well. Forgive me. I can't restrain
myself. Maybe it's seeing you move within
that dress, under the stars, sipping champagne..."

So one of America's premier poets rhymes "in" with "within." The scansion is pretty awkward, but at least the lines are of roughly equal length.

Now, here comes a translation of "The Sea," by Borges:

"Before our dreams (or terrors) persisted
in mythology or cosmogony,
even before time coined itself in days, there existed,
already, the sea. It was. There was always the sea.
But who is the sea? Who is that old, undisciplined,
violent creature, who's gnawing away under
the pillars of the earth, who's also chance and wind,
one and many oceans, and abyss and wonder?
Staring upon the sea, we see it as though
for the first time, sensing the splendor of all free
and elemental things: like afternoons, the glow
of the moon, or a blazing fire. But who is the sea?
And who am I? In time, when my days are passed,
and my final agony's done, I'll know, at last."

This is way beyond awful. "Already, the sea. It was. Yessirree, Bob. Yea, verily, there was always the sea." Can the man count? And why does he force his readers to twist themselves into pretzels in order to sustain the rhymes -- like "wind / undisciplined"? (It might've worked in a song, but not in a poem.) What's the point, really, of having rhymes without meter? Might as well just stick to free verse.

In the first example, at least, one could argue that the poem has value due to its supposedly-deep romantic content (though, IMHO, it sounds like something a teenager would write). But in the second, the content isn't even his! His job as translator is merely to render it in a decent form -- and his form totally sucks.

Here's a quick rewrite: (going just by Baer's text. I haven't seen the original -- so, in particular, I have no idea what its meter, if any, was like; I just made one up)

"Ere all our dreams (or fears) reincarnated
As myths of gods and planets came to be;
Ere into days and nights time separated;
There was the sea. There always was the sea.
But who's the sea -- that old and violent being
That's gnawing at the pillars of the earth,
Our fortunes and trajectories decreeing --
Enigma of unmeasured depth and girth?
As if anew, it always is admired --
Like all things elemental, grand, and free:
Like afternoons; like brightly blazing fires;
Like lunar glows. But still: who is the sea?
And who am I? Once all my days are passed,
And deathly pain recedes -- I'll know, at last."

Still pretty crappy, but vastly superior to Baer's version -- and it took me about half an hour. If he's a first-rank poet, then I'm Shakespeare, Pushkin, and Rimbaud all rolled into one.


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