Monday, 12 March 2012

Cambridge, Poetry, Translation, Transatlantic Bridge

Writing here I have to overcome the feeling that I could be elsewhere, involved in something more instructive or fun. Because Cambridge offers a world of things to do—lectures open to the public, concerts, book fairs, evensong with highly trained choirs at the various college chapels, not to mention conversations with Clare Hall fellows or Faculty members of other colleges.  There is also the distraction of London, less than an hour away by train.  I’ve been down several times, attending events such as the Sebald Lecture on translation, given this year by Sean O’Brien. The event, held at London’s King’s Place, also featured the awarding of several translation prizes, including one that Banipal magazine offers for the best Arabic-to-English book of the year. The 2012 prize went to Khaled Matawa for a volume of selected poems by the Syrian-Lebanese poet Adonis, who now lives in Paris.  At the reception afterwards, I spoke to Khaled briefly, both of us remarking that we hadn’t seen each other since a first meeting at the U. of Indiana Bloomington, nearly two decades ago.  Since that time he has become an internationally known poet and translator.  He is also the organizer of a literary festival to be held in Tripoli this spring, to which my friends James Byrne and Marilyn Hacker have been invited.  (Marilyn, not incidentally, was tapped for the international Argana poetry award, granted by Morocco’s Bayt Achir, i.e., the House of Poetry, earlier this year.)

Here in Cambridge I attended last month a poetry evening organized at Corpus Christi by poet Richard Berengarten, who used to be known as Richard Burns, back in the years when he organized the Cambridge International Poetry Festival.  After ten years as its director, he stood down and concentrated on his own work and has since published several distinguished volumes, my own favorite titled The Blue Butterfly, which is based on facts surrounding the mass murder of Serbian citizens in the Second World War.  Guest poets at the Corpus evening were Anne Stevenson, Angela Leighton, and Clive Wilmer.  Anne I met twenty-five years ago and then didn’t see again until last year’s TS Eliot Prize ceremony, when she chaired the judges’ panel (see the March 21, 2011 entry for this blog).  Dr. Leighton is a member  of the English Faculty here and is counted as one of Cambridge’s leading literary figures.  Clive Wilmer has just published a collected poems with Carcanet and is currently preparing an edition of Thom Gunn’s poetry.  All three poets read effectively and answered our questions afterward.    

I’ve explored most of the older colleges now, seeing many impressive buildings, for example, the chapel at Pembroke, which was Wren’s first design as well his masterly library at Trinity.  I also spent some time in the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, where all his books are kept, including the celebrated diaries. And visited Kettle’s Yard, the former private house of Jim and Helen Ede. Ede, for many years director of the Tate, donated his house and the artworks it contains to the town of Cambridge, and it is on every visitor’s list of things to see here.  The artworks include drawings and sculptures by Gaudier-Brzeska, David Jones, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and Ben Nicholson.  The arrangement of the house itself and its furnishings also have an appeal.  I’ll just sum up and say I feel perfectly settled in at Cambridge now, and consider it one of my favorite places in England.  Yes, it is daunting to list the stellar names of former graduates and scholars who have passed through these gates—Erasmus, Marlowe, Milton, Newton, George Herbert, Gray, Smart, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Darwin, AE Housman, Bertand Russell, Lytton Strachey, J.M. Keynes, Wittgenstein, E.M. Forster, Jane Harrison, Crick and Watson, Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and others I haven’t mentioned.  But many of those figures also reported themselves equally daunted, so one should simply accept the feeling as an integral part of the spirit of the place.

This entry began by mentioning a translation event, and this is a good point to bring in a related effort of my own. I’m not speaking of the Duino Elegies now, but instead a little ebook that I recently published as the first in a series that Thethe Poetry blog is launching. My book isn’t a poetry collection but instead an introductory study of the differences between British and American English, meant to be useful to both nationalities.  Most of the pages are devoted to listing vocabulary differences and also idioms, but there are extensive sections on pronunciation, grammar, spelling, and punctuation—plus a fairly sizable offering of slang.  The audience for the book?  Travelers to both countries, teachers and readers of poetry and fiction from both, students of English as a Foreign Language, linguists, and actors preparing roles in the other idiom. You can read the book’s introduction on Amazon if you follow this link: ( or, for British Amazon,  both of them marketing it as a Kindle book. But it is also available in Nook format at B&N (   Happy trails.