The Foreign Connection

22-07-21
A Conversation with Jamie McKendrick on Art and Translation

Jamie McKendrick, ‘The Lion Tree’, The Years, (Arc Publications, 2020).

Jamie McKendrick is a poet, translator and essayist. The author of seven collections of poetry and most recently a chapbook The Years (Arc Publications, 2020). McKendrick has been awarded the Forward Prize for Best Collection and the Hawthorden Prize, and been shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Whitbread Poetry Awards. He is the editor of Twentieth Century Italian Poems (Penguin, 2014) and has translated Giorgio Bassani’s novels and collections for Penguin Classics as well as Valerio Magrelli, Antonella Anedda and Pier Paolo Pasolini.

The Foreign Connection (2020, Legenda), Jamie McKendrick’s recent book of essays, is the culmination of thirty-five years of writing on poetry, art and translation. It contains sixty-six essays which ‘journey through three different languages, over a millennium and a half’ and includes writings on figures from Catullus to Elizabeth Bishop, Botticelli to Luc Tuymans. It is at once wide-ranging and thoughtful, concerned with ‘what I’d loosely call the transmission, or even transfusion, of images from one poet or artist to another. Strange meetings, deliberate or fortuitous; overlappings; convergences.’ 

 

Jamie McKendrick, The Foreign Connection: Writings on Poetry, Art and Translation, (Legenda, 2020).

The cover of your recent book of essays The Foreign Connection is illustrated with one of your own artworks, and The Years (2020) also reproduces art alongside poetry for the first time. What led you to integrate your work as a poet and an artist? And what stopped you before?

Though I’ve designed covers for earlier books of poems, I rarely thought of bringing image and word together in any closer relation. Well, long ago I tried but it never really got off the ground. I planned six etchings to go with a poem sequence called ‘The Mountain’ and made some ink sketches in preparation, but didn’t have access to a press so the idea faltered. Having enjoyed the process of making The Years so much, I’m not really sure what had obstructed me in the past. Lack of confidence, most likely. And perhaps an ill-founded prejudice: I preferred the two art forms to be independent of each other, not one propping up the other. I haven’t completely dispelled that objection, but in the case of the pamphlet it maybe helped by forcing me to think of ways round it.

 

In some cases in The Years, like ‘The Lion-Tree’, the drawings are quite illustrative. Did the poem and the image come into being at the same time or did one precede the other? 

Illustrative only up to a point! The poem describes the tree as ‘spindly’ whereas the image suggests a fat, bottle-like entity. The illustrator was obviously paying insufficient attention to the word. Or thought he knew better. After all, it’s a tree that no longer exists, if it ever did, so who’s to say?

The poems mostly preceded the pictures, but with four exceptions. I’d like to think it would be hard to tell the process apart, but the poet Greta Stoddart promptly guessed at least three out of the four correctly.

 

That’s impressive. Did she tell you what gave them away?

 She didn’t say, but I suspect something nefarious like telepathy.

Jamie McKendrick, The Years, (Arc Publications, 2020).

Alberto Giacometti is someone whose works you’ve written on as a poet and an essayist. What is it about Giacometti’s work in particular that interests you? And what was it like writing on his work across two different forms?

Evidently I’ve made another similar barrier between critical writing and poetry! I’ve precious little interest in what are called ekphrastic poems – they mostly show why the picture was a picture not a poem. But there are some fine exceptions, including Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Large Bad Picture’ and ‘Poem’ which manage to subtly shift the axis from the spatial to the temporal: “About the size of our abidance…” She is well equipped to do this, I suspect, because she was a gifted painter and had thought long and hard about art.

In my last book Anomaly I stray into that zone, as you note, with the Giacometti sculpture ‘L’Homme qui chavire’ – the falling man – but it’s only really a nod to him for chancing on the subject first. At most it’s a prompt. But there are also poems about a Sánchez Cotán still life and a play on Giorgione’s La Tempesta. I hope at least the latter would work without any reference to the painting, but it is one of the most famous images of Renaissance art. This may be a sign of a slackening of moral fibre or of aesthetic scruple on my part but it’s also, I’d like to think, a part of the book’s argument which – like The Foreign Connection – is highlighting our cultural indebtedness and involvement with Europe and the world beyond. That book of poems, the pamphlet and the prose I now see all share this perspective.

A severe review of Anomaly took issue with all this artistic and literary paraphernalia, a view I have a certain sympathy for, but the critic failed to relate it even in the most fugitive way to the political paroxysm that this nation is undergoing with Brexit. For him it was merely arty posturing. Very much an insular, populist position that, ironically, ignores the millions of visitors to art galleries here and the genuine interest in art that’s certainly more widespread than any interest in poetry.

 

The opening essay asks whether ‘the privilege of being a dominant world language has made us whose first language is English complaisant and incurious’. Has translating made you more alert to the ‘worlds beyond our words’?  

I mentioned that dubious privilege as our record in the UK of translating foreign literature looks dismal compared to that of other European countries.

Long before I ever presumed to translate anything, before I’d learnt any other languages, like many readers I had relied entirely on translation to enter those ‘worlds beyond’. In my case one of the first books I read was Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, followed by the rest of his work, by Tolstoy, and so on. In the first instance, though I had no notion of translation, I did note the name of David Magarshack which became, and remains for me, happily entwined with that of the author.

Though at that stage I could sort of follow French, the poets I subsequently read were almost always in translation – the Italian, Russian, Spanish, German etc. Of course I was aware that something might be missing, but I was grateful for what remained.

The act of translating anything brings you closer than ever to those other worlds, as you have to relive it sentence by sentence, word by word, syllable by syllable. The further you reach into the original the better your chances are of retrieving something of value.

Jamie McKendrick, The Years, (Arc Publications, 2020).

The Foreign Connection engages in debates and arguments about translation – how loyal should the copy be to the original, should the translator be fluent in the original language – but tends to avoid adopting any theoretical position. Have you ever found yourself as a translator making any surprising decisions or compromises?

It’s true I try to by-pass theory but it can’t entirely be avoided. I’m repelled by the moralistic tone of many translator theorists – always keen to show that they’re ethically and politically superior to their fellows. The act of translating poetry is such a complex operation and so dependent on luck, affinity, empathy and whatever skills you bring that an aprioristic approach seems to me a very deceptive star to steer by.

I don’t know if I’ve ever found myself compromising in this sense, though I’m aware of failures, usually local, sometimes more extensive. I’ve only tried a couple of cantos, but you can’t translate Dante without feeling this keenly.

Surprises? Or liberties. I suppose there are some. I took a number of prose passages from Antonella Anedda’s book about detail in art and – with her amused permission – turned them into prose poems, and I think that worked. Twice (with Montale and Valerio Magrelli) I’ve put unrhymed poems into rhyme, but in both cases there was a compelling reason to do with finding an equivalent for the dense acoustics of the original. While I admire many ‘free’ or playful translators and wouldn’t want to shut down the enterprise, my own attempts are generally more adherent to the originals. I hope that my translations of, say, Anedda and Magrelli, of Montale and Pasolini, all sound different from each other, and different from me. Lowell’s ‘imitations’ all sound like Lowell, though that’s not such a bad thing to sound like.

 

Has being translated changed how you approach translation?

I don’t think so. With the Italian and Spanish translations I’ve been able to assist a bit, with the Dutch, Swedish and German I’ve happily kept out of the way, but where there’s a question highlighting some slightly odd linguistic tilt in the original I’m greatly reassured the translator has heard the poem. What it confirms for me, in the former cases, is the curious way in which some things you might suppose would offer no hindrance are really difficult to find a way around. Idiom, word-play and so on, you expect to be stumbling blocks, but the simplest things can confound. There’s a lovely passage in an introduction by John Rutherford (translator of Don Quixote  and La Regenta) in which he teases out the impossibility of translating into Spanish ‘The cat sat on the mat’. Quite apart from the jingling rhyme which is its mainspring, under his lens practically every word offers almost insuperable difficulties.

 

There are many other recurring figures, from Elizabeth Bishop and Seamus Heaney to Eugenio Montale and Dante, along with others like John Berger who, although you never write about him directly, appears in many of the essays. Are there any writers or artists missing in the collection who you’d write about now?

The recurrence of Bishop, Heaney and Montale, even if it some part reflecting the arbitrary nature of commissioned work, does speak for the way all three have been especially formative for me as a reader and writer. They arrived, for me, at the right time, and stayed.

I’m delighted that John Berger, although only referred to in passing, should figure conspicuously. For me he’s something of a hero, a British essayist who dynamically engages with world culture, and consistently sides with the dispossessed. Some of his judgements, say on Klee or Palmer, even on aspects of Picasso, I deeply disagree with, but all of his critical writings, on such a range of topics, are of unique value.

I mention a few painters I would like to have included – Faith Ringgold, for example, and Eileen Agar, Xu Bing. But really there are countless others, Arshile Gorky, Max Ernst, Max Klinger… Further back, Delacroix is a painter I wish I’d had a chance to include in the book as, with his treatments of Dante, Shakespeare and Byron, he would add something crucial, and also there’s the Baudelaire connection again!

There are hordes of poets I would have happily included. Like demons, they are Legion. But at least in the book, the figures of Dante and Baudelaire are nearly ubiquitous, as I noticed compiling the index. I’ve recently written a brief follow up piece for the publisher Legenda on Mandelstam and Racine. Mandelstam, Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva are three poets who would be for me at the forefront of any imaginary twentieth century anthology, even if I’m not equipped to write on them, having no Russian. One other poet I have wanted to, and maybe will, write something about is the Peruvian César Vallejo.

Compiling the book felt like a valedictory effort, a sort of farewell to critical prose, but it’s always possible I might have left something at the party and have an excuse to return.

 

The essay on Velázquez, ‘Epiphanies of the Disregarded’, is a beautiful piece. When you write about his ‘absolute attention and absorbing curiosity’ it feels a little like you’re naming those traits you admire most?

In a way, yes. Those traits are a sort of sine qua non for any artist or poet, but they must be combined with other gifts. In his case, leaving aside his almost supernatural skills, I think there’s also a subtle erosion of any hierarchy of interest and status. Odd as he seems to have been much concerned with his own status in the court of Philip IV…. perhaps a case of trusting the tale not the teller, in D.H. Lawrence’s useful advice, rarely followed these days.

Jamie McKendrick, The Years, (Arc Publications, 2020).

There’s a lot of painterly artists and sculptors, people who work with materials and colour, rather than more conceptual artists. Does that reflect a personal preference?

I think it must; and it’s a striking observation. As you suggest, it’s the materiality that counts for me – colour, tone, density, texture, line, brushstroke, gesture – that holds my interest. It’s why, for example, though I admire the brilliance and intellect of a painter like Magritte I wouldn’t go back to look at his work. He said the same thing himself, more or less: ‘The perfect painting produces an intense effect only for a short time…’ Conceptual work of a pure kind may be effective, but only for the duration it takes to receive the idea. That doesn’t go for quite a few artists associated with Dada, a movement that still very much appeals to me, if you think of Hannah Höch or Kurt Schwitters. And there are other exceptions on the conceptual border such as Alighieri Boetti. I haven’t written about him – but in his case there’s also a mysterious sense of materiality – he employed women weavers from Kabul and Peshawar to make his large scale beautiful rugs. Their skills (and sometimes freedom of choice for colour) very much thicken the texture of the concept – it undergoes an artisan transformation. Within the book, Luc Tuymans is probably as near as I get to the conceptual. He’s a very unpainterly painter, with a drab laconic quality to the way he lays on the paint which is effectively at the service of an idea. But the vestigial materiality of the paint, often thinned-down and speedily applied, is still a factor.

I think the same goes with poetry. The poets who have a material sense of the word, its texture and weight as sound, are the ones that most appeal to me. Hart Crane uses an appropriately colouristic argument when he claims to seek “an ‘interior’ form…that is so thorough and intense as to dye the words themselves with a peculiarity of meaning…” Vague as that may sound, I think it corresponds to Hopkins’s idea of ‘inscape’ and proclaims a distinctive approach.

 

What was it like going over all these works for the collection? How did you decide between one piece and another? Did you think about whether the artist or writer was popular or were you more drawn to affinities between the pieces themselves?

The latter really. There are quite a few painters from Bourdichon to Tuymans who I doubt are household names. Their popularity was never a consideration. In the absence of illustrations within the book, I suppose it’s useful that people can look up the pictures on the internet, so there’ll be no problems of reference for Titian, say, and Velázquez, or even Blake and Paul Nash though it’s more of an impediment for others such as Stuart Davis or Arturo Di Stefano.

Likewise with the poetry where, especially among the contemporary, the words popular and poet make ironic consorts.

The weave of connections isn’t meant to be especially tight, but I wanted the pieces to hang together however remote they were in culture and age, so excluded quite a few writings on poets and painters I might have shoe-horned in for a different kind of collection. The experience of assembling them wasn’t as painful as I expected. I somehow feared it would be like packing angular objects into a small container, but found with some relief that they fitted together quite obligingly.

 

In your upcoming exhibition in Oxford, will you integrate any of your work as a poet into the gallery space or printed matter?

I did consider this option. But, again, the same feeling that I’d like the images to work autonomously will probably prevail. Anyway, the show’s been postponed till October, because of the pandemic, so I’ve time to think about that.

An exhibition of Jamie McKendrick’s work will be held later this year at St Anne’s College, Oxford. You can read an essay on Keith Douglas from The Foreign Connection on The Wild Court, on ‘A Music of Hautboys’ in The Athenaeum Review and on Catullus in The Manchester Review.