Saturday, November 8, 2008
When folks think of Irish author Samuel Beckett, I suspect they think primarily about the playwright of “Waiting for Godot.” Of course, “Godot” is justifiably famous, but it’s less well known that Beckett was an accomplished novelist, & poet—in both English & French—as well a translator. I recall having one of those silly & galling grad school arguments with a fellow who insisted that Beckett’s translation of Apollinaire’s “Zone” was awful—I admire this translation a good deal, but of course one is entitled to one’s opinions. The problem was that the basis for this guy’s argument was that Beckett didn’t know French well enough to translate the poem; he claimed some professor had enlightened him on this point—apparently neglecting the fact that Beckett wrote a number of novels & poems in French.
Well, there are always folks with just enough knowledge to be dangerous….
At any rate, I’ve long admired Beckett’s poems. His language is dense & idiosyncratic; as is the case with the poem here, “Cascando,” the language itself seems “concrete,” even when Beckett isn’t portraying a concrete image. When the language itself becomes alive in this way, beyond the realm of images, but vivid & descriptive in itself, one generally is reading poetry of a high order. In some ways what Beckett is doing anticipates the “language poetry” movement that sprung up in the U.S. from the 70’s onward. Of course, for my money—for what that’s worth—poetry has to have a strong emotional content; as accordionist Lars Hollmer said of himself in the Accordion Tribe documentary, “I’m a romantic son of a bitch”—i.e., true of me, too, so take what I say about emotional content in context. However, Beckett’s poems—however much they are “about” the language at one level (& aren’t all poems?)—also seem driven by an underlying emotional current.
To shift gears rather suddenly, Beckett apparently was camera shy, but even more than that, he was microphone-shy. As I understand it, there may be some recordings of him, but they are privately held. I’d love to hear him reading. However, as a very pale substitute, you can hear yours truly reading “Cascando” at Second Street Gallery in Charlottesville back in 1987 here. I should mention this reading was captured for posterity on a boombox, so the sound quality is not fantastic—it’s reasonably clear, but there’s a background hiss I couldn’t edit out.
This is a poem that has carried huge significance for me over the years, both emotionally & from a standpoint of poetics. Hope you enjoy it.
why not merely the despaired of
is it not better abort than be barren
the hours after you are gone are so leaden
they will always start dragging too soon
the grapples clawing blindly the bed of want
bringing up the bones the old loves
sockets filled once with eyes like yours
all always is it better too soon than never
the black want splashing their faces
saying again nine days never floated the loved
nor nine months
nor nine lives
if you do not teach me I shall not learn
saying again there is a last
even of last times
last times of begging
last times of loving
of knowing not knowing pretending
a last even of last times of saying
if you do not love me I shall not be loved
if I do not love you I shall not love
the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words
of not loving
of loving and not you
of being loved and not by you
of knowing not knowing pretending
I and all the others that will love you
if they love you
unless they love you
Samuel Beckett, 1936
© Samuel Beckett, 1936