“James Dickey’s The Zodiac: A Self-Translation?” is reprinted from James Dickey Newsletter Volume 6, Number Two (Spring 1990). The following information is given in CONTRIBUTORS in that issue:
ROMY HEYLEN has published on James Dickey in both Dutch and English, including an in-depth study comparing Dickey’s The Zodiac to Marsman’s “De Dierenriem” and Barnouw’s translation of the poem and has, most recently, authored the Dickey entry in Post-War Literatures in English: A Lexicon of Contemporary Authors. She currently teaches English at Tulane University.
Although slight changes may occur with digitizing, page numbers herein replicate those in the initial publication. The copyright remains in effect, of course.
James Dickey’s The Zodiac: A Self-Translation?
by Romy Heylen
In his foreword to The Zodiac (1976), James Dickey refers to the poem of the same title written by his Dutch fellow-poet Hendrik Marsman. Furthermore, he states that his poem is in no sense a translation of Marsman’s poem but that he has taken certain liberties with the original. Having read some biographical information on Dickey as well as a few of his works, I could not find any indication of his acquaintance with Dutch literature or the Dutch language, nor of any translating activity which some of his contemporaries consider a very important part of their craft. Finally, Dickey himself explained in a personal letter that his literary contact with Marsman was mediated through an English translation by Adriaan J. Barnouw.¹ When Dickey states that he was “inspired” by the original poem he means Barnouw’s text (a confusion between translated and original work often encountered in practice). This translation of Marsman’s “De Dierenriem” (1940) first appeared in the Sewanee Review and was reprinted a year later in Barnouw’s anthology Coming After: An Anthology from the Low Countries (1948).²
The title of any text functions as an important hint which prepares the reader to interpret the text within a certain framework of connotations and associations. Needless to say, the reader has to be aware of its referent(s) for the allusion(s) to be effective. Although Dickey mentions in his preface that he borrowed the title of his volume from Marsman’s poem, this reminder will be worthless for the American reader unfamiliar with Marsman’s “De Dierenriem.” By the same token, Dickey himself has been excused in advance because he does not know Dutch. Since he does not know the language he is not responsible for the interpretation and the rewriting of Marsman’s Dutch text. But nearly thirty years after the publication of Barnouw’s anthologized translation, Marsman’s “De Dierenriem” generated another poem: The Zodiac by James Dickey. This literary contact is, to my knowledge, determined not so much by receptive conditions in American literature as by the receptive attitude of a single poet, his personality and poetics. However, certain artistic conditions needed to be fulfilled to make a creative reception possible. It is clear from the preface to The Zodiac that Dickey does not consider his poem to be a (second) translation (to escape allegations similar to those triggered by Robert Lowell’s Imitations?) but rather that his text aspires to be a poem in its own right. Nevertheless, in coming to terms with Barnouw’s translation Dickey unveils many experiences shared by translators.³ Hence, the main thrust of my paper will demonstrate the extent to which Dickey’s The Zodiac is a poem about interpreting and writing, and thus also about translating. What is more, The Zodiac is a self-translation by and of a poet who cannot escape his self and who delivers a pastiche of his own poetics.
How did Dickey appropriate Barnouw’s The Zodiac? Not unlike any other creative poet-translator. Whereas Barnouw presents the reader with a finished
product, a polished, translated poem, Dickey confronts us with what we could call a workshop poem, a poem in the making. In each section of The Zodiac Dickey seems to try out different drafts of his poem. He thereby demonstrates how much writing and re-writing (or translating, for that matter) is a live performance, and not a prescriptive exercise. Dickey is stage-managing the act of reading and re-writing Barnouw’s translation using lyricism within the framework of his narrative epic poem. He has a sense of the spine of the story and of the imagery used in Barnouw’s text. He simply retells the story in many ways and many times. Once he has learned, almost memorized, the development of the poem, he can go off in his own direction. All he needs then is the inner imagery, the imagination at work, the basic structures set in place, and a certain number of his own poetic formulae. Dickey uses leitmotifs (such as the struggle with Time and the creation of a new constellation, a Lobster) which create patterns and sinews which run throughout, intertwine and, in the process, tighten the whole work. These leitmotifs, which reinforce certain themes, are not unlike the song accompanying epic story telling.
As Ben Belitt (1985) sees it, translation is “a kind of jungle gym for the exercise of all the faculties and muscles required for the practice of poetry.” Translation, according to Belitt, “serves the calisthenic function of bringing to bear upon what is translated one’s total resources and cunning as a poet” (57). In The Zodiac Dickey does indeed practice his own poetic “calisthenics.” The poet-protagonist repeatedly demonstrates the physical aspects of writing poetry, how demanding and sweaty the act of poetry writing is, how much labor and energy are involved. Dickey’s tone is up-front aggressive compared to that of the more cerebral, ponderous, and portentous Barnouw translation. His voice is more Dionysiac and less recherché. Barnouw’s text becomes much more alive, its imagery less Biblical and base and vital in Dickey’s re-writing of The Zodiac. However, unlike translators, Dickey’s practice does not take him far beyond the genre of his own recognizable style and idiosyncrasies as a poet. In this sense, The Zodiac is basically a self-translation. Barnouw’s translation of Marsman’s “De Dierenriem” neither compelled nor seduced Dickey into writing poetry other than his own. Dickey “scored” Barnouw’s text in a way that (cor)responds to his own manner of hearing. He put a pulse under Barnouw’s rather neutral English and rewrote the translation in the sense that he tried to project qualities, identities, skills, predilections, textures his own, such as they are, and perhaps Marsman’s such as he imagines them to be. His version is more subjective than imitation and more visceral than paraphrase (58). In his transformation and transvaluation of Barnouw’s translation Dickey shows how inadequate poetry in its literal state can be. He makes the point that poetry is not information and that the poet’s task has only begun when all the facts of syntax and substance have been reliably extrapolated. His point is to isolate something else—something absent or missing—by maximizing the vacuum in which all has been suspended in the search for meanings and is now in danger of disappearing entirely from the
transaction: the power of imagination (59). By emphasizing the theme of imagination and creativity throughout The Zodiac, Dickey renders a critical reading of Barnouw’s translation and complements or compensates for what is missing in the latter’s text.
Belitt further remarks that as a translator “one must move with equal plausibility through hot and cold, through what is congenial and what’s remote, roll with the punches on some least common denominator of continuing energy” (67). Obviously this strategy does not apply to Dickey’s working method. Although his style in The Zodiac is characterized by the repetition of certain words and expressions, the sum of the number of words used in Barnouw’s translation compared to that in Dickey’s work will nevertheless give us some idea of the extent to which Dickey elaborated on Barnouw’s text: Barnouw only used 2,595 words, Dickey 6,880.4 The first section, which makes up one-third of Dickey’s volume, contains many interpolations and is five times as long as Barnouw’s. Here Dickey seems to demonstrate how all works of imagination are improvisation at some stage, certainly at the beginning, and how valuable this sheer invention is in the making of a poem. Long poems are, however, very difficult to sustain in translation—or in Dickey’s case rewriting. Starting with the fourth section of Dickey’s The Zodiac, far less new material is introduced, and from· the eighth section onwards the number of interpolations is reduced to a few lines. Either Dickey’s energy flagged or he experienced the later sections as less congenial and more remote from his own interests. These later sections do indeed tie in more with Marsman’s personal experiences and often, as in the very last section, become less mundane and more metaphysical.
Where provisionality abounds in Barnouw’s translation, Dickey often let the determinations remain suspended or vague. Dickey is merely faith-full: as faithful as he can be under the circumstances. His operative credo is faith, not as with Barnouw, fidelity. Barnouw may have sensed the desire of Marsman to express something that never got expressed, or possibly exceeded the poet. Dickey went ahead and rewrote the translation as a work-in-progress perhaps in order to find what Marsman and/or Barnouw left out. As Belitt would put it, Dickey wears his conscience where it belongs: at the tip of his pen (69). Whereas Barnouw adheres to the principle of responsibility, Dickey uses the strategy of volatility. With Barnouw we have the certainty that all the elements have been subjected to atomic scrutiny–all the words as they pass from the original into the ink of the translation, with no leaps of convenience or deletions such as we find in Dickey’s The Zodiac. Here we can weigh the disadvantages of expressive rewriting as a personal mode against the translator as nobody in particular. As Belitt points out, both are “ploys, impersonations, heuristic deceptions” in reading and rewriting poetry (70). As opposed to the “midwifery” of Barnouw who is endlessly self-effacing and diligent as an intermediary between Marsman and the American reader, Dickey reveals a sensuous, histrionic projection of his visceral and intellectual fascinations and his own pleasure in appropriating Marsman’s poem second hand.
Throughout The Zodiac he has opted more flamboyantly for one continuous voice, indelibly and conspicuously his own, while he is rewriting as he pleases from Barnouw’s translation of Marsman. In other words, Dickey uses Barnouw’s text as a trampoline or a “jungle gym” to arrive at his self-translation. His motive is self-preservation, survival rather than charity. “Betrayal” of an original can, in Dickey’s case, be understood as part of a creative undertaking–”creative” in the aberrant sense and as the transfiguring of invention. In Barnouw’s text “the enlightened disclosure of admiration is primary–a kind of substantive embodiment of praise.” Ultimately it is a question of bravura. Dickey interlopes on Marsman’s poem and “his readers admire the performance because they have come to hear or read his performance and not because they are calculating fidelity” to Marsman or Barnouw at every stage of the poem (72).
Dickey is not an over-awed literalist at work on someone else’s poetry. He follows a powerful lead of his own: to put his poem together from beginning to end, to find a gusto that guarantees a continuum for him as well as for Marsman (Barnouw). Dickey brought Marsman’s persona back to life and his prosody forces the reader to pay attention and follow through. Imagination is not a phenomenon that can be limited to the poem “in its original state.” Dickey understands this. Belitt pointedly argues that as a translator, “it is legitimate, it is imperative, to work imaginatively, joyfully, energetically, ingeniously, patiently, inventively, yourself” (74). Dickey exploits these qualities, since imagination cannot be present in the original alone, and absent from a translation or version based on that translation. The Zodiac‘s poet-protagonist knows, however, that imagination is “the most risky and most daring, the most desired and mistrusted faculty: the most dangerous” (74). In the first section Dickey’s poet fulminates against Pythagoras who created a mechanical model of the Cosmos. He suspects that Pythagoras had the same intentions as he has: to take over God’s task. God created the Zodiac. The poet considers himself God’s equal, capable of creating a new constellation. To boost his courage and imagination he drinks whiskey. He works with constellations and bargains with God: What new creation does He want in His Heaven? He warns God that He is dealing with a poet who does not want to be taken lightly. Besides, his father was an amateur-astronomer who argued that the whole sky was invented. Now it is his turn to invent. Since the Zodiac already has a crab, he invents a Lobster. He wishes everyone to see his Lobster. It is no Cancer, no crab and no cancer, but an auspicious sign. People will worship his Lobster which will have a beneficial influence on Earth. The poet wants to bridge the distance between Earth and Heaven. But as soon as the Lobster starts moving (in section II), it starts waving its feelers:
Imagination and dissipation both fire at me
Point-blank O God, no NO I was playing I didn’t mean it
I’ll never write it, I swear CLAWS claws CLAWS
He’s going to kill me (II, 36)
Invention is a dangerous game. The poet is frightened, claims that he was only playing and promises not to write, not to create a new constellation. These passages, first occurring in section I and repeated in section II, remind us of the story of Babel.
The tribe of the Shems decided to raise a tower to reach all the way to the heavens and to make a name for themselves. Similarly, Dickey invents a Lobster not only to relate himself to the Universe but to make a name for himself as a poet. On the basis of their sublime edification the Shems wanted to impose their tongue on the entire Universe. Dickey creates a Lobster. Incidentally, the word “lob” suggests “lip” to Dutch speakers and “ster” means star in Dutch. With his imagination, Dickey thus imposes his “lip”/tongue on the entire universe for everybody to worship. Had the Shems’ enterprise succeeded, the Universal tongue would have been a particular language imposed by force, by violent hegemony over the rest of the world. But God—i. e. that God who is capable of resentment, jealousy, and anger—became beside himself in the face of this incredible effrontery and proclaimed his name loudly: Babel.5 This conflict between two proper names (Shem and God/Babel) is reenacted in Dickey’s poetry (Lobster and God) with the same consequences. Dickey’s persona experiences the dangerous aspects of imagination and will have to learn to live with confusion, the confusion of tongues and, we could add, texts.
Although The Zodiac enacts the poet’s confusion, it tries nevertheless to find a workable dissemination of the Universe’s avowedly irrecoverable mysteries as well as Marsman’s original. Marsman’s poem demands curiosity and survival. Dickey does not know for a fact what the poet knew, but he believes he can imagine how his text might sound in his own language. Insofar as Marsman’s text itself has been touched by the imagination, it can never be definitive. Dickey is all too aware of this. He enacts what he expressly claims for his own poetry: its experimental nature and, hence, its fallibility. He does not hope for terminal completions; readers and critics alike are already construing the experience differently. Dickey’s persona construes poetry as a provisional art. He continually confronts his work in terms of what else it might be. Like a true gambler he conceives of his version as ludic, and not ethical—the most serious play imaginable: playing with language (itself provisional). As Belitt would put it, he plays the game “for risk and pleasure,” for “the good of chastening misgiving” (78).
In Greek thought the term hermeneia signified not so much the return, by way of exegesis, to a kernel of hidden meaning within a shell, but more the act of extroversion by the voice, the natural instrument of the soul. It signifies an active and prophetic productivity. For the Greeks as well as for Dickey’s persona, the poetic performance of rhapsodes is a “hermeneutic” performance (reading, interpreting, and rewriting Barnouw’s translation). Thanks to the energeia of speech (i. e. a word’s capacity to make the image of a thing present to the mind), language can act on man’s will and induce him to
act. The wavering speech of Dickey’s protagonist propels him to see various creatures in the Zodiac and to launch a creature of his own in the heavens: a Lobster (I, 23; II, 35-36). This blasphemous action fails and makes the poet feel even more angry and frustrated. But energeia can also incite man to translate anger (ira) into a libidinal form (concupiscentia). Indeed, Dickey’s poet, in holding the stars in his “balls” (II, 34), perceives erotic features in the constellations (e. g. with Venus, IV, 43) and has a female apparition visit his room (X). This positive appetite transports man towards woman in hymene, allowing for a translation of semen, thanks to which the forms of life succeed each other. Thanatos becomes Eros. The creative thought process of the poet-protagonist in The Zodiac is—with the exception of a few lapses—predominantly physical, sexual, or erotic. Through his libidinal translation, Nature—the Universe or Cosmos—manifests itself, over time, in its totality. To refuse this translation is to refuse life. Dickey’s persona reflects the very principle of mutability and transformation, two powers that also embody the glory of humankind. Through translation one actual experience is translated into another. Yet this translation is not redundant, nor is it simple repetition. It is a gateway to the future; it is the principle of abundance and not of redundancy. Dickey’s discourse reveals that figural capacity which allows humankind to express the diversity of its nature, as well as that of surrounding Nature, and even to inaugurate mutations in its being.6 Like the Renaissance poets, Dickey is not only a translator of a poetic legacy from the past (Marsman and other poet-predecessors), but also a translator whose poetic performance is prophetic in the sense that it inaugurates a future—in this case, a future for a generation born in “a space-faring, post-literate age” (Hernadi 765):
So long as the hand can hold its island
Of blazing paper, and bleed for its images:
Make what it can of what is:
So long as the spirit hurls on space
The star-beasts of intellect and madness (XXII, 62)
If we focus on Dickey’s protagonist we can read his poem on two levels. There is The Zodiac as a workshop-poem in which a wordsmith is hammering away at and sweating over a poem-in-the-making. This manual laborer even made his own universe, a mobile whose axis is spinning through the Zodiac and which he considers godlike (I, 16). Moreover, in his audacious hallucinations he wants to take over God’s task and make his own zodiacal sign. In this reading The Zodiac is a physical, self-made artifact, where inspiration is linked with hard, sweaty, physical work. Dickey’s protagonist, however, also tends to become symbolic and mystical in his reflections. Thus, there is also The Zodiac of a medieval monk trying to decipher “the book of creatures” in his cell. The idea that the universe is a broken text is a variation of the idea of Nature as a book. This time-honored metaphor identifies “the material product of cosmic creativity as a decipherable text—the so-called book of
nature” (Hernadi 754). It was a popular image in the Middle Ages and through the Renaissance and was taken up by the Romantics and the Symbolists.7 Baudelaire (“Le Voyage”), and after him Rimbaud (“Le Bateau ivre” ["The Drunken Boat"]), stated that poetry is essentially analogy. The idea of universal correspondence comes from the idea that language is a microcosm, a double of the Universe. Between the language of the Universe and the universe of language, there is a bridge, a link: poetry. The poet, says Baudelaire, is the translator, the universal translator and the translator of the Universe. According to Rimbaud, who considered Baudelaire too classical, too poetic and artistic, no poet ever got to the bottom of things and explored the depths of the human soul where the essence of our intelligence lies. Dickey’s persona is partly a follower of Rimbaud. Rimbaud insists on the method by which one can exploit one’s gifts and become clairvoyant (“voyant”). He espouses the will to know oneself by a systematic process of reasoning; paradoxically he follows the rules to create systematic disorder. To that purpose he takes in experiences with alcohol, drugs, and sex: the will to change himself in order to know himself. This knowledge of self would destroy all the old ways of thinking and would free his self so its creative faculties can express themselves. It liberates the subconscious in terms of automatic writing without control, form, or rules, under the influence of alcohol and dictated by inspiration. Dickey’s poet likewise idolizes “la Dive Bouteille” (the divine bottle) and finds truth in drink (in vino veritas) at the end of a long journey. In a drunken state the poet tries to relate himself to the larger cosmos whose coded message he tries to interpret. He has become the interpreter of divine truth, using alcohol as an aid to transport himself to a dream-like state of communion between “the other” and reality. His trance-like state reveals Dionysiac tongues (fury) and truth on the prompting of a spirit. Here, poetry is inspiration— and form is adapted to whatever inspiration dictates. The poet sees himself as the Creator of a new order, a Prometheus who stole God’s fire (Dickey’s aquavit) to animate his own creation. He wants to recreate humanity and to bring back joy, to point people to a new light so they can spiritually advance and develop. The poet who creates a healing Lobster is a driving force behind humanity’s progress. With his Lobster he invents his own, new language which becomes a universal language. This language comes from the soul, for the soul, and communication becomes a sort of communion—a communion with God to create truth for humankind. In Le Bateau ivre Rimbaud becomes the Boat; in The Zodiac (in which Rimbaud’s poem reverberates) Dickey becomes the Zodiac:
Oh my own soul, put me in a solar boat.
And give this home-come man. . . . . . . . .
The instrument the tuning-fork -
Which at a touch reveals the form
Of the time-loaded European music
That poetry has never really found,
Undecipherable as God’s bad, Heavenly sketches,
Involving fortress and flower, vine and wine and bone,
And shall vibrate through the western world
So long as the spirit hurls on space
The star-beasts of intellect and madness (XII, 61-62).
Throughout The Zodiac Dickey’s poet reanimates an “absent text,” the one he is helped to conceive of by the existence of the text before him: Barnouw’s translation of Marsman’s poem “De Dierenriem.” Not only is he interpreting and rewriting Barnouw’s text but he is also decoding and relating himself to the Zodiac or the universe as a text. Dickey’s poet very slowly begins to understand Barnouw’s (Marsman’s) and the Universe’s text, the sacred relationships between the letters or signs and the plotting in them of mystic truths. The voice in this poem is that of a mystic seer and a drunk poet helped by the intermediaries of a translation (Barnouw’s) and drink (aquavit, whiskey, gin). Both media transport him to inspiration, faith, and prophesy.
One of the simplest and most creative ways of considering the act of interpretation (translation) is to regard it as a minimal, perhaps vestigial, but still exemplary encounter with the “other.” Barnouw, the translator who tries to imitate, is getting to know “the other.” But Dickey, who rewrites Barnouw’s translation, is largely ignoring “the other” because he is reducing that text to his own interests and pre-established terms. In this sense, Dickey’s poem could be called a “self-translation.”
Dickey’s own poetic voice and alter ego resonate throughout The Zodiac. The reader comparing Barnouw’s and Dickey’s texts is immediately struck by the interpretation or re-creation of the protagonist in Dickey’s poem. In Barnouw’s text, the protagonist is an intellectual poet, the prototype of a highbrow, Apollonian personality. Dickey’s character could qualify as an intellectual too, but one addicted to drinking and suffering from delirium tremens. His surroundings, a cell, clash with his personality, except that he appeals to another current idea of the poet, namely the poet as a marginal figure, a Dionysian personality. He has hallucinations, speaks drunkenly, rages, and swears (like a Dutch sailor?). As he is dying, his physical decay is emphasized time and again. Moreover, he has a morbid interest in diseases like cancer, tetanus, and jaundice, is obsessed with the idea of reincarnation, and hopes to immortalize himself by creating a new sign in the zodiac. In other words, whereas Barnouw’s poem is stilted and poised, Dickey’s voice is impatient, irritable, and aggressive. Dickey’s poem incorporates yet another notion of the poet-translator, namely that of the translator as actor. He took something of somebody else’s and put it over as
if it were his own. In addition to this technical feat, there is the psychological and physical workout which rewriting involves: something like being on stage. Dickey not only took on a persona, as an actor does, but in the process changed it dramatically.
In the original and in Barnouw’s text a certain distance prevails between narrator and protagonist; in Dickey’s text this distance disappears, most markedly so in the first three sections: narrator and protagonist quite simply merge. Here the protagonist can be considered a persona of the narrator. Moreover, reality and experience blur in the presentation of the protagonist’s hallucinations, which extend and reorient the empirical world of sensory impressions toward an expressionist frame of inner associations. Dickey’s sailor-poet is a quiet “monster” of inwardness, and his creator understands him all too well. His poetry has a quality of demented lyricism, a tendency to lose itself in mystery, hidden meanings, and intimations that someone is encoding our experience in ways we are not meant to decipher. His home turf is a realm of indeterminacy, quasi-apprehension, a nightmarish sense of being connected to the cosmos which is either showing us the way things really are or is simply a shimmering mirage, just another deceptively suggestive metaphor. Moreover, Dickey’s writing in The Zodiac is as strangely eroticized as prisoners’ poetry. The protagonist weaving through these pages seems to be the product of a consciousness drifting toward the ecstatic, inducing visions as a form of self-stimulation: the solitary play of the confined, of sailors and Dionysiac poets. Dickey’s poet experiences this kind of consciousness: he is aroused by playing with constellations and flirts with the one he creates himself, the Lobster which claws back at him. The hero of The Zodiac is totally self-absorbed, a man much like Dickey himself, a man sitting in a room, thinking and waiting, dreaming of the convergence of his vivid private world and the hazy, unfathomable cosmos outside. The other characters (his father, his mother, a female and a male friend) are not developed, nor are they unpredictable enough to rescue his work from becoming self-absorption or self-translation. The protagonist is constantly and restlessly searching for a cosmic system with which to explain and enlarge himself.
Dickey’s The Zodiac is perhaps not unlike Herbert Mason’s Gilgamesh, which became “an inner tale that made sense of the confusion caused by loss, the metaphysical worry, the pain, in the face of these experiences” (45). Section VIII of The Zodiac, for instance, contains an additional line with a specific number:
Death is twenty-eight years old
Today (VIII, 49),
which one is tempted to explain in biographical terms.8 If we subtract the date of the publication of Barnouw’s anthology (1948) from that of the publication of Dickey’s The Zodiac (1976) we obtain the result: 28. Dickey
married Maxine Syerson in 1948; she died in 1976, and he married Deborah Dodson. Apart from the traumatic event of his wife’s death is the possibility that Dickey conceived The Zodiac in 1968, twenty-eight years after Marsman’s death, an explanation which appears more plausible for this specific number of years. In his Foreword, Dickey does, indeed, mention the year of Marsman’s death (1940), and he pays homage to his brother-poet within his own poem as well. Moreover, from a New York Quarterly interview we can gather that Dickey works many years on a single poem and that he writes several versions of it: “If I have one principle, rule of thumb, I guess you could say, as a writer, it’s to work on something a long, long time. And try it all different ways” (Packard 149).
As Mason points out, translators need to live with a work for a long time before actually beginning to do something about it. They get different ideas as to what is most effective in the rewriting (45-46). In Dickey’s case, he created a completely different protagonist, another tone and voice which serve to expand and to reevaluate the imagery and Barnouw’s poetics of translation. Barnouw’s The Zodiac became more of a personal story, combined with an increasing desire to understand and to transform the text. Dickey had to come to terms with Barnouw’s text through repeatedly reading and re-writing it, a process reflected throughout The Zodiac. Over the years he concentrated his own thought on the themes of loss, the confrontation with one’s own mortality, and the quest for immortality. Dickey feels that he has a sense of the “original” text, but this comes about by way of identifying his own intuition and his own self with the translation of that text.
Dickey’s persona, that of the brooding writer who is trying to make all the right connections, to find a pattern in the chaos of crude facts and the divine order, is in a constant struggle against the seduction of solitude: the temptation to wipe out the mess of traumatic experience (e.g. “his bandless wedding-finger” ) by pure exercise of the intellect and of imagination, to abstract everything in a grand and perfect metaphor (e.g. the Lobster), something that can be held in the mind, isolated and complete. His investigation—itself a metaphor for the translator’s project—takes him through despair, solipsism, poetic reverie, sorrowful anger at his own limitations, euphoria: his method is a kind of creative drift, an unfocused receptivity.
Dickey must have appreciated the timeless and original quality of Marsman’s epic poem. Moreover, his own writing is stimulated by narrative and dramatic situation and character. Some things must have converged that made him surrender to the text of the story or plot, and its uncovered form dictated a language, Dickey’s language. The substance of Barnouw’s text began to overtake Dickey; then he made another evocation of the subject of this text. Dickey tried to find out exactly what his own voice was in this material; he wanted to write his Zodiac because he identified personally with its protagonist. So he wrote another dramatic narrative. He wanted most of
all to dramatize the poet-protagonist’s inner life and bring him out as a real person to himself and to others—using some of Barnouw’s translated lines in his language, and his sense of the structure of a narrative poem.
The translating or rewriting of a poem is very much based on the literary style of the poet-translator. In The Zodiac the poet-protagonist examines his own writing. Not only does he comment upon his own style (and imagination) but also upon that of the text which he is rewriting. In the fifth section, for instance, the poet communicates in his nightmares with the man and the cosmos.He thinks that the faster he sleeps, the faster the Universe sleeps; the deeper he breathes, the higher the night can climb and the higher the singing will be:
Bird, maybe? Nightingale? Ridiculous (V, 43).
The romantic, Keatsian image which he finds in Barnouw’s text is ridiculed. Furthermore, in opposition to Barnouw’s translation, the narrator often takes an ironic view of his hero and his wavering thoughts:
— listen to me — how can he rise
When he’s digging Digging through the smoke
Of distance, throwing columns around to find (III, 40).
Dickey wanted, however, to make his readers believe in the authenticity of a voice, even if it is somewhat strange. And in order to make Marsman’s/Barnouw’s often strange and clashing metaphors more plausible he invented a drunken, half-crazed sailor-poet who can elaborate even further on those images. He thus embeds some of the words and lines of Barnouw’s text—those which he finds agreeable. Most often, however, he expands and changes Barnouw’s lines and metaphors to make them conform to his own poetic style and imagination. He transfers some of Barnouw’s words; then he writes a few lines, completely his own but generated by the translation, and continues by closing off and again picking up Barnouw’s translation.
Marsman has a keen historical sense; his persona is overwhelmed by a sense of history, a quality which makes him a “European” poet, a literary spokesman for his hemisphere. He is suffering from the burden of tradition; its authority is hanging over him, like a heavy threat. Sometimes its presence becomes too insistent, the motifs it inspires too predictable. Marsman, however, also presents an ironic view of tradition, which he establishes by a “deflation,” by an abrupt contrast between expected formality and down-to-earth colloquialism or a “prosaic” tone. Dickey’s poem completely erases the concern for the decay of civilization and the appeal for the redemption of a culture. Although he transposes some of the images and metaphors which in Marsman’s poem (and Barnouw’s translation) function within the frame of a reflection on culture, this reflection is missing in Dickey’s poem.9 The problems with which Marsman’s persona is concerned are partly
personal: his feelings of loneliness, his questioning of the meaning of existence, and his cosmic searching; however, it is especially culture—and more specifically European culture—which preoccupies him. Dickey’s persona cares little or not at all about Marsman’s issues, but is looking for his place in the cosmos whose meaning he tries to discover and recover. To that purpose he uses cultural elements in a pragmatic, selfish way.
Why did Dickey feel the need to write original work based on another poem? According to Harold Bloom the origin of Dickey’s quest as a poet can be located in guilt. This guilt has been the feeling of “being a substitute or replacement for a brother dead before one was born” (1):
I am alone:
I am my brother (I, 15-16).
Other critics have pointed out the guilt of being a war-survivor (Marsman did not survive World War II), and we can now perhaps add the guilt of having survived his wife:
The instrument the tuning-fork —
He’ll flick it with his bandless wedding-finger— (XII, 62).
Furthermore, Bloom indicates Dickey’s literary heroes as being “the unlikely combination of Keats, Malcolm Lowry, and James Agee, presumably associated because of their early or relatively early deaths, and because of their shared intensity of belief in what could be called the salvation history of literary art” (2). Hendrik Marsman (1899-1940) fits the description of this triad: not only did he die young but he also believed in the redemption of culture through the writing of poetry.10 Affinities between Marsman and Dickey can be found both in their poetic careers and in their personalities. Such a comparison, however, would lead us toward a traditional influence study.
The elements Dickey borrowed from Barnouw’s translation did not really affect his own poetics. On the one hand he took the narrative of Marsman’s poem as a structure onto which he could graft his own problems and interests; on the other hand the images of Barnouw’s translation are modeled in a way that is essentially different. Hence, the migration of items is mainly restricted to the modulated plot and to the imagery. One of the artistic conditions we can postulate for Dickey wanting to write his own version is his fascination with Marsman’s biography, that of a poet who died young and wrote an epic poem which contains stimulating metaphors. Secondly, there is Dickey’s own interest in poems with a narrative basis and a protagonist. And, thirdly, we may perhaps venture the supposition of a crisis in Dickey’s personal life as well as in his poetic imagination. Dickey’s “creative treason” vis-i-vis Barnouw, and indirectly vis-a-vis Marsman, has, however, generated a completely different verse form. In rewriting Barnouw’s text, Dickey was forced to lay bare his own poetic techniques and strategies
and thus to render a pastiche of his own poetics. Whereas both Barnouw’s and Marsman’s texts could be labeled “reflection poetry,” primarily concerned with the expression of ideas, Dickey’s text is a participation poem or performance poem that quite simply must be experienced. For this experience to take place, Dickey’s writing is guided by such elements as the narrative thread, the character’s stream of consciousness, the split line, melopoeia, “presentational immediacy,” and subjective imagery. However, without Barnouw’s intermediate text Dickey’s The Zodiac would probably not have been written. Barnouw’s translation made available and explained Marsman’s poem to Dickey, who in his turn modeled his own poetics on Barnouw’s translation. Most of all, though, in rewriting Barnouw’s translation, Dickey has been translating himself.
¹In a letter which dates from May 15, 1979, and which is addressed to Joris Duytschaever, director of my licentiate thesis, Dickey writes that he read Adriaan J. Barnouw’s translation (1947) of Marsman’s poem “De Dierenriem.” What little information he obtained about Marsman he found in the Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature (1971) in which the lexicon entry for Marsman is again written by Barnouw.
²An in-depth study comparing Marsman’s poem, Barnouw’s translation, and Dickey’s poem appeared in Dierenriem Triptiek: Vergelijkende Studie van Hendrik Marsman: “De Dierenriem,” vertaald door Adriaan J. Barnouw en James Dickey: “The Zodiac.” (Universitaire Instelling Antwerpen, 1981). An English article based on my licentiate thesis was published in Dispositio (Vol. VII, No. 19-20; pp. 85-93).
³Although translators rarely comment on their art, Edwin Honig (1985) managed to engage some leading translators in thought-provoking conversations. Many reflections in this paper are based on Honig’s spontaneous interviews.
4Chart comparing number of words used in Barnouw’s and in Dickey’s The Zodiac according to the sections distinguished in their texts:
Barnouw Dickey X times longer
I. 551 2,767 more than 5 times longer
II. 199 816 more than 4 times longer
III. 137 607 more than 4 times longer
IV. 112 279 more than twice as long
V. 110 262 more than twice as long
VI. 98 152
VII. 140 320 more than twice as long
VIII. 108 194
IX. 503 680
X. 171 189
XI. 225 247
XII 241 367
2,595 6,880 more than twice as long
51 owe this interpretation of the Babel story to Jacques Derrida’s close reading in his essay “Des Tours de Babel” (1985) and his discussion on translation in The Ear of the Other (1985, 100-102).
6These reflections are based on Eugene Vance’s discussion of hermeneutics in the “classical” or “traditional” sense of the term in a “Roundtable on Translation” with Derrida (The Ear of the Other, 135-138).
7Several writers and critics such as Octavio Paz (1985, 157), Paul Hernadi (1988, 754), and Ernst Robert Curtius (1973, 302-47) refer to the topos of “the Book of Nature” in their discussions.
8Another line which we can interpret biographically occurs in the eleventh section where the poet-protagonist visits a friend. In his friend’s room where the heater is on, “he shakes free of two years of wandering / Like melting-off European snows” (58). (Barnouw’s text faithfully renders Marsman’s lines as: “He shakes off three years of travel/Like a layer of Europe’s snow” (286). (Emphasis mine in both instances.) We know that Dickey did, indeed, visit Europe twice, the first time around 1954 and the second time in 1962. In an interview with Franklin Ashley we find a reference to Dickey’s second trip to Europe:
The Guggenheim people wrote to me and asked me if I would like to stand for a fellowship and to send in whatever I had to offer . . . , they gave me some money—several thousand dollars. . . . I swore I was going to go back to Europe before I was forty. I made it at the age of thirty-nine [i. e. in 1962] (59).
9Dickey does not miss the chance, however, to make a stereotypical reference to Dutch tulips, which appears neither in the original nor in the translation. In an interview with Franklin Ashley, Dickey talks enthusiastically about the sights in Europe. The tulip fields in Holland must have made quite an impression:
When an American goes to Europe, he doesn’t go there to get just another version of America. Be wants difference. You see fields of tulips in Holland. You never saw anything like that in your life (59).
Hence the image:
he’d ambled grumbling like a ghost
In tulip shadow (IX, 52).
10Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), whose “Le Bateau ivre” resonates in the last section of The Zodiac, fits Bloom’s description as well.
Ashley, Franklin. “James Dickey. The Art of Poetry XX.” The Paris Review XVII (Spring 1976): 53-88.
Barnouw, Adriaan J. “The Zodiac.” In Coming After: An Anthology of Poetry from the Low Countries. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1948.
Baudelaire, Charles. “Le Voyage.”In Oeuvres completes. Vol. 1. Paris: Gallimard, 1975. 134.
Belitt, Ben. In The Poet’s Other Voice: Conversations on Literary Translation. Ed. Edwin Honig. Amherst: University of Massachusetts P, 1985. 55-78.
Bloom, Harold. Ed. and Introd. James Dickey. New York: Chelsea, 1987.
Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Trans. Willard R. Trask. 1953. Princeton: Bollingen-Princeton UP, 1973.
Derrida, Jacques. “Roundtable on Translation.” In The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation. Ed. Christie V. McDonald.
Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Schocken Books, 1985, 91-161.
—.”Des Tours de Babel.” Difference in Translation. Ed. and Trans. Joseph Graham. NY: Ithaca, Cornell UP, 1985, 165-207.
Dickey, James. The Zodiac. New York: Doubleday, 1976.
Hernadi, Paul. “Doing, Making, Meaning: Toward a Theory of Verbal Practice.” PMLA 103.5 (1988): 749-758.
Heylen, Romy. “The Zodiac: Hendrik Marsman, Adriaan Barnouw, James Dickey: A Case Study of Interliterary Communication.” Dispositio VII (1982): 85-93.
—.Dierenriem Triptiek. Licentiate thesis 1979, Antwerp. Universitaire Instelling Antwerpen, 1981 (Antwerp Studies in Literature, No.4, 1981).
Honig, Edwin, Ed. The Poet’s Other Voice: Conversations on Literary Translation. Amherst: University of Massachusetts P, 1985.
Marsman, Hendrik. “De Dierenriem.” In Verzameld Jlerk: Poezie, Proza en Critisch
Proza. Amsterdam: Querido, 1960.
Mason, Herbert. The Poet’s Other Voice: Conversations on Literary Translation. 53. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts P., 1985.
Packard, Willliam, Ed. “Craft Interview with James Dickey.” In The Craft of Poetry:
Interviews from “The New York Quarterly. New York: Doubleday, 1974, 133-151.
Rimbaud, Arthur. “Le Bateau ivre.” In Oeuvres completes. Paris: Gallimard, 1972, 66-69.
Vance, Eugene. “Translation in the Past Perfect.” In The Ear of The Other: Otobiography,
Transference, Translation. Ed. Christie V. McDonald. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Schocken Books, 1985. 135-139.
Which at a touch reveals the form
Of the time-loaded European music
That poetry has never really found, Undecipherable as God’s bad, Heavenly sketches, Involving fortress and flower, vine and wine and bone,