The Proof of the Poetry

The Nobel Prize in Literature went (as you surely know unless you have been living under a rock) to Bob Dylan this year. The news was followed by rather a lot of complaining about the choice, agonizing about the nature of the literary, and pearl-clutching over the decline of high culture in favor of pop. The one community in which none of this happened was amongst medievalists: Those of us who study the protest poetry and personal anthems of the Middle Ages, written in verse and often sung aloud, do not have the luxury of holding up the Provençal troubadour lyric (just to give one example) as the exemplification of the literary just because it is old while condemning Bob Dylan for being pop or soppy or definitely not poetry because he is a lot less old. The line is blurry and in the end they are the same thing: Bob Dylan is our troubadour.

For more on rock music and its relationship to the Provençal lyric, read chapter 3 of María Rosa Menocal’s Shards of Love, which focuses on a collaboration between the Persian poet Nizami and the rocker Eric Clapton that transcended language, death, and eight-hundred years. That chapter argues, in part, that in lyrics like Dylan’s or Clapton’s or the Provençal troubadours, the music is an inherent part of the poetics and the lyrics and the music can’t be separated out and read separately. It makes perfectly good sense: we don’t, for example, separate out the two languages in bilingual poetry or the sources or influences from poetry written at a cultural crossroads (or we shouldn’t, anyway). Some medieval Hebrew poetry has Arabic metrics; some medieval Arabic poetry ends with a Romance couplet; some Provençal poetry is influenced by Arabic forms and sung as song; and some twentieth-century American poetry has electric guitars.


Menocal brought rock to medieval studies in ways that were revolutionary and totally self-evident.  (And in fact, having been her student, the coincidental timing of the fourth anniversary of her death and the awarding of a Nobel Prize that I’d like to think would have thrilled her gives this all a bit more weight for me.)

But despite my intellectual lineage, I don’t know all that much about Bob Dylan’s oevre. I find his voice hard to listen to, so I mostly don’t. At the end of the day, I’m a Clapton-Beatles kind of girl. The song of Dylan’s that I know the best, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” isn’t one that I know because of him, per se, or through a recording that he made. I don’t even really know it in English. In the early 1970s, the Israeli poet Jonathan Geffen translated several of Dylan’s songs into Hebrew, which were recorded in 1974 Danny Litani.

Ask anyone my age, though, and we all know Geffen’s translation of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” via the recording made by his prodigal son, the rocker Aviv Geffen. (In fact, it was only in doing the background poking about for this blog post that that I realized that there is a whole additional verse in the original.) The contemporary version is forcefully rhythmic and as dark as an Edward Gorey drawing. I have heard the imagery of Dylan’s version described as “bizarre,” but I think that the imagery in the Hebrew translation is glowering and terrifying.

The announcement of the Nobel finally pushed me to try an experiment I had been percolating for some time now: Re-translate Geffen’s Hebrew translation back into English as though the Hebrew were the original and as though I were translating a poem.

This is (*first draft klaxon*) a first draft of my translation of Geffen’s translation:

dylangeffen-copyI think I have only heard the original English version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” once or maybe twice before, and so I made a conscious decision not to look at those lyrics or listen to the song until I was done with a solid draft; I treated this like an English translation of a Hebrew poem. What speaks to me most about this text (I’ll hold off from calling it a song or a poem for a moment) is the dark strangeness of the images; they appeal to my own sense that I cannot escape the macabre and they are, for me, like looking at the world as it is, rather than having to live with it as most people see it but as I know it is not. The imagery, in short, was my priority. I was cautious about translating the rhyme scheme from the Hebrew since it can so often go so very badly. I thought that trying to capture the distinctive cadence would be enough, but it wasn’t; so I went back to rhyme. It’s a first draft, so I may revisit that decision when I eventually go back to revise.

The music definitely had an impact on where cadence and rhyme seemed most important. I listened to the Helicon recording (above) on a loop on an old iPod while I was working on this, tuning it out when I was in a groove and listening more carefully when I wanted to check my work. The music is important, but grammar is music, too; music doesn’t discount something from being literature.

And that brings us back to Dylan and the question of how his lyrics can “count” as literature — for those who are keeping count, of course. This isn’t a very scholarly observation — although perhaps I will be able to develop it over time — but it seems to me that beyond the question of a coherent poetics inclusive of music, the translation is the proof of the poetry. The text holds up as a poem back-and-forth-and-back, affirming its translatability and, with every translatio, its literariness. It is only if we consider Dylan’s work to be “mere song” that we are confronted with the irresolvable situation in which the original is unfaithful to the translation.

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