Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Image

"The image is a transvestite of the word."

- Daniel Tiffany, from his brilliant book Radio Corpse about Pound's idea of the image and its dual characterstics: the necrophiliac/decadent dimension and the progressive, "modern" element that tries to erase the necrophiliac element.

What's uninteresting to me about the "new thing" Steve Burt describes in his essay in the Boston Review (and I believe his description is pretty astute) is that it's the attempt to have imagism without the ghosts, without the transvestitism.

And this is very much related to translation: Translation transvestisizes the "original."


I've blogged a bit about my troubles with the valorization of "the community" in a lot of American poetry discussions. This strain of thought is perhaps most extensively expressed in my mentor Jed Rasula's book American Poetry Wax Museum, which I think captures the essence of the pro-"community" rhetoric: the wax museum is fake, kitsch, "vocal prosthesis" (that phrase I think is about Plath); while the community is real, real interactions, real men and real women making real natural children (not the kind Joyelle discussed in her "Future" of "Poetry" talk).

This has something to do with the fear of the image: it's transvestite of language. It's kitsch (explicitly in Jed's dismissal of Robert Bly). It's death in language. The community is about life, the natural. The wax museum is a crypt full of costumey images. And far more interesting as far as I'm concerned.


Blogger Kate Durbin said...

The image is the abortion.

1:39 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Weren't you decrying "the wax museum" very recently? What's with the turnaround?

4:14 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I'm still opposed to the wax museum. Perhaps this post was unclear.


4:51 PM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

I'm thinking you might be interested in this over at HTMLgiant, about excess vs retraint etc.

5:34 PM  
Blogger R. Sanford said...

As in discussion / acceptance that it's indeed a wax museum being more interesting rather than the sculpting of the wax museum being more interesting, yeah? I might be way off here.

7:36 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I am anti-wax-museum rhetoric, which is rhetoric that tends to be anti-image, in favor of a normative notion of "community". So it's primarily that anti-kitsch, anti-image rhetoric that I oppose. I oppose it in large part because it is so normative, so invested in "the real" etc.

But also because the really interesting art to me is the art that such rhetoric is meant to reject.

I don't ultimately think Jed's Wax Museum is ultimately a critique of Quietist practices; Quietism uses the same rhetoric (that's excess, "too much", showy, spectacular, forced, affected, unnatural etc). The real anxiety is about something else. Something about Art. Artifice. The Self. The Body. And that's what I've been trying to get at.


7:51 AM  
Blogger mongibeddu said...

Translation transvestisizes the "original."

I thought about this and don't think, finally, it's true, though the idea is appealing. The disdain for translation isn't that it transgresses norms, or makes a travesty of them, but that it's not adequate. Keeping to the clothing idiom, translation is "playing dress up." It's the prom version of a high-fashion original, a little tacky, but well-intentioned, and perfectly good in its intended use.

Body type I think works better for translation than clothing. Translation is corporeal, but in a way that is often unflattering. Translations are wordy ("overweight"), inelegant ("have bad skin"), fail to dazzle (are "flat-chested," "gangly"), but can still be lovable, can still be loved by those who don't care so much about looks ... I guess that's what your disability metaphor is getting at, but with a different rhetoric, and different associations.

Anyway, I think you're right to pay such close attention to what's devalued in literary discourse.

Ben F.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Max said...

...but can still be lovable, can still be loved by those who don't care so much about looks...

Or, better yet, by people who actually find that look attractive.

4:26 PM  
Blogger mongibeddu said...

Or, better yet, by people who actually find that look attractive.

Very true.

4:44 PM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

mongibeddu - I have to say I completely disagree - what is inadiquate about translation? You kind of take that for granted (and don't give any evidence for translations being "inelegant" and "fail[ing] to dazzle" - and being "wordy" is not neccesarily perjorative, though come to think of it, neither is inelegance).
I think transvestitism works fine - the language into which the poem moves is the non-normatively gendered clothing. I don't see what's wrong with that at all.

Johannes - about the image. I do get what you're saying about Kitch etc, but I'm not sure how the anti-image stance is invested in the real. My experience is that people often want my work to be more "real" through more "concrete images" (when what I'm more interested in in that regard is the spectral and halucinatory)

7:50 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Yes, I think you're right: it's a matter of what kind of image; andthat's why I said I was notso interested in Burt's "new thing", which seems like an extreme version of wanting things to be "real." And why I said that thing about the ghostliness of Pound's imagism.

It's also why I said somehwere that the Jed critique and the quietist critique is oftne the same - both oppose the wax museum, the showy etc. And that's what I think it meanswhen quietist workshops say: you have to earn that image.


6:45 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Translation tends to be accused either of lacking or excess. What I'm drawing attention to is what I think makes a lot ofpeople uncomfortable about it: its fake-ness denaturalizes what is seen as real.

And also, how the valorization of "community" seems based on "realness" of interaction (as opposed to wax museums, vocal prostheses etc).


6:50 AM  
Blogger mongibeddu said...


I'm not giving my own opinion of translation; I'm simply stating what I think of as the common reasons for its being treated as secondary, not only with regard to the original texts, but in relation to a translator's own poetry. Do you disagree with that assessment of how people generally think?



Lack, excess, fakery ... absolutely. I agree with that. But are those the attributes of a transvestite, an actor, a high school student? No one figure could ever suffice in all cases, which is why I'm not especially attached to my prom dress alternative. But I guess I would say, among intellectuals, the awkwardness of adolescence is at least as likey to cause discomfort as cross-dressing.

I guess I resist "transvestite" b/c, with the few poets I know well enough to judge translations of, I see the major problems as being simplification and normalizing. In which case it's the original that's more "transvestite." So one thing your argument in favor of translation makes me consider: what's so bad about simplifying and normalizing--why do I react so strongly against that? Am I wrong? Those are productive questions, even if I end up affirming my original response.

7:39 AM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

M -
I'm not really concerned with why translation is treated as secondary - I'm especially resistant to the idea of it as a disservice to the 'authentic' original - something may be lost in translation, but there are gains as well.

And I'm not particularly concerned with how people generally think (though I would resist such a characterisation, as it acts to homogenise an essentially hetrogeneous population). I'd rather try and change these conceptions. And the majority of translation I've read (with some exceptions, or course) has been fantastic.

it's the complication of translation that makes it interesting, and productive.

6:50 PM  

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