Robert Firmage taught for many years at the University of Utah, but I met him at the bookstore he owned, Fifth World Books, where he was usually perched behind the desk, stacks of used books on either side, reading. After I got used to the scowl, I'd sometimes talk with Robert for long stretches. He introduced me to the work of Thomas Taylor, and it was thanks to him that I recognized that my intuitions about Plato were at least not without precedent.
Robert was also one of the first I knew to combine a deep respect for philosophy with poetry, and a competence in both. His work as a translator ranges over Latin, German, and French, and his volume of Trakl translations, Song of the Departed, is still in print. His philosophy is a deep synthesis of apparently disparate influences -- Plato, Nietzsche, the I Ching, among others -- but the unifying thread, in my opinion, remains a feeling for the way language can be used with a style and freedom that does not have to irreparably occlude reality, if the ways in which is doesconstrain our apprehension are continually remembered.
This interview was conducted over a few sessions, and the first followed upon a number of months of convalescence after Robert was struck in a hit-and-run accident while riding his bicycle. Partly due to technical problems (half of one recording was rendered unusable by audio interference), this interview has taken longer from beginning to end than any other I've done so far.
The first part of the interview is here; the second half can be read here.
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Skholiast: So, you had this accident. That must’ve been a real scare.
Robert Firmage: Well, it wasn’t, because I was totally out of it. I’m still unclear on what actually happened. I have this shadow memory of a movement to my left, as I was cautiously bicycling along, and then suddenly there was a car there. But that may be a false memory. What I really speculate on though is not how it happened but why it happened--
S.: Because you don’t believe in chance, as you’ve told me. You believe in karma.
R.F.: Absolutely. It’s a karmic universe. Part of causality is karma. Karma is part of causality. Karma is – moral causality.
R.F.: So I came to a few conclusions as I reflected during the months that followed, that some things have deepened that are fairly interesting. For one thing I’ve become much humble. A lot more open to other people’s suffering. Whereas before I kind of went through life – not cruelly or meanly or anything, but wrote my own agenda, and what other people were doing was not that important to me. And now I don’t want to say that I’m strewing pearls about me now – I don’t hang out with the people — “I despise the vulgar mob and keep it at bay,” as Horace says – but I’m more sympathetic with others. And especially, I have truly come to realize what a treasure I have in my wife Gertrud. Maybe it’s just because I didn’t appreciate her enough before.
S.: Well, I have heard you say very appreciative things of her in the past, but there’s nothing like a concrete experience of mortality to foreground how important another person is.
R.F.: Yeah. It’s made me less macho, I guess. Before I was – “This is my responsibility, I’m gonna do it, get out of my way.” And now, I’m like a slug.
S.: Was that machismo part of continuing to bicycle well past retirement, into your 70s?
R.F.: Oh, no. I still continue to bicycle. That’s lifestyle. It’s beyond lifestyle. It’s — I hate to use such a cliché, but it’s who I am. I’ve been doing that most of my life; I’ve got a hundred and fifty-thousand miles in my legs. It’s part of keeping me healthy, among other things. No, after the accident I started bicycling with a recumbent as soon as I could, but I didn’t like it – it was too slow. In fact I think I pushed myself a little too much and it slowed my recovery. So for the last two months I’ve been doing nothing (that way) and I feel much better.
S.: Well, you haven’t been doing nothing at all, because you’ve been working a lot intellectually, and I want to ask you about that. When you say that you’ve become more humble – more attuned to what other people –
S.: So I want to ask you about this. Maybe this is just in a different register, an intellectual register. Your career was as a teacher -- mainly philosophy -- although you've also labored on poetry and translation your whole life too. But one can't be an effective teacher if you are thinking first of all about one's own agenda.
R.F.: Of course. My purest experience in teaching was a class in adult basic arithmetic, with halfway-house students who thought they couldn’t learn. I had to convince them first that thet could learn and then that if they could count, they could add, and if they could add, they could subtract, multiply and divide. As I recall, I was fairly successful — we even got one guy into Westminster College in Salt Lake. And it taught me as well—a whole bunch about teaching.
S.: And as a translator, you have rendered Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rilke, Trakl, Brecht, as well as a number of other German poets I might never have encountered otherwise, modern and classic -- from Walther von der Vogelweide to Peter Huchel or Johannes Bobrowski. Not to mention, from the Latin, Horace. And it seems to me that you cannot translate the work of others and have your own agenda foregrounded at the same time.
R.F.: Hmm. No. Because my translations are homages, always. You know, the I Ching said something interesting to me; “He does not serve kings and princes; he has higher goals.”
S.: This was in answer to a particular inquiry you made?
R.F.: Yes. So when I say I’m not interested, I’ve kept hoi polloi at bay, I don't mean I've lived selfishly; but all my goals have had to do with furthering what I consider art, and in this case, bringing poets to the consciousness of people who otherwise wouldn’t have heard of them. Such as Trakl. Many people have thanked me for making Trakl accessible to them.
S.: Did you start translating from German or from French?
R.F.: From German – I started actually with Rilke, the Sonnets to Orpheus. I started reading him in German as an undergraduate, though I first knew about Rilke actually from Salinger, Franny and Zooey. I read the Sonnets and fell in love with them; then I read the Norton translation and it seemed to me one could do better – so I tried. And I tried again, and I tried again. So that’s what I cut my teeth on. Then Trakl was the second German poet I focused on, but in the meantime I had worked on some French, Baudelaire and Mallarmé, and Verlaine came a little later. Also Bonnefoy, who I know you like – Oh, I have a Bonnefoy story for you.
R.F.: When I did my Bonnefoy translations, I finished them about the time I was married the second time, to Gertrud. We waited a year to go on our real honeymoon, which was to Germany to meet her parents. On our way there we got re-routed through Paris, and we were there in Charles de Gaul airport, and I decided on a lark to call Mercure de France to see if I could send my translations to Bonnefoy. I got someone very nice on the phone, who spoke very good English, thank God, and they were agreeable, and sent the translations on to him. And he sent me back a very nice letter, to which I responded immediately, so we had a correspondence for a while. He liked my translations, but he couldn’t give me any permissions – Mercure de France had sold the rights. So I went and sat on the translations, and forgot about them until just last year – 2014. At which point I read, on some website, that he’d been given a prize, at the age of 90. I said, my God, he’s still alive! So I went back to my translations. And I found myself totally changing them. The focus before – I had taken him at his word, and the focus had been on the individual poems which in his way of thinking had served as voices – at least this is the way he thought back then – so these various voices contend with one another within the context of the book. So I was working on the individual voices; some of them didn’t want to come through for me, but some of them I found, I perfectly well understood them and had no difficulty translating them – that was my feeling at the time. But when I came back and looked at them, I saw that what I had missed, was the unity of the poet’s voice, behind the various voices. And with that, all of a sudden the whole book came into focus. It was a wonderful experience.
S.: Thirty years later!
R.F.: Yes. And I decided, well, I have to send the new version to him. So I got in touch with John Naughton, who’s also translated him, and he was kind enough to give me his email address. So I just sent it to him, writing as I always had in English to him, and the idea was, the way we’d always done our correspondence, he’d write back in French to me. Naughton had told me, “I’m sure he’ll be glad to get them and to know you’ve been thinking of him, but don’t expect any reply, as he’s very ill.” But in two days I got a reply.
S.: I’m so pleased for you. You know, I think I told you, when I read your introduction to Correspondences, your translations of the French Symbolists, when I saw your citation of Bonnefoy I was immediately struck by it. Bonnefoy has been crucial to my own development as a thinker. His essay on “The Act and Place of Poetry,” in particular.
R.F.: And he says – it’s very brief – “Thank you for your new translations, which seem good” – and that’s all you can ask for, you know – “For my part, I continue to work, with some difficulties.” Which, at 92, you can expect.
S.: It must be very striking for him to look back at such early work of his, just as for you, to rediscover these translations you did so long ago. You’re a grandfather now, obviously very proud of your grandchildren. What is it like, shuttling back and forth between now and then, either in your life now, or looking at the next generations – is the long view different from the short view?
R.F.: Oh, absolutely. My attitude to life changed totally over the last forty years. This [poetry] is all part of that process, teaching as well – philosophy and poetry together – I had the opportunity, starting in the 1980’s to become very well acquainted with Buddhism, by teaching it. Nothing helps you learn more than that. And taking it very seriously; and one thing I came to take most seriously was the dictum that everything is an illusion. Everything. But, you know, how can you mean that? And yet, basically, I eventually came to see life that way. It’s all an illusion. In your youth, you participate in the illusion, you’re a player. And as you grow older, you become a spectator of the illusion, although you still participate. Now to say that it’s an illusion is not to say that it’s not real. Of course it’s real.
S.: Real and illusory! Spoken like a real -- and illusory too, no doubt -- Taoist. Of course, an easy and somewhat reactionary reply to this is that it doesn’t take things seriously – specifically that it doesn’t take suffering seriously, and it leads to quietism, and so on. But the Buddha takes suffering very seriously.
R.F.: Well, Bodhidharma tells us, if you want to understand suffering, attend to your mind.
S.: Who’s being fooled by this illusion, after all?
R.F.: Well, what isn’t an illusion is this mind – not consciousness, certainly not the self – but it isn’t the mind that runs through the biocomputer. It’s behind the biocomputer. Mind behind the mind.
S.: Of course this is the kind of talk that makes scientismists want to climb the walls. What do you mean, “the mind behind the mind”? Can you show me any evidence, posit any mechanism? But Bodhidharma does think there is evidence: pay attention to the nature of mind, and you’ll see it.
R.F.: It’s evidence, of a whole different order. It’s not phenomenal evidence, it’s noumenal evidence, to switch to a Kantian register. Whatever Kant thought he was doing, he was definitely knocking on that particular door. The ding-an-sich doesn’t exist, of course, it’s a myth; but at the same time, it’s what’s behind that. Benjamin too is getting at this when he talks about pure language, you know, the language that wants to emerge in a translation: the marriage of two languages which creates a third.
The idea of scientists crawling the wall, in any case, is one I like. They’d be crawling up an illusion. I speak with some misgiving as I know I’ll be misunderstood, but I studied science as an undergraduate at CalTech, and the scientists around me struck me at the time --strong though this language is -- as very learned idiots. That’s sometimes a good state to be in --
S.: Yes, if you are Nicholas of Cusa. Or Socrates. But then,you have to know you don’t know.
R.F.: Well, in this case, it’s not particularly good. They believe in the given; they are positivists, and they don’t know how to look behind the given. And they take everything as fated, yet at the same time, everything is chance. There’s a dialectic there.
S.: Well, if only there were a dialectic there! But the dialectic never emerges. It’s unexamined. Yes, there’s a contradiction between this fatedness and this chance, but science qua science doesn’t press this contradiction, with a few exceptions. I’ve known wise scientists, but the scientismists I encounter, who seem to be part of a rising trend of late, don’t ask the question and in fact don’t seem to see the question.
R.F.: Yes. We’re talking about a kind of snow-blindness, being blinded by the phenomena. Not being able to see anything else, not able to believe there is anything else. There’s a tremendous temerity to scientism as well. Everyone before Darwin was a fool!
S.: Or, if not a fool, then somehow to be pitied, because – if only they could have known what we know: how it really is!
R.F.: And it’s that which makes me say they are idiots. They should know better.
Huh. How did we get onto scientism?
S.: My fault – I was saying something in response to your remark about Buddhism –
R.F.: Oh yes, “All an illusion.”
S.: This long engagement you’ve had with Buddhism, and also Taoism, is one of what I’d say are three strands I’ve heard you talk about in your philosophical development. I recall you did your early work on Wittgenstein.
S.: And later, when we first began to talk, it was all about Plato, and a particular stream of Platonism and neoPlatonism; it was because of you that I read Thomas Taylor, who no one else had ever mentioned to me. Were these stages in your thought? Or were they strands in a braid?
R.F.: It’s a constellation.
S.: There’s a Mallarméan term!
R.F.: In the Timaeus at the beginning, he names three and says “Where’s the fourth?” In Hegelian dialectic, three’s a crowd: it always generates a fourth; and the same is true in Jung. I think there’ve been four main philosophers with whom I’ve dealt. Wittgenstein does not occupy me so much anymore. He was good for me to cut my teeth on, and I still love the man; he was so fucked up in such a creative way. I say this with no condescension at all, but with admiration. I love the anecdote Bertrand Russell tells of Wittgenstein in his chambers at Cambridge, pacing up and down, and when Russell asked him, Are you contemplating philosophy or your sins, he responded, Both. What a wonderful answer!
S.: It seems to have been the answer he gave his whole life.
R.F.: Yes. But the main problem I have with him is that the only book I can read by him is the Tractatus. He is probably the only philosopher I’ve written work on that I’m really proud of. I use it, for instance, to introduce my paper on Taoism.
S.: When did you discover Taoism?
R.F.: Taoism came into my life in about 1974, when a friend stole a copy of the Wilhelm-Baynes translation of the I Ching and gave it to me. I knew it was stolen, because he didn’t have any money; but he told me, You’ve got to read this. My wife at the time, Jan, and I together asked the question, How do we prepare for our first child? And the hexagram we got in answer was hexagram 37, The Family. Well, coincidence, right? Except, what does that mean? So anyway, I started studying it, and it’s been a thread in my life ever since.
Plato on the other hand was always a thread. The third philosopher would be Heidegger. And then, because there has to be a fourth, the fourth would be Nietzsche. So you’ll note a very strong Germanic influence. You may have heard that there are two kinds of music: German, and bad? Some would say the same of philosophy. And maybe of women; but I’m a little prejudiced about that.
But let’s start with Plato. In the Republic, he presents a program of education: it’s designed to bring individuals to a place where they can gain an awareness of the Absolute. The steps are maybe clearer in the Symposium: the lover starts with loving one person, and goes on to love all beautiful things, and ascends to perceive Beauty itself. But, you know, what kind of perception is that? To talk about how one perceives it violates something – “whereof one cannot speak.” But notice, Plato’s trinity, the True, the Beautiful, and the Good: he asserts it is a moral universe, right there; one somehow perceives the Good. And I too, of course, assert this: morality is as much a part of the universe as gravity is, which is why I believe in the universality of karma; but how one sees this is very hard to say. One can say that one perceives it “with the mind’s eye,” whatever the Hell that is. It’s a good enough metaphor; but already we’re foundering. It resists being put into words. The Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao; the truth that can be written, that can be expressed, is not the “true” truth.
One finds the same thing in Benjamin, even in just that one brief essay on “The task of the translator,” or in his kabbalah studies. “Pure language!” I know what he means. When I read Benjamin, I think, this man has lived my life. He’s had my thoughts.
Not that I agree with everything he says; I utterly disagree that great poets cannot be great translators, for instance. Of course, he never makes this claim outright, but he implies it.
S.: That Benjaminian evocation of pure language – how does that resonate for you with the Mallarméan longing for the flower?
R.F.: The flower “missing from all bouquets”?
R.F.: How does it not? We’re talking about a language in which reference is no longer important except in the sense of intention, which in the phenomenological ambiance of the early 20th century when Benjamin was writing has nothing to do with meaning to do something; it has to do with pointing. In the same sense that the Buddhist parable speaks of pointing at the moon: it’s not the damn finger that you’re looking at!
S.: And you read Brentano and Husserl that way?
R.F.: Absolutely. The essence of mind, of mentality, is intentionality. Without reference. Of course, this is all extremely shorthand, and would need a lot of fleshing out.
S.: Well, but isn’t that the point? “Flower” is shorthand, for that one, and that one, and that one....
R.F.: And yet it’s none of them. But you can’t say that it doesn’t exist, because it’s absent. That’s what the preface to the Correspondences volume is all about. Probably the only way I do philosophy anymore these days is epigrammatically. There’s Nietzsche again.
S.: And Nietzsche himself would say that thought itself is abbreviation.
S.: Wittgenstein says that when philosophers meet, they ought to hail each other with the greeting, “Take your time.” That’s good advice because there is a sense in which the words always go too fast. Particularly when the spark starts to leap, as Plato says in the Seventh Letter, you do have this sense of enormous things passed over in silence, or posited quickly and then moved on from.
R.F.: Well, let’s move on to that third member of the group, Heidegger. He’s been the one I’ve been working on most assiduously lately – although for me that’s still a rather sporadic phenomenon. When Heidegger asks about Being, rather than beings, here we are right up into Taoism already, because we’re struck with the inadequacy of how we express ourselves. You know: “I’m talking about Mind, not ‘mind.’ ” Well! But when you really think about it, the Being of beings is indeed something “behind” the things, something not accessible through language; he’s saying – but it’s only a pointing – that in our everyday engagement, we take this whole thing for granted. It’s incredible: this thing we call life, which is so rich, so complicated, and so simple, so exasperating, and we don’t ever ask: What is it?
It’s easy to accept unthinkingly, before you read Einstein and modern physics, things like simultaneity. We take for granted that it makes sense to say this happened at the same time as that. But my sister-in-law lives in Germany. What is she doing “now”? It’s a different time of day. Does it make sense to speak of “the same time” in this case, and if so, how does that work? And then furthermore, as Wittgenstein asks: what time is it on the sun? You start to realize that all these things make sense in only in small packages.
R.F.: Yes. But beyond that – as you expand the context, what we took for granted is gone.
S.: This is one reason Wittgenstein insists that we keep coming back to immediate practice; what we actually do, how we actually use words, as parts of our particular human projects....
R.F.: Heidegger does the same thing. He asks about the vorhanden, and everything is a tool. But what interests me about Heidegger, is he started out as a theology student, became a philosopher (and for a while a Nazi), and then at the end, in the Der Spiegel interview, he says, “Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten,” “Only a God can save us.” So you know. He’s always had this theological strain. He’s got a secret Buddhist/Taoist axe to grind, but he doesn’t want to bring it up, he wants you to think about it yourself.
S.: What do you think he thought we needed to be saved from?
R.F.: Ourselves. I think he thought we were bewitched, not by language as Wittgenstein thought, but by practice. This is where Heidegger goes beyond Wittgenstein.
S.: Well, one can surely see that local concerns on a human scale don’t work well to give us our bearings when we back out very far at all; that’s why it doesn’t work to ask what time it is on the sun. Nor, either, when we zoom in very close –
R.F.: – it’s changing contexts. And meaning relies on context.
S.: But what is my shared context with an amoeba? Or with a salmon?
R.F.: What kind of conversation can you have with an amoeba? Can you have one?
S.: Well, I may. Dysentery is a sort of conversation, or at least a kind of interaction, with an amoeba.
R.F.: OK, yeah. Nonverbal communication.
S.: And I have – there’s a sort of commerce between myself and the salmon as well.
R.F.: Mm hmm. Well, I have a wonderful relation with my dog. I understand her, and she clearly understands what I do.
S.: And there’s all sorts of back-and-forth in Taoist literature between the smaller compass of human concerns and the less clearly outlined but much larger natural world.
R.F.: And then the Tao. One ascends step by step. Man follows Earth, Earth follows Heaven, Heaven follows the Tao, and the Tao follows itself. When you follow that whole line, you find that there is something that is shared; but it’s noumenal, it’s not phenomenal.
S.: Asking “what time is it on the sun?” is asking a misplaced question, thinking you will find the answer on the phenomenal plane.
S.: Is this step-by-step like the ascent from the Cave?
R.F.: In the sense that it leads you to the noumena, yes.
S.: Why then do you think Heidegger mounts such a fierce attack on Plato?
R.F.: Because he thinks Plato starts too far in the phenomena. I’m not sure he understands the Republic the way I do. (I’m not sure he doesn’t, either!) Much of Heidegger’s attention is on later dialogues like the Sophist. But Plato has, from Heidegger’s position a problem. Plato wants commerce between the world of Ideas and this world.
S.: : Supposedly Plato has a strong anti-poet bias. As both a poet and a self-described Platonist, do you think this is just a misunderstanding? And if not, how do you square these two enthusiasms?
R.F.: Perhaps my answer seems, or will seem, to you an evasion. To begin with, you’ve got to add Taoist to your list, because that is the key to the whole riddle. I should also probably add a caveat — it’s not that I am a Platonist, poet, Taoist, Christian, whatever. There are no doubt millions of Christians who would deny me standing, and hundreds at least of the others who with their respective beliefs, would do the same. The point is rather that I consider myself a Taoist Christian Platonist poet; the point is indeed that I have a special understanding of what each of these labels essentially or intrinsically denote. Because they are just labels, words. And what they do is to provide a convenient device to make unequals equal in certain respects. But the Taoist, as I understand her, does not believe in words — not as denoters, or as rigid designators. Words are but fingers pointing to that moon which is some particular aspect of the ‘world’ (in its broadest sense) which is under consideration. Or, perhaps better (but still vague & metaphorical), language is a communal grid we place between ourselves and the world in order to facilitate communication of whatever we’re pointing to, in order to secure common reference. What words we use do not identify or rigorously define what we are pointing to, they merely help locate it.
The picture I have painted is too schematic and oversimplified — but it comes down to the contention that all language is irreducibly tropical. Kind of an anti-logical-positivism: precision of definition is impossible. I hope you have followed.
What I consider my Platonism ties in here. Platonism is the doctrine that there exist two orders: the order of thought (spirit, ideality, absolute truth) and the order of empiricism (truth by consensus, intersubjectivity masquerading as objectivity, blood-sweat-and-tears). In the Parmenides, Plato shows that the order of language (and hence of our rationality) is strictly incommensurable with the order of Ideas (forms) and that there is no way to bridge the gulf short of platonic contemplation (which is adumbrated in the Republic). What platonists call ideal reality (the realm of forms), Taoists call the Tao; what taoists call language, platonists call opinion (knowledge below the middle of the ‘line’).
So when I call myself a Platonist I am calling myself a Taoist — I believe in a reality that is not amenable to reason.
So how can a poet be a Taoist/Platonist? Because poetry -- or rather art, all art -- is the art of pointing. The ‘truth’ sought by the real poet is in the world, not in his writing — his poem merely points to it. A poem would seem to me the most intricate finger designed by man — unless, of course, it was the gods who designed it.
And what — finally! — of Plato’s diatribe against the poets? I wrote a paper on this subject — one of my best as a student — but the gist of it was that Plato was aiming his polemics at a different sort of creature — the sophist-poet. Plato’s “poet,” the target of his polemic, is one who recites from memory, is immersed wholly in rhetoric and obfuscates with adornment. But Plato himself, as has often been noted, is the most poetical of philosophers. He does not prove, he entertains hypotheses. His ‘theories' are pictures of reality as he envisions it. He never pontificates, and whenever Socrates ‘proves’ a point, Plato wants us to recognize the fallacies involved in his ‘proof'. That is what I try to do as a poet. But I am not as good at it as Plato.
This whole response is an adumbration of what seems complicated, but is really rather simple, once it’s clear.
Also: what I call my Christianity connects also with Platonism. In the Symposium, Socrates speaks of love as being the means by which we are able to bridge the gap from rationality to the forms. Jesus taught that there are no commandments but only the requirement to love, which is not a law since love to be love must be freely given. My belief is that only if we approach it with love can we understand the world.
S.: And what poetic projects are you working on now?
R.F.: I’m trying to put together a number of collections of translations, work I have done over a lifetime. I just finished transcribing a poem, which I hadn’t thought I would include at first. Something I came across in the early ‘80s by a German poet named Heinz Piontek, called Vorkriegszeit, which I have translated as "Prewartime." It is virtually unknown in America. Back then I was working on a compilation of modern German poets, all on the theme of nature. Of course – nature, war, death, love, the depredation of the environment. That was when I found most of the poets I went on to translate more of. I had already known Brecht, and Rilke; but I then got to know Trakl especially, and also Peter Huchel, of whom I hope eventually to publish my translations.
S.: It’s thanks to you that I ever read Huchel.
R.F.: Well, Piontek was another of those. He’s West German, though; most of the others were East German, or else like Trakl and Rilke they predated the split. Trakl of course was Austrian. But Huchel is East German, Bobrowski as well. The anthology never worked, because nobody ever wanted such a thing – a thematic anthology. I understand this much better now. But I’ve been able to use much of the work now, and I find that the translations hold up, though I adjust them here and there. Brecht for instance is relatively easy to translate -- he spent so much time in America that in some ways he thinks like an American. Bobrowski is harder. And Piontek -- he’s considered a Christian metaphysical poet. Stylistically, he’s perhaps in the tradition of some modernist French poets, less in the tradition of the Germans. Most Germans come from Expressionism; he doesn’t. I find his prosody very simple. But the poem is well worth knowing, especially now; it’s an apocalyptic poem. It reminds me in some ways of Carl Orff’s later work. Do you know his choral work Comedy for the End of Time?
S.: No; I know his work for children, and of course the Carmina Burana.
R.F.: Well, at the end of this huge piece, De temporum fine comoedia, Satan comes before God, and says, Pater Peccavi, Pater Peccavi, Pater Peccavi. “Father, I have sinned.” And that’s the end of time. Piontek’s poem is similar, but he sets it around the Jewish prophetic tradition, Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the wisdom literature. It’s written to Wisdom, and opposes to it all the human folly of the century.
R.F.: Yes. I’ve just finished that. I’m still, too, in the midst of Horace, who I love, though he’s difficult as Hell.
S.: When you work on an ancient poet, like Horace, do you feel you must change your poetic register?
R.F.: Every poet is different. For Brecht, for instance, you want a tone that is colloquial and quite sardonic, probably looking back to the expressionists and post-symbolists, but his voice is unique. And what one wants to do as a translator is to find a corresponding voice within oneself, that expresses that range. And a necessity for being a good translator is loving your poet, loving what they’re doing and wanting to do the same thing, insofar as that’s possible. Easy to say, hard to understand. On the other hand, somebody like Horace has a certain formality -- I find myself going back probably as far as the seventeenth century, for English models. My language tends to become Biblical, my grammar. One of the things I’ve always insisted upon is precision -- the difference, say, between shall and will; care with the subjunctive mood; that sort of thing is very clear in Horace. “Shall” has an inexorability to it; “will” expresses an intention; that’s my own short summary of it. Little things like that are important, and I always run the risk of the charge of artificiality, preciosity, or just plain derivation; but if someone wants to accuse me of channeling Sir Thomas Browne, I won’t feel bad.
S.: The seventeenth century seems like a good place to go for models for Horace’s language; though not everyone thought well of him then. Dryden, I think, called him a court slave ,or words to that effect.
R.F.: Yes, well, I think Marvell is where to turn for good language to express Horace; not Dryden, whose opinion moreover is not fair at all. In the first place, one has to recognize political necessity; and if like Horace you are an Epicurean and a Stoic to boot, that necessity is something you’re always going to recognize. He asked himself, What better government can you imagine in these circumstances? And he answered, None. He was sick of civil war, of which they had had fifty years. He had lost his ancestral home during that, because he’d backed the wrong horse, and he managed to claw himself back into favor; and as a poet, especially as someone who sees his own calling to be the Roman lyric poet, he needed that favor. Brecht understands this, and by the way loves Horace.
S.: Yes, that does speak well for him -- it gives the lie to the notion of Horace as a fawning imperial yes-man.
R.F.: So yes, he’s a pragmatist; but he’s not a toady. He kept his opinions to himself. He created a persona -- again, very much like Brecht.
S.: I have some questions about contrasting poets and kinds of poetry. One is this question about the ancients and the moderns. You’ve described yourself as not liking change; but you’ve spent a lot of time with Rilke and Trakl, for instance, and a hundred years ago, when this sort of modern poetry was making its inroads into English, at any rate, people were alarmed at the casting-off of forms. Though when I read The Waste Land, for instance, I don’t think I’m merely projecting Eliot’s later conservatism back on it; I find it to be actually kind of a conservative poem in some way; not just in that Eliot seems already weary, though he was in his 20’s when he wrote it --
R.F.: Well, he was already weary. Look at Prufrock -- “I grow old, I grow old….” -- and when he wrote that, he was even younger.
S.: But there’s also a fairly discernible content to The Waste Land, which is why I call it conservative compared with what was roughly contemporary; it’s hardly a Dada anti-poem, or even a cascade of Surrealist free-association -- though it is as in love with, as drunk with, sound or diction, as Dylan Thomas, or --
R.F.: -- or Pound, for instance, who’s the one I look to. Pound has an ability I strive after -- his ear, which may be a little eclectic or over-lush, romantic, but which I love. Thomas leaves me a bit cold, and Eliot -- well, The Waste Land I find to be a failed poem. Unlike Four Quartets. In The Waste Land, he tries to do to much, and Pound tried to claw it back; he warned Eliot that he was running into becoming an essayist. It’s a real risk; in my book Stone, I think I fall to it a little. In any case, my admiration of Pound has to do with my seeking, as a translator, for the qualities of a voice. It’s not a historical period, or even a register, for my vocabulary and diction; I’m trying to reproduce what I’m hearing, which isn’t necessarily German or French or Latin, you know; it’s human somehow. The concept of “Voice in Robert Firmage” would become a very metaphysical study before too long, because I am always looking for the Poem within the Poem. As a good Taoist, I may not like change, but I must recognize it and though I can shore up my little routines against it, I always end up bowing to it.
S.: And so a poem changes in translation, but one hopes that the poem within the poem is still discernible -- is made contemporary again, perhaps. This is perhaps what I wanted to ask you about the ancients and moderns. Do you feel that all these poets -- the ones you can love, anyway -- in some sense your contemporaries?
R.F.: Oh yes. And these -- those whom I feel are my contemporaries -- are the only ones I can translate. I can’t translate Vergil, for instance. He’s the one who’s a toady, if you want my opinion. He’s also a very great poet. But contrast him with Horace -- Horace reaches into his own self, and you can read out of what he’s saying about Augustus: “he’s a good egg, so to speak , once you get to know him -- but he’s also a martinet and wants everyone around him to be sycophants, and I’m not going to be one” -- and he wasn’t. Augustus wrote to Maecenus saying, “I’d like your friend Horace to be my personal secretary,” and Horace said, Not Interested. Yet Augustus kept after him to continue to write poems, even after he’d finished the Odes; this is how we get Book Four, which is really a coda, which kept him in favor with Augustus, but contains the worst things he ever did -- the so-called Secular Hymn about the glory of the Roman army reads like a Pagan press release. Well, you can be the Poet Laureate, but you’ve got to do the work; and so he wrote a couple of bad poems. If this was all there was to Horace I couldn’t translate him; but there’s so much more. His wonderful sense of humor, so dry -- I like that, and I suspect this is why Brecht liked him as well.
S.: There’s that sobering quip by Fredric Jameson to the effect that one can more easily imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Well, for myself, I find it very difficult to imagine poets, qua poets, ever becoming so sought after, so pursued or so feared, again. Yet it was fairly recently still the case; the example that came to mind is Mandelshtam, who offended Stalin, tried to get himself back into favor with a bad poem -- and knew he had succumbed to a moment of cowardice. In any case it didn’t work, and he certainly atoned for it. But I just cannot imagine this happening now -- certainly not in the United States, not in the west generally. Can it happen? What does this mean for poetry, or for us, that this art which once made emperors solicit your favor with bribes and threats, and dictators punish with gulag and banishment, has become less than a byword for nobody giving a damn?
R.F.: Well that’s the point. Nobody gives a damn. No one reads poetry now except for a small minority -- maybe eggheads like you and me --
S.: -- or wistful students? I don’t believe it. I know that poetry readings always seem pretty full when I attend. But it is true that they feel like they’ve become consumer events. Even the Poetry Slams, which are touted for their vibrant energy -- they’re not making any of the Great Powers tremble. Auden said that poets write for three audiences: the heads of state whose ears they have, the beautiful young people they imagine they will bed, and their fellow poets. Which means that, in practice, they write for their fellow poets.
R.F.: That’s right. But I write poetry for the sake of the Muse. I’ve become more and more certain as I grow older that this is the correct metaphor. When you write, you are the voice of the muse in one sense, but more importantly, the muse is your voice.
S.: If you are lucky. Or blessed.
R.F.: The muse is what gives your voice life. And there’s no other reason to write poetry, in this day and age. You can imagine that some day in the distant future some other poet will come across your work, like Yeats with Blake -- you can hope for that, but you can’t expect it. If you write “for posterity,” you’re writing for something you don’t understand and may never exist. No one knows what posterity will be like. As for writing for one’s contemporaries, in America, that’s hopeless. You’d do better to become a rock star.
But here’s my fantasy. I imagine Trakl, in Heaven, smiling down. That is enough. I actually got this with Bonnefoy. He responded, he was touched, and what more could you want -- as a translator? As a poet, well, I don’t really have a poetic style anymore, and maybe I never did. Every book of my own has had its own voice; and, if I manage to write my last book before I die, I’ll hope to build off of all of these things I’ve been doing, translations and my own work, and perhaps it will come together.
S.: Do you feel any urgency about this project now, in light of your brush with mortality?
R.F.: If it happens, good; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t happen.
(the second half of this interview is now posted as well.)