Freed Speech, Series 3 No.12

By Helen Constantine, David Constantine

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So far as poetry is concerned, speech is freed – given utterance – in the writing of the poem. There’s a paradox in that. Speech is freed by being enclosed in the form of a poem. In German ‘gebundene Rede’ (‘bound speech’) is verse. True, there’s ‘free verse’; but ‘free’, when such verse works, actually means abiding by rules, often very strict rules, of the poem’s own devising.

The language of a poem is not ‘freed’ by being translated; it is moved into the rules and forms of another language. But in that process the effect of the poem is enlarged: and not just in that word’s modern sense – increased, extended – but in the archaic sense too, set free, given its liberty. The translated poem has a new land to run free in.

The very first issue of MPT was an act of extending and releasing. Publishing Herbert, Holub, Miłosz, Popa and Voznesensky in English, Hughes and Weissbort enlarged them into a wider territory. Several contributors to this issue – MPT, Third Series, Number 12 – nearly half a century later, do the same. There are poems in these pages which have never been translated into English before; and some translations that bring us news from places we are lucky not to have known.

Much therapy rests on the belief that saying is better than not saying; that it helps to utter one’s suffering. We talk of repression and release. People may be helped if they can say what has happened to them, what has been done to them or what they have done. Saying is release, not saying is a continuing captivity. And if the sufferer can say the things well, make a story or a poem of them, or transpose them expressively into clay, stone, bronze, paint or a song, then it may feel that the things so uttered have not only been escaped from but also that they have been mastered. Some poems in this issue seem to have that faith. At the same time, all therapists know that the moment of release into utterance is fraught with risk: like leading the monster out of the labyrinth and in broad daylight looking it in the face. Can you face it? Reticence. Was it good or bad that so many men coming home from so many wars would not talk about them? Even in poems there is that risk. By saying unbearable things very exactly, they may confront us with more than we can bear.

In Classical literature there is a strong sense of what should not be said or of what cannot be borne if it is said. When Oedipus by his own insistent questioning hauls his past out into the daylight it is unbearable. Jocasta hangs herself and he puts out his eyes. Then Creon says he must be shut up in the house: he is unfit to be looked at by the daylight. In his case freed speech is a catastrophe. He has things in him which are unspeakable and by his own insistence, by his helpless desiring to know the truth, they get spoken.

Oedipus the King is a play in verse. By its beauty of form it renders (just about) bearable what by the beautiful force of its language it reveals. One cardinal fault in some contemporary poetry is the saying of personal things unshaped and unformed, merely as they come, in a language too little removed from common speech. The effect of this is more often lamentable than unbearable. Such poetry follows (where it should resist) the contemporary willingness to say anything at any time anywhere. People bellow their private lives in the Quiet Coach into mobile phones; they confess on television, on the front pages of the daily newspapers and on the web. And in the choice of words there is nearly no sense now of any that should not be uttered whenever you please. Poetry, unless it resists, gets swept along on this tide of slovenly bad language. It is a freeing of speech into its own degradation. No writer or translator of poetry can be glad of that.

Heinrich Heine, living in Paris but publishing largely in German in Germany, was used to having his works censored by the Prussian authorities. Briefly in 1848, the year of revolutions, there was no censorship. He said, ‘Alas, I can’t write any more. I can’t, for there’s no censorship. How can a person who has always lived under censorship write without it? There’ll be no style any more, no grammar, no decency. Till now when I wrote something stupid I thought, never mind, the censor will cross it out or change it. I relied on good censorship. But now I feel very unhappy and at a loss. I keep hoping it’s not true and that the censor is still there.’

Heine was being ironic – but not totally. The censor, he felt, did wonders for his style. And for his cunning, for the whole art of effective reticence, clever allusiveness, saying-not-saying. Every writer needs a censor: not a policeman, not a priest, not a Home Secretary, but some cool, close, critical reader over your shoulder who won’t let anything sloppy, self-indulgent, superfluous, inchoate, merely personal through. And that same friendly reader might have a sackful of shapes and forms to hand, rhyme-schemes and metres, tones, dialects and traditions, like a cabdriver’s ‘knowledge’, to help you bind your freed speech and make it work.

David and Helen Constantine
August 2009

Helen Constantine

Helen Constantine

Helen Constantine read French and Latin at Oxford. She was Head of Languages at Bartholomew School, Eynsham, until 2000, when...

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David Constantine

David Constantine

David Constantine was born in Salford in 1944. For thirty years he taught German at the Universities of Durham and Oxford. He...

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One hears in these poems a voice, or rather, voices that had scarcely reached the ears of any public, let alone one given to reading poems. David Constantine

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