A Poem for a Pear Tree

A Pear Tree Blooming in Winter, 9 August 2018. Copyright 2018 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.
The sight that inspired “A Pear Tree” on 4 August 2018, photographed (again) a few days later.

Beside the dirt road that leads to the hamlet where I live, a pear tree stands alone at the edge of a field. Every year, it blooms at the beginning of August, a month before the arrival of the South African spring, delighting the passer-by modestly yet spectacularly. In August 2018, I wrote a few rough stanzas in response to that very tree under the working title “A Pear Tree”. Now, nearly two years later, I am ready to develop them into a finished poem.

Poetry Publication Progress (2020-06-24)

Composing “O, How Free is the Wind!”: A Final Draft

The rhyming scheme of “O, How Free is the Wind!”. (The purpose of the staggered, asymmetrical format is to suggest the movement of the wind.)

I am stunned by how easily and quickly “O, How Free is the Wind!” has developed into a finished work—as if it composed itself! Regardless of length, it usually takes four to five weeks for my compositions to come together, but this poem has taken one!

Following an AAB C DDB C rhyming scheme in staggered lines, there are two stanzas, each describing a mood of the wind: in the first, it is placid; in the second, full of life. Each stanza concludes with a separated exclamation—the title, that of the second.

Poetry Publication Progress (2020-06-21)

Composing “O, How Free is the Wind!”

Sometimes, a poetic sketch contains within it the rudimentary structure upon which the final composition can be hung; sometimes, it is the beginning of an idea that evolves into a work bearing no resemblance to the first form. The latter is the case with “O, How Free is the Wind!”.

Reviewing my original lines from two years ago, I found they were nothing more than an enthusiastic translation of the Deutscher-Madison lyrics; therefore, I am engineering the poem anew by using as my starting point the three elements of the sketch that I consider salvageable:

  1. the working title (“O, How Free is the Wind!”, which I shall use as a refrain),
  2. the subject (the wind, which will be the focus of the poem) and
  3. the theme (the characteristics of the wind, its effects about and above us).

Around these then I am constructing a new draft which already shows great promise!

The Next Sketch

It appears I am not yet done with Afrikaans after completing “Skaapwagtertjie”—the counterpart in that language of “Shepherd Girl”—as the next poem to be developed is “O, How Free is the Wind!” (working title), a sketch prompted by an Afrikaans song: “Ruiter van die Windjiie”1 (Rider of the Breeze).

It was composed by Drafi Deutscher in the mid-nineteen-seventies for Heintje Simons and covered in the mid-nineteen-eighties by Bles Bridges.2 For the lyrics, Deutscher—under the alias Renate Vaplus—collaborated with singer Ben E. Madison, describing in simple verses, life on the wings of the wind.

The wind is a prominent theme of my work. When I heard the Deutscher-Madison lyrics anew, almost exactly two years ago, I was moved to compose several rough English stanzas in response. These I shall now review to determine whether they will work as a lyric poem, joyful and bracing as the song.

  1. Pronounced [RoyteR fun dee veyngkee] with the [R]s trilled, the [ee]s short like that in “it” and [oy] like that in “toy”, but uttering an “uh” rather than “aw”: [uhee].
  2. Like Simons in The Netherlands, Bridges in South Africa was famous for schlager songs: vocal-centred compositions with memorable tunes, dutiful accompaniment and light, sentimental lyrics. Simons recorded many songs in Afrikaans, a language similar to his native Dutch, from which it derives.

Poetry Publication Progress (2020-06-12)

Sweet Similitude

Mist Above Bethoeskloof, 5 June 2020. Copyright 2020 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.
Were you to turn to the left whilst surveying the scene I photographed last Friday, you would see the easternmost extremity of the Little River Mountain range, the setting for the “Shepherd Girl” and “Skaapwagtertjie” poems.

“Shepherd Girl” and its Afrikaans counterpart, “Skaapwagtertjie”, are complete. Having set myself the task, two weeks ago, of creating greater alignment between the final English and Afrikaans compositions (especially where they were overly dissimilar), I have achieved success.

Now, when the poems are placed side by side, they reflect one another as closely in phrasing and feature as grammar and style allow. Though it took more than sixty additional versions and variations to bring about this symmetry, I consider it time, turmoil and trial well spent.

Poetry Publication Progress (2020-06-09)

A Poet Vindicated

Mist Above Bethoeskloof, 5 June 2020. Copyright 2020 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.
The ridges of the Little River Mountains with a misty mantle. As a girl, my mother watched the family’s sheep beyond the concealed elevation, just left of centre.

Yesterday, I spoke again with my mother about her childhood shepherding days as the very mountain upon which she grazed her flock slowly succumbed to the mist:

“Would you still be up there at this time?”

“By now, I would be home.”

“What time did you descend?”

“I do not know; we did not have watches or clocks.”1

“How fortuitous that you should tell me this! The second stanza in the Afrikaans version of ‘Shepherd Girl’ has the line ‘Van ure onbewus’2—‘Of hours unaware’!”3

For days, I have been vacillating between several versions of the incongruent second stanza in the English and Afrikaans compositions of the poem in question. My most recent gripe was with its line “Of hours unaware”.

It is meant to show that she passed the time in a world of her own, but “Of hours unaware” seemed to me overly hyperbolic: how could she not know what hours were?4

Yesterday’s anecdote revealed that this was in fact the case, vindicating my poetic choice and helping me select the English and Afrikaans stanza versions containing that line as the ones to appear in the final drafts!

  1. My mother watched her stepmother Dot and step-uncle Mike’s sheep which were kept in the latter’s pen atop the mountain. Uncle Mike would crack his whip from far below on the foothills as the signal for her to fold the sheep and return home.
  2. Pronounced [fun eeRuh onbeviss]: [ee] is formed by rounding the mouth as if to say “ooh”, but positioning the tongue to form “eeh” (like the [u] in the French mur); the [R] is trilled (“RRR”) and the [i] like the [uh] in “about”.
  3. I am yet to recite to her the complete Afrikaans poem, but I am happy to report that she was delighted with the English one!
  4. How bizarre the scruples of the poet when working out the implications of his lines!

Stanza Two: What To Do?

Stanza Two: What To Do?, 24 May 2020. Copyright 2020 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.

“Skaapwagtertjie”

As if in lockstep with the development of its completed English counterpart (“Shepherd Girl”), “Skaapwagtertjie”’s second stanza is a challenge. Having reduced the number of versions for the stanza from just over twenty to two strong contenders for the final draft, I have reached an impasse.

Stanza one introduces shepherdess and flock on the mountain, whilst stanza two elaborates upon her solitary hours watching the sheep. The challenge: which of the two stanza versions most evocatively captures the scene in its four (very) short lines. To find the victor ludorum, I can but nitpick!

“Shepherd Girl”

If truth be told, I am still vacillating between—nay, tormented by—my final choices for stanza two in the English poem. In fact, I devoted today to composing six additional versions of the stanza (from which I have extracted three with promise) to assure myself that I have exhausted every variation.

I had hoped that completing the Afrikaans would bring resolution to my concerns about the English version, but it seems there is yet more work to be done on the latter before I can finalise the former. This is primarily due to the fact that I wish to bring the two poems into thematic agreement.

O, Symmetry!

The second stanza is the only one in which they sufficiently diverge (in subject matter) to cause me concern. In spite of my past pronouncements that the two compositions develop independently, my innate desire for uniformity compels me to seek symmetry, and I must attempt to create it!1

It may be that the aforementioned new English second stanza trials produce nothing worthy and I must humbly accept that the current version is my best offering; but, until I am satisfied that I have summoned every poetic ingenuity within my power, I shall not proceed with the Afrikaans.

  1. I am, of course, in the fortunate position that I can so shape both poems that they agree without compromise—the English version informing the Afrikaans and vice versa. This is not one poet translating the work of another, but a poet casting his own composition into another language (a most fascinating exercise).

The Words We Choose

The Words We Choose, 19 May 2020. Copyright 2020 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.

The poetic process is a fascinating one, especially when it comes to the selection of the “right” words. Consider those instances where we choose words not only for their Content and Construction but their Capacity (to perform a particular function) and Cadence (to actualise a particular meaning).

For example, Heinrich Heine uses “hold” (rather than, say, “lieb”) in “So hold und schön und rein”1 to produce a progression of vowels that “opens” like a flower; and a word like “wandered” that requires a certain unhurriedness to convey its sense2 which a high-tempo stanza would undermine.

  1. “Du bist wie eine Blume, / So hold und schön und rein” (You are like a flower, / So lovely and fair and pure) from “Du bist wie eine Blume”.
  2. The inherent slowness of the act as evoked by the sounds and trailing syllables of the word.

On Translating Poetry

Young Shepherdess by Jean-François Millet (1870–73) in oil. Public Domain.
Young Shepherdess by Jean-François Millet (1870–73) in oil.

Different Language, Different Opportunities

I recently stated that poetic subtleties rarely migrate between languages, and as I attempt to cast “Shepherd Girl” into “Skaapwagtertjie”1, an Afrikaans translation, the statement rings true with every stanza. Even in the rare instance where the Afrikaans allows for a faithful rendition of any given line, with all its poetic content intact, another becomes semantically impossible—either for lack of an appropriate rhyming word or some other linguistic complication.

This is, of course, the result of the inherent differences between languages, for just as each affords unique opportunities for polysemy and rhyme, so do its mechanisms for producing meaning—what word must go where (syntax), what syllable must be emphasised (accentuation), what rhythm must connect this word with that (cadence)—dictate the rules a poet must follow (or flout) to establish meaning and style.

The poet’s use of expressive device (through onomatopoeia, understatement, alliteration, imagery, cliché, symbol, metaphor, simile, hyperbole, personification, idiom and prosody) in one language, may simply not be available in another, and thus the essence—the gestalt—of his poem is compromised or even lost entirely when translated. The result, therefore, will be an inferior facsimile—an approximation that is no more than a shell of the original. Allow me to illustrate:

An Example

A. G. Visser’s “Die Ruiter van Skimmelperdpan” (“The Rider of Dapple Grey Flat”) is a tense poem describing the gruesome ghost of a headless soldier on a fleeing horse. Impossible to translate in English are the movement and contextual dread contained within what is arguably its simplest line:

“‘Die galop … die galop … die galop?!’”2

In the Afrikaans, the natural downbeat of the syllables and the way in which the sounds of the two words connect in the repetition perfectly mimic the rhythmic doo-doo-DOOF, doo-doo-DOOF, doo-doo-DOOF of galloping horse (and racing heartbeat): [dî-KGa-lop, dî-KGa-lop, dî-KGa-lop].

Moreover, the depth of the [duh] in [dî] has the impact of a hoof stroke and the sliding guttural [KG] connecting the two syllables before and after it imitates the sound of gravel. All of this is lost in the staccato of an English rendering: “‘The gallop… the gallop … the gallop?!’” The downbeats, cadence and pronunciation—the “feel” of the English—deliver none of the urgency, desperation, tension and sheer terror that the very nature of Afrikaans invokes and sustains.

A poem—indeed, any artwork—is untranslatable because its Form and Content are inextricably linked. Just as Millet’s oil painting Young Shepherdess (if I may select a work particularly apt3) in watercolour loses a fundamental part of its import (namely the solemnity that oil imparts), so does rendering “Shepherd Girl” in Afrikaans sacrifice something integral to it. Changing the medium changes the meaning, wherefore a translation must take on a life of its own.

From “Shepherd Girl” to “Skaapwagtertjie”

Thus, I depart from the English where the Afrikaans demands it. I have already moved content from one stanza to another to recreate the narrative of the ballad within the confines of Afrikaans rhyme, introducing different details from my mother’s shepherding youth to facilitate the change. It is an enlightening and thrilling project. As I extract from the English original an Afrikaans counterpart, my goal is not to compose a copy, but an Afrikaans poem in its own right.

  1. Afrikaans, [skaahp-vuKG-teR-ki], pronounced as one word, with the [u] in “up”, the guttural [KG] in the Scottish “loch”, a trilled [R] and the [i] in “in”.
  2. [dî KGalop] with the [î] in “in” and the guttural [KG] in the Scottish “loch”. The line is uttered by the soldier’s wife, who also appears in the haunting, as she implores him to stop tormenting her with his nightly race past their cottage (hence the unorthodox punctuation): “‘Waarom rus jy nie, rus jy nie, Jan van der Meer? / Waarom jaag jy my elke nag op? / Sal daar nimmer ’n einde kom … altyd maar weer / Die galop … die galop … die galop?!’” (“‘Why rest you not, rest you not, Jan van der Meer? / Why chase me up every night? / Will there ne’er be an end … again and again / The gallop … the gallop … the gallop?!’”)
  3. Young Shepherdess was one of Millet’s largest and last works, the lowly peasant elevated to near godlike divinity by medium, composition, pose and halo-like lighting—not unlike the way in which the eight-year-old poet within me elevates his mother. (Incidentally, today is her 66th birthday.)