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Andrew Johnson reviews

Many Glove Compartments: Selected Poems by Oskar Pastior

Translated by Harry Matthews, Christopher Middleton, and Rosmarie Waldrop. Burning Deck, $10.

This piece is 1,400 words or about four printed pages long.


Herbert Read’s 1953 book, The True Voice of Feeling, began by arguing that poets can be divided into two categories: rhetorical poets and poets of feeling. The former are said to treat literature as a game, the latter as a sincere expression of the poet’s response to experience. The distinction has its uses for post-Romantic poetry but, when too cleanly made, fails to recognize that poetry is always a wrangle between imposed and substantial, arbitrary and essential.

Oulipo — the literary collective founded in France by Raymond Queneau — stage this contest in explicit, and often exemplary fashion. Members of the group base their experiments on the acknowledgment that arbitrary constraint is an inevitable condition of literature and operate by imposing strict conditions on the act of writing. But does their work place more weight on rhetoric, or expression? It could be that an Oulipean uses arbitrary conditions in order to trick words out of their natural reserve. It could otherwise be that the Oulipean emphasizes such conditions as a mode of generating text without any spurious belief in sincerity, or superstitions such as the muses, divine inspiration, or the sovereign imaginative subject, the authorial self.

These are a few of the concerns, at any rate, that one might bring to Many Glove Compartments, the first extended English translation of poems by Oskar Pastior, the only German member of Oulipo. This translation presents a broad sample of Pastior’s work, covering material published between 1960 and the late 1990s. The aim, as the translators tell us, has been to ‘approximate the pleasure of Pastior’s texts,’ suggesting that the ludic is to be favored over other aspects of the work. But the emphasis on pleasure and play we are led to expect leaves the balance between formal and expressive undecided, as playfulness is no more opposed to sincerity than seriousness is necessarily opposed to rhetoric.

For the most part, as Warren F. Motte put it in The Poetics of Experiment, pleasure in an Oulipean text derives from an equation between ‘the difficulty of the problem, and the elegance of the solution.’ ‘Solution,’ however, doesn’t simply mean that which the poet manages to say in the way of meaningful content despite the rules he has imposed on the work. Granted that arbitrary forms such as the anagram, lipogram, pantoum, and sestina, to mention a few favorite Oulipean exercises, tend to encourage mechanical utterances; the music, images, and texture the poet is able to produce through or around such devices are equally important considerations. It might also be that for the poet, the difficulty of the conditions and a sense of the arbitrariness of language or being to which such conditions draw our attention is of more importance than any facile solutions — in short, that the creation of difficult, perhaps even insurmountable formal problems is, in itself, the interest and end of the process.  

Where, then, is Pastior to be found on this index of pleasures? The briefest of biographical sketches given at the close of the volume suggests the background to Pastior’s alignment with Oulipo. We are told that, as a German-speaking Romanian, Pastior was summarily interred by occupying Soviet forces after the end of the Second World War. From this we might conclude that Pastior voluntarily imposes constraints on his work in order to find imaginative solutions to historical and personal circumstances. However, while this formative experience is said to have marked out the struggle between freedom and constraint as a predominant theme for the poet, his habit is to deny any overtly political or autobiographical material. One of the interludes dividing the five sections of the book, called ‘Autobiographical Text,’ undermines any attempt to find a substantial connection between the life and the poems: ‘what I can say about myself will later (when scrutinized for meaning) turn out to be artificial, i.e. composed,’ he writes.

On another occasion Pastior wrote that ‘talking about things is impossible,’ and from the first of these poems it becomes apparent that reference to a world outside the poems is suspended in his work. ‘Keep your distance,’ the first poem advises the reader, in a gesture that simultaneously identifies and increases the gap between expression and understanding. Such hearbage (a translation of horicht, Pastior’s punning title for a 1975 collection combining the German for ‘hearing’ with a word for ‘little piles of refuse,’ kericht) puts paid to any ideas of saying something despite the difficulties of communication. To put it another way, the work is self-referential to the extent that language and the poem are Pastior’s only subjects. This is not a problem, at least not a poetic one. The real problem here is that the works translated don’t measure up well against any of the other poetic indicators. A typical entry reads:

No-color o-moo-cocoon
Spools pro lotto for wood-rod
On spot of god pollock’s cold,
Chloroform stops motor-knock,
Solo moons don’t brood, or prows
Songs bow down to protocol.  

What is immediately apparent in this lipogram — a form involving the suppression of one or more letter, in this case, all vowels but o — is the poet’s election of nonsense over sense, perhaps with the exception of that revealing terminal line. Of itself, this too is unproblematic: nonsense can be enjoyed for its music, the comedy of almost making sense, as a parody of normal talk, for the surreal and disturbing images such practice liberates, or even as a comment on the redundancies and misdirections of language. Passages like these, however, have little music and still less parodic or surrealistic value. Other poems offer more in the way of image, but few are much more striking. On closer inspection it seems that for Pastior the imposition of tight conditions on writing is less an attempt to find adequate expression for thoughts that resist ordinary speech, than an attempt to draw attention to the difficult, though flexible, conditions of language in general. But what his work reveals about language in the process — that the relation between word and thing is arbitrary — is too widely understood and accepted to be any more than trivial.

Perhaps most unsatisfying of all is the frequent impression that the constraints Pastior imposes on his work are not added on top of the normal conditions of grammar, syntax, or semantics. Indeed, it appears that such constraints have been abandoned in favor of the more mechanical devices, which makes the latter all too easy to follow. Thus, not only does Pastior declare that he has nothing to say and no way to say it, but also the problems that he sets himself don’t seem difficult enough to excite any admiration for his skill in working around them, nor are his solutions to even these minimal formal problems particularly elegant. After the second line of this sestina, for example, let alone the second stanza, one comes to expect very little in the way of ingenuity, grace, or music from this poet:

This sees said six so as
as this sees said six so
said six so as this sees
so as this sees said six
six so as this sees said
sees said six so as this

These low expectations, sad to say, are comprehensively met. In fairness, it has to be noted that Oulipean work runs the translator hard against the problems of their task. This is not just to invoke the commonplace assumption that translation is impossible. The special problem of texts like Pastior’s is that it shows the impossibility of translation to be a quantitative rather than a qualitative notion. To replay a puzzle in a new language may be to reproduce the principle of generation, but nothing of the original solution. Pastior’s translators (among them the only American member of Oulipo, Harry Matthews) nod to this idea in telling us that the poet, believing translation to be ‘the wrong word for a process that doesn’t exist,’ would have us think only of  ‘a text and a text.’ At the same time, the translators have apparently avoided the more difficult of Pastior’s exercises in this selection, suggesting that for German readers some of the criticisms above could ring untrue. However, in working between the extremes of rhetoric and feeling, the poet must also negotiate between the possible and the impossible. Many Glove Compartments makes the impossibility of poetry abundantly clear. It is Pastior’s, or at least his translators’s, failure to have engaged with the possibilities of poetry that limits the pleasure of this book, approximate or otherwise.



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