Let’s All Write an Imitation!

by Paul Mathers

This was not at all what I was expecting. I was expecting: “Write a poem in the style of Allen Ginsberg or John Milton or whoever you feel like imitating.” You know, like what most contemporary poets do with Bukowski.

Instead, the instructions seem to be more like this: take a poem in a foreign language, preferably one that you do not know well. “Translate” a poem by writing what you think it might be saying.

I thought, “Oh great. Another jokey form.”

In college I took one year of French and I barely passed because at all of the tutoring sessions my professor and I invariably ended up talking about Dostoyevsky instead of me learning French. We also talked a lot about Verlaine who I loved in English and she loved in French. Verlaine is actually one of my favorite poets even though I can’t really read him in his native tongue. So, I figured that my knowledge of French would be perfect for this exercise and I thought it would be appropriate for me to use Verlaine. The result, frankly, stunned me. Here is the original poem:

Femme et chatte

Elle jouait avec sa chatte,
Et c’était merveille de voir
La main blanche et la blanche patte
S’ébattre dans l’ombre du soir.

Elle cachait – la scélérate ! –
Sous ces mitaines de fil noir
Ses meurtriers ongles d’agate,
Coupants et clairs comme un rasoir.

L’autre aussi faisait la sucrée
Et rentrait sa griffe acérée,
Mais le diable n’y perdait rien…
Et dans le boudoir où, sonore,
Tintait son rire aérien,
Brillaient quatre points de phosphore.

And here is what I wrote as my imitation:

Woman and Kitty- An Imitation of Verlaine

By Paul Mathers

She’s jovial next to that cat,

and certainly wonders at the mirror.

The primary white and the primary cat food

she bats around the brown parts after sunset.

The girl catches the little scallywag.

She looks at her mitten paws all night long.

The mewing can be heard out by the gate

and a couple carrying pastries comment on the racket.

The kitty’s face looks so sweet

and she rents the vast apartment

from the Devil, by the pretty rain…

They dance in the bedroom, to sonorous music

and tin whistles fill the air,

brilliant four points of light.

And I finished and thought, “This is going to be so silly compared to the actual translation.” But then I looked at the actual translation and was stunned. I really wasn’t far off! Here is C.F. MacIntyre’s translation!

Woman and Cat

by Paul Verlaine

She was playing with her cat,

and it was marvelous to see

white hand and white paw, pitty-pat,

spar in the evening sportively.

The little wretch hid in her paws,

those black silk mittens, murderously,

the deadly agate of her claws,

keen as a razor’s edge can be.

Her steel drawn in, the other seemed

all sugar, the sly hypocrite,

but the devil didn’t lose a bit…

and in the room where, sonorous,

her airy laughter rang, there gleamed

four sharp points of phosphorous.

The lesson here is one about language, about composition, about trusting a sense of language and a sense of poetry in the brain. I did not expect to like the outcome of this exercise. Instead, I ended up liking it quite a bit.