The Substantial Air of Poetry

Shelly Bryant
I was born in a coastal city, and I have lived in coastal cities all my life, aside from six semesters spent at university. My skin and my respiratory system are the most telling signs of my origins – put me in a dry climate or at some altitude, and my skin begins to flake and, at least until I adjust, my breathing becomes laboured. For the first day or so at high altitudes, I find myself thinking of a fish flopping on the deck of a boat, eyes bulging, gasping for air as its gills dry up. But when I return to sea level, when the air around me is thick with moisture drawn from ocean currents, I inhale, and the air fills my lungs like a hearty meal fills the belly, nourishing my every cell in ways that the thinner air of higher altitudes cannot. I can survive in higher altitudes, eventually even adapting to the point that the headaches go away and my breathing is easier. But even then, it is not the same as the air at home. In my native environment, the air has substance – not so much that it needs to be sipped or chewed, but enough to know you’ve taken in some nourishment and to sate the lungs. 

Poetry is a similar full-bodied, substantial air. When you draw it in, you feel it fill up the lungs, circulating through the blood stream to nourish the entire organism at the cellular level. If it gets to be too dense, it is no longer itself, no longer a thing suited for the lungs and to be sent throughout the body all at once. Prose is the language of food and drink, digested slowly before it is of real use, or perhaps quaffed in one gulp to quench a more immediate thirst. Poetry is the language of breathing – inhaled and circulating throughout your entire being with an immediacy uniquely suited to the language of image and sound that makes up poetry. 

The substantial air of poetry is what is most often sacrificed in clumsy translation, creating a piece of writing that may contain all the same literal-level meanings as the original, but rendering it either so dense as to be suffocating, or too insubstantial to nourish the body that tries to breathe it in.

The paradox of substantial air is the paradox of poetry. Any would-be translator of poetry must recognise this if they are to bring out of the translation all that goes into making the original work so immediately in its readers. We must resist the urge to over-explain, which leaves the reader of the translation feeling like they’re trying to breathe a chunk of meat. At the same time, we need to provide enough substance to the new work to allow the reader to feel that each inhalation fills the lungs, nourishing every cell of the organism because it is full-bodied, bearing in each breath a faint hint of the sea’s salty tang

I mentioned Wong May’s translations of Tang poetry and notes on the process in her book In the Same Light: 200 Tang Poems for Our Century in a recent discussion with Susie Gordon that was posted here. I have found her work to be just the sort of translation as that described above.

You can find my review of Wong May’s In the Same Light: 200 Tang Poems for Our Century at QLRS.