Archive for June, 2007

William Hazlitt – On Poetry
26 June, 2007

William Hazlitt

William Hazlitt’s ‘Lectures on the English Poets’ from 1818 is one of the best descriptions, defenses and demonstrations of poetry that I’ve read. He writes beautifully, with strong, illuminating metaphors, and his love of poetry shines out. When writing about flow and rhyme in poetry, he shows all of these things. Poetry, he writes: “is to common language, what springs are to a carriage.”

He explains: “The jerks, the breaks, the inequalities, and harshnesses of prose, are fatal to the flow of a poetical imagination, as a jolting road or a stumbling horse disturbs the reverie of an absent man.”

What an analogy! And what of the place of poetry; what is it’s use? For Hazlitt poetry is a necessary reaction to human life and consciousness, paraphrasing Aristotle (I imagine) he says: “Man is a poetical animal.”

And what does the poet do?: “the poet does no more than describe what all the others think and act.”  Which includes…”the rich depths of the human soul: the whole of our existence, the sum total of our passions and pursuits, of that which we desire and that which we dread.”

For Hazlitt, it is the human condition to be: “as prone to make a torment of our fears, as to luxuriate in our hopes of good.”  And therefore, we love to read of the passions, tragedies and loves of others.

He is also very clear on the power and place of imagination in life, and the place of poetry in an age of scientific advancement. This is a beautiful passage that contrasts two ways of looking at the world.

“We can no more take away the faculty of the imagination, than we can see all objects without light or shade. Some things must dazzle us by their preternatural light; others must hold us in suspense, and tempt our curiosity to explore their obscurity. Those who would dispel these various illusions, to give us their drab-coloured creation in their stead, are not very wise. Let the naturalist, if he will, catch the glow-worm, carry it home with him in a box, and find it next morning nothing but a little grey worm; let the poet or the lover of poetry visit it at evening, when beneath the scented hawthorn and the crescent moon it has built itself a palace of emerald light.”

Although his phrases may seem high-brow or old-fashioned, I found his writing clear and unpretentious. Indeed, he writes of those who talk about what they don’t know, brilliantly.

“When artists or connoisseurs talk on stilts about the poetry of painting, they shew that they know little about poetry, and have little love for the art.”

To ‘talk on stilts’: what a good picture! Most of these quotes come from the first section of his ‘Lectures’ which is a fascinating introduction to poetry in general. Most of the essay, however, is taken up with a description and interpretation of English poets from Chaucer to poets of his day, like Wordsworth. He quotes each at length, bringing out their most striking features. I’m certain that a general reader will get more out of this paragraph than out of one hundred pages of modern poetic criticism:

“Chaucer excels as the poet of manners, or of real life; Spenser, as the poet of romance; Shakspeare as the poet of nature (in the largest use of the term); and Milton, as the poet of morality. Chaucer most frequently describes things as they are; Spenser, as we wish them to be; Shakspeare, as they would be; and Milton as they ought to be. As poets, and as great poets, imagination, that is, the power of feigning things according to nature, was common to them all: but the principle or moving power, to which this faculty was most subservient in Chaucer, was habit, or inveterate prejudice; in Spenser, novelty, and the love of the marvellous; in Shakspeare, it was the force of passion, combined with every variety of possible circumstances; and in Milton, only with the highest. The characteristic of Chaucer is intensity; of Spenser, remoteness; of Milton, elevation; of Shakspeare, every thing.”

His description of Chaucer as “the most practical of all the great poets, the most a man of business and the world”, inspired me to read the Canterbury Tales (in Coghill’s modern English version) which entertained and delighted me. I’m sure if either author was read more widely they would entertain and delight many more.

Hazlitt’s ‘Lectures on the English Poets’ at Project Gutenberg:
Hazlitt’s wikipedia page:


Love and train journeys – Grand Corps Malade (3)
15 June, 2007

Check out a new translation of Grand Corps Malade’s ‘Chercheur de Phases’


What do love and trains have in common?  Well for French slam poet Grand Corps Malade the answer is plenty! This is my translation of his song ‘Les Voyages en train’ or ‘Train journeys’. Alors, les paroles en anglais:

Train journeys

You could say that love stories were like journeys by train,
And sometimes when I see those travellers I’d like to be one again,
Why do you think so many people wait at the platform gate?
Why do you think we stress so much when we arrive a little late?

The train often pulls away when you least anticipate,
And the love story carries you off from those who commentate,
The commentators are you mates who say goodbye at the station
They watch the train pull away with a look of trepidation
You wave back at them and imagine their comments going round
Some say you’ve made a mistake, that your feet aren’t on the ground,
Each one makes a prediction for how long the trip will last,
Most of them think the train will derail at the first stormy blast.

Real love, it’s no surprise, changes the expression on your face
So, from day one you should carefully choose your place,
A seat by the aisle or next to the window glass,
What do you choose, a love story in first or second class?

In the first few miles you can’t take your eyes from her face,
You barely notice out the window the passing green open space,
You feel light, life is a flower and you’re drinking its nectar
You feel so good that you almost want to kiss the ticket collector,

But the magic only lasts a time, your story’s running out of steam,
You tell yourself you’re in it for nothing, ‘it’s all her fault’, you want to scream
The train’s rumble makes you drunk, you feel sick at each bend,
You’ve gotta get up, walk out and find a way for your heart to mend.

Now the train slows down, it’s already the end of your tale,
And what’s more you’re like a fool, your mates are at the other end of the rail
You say goodbye to the one you’ll now call your ex,
In her address book, she whites out your name in tippex.

So you see that love stories are like journeys by train,
And sometimes when I see those travellers I’d like to be one again,
Why do you think so many people wait at the platform gate?
Why do you think we stress so much when we arrive a little late?

For some Life is all about trying to catch a train,
To feel love and find their energy bubbling up like champagne,
For others the aim is to arrive with time to spare,
To have a safe trip and live life without care.

It is easy to catch a train but make sure you pick well,
I got into two or three but not the right carriage, I could tell,
For trains are temperamental, some you try to reach but fail,
And I don’t always think it’s possible on Network Rail

For some the trains are always on strike or so it seems,
And their love stories only exist in their dreams,
Others jump on the first train without paying attention,
But, of course, they get off disappointed at the next station,
Still others stress about commitment as they’re over-emotive,
For them it’s too risky to hold on to the locomotive,
And there are the adventurers who take trip after trip,
Once one story is finished onto the next page they flip,

I suffered for months after my only real journey,
We both agreed to leave, but she agreed more than me,
Since then, I hang out on the platform, watch the trains pull away
Some doors open, but for now it’s on the platform I’ll stay

It seems that train journeys end badly, more often than not,
If that’s the case for you hang on, don’t tie your heart in a knot,
Because one thing is certain there’ll always be a termin-us,
Now you’ve been warned – next time you can take the bus.

Check out the original video, you’ll see the ‘tippex moment’, lots of running for trains, some action in the loo and Grand Corps Malade taking the bus .

I like how the whole slam works with one simple metaphor that’s expanded throughout. It took a while to make the English lyrics even half as good as the French. I’ve kept the original rhyme scheme, and the same number of lines, and have only played around with the metaphors when it was necessary – it’s pretty true to the original.

The French lyrics (or ‘paroles’) can be found here:

I think this is a really typical French song – they are so proud of their super-quick TGV trains, and unlike in the UK where most users of trains are commuters, most French train travellers are recreational, weekend trips and the like.  If this was a British slammer I think there would have to have been much more about engineering works, ‘leaves on the line’ and delays!  It would certainly be less optimistic.

 If you’re a Grand Corps Malade fan (do they exist in the English-speaking world?) and have got a favourite song you would love to see translated, let me know.

Head, Heart and Balls – Grand Corps Malade (2)
1 June, 2007

Another good song from the album Midi 20 is ‘Ma tête, mon coeur’ – ‘My head, my heart’.  Now, the title could make you think that it was a soppy, sentimental poem but just wait. The song actually revolves around ‘Ma tête, mon coeur, mes couilles’, ‘my head, my heart, my balls’! It has a rawness and reality that is refreshing.  This is how it begins, I’ll put my translation first and then the original French after.

The human body is a state where each organ wants to be governor
There are in man 3 leaders who try to impose their law
This constant fight is the greatest source of life’s tangles
It has always set against each other: the head, the heart and the balls.

(Le corps humain est un royaume ou chaque organe veut être le roi
Il y a chez l’homme 3 leaders qui essayent d’imposer leur loi
Cette lutte permanente est la plus grosse source d’embrouille
Elle oppose depuis toujours la tête, le coeur et les couilles.)

This is the first time I’ve translated poetry and it’s pretty tough, it’s very hard to translate the literal meaning and keep some of the flow and rhyme of the original.   Anyway, it goes on:

Ladies excuse us if we do some dodgy things
If one day we’re like lambs and the next like wolves
It’s caused by this combat that runs in our bodies
The head, the heart, the balls discuss but they never agree

(Que les demoiselles nous excusent si on fait des trucs chelous
Si un jour on est des agneaux et qu’le lendemain on est des loups
C’est à cause de c’combat qui s’agite dans notre corps
La tête, le coeur, les couilles discutent mais ils sont jamais d’accords)

You get the idea, notice in the first two lines in the French how chelous/agneaux/loups rhyme. He then describes what all three are like: his heart is a sponge open to everything, his head a soldier that’s not easily moved, his balls are motivated and ‘want to screw that brunette’! Next, impossible to translate, is a kind of dialogue between them full of word play, so: his balls have heart-ache, or have their head in the clouds; his heart needs some balls, or loses its head – clever, witty and at the same time true to life.

The song finishes up with him saying that he’s crazy about women and scared of them too. There is no solution to the ‘permanent fight’ and he’ll carry on being guided by these three leaders:

I haven’t found the solution, I’ve been searching for some time
I guess I’ll stay controled by my head, my heart and my balls.

(J’ai pas trouvé la solution, ça fait un moment qu’je fouille
Je resterais sous l’contrôle d’ma tête, mon coeur et mes couilles.)

How many guys out there could say any different?

Watch the live performance of the song here (starts 30 secs into video)

Full French lyrics :