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Translations from French Poets

I have not included Cogswell’s translations or partial translations, denoted by him with the italicized tag “After the French of ... .” Cogswell was a pioneering (mostly intuitive) translator, especially of the New Brunswick and Quebec literatures; however, his own work is beacon enough of his intentions without including his translations of others. A question remains, though, about his impulse toward translation, particularly of French poets.[12] He had French blood on his mother’s side and his closest professional mentor, A.G. Bailey, had schooled him in the vibrancy of a dual language culture, particularly in New Brunswick, where official bilingualism was edging closer to a political certainty when Cogswell began his study of Acadian poets. But these, I would suggest, are incidental factors. More central to Cogswell’s interest in translation was the formal discipline it imposed on him, a discipline that paralleled his own use of tight forms. Translation therefore honed his ear and mind for his own work, a training that became increasingly important as his energies and abilities started to decline. As he explained to his daughter Kathleen Forsythe, “once [I choose] the words and the form, the poem writes itself” (qtd. in Forsythe, Vision 7). We see much more translation, then, in his last six collections, as well as clearer statements of his own struggles with the Muse (e.g., “My thoughts now often come by happenstance. / I grope for names to pin old faces on. / Now gravity weighs a wit that used to prance” [“Body, Mind, and Soul” 77]).

One example of his favoured mode of translation will suffice, its rhythms borrowed from the well-known poem “A Vagabond Song” by Bliss Carman. For the English reader unable to read French, this example will provide a sense of how Cogswell read and used other poets. Carman’s poem begins,

There is something in the autumn which is native to my
Touch of manner, hint of mood;
And my heart is like a rhyme,
With the yellow and the purple and the crimson keeping time. (23)

Cogswell’s poem “October” carries the imagery and rhythms of Carman’s:

With a hood of purple berries
And a cloak of gay attire
Comes the gypsy maid October
To set the hills on fire. (39)

Cogswell’s parallel poem is not a lexical translation but an incorporation of Carman’s music and cadence to suit a particular mood or condition (Cogswell chose the term “equivalency” to explain this parallel [qtd. in Forsythe, Vision 100].) So it is with many of his translations from the French. At the level of craft, these exercises become studies in examining the metres and symbols of other artists, thereby alerting Cogswell’s ear and mind to similar applications. The last two lines of the later poem “How Far is Far?” provide a final clue to what Cogswell is seeking in doing this: “Not inside itself but in what it’s like / Is the deepest gold that we have expressed” (88). Cogswell would mine likeness for most of the second half of his poetic career, even if his formal articulation of the fact only becomes evident in his last six collections.


Next: II. Cogswell's Poetics: Introduction

[12] Though his reading of French poetry was diverse and extensive, Cogswell’s preferred non-English models are the poets Charles Baudelaire, Eddy Boudreau, Nicole Brossard, René Char, Alfred Desrochers, Lorraine Diotte, Léonard Forest, Théophile Gautier, Jacques Godbout, Anne Hébert, José-Maria de Heredia, Victor Hugo, Micheline de Jordy, Eva Kushner, Rina Lasnier, Leconte de Lisle, Albert Lozeau, Stephane Mallarmé, Alfred de Musset, Emile Nelligan, Alphonse Piché, Sully Prudhomme, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Valéry, Paul Verlaine, Jocelyne Villeneuve, and François Villon. Their metres and influence begin appearing with frequency in Cogswell’s work around 1992. His favourites were the Quebec poets Émile Nelligan and Hector Saint-Denys Garneau, and the Acadian poet Léonard Forest.