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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2010

Open category, commended

Read the judges’ comments
To obtain the free booklet of winning entries and commentaries,
please email: info@stephenspender.org


Michael Foley

The Poets Aged Seven
by Arthur Rimbaud


At last mother, righteous and resolute,
Concludes the lesson, closes the school books
And strides off, satisfied – missing the flare
Of hatred in her son’s blue eyes. Clever,
Consummate hypocrite, all day he sweats
To conform and exposes his mean streak
Only in solitude – on the stairwell
Grimacing and clenching fists, tongue grossly
Out as he leans over bannisters for
The sweet groin throb of the slide to the hall.
Or down in the garden shed where he broods
In the musty dim … and sneaks out to roam
Among the back lane’s gutted mattresses
And sofas, wheelless prams and bikes, bald tyres
And scavenging slum boys with shaven heads,
Scabby legs, sticky infected eyes and near-
Incomprehensible phlegmy grunt speech.
Or the girl from the rough end of the street,
A vicious little rank shrew who jumps on
His back but gets more than she bargained for
When he bites her knickerless ass in joy
And, despite her screams, punching and kicking,
Calmly observes her tot. Mother observes,
Of course, all these revolting liaisons
And takes fright … is partly disarmed by his
Ingenuous smile – but early on Sunday
Morning, once more dismissing his plea for
That indulgence of corner boys, Twelve Mass,
Even more savagely parts and combs flat
His hair, buttons up even more tightly
His good Crombie coat, marches him even
More forcefully to Church and plants even
More grimly a missal in his limp hand.
Oh God! These sheep who laugh so inanely
At the inane jokes of the peasant priest
And then bow to his foaming rant. What sort
Of God would make this oaf His Minister,
These craven shopkeeper souls His Elect?
Many and grievous are the Sorrowful
Mysteries …but so too the Glorious
– Mrs Arthur’s luridly smeared red lips
And breath like the heavy smell outside bars,
The working men lurching from bars at night,
Soiled, bristly, wild-eyed, sublimely profane,
Wanting to knock someone’s fukken melt in.
… Oh anything loathsome and threatening,
The dark scurries underneath garden stones,
Cockroaches gleaming in corners below
Spiders hanging from cornices, plaster
Cracks, rust cancers, woodworm holes, mildew growths,
The attic ceiling’s archipelagos
Of damp stains, theatre of lurid dreams.
Already he’s writing tales. Disasters!
Wars! Atrocities! The teeming jungles,
Lonely peaks, burning sands and bitter seas
That lead to his destiny … continent
Vast and strange, taking shape. Once again up
To the vertiginous attic crow’s nest!

Translated from the French by Michael Foley
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Les Poëtes de Sept Ans


Et la Mère, fermant le livre du devoir,
S'en allait satisfaite et très fière, sans voir,
Dans les yeux bleus et sous le front plein d'eminences,
L'âme de son enfant livrée aux repugnances.
Tout le jour il suait d'obeissance; très
Intelligent; pourtant des tics noirs, quelques traits
Semblaient prouver en lui d'acres hypocrisies!
Dans I'ombre des couloirs aux tentures moisies,
En passant il tirait la langue, les deux poings
A 1'aine, et dans ses yeux fermés voyait des points.
Une porte s'ouvrait sur le soir: à la lampe
On le voyait, là-haut, qui ralail sur la rampe,
Sous un golfe de jour pendant du toil. L'été
Surtout, vaincu, stupide, il était entêté
A se renfermer dans la fraîcheur des latrines:
II pensait là, tranquille et livrant ses narines.

Quand, lavé des odeurs du jour, le jardinet
Derrière la maison, en hiver, s'illunait,
Gisant au pied d'un mur, enterré dans la marne
Et pour des visions écrasant son oeil darne,
II écoutait grouiller les galeux espaliers.
Pitié! Ces enfants seuls étaient ses familiers
Qui, chétifs, fronts nus, ceil déteignant sur la joue,
Cachant de maigres doigts jaunes et noirs de boue
Sous des habits puant la foire et tout vieillots,
Conversaient avec la douceur des idiots!
Et si, 1'ayant surpris à des pitiés immondes,
Sa mère s'effrayait; les tendresses, profondes,
De 1'enfant se jetaient sur cet étonnement.
C'était bon. Elle avail le bleu regard,—qui ment!

A sept ans, il faisait des romans sur la vie
Du grand désert, où luit la Liberté ravie,
Forêts, soleils, rives, savanes!—II s'aidait
De journaux illustrés ou, rouge, il regardait
Des Espagnoles rire et des Italiennes.
Quand venait, 1'oeil brun, folle, en robes d'indiennes,
—Huit ans,—la fille des ouvriers d'à côté,
La petite brutale, et qu'elle avail sauté,
Dans un coin, sur son dos, en secouant ses tresses,
Et qu'il était sous elle, il lui mordait les fesses,
Car elle ne portail jamais de panlalons;
—Et, par elle meurtri des poings et des talons,
Remportait les saveurs de sa peau dans sa chambre.

II craignait les blafards dimanches de décembre,
Où, pommadé, sur un guéridon d'acajou,
II lisait une Bible à la tranche vert-chou;
Des rêves 1'oppressaient chaque nuit dans 1'alcôve.
II n'aimait pas Dieu; mais les hommes, qu'au soir fauve,
Noirs, en blouse, il voyait rentrer dans le faubourg
Où les crieurs, en trois roulements de tambour,
Font autour des édits rire et gronder les foules.
—II rêvait la prairie amoureuse, où des houles
Lumineuses, parfums sains, pubescences d'or,
Font leur remuement calme et prennent leur essor!

Et comme il savourait surtout les sombres choses,
Quand, dans la chambre nue aux persiennes closes,
Haute et bleue, âcrement prise d'humidité,
II lisait son roman sans cesse médité,
Plein de lourds ciels ocreux et de forêts noyées,
De fleurs de chair aux bois sidérals déployées,
Vertige, écroulements, déroutes et pitié!
—Tandis que se faisait la rumeur du quartier,
En bas,—seul, et couché sur des pièces de toile
Ecrue, et pressentant violemment la voile!

Arthur Rimbaud
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Translation commentary


I have loved this poem since I first read it nearly forty years ago. The first exciting thing was that the experience in the poem was so close to my own. The boy is driven relentlessly to academic success by an obsessive, snobbish, religiose mother, obviously disappointed in her husband and focusing all her hopes on the son. But the son is deeply resentful and rebellious, reading and dreaming of extreme action and befriending working class children, much to the horror of maman. But even more striking than the subject matter was the cold, controlled ferocity of the tone, so different from the usual soft-focus glow of childhood poems.

My first attempt at translation used the form of the French original, rhyming couplets – but it is difficult to write such couplets in English without sounding like Pope ie assuming a jaunty, blithe, ironic tone completely wrong for the Rimbaud poem. Then I tried a version without using rhyme – but it just fell apart. Some strict form seemed to be necessary to convey the controlled fury of the original. Many decades later it suddenly occurred to me to try blank verse – and this seemed to facilitate the right tone.

The other change throughout many drafts was that I gradually substituted my own equivalents of Rimbaud’s experience rather than translating literally. Such an approach is anathema to translation purists but helped to inject an appropriate venom.

Michael Foley
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