David Lehman’s new translation of Apollinaire’s “Zone”

Portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire - Giorgio de Chirico

“Premonitory Portrait of Apollinaire,” Giorgio de Chirico (1914). Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France

Among the most important influences in any account of the New York School’s lineage must be the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and perhaps no single Apollinaire poem is as important as his great, landmark 1913 poem “Zone.”

There have been many excellent translations of the poem — including by Roger Shattuck, Samuel Beckett, and Ron Padgett — but a wonderful new version has just appeared by David Lehman.  It was published in Virginia Quarterly Review and was awarded the journal’s Emily Clark Balch Prize for Poetry.

Lehman prefaces the translation with a very helpful introduction that provides background on Apollinaire and his career:

In the heady days leading up to and including the catastrophe of World War I, when Paris was the capital of modern art, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918) stood at the vital center of a gang of writers and artists who embraced the future with such tremendous energy that avant-garde became an adjective of glamour and prestige. Apollinaire—whose circle included painters (Picasso, Derain, Vlaminck) and composers (Satie, Poulenc) as well as poets (Blaise Cendrars, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy)—was a superb activist and agitator. He championed Cubism and gave Surrealism its name. In 1917, his edition of Charles Baudelaire’s poems linked the two men as kindred spirits, city poets who doubled as art critics; Baudelaire prefigured Apollinaire as the latter prefigures Frank O’Hara.

and on “Zone” and its importance, its formal innovations, and its influence:

“Zone,” the central poem in Apollinaire’s career, prefaces his collection Alcools … The poet was thirty-three years old, the age of Dante embarking on his tour of the afterlife. The poem doesn’t so much praise its objects of futurist desire—the Eiffel Tower, airplanes, a railway terminal—as treat them like pastoral motifs. The heart of the poem is not in the future at all but in a past recollected in anxiety and sadness.

“Zone” heralds a striking new direction in Apollinaire’s work. He discards punctuation to good effect. He refers to himself sometimes as I, sometimes as you (both tu andvous in French), a habit that held a special appeal for O’Hara and other New York poets …  Organized around a walk in Paris from one sunrise to another—and from one time zone to another—“Zone” is in loosely rhymed couplets…

Lehman also explains his own efforts to translate the poem over a period of many years:

I discovered “Zone” in my junior year of college and studied it closely when, as a graduate student at Cambridge University, I attended Douglas Parmée’s lectures on French literature and spent a few seasons in Paris. This was in 1971 and 1972. In Paris I lived with this peripatetic poem on such intimate terms that I felt I could hear it in my own voice as I walked from Notre Dame to the Luxembourg Gardens and from there to the cafés of Montparnasse. I made a special trip to the Gare St. Lazare with Apollinaire’s stanza about “ces pauvres émigrants” in my brain. Nevertheless I did not type up a complete draft of my translation until January 1978 when I taught a course at Hamilton College that called for it. After presenting it at a public reading, I let it lie fallow. I worked on the poem often and carefully, if at long intervals, until three years ago when, as a professor at the New School’s graduate writing program, I supervised MFA candidate Ashleigh Allen’s thesis, which focused on Apollinaire and “Zone.” This happy task spurred me to revise my translation yet again. Encouraged by friends, I worked on it some more in summer 2011 and fall 2012. These things take time. The love of the work sustains the effort.

Finally, Lehman also explores some of the differences between his own version and those by previous translators, including its striking, famous last line — “soleil côu coupé” (which Aimé Césaire would use as a title for a volume of poetry).  The line has been translated many ways — “The sun a severed neck” (Roger Shattuck), “Sun corseless head” (Samuel Beckett), “Sun cut throat” (Ron Padgett), and “Solar throat slashed” (A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshelman).  Lehman decides to render it “Let the sun beheaded be” — “mainly,” he explains, “because of the repetition of sounds in the last words. I felt that the relation of ‘be’ to ‘beheaded’ approximated the action in ‘côu coupé.’

Check out the whole translation, but here are the stirring opening lines:

In the end you’ve had enough of the ancient world

O Eiffel Tower shepherdess today your bridges are a bleating flock

(I’ve always loved the image above, too, which is a painting of Apollinaire as doomed rock star, by Giorgio di Chirico).

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