A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Wednesday 8 July 2020

The Flowers of Evil: a New Translation

Already as a child, I had two contradictory feelings in my heart: the horror of life and the ecstasy of life CHARLES BAUDELAIRE

After three years' work my 200-page verse translation of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal is now available as a paperback from Sinuous Cat Productions; it contains all 126 poems of the 1861 edition. The distributor is Amazon and the price is £7.99. It's easily traceable on amazon.co.uk, but for international Amazon sites you must search for it by entering either the ASIN number (B08BWFWSXK) or the ISBN number (9798656437936). It's so good to have this labour of love finally in print—I do hope you enjoy.

Here's my introduction to the book:


‘The translator can never be sure of himself, he must never be. He must always be dissatisfied with what he does because ideally, platonically, there is a perfect solution, but he will never find it. He can never enter into the author’s being and even if he could the difference in languages would preclude any exact reproduction.’ GREGORY RABASSA 

Translating poetry is a fine balancing act at the best of times, but translating Baudelaire often felt like treading a very high wire indeed. Too great a swing towards the letter on one side or the spirit on the other can cause the literary balancing pole to wobble alarmingly, threatening to plunge the unfortunate tightrope walker into the void below.  I’m reminded of a cautionary aphorism I read somewhere, namely that translation is difficult, translation of poetry very difficult, translation of French poetry more difficult still, and translation of Baudelaire all but impossible. Baudelaire himself wrote that ‘A translation of poetry . . . may be an enticing dream, but can only ever be a dream.’ But I do not want to dwell on difficulty or impossibility. I want to dwell on joy. For translating Baudelaire has indeed been a complete joy, a process both rewarding and intoxicating, though also frustrating – and occasionally terrifying.

First I had to decide what other translations to read, if any. (In the end I dipped very lightly into all that I could discover, then put them to the back of my mind.) Next I had to consider meter: Baudelaire often uses the twelve-syllable alexandrine line. (I quickly realised iambic pentameter was the natural choice for my English versions.) Then there was the question of rhyme: Baudelaire’s rhyme schemes are classically strict. (I ended up retaining rhyme, or slant rhyme, or at least some kind of sympathetic end-of-line pairing.) What I was striving for was accessibility, a pleasing flow, and, with luck, a kind of beauty –  in comparison with various other translations I had read, many of which seemed awkward and forced to me (Jan Owen’s being notable exceptions). Although I took care to translate as accurately as possible, I would always put the spirit rather than the letter first, if the two conflicted. This tension and its balanced resolution lie, of course, at the heart of all poetry translation.  

There were many other problems: for instance how to emulate Baudelaire’s extravagant grotesquerie, his gleeful iconoclasm and his oxymoronic excess, without seeming either ridiculous or incomprehensible to modern readers. Another hurdle was how to mirror Baudelaire’s subtle and mellifluous use of assonance, alliteration and other figurative ploys.

Baudelaire has challenged many translators over the years, including some who are writers and poets themselves: Stanley Kunitz, Robert Lowell, Allen Tate, Roy Campbell, Richard Wilbur, Yvor Winters, Aldous Huxley, Edna St Vincent Millay . . . However, few of these writers (apart from Campbell and Millay) took on more than a small selection of the poems, and their translations sound very antiquated today. 

My aim was to attempt to create a translation of all the poems of Les Fleurs du Mal – and in verse, not in prose. (There are prose translations available, such as Joanna Richardson’s, but this seemed like cheating to me.) I wanted to produce a high level of readability, accessibility, comprehensibility and (one can but hope) a general loveliness. My passionate desire, both as translator and reader, is always to encounter translations that can be read and enjoyed in their own right, not as pale reflections of the original, or displeasing to the ear.

My sincere and idealistic intention was to open up Baudelaire to the English-speaking world in a new and exciting way. Translation must be a gateway not a barrier. My model was Don Paterson’s translations (or ‘versions’ as he calls them) of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. I like Paterson’s idea of translations as versions very much: works that are independent and breathe their own air, yet are still, of course, intimately connected with the original.

I have tried, as far as possible, to honour the meaning and intention of The Flowers of Evil while, at the same time, preserving a strong flavour of its aesthetics (the work has a sublimely paradoxical beauty of expression: it is classical in form, but shockingly modern in theme and thought). I wanted, above all, to produce translations that sounded easy on the ear, looked good to the eye and flowed in a natural way, while sacrificing as little textual accuracy as possible. 

For those punctilious readers who think I have strayed too far, lost my nerve, and caused the tightrope to tremble and shake, I quote  David Bellos in my defence: ‘If you want the same thing, that’s quite all right. You can read the original. ‘ And also this from Jorge Luis Borges: ‘The original is unfaithful to the translation.’  

As the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer has written: ‘Reading is already translation, and translation is translation for the second time . . . In fact, all acts of communication are acts of translation. The process of translating comprises in its essence the whole secret of human understanding of the world . . .’ 

Robert Wilkinson, June 2020

34. — The Cat

Come, lovely cat, close to my loving heart;
Sheathe your sharp claws and stretch contentedly.
Let me plunge deep into your eyes, which spark
With metal fused with green chalcedony.

And as my idle fingers carelessly
Caress your head and your elastic spine,
And as my subtle hand so sensuously
Strokes your soft fur, so sensitive and fine,

My woman’s there. Her penetrating look,
Like yours, dear creature, cuts like a bee’s sting
Or poisonous dart, profoundly cold and sharp,

And all around her body and brown skin 
Hovers a dark and dangerous perfume,
Persuasive and pervasive in the room.

Sunday 5 March 2017


I haven't blogged for a while, but here is a new poem.


Surprising that I never knew before
the bright curve of this bay,
the way the washed sand crimps the light
and bathers lounge like graceless seals.

I must have visited this coast
a hundred times, yet never understood
how marram grass secures the dunes
with subterranean roots, and why

we only see the coiled casts of the lugworm,
never the lugworm. What the lobster does.
When tides turn with the moon.
If mermaids count the coins within their purse.

It’s odd how just one shower, one rainbow,
one brief focus, one slant of the sun,
one mood, one chemistry, one instant,
combine in random destiny like this

to give us more than ever we expected:
the revelation of a cream-tipped wave,
spent on the sand, the gull’s orgasmic cry,
greedy and wild, the sensuality

of sun on skin, of arms and legs in water,
impressionistic light
breaking the bonds of molecule and atom
yet bringing all together like the roots

of marram grass, the disappearing groynes
rotting with knowledge, the unknowing ocean,
the beach bums gazing vacantly to sea
aching for grace, dreaming epiphany.

Friday 20 January 2017

One Day In Washington

One Day in Washington

I noticed at the ceremony, your corrupt ways had finally made you blind. Bob Dylan Idiot Wind

The White House doesn’t seem so white today,
more a rainy shade of gray,
and Lincoln looks more serious than usual
inside his classical Memorial,
and Washington’s great Monument stands proud
although its apex hides within a cloud,
and cops and bikers sweat, and kids play ball
along the walkways of the National Mall,
and everyone is here, the sage, the fool,
casting their hopes in the Reflecting Pool,
some jeer and some are silent, some applaud
Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory Of The Lord,
some think there isn’t very much to fear
but fear itself, and distance is not near,
and everything can be replaced, they say,
until the next time it is blown away
by idiot winds, and others, fast and loose,
play games of chance with executioner’s noose
and pardoner’s hand, and deathly voodoo doll,
from New York City to the Capitol,
and all is still a grayer shade of white
and the hard rain falls long into the night.

Friday 9 December 2016



All of us are pilgrims on this earth. I have even heard it said that the earth itself is a pilgrim in the heavens. Maxim Gorky

Your journey never ends -
each step the first step,
each step the last step.

You move, but stand still.
In stillness you move through the valleys.
You feel you can move mountains.

You walk all day to a familiar place,
a place of coming and going,
a place of crowds and crossing points,

a place of no signposts.
You wait among the crowds,
watching for signs and signals.

One face among many,
you are alone, but not lonely
among the unfamiliar faces.

You are rootless, but at home
among the sharks, the snakes
and the snake oil salesmen,

though you would rather be in the desert
living on locusts and honey,
turning stones into bread

and water into wine.
You are rooted in the earth
like a tree whose twigs

and branches are crooked paths,
webbing the heavens.
You are the wellspring,

the stream and the river,
the delta, the ocean,
the shimmering destination.

You are all of this
and yet you are nothing
but the weary pilgrim,

arriving, departing,
following blind-eyed
the desire path of sorrow,

the dream path of desire,
up the steep hill,
past rowan and thorn

and the fourteen stations.
Each step the first step.
Each step the last step.

Thursday 24 November 2016

The Dove Descending

This poem was inspired by a recent reading of Rilke's The Dove and Lowell's Pigeons.

The Dove Descending

The dove descending breaks the air / With flame of incandescent terror
TS Eliot Little Gidding, Four Quartets

Eliot said the end of our exploring
will be to arrive at where we started
and realise our home was not so boring
before we panicked, packed our bags and parted.

And Rilke said a dove must fly the world
in order to appreciate the dovecote.
In storm and roaring wind is peace revealed.
The raging torrent rocks, then calms, the love boat.

Danger and distance, certainly,
and fear, and fear of fear itself,
delay departure, often indefinitely,
leave us like bookends on a dusty shelf.

We know the multi-coloured rainbow beckons
from edge of town, but our fenced-in backyard
requires attention. Drab suburbia threatens
but comforts also. It is always hard

to quit the friendly space one knows and loves,
to doubt the ones inhabiting that space.
Yet constantly a restless heart outgrows,
outflies the limits of this time and place.

Yes, all of us are arrows in the dark
speeding from God-knows-where to God-knows-where,
unsure of making a true mark on earth,
falling unsteadily through endless air,

skimming the ocean till we disappear
into the fire of the sinking sun,
all fight extinguished, as the Temeraire,
all flight unfeathered, Icarus undone.

In pieces, we reform to our true shape.
In dust, we scatter like primeval seeds.
Divorced from cells of coelacanth and ape,
no more embodied by our thoughts and deeds,

alone – no myth or metaphor or art –
and open to the stars which are our home,
we still the beating of our weary heart,
finding at last the place that we’ve come from.

Friday 11 November 2016

Van Gogh's Ear

Bernadette Murphy's recent book, Van Gogh's Ear: the True Story, inspired this poem.

Van Gogh's Ear

I am not here. Already I’ve moved out
from studio to street, from charcoal grey
into chrome orange and cochineal,
from yellow house to whorehouse. Gabrielle,
that poor maid, mops the floor
the painted ladies pockmark with scuffed heels.
I pity her bare arms, her rabid flesh
scarred by the cauterising iron,
and pull her by the wrist into the light,
the burning light of cobalt blue Provence.

I place a ragged parcel in her hands.
She shudders and says nothing, but receives
the gift with grace, clutching it to her breast
in reverence, and I am like a god —
I’m Jesus Christ, and gentle Gabrielle
is Mary Magdalene. I stagger through
the blinding streets of Arles and cross the Rhône,
rave in the cornfields just beyond the town.
Vermilion blood runs down my cheek like tears.
But I’m not here. I have already flown
by crow’s path over waving cypresses
and under whirling stars I lay me down.

You Want It Darker

If you are the dealer, I'm out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I'm broken and lame
If thine is the glory, then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame

Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

Saturday 29 October 2016


The more you know, the more you know you don't know.

Socrates, Aristotle and Einstein all realised this. And it's a statement worth unpicking. First of all, what do we mean by to 'know'?

Einstein — boy to man.
There's a world of seemingly incontrovertible facts and figures out there, things which by and large are not a matter of opinion. The moon spins round the earth. The earth spins round the sun. Trump and Clinton are the USA's presidential candidates. The capital of Venezuela is Caracas. The kind of bald truths churned out in question and answer form on the innumerable quiz shows which plague the media in the guise of entertainment.

Then there's the wealth of information and misinformation grounded in hearsay, gossip, prejudice, conjecture, supposition, intelligent (and not-so-intelligent) guesswork, propaganda, and religious, political and economic belief. Jesus married Mary Magdalene. Marlowe and others co-wrote many of Shakespeare's plays. Eating cheese increases your chance of a heart attack. Allah is the one true God. The Labour party is the best. Communism is dead.

A few things we can be completely sure about, i.e. mathematical formulations, such as one plus one equals two, and syllogisms, such as 'All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal'. These rather uninteresting truths are true for all time and are what philosophers call a priori truths. Most other truths are empirical truths — whether 99.9% certainties (the sun will rise tomorrow) or highly dubious beliefs which are advocated by some but disparaged by others (wearing a copper bracelet will help the arthritis in your wrist). There's a vast spectrum of truths and beliefs, ranging from unassailable logical truth to absolute falsehood, with many shades of truth, half-truth and untruth in-between.

If we consider the whole of history, how many things can we be utterly sure of? The accuracy of some dates and the reality of some personages and events, certainly. But many things remain in obscurity or semi-obscurity. What was the actual cause of the First World War? What was Rasputin's true character? Why do we think the Greeks invented democracy when their empire was built on slavery? Did Atlantis really exist?        

Science seeks and often uncovers the truth (cigarette smoking is likely to cause lung cancer), but this may only be a relative truth (Galileo and Einstein turned astronomy and physics upside down), dependent on the historical timeline.

The point of all this is to say quite simply that truth is a tricky business — and we haven't even begun to consider emotional truth, imaginative truth or artistic truth.

The reason I'm trying to sort out my feelings about truth and knowledge at the moment is that I feel I'm being bombarded with incredible amounts of information — from the Internet, from social media, from TV and radio, from politicians, economists, new-age gurus and other pundits, from salespersons, from books and magazines, from just about everyone and everywhere. And this flow of information ever increases. But to whose benefit? Do we really want to know all those facts about celebrity and sport and TV shows regurgitated by the blotting-paper brains of quiz show contestants? Do we really need to fill our minds with pro-and-contra arguments about every conceivable subject? Are we really going to be made to feel inadequate because we haven't mastered this or that skill or learnt this or that fact in order to increase our kudos in the eyes of contemporary society?

Faced with this onslaught of undifferentiated, often trivial information, we have the ability, thank goodness, to select, discriminate and shut out the bits we want to shut out. I refuse to be jealous of those with apparently huge mental reservoirs of facts and figures, of arguments and opinions, who are able to recall them and rehearse them at will. I refuse to be intimidated by the pressurised demands of the noisy and instant information age. I want to read and watch and hear and learn and digest the things which I myself decide I want to know, and to hell with the rest. 

For I know that, despite all we know, we know very little, and, anyhow, knowledge is quite a different beast from wisdom. I read a great deal, but I know I'll never read all the books I want to read, and I don't care. (Or I tell myself I don't care.) Often it's far more rewarding to know one thing in depth rather than many things superficially. And knowledge itself, as we've found, is a slippery creature. For instance, take our own mind and body. They are our two constant and intimate companions — but do we really know them? I would hazard barely at all. Take a random subject — China, say, or geophysics, or Mediterranean flowers, or phenomenology, or a million others. Unless we happen to be a specialist in that particular area, do we really know very much about any of them? (I'm not saying that we should do — a small amount of knowledge may well be all that is necessary for our sanity, despite the saying that a little learning is a dangerous thing.)   

I come back to this. I know that the more you know, the more you don't know — as Socrates, Aristotle and Einstein once said. Actually, in the end, that's quite a comforting notion.