Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Martin Bidney: Dialogic Poet, Translator, Critic

"Dialogue" or "colloquy" is the keynote of my work as a scholar and poet.  My twenty published studies of the epiphany patterns of writers will show that while no two writers agree on what's revelatory and unforgettable, each imaginer has contributed something distinctive and irreplaceable to the treasury of human vision.  Writing my own poetry, I enter into dialogue with the poets most arousing to my dream-mind. When shaping my commentary-poems to the visionary offerings of Mickiewicz and the Qur'an, Tchernikhovsky and Goethe, I engage in a virtual symposium with them.  My lyrical dialogue with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's West-East Divan, itself the pioneering colloquy of Germany's greatest poet and a delightful medieval Persian Sufi pub singer, lets me introduce into the dialogue thoughts about Goethe, Middle Eastern culture, and my own rapidly widening life.

“Dialogic” describes everything I do.  Teaching English and comparative literature at Binghamton University 1969-2004 I wrote scholarly-critical essays and books, and still write them.  Three main groups emerge. (1) Comparative studies that involve either of the two writers that gave me the most during my teaching years –- British Romantic poet William Blake and Russian Symbolist poet Konstantin Bal’mont. [Book: Blake and Goethe.] (2) International Romanticism, emphasis on comparison and influence. (3) Epiphanology.  That’s the study of the recurrent epiphany patterns in the work of a given writer, and the exploring of their psychoanalytic implications.  It’s dialogic because you discover the treasury of epiphanies we call “literature” is a colloquy or conversation:  writers’ patterns of revelation differ hugely:  setting them side by side you understand their rich diversity. [Book: Patterns of Epiphany.]

My next two categories of writing activity are so dialogic they are often hard to separate.  The four books of verse I’ve published combine translation with original verse, and all in different ways: 

(1) Saul Tchernikhovsky’s Lyrical Tales and Poems of Jewish Life, story poems and hymns to pagan gods translated from Russian, including my preface in a dozen Pushkinian sonnets. 

(2) A Poetical Dialogue with Adam Mickiewicz offering his 18 “Crimean Sonnets” translated from Polish, with my preface in 35 more sonnets, my original “replies” in sonnet form to the newly rendered poems, and notes.

(3) East-West Poetry, with my 140 original poems, 108 of them commentaries on highlights from the Qur’an, central scripture of Islam.  Preface contains my translations of works by east-west mediator-mentors: Goethe, Mickiewicz, Pushkin, Rilke.

(4) West-East Divan – The Poems, with “Notes and Essays”: Goethe’s Intercultural Dialogues, translated from German (translation of “Notes and Essays” assisted by Peter Anton von Arnim). Here I respond to Goethe’s 249 poems with about 280 of my own commentary lyrics or “Replies.”
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The three e-books I've co-written for the net are all culturally dialogic, as shown in their collective title: Voices of the World in Song / Stimmen der Voelker in Liedern.

This teamwork project of trilingual verse collections, illustrated, annotated, and with trilingual audio, was stimulated by an idea that Michael Engelhard offered.  It was Engelhard who first discovered that Adam Mickiewicz, Poland's greatest poet, had in his Crimean Sonnets been a disciple and emulator of the greatest poet of Germany, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, author of the groundbreaking intercultural volume West-East Divan.  (Nothing about the crucial connection between these two books had appeared in the pre-Engelhard critical literature.)  Engelhard and Katharina Mommsen then conceived the Voices of the World in Song project described above.  Indeed, volume 2, the Pushkin collection, compiled by Engelhard, arose from his insight that through such a compilation he could assemble a work analogous to Goethe’s multicultural East-West Divan, a project superbly appropriate since Pushkin was a disciple of Goethe in this regard. Alexander Schlayer, through his German renderings of poems by Bjerke, Norway's chief poet of the twentieth century, then afforded the stimulus for volume 3.

Also, the work of Thomas D. Boehm in designing the books’ covers and format, and in selecting the illustrations for the Bjerke volume, is deeply appreciated, as are Marina Zalesski’s selection of illustrations and her artistic design for the Pushkin volume.

To my co-editor Katharina Mommsen I feel a gratitude deeper than I can ever express.  I want to thank her for allowing me to reproduce here these three volumes, which have been published under the auspices of the Mommsen Foundation and are also downloadable at

(1) E-book Voices volume 1. Crimean Sonnets by Adam Mickiewicz, 18 poems translated from Polish. Trilingual edition (with German trans. by Engelhard), flipbook, trilingual audio.  Co-edited with Katharina Mommsen.  A west-east collection: the Polish poet visits a region with chiefly Islamic culture.  Click title of any poem on any page to hear it in Polish, English, or German.

(2) E-book Voices volume 2. "Like a Fine Rug of Erivan": West-East Poems by Alexander Pushkin, 39 lyrics translated from Russian.  Trilingual edition (with German trans. by Engelhard), flipbook, trilingual audio.  Co-edited with Katharina Mommsen and Marina Zalesski.  This is a collection emphasizing the poet's encounters with varied ethnicities and designed as analogous to Goethe’s interculturally groundbreaking West-East Divan.  Click title of any poem on any page to hear it in Russian, English, or German.

(3) E-book Voices volume 3. "Somewhere on Earth": Selected Poems by André Bjerke, 37 Norwegian poems translated from the German of Alexander Schlayer. Trilingual edition (with German trans. by Schlayer), flipbook, trilingual audio.  Co-edited with Katharina Mommsen.  Norway’s greatest poet of the twentieth century, Bjerke is a master we wanted to bring into our intercultural colloquy, “Voices of the World in Song.”  Click title of any poem on any page to hear it in Norwegian, English, or German.

All my English translations are form-true, keeping the original rhythm and rhyme patterns. They’re all musical.  A violinist since age nine, and a folk fiddler in multiple styles since age twenty, I see poetry writing as violin playing by other means.

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