Red Letter Poem #41

Steven Ratiner, Arlington’s Poet Laureate, is today’s guest blogger.

The first thing to know about literary ‘translation’: it’s an impossibility – especially when it comes to poetry.  Not only are there rarely direct equivalencies between languages, there’s the matter of those inestimable mysteries: musical intonation, cultural memory, and the subtle connotations only a native speaker would detect.  That’s why Steven Cramer refers to his poetic carry-overs as versions, so that a reader will be aware that he’s not aiming at an exact lexical replica but a poem that might create, inside the mind of a reader of English, something close to the effect the original had on its own audience.  After all, what good would it be to recreate, feather by feather, a bird seemingly identical to its model from a foreign land if yours can neither sing nor fly?

So why do poets like Cramer attempt this impossible task – often having to partner with linguists or build upon numerous earlier attempts, all in search of a version with true vitality?  I think it begins in the aspirations for his own poetry.  He’s the author of six collections, the most recent being Listen (MadHat Press) from which today’s piece is taken.  His writing has such keen emotional nuance and imaginative daring, he knows how much faith a poet must place in the art form, what his/her years of effort hope to embody.  And so it’s literally painful to read a poor translation from an admired figure, feeling the poet’s creation crushed beneath the weight of awkward or (worse) unimpassioned verbiage.  Osip Mandelstam – a native of Poland, transplanted to St. Petersburg with his family when he was still a boy – became arguably modern Russia’s greatest lyric poet.  He too understood what it meant to contend with a new language and its obstacles.  And later, under Stalin’s brutal regime, he saw how a poem might become the purest expression of freedom – even as it cost him his home, his life.  In Cramer’s version, I experience a sort of winter-inwardness that feels most appropriate in our own hard season (both the one marked by the calendar, and those of our health and political crises – all those dark cubicles we wake to each day, stretching endlessly into the distance.)  How can an American poet not make an effort to provide his countrymen and women (who, sadly, tend to dwell inside a single language) with at least a taste of other songs, possible worlds – so we too might avail ourselves of that wider sky.

Red Letter Poem #41: 

Red Letter 41

The Red Letter Poems Project was created in grateful partnership with many of our town’s cultural resources: the Arlington Commission for Arts and Culture, the Arlington Center for the Arts, the Robbins Library, the Arlington International Film Festival, and Arlington Community Education.  See the full archive of the project at  We’ll send out a poem from a new poet every week. If you enjoy them, we encourage you to forward them to friends –  in Arlington and beyond –  or to post them on your social media platforms with the hashtags: #RedLetterPoems, #ArlingtonPoetLaureate. If you want to make sure you receive these poems directly – or to receive notices about future poetry events – send an e-mail to: with the subject line ‘mailing list’.

In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art – and, in truth, even the COVID-19 crisis itself – serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.

– Steven Ratiner

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