Tango Poetry

Two of my passions in life (not a phrase I use lightly) are poetry and tango. I see many correlations between the two forms, a subject to which I shall doubtless return at some later date.

Nevertheless (or perhaps because of this) I find it deeply depressing that when I type ‘tango poems’ or somesuch phrase into Google, with a few extremely rare exceptions, I uncover a swamp of ill-considered, turgid dross. OK, one man’s metre is another man’s cacophony, but there are ground rules. Although tango is perhaps the most improvisational of all partner dances, for it to work, the improvisation must be within a structure and relate to the phrasings and rhythms of the music.

So too in poetry. Whether you’re writing haiku or a limerick, blank verse or a sonnet, there has to be a rhythm, although not necessarily a rhyme. (Even prose should have a rhythm.) Write for yourself by all means, but if you want someone else to read it your words should waken some feeling or emotion in a way that is fresh and exciting. Self-indulgent maundering doesn’t cut it.

When  you dance tango you don’t dance just for yourself, but for your partner and the music. And, in those heightened moments, for the feelings that the music and the instant touch.

I confess I have a problem too with many tango lyrics. Unfortunately I don’t speak Spanish so I’m restricted to reading English translations. Translating poetry or lyrics is a difficult task. Do you stick to the literal meanings, or do you go deeper and try to convey the feelings and emotions being expressed? And there’s the problem, again, of rhyme and rhythm.

I am grateful to those who go to the trouble of translating tango lyrics. Those of us restricted to English at least get an idea of what the songs are about (although the music and the singer’s voice convey as much or more). The result, however, is often as unsatisfactory as translations of poetry.

I love the poems of Pablo Neruda. An internet search will reveal many translations of varying quality. For me, among the best are the versions by Christopher Logue. I call them versions rather than translations because Logue, being a poet himself, has not translated the words and sentences literally, but rather has he translated the essence of Neruda’s poems into something fresh and valid in its own right.

The translation of poetry is a fascinating subject, but I’m getting a little away from my original theme…

Most of the poems I come across which have the ‘tango feel’ are not really tango poems at all, at least not in the writer’s intention. I’ve already mentioned Neruda (and linked to one of his most famous poems in a previous post) so I’ll finish with an example by Theodore Roethke:

I Knew a Woman

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.)

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin:
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing did we make.)

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved.)

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I’m martyr to a motion not my own;
What’s freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways.)

From The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (Random House Inc., 1961).

~ by magickwords on Saturday, 21 January 2012.

12 Responses to “Tango Poetry”

  1. I love this poem by Roethke. if you want poems pure and simple – and one of the editors is a tanguero. Try:


  2. Purity and simplicty are to be encouraged in poetry and in tango! Thank you for the link.

  3. Re Tango Poetry – couldn’t have put it better myself.
    And I especially like the last verse of the poem by Roethke, which seems almost complete in itself.

  4. I wrote a tango sonnet. It obviously isn’t up to the quality of the Roethke you cite. And it’s not so terribly serious. But here it is, for what it’s worth.

    It was inspired by a typo in a friend’s status update in Facebook. Instead of “three days without tango” he wrote the — for me — very evocative phrase, “tree days without tango”.

    Sonnet for Joris Groenewegen. “Tree Days without Tango”

    The trees are lonely; they cannot embrace.
    Frustrated forest arms clutch at the sky
    Branches extend like legs, but cannot trace
    The snaky ocho, nor in boleos fly.
    The steady drip of rain is far too slow
    To form the pulse of any tango beat.
    The twigs are pointed toes, yet Comme Il Faut
    Will never shoe these lovely lignin feet.
    A leaf nudges my shoe — seems to suggest
    A sly barrida of the muddy kind,
    While branches twitch and tremble in their quest
    To find a way to decorate the wind.
    O Xylem-Phloem, leaf and branch and root,
    I wish you were a dance floor underfoot!

  5. Pam Ayres,the greatest ever poet;discuss……………….

  6. […] See also https://tangowords.wordpress.com/2012/01/21/tango-poetry/ […]

  7. what is the Tango poetry actually?
    How to write it Like syllable, rhyme, Rhythm etc

    • How to define tango poetry? I suppose I was meaning poems taking tango as a main subject. Perhaps trying to express that elusive ‘tango feeling’ in words. Rhythm is certainly important, as in any poem. Rhyme much less so… especially, as too often happens, the phrasing is mangled to force a rhyme.

      It would be interesting to write a poem using tango or milonga rhythm. Then some tango lyrics may be happily called poems.

  8. Wowza, problem solved like it never hapepned.

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