Tango Words

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).