Poem of the Week / The Man Who Played Nazis on Bomb Sites

Haaretz remembers the great poet and translator Daniel Weissbort, whose work was hailed by friend Ted Hughes as 'infinitely valuable' to the international poetry world.

Memories of War
Daniel Weissbort

In this green and pleasant land
where V1s and V2s
were not aimed specifically at Jews,
I played Nazis, Nasties, on the bombed sites.

We collected shit-colored, sky-fallen metal.
My stomach still turns from the time
I picked up a bit of shit instead …

But why here and not
Lodz, Warsaw, Brussels, Paris?
I went on growing.
With nostalgia, I remember
“Onward Christian Soldiers” and
“To Be a Pilgrim.”

Businessman
Daniel Weissbort

He was homo trilingus: Hebrew Greek and Latin.
This learning remained with him,
a kind of curse, an anachronism.
He loved Classical Greece and found the contemporary world wanting,
and lovingly he recalled the barbarous legends of the Hebrews.
Yeshiva bokher. Classical scholar,
He’d a memory would let nothing go –
time simply had no effect on it.
After thirty years in knitwear,
he still construed Virgil with ease,
as comprehensively and tediously as he explained
the significance and symbolism of the Passover.
Though he could have afforded it many times over,
he never visited Greece, or the Holy Land.
Instead, photographs show him
on the terrace in Monte Carlo,
in tennis slacks at Riva Bella
or sitting stiffly in a deckchair,
squinting up at he sun in Bournemouth.
I know it’s presumptuous to say so,
but if he’d been able to lay down his burden of knowledge,
he’d probably have been better off.

***

Poet and translator Daniel Weissbort died on November 18. He was born in London in 1935 to Polish parents who had lived in Belgium and spoke French at home, to which Daniel replied in English – a translator almost from the moment he could use language. At Cambridge University, he formed a life-long friendship with Ted Hughes and in 1965 the two established the journal "Modern Poetry in Translation". Its first issue, a cheaply produced broadsheet, was devoted to the poetry of Eastern Europe and introduced into English such poetic luminaries as Czeslaw Milosz of Poland, who was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. Through various transformations Weissbort edited and curated the content of MPT until 2003 and today, in print and online, it remains central to the international poetry world.

In 1973 he established a master’s program in translation at the University of Iowa (the writer of these lines first met him there); after retiring, he returned to London. Weissbort published about a dozen books of his own poetry and numerous volumes of poetry and prose in translation. In the course of his indefatigable efforts as an anthologizer, he co-edited “An Anthology of Contemporary Russian Women Poets” (Carcanet) with his second wife, Russian scholar Valentina Polukhina. Also notable are his study of Joseph Brodsky “From Russian With Love” (Anvil Press) and (together with Astradur Eysteinsson) "Translation: Theory and Practice, A Historical Reader" (Oxford University Press).

He was diffident and self-effacing about his own poetry and much else, while his zeal, generosity and impish sense of humor won him many friends around the world. About Weissbort’s poetry, Hughes, an entirely opposite, flamboyant and brooding sort of public persona, wrote to him in a letter: “You manage to keep the whole thing intact, and true to yourself,” and called the poetry “infinitely valuable.” In 2002, Weissbort celebrated and examined the friendship with the late Poet Laureate in his book of poems “Letters to Ted” (Anvil Press).

In March of 1993, Weissbort visited Israel and participated in the Second International Poets Festival at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, to which he devoted Issue No. 4 of the New Series of Modern Poetry in Translation (Winter 1993-94). The poems above (from his “Nietzsche’s Attache Case: New and Selected Poems,” Carcanet, 1993) merit being read aloud for pleasures like the rhyme “V2s” and “Jews,” which is invisible to the reading eye.

Onward Christian Soldiers” and “To Be a Pilgrim” are hymns popularly sung in British schools; Weissbort attended St. Paul’s School in London.

Valentina Polukhina