Carol Rumens on Joan Margarit and the glosa’s embrace

Rosalind from As You Like It by Robert Walker Macbeth.
Rosalind from As You Like It by Robert Walker Macbeth.

I discovered the Glosa (or Glose, or Gloss) through the work of Marilyn Hacker, an American poet I greatly admire.  It’s an adaptation of a complex Spanish form. The writer takes lines from an existent poem and composes a series of stanzas, each of which concludes with one of the original lines, in original order. I got carried away the first time I wrote a glosa: my subject was Larkin’s ‘The Trees’ and I embedded every line. In copyright terms, it may have been the most expensive glosa ever written. I was pleased with it, but it remains in the bottom drawer, where it makes occasional beeping sounds.

One of my favourite books is Tugs in the Fog, Anna Crowe’s translation of the Selected Poems by the Catalan poet, Joan Margarit.  As I re-read it last year, the deceptively simple little poem ‘Woman of Spring’ seemed to whisper sexily, “Go on. Give me a glosa.”

You could say that, in having a female speaker and addressee, I subverted the male/female orientation of the original. Composing the last stanza, I certainly had in mind a particular Sappho fragment. But I didn’t set out to issue any lesbian-feminist challenge. The line of Margarit’s that particularly intrigued me was “It’s sad to die surrounded by respect and reputation.”  That’s already a fairly powerful subversion! It gave me both the character addressed and the speaker’s attitude to her.  

The speaker is a frustrated poet-lover, “with a woeful ballad / made to his mistress’ eyebrow” (as Shakespeare’s Jacques evokes the type) and with pretensions of her own (Heroides/Harrods). The poem begins after the lovers’ final quarrel – in “odi et amo” mode.

I wanted the barest minimum of irony. Margarit always seems to me an emotionally honest poet, and I had the beautiful, blatantly romantic last line of ‘Woman of Spring’ as an energising presence constantly on my radar. The lover is caught up in the divine madness Plato described.  “(W)hat happens in a poem’s starry night” marks the descent of the god, or muse. It’s the moment when an inspiration begins to breathe out in text. 

A glosa is an embrace: it brings you up close and personal with the work glossed. If it’s a poem translated from another language, the writer is teased into a new linguistic sensibility. The original syntax, interwoven, promotes slightly alien structures and alters pitch and tone. Each line becomes an exciting retrospective launchpad for your new stanza.

Some day, I’d like to write a glosa more rigorously centred on the chosen poem. One difficulty of the form is its dependence on single lines: few poems complete a thought in one line. I might try some Pope, and gloss couplets instead of single lines. That could be fun. And, unlike Larkin, he’s out of copyright!

‘Woman of Spring’ by the Catalan poet Joan Margarit appears in Tugs in the Fog: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2006), translated by Anna Crowe. The original appeared in Edat Roja, 1991.

‘Glosa on “Woman of Spring” by Joan Margarit’ by Carol Rumens is published in The Poetry Review, Vol. 105, No. 3.