Dannie Abse’s Memorial Celebration – 25.03.15

He remains a man who it feels impossible to confine to the past tense. So said Jeremy Robson, one of the speakers at Dannie Abse’s celebratory memorial event held in Kings College Great Hall on Wednesday evening this week. Indeed more than a few of those who had come to remember him, confessed they half expected Abse to be there himself, still large as life. Carol Ann Duffy imagined he’d want to “get outta here” – too much poker-faced reverence – and, yes, it was easy to imagine him somewhere still working away at his set goals – 5 or 6 publishable poems a year and every 5 years a collection of his marvellously accessible, witty and moving poems. How often did he achieve his own expectations of a good poem: that the reader should enter it sober, but leave it drunk.


Beneath a projection of this marvellous photo of Abse, Paul Gogarty oversaw the readings and recollections, immediately plotting the four compass points of the poet’s life: poetry, family, chess and Cardiff City FC. Lynne Hjelmgaard (Abse’s partner for the last 6 years) read the mysterious, life-changing visitation recorded in ‘The Uninvited’ (the only poem he would re-publish from his first book, After Every Green Thing) as well as her own moving poem in tribute to him. Alan Brownjohn, recalled his friendship with Abse and his direct acquaintance with the source materials of the two powerfully dark poems he chose to read: ‘Three Street Musicians’ and ‘A Night Out’ (the latter discussed in my earlier blog).

Tony Curtis alluded to another of Abse’s much quoted poetic observations: “I start with the visible and am startled by the visible”. He argued that, though not conventionally religious, the poet was a deeply spiritual man who could perceive the invisible through the visible. This was demonstrated in Owen Sheers’ reading of the extraordinary ‘In the Theatre’ in which a surgeon incompetently meddles with a patient’s brain (this was around 1938, only a local anaesthetic) only for the dying man to cry out hauntingly, ‘Leave my soul alone’. Sheers said this was the first Abse poem he ever heard – on a tape playing in his parents’ car apparently. Imagine the quiet drone of the engine after lines like these: “that voice so arctic and that cry so odd . . . to cease at last when something other died./ And silence matched the silence under snow”. A memorable moment, leading Sheers to dispute the reading of this particular poem with Andrew Motion, who gracefully withdrew (the English rightly ceding to the Welsh on this occasion, Motion observed) and chose instead to read ‘Apology’. Motion also recalled meeting Abse at an early Eric Gregory do and asking him (as a judge of competitions) how he approached the task of whittling down the thousands of entries. Easy, Abse apparently replied, throw out every poem containing the word ‘myriad’.

Abse’s daughter Susanna painted a more domestic picture of husband and father, a lover of all sorts of games including quizzes, board games, sing-songs on long car journeys, casting spells on recalcitrant traffic lights and pretending to talk to John Lennon on the family phone. She also recalled his “visceral” sense of loss when Joan was killed in the car accident in 2005. Only through the act of writing his memoir, The Presence (2008), and the poems later published in Two For Joy (2010) did he slowly return to something like a normal life. Elaine Feinstein read ‘White Balloon’ (“Auschwitz made me / more of a Jew than ever Moses did”) and ‘St Valentine’s Night’, the latter reminding us of Abse’s achievement as a poet of both erotic and uxorious love. Carol Ann Duffy had earlier read ‘A New Diary’ and Gillian Clarke chose the much-anthologised, neo-Romantic ‘Epithalamium’ (“Singing, today I married my white girl / beautiful in a barley field”) which she followed with her own response to it, ‘Barley’.


Perhaps most movingly there were several clips of Abse reading his own work (mostly from Ian Michael Jones BBC film series Great Welsh Writers). So the poet himself completed the evening with his reading of ‘The Presence’, the heart-rending lament for his wife, Joan, which surely everybody assembled in Kings Great Hall, beneath its classical white pillars trimmed with gold leaf, felt should now be addressed to the author himself:

It’s when I’m most myself, most alone

with all the clamour of my senses dumb,

then, in the confusion of Time’s deletion

by Eternity, I welcome you and you return

improbably close, though of course you cannot come.


Found Poems from Whitman’s Civil War Prose

I’m still pursuing some of the thoughts from my last blog about the difficulties of writing about current events (https://martyncrucefix.com/2015/03/13/how-do-i-write-poems-about-current-events/). I am reminded that we are closing in on the twelfth anniversary of the first so-called ‘shock and awe’ strikes by coalition forces on Saddam Hussein’s Bagdad in 2003: 

I did manage to write about the subsequent war in Iraq but on this occasion I approached it very tangentially, through the Civil War writings of Walt Whitman. The resulting poems were first published in The Long Poem Magazine (Issue 3, Winter 2009/10; sections also appeared in Acumen) with the Introduction I have posted below. There, I discuss several sections of the completed sequence though I will post up only two parts of it. For the sake of those who might be interested in how raw materials get transmuted in such a process, I have added links to the original passages from which #2 ‘The White House’ and #4 ‘I staid a long time to-night’ were derived. The full sequence was eventually published in Hurt (2010: https://martyncrucefix.com/publications/hurt/). Dan O’Brien has more recently used a not dissimilar ventriloquism in his poems about the experiences of war photographer Paul Watson. For a much more direct poetic approach to modern war (born out of direct experience as a soldier in Iraq) see the poetry of Brian Turner.

On 21st March 2003 the “big and little thunderers in chorus began to roar” over Baghdad. During Easter of that year I visited the American Museum, just outside Bath, and while my children scoured the grounds in an Easter egg hunt and my aging parents wandered around an exhibition of American rag rugs, I drifted into the bookshop and picked up a collection of Walt Whitman’s Civil War poetry and prose.

It was childhood innocence and the rag rugs’ recycling of material that were in my mind as I read the words Whitman had written in 1862 in Falmouth, Virginia: “Began my visits among the Camp Hospitals in the Army of the Potomac. Spent a good part of the day in a large brick mansion, on the banks of the Rappahannock.”

With the force of one of those visions that artists are thought to be prone to, it struck me that such a wide-eyed witnessing from an earlier conflict might be a way to write successfully about the then current conflict. Or to be more precise – since what I have just written fails to convey the powerful emotional impact of what I read – I was myself moved by reading Whitman’s observations but my emotion was not retrospective at all but immediate, topical, all about Iraq.


The more I read of Whitman’s prose the more genuine ties with the contemporary war I sensed. Whitman writes in his letters and journals almost as a by-stander, visiting the wounded and dying in hospitals, only occasionally being drawn to wider political observations and his focus on the individual cost of warfare exactly matched my own feelings. I began to imagine a sequence of poems framed by letters to a mother, containing the search for a brother and other references to close family members: “Han’s and George’s and Andrew’s. . . Jeff’s and his little Manahatta’s too”. The sequence came together only very slowly, partly because of my own uncertainties about its status as a partially ‘found’ poem but it eventually separated itself from its original sources and it was only later that I saw what was mine, what Whitman’s.

So the second piece, describing the White House, relies heavily on notes Whitman made in February 1862, but in the light of the deceit and war mongering of the early 21st century such descriptions are redolent with a bitter irony.

‘I dream’d a stockade’ is a more ‘composed’ poem, using Whitman’s familiar listing techniques, which intends to turn the suffering of the Civil War at an angle to reflect the inner conflicts that the Iraq mission quickly created in US society itself. With the inevitable reports of civilian casualties, I had little to add to Whitman’s accounts of comforting the wounded from the opposing sides of the Civil conflict to ensure a powerful contemporary resonance.

Soldiers in the trenches before battle, Petersburg, Va., 1865.

‘The President’ is drawn from Whitman’s many observations of Lincoln. He first set eyes on him in 1861 and, as with the White House material, while I was putting the sequence together, the passage of time had already imbued his original admiration with the bitterest of ironies. Of course, after the poems were completed, by January 2009 and the inauguration of Obama, time had ironically turned once more and some have since read this part of the sequence as ‘about’ the new US President.

With ‘To the Mother of one fallen’, the narrator is back at the bedside of an individual dying man whose ravings and sense of undeserved blame, of a corruption in the/his “system”, is intended to reflect warfare’s inevitable brutalisation of even the best of individuals, the results of which even now continue to be uncovered years after the world conjured its first surprised shock at events in Abu Ghraib. (click to see Whitman’s original letter of May 1865: Here )


More than it comes to

seven poems from the American War

ii. The White House

Tonight, I walk out to take a look at the President’s House.

Tonight, the white portico, the brilliant gas-light shining,

The palace-like pediment, the tall round columns, spotless as snow.

Tonight, a tender and soft moonlight flooding the pale marble,

A light that gives rise to peculiar & faint & languishing shades,

That are not shadows, for no such thing as shadow resides at this address.

On this night, a soft transparent haze under the thin moon-lace,

Where it falls amongst the bright and plentiful clusters of gas-lights,

That have been set at intervals around the façade & the columns.

Tonight, I see everything white, a marbly pure white and dazzling,

And even more so, the softest white of the White House of future poems,

And of dramas and dreams here, under the high, the copious moon.

Tonight, the pure and gorgeous front in trees under the night-lights,

The leafless silence and the trunks and myriad angles of branches.

Tonight, I see a White House of the land, a White House of the night,

And of beauty and of silence and sentries at the tall gate,

Sentries pacing in their blue overcoats, stopping me not at all,

But eyeing with their sharp sentries’ eyes whichever way I go.

For Whitman on The White House: Click Here


iv.  I staid a long time to-night

I staid a long time to-night at his difficult bed-side.

It was a young Baltimorean, grown to the age of nineteen.

He had seen so much and yet had slept such a very little,

His right leg amputated an hour since, he was feeble,

So he slept hardly at all, the morphine costing more than it comes to.

And this is what I must do, I sit still while he holds my hand,

And he puts it to his face most affectionately.

And this young, handsome, tanned Baltimorean spoke to me:

“My dear friend, I am certain you do not know who I am,

Although your sitting here so quietly and so patiently,

It means much, yet you must understand who it is you help,

Since what I stand for & fight for I know you believe to be wrong”.

I staid a long time at the bed-side of the young Baltimorean.

I staid certainly because death had mark’d him and he was quite alone.

I might say I loved him, sometimes kiss’d him and he did me.

And of his age was his brother, a brave and religious man,

His brother and officer of rank, a man I sat beside in a close, adjoining ward.

And I staid because in the same battle they were wounded alike,

The one strong Unionist, the other Secesh, and each fought well,

Each for their respective sides, brave & obedient & mark’d for the end.

Now they lay close, following the separation of many years,

Of their strongly held beliefs, the separations these had imposed on them,

And both fought well and each died in his particular cause.

Ward in Armory Square Hospital, during Civil War, Washington, D.C.

For Whitman on the two brothers: Click Here

How Can I Write Poems About Current Events?

Recent reports coming out of Iraq suggest that Islamic State are destroying ancient artefacts, buildings, bulldozing cities like Nimrud. (see – http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/12/isis-ransack-ancient-assyrian-city-confirmed-iraq-head-of-antiquities-dur-sharrukin and http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/06/isis-destroys-ancient-assyrian-site-of-nimrud). Reading these reports has taken me straight back to the Taliban’s destruction of the two immense images of Buddha in the Bamiyan valley in 2001.

Whether it is possible to write poetry about such events is a question continually haunting me. It’s not a question I answer well or often I’m afraid – I’ve written precious few ‘political’ poems (four short pieces have recently been published here: http://themissingslate.com/2015/03/10/four-songs/). But I did manage to write about the Bamiyan valley (eventually published in 2004, in An English Nazarethhttps://martyncrucefix.com/publications/an-english-nazareth/ ). As I struggled with the poem I felt something interesting happening and I kept a drafting diary, some extracts of which I am posting below after the finished poem. I hope they provide some insight into the (often chaotic, chancy) thought processes of a writer, though they are necessarily fragmentary and I haven’t felt able to include copies of the drafts referred to (most of which I kept). I remember discussing the process of writing this particular poem with a workshop group in Bath a few years back and they responded well to the material though I’ve never organized it into a full account.



The valley history

Over wind-eroded, bleached badlands,

creaking packs come past buttress and crevasse

through which scrolls of Chinese silk unfold,

beside green glassware from Alexandria,

poised bronze wrought in the dust of Rome

and Indian lattice-work, ivory figurines.

With an almost audible sigh of the road,

merchants and drovers lower themselves

to the lush place, benignant Bamiyan’s

sweet water, bird-song, best of all its shade.

Their hearts livened by its fine excess.

The valley gives rest beside standing pools.

There is time and reason enough to praise.

A million hammer blows hollow a place

for rough giants daubed with mud and straw,

for feet and face and Buddhas’ folded robes

in plaster-work, paint – one red, one blue –

their moonlike features, loose, gilded hands.

Yellow-robed priests are like tiny flowers

that spring beneath each benevolent gaze

by day and night, a new thousand years.

In brief intervals between battles that ebb

and flow indifferently now,

Kalashnikovs stashed between the toes

of the red figure – dry there, defendable.

Smooth head and sloping shoulder of the blue

irrupt orange as an order of dust rolls down

and the cry is All we are breaking is stone.


 Extracts from a diary about drafting this poem:

An article in the Saturday newspaper in the spring of 2001, recorded the apparent betrayal of his word by the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. In meetings with the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage (SPACH), promises had been made to preserve two magnificent colossi, statues of Buddha, in the remote valley of Bamiyan. Within days of agreement being reached, rather than safeguarding the statues, the Taliban were shelling them. I sit and read this, as is usual, half-minded on other things, as I have been reading several articles the same morning, but I decide to tear this one out because I have had that inner stirring which I recognise as the voice of a poem to be. Writing the poem is finding a context – language, form, tone, narrative structure etc – what Auden calls the ‘verbal contraption’ – which will allow something of the reaction I experienced on reading the piece to re-create itself in my reader. It is that communication with which I am concerned. This is the truth I intend to communicate – not the literal honest truth.


I don’t progress far with a draft; I suspect because I have not yet found the distance from the informational aspects of the incident. This may or may not have been aggravated by my searching out information about the Buddhas of Bamiyan on the Internet – photos and earlier reports of concerns about the Taliban intentions and some historical details too.

Reading the first draft, it struck me that what I felt I was responding to was less a religious concern – this confirmed my uneasiness about writing about such geographically and culturally remote subjects – more an artistic one – about which I felt I might have something to say. The desecration and denial of the powers of art. This matched itself up in my mind with my sense that art arises out of an excess – economically and temporally – a luxury of a sort and the Bamiyan valley (in contrast to the surrounding rugged and desolate landscapes) seemed to suggest this contrast of the frugal and the rich. I mean the richness enough to devote survival time to the creation of art. I was therefore interested, in a second draft, in this contrast and the relation between trade – the Silk Road I began with – and the skill and beauty of the statues, the way in which they celebrate the excess and wealthiness and goodness of life – are separate from it, but at the same time arise out of it.



Then it was on Radio Four – possibly on Thought for the Day – half heard between the toast and marmalade and children’s cereals bowls. Between periods of blank inattention, I think I heard the speaker musing that she felt an irony in the situation – that it is the iconoclast who appears to attribute great power to the icon – often more so than the creators of the icon (this especially so in Buddhism where icons are certainly not created to be worshipped). The iconoclast fears the statues’ powers and this is why he feels they must be destroyed. This idea struck me as an interesting light on the situation and the tension between this idea and the declaration of Mullah Omar that these icons were just ‘rocks’ immediately presented itself as a likely ending to the poem – resonant, surprising, gesturing away from the topical towards something more universal.


One comment from a reader of a later draft stuck in my mind and grew into something that began to feel problematic. The comment was to the effect that the poem as it now stood had rather grand, magisterial tone, a kind of confident utterance, that swept the reader along. This had seemed fine originally, something related to the historical process and sweep I had hoped to capture and imitate in the poem as a whole. But it now hooked up with a remote dissatisfaction I had begun to feel that the poem had a remoteness that could be construed – I’m being coy here, I mean, I did construe it – as a lack of engagement with the material, in the sense that the statements the poem was making were too monolithic, confident, not as poetry, but as political/cultural comment. This took several weeks of re-reading the poem to come to the fore in my response to it and it wasn’t until – by chance – I had been reading Eavan Boland’s book, Object Lessons, that I could articulate what my objection to the poem had become.


In her book, Boland traces her own development as a poet, particularly as a woman poet in Ireland where she felt the tradition of Irish poetry, though vibrant and respected in ways which we, on the other side of the North Sea, often envy, did not readily allow the writer of poems to be female. One effect of this was for Boland, as an aspiring woman poet, to adopt the modes and language of the dominant male tradition. She argues that she recognised this effect in the poem ‘The War Horse’.  The poem, she felt after completing it, suffered from a confusion between “the political poem and the public poem”. She felt that she had allowed the subject of her poem “to be a representative and the object to be ornamental. In such a relation, the dangerous and private registers of feeling of the true political poem [are] truly lost. At the very moment when they [are] most needed”. I began to feel the same thing had occurred in my poem. It was a public poem (something I’d worried about from early on) and in being so, it had not encompassed, or involved, anything more personal or private of my own self, that might serve to give perspective, even to undermine the position so evidently held by the poem. This is where the confidence of the poem’s voice derives from, but also its, arguably, simplistic nature.


At this stage, I couldn’t see how I was going to be able to re-shape the whole piece in answer to a fundamental criticism like this. In all sorts of other ways I was pleased with the poem as it stood. Others liked it too. It might be argued that there ought to be room for a simplistic poem on a subject that seemed to provoke such outrage. Was my desire for a more destabilising ‘personal’ voice, the weakness of the liberal who tries to see all sides of a question? Perhaps. I felt uneasy aligning myself with journalists (even quality ones!) and I felt my gradually formulated criticism of the poem was a valid one. One thing I felt I could do was to remove the final two lines of the poem. These ringingly ironic lines were hard to cut, but they did end the poem on the moral high ground, as it were, assertive and confident, inviting the reader to dismiss the Mullah’s words as patently and unmistakably weasel words. The removal of this – leaving the poem to end on the rather more interesting irony of ‘Only children dare not deface a Buddha’s foot’ – went a little way to destabilising the, almost arrogance in the poem’s tone. Perhaps the Mullah’s phrase – which has been a crucial part of my poem from the very start – could be a title?

The title it became and there followed a number of drafts in which I seemed to be wrestling with the failures of the fourth stanza. There I was attempting to record in too documentary a style what the Taliban actually did with the statues. I was becoming over-involved in the image of their trepanning of the Buddhas and then placing explosives in the heads, as well as the burning tyres. In both these cases, part of the problem was that the poet in me had fallen in love with striking images which I found satisfying but which – on further reflection – probably had no real place in the poem. They were too much powered by my love of language – too little linked to the purpose they might serve at that specific point in a specific poem.


The poem was begun in March of 2001. And I was still working on it in September of that year – when the World Trade Centre was attacked. Al Qaeda’s links with Afghanistan are well known and the image of the monuments of East and West both being destroyed were impossible to keep apart in my mind now. I had a sense – again reflected in newspapers of the time that what had happened in Afghanistan had tortuously precipitated the Twin Towers attack. But too explicit a link would never serve so, at this stage, I tried to work in references to “stone dreams” falling not only in Bamiyan but elsewhere in the world. There were all kinds of ironies in linking these religious icons with the West’s most iconic images of capitalism and, though I don’t think I thought these through too rationally, they appealed to me and seemed to be apt in the context as Mullah Omar’s original statement caught my ear in large part because of its brutal materialism.


Around this stage, the form of the poem changed from the irregular stanzas it had been in since the start to unrhymed couplets. This, I hoped, would assist the lightening – the easing? – of the tone of the poem, as I’d begun to feel the clumped stanzas gave it a rather oratorical, speechifying feel, whereas the couplets would give a more unstable, edgy impression. Now called ‘The valley history’, it was still the final few lines, which seemed problematic. But with the eventual loss of the personification of ”fright”, the final choice of the phrase “irrupt orange” to suggest the splitting open of the Buddhas by the Taliban shells, and the removal of the rather too obviously paradoxical and (again) grandiose falling “stone dreams”, I felt the poem was finished enough. What eventually replaced the image of the falling towers was a phrase I was pleased to find. The “order of dust rolls down” alliterated well in the context, suggested the literal plumes of smoke and dust which accompanied the statues’ demise and, of course, also suggested the rolling dust clouds which followed 9/11. As well as literal truth, the “order” is intended to suggest a rule of government, or at least the decree of leaders, which tends towards destruction rather than construction and this was one of the originating impulses of my beginning the poem many months earlier.


On Translating Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies’

Idris Parry writes in the current PN Review (March/April 2015) comparing Rilke’s Duino Elegies with the Sonnets to Orpheus. The poet always spoke of the sonnets as subsidiary to the elegies, but Parry argues that while the elegies “talk about” the poet’s task, the sonnets perform it. I’d agree and, in translating both in the last 20 years or so, I have come to prefer the vivid enactments of the sonnets. Parry explores Rilke’s response to Rodin in Paris in 1902. What struck Rilke was Rodin’s “dark patience which makes him [as creative artist] almost anonymous”. What the young poet learned was to pursue an “unhurried and uncommitted exposure to experience” (Parry’s words). This is opposed to impatience which is (contra-Keats) an irritable reaching after clarity: “making up your mind before the event instead of letting the event shape your mind” (Parry again).

Rilke’s “praise” is just this acceptance and faithful utterance and is predicated on the truth of an underlying unity of existence. The poet is obliged to speak of this unity but can only use the language of division, a language deluded by the conviction of finality. Parry epigrammatically concludes: “We punctuate to retain our sanity, but we should not come to believe the punctuation”. The PN Review piece ends by looking at sonnet II, 18 and asks, if Rilke’s own German is a poor translation (using shabby tools) of an ultimate reality, how can translators hope to do it justice in bringing it over into English?

Reading Parry this week, reminded me of my own thoughts, not long after having translated Duino Elegies (https://martyncrucefix.com/publications/translations/duino-elegies/). They were originally published in Magma Magazine; I hope they are worth making public again:

My own grappling with the issue of what can be lost and gained in translation began over 10 years ago when London’s Blue Nose Poetry group staged an evening to celebrate Rilke’s work. This was partly in response to a Poetry Review survey of the original 1994 New Generation Poets, several of whom declared his work to have been influential. Though a name I was familiar with, I have to confess I hadn’t gotten far through my Penguin Selected. Perhaps on account of my ignorance, I was to contribute only by reading aloud from the Elegies. The Ninth was chosen but as I practised, I found myself stumbling, losing the thread and, frankly, I hardly knew what it was I was reading:

Here is the time for the Tellable, here is its home.

Speak and proclaim. More than ever

Things we can live with are falling away, for that

Which is oustingly taking their place is an imageless act.

Act under crusts, that will readily split as soon

As the doing within outgrows them and takes a new outline.

This is Leishman’s translation of the Ninth Elegy and I supposed the obscurity was part of the point – that it must signal hitherto unplumbed depths of profundity. My view on this remains equivocal, but I believe a proportion of the difficulty is obfuscation and the impression of slippery ‘mysticism’ it generates has misleadingly become part of Rilke’s appeal for many readers. For me, the bottom line was I could not read this aloud with the kind of conviction that I demanded. I tried a couple of other easily available translations – Stephen Cohn’s and David Young’s – but still was not happy with the sound these poems made in my mouth.

Castle Duino

Within a month I had produced a ‘version’ of my own. By version, I meant a close-ish translation, but I had taken considerable liberties with the more difficult passages and inserted what I thought Rilke might have meant or what I wanted him to mean. At the time this seemed to me a risky strategy compelled by necessity, though there is nowadays a good deal more debate about the role and value of versioning. My own position is that I prefer a genuine attempt to translate the original into a contemporary target language. I see the point of versions – but it is hardly ever what I am seeking as a reader. Nobody imagines translation is easy; but only a fool anticipates a perfect rendering. We expect translators to work in good faith and that their work will read sufficiently well in the target language not to distract us with the stale sweat of their strenuous wrestling with the original. Nor should they cover the difficulties of translation by delivering obscurities that defensively resist comprehension.

It was coming across my first attempt a couple of years later that set me systematically picking my way through the million pitfalls of the Elegies. Take for instance Rilke’s opening lines, the great cry at the start of the sequence. Rilke writes “Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel / Ordnungen?” Not too much of a problem you might think, but William Gass, in his book, Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation (Basic Books, 1999), considers no fewer than 15 versions of these 11 words. Most – though by no means all – accept Rilke’s opening word – “Who” – and most, though not all, take over Rilke’s relative clause “if I cried”. But is he merely crying or crying out? And beyond this point of relative agreement lie terrible dragons of disagreement, especially over the word “Ordnungen”. How are the angels deployed? Are they in “angelic orders”, “amid the host of the angels”, “among the hierarchy of angels”, “the order of the angels”, “among the angels’ hierarchies”, “among the ranked Angels”, “through the Angel Orders” or even (Gass gives his own version) “among the Dominions of Angels”? In such company, my own version, “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the ranks / of the angels?” runs the risk of a watery plainness but it has the advantages of clarity, echoes the rhythm, syntax and line break of the original closely, and (remembering my first concern was for oral performance) the line has a satisfying aural quality. I hear in the first phrases high, thin vowels that contrast the second half’s weightier, assonantal ‘a’ sounds: the cry of alienated humanity contrasts the solid, seemingly impregnable powers that lie beyond our reach.

But the best-equipped translator faces especially difficult problems in Rilke. In the Fifth Elegy, for example, the poem describes some acrobats. This is a combined portrait of a troupe Rilke knew while living in Paris and a painting by Picasso (La Famille des Saltimbanques, 1905) with which Rilke lived in the summer of 1915 in the house of the dedicatee of this Elegy, Frau Hertha Koenig. This is, formally, one of the freer of the Elegies, its lines extending and contracting to reflect the energy of the tumblers.

Picasso’s ‘La Famille des Saltimbanques’ (1905)

But in the Picasso painting the figures are arranged in an almost imperceptible D-shape and Rilke writes:  “Und kaum dort, / aufrecht, da und gezeigt: des Dastehns / großer Anfangsbuchstab . . .” In my version: “And barely discernible, / yet up-standing and unmistakeably on display, / the capital D of Destiny . . .” The original word “Dastehns” (something like “standing there”) reflects the visual pun and it would be a great loss not to bring this into the English. Stephen Mitchell uses the word “Duration”; Young’s looser version loses the pun with “existence . . . presence”. On this occasion, I found myself following Stephen Cohn and opting for “Destiny” (more usually the translation of “Schicksal”) which I felt conveyed Rilke’s sense of how these individuals are driven to perform by forces external to them, rather than by a more truthful inner compulsion.


Another critical decision arises in the Tenth Elegy with its tribe of people who enjoy a closer, more authentic relationship with death and grief than Rilke perceived in contemporary Western culture. He uses the word “Klage” and an English equivalent has to be found that works as the name of a young woman, her tribe, her ancestors and her country. Like the sound of the original, the word also has to reflect the harshness of the grief felt, while at the same time suggesting a dignity in such powerful emotions. For Rilke, the role of this personification and her whole tribe is certainly heroic. Most previous translators have opted for the word “Lament” but I felt this suggested a rather affected, almost poetic attitude – precisely the kind of posturing that Rilke asks us to avoid in our confrontation with these difficult aspects of life. I chose the word “Keening” to convey the genuine edginess of feeling (aurally again I liked the harsh initial K and the word’s trailing, wailing fall). This word seemed to me to work perfectly as personal and tribal name and geographical location: “gently she guides him through the vast / Keening landscape, shows him temple columns, / ruins of castles from which the Keening princes / once wisely governed”.

One thing I have learned is that translators take sustenance from their chosen originals. This is not just in the obvious way of extending their range, but also that they feed on a familiar. They find in their subject an answering voice, a confirmation of something already present within themselves. I experienced this in a surprising way. Rilke’s influence on Auden was particularly evident in the late 1930s. The sonnet sequence In Time of War refers directly to him and Mendelson’s Later Auden (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999) argues that ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ concludes with “an explicit echo” of Rilke’s Ninth Elegy and its famous injunction to “praise this world to the angel”.


Auden asks Yeats’ spirit to “Teach the free man how to praise”. Interestingly, Auden has never been a strong influence for me, yet the elegy to Yeats is a poem I have always loved. In fact, five or six years before I got to know Rilke, I remember modelling an elegy of my own on Auden’s – from the choice of title, the formal variety of its sections, to a finale in which I too celebrated one who “loved the world, craved its taste”, elevating him to a teacher of praise: “Listen, let me make this master speak: / Laughter, love, the senses are profound. / Drink deep, remember, Jeremy Round” (‘In Memory of Jeremy Round’). Reading Mendelson’s book has convinced me that I had been responding not merely to Auden but also – unknowingly – to Rilke. It turns out I have been finding a sympathetic familiar in him for longer than I had imagined.

Rita Dove / Local Library Love

Here’s a shaggy dog story.

J—–, my 17 year old daughter was travelling on the London Tube between social engagements a week or so ago. She and her friends were all a bit girly giggly – by her own admission after pre-drinking at somebody’s house – and her mobile phone got left on the train. Her unsuspecting parents – probably on the sofa that Saturday night, catching up on Wolf Hall or something similar via the i-Player – get a phone call (from a friend’s mobile) with the bad news. Oh bloody hell, full-on disapproval voice, we’ll have to cancel the contract before calls are made to Mars or Outer Mongolia, but let’s just try ringing J—-‘s number on the off chance it’s been picked up by an angel.


After a few hopeless attempts, someone answers sounding less angelic, more Eastern European. And yes, the phone is in their hands, and yes we are welcome to come and pick it up, maybe tomorrow, in some side street near Balham Tube, way across London of course. By dint of masculinity and eminence of age, it’s me who sets off next day for south London. The phone bit of the story goes rather cold here I’m afraid (uneventful, after wandering a few streets, knocking on a door, a young couple, full of the smiles of the unthinkingly virtuous, hand over the phone and I press a box of grateful chocolates into their reluctant grasp).

But Balham High Street has an Oxfam Bookshop – the kind I can never resist – and hidden away on the poetry shelves (between Everyman’s Robert Herrick, old copies of Poetry Review and a suspiciously large selection of First World War poetry) I pick out a hardback, signed first edition of Rita Dove’s 1999 collection, On the Bus With Rosa Parks, published in the US by Norton. Just reward for the unnecessarily put-upon, I think to myself.


‘Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967’ is one of the best poems in Dove’s book and as I rocked northwards on the Victoria line I drifted back to late 1960s, early 1970s, to my own beloved local library in Trowbridge, Wiltshire. In those days it was in a grand building not far from the central bus station (though opposite Jimmy Ladd’s hardware store) and we paid weekly visits there. My tastes were un-literary, nothing out of the ordinary, books on fishing and rugby, Tolkein, John Wyndham. I remember one occasion I went there searching for addresses of poetry magazines but this must have been a few years later when I’d begun to scribble verse. I probably sent some ill-tutored nonsense to The Times Literary Supplement and of course heard nothing back.

Later still, a TV programme on Vincent Van Gogh sent me off to borrow a book on the artist who I felt sure I resembled, my certainty expressed through vigorous claims to admire him as a painter, poet, thinker and man. Looking back, it was a rather escapist Van Gogh whose observations I copied into a diary: “We are entitled to entertain a certain hope that there may be other and better conditions for painting than here on earth – conditions that can be attained through a change that need not be more surprising than the metamorphosis of a chrysalis into a butterfly. [This] sphere of activity . . . might conceivably be one of the many stars which after death are probably no more difficult to reach than the small black dots on a map which in our earthly existence mark towns and villages. . .  It seems to me that it is far from impossible that diseases . . . are in fact heavenly means of transport . . . In that case, to die quietly of old age is to go on foot”. What I loved about this was the other-worldliness, the sense of the creative artist, the presence of death not as the end of things but as a transition to a better place. Misunderstood or not, my mind was moving beyond the limits of my home town, its confining little black dot, the piddling River Biss, Bowyers pork sausages and bloody Watneys Red Barrel. Love your local library! Click here for information about the local libraries campaign: http://www.librarycampaign.com/

And here is Rita Dove reading ‘Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967’: 

Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967

For a fifteen-year-old there was plenty

to do: Browse the magazines,

slip into the Adult Section to see

what vast tristesse was born of rush-hour traffic,

décolletés, and the plague of too much money.

There was so much to discover—how to

lay out a road, the language of flowers,

and the place of women in the tribe of Moost.

There were equations elegant as a French twist,

fractal geometry’s unwinding maple leaf;

I could follow, step-by-step, the slow disclosure

of a pineapple Jell-O mould—or take

the path of Harold’s purple crayon through

the bedroom window and onto a lavender

spill of stars. Oh, I could walk any aisle

and smell wisdom, put a hand out to touch

the rough curve of bound leather,

the harsh parchment of dreams.

As for the improbable librarian

with her salt and paprika upsweep,

her British accent and sweater clip

(mom of a kid I knew from school) —

I’d go up to her desk and ask for help

on bareback rodeo or binary codes,

phonics, Gestalt theory,

lead poisoning in the Late Roman Empire,

the play of light in Dutch Renaissance painting;

I would claim to be researching

pre-Columbian pottery or Chinese foot-binding,

but all I wanted to know was:

Tell me what you’ve read that keeps

that half smile afloat

above the collar of your impeccable blouse .

So I read Gone with the Wind because

it was big, and haiku because they were small.

I studied history for its rhapsody of dates,

lingered over Cubist art for the way

it showed all sides of a guitar at once.

All the time in the world was there, and sometimes

all the world on a single page.

As much as I could hold

on my plastic card’s imprint I took,

greedily: six books, six volumes of bliss,

the stuff we humans are made of:

words and sighs and silence,

ink and whips, Brahma and cosine,

corsets and poetry and blood sugar levels—

I carried it home, past five blocks of aluminium siding

and the old garage where, on its boarded-up doors,

someone had scrawled:



Yes, I said, to no one in particular: That’s

what I’m gonna do!

Maple Valley Branch Library

To give some impression of concluding my original narrative: as you can imagine, J—– was suitably grateful at getting her mobile back, dashing off to text friends that she was back on line and thankfully in touch with the world again. I remember we always tried hard while she and her brother were younger, taking them to Hornsey library most weeks and happily (with or without our help) they both acquired habits of reading. Even so, the local library is not really on their radar any more. It’s obvious why.

A little experiment to conclude:

bareback rodeo – about 57,800,000 results  in 0.44 seconds.

lead poisoning in the Late Roman Empire – about 479,000 results in 0.51 seconds.

pre-Columbian pottery – about 403,000 results in 0.46 seconds.

blood sugar levels – about 29,600,000 results in 0.32 seconds.

Why would you trek to the library, however close by, when you can worship at the God Google’s shrine? Yes – I use Google every day and bless it (it tells me an unsigned copy of Dove’s book might be worth 30 US dollars!). But at the same time we are well aware that such a sublime volume of information, arranged in ways not within our own control and perhaps not even within our understanding, has its drawbacks. Here’s Eddie Izzard on google, wikipedia, i-Tunes, up-dates, terms and conditions and how we blindly play along: