Charlie Louth’s Rilke + new Rilke translations

As I mentioned in my last blog post, much of my time through lockdown and in the last few months has been taken up with translation. One of these projects is as daunting as it is exciting. Pushkin Press have commissioned me to complete a new selection and translation of the work of Rainer Maria Rilke to appear in 2023. Some of you will be aware of my earlier published versions of the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus (both available from Enitharmon Press). The new project will contain selections from those sequences and a good selection of earlier poems, including from the New Poems. As well as trying out a few of my new translations in this post (and the following one), the body of it is an uncut version of my recent review of Charlie Louth’s excellent book on Rilke, Rilke: the Life of the Work (OUP, 2020). A shorter version of this review appeared in the latest Agenda magazine, ‘Altered Distances’ (Vol 54, Nos. 1/2). Many thanks to the editor, Patricia McCarthy for asking me to write it.

Part I

Rilke has long suffered from two types of criticism. Among his enthusiasts, some declare his work close to sacred and therefore hardly open to ‘normal’ practices of critical analysis, at risk of spoiling the ‘bloom’ of mystery they find there. Others, of a more negative inclination, accuse him of an aloof aestheticism, a likely fatal distance from ‘real’ life. One such was Thomas Mann who can be found, Charlie Louth notes, “(rather richly) calling him an ‘arch aesthete’”. Both viewpoints risk downplaying the skilled crafting of Rilke’s work (he thought long and hard about poems as artefacts, things consciously and intricately made) but also risk mistaking the particular power of his poetry. Rilke: the Life of the Work is comprehensive, erudite, always clear and – most importantly – keeps returning us to the poetry to which Louth enthusiastically responds: “When we read Rilke, the poems do not feel aloof, and they do not feel merely aesthetic in their claims. They press upon us and make us examine ourselves, and they help us experience our life in the world with greater clarity and depth”. Most readers will recognise this as an allusion to the ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ (from New Poems) which concludes “You must change your life”. Louth again: “It is unusual for Rilke to be so direct, but as I see it a similar spirit animates most if not all of his poems”.

This book aims to bridge the gulf between enthusiastic, non-specialist readers of poetry (Louth translates his foreign language quotations himself) and the German lang/lit academic and student. The balance between engaged readability and academic thoroughness is very well judged. I particularly value Louth’s close readings of ‘the work’, viewed as objectively as possible (Louth declares early on that he has no “overarching thesis”). There are other readily available biographical and critical works, but the strength of Rilke: the Life of the Work is that, with its discussion of the formal choices, wording and syntax of so many poems, it is a comprehensive attempt at ‘Reading Rilke’. The structure of the book’s 600 pages is primarily chronological, from the poet’s earliest publication, Lives and Songs (1894) through to Vergers (1926). Louth only departs from this chronological survey twice. Early on, he looks at several poems that open Rilke’s published books, then, in Chapter 6, he discusses the four poems Rilke wrote as requiems.

Lou Andreas Salome

So Louth’s Rilke is a craftsman and moralist who urges us to live better. The kind of closed system of a purely aesthetic art was the poet’s abhorrence. In a lecture he gave early in his career, Rilke is already sure that “‘art is only a path, not a destination’. In a letter to Lou Andreas-Salomé in 1903 he confirms: ‘I do not want to tear art and life apart; I know that in the end they are one and the same’. As so often, Louth articulates his subject’s attitude with great clarity: “for Rilke, there can be no question of shutting oneself away from life, of retreating into the work, and the desk, if it is to be the place of necessary writing, must be a ‘vitale Mitte’, a site right in the middle of life and exposed to all its risks and promises. To write is not to withdraw but precisely to engage”.

Rilke’s poetry pays particular attention to the processes of change associated with being human. Poems record such moments of change but also act, in the process of being read and openly experienced, as opportunities where change in an individual might take place. For those with faith in literature, Louth articulates the exciting prospect: “to read at all is to pause, is to take your time in times when an anxious haste pervades much of what we do. In some sense it is to live better whether poetry makes anything happen or not”. Writing to Thankmar von Münchhausen in 1915, Rilke asks, “What is our job if not, purely and freely, to provide occasions for change?” Louth finds these ideas in ‘Eingang’ / ‘Entrance’, one of the poems Rilke placed at the start of The Book of Images (1902/06). The furniture of this poem – the self, a house, a tree – is a grouping that recurs throughout Rilke’s work and what interests him is the suggestion that, as we leave the familiarity of our house, “the house of our habits, we enter the imaginary space of another building [. . .] coming from life into the poem, and passing through the poem into life”. Here is my new translation of this poem:

Whoever you are: in the evening, step out

of your living room, from all that’s familiar;

in the distance, the last thing, your house:

no matter who you are.

And although your eyes have grown so weary

you can barely lift them from the worn threshold,

slowly, with them, you still raise a black tree

and set it before the sky: lean and alone.

And you have made a world. And it is immense,

like a word, in silence, it continues to grow.

And as your will grasps its significance,

so your eyes, tenderly, let it go . . .

Portrait of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1928, by Leonid Pasternak

For Rilke’s own life and work, the key meeting was with Lou Andreas-Salomé in May 1897. Lou changed his handwriting and his name (from René to Rainer), but it was the confidence and groundedness in the world that she brought to his life that pushed his art “closer to the details of lived experience”. Rilke himself wrote: “The world lost its cloudiness [. . .] I learnt a simplicity, learnt slowly and laboriously how simple everything is, and I gained the maturity to talk of simple things”. Lou’s influence can be seen in the lecture he gave in Prague in 1898, where he distances himself from Symbolism and aestheticism (the dominant strands of ‘modern poetry’ at the turn of the century) to argue that the artist must not be “shut out of the great channel of life”, but must evoke the constant dialogue between the individual and things, “the strange coincidences between inner and outer out of which experience is made”. As Louth says, this is an early statement of the theme which will occupy his whole life.

Here is a brief poem – actually naming Lou and indicating her influence in persuading Rilke of the sacredness of the ordinary. It went unpublished for years, but was part of Rilke’s sequence called To Celebrate You (Dir zur Feier):

The rain runs its chilly fingers

down our windows, unseeing;                             

we lean back in deep armchairs

and listen, as if the quiet hours

dripped from a weary mill all evening.

x

And then Lou speaks. Our souls incline

one to another. Even cut flowers

at the window nod their topmost bloom

and we are completely at home,

here in this tranquil, white house.

For Rilke, the successful poem is a space in which the mysteries of things and personal confession are both explored, or revealed, simultaneously. Louth argues that, from the outset, Rilke’s view of this was always positive: “there is no unnerving consciousness of the self ’s arbitrary dependence on chance encounters with the outside world”, but equally, there is “no doubt about the existence of an underlying unity to which the poet has access”. What he feared was ‘the interpreted world’ (‘der gedeuteten Welt’), a world view shorn of all mystery, a perspective that perhaps most of us inhabit, a view in which language has become dominantly instrumental, “narrowing our vision so that life appears cut and dried without any possibility of the unknown and the unknowable”. Louth explains what readers of Rilke value in his work: “poetic language, as he understands it, is precisely a way of talking that avoids directness and allows the mutability of experience and the mystery of the world to be expressed. It releases rather than limits possibility”. Beyond this stands what Rilke might have meant by the term ‘God’. ‘He’ is “an experience of totality, life felt as a whole, in which self and other are not distinct or momentarily lose their distinctness”.

Here is my new translation of an early poem from The Book of Hours (Das Stundenbuch) in which Rilke is developing these ideas:

You, the darkness from which I came,

I love you more than the flame

scoring the world’s edge

with a glimmer

upon some sphere,

beyond which no-one has more knowledge.

x

Yet the darkness binds everything into itself:

all forms, flames, creatures, myself,

it seizes on them,

all powers, everything human . . .

x

And it may be: there is an immense might

stirring nearby –

x

I believe in the night.

It is in part because the enemy of mystery is language (too casually used) that poetry (constructed from language more carefully used) has an advantage over other art forms like painting. There’s an irony here, of course, because Rilke learned so much from other workers in the fine arts. Most know about the debt he owed to Rodin and Cezanne, but Louth argues Rilke’s journey towards the poetics of the New Poems began in the period he resided in the artists’ community in Germany at Worpswede. A lot of his thinking there concerned images of man and landscape. For the majority of the time, humans and nature live “side-by-side with hardly any knowledge of one another” and it is in the ‘as if’ of the work of art that they can be brought closer, into a more conscious relation. But because a poem works through time, such a correspondence is acknowledged as “something one traverses and gains knowledge of but cannot hold onto”.

Part 2 of this review coming next week…..

We’ll Meet Again/Well Met Again: my first public reading since lockdown

It has been a long time since I last posted anything substantial on my blog. In the great scheme of things pandemic, this will not have been remarked upon; though for anybody out there who has noticed, I send my apologies. A particular disappointment is that I have not been able to review this year’s shortlisted Forward First Collections (and the announcement of the winner is almost upon us). For what it’s worth, I think Caleb Femi will win with his Penguin collection, Poor. I still hope to review some of the shortlist, in the near future.

Though I have managed a couple of book reviews (on Pia Tafdrup’s new Bloodaxe collection, on Charlie Louth’s excellent book about Rilke) to be published elsewhere, alongside this blogging drought there has been a more significant one (for me at least): I have hardly managed to write any poetry of my own for well over nine months now. Even the few things I managed to draft (especially at the height of the Covid second wave (last January)), I have signally failed to return to and they may all now fall by the wayside. In moments, it is as if I have forgotten HOW to write a poem; a questioning of the importance of this solitary business; a simple lack of external stimulation perhaps. The one thing I have been able to do during this awful period is more translation. I have (happily) been commissioned to complete exciting projects for two publishers (publication dates off into 2023 in both cases) and I hope to say more about these in later blogs. Yes, my intention is to get back to blogging more regularly.

It has also been a long time since I gave anything resembling a public reading. But last Sunday afternoon I travelled with poet, Hilary Davies, out of London to Kimbolton School, north of Bedford for an actual in person book launch! The book was the sumptuous new anthology, Hollow Palaces, published by Liverpool University press and edited by John Greening and Kevin Gardner from Baylor University in the USA. The book is the first complete anthology of modern country house poems, including over 160 poets from Yeats and Betjeman to Heaney, Boland, Armitage and Evaristo.

Kimbolton Castle

The venue was fittingly grand. Kimbolton Castle is a country house in the little town of Kimbolton, Huntingdonshire and it was the final home of King Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Originally a medieval castle, it was later converted into a stately palace and was the family seat of the Dukes of Manchester from 1615 until 1950. It now houses Kimbolton School and this is where John Greening taught for a number of years (alongside Stuart Henson, another poet represented in the anthology).

With the declining sun streaming in through the opened French windows, looking out across the school playing fields, after an introduction from Kevin Gardner, we each read a couple of poems from the anthology. So – amongst others – John Greening read ‘A Huntingdonshire Nocturne’ about the very room we were assembled in, a subtle take on English history and education, Ulster and Drogheda. Hilary Davies’s poem rooted in Old Gwernyfed Manor in Wales, was a fantasy of lust, sacrifice, murder and hauntings. Stuart Henson’s compressed novelistic piece mysteriously described the murder or suicide of a Fourteenth Earl. Anne Berkeley remembered childhood isolation and bullying at a dilapidated Revesby Abbey. Rory Waterman re-visited the ruins of an old, tied lodge-house his grandmother once lived in. Lisa Kelly’s chewy foregrounded language (‘O drear, o dreary dreary dirge for this deer’) shaped itself into a sonnet. Rebecca Watts looked slant and briefly at Ickworth House, a glimpse of bees in lavender. Robert Selby was at Chevening, considering the clash of perspectives between the tourist’s casual gaze and the realities of tombs, time and history.

I chose to read Louis MacNeice’s brilliant, late poem ‘Soap Suds’. Written in 1961, he is remembering the grand house called Seapark which overlooks Belfast Lough. Jon Stallworthy has called the poem a ‘Proustian daydream’, the simple act of washing one’s hands acting as the trigger for remembrance of time past. What appeals to me about the poems is its subtle handling of several times periods: the ageing man washing his hands, looking back to idyllic occasional visits to the house, as well as later, less happy times there (the house belonged to Thomas Macgregor Greer, only brother of MacNeice’s step-mother), the imagery beginning to verge on the nightmarish. (For another blog on MacNeice’s work click here.)

Chateau at Villandry

My own poem in the book, as yet unpublished elsewhere, is called ‘Our Weird Regiment’. The poems remembers a compilation of country house visits over the years. One was a visit to the French chateau at Villandry where the formal gardens, I remember, were not conventionally planted with flowers but with vegetables and herbs. I’m posting the text to MacNeice’s as well as my own poem, alongside the phone video (made by Jane Greening) of the 5/6 minute reading I gave at Kimbolton.

Soap Suds by Louis MacNeice

This brand of soap has the same smell as once in the big
House he visited when he was eight: the walls of the bathroom open
To reveal a lawn where a great yellow ball rolls back through a hoop
To rest at the head of a mallet held in the hands of a child.

And these were the joys of that house: a tower with a telescope;
Two great faded globes, one of the earth, one of the stars;
A stuffed black dog in the hall; a walled garden with bees;
A rabbit warren; a rockery; a vine under glass; the sea.

To which he has now returned. The day of course is fine
And a grown-up voice, cries Play! The mallet slowly swings,
Then crack, a great gong booms from the dog-dark hall and the ball
Skims forward through the hoop and then through the next and then

Through hoops where no hoops were and each dissolves in turn
And the grass has grown head-high and an angry voice cries Play!
But the ball is lost and the mallet slipped long since from the hands
Under the running tap that are not the hands of a child.

x

Our weird regiment by Martyn Crucefix

How the rich impress us

with what they own

displaying family photos

on the piano lid

as if no different

x

to those of us who shuffle

through elaborate rooms

or glance aside

through leaded glass

x

into formal gardens

where cabbage

potato and mint perhaps

chive and marjoram

x

are elegantly deployed

to be admired

not cooked or eaten

our guide explains

x

the farmlands purchased

to the churchyard wall

and then beyond it

every mound ploughed

x

and levelled in accord

with his lordship’s

goose-feathered whim

yet a scattering of bones

x

has assembled itself

in a heap at the gate

now beyond the gate

x

our weird regiment

lurches into the road

a swaying of skulls

and whitened knucklebones