As a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, I was asked in May 2020 to write and record three brief talks. One of these was a ‘Letter to My Younger Self’ and another piece was entitled ‘How I Write’. These two recordings are still in the RLF pipeline, but the third of these has now been made available as an audio file on the RLF’s VOX site. The given topic of this published piece is ‘The Writer and Technology’ – a subject about which I have some experience in relation to the former and not a huge competence in relation to the latter. Nevertheless, I’m not one to duck a challenge.
Alternatively – or both at the same time if you’d like – you can read it below.
Writing and Technology
It frightens me: she gives with one hand and takes away with the other. I become too monogamous. I don’t look up. I google recipes using oregano or the name of the drummer in Coltrane’s 1960s quartet. I love her library of reference all within clicking distance. I email friends, family, writers, publishers (I remember stamps and letterboxes with no fondness). Zoom, Microsoft Teams, FaceTime make it a breeze to stay in touch, offer advice, give poetry readings to people around the globe. I’m never lost; I use Google maps. I post and follow on Twitter, Instagram, FaceBook. All this she gives me.
And most days I crave her distractions, her sensational sweep of sights and sounds, her informational vistas at the swipe or dab of a fingertip. I substitute longer, slower satisfactions with a preference for her novelties. Though I’ve read about how our cultural (and fiscal) economies promote such transitory stabs at contentment in the absence of other satisfactions, still – I can seldom resist. I do glimpse vicious cycles – her short-lived pleasures liable to collapse, disappointing anticipation – yet I play her perfect subject, eyes flicking without rest from screen to screen. I do not look up. Her multitudinousness spawns my passive respect for numbers, speed, spectacle, calculation, all of which barely disguises the non-event. I attend with others – but spend as much time watching a screen as the performance. I still tell my friends: I was there, it was huge, so many people . . .
She makes me fear something’s missing. Addicted to her click bait, I love her machines in their elegant black and silver. They seem to promise to breach the ancient laws of time and space. Yet having acquired the newest devices with which I calculate, communicate, translate, find millions of pages of information, actually, I can’t remember what it was I hoped to do with them.
Sometimes I remember. What she interrupts – with her shows of pleasure, power, riches, praise – is the creative impulse to look up, observe (look out!). Once this ceases – prophetically, the poet Shelley said this back in 1821 – new imagery stops being generated, language withers and dies. Only in my relations with the world (not with her) am I truly warmed. Then I’m the matrix through which the world steps – as the world becomes the matrix through which I step – to rediscover myself not ‘me’ (an atom in an empty universe), but ‘mine’ (living in relation to others, other things).
When I leave her, often there’s the startling beauty or strangeness of scenes that draw me away from my ‘self’. Perhaps for a moment, I’m lost for words. It’s not enough to take a picture, post it up, surround it with talk, comments, likes, shares. Poetry expresses such sensations as record, reminder, model and vicarious experience for its readers. Using form, figurative and musical language, I write to re-present such ineffable, inexpressible moments. The French poet and philosopher, Yves Bonnefoy, says: poetry is not about something but it restores the self to the lucid intensity of the truth of relational experiences.
For a writer who has published over 30 books of poetry and prose in his native Germany, we have had too little of Durs Grünbein in English. Michael Hofmann‘s Ashes for Breakfast (Faber, 2005) introduced some of the earlier work and described Grünbein as possessed of melancholia, amplitude, a love of Brodsky, a love of the Classics, plus wide-ranging interests in medicine, neuroscience, contemporary art and metaphysics. John Ashbery praised Grünbein, identifying his subject as “this life, so useless, so rich” and the challenge to any translator is precisely this breadth and ambition. Happily, Karen Leeder is proving to be a really fine conduit for Grünbein’s work and here she triumphantly tackles his 2005 sequence of poems about the firebombing of his hometown, Dresden, by American and British planes in February 1945.
Porcelain is a sequence of 49 poems, 10 lines each, rhymed and grounded in Classical metre and given an air of Classical elegy by its subtitle, ‘Poem on the Downfall of My City’ (‘Poem vom Untergang meiner Stadt’). But if resolution, consolation or summing-up might be expected, this is, definitively, not what we get. The title, of course, refers to the Meissen pottery which, from the eighteenth century on, brought Dresden its great wealth and fame. But it is also a pun on the poet to whom the sequence is dedicated: Paul Celan. In Celan’s poem ‘Your eyes embraced’ there is an effort to swallow the ashes of genocide but they return to the throat as ‘Ash- / hiccups’, an image repeated in Grünbein’s opening poem: “It comes back like hiccups: elegy”. The sequence does indeed hiccup in the sense of its jerky shifts of tone, its multi-faceted images of Grunbein himself and in its close to choking articulation of the horrors of the Dresden bombing.
A self-conscious awkwardness or self-questioning is clear from the start: “Why complain, Johnny-come-lately? Dresden was long gone / when your little light first appeared”. Grünbein was born seventeen years after the bombing and accepts he cannot ‘witness’ the event in any simple way. But personal details do surface in the sequence such as in poem 8 where the young boy grows familiar with the still evident urban destruction: “proud and mute . . . the ravaged city”. He senses something of “that glory passed away” but can hardly know “the things [his] mother saw, / scarcely five years old” (poem 10). Later poems remember moments when his mother’s doll was in danger of the flames (“Flames as high as houses sucked the air along the streets”), but was rescued, unscathed, “or that is what they say” (poems 40/41). Leeder explains in her Introduction that Grünbein has been criticised in part for a sentimentality and this is perhaps such a moment. But the indication that this is reportage (family reportage at that) gives permission for sentiment and Grünbein is fully conscious of (and in control of) the massive swings in tone through the whole sequence. Poem 48 is one that might also lay itself open to charges of sentiment, focussing on a pair of lovers (Martha and Heinrich) seemingly caught up in the devastation: “Kids, the pair of you, first kisses in the thick of war, / until you met that night you’d grown up in uniform”. But Grünbein works repeatedly through allusiveness and intertextuality, so this Romeo and Juliet trope is hardened and complicated when we hear that, not only was the German air defence’s grid reference for Dresden code-named ‘Martha-Heinrich 8’, but also that both names recall characters in Goethe’s Faust.
In poem 38, Grünbein seems equally aware that some of his images of Dresden after the bombing might be open to the same criticism of a hyper-emotional tone. “Five long weeks upon the Altmarkt square, the horses / scratched the straw and watched the griddled corpses / burn. Mawkish? Ach, give over, late-born soul”. As this example shows, the sequence does confront the horrors unleashed on the city as in poem 22: “Are those people popping like chestnuts between / the gutted trams?” But looked at more carefully, even this grisly observation is nominally from the perspective of a stone angel on the cathedral roof. It is this continual innovation and manipulation of perspective that is important to the poems’ purpose and how we should read them. One important perspective Grünbein explores is the victim-narrative that predominated in thinking about the event in post-war East Germany and more recently. One aspect of this is the placing of the Dresden bombing in the historical context of German bombing of Warsaw in 1944 and the German’s systematic persecution of the Jews. Dresden’s fate did not rise ex nihilo. This latter myth, Grünbein embodies in the eroticisation of the bombing – the city as defenceless virgin – as in poem 45’s image of the city and the Elbe: “River like a sash of silver draped round her hips / enticing in the moonlight”.
From such examples, it’s easy to see why Grünbein’s own position on the bombing has been vociferously discussed and questioned. But he warns against using the destruction of the city as any kind of exemplum: “Let Dresden be. You won’t find what you are looking for” (poem 6). The reader understands he is also advising himself here, while, at the same time, acknowledging the human drive to interpret, to search for meaning, even in the most appalling events. The sequence’s treatment of Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, the RAF Commander-in-Chief during the bombing of Dresden, is interestingly equivocal. Poem 4 alludes almost invisibly to Harris’ comment on the Dresden bombing, when he suggested that objections to it were based on a sentimental image of the city as full of “German bands and Dresden shepherdesses” when, in reality, it was a Nazi munitions and transportation centre. In fact, Harris was carrying out orders from Winston Churchill: “No sweat, Arthur, you only did what you had to do” (poem 13). And in poem 23, Grünbein also notes that some more recent left-wingers in Germany have chanted ‘Thank you, Harris!’ in their efforts to question and counter more simplistic, victim-narrative commemorations of the event.
In such ways, Porcelain revels in its own pluralities while acknowledging and itself attempting to make some sense of an epitome of senseless destruction. The final line of the book plainly states the human need to avoid finality, the fall into fixity, yet accepts the compulsion to explain, to create meaning: “Changing places, times, dimensions as he goes—goes on—creating”. And behind all this stand those exquisite china objects, the ‘white gold’ that made the city rich and famous:
Falconers are there, vintners, nymphs with conch-shell horns,
frog-faced putti, figures riding seahorses and swans.
Groups of shepherdesses, lovely gardeners, beasts of lore . . .
Porcelain—most fragile thing”
The collision of Allied bombs and Dresden’s fragile porcelain lies at the heart of Grünbein’s poems. There was no contest, of course, though some pieces and many fragments remained and were perhaps repaired. Grünbein’s poems enact this process, collecting perspectives, often incongruous, even contradictory, but bringing them into relation with each other, not to make any definitive statement, but to hold up a mirror to us, to the recurrent tension between our need to create and our drive to destroy.
A friend of mine recently asked what I thought of Alice Oswald’s poem, ‘Swan’ – in fact, what did I think it meant. It appears in her 2016 collection Falling Awake (Cape Poetry). I’m not sure I can give a direct answer to her direct question, but it linked up with two other swan poems I have read recently. Baudelaire’s poem appears in The Flowers of Evil and I have been re-reading a couple of translations of that collection because of the French poet’s influence on Rilke. Rilke’s swan poem (included in New Poems) is one of the poems I have been translating for the projected 2023 Pushkin Press book mentioned in my previous two posts. So – by way of an oblique answer to my friend’s question and because these poems and (two of) the poets relate to my current project and out of sheer curiosity – I thought I’d read these three poems alongside each other here.
Baudelaire’s ‘Swan’ is the longest of the three, divided into two parts. Written in late 1859 and dedicated to Victor Hugo, Baudelaire described the poem as an attempt to “record rapidly all that a casual occurrence, an image, can offer by way of suggestions, and how the sight of a suffering animal can urge the mind towards all those beings that we love”. His definition of those we love is remarkable broad, as we’ll see. The poem is also remarkable for the range of its components: evocations of the modern city (Paris), the creature itself, anthropomorphism, personal memory, literary references and an imaginative and empathetic ‘lift off’ towards the end. I’m looking at Anthony Mortimer’s translation published by Alma Classics in 2016. Here is an older, clunky, but openly available translation.
The reader might be taken aback by the opening exclamation: this swan poem opens with ‘Andromache, I think of you!’ In Book 3 of The Aeneid, Andromache, wife of the killed Trojan hero, Hector, is living in exile (‘we, our homeland burned, were carried over / strange seas’ – tr. Mandelbaum) and now weeps for her husband beside a little stream, a paltry reminder (Baudelaire: ‘a poor sad mirror’) of the mighty river, Simoeis, near Troy. She is an image of an abused and displaced exile, a refugee and it is the narrator’s strolling through the Place du Carrousel in Paris that prompts this literary recall. It’s because he himself feels out of place. Between 1853-1870, the Paris Baudelaire had known was in the process of being re-designed and re-built by Georges-Eugene Haussmann. Cityscapes change ‘more swiftly than a mortal heart’ says the narrator and he prefers to recall the old, ramshackle state of the area, where there was once also ‘a menagerie’. One morning, in that previous era, he caught sight of an escaped swan that ‘[d]ragged his white feathers on the dirty road’.
Rapid cutting from literary allusion to gritty realism to anthropomorphism is part of Baudelaire’s boldly making it new. The swan is ‘doomed’ in a literal sense, yet also ‘mythical’, at least for the narrator, who makes the beast speak: ‘Water, when will you rain?’ The intertextual resonances are further extended: the narrator sees the bird ‘sometimes like the man in Ovid’. This is the moment of man’s first creation: ‘given a towering head and commanded to stand / erect, with his face uplifted to gaze on the stars’ (Metamorphoses, tr. David Raeburn). But Baudelaire’s allusion is ironic, confirming the swan’s standing for itself and humankind in 19th century Paris: the swan stretches ‘his writhing neck and hungry head / Towards the cruel sky’s ironic blue’.
Part II of ‘The Swan’ reverts to the changing vista of Paris. As the new is erected, the old buildings ‘turn allegorical’, working as allusions to objects and experiences that no longer exist. The diffuseness and proliferating resonance of the swan image itself suggests that ‘symbolic’ might be a better word than allegorical. Now strolling near the Louvre, thinking still of the swan memory, the narrator reflects on ‘how / All exiles are ridiculous and sublime’. The earlier Andromache reference now makes sense and it resurfaces. It is the ‘incessant longing’ of all exiles that fascinates Baudelaire and from the (passionately felt) literary figure, he turns to a real black woman, ‘thin and consumptive, / Trudging through mud’ (in Paris, I take it) who yearns for her African homeland, obscured by a northern European ‘wall of fog’. The narrator ‘seeks’ exile we are told or, in his alienation from the modern world, he is compelled to seek it in a (mental) forest in which a ‘distant memory winds its full-breathed horn’. Imprecise as the significance of this image is, it evokes a full-throated, rather nostalgic longing for something long past; somewhat ridiculous and yet sublime in its depth of feeling. But the poem’s final lines expand to encompass thoughts of ‘castaway sailors’ and ‘captives, the defeated . . . and of many, many more’. The memory of the swan has focused (and continues to do so) the narrator’s thoughts on the ubiquity of such states of alienation, of actual and psychological exile.
By comparison, the 12 lines of Rilke’s ‘The Swan’ are astonishingly compact. But, on its smaller scale, Rilke’s poem also opens as obliquely as Baudelaire’s. There are two lines before the creature appears and when it does so it seems to be in a figurative role: as an image of human life, which is itself characterised as a ‘struggling with a task not yet complete’. The contingencies and difficulties of a life lived are compared to the awkward movements of a swan’s movements out of water, weighed down, ponderous, ‘constrained’, as if its legs could not move freely. Baudelaire kept the two sides of his comparison (the swan and the experience of exile) clearly demarcated. Rilke balances the two sides of his comparison more evenly and potentially more confusingly. Is this a poem about a swan that conjures thoughts about life and death, or is it about life and death which now remind the narrator of the movements (in and out of water) of a swan?
Certainly, the initial topic seems to be life (its difficulties) and then in the second stanza, death itself: ‘that sense of our slackening grip / on the earth where we stand every day’. What is bold about this poem is how the final seven lines take off from this introduction of death into a second series of images related to the swan entering the water. But it is a series that does not return from the swan to the probable theme of human life/death. Instead, the poem records, in exquisite detail, the process of the swan entering the water and settling and then swimming away. It has the clarity of an Imagist poem (and I am hoping for that in my translation of it):
so, tentatively, he lowers himself down
and onto the waters that welcome him
gently, already, contentedly letting slip,
retreating beneath him, a moving tide,
while he, infinitely still and assured
and ever more majestic, more mature,
is content the more placidly to glide.
The growingly anthropomorphic quality of Rilke’s description (like Baudelaire’s before) implies the swan’s representative role in reflecting human life and in this instance, human death. Or at least, the idealised image of death that Rilke wants to convey: not something to be feared, but a gradual transition, a becoming, a maturing, an integral part of a life’s ‘struggling’. The poem’s playing with our perception of the swan/life divide is part of Rilke’s intention: life, as much as death, is not something Other, detached from the world of things, but something co-existing alongside it, within it. The creature’s placid transition from land to water, life into death, represents a true death for Rilke. This is not something available to all. In an earlier poem from the Book of Hours – in a poem which shows the influence of Baudelaire – Rilke portrays the poor of Paris, ‘wan-faced and petal-white’, frightened of being admitted to the hospitals of the city, knowing death awaits them. But this is a ‘petty death’, the demise of the body with no spiritual dimension; it is not ‘their real death’ which remains ‘hanging green, not yet sweet / like a fruit within that will never ripen’. So Rilke’s swan, as it glides placidly from life into death, is an image of such an ideal transition.
It’s possible Oswald’s poem, ‘Swan’, has Rilke’s in mind as its preoccupation is also with life and death. Compared to the Parisian perambulatory of Baudelaire’s regular ABAB quatrains and the meditative, imagistic, quasi-sonnet form of Rilke, Oswald’s poem wanders freely across the page echoing the disintegration of her already dead and rotting swan. The poem is composed of two elements: narrative description and the imagined voice or thoughts of the dead swan as it rises away (soul-like) from its own corpse. The only real puzzle here is the final speech of the swan.
The opening harks back to the sound world and imagery of Ted Hughes. The harsh assonance of the curt opening phrase (‘A rotted swan’) is an example, as is the following long line with its splashing sibilance and use of a technological image applied to the natural world: the swan is ‘hurrying away from the plane-crash of her wings’. Also like Hughes, Oswald likes to use the space of the page; the phrase ‘one here’, repeated for each of the wings, is placed as if the material of the words indicated the location of the wings set awry. The plane image is picked up again with the metaphor of the swan leaving the ‘cockpit’ of her own flying machine. The dualism of mind/self/spirit/soul versus body is adopted in what seems to be a simple manner.
Baudelaire’s swan in exile cried for rain in its natural watery homeland. Oswald’s is puzzled by its sudden divorce and alienation from its own body. In its first speech, it does not recognise its wings: ‘those two white clips that connected my strength / to its floatings’. The tone is similar in the second speech: ‘strange / strange’. The swan seems aware here of its own sense of ‘yearning’, experienced in its life, that the body’s ‘fastenings’ (wings? tendons? muscles?) were never able to ‘contain’. As with all these swan poems, the bird is being co-opted to represent humanity; here, our sense of being more than merely physical. The swan sees her own black feet, now ‘poised’ but unused. The corpse is an intricate, marvellous machine, but without whatever is now departing, it appears ‘a waste of detail’. Before the third and final speech, the body and all its ‘tools’ are now abandoned, with all its ‘rusty juices trickling back to the river’.
I think that last phrase is important. This is one of Oswald’s best poems but I’m uneasy with the conventionality of the spirit/body trope. Perhaps what is leaving the body is returning to the environment (an after-life of that sort)? In the final passage, the swan wants to address its own corpse before it ‘thaws’ or rots away. This suggests a desire for some ritual. The perspective of the poem now zooms in on the head, then the eye, which is visible and into its ‘cone of twilight’, the fading gleam within it, and into the cone, almost as if looking into a snow globe. The swan sees a scene there: a bride setting out to her wedding. Is this an image of the renewal of life after death? The ‘trickling back to the river’? But this return journey seems difficult: ‘it is so cold’. I’m not clear if I should be taking this in a narrow way: this individual creature will be extinguished. Or more broadly, the natural cycle of life-death-decomposition-new-life has been compromised (by human actions?). Oswald’s final image is of tolling bells, ringing in the putative wedding venue, bells like ‘iron angels’, insistently, ‘ringing and ringing’. Oswald’s swan is marvellously physical in its demise but its projected commentary on itself feels at times naively anthropomorphic (the death I’m left thinking of is a human death), at others puzzlingly obtuse.
This is the second and final part of 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. As I mentioned last week, much of my time through lockdown has been taken up with translation. One of these projects is a commission by Pushkin Press to complete a new selection and translation of the work of Rainer Maria Rilke, scheduled 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). This new project will contain selections from those sequences and a significant number of earlier poems – from the Book of Hours, the Book of Images and the New Poems. I am includinga few of my new translations in these two posts (or at least these are reasonably progressed drafts – just as with original work, translations need to sit a drawer for a while before they can be more fairly judged)
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. These are the thoughts that preoccupied Rilke when he moved, in 1902, to Paris, in part to observe Rodin at work. Louth is right that the poet’s move towards a poetry that cultivated the “earthly”, the world of “things”, was already well under way. He then looked to Rodin’s methods for “dependability, concentration and craft” and in a poem like ‘The Panther’ the fruits of more compactness of diction, a more supple articulation of syntax, a lexis of more precise, everyday words and an increased emphasis on the visual are clearly seen.
Here is my translation of ‘The Panther’:
in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris
With this pacing the bars’ back and forth, his gaze
grows so weary there is nothing it can hold.
To him, there appears to be a thousand bars
and beyond the thousand bars, no world.
The lithe, smooth steps of his powerful gait
(in the narrowest of circles he spins round)
is like a dance of power around a point
at which an immense will stands, stunned.
In moments only does the pupil’s curtain
sway noiselessly open – an image enters
and drives through the mute tension of each limb
into the heart, where it disappears.
Under Rodin’s influence, Rilke became a more self-conscious labourer in language. These are the poems that are held up as examples of ‘Kunst-Ding’ (art-thing). In August 1903, Rilke wrote to Lou: “The thing is definite, the art-thing must be even more definite; taken out of the realm of chance, removed from every unclarity, relieved of time and given to space’.
Louth often draws comparisons between Rilke’s work and poets from the English language poetry sphere. Here he compares Hopkins’ ideas of ‘inscape’ and ‘instress’ as “akin” to Rilke’s ideas of object/form and its impact on the observing individual. Certainly, with Hopkins, Rilke valorises the moment of perception, the process of looking. This, from a letter to Clara Rilke in 1907, is worth quoting at length: “Looking is such a wonderful thing, and we know so little about it; with it, we are turned completely outwards, but precisely, when we are most so turned, things seem to go on inside us that have been longingly waiting not to be observed, and while, intact and curiously anonymous, they take place inside us, without us, their meaning grows in the object outside [. . .] without ourselves getting anywhere near it, grasping it only very faintly, from a distance, under the sign of a thing that was foreign to us and the next moment is estranged once more”. These are little contacts with God, transient though they may be. The way we are to put our conscious self into our gaze and let it stream out of us, so enabling us to ‘receive’ the object without, recalls the idea of kenosis. Louth’s account of it is cool and clear: “the whole process can be thought of as two parabolas intersecting at their tips, the mind going out as the gaze summons the object into its focus”. He goes on to say that the details of the process may seem mystical, or indeed oddly physical, but the point is that the precise perception and discovery of things is also self-discovery, suggesting that the New Poems are not objective (as is often blithely observed) and not subjective either, but complicatedly both at once.
Another of Louth’s interesting contextualisations is the link he makes between Rilke’s practice and the Imagists in general and, in particular, T.E. Hulme’s essay from around 1911, ‘Romanticism and Classicism’. There, Hulme also associates poetry with “an extraordinary interest in a thing”, described with an accuracy that avoids “falling into the conventional curves of ingrained technique [. . .] from gliding through an abstract process”. For Hulme, the artist is one who simply can’t bear the idea of [. . .] ‘approximately’”; hence one who always struggles to get “the exact curve of the thing”. Rilke’s New Poems are on the same trail, though he complicated and extended it with what he learned about ‘surface’ from Rodin. Gazing at the sculptor’s work, Rilke began to understand that surface “consisted of infinitely many encounters of the light with the thing [. . .] There is no point on the surface of a statue that is dead, no point isolated from the others, not participating in the total effect and life of the whole”. In a Rodin sculpture – and this is what he wished for his poetry – Rilke saw that “[n]o part of the body was insignificant or slight: it lived”. Yet such an interconnected, encompassing vision is inevitably transient. Louth brilliantly concludes that the New Poems are “things which record moments that are over, at the very least strongly imply their loss”, hence revising the accepted reading of this work: “the collection is haunted by things rather than full of them”.
Here’s an example of close observation not a thing but an individual:
There she sat with the others, taking tea.
And beside the others, I felt, at first,
that she held out her cup differently.
At one point she smiled. It almost hurt.
And when at last they rose from their chairs
slowly, still talking, as it happened
(laughing and chatting), moving on elsewhere,
I noticed her again. She lagged behind,
reticent, more like a woman compelled
to sing in front of a crowd of people.
In her shining eyes, the light seemed to fall
as if from outside, reflected in a pool.
She followed on, slowly, biding her time,
as if something more had to be overcome,
and yet, as if following that translation,
she would never again walk, rather fly.
Louth’s chapters 7 and 8 are both titled ‘The Interim’, tracing Rilke’s life and work from 1914 to 1922. After the drafts of the first and second Duino Elegies in 1912, the following 10 years are often seen as a period of failure and difficulty, of writer’s block. Louth argues otherwise. Though Rilke felt it was a period of drought (and discussed it as such often in his letters), poems were being written (over 150 in 1913/4) and the poet seems to be deliberately marking a break in his writing career in order to spur himself on to greater experimentation. The interim is filled with reading and much translation work too. Also, the orientation toward the visual arts which was such an important aspect of the New Poems grows less strong and is replaced (in a poem like ‘Wendung’ in 1914) with ‘heart-work’ (‘Herz-Werk’). Louth explains, this “implies a stronger recognition that the qualities of things depend on being noticed, received and remembered and that these are processes which have to do with time”.
It was also his reading of Hölderlin that spurred Rilke forwards, both the poems and the novel Hyperion (1797/99). The New Poems are haunted by transience (as is the great ‘Requiem’ to Paula Modersohn-Becker (1909)), but Rilke comes to see poetry’s temporal nature not as something to be lamented and combated, but as its strength, what “allows it to enter into and elucidate the movement of life”. Years later, the unfolding of the Duino Elegies is just this: an initial lamentation at the transience of life, turning slowly towards celebration of that fact. Rilke learned from Hölderlin’s abrupt style, his winding, fractured or abbreviated syntax. The poem ‘To Hölderlin’ (1914) praises him and sets out a programme for Rilke himself. This is Louth’s translation:
To linger, even on what we know best,
is not for us; out of the fulfilled
pictures the spirit pitches to ones now to be filled; lakes
are only in eternity. Here falling is
the best we can do. Out of a feeling we’ve learnt,
falling onwards into one we divine, further.
Louth argues, “What Rilke apprehends in Hölderlin and works into the form of his poem to him, is movement itself, the poem as a passage ‘felt in departures’. It is ‘Herz-Werk’ in that it traces the flexion of time”.
The long-nurtured fruits of these lessons in poetic diction, syntax and a vision of life are what burst from Rilke years later at Muzot. Much has been written about the inspired “hurricane of the heart and mind” that resulted in the completion of both the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus in February 1922. Some may find Louth’s 100 pages on the Elegies – a systematic ‘going through’ each poem in detail – to be at risk of losing the uplift and often dizzying experience that readers can have with this text which Rilke called a “great white sail”. But Louth’s forensic approach is not a dismantling of the poems, rather “a way of inhabiting them”. The poems are not elegies in any formal or traditional sense but about the kind of loss that had always been Rilke’s subject: the necessary loss of our necessary preconceptions about the world so that we can (if only passingly) experience its ultimate nature as a wholeness of being. The angels who make brief appearances stand for all that we are not (but might briefly glimpse). The lack of self-consciousness Rilke perceives in animals – their capacity to see the Open (“das Offene”) without reflection – proves an alternative way of critiquing the way we live. The acrobats in the fifth poem (the last to be completed) serve to suggest that life itself is “a questionable kind of performance, a contrivance, endlessly failing and having to be begun again”. Once this is felt in the blood and we distance ourselves from a world view in which “theories, the conception of things, have come to dominate over the things themselves”, then (as the seventh Elegy proclaims) “Just being here is glorious” (‘Hiersein ist herrlich’).
The only chance of preserving such glory is (following Hölderlin) to ensure no particular interpretation of experience becomes “the fixed and solely valid one”. The language of poetry becomes a way of “hooking ourselves to things, tangling ourselves in them” while retaining a sense of inevitable provisionality. So poetry reflects the nature of a life “improvised into a makeshift whole which acknowledges the complexity of life while also showing how it can still be experienced as a rich, meaningful practice”. Louth’s methodical tracking through the poems is an effective approach because the work itself is “extensive, various, not linear in progression, and often hard to construe, to read it is also to live in it, and the kind of reading required—to be willing to take things on trust, to allow rhythms to inform arguments, to carry unresolved moments, to connect disparate images into promising patterns—is akin to the ways we have of getting through life itself”.
Likewise, the Orphic song of the Sonnets also “comes and goes” and the self-contained, episodic, yet intricately interconnected form Rilke chooses (over 55 sonnets) yields what is Rilke’s greatest work. Louth takes a thematic approach, looking at Poetry and Technology, Sense and the Senses as well as Vera Oukama Knoop (the putative addressee of the Sonnets) and the marvellously inventive use Rilke makes of the sonnet form. This works less well because these poems are far more light-footed, less “hard to construe” than the Elegies. They require less explication and dance away from the forensic. But Louth knows as much: “The language of the [Sonnets] has two particularly striking aspects. One is its allusiveness and elusiveness, a curious looseness and lightness of reference, as if the words have become detached from their normal task of signifying and approach pure form [. . .] The other is the way the language grows out of itself, unfolding genetically and responding to its own promptings, as if it were listening to itself”.
Interesting though it is to see Louth complete his grand project with a discussion of the many French poems that Rilke turned to after 1922, there is once more a sense of trying to pin down the ineffable. Many poems were responses to the Vallais countryside, a place where the restless poet at last felt more rooted. But the lightness and playfulness of the poetry makes it hard to evaluate. Brief poems often aspire to the condition of haiku, or in Louth’s words, “almost avoid being writing at all”. Philippe Jaccottet in 1970, found in them a delicacy, preciosity, even a kind of soppiness. Many poems do have the Sonnets’ light-footedness and grace, yet often without their intensity and reach. Louth’s final judgement is suitably delicate: “There is a definite sense of Rilke taking his foot off the pedal in his last phase, productive though it was, but not as mere relaxation: as a deliberate exploring of unburdened existence”. So there is a dwelling in simple things, through simple language which can hardly be begrudged a man approaching his death from leukaemia in December 1926. His last published poem listens to and ventures out with the hunters in the Vallais, envying them their energy and vitality, as the dying poet (still fascinated by paradox) describes them as “pressing up close to what’s living”. This last phrase is a fine formulation for precisely what Rilke tries and succeeds in doing in so many of his poems.
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.
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.
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 . . .
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.
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.
Yet the darkness binds everything into itself:
all forms, flames, creatures, myself,
it seizes on them,
all powers, everything human . . .
And it may be: there is an immense might
stirring nearby –
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”.
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.
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.)
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.
Marvellously thoughtful and well-informed review of my (fairly) recent translations of the poems of Peter Huchel. Also recent winner of the Society of Authors’ Schlegel-Tieck Prize for Translation 2020.
Many thanks to Rebecca DeWald and to Reading in Translation.
Miriam Nash’s new, 180 line poem is fascinating in the transformation of its sources in Norse myth, its quiet yet firm challenging of racial and gender hierarchies and in its exquisite presentation by Hercules Editions, accompanied as it is by an essay from Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir and textiles imagery created by Christina Edlund-Plater (in fact, Nash’s mother).
Friðriksdóttir gives those of us not up to speed with the Norse sagas some explanation. It seems the gods were actually not primary but descended from the race of giants. Yet since gaining supremacy, the gods have excluded and denigrated the giants. Generated from a hegemonic point of view (the top people in medieval Icelandic society), these Norse myths (as do most) tend to “justify and naturalise the status quo”, as Friðriksdóttir puts it, and what is being naturalised is a particular view of history, ancestry and masculinity. The anxiety of the Norse myths is a familiar one, tied up with patriarchy and the male control of women. There is a scene of ‘original sin’ in these stories in which the gods, Odin and his brothers, kill Ymir, the first and oldest giant. Out of Ymir’s dismembered body parts, the gods create the earth. This is a Fall from a primordial unitary state; Friðriksdóttir again: “at this juncture, one group becomes two” and conflict becomes the condition of life on earth.
So much for the birth of conflict and violence. The sagas are also notable for the relative absence of the feminine. An exception can be found in obscure references to the god Heimdallr who was born from nine giant mothers (possibly sisters) and it is through ‘writing on’ from these few suggestions that Miriam Nash’s poem develops a richly female addition to the Norse sagas. She challenges the old tales’ defensiveness about race (giant and gods) and gender and offers the modern reader a narrative of nurture, warmth and closeness in contrast to violence and conflict. The battle lines as they are drawn up are pretty obvious and will surprise no-one but Nash’s use of balladic form, of spoken voices and her re-scripting of details from the traditional stories conveys something vital and moving, a new myth for the age of Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement with its original purpose of empowering women through empathy.
Nash’s poem opens at the heart of an unorthodox family with one of Heimdallr’s mothers speaking tenderly. The whole family have gathered round a campfire, a hearth, in various states of sleep and wakefulness, cooking, sword-sharpening, comforting and acting as a seer. She tells Heimdallr the story of his remote origins in the primordial time when division was not known: “a tale of giants, a tale of gods / in early time, in frost-fire time”. A time of community and peace: “we lived snore-close, heart-close”. Also a time before language (or at least, language as we now have it) and Nash makes Ymir – the representative figure of this lost age – a “mother-father”, represented by the possessive determiner “their”. As in the traditional stories, Ymir creates/finds Buri in a glacier and Odin is Buri’s grandson. It is Odin who first declares division:
Odin said he was a God
Odin said the Gods were old
older than Ymir or giants
older than the ice-fire world.
This is an example of Nash’s form – loose quatrains of usually 4-beat lines, often part-rhymed at lines 2 and 4. And Odin’s declaration – his myth creation, his propaganda, his re-writing of history, his self-aggrandisement – is at the heart of the world’s troubles. Heimdallr asks who made the gods and the answer is that “They made themselves / with stories”. The poem goes on to recount Odin’s slaying of Ymir and the word “blood” recurs over and over again in the following quatrains.
But it is a blood ocean across which the nine mothers of Heimdallr have protectively carried their child. The child instinctively sees the roots of division and does not want to be “a half”, does not want to be merely “a god”. The comforting mother’s voice offers a startling solution (if we live in the fallen world); “Ymir was mother-father, child / Both might be your path”. The possibility is raised of a mode of living in which opposites may be once again reconciled, male/female, god/giant, fire/ice and the passage towards such a life is evidently through the tenderness and supportiveness of the mothers who advise Heimdallr to: “dream of ice-lands and of flame / sleep, snore-close, heart-close to me”.
This is the second of Ricky Ray’s chapbooks to be published in the UK this year (2020) – the other is appearing with Broken Sleep Books under the title, Quiet, Grit, Glory. A full collection, Fealty, also appeared in the UK through Eyewear Publishing in 2018 and it is now republished in the US by Diode Editions. The biographical note from Fly on the Wall Press refers to Ray as “a disabled poet, critic, essayist and founding editor of Rascal: a Journal of Ecology, Literature and Art” – all this suggesting that Ray has several highly ‘categorizable’ aspects to his work, but from the evidence in The Sound of the Earth Singing to Herself, he manages, to the benefit of us all, to elude being pigeon-holed in any neat way. See Ricky Ray reading poetry on the completion of his MFA degree – featuring poems about “dogs, disability, waywardness, childhood, childlessness, ecological consciousness, despair, and the search for hope”.
If poems can withstand the pressure of readers drawing biographical conclusions, Ray’s upbringing was difficult. ‘Sometimes Vision Withers on the Vine’ portrays a chaotic, poverty-stricken household with erratic running water and power supply because “crack was more alluring than the bills”. The boy’s drug-using father’s drug-using friend burns candles on the palm of his hand, apparently feeling no pain. The vision seen in the light seems to be nothing more than a death’s head, a version of the future in which “nothing happens”. Another poem remembers the putting down of a pet dog: “the news // had blown out all moisture and made of my body / Oklahoma”. This is an amazing image of a sudden expansiveness of the self, or its wiping out, in a state of grief at the loss of a creature the boy regarded as closer to a brother. The father had the dog destroyed, as we say, out of kindness, and the boy/poet comments: “a kindness I never wanted, still don’t”, thereby broaching the subject of his own ‘viability’.
Ray’s physical disabilities give him relentless pain, the prospect of comfort realistically being merely “pain / that relents / from a knife-twist / to a dog gnawing / an old / bone” (‘What’s Left’). ‘Toward What’ records a good day in which he falls only once and “take[s] three / minutes to ascend six stairs”. Yet there are some days, “my body is so beautiful / I can’t believe I get to live here” (‘(Dis)ability’). It’s somewhere along this existential line, between the confines of a body in pain and the expansive, close to out of body experience, signalled by that Oklahoma image, that Ray’s poems really come into their own. He can celebrate an incarnated, ‘being in the world’, with both a sense of its pleasures and a sense of what it costs to remain here.
Such a celebration is ‘So Long as There is Light, There is Song’. The narrator and his dog, Addie, are in a field, the dog’s pleasurable ease in the world engendering similar feelings in the poet. There’s a Whitmanesque quality to the loafing in the grass, the blessing of ants, of the grass itself, the dawning sense of a life larger than any of the individuals present:
You could call it continuity.
You could call it the field itself. I like to call it what calls.
And I like to live in her song.
For want of a better label, what is sensed is the Earth, “singing her duet with the sun”, the natural world for sure, but Ray’s language implies a close to sentient being, sensed in the co-habiting of the multitude of separate living things. In considering the ravaging of ‘My Favourite Sweater’ by moths, Ray shows how the human heart might respond to such a sense of “continuity”, in the generosity of his wishing “the moths no ill”:
[I] say to myself it’s all down to pattern, a shifting
pattern, a thread of wool raveling into a thread of moth,
the moth’s wings the stitchwork of the hand that knits us all,
the hand itself a stitch along a seam my mind unravels
It’s Whitman’s long lines and levelling up of all phenomena that comes to mind as the poem goes on to “thank until I run out of things to thank”. Even in the midst of natural danger – in this case a hurricane – the poet/narrator seems to revel in the ominous signals of the storm’s approach, promising to protect his dog. Like the Oklahoma image earlier, this poem (‘On Hurricanes’) ends in mid-flight, the storm raging, the individual consciousness being smashed and scattered, “like fusion, like retribution—/ bang bang bang”. Yet the final image of peril in the face of nature is also an image of becoming one with it, of realising a kind of incarnation: “the roar of it so loud / I can hear the lion’s mouth around my head”.
If ‘On Hurricanes’ reaches apocalyptic levels, the final poem in this chapbook is calmer, more meditative. ‘A Walk in the Woods’ opens with nature and Ray’s ever-present dog, Addie, being company enough for an individual who, for a variety of alienating reasons, has never felt humanity was “a species I was given to understand”. He identifies more with trees, “which may be a function of how poorly my legs work”. The presence of trees consoles, inspires, as Ray again approaches the trailing hem of the divine: “I see a mind at work. Whose, though?” The questioning is not pursued by the rational mind; rather the experiential pleasure – a drifting in an “amniotic ocean” – is allowed to be all. Instead, of an individual walking through a wood, the poem offers us a sensation not of “one walking” but rather of “one being walked”, a moment we might think of as disembodied from the physical world but is as much incarnated within it and is perhaps the most heightened state of environmental consciousness.
Lots of hits in the last 24 hours on my earlier blog post about Louise Gluck. Being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature tends to have that effect… She’s a fascinating writer, always experimenting, but Anne Carson or Claudia Rankine would have come before her on my list. But given the obvious interest in her work, I’m posting here the text of the review I wrote for Poetry London in 2014 of Gluck’s last (ie. latest, though 6 years old now) book, Faithful and Virtuous Night (Carcanet). The review was paired with Michael Longley’s The Stairwell (Cape, 2014).
Louise Gluck’s comments on George Oppen remain one of the best ways into her own poetry. In praising Oppen, she declares her own hand: “I love white space, love the telling omission [. . .] find oddly depressing that which seems to have left out nothing. Such poetry seems to love completion too much, and like a thoroughly cleaned room, it paralyses activity” (Proofs and Theories, Carcanet, 1994). The homely metaphor here is also characteristic. She shares with Oppen (and surprisingly with Longley) a preference for what is singular, common, small, for “solid nouns”, a language restored “to natural health [. . .] for common use”, rather than a Stevensian “hermetic patois” (‘On George Oppen’ ). So her style has been variously called spare, stripped down, deflated, thinned (especially so since Ararat (1990)). Yet the miraculous paradox her poems evoke is suggested by a further observation from 1994, that “precision is not the opposite of mystery”. Gluck’s dreamlike, enigmatic narratives are all the more powerful – convincing one might say – precisely because of the directness, plainness of her language.
It’s appropriate then that in her new book one of the protagonists paints canvases which are “immense and entirely white” (‘The White Series’). There is mystery enough in this new collection which (as often with Gluck) gestures towards a narrative but whose narrators switch gender, are much concerned with parents (who have perhaps died in a car crash), a caring aunt, a brother (perhaps a sister). These are scenes from (at least one) life. The dominant voice is that of a male artist who, after a career interruption, begins to paint white on a visit to America. He takes on a nephew as a companion as he approaches death. In ‘A Summer Garden’, he discovers a photo of his mother slipped into a translation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) and a studied, fin de siècle fastidiousness over language surfaces in many poems. Gluck’s novelistic skills in drawing a world in a few strokes and character in even fewer are evident, though once again action is missing; Gluck’s characters, whether male or female, are passive.
Like Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach, Gluck’s figures contemplate mortality while turning over their past. Though less obviously personal and less contented, as with Longley, the term nunc dimittis seems appropriate. The loss of parental figures is a recurrent trope and in ‘An Adventure’ love too is stripped away in a vain hope of “profound discoveries”. Poetry is lost too, again anticipating “the vast territory / opening to us with each valediction”. In A Village Life (2009), such a via negativa was doubted as “illumination / of the kind [that] destroys / creatures who depend on things” (‘Bats’) and here too it seems ineffectual. The quasi-Victorian cosiness evoked by the book’s title is exposed as false as remembered days “become unstable”, time leaps to and fro, seemingly at random and, if the soul travels at all, the puzzle remains that it always returns “empty-handed”:
[. . .] there is no perfect ending.
Indeed, there are infinite endings.
Or perhaps, once one begins,
there are only endings.
‘Faithful and Virtuous Night’
This is a bleak world not unfamiliar to readers of Gluck. In 1985 she asked, “Why love what you will lose?” only to answer, “There is nothing else to love” (From the Japanese’). Here, her real subject is the way we create our own meanings. ‘Afterword’ reflects on an earlier poem in the collection, suspicious of the “instinct / [to] discern a shape, the artist in me / intervening to stop traffic, as it were”. A meeting with an old woman yields the anticipation “that some important secret / was about to be entrusted” but on reflection her words are “pointless” (‘A Sharply Worded Silence’). Gluck (again like Longley) has used Homeric and Greek mythic material to ironise her more contemporary subjects. Faithful and Virtuous Night instead makes reference to T H White’s The Sword in the Stone to evoke the same kind of focused, watershed moment, indubitably saturated with meaning that the events of her narrator’s lives lack. Even the analyst’s couch offers nothing more than “my ingenuity versus / his evasiveness: our little game” (’The Sword in the Stone’).
In recent years, the Italian settings of Averno (2006) and A Village Life have seemed to warm Gluck’s empathy, developing a more dramatic quality to her work in portraits less obviously autobiographical. This new collection perhaps reverts, but still she engages and moves her readers and there do seem to be eventual gains along this apparently bleak road. These lie in the poems’ openness, the way they seem capable of encompassing such varieties of experience, of saying ‘yes’. Of Oppen, she wrote that his work had the power to seem “simultaneously, whole and not final, the power to generate, not annul, energy”. As in sitting before a Samuel Beckett drama, the paradox is we are not drained of energy by the apparently fruitless search for meaning, but are thrown back onto the road all the more attuned to the clues, to the activity demanded of us. In his last days, Gluck’s artist has his nephew sing Jacques Brel’s ‘The Old Folks’ (“The little cat is dead and no more do they sing“) as well as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘The Hills are Alive’. The insight is that “we do not, in the main, need to choose between them” (‘The White Series’).
To end at the beginning, Faithful and Virtuous Night opens with ‘Parable’ in which, “as St. Francis teaches”, a group of people divest themselves of worldly goods, better to focus on their goals, better to move unencumbered towards them. But the direction of travel is unclear, as is their purpose. Much debate ensues; time passes. In the background, perhaps we hear Brel’s “old silver clock” ticking. The group grows old in debate and their ageing (some believe) is their true purpose, while others believe the passage of time is the truth they hoped to be revealed. Both seem satisfied and perhaps we need not choose between them, only admire Gluck’s precise evocation of the mystery.