I have been invited to give a 10 minute reading – on Zoom – this coming Friday 25th November @ 1pm alongside Hilary Watson and Sudeep Sen. The event is free to all but you will need to register for a ‘ticket’ (and Zoom link) here. I hope you can make it.
Details about the other two readers are as follows:
Poet, translator, artist, and editor Sudeep Sen studied English literature at the University of Delhi and was an Inlaks Scholar at Columbia University. Sen has published more than a dozen collections of poetry, including The Lunar Visitations (1990), Postmarked India: New and Selected Poems (1997), Lines of Desire (2000), Distracted Geographies (2003), Rain (2005), and Aria (2011), winner of the A.K. Ramanujan Translation Award. Two volumes of new and selected poems and translations were published as Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 1978-2013 (2013) and Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 1980-2015 (2015). Recent collections of poetry include Incarnat | Incarnadine (2017) and, with Setsuko Klossowska de Rola and Homa Arzhangi, Path to Inspiration (2017). The Government of India Ministry of Culture’s awarded him the senior fellowship for “outstanding persons in the field of culture.” Sen divides his time between New Delhi, London, and New York.
Hilary Watson grew up in and around Cardiff. She graduated from the University of Warwick Writers’ Programme with a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing and an MA in Writing. She was a Jerwood/Arvon Mentee 2015/16 with mentor Caroline Bird alongside fellow poets Rachel Long and Emma Simon. She was shortlisted for the Troubadour International Poetry Prize 2019 and the Live Canon Prize in 2015, and has recently been published in a number of UK and Irish magazine such as the Butcher’s Dog, Interpreter’s House, and Impossible Archetype. She works in the third sector and is currently writing her first collection.
I have not quite finalised what I will be reading but probably a couple of poems from my last full collection, The Lovely Disciplines and some more recent poems. No doubt I will plug the recent Christmas poetry anthology that I have co-edited with Michael Glover – also plugged in a recent blog post here. You might be interested to hear that we are planning a London launch for the anthology on Sunday December 4th @ 7pm at the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham. More details (and booking) can be found here. Readers will include Rowan Williams, Nancy Campbell, Hilary Davies and Denise Saul – and there will be plenty of music of a festive variety too.
If I have time in the Live Canon reading, I’ll read this poem included in the Christmas anthology which I wrote in repsonse to Breughel’s fascinating painting of the same name (see above). It might be worth knowing that I imagine the voice of the poem to be that of the (blind? short-sighted?) man in the upper right corner of the image. He’s the one wearing the large blue-tinted spectacles:
As a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, I was asked in May 2020 to write and record three brief talks. One of these was on ‘Writing and Technology’ which I posted (as text and audio file) on this blog a few weeks ago. Another commision was to respond to the intriguing invitation to write a ‘Letter to My Younger Self’. The recording of that piece is still in the RLF pipeline, but the third of these short pieces has now been made available as an audio file on the RLF’s VOX site. The given topic of this newly published piece is ‘How I Write’ – not an easy subject on which to be clear and succinct but with a little help from WH Auden and Louise Gluck I hope I have said something here that might be of help to all kinds of writers – poets, novelists and (the target audience of the RLF project) those writing at the varied levels of academe.
Alternatively – or both at the same time if you’d like – you can read it below.
How I Write
Always I have to commit something to paper as soon as possible after the initial inkling of a poem. Most writers use notebooks. Some use audio recorders, others their phones. Though first drafts are always terrible, what I’m doing is laying a path back towards the first emotional impulse, a way for myself to return there. You’ll often find me re-reading notebooks to pick up such trails among barely readable, fragmentary scribbles.
These scraps are what may develop into poems. I like W. H. Auden’s view of the poem as a “verbal contraption”. It reminds me a poem (actually, any piece of writing you are doing) is a purposeful device. It needs to be an effective device and poems look to impact a reader’s feelings. This view downplays one of the commonest stumbling blocks about creative writing, which is that what poets try to do is express their own inner moods. If that’s all I focus on, I’ll pay too little attention to the writing’s receiver, my reader.
Anyway, what I want ‘to express’ is seldom fixed at this stage. It’s important I’m willing to add on – simply write more connected material – even beyond the point at which I might think the job done. That tempting voice claiming early completion may be a lazy demon or a censoring one. It’s my practice at this stage to draft loosely, with as much energy and freedom as possible. If I watch children playing, I see them enjoying an excess of energy, movement, voice, and it’s out of this that real creativity arises – new moves, ideas, developments, reformed, revised, played again, played better. So in writing, spinning off new phrases or metaphors leads not only to decorative grace-notes but often to the still-hidden, true heart of the poem. This is why poets often talk of writing as a process of discovery.
For me, most of these stages still take place using pen and paper. The shift to a screen, a keyboard remains a critical transition. On screen, or on a phone, typed lines acquire an inertial resistance to being changed. On screen, I find my eye starts to narrow down to look at the poem’s physical shape and appearance on a would-be page. Such aspects are important in the long run, but they can prematurely cool the fluidity of the molten drafting process if they dominate too early. Beware the linearity of the screen!
But once it’s there, now I’m thinking ‘economy’. A linguistic cosmetic surgeon, I cut off verbal flab, repetition, redundancy. Crossing out is my most familiar activity. The American poet, Louise Gluck, says that a writer’s only real exercise of will “is negative: we have toward what we write the power of veto”. One of the keys to this is reading aloud. I go the whole hog: standing as if to deliver to an audience. Loud. And. Clear. This helps me listen to rhythm and line breaks. Actually, for any writer of poetry, prose, essays for your course, reading aloud highlights stumbling blocks of all kinds. My sense of the ebb and flow of a poem is always clarified because I distract myself in the physical act of standing and speaking. I experience my words more objectively, more as my potential reader would. Try it. It’s a revelation!
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.
On any criteria, it is a poor photograph. The primary subject – the three young boys in the foreground – are out of focus. The youngest one’s head is just too low for the dated camera’s pre-set focus to find it. Instead, there in the background, but far more sharply defined, is a woman’s bicycle, the chain ring and two slanting elements of the metal frame reflecting the sun brightly. I know the orientation of this house. If the sun is falling this way, the time must be nearing mid-afternoon, the sun is falling on the garden and over back of the house, over the photographer’s right shoulder, into the eyes of the children, each of whom is squinting slightly. Look beneath the large pram under the window, to the left: the shadows of its four spoked wheels and their pale tyres confirm the angle. The black bulk of the pram and the mass of shadow behind and beneath it almost take over the image. It too is in sharper focus than the children.
Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida suggests our viewing of a photographic image has two aspects. What he termed the studium is associated with any viewer’s knowledge and cultural experience, with a body of information and a general interest: ‘a very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste’ (tr. Richard Howard, Vintage Books). It is a mere question of liking, not liking. Here, the studium of the image is open to anyone with a decent knowledge of England in the mid-20th century. The corner of a recently built house (the garden as yet untended, only wire fencing between this and the next house on what looks like a raw housing estate) and the style of bicycle and pram, the clothes the three boys are wearing (what look like home-knitted jumpers – the youngest wrapped up with a knitted hat, buttoning under the chin – so the weather is not warm) are all suggestive of the late 1950s or early 1960s. The youngest boy is also sat in a toy pedal vehicle – the long-nosed bonnet indicative of a racing car – the sun’s angle perhaps catching brightly again what might be headlights at the very bottom of the image.
The outline of this lawn in the back garden remained unchanged throughout my childhood. Its corner – in the image, its apex – falls neatly behind the youngest boy’s head. Perhaps there is some composition here? I’d guess it was my father pressing the white button on the black plastic box of a Kodak camera. Taking such a picture was more the father’s job in those days. His clumsiness in framing the image ought not to be judged too harshly (these were still relatively early days for mass photography) but it stirs in me the thought that he was always a man more at home with objects than words or people. I wish he’d taken the picture again, a little lower, filling the chosen frame with his three children. Forty years later, setting the scene behind the large window in the image, sat around the dining table that (for fully 50 years) looked out onto the back garden, I wrote of him when forgetfulness and confusion troubled him more and more:
Past ninety and still no books to read
your knuckles rap the laid table
gestures beside a stumble of words
so much aware of their inadequacy
it hurts us both in different ways
since a man without language is no man
finding too late the absence of words
builds a prison you’re no longer able
to dominate objects as once you did
the world turns in your loosening grip
So, it may be the general studium of this image stirs some mild interest in you – the period, the clothes, the main objects a little like museum pieces. Barthes’ second element in a viewer’s response to a photo, he termed the punctum, some detail (usually only one) that pierces the viewer, that wounds us, a powerful emotional response. The punctum is often not intended by the photographer – some random detail that for a particular viewer has a disproportionate and very personal impact. It is what moves us.
The fact that this is an image from my own past means there are a number of candidates here for a punctum. Most likely surely is the face of the boy on the left. Under a thick head of hair, a rough-cut fringe, he squints more than the others. His eyes cannot be seen, hidden away in the dark slits beneath the eyebrows. The firm lines on his face slant down from nose to half-opened mouth in a grin that lifts his cheekbones, that might even be the shaping of a word. The long vowel in the word ‘cheese’ perhaps? A version of that face greets me in the mirror even now. In these infant and junior years, my jumpers were knitted by my mother. I seem to be wearing a girlish collar beneath. My right hand is lost beyond the lower edge of the image. My right rests on the racing car, not quite clasping my younger brother’s hand which looks set back a little on the edge of the car. I am the middle child. My younger brother must be little more than a year or two old (born in 1959). My older brother is the one full of animation: right arm around the car, around his little brother, he seems to be exploding into a fit of giggles. But oddly, none of these details quite wounds me…
The bicycle? My mother’s of course. A large wicker basket on the front. Look closely and there on the back is the folding child’s seat I remember sitting in as she pedaled the 2 or 3 miles into town. The vast contraption of the black pram? I don’t have memories of it – even of my brother in it. It remains part of the studium – I remember later discussions about the way pram and child would be left outside for hours on end (sometimes in the front garden of the house where the sun’s absence kept it cool in summer). I think a general thought: such a thing would never be countenanced these days. Even far older children are seldom let out of their parents’ sight.
The house itself? A little tugging of nostalgia here (we eventually sold the house after my parents’ deaths just a few years ago) but mostly I sense information welling up. An estate of 40 such houses on the edge of a Wiltshire town. One of the first ever post-war self-build projects – the 40 men built them with their own hands over 3-4 years in the mid- to late-50s. I have other photos of the house being built. Each dwelling had a little outhouse (ours is middle top of the image; next door’s filling the top right corner). There’s a non-standard coal bunker: it’s what Mum’s bike is propped against. If I remember rightly my paternal grandfather helped build it. I have a vague physical memory of being held by him (over the bunker?). Nothing more, since he died suddenly, I think, before this image was taken.
Oddly – and this is in the nature of the Barthsian punctum – the detail that has particular poignancy (like a dagger, Barthes says) is the shapeless peg bag hanging (where it always hung, it hung there forever) on the bracket attaching the guttering downpipe to the wall. The camera simply records what lies before it. After 100 pages of discussion, Barthes arrives at, what even he confesses is, a less-than-earth-shattering conclusion that a photo’s potency lies in its declaration of ‘this-has-been’, its evidential power. Yet it’s also the case that an image’s power can be contained in what is absent from it or is implied by small details within it. I am pierced by the peg bag because it represents (more than that – it is, it manifests, the touch of) my mother. The only member of the family nowhere here (neither behind nor in front of the lens), she is there in her bicycle, there in the pram (possibly there in the waste bin beside the coal bunker – has it just been washed out? there is a darkening patch of water running on the path?). But most of all in the peg bag. Almost certainly she made it herself. A coat hanger. A few lengths of spare cloth. Some wooden pegs. The washing line ran down the length of the back garden path. There was a long wooden prop with a V cut in the top. In a very early poem, I would see her ‘struggling / to peg out snapping shirtfuls of wind’.
In Susan Sontag’s On Photography, she writes ‘[w]hen we are afraid, we shoot’. She means when we fear losing what-is-here we preserve it in the museum of the recorded image. Did my father fear losing this moment? He preserved it badly. But he managed to preserve the children (though the ones in this image are now passed on into something quite other; Barthes would say they have died). Nowadays, a father would turn his camera and include himself in it too. What does that say about fear? The peg bag would still be hanging there though. In the image. On my desk here. Scanned to the screen. In my mind, the peg bag continues to hang in its place on the downpipe though other people’s children play on the lawn, other parents sit gazing out of (what we always called) the dining room’s picture window.
So pleased to have these 5 poems published by The Galway Review. This is another of my translation projects (working with Nancy Feng Liang, without whom none of this would be possible of course). We ‘met’ during last year’s Cambridge Poetry Festival and she was looking for an English language poet to work on Chen Xianfa’s collection ‘Poems in Nines’ (2018). The more I have done so the more I love his work. I hope you enjoy these poems.
Biographies of the three writers involved in this submission
Chen Xianfa is a prize-winning poet and journalist, born in Anhui Province, China. He has published five books of poems: Death in the Spring (1994), Past Life (2005), Engraving the Tombstone (2011), On Raising Cranes (2015; in English tr. 2017) and Poems in Nines (2018; bilingual Chinese/English, tr. Nancy Feng Liang, publ. China) which was awarded the Lu Xun Prize. A Selected Poems appeared in 2019. He has published two collections of essays, Heichiba Notes (2014 and 2021). Other awards include China’s Top Ten Influential Poets (1998-2008), the Hainan Biennial Poetry Prize (2011), Yuan Kejia Poetry Prize (2013), Tian Wen Poetry Prize (2015) and the Chenzi’ang Poetry Prize (2016).
Martyn Crucefix – recent publications are Cargo of Limbs (Hercules Editions, 2019) and The Lovely Disciplines (Seren, 2017). These Numbered Days, translations of the poems of Peter Huchel (Shearsman, 2019) won…
‘I always write that which is not’ says one of Alireza Abiz’s poems, because ‘[t]hat which is is too terrifying / to wear the garment of the word’. To understand what Abiz means here – how can / why should a poet avoid writing of what is real? – we have to understand his historical and political contexts.
Abiz belongs to the 1990s generation of Iranian writers. The unattributed Introduction to The Kindly Interrogator (Shearsman Books, 2021) provides help for those of us who don’t know much about the development of modern Iranian poetry. It was Nima Yushij who, at the opening of the twentieth century, felt the then-current forms of Persian poetry had become too abstract, subjective and metaphysical. He advocated a more modern, objective approach, a more natural diction and the use of forms closer to what we would regard as blank verse. By the 1960s such freshness and freedom had yielded some of the best modern Persian poets, writing diversely, mostly in free verse. But both before and after the 1979 Revolution (which replaced a millennia old monarchical system with the Islamic Republic), poets continued to engage in political struggles and were often prosecuted by the authorities for their writings. Following 1979, and during the 8 years of war with Iraq, the artistic atmosphere continued to be both difficult and repressive.
The political reforms of the 1990s – Abiz’s period – saw a new optimism and revival in the arts, yet still prosecution and censorship remained a fact of life. Many artists left Iran and – especially after the 2009 uprising – there was a considerable migration into exile. Though currently resident in the UK (he lives in London and has a Creative Writing doctorate from Newcastle University) Abiz does not consider himself an exile as such, though inevitably his perspective has an ex patria quality, looking both dispassionately at Iran’s nature and continuing development, as well as harking back to an affective homeland.
In these translations by the author and WN Herbert, Abiz’s free verse poems are not always reluctant to address realities, but they do tend to deploy (what the Introduction calls) a kind of ‘dialled-down or even buttoned up surrealism’. ‘The Tired Soldier’ is brief and universal. His weariness is symptomatic of a lengthy war, as well as his disillusionment with it. Jackals wail, bugles “cough” like roosters – the real and figurative creatures here close to anthropomorphic portraits of societal/political elements, close to the derangement of the surreal which is also signaled in the soldier’s action which (besides the obvious disrespect for his military service) involves an overturning, a literal inversion (feet to head, head to feet) of the norm:
The tired soldier
hangs his boots around his neck
and pisses in his helmet.
The surreal is inevitably emergent when we cease to trust our senses, or our interpretation of what we think we witness (think of Rene Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe). A black cat watches the narrator from the veranda. Given a political context in which persecution (even elimination) has become common currency, the narrator seems to fear for his own life:
It’s been a long time since I was a sparrow,
since I was a dove,
even since I was a backyard hen.
The sense of danger and paranoia here is obvious, but perhaps vague enough, quirkily surreal enough, to elude the censors. The Introduction suggests parallels with the Menglong Shi or so-called ‘Misty Poetry’ generation of writers in China in the 1980s. Then, the ‘Misty’ handle was initially a disparaging one given by officially sanctioned reviewers, suggesting these writers were creating ‘obscure, vague, incomprehensible work’ (for a good account of these issues see Yang Lian’s introductory essay to Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry (Bloodaxe, 2012) edited by WN Herbert and Yang Lian). But their obscurity was only really in comparison to official Chinese poetry of the period full of banal (but never obscure) sloganizing about the virtues of Socialism and the evils of Capitalism. Yang argues the mistiness of the new 1980s Chinese poets was really a return to ‘Sun, Moon, Earth, River, Life, Death, Dream’ – to the territory of Classical Chinese poetry (Li Bai and Du Fu), though often encoded within it were observations about contemporary political life. So also with Abiz’s poetry in which images of ‘doves, rabbits, ghouls, lemons, feasting, wine’ develop and imply their own slant or misty significances.
Inevitably, death and the threat of it is a preoccupation of many of these poems. The mundane incident of a fly buzzing in a kitchen leads to a meditation on conflict, guilt and futility. Looking through a window into ‘The Anatomy Hall’, the narrator sees a surgeon? a mortician? a torturer? leaning over a body on a table. He senses the man’s fear; he glimpses the flash of a knife. Then:
He bends over my head and smiles,
looking at me like a butcher looks at a carcass.
On the table in the middle of the hall,
relaxed, I sleep.
The relaxation of the victim comes as an additional surprise, but it gestures towards the sense of complicity that is another of Abiz’s concerns. A lengthy quotation in the Introduction, which I take to be in Abiz’s own words, argues: ‘the corrupting influence of dogmas is so insidious that no-one remains entirely innocent, or, if carried along by the paranoias of ideological purity, should be considered completely guilty’.
So in ‘The Informer’ the narrator (in a Kafkaesque sort of world) has been invited to attend a ceremony to select the ‘finest informer’. There appears to be a confident pride in the way he dresses up for the occasion. In the hall, the candidates (those you expect to be on the ‘inside’) are in fact excluded. It turns out, in a detail suggestive of the elusive nature of truth and the levels on levels of surveillance in such a repressive society, that all the seats are to be taken ‘by the officers responsible for informing on the ceremony’. There is a calculated bewilderment to all this as is also revealed in the oxymoronic title of the eponymous poem, ‘The Kindly Interrogator’. Nothing so simple as a caricatured ‘bad cop’ here:
He’s interested in philosophy and free verse.
He admires Churchill and drinks green tea.
He is delicate and bespectacled.
He employs no violence, demands no confession, simply urging the narrator to ‘write the truth’. The narrator’s reply to this epitomises the uncertainties a whole society may come to labour under. He cries, ‘on my life!’. Is this the ‘I will obey’ of capitulation or the ‘kill me first’ of continued resistance? Is this the repressed and persecuted ‘life’ of what is, of what is the case, or an expression of the inalienable freedom of the inner ‘life’? Abiz is very good at exploring such complex moral quandaries and boldly warns those of us, proud and self-satisfied in our liberal democracies, not to imagine ourselves ‘immune from [the] temptation towards unequivocality’. Fenced round with doubt, with a recognition of the need for continual watchfulness, with a suspicion of the surface of things, perhaps these poems never really take off into the kind of liberated insightfulness or expression of freedom gained that the Introduction suggests a reader might find here. Abiz – the ‘melancholic scribbler of these lines’ – is the voice of a haunted and anxious conscience, a thorn in the side of repressive authorities, as much as a monitory voice for those of us easily tempted to take our eye off the ball of moral and political life nearer home.
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”.