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…
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”.
Martyn Crucefix is our headline reader. His recent publications include Cargo of Limbs (Hercules Editions, 2019), These Numbered Days, translations of the poems of Peter Huchel (Shearsman, 2019), which won the Schlegel-Tieck Translation prize 2020, and The Lovely Disciplines (Seren, 2017). O. at the Edge of the Gorge was also published by Guillemot Press in 2017. Martyn has translated the Duino Elegies – shortlisted for the 2007 Popescu Prize for European Poetry Translation – and Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke and the Daodejing – a new version in English (Enitharmon, 2016). He is currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at The British Library and blogs regularly on poetry, translation and teaching at http://www.martyncrucefix.com
Main Reader – Martyn will read both original poems and from his Schlegel-Tieck Translation prizewinning book of Peter Huchel’s work.
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.
There is such ease and (apparent) directness of communication between the voices in Rachel Long’s poems and their readers/listeners that they could easily be misjudged. Darling from the Lions is filled with chatty, slangy storylines, some close to sentimental, others genuinely shocking, but the book’s title is instructive. In Psalm 35, David pleads with his God to protect him from those that strive against him, the mockers and false witnesses. He cries out: “rescue my soul from their destructions, my darling from the lions” (KJV). The preservation of the self intact, or at least relatively unharmed, against the multitudinous, multivarious threats of a modern adult female life is Long’s real concern.
Given this focus, the number of child’s eye view poems in the collection is not surprising. Readers will be reminded of Jeanette Winterson’s account of growing up in a Christian evangelical household in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and similarly here, religion proves more threatening than a source of safety. A young girl’s enthusiasm about staying up past midnight in ‘Night Vigil’ is clear: “How the minute and the hour stood to attention!” But the “smiling eyes” of the evangelist in the pulpit turn to “teeth” as he leads her, ominously, down and “incensed corridor, // and [she] followed”. The same threat seems more explicitly taken up in ‘8’ with its quotation from Psalm 51 as epigraph: “Purge me [. . . ] I shall be whiter than snow”. Long’s choices about form usually lead her to very free verse, controlled only by the colloquial voice and breath, but on this occasion the urgency and breathlessness of the 8 year-old child is reflected in unpunctuated, headlong, slippingly-enjambed, short-lined verse. What the child wishes to be cleansed of is an abusive sexual encounter, “that sunday / that school”, an incident in which she became “instantly older”.
Elsewhere, a child’s bicycle ride is likewise hedged around with vague threats of the “abbatoir” and startled invocations to “Run!” The inculcation of childhood religious belief again works as ironic backdrop:
Have you ever fled uphill –
hill of concrete,
acres of balconies identical
unanswerable doors –
reciting Psalm 23.
And in the extraordinary ‘Helena’ – the age of the speaker increasing still further here – we get a brilliant piece of ventriloquism as a young woman, who works in a seedy gentleman’s club, tells two women friends how she was all-but kidnapped by the bouncer, then raped, the man “acting out / some horror-porn shit” (Long’s unusual choice here of long, prosy lines of verse add to the almost unbearable intensity of the storytelling). These are some of the ‘lions’ by which the ‘darling’ is threatened. But ‘Hotel Art, Barcelona’, as the title suggests, indicates such threats come in all shapes and sizes and social/cultural guises. A young woman, in a relationship with a much older man, is staying in an expensive hotel. He’s concerned with their age gap; she with the fact she’s pregnant and he seems reluctant to acknowledge it. The power/wealth balance is unequal and, later, she allows him to fuck her on their balcony, her unconvincing/unconvinced question (“is love not this?”) left hanging in the air.
The Barcelona woman later throws up her expensively-bought dinner in the bathroom and there are other examples of purgative vomiting in Darling from the Lions. I’m not sure whether ‘The Clean’ is caused by morning sickness (as it is in ‘The Garden’) or an eating disorder, but the woman leans over the toilet bowl, insisting to herself, “Girl, you can be new, / surrender it all / into one bowl”. Often, the isolation of these female figures is relieved by examples of companionship with other women. ‘Sandwiches’ winds the clock back to school days again, as the narrator and her friend Tiff begin to experiment with their sexual attractiveness by stuffing unbuttered bread down their bras, because “the boys have clocked the difference between / a tissue and a tit, a sock and a tit, but not quite yet / a tit and a slice of bread”. This is a great example of Long’s brilliant control of timing, register and colloquial rhythm.
Funny though ‘Sandwiches’ is (and the poem is destined for many anthologies, I’m sure, where it’ll be taken out of context), the poem needs to be read alongside ‘The Yearner’, in which the woman deliberately sleeps on her own arm so that she can later re-acquaint herself with it, touching her numbed fingers like “strangers”, because her yearning is a dissatisfaction with how life has turned out, a wishing to be “another”. The opening section of the book is punctuated with 5 short poems, all called ‘Open’. They are about the seen and unseen. Watching a woman sleep, several people suggest she seems carelessly abandoned, surprised, working things out. Read the poems again and you see what the woman herself feels: it’s like she’s screaming, in hiding, or bracing for impact. She is beset by lions but it’s not always obvious to others.
The Psalmist’s cry was for protection by God, but it is Mum who affords most help in Darling from the Lions. The poems in the middle of the book are a hymn to the maternal figure, though the extent of her powers has already been shown to be compromised. ‘Referring to the House as the Whole Street’ is more plainly descriptive than most of Long’s poems, the mother returning after her night shift as a midwife, consoling herself as day breaks with sugared almonds, “in various shades of dawn”. Her care for her daughter is immediate, simple, physical: a cut finger is taken up and sucked. The mother spends all day Saturday plaiting her daughter’s hair into cornrows so she looks as “beautiful as Winnie Mandela!” It’s through the mother figure and several aunties that the religious element enters the household, the Christian evangelical beliefs shading rapidly into something more like of shamanism (‘Mum’s Snake’ and ‘Divine Healing’). It may be superstition that prevents the mother wanting to be photographed but her absence from the family album is a good metaphor for her selfless devotion to her family’s wellbeing, perhaps to the unseen presence of black women in society more generally.
Though the recurring father figure is said to be not “of our land”, it’s hard to identify any explicitly white voice in this collection; the black or mixed-race voices are so by implication. Long sees no need to labour the point. The one explicitly white voice I can find is that of a Barbie doll. This poem (‘Interview with B. tape II’) and its companion piece ‘steve’, mark a shift in perspective to a voice that does read the world in black and white. Long puts her ventriloquism to disturbing effect as she makes white-skinned Barbie talk about her stereotypical love/submissiveness to Ken and the way the arrival of a black-skinned doll, Steve, upsets things:
Steve wore bright red swim shorts. Too bright.
Everything about those people is so . . .
The racism is casually thrown off; crime in the area goes up with Steve’s arrival. Ken takes on the vigilante role, beating Steve up in the back of his army jeep. This is a clever and skilful poem – the racist attitudes in the child’s doll’s mouth are very disturbing. ‘steve’ uses the child’s narrative voice we’ve become familiar with throughout the book but the racist, hatred of the steve doll is now internalised and comes from the child herself; “ken would beat steve up / for fun”. The violence of the earlier poem is now played out in toyland (but no less real for that) so that, one day, the father finds his lawnmower jammed: “on closer inspection / a tiny pair of shorts charred / torso”. In this year of the death of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake, Rachel Long finds unexpectedly effective ways to address the issues of racial discrimination alongside her main concerns in this never less than accessible collection.
After her Gregory Award in 2014 and two chapbook publications since, Martha Sprackland has long been pondering those decisions about constructing a first full collection. (She talks briefly about that process here). Ought it to be a Rattle Bag of the best poems to date, or a more coherently shaped and organised ‘concept album’? Citadel is evidently being presented to readers as the latter – but with equivocal results. The first reference of the book’s blurb is to Juana of Castile, commonly referred to as Juana la Loca (Joanna the Mad), a 16th century Queen of Spain. She was daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, instigators of the Spanish Inquisition, but was conspired against, declared mad, imprisoned and tortured by her father, husband and her son, leaving almost no written record of her own. Sprackland – having studied Spanish and spent time in Madrid – presents herself as becoming fixated on this earlier woman, engaged in conversations with her to such a degree that (according to the blurb again) the poems in Citadel are written by a “composite ‘I’ – part Reformation-era monarch, part twenty-first century poet”.
While happy to accept the desire of the poet to maintain a distance between the lyric/dramatic ‘I’ and her autobiographical self, I find the idea, the ‘as if’, of this composite authorship hard to take. There is even something disproportionate about the claim of identity between the two women, given the extremity of Juana’s life-long suffering. I’m reminded of Caroline Maldonado’s 2019 book, Isabella (Smokestack Books) in which she translates and writes poems to Isabella Morra, an Italian aristocrat of the 16th century who also suffered appalling hardship (and likely murder) at the hands of her male relations. But Maldonado’s interest in the historical figure is never claimed as an identity. (I reviewed this book here).
The awkwardness of the leap of faith in this alignment between Sprackland and Juana gives rise to several of the opening poems which seem to want to ‘explain’ empirically the (perfectly legitimately) imagined connection. ‘Beautiful Game’ is a family-holiday-in-Spain poem, in which the Martha figure (the collection does use its author’s name on several occasions) is hit on the head with a pool ball. The next but one poem takes this up. ‘A Blow to the Head’ takes the injury as a moment of profound psychological importance. The narrator is “cracked open” and in the same moment retreats into a psychological “citadel”. The protection this offers her becomes “habit-forming, I was fortified”. The latter pun is good and the poem suggests that it is in this state of defensive retreat, perhaps of ‘imprisonment’, that she passes through a portal, making first contact with “her”, Juana. One of the tortures that Juana faced, for her religious unorthodoxy, was la cuerda, being strung up with cord/rope, weights attached to her feet. In this poem, Martha loosens “the cord from her wrists”.
It’s the poem placed between these two that perhaps provides a further clue to the undoubtedly powerful link felt by Sprackland to Juana, the link between the personal and the historical. Much is left unsaid in ‘A Room in London’; the reluctance to reveal is part of the fortified ‘citadel’. In a vaguely defined medical environment there are several young women, one of them being given misoprostol (a drug used to induce abortion). Such a moment of profound emotional, physical and psychological experience must be the origins of the identification between two individuals so remote in time and Sprackland catches the paralleled shift of innocence to pained maturity in the brilliant final line: “Our little beds, bars of autumnal light falling through the curtains”.
The fact is that this identification of the two women does then give rise to several excellent (I’d describe them as uncanny) poems – though their existence does not need anything more by way of justification than a belief in language and the poetic imagination. In ‘They Admit Each Other to the Inquisitor’, the two women are bound together by the first-person plural pronouns: “We were eighteen and pregnant and mad”. The force and flow of the poem takes the reader quickly beyond questions of likelihood:
When we undid the cord that tied our wrists
it bound us; something in that blow
knocked through the city walls
and through it we are talking, still.
We can’t explain this.
The same device is used in ‘Juana and Martha in Therapy’; this time it’s the third person plural. They are as one and yet at the same time they are communicating down a cup-and-string telephone, made from a cord and two tins of cocido (chick-pea and meat stew). There is great humour here besides the serious experiment in imaginative identification: “Time is complicated, especially at these distances”. But also, Time can be collapsed into magically anachronistic moments of intimacy: “They are in the bland room / above the Pret in Bishopsgate, trying to understand. / The walls of the mind are deep and moated”. The final poem in Citadel is ‘Transcript’ which is a verbatim record of a conversation between the two women:
i’ll sing you something, and you’ll sleep, tomorrow I will go falconing –
and I will go to work and try to hold the yolk of myself together, try not to spill –
I wish there were more poems in the book in which this sort of unashamed, ludicrous, heartfelt and imaginatively suggestive communication was portrayed. There are a few other occasions where poems approach it, but the leap of faith required seems even too much for the poet and the results feel more willed than wholly convinced. Juana alone (though in the third person) appears to good effect in ‘Falconry’, an excellent poem that hovers, alongside the hunting bird, over the landscape of the Alhambra. The bird’s searching out of its prey represents the young Queen’s curiosity, her challenge to authority (that will soon get her into so much trouble), and its tearing up of a lark seems to foreshadow Juana’s own suffering.
Otherwise, Citadel contains plenty of poems more directly connected to what we might tactfully designate the author’s biography, poems which might have constituted a Rattle-Bag-style first collection. The five sections of ‘Melr’ read very autobiographically, a childhood in a village north of Liverpool: “I grew up coastal with the land to my back”. It’s portrayed as a place of shifting sands and, as teenage years advance, that sense of novelty-seeking (like Juana and deploying similar bird imagery) grows: “villagers heard / the clatter of the entire migratory flock / lifting off under cover of darkness”. Youthful experimentation, unpredictability and the allure of travel are all expressed in the excellent ‘Pimientos de Padron’. One imagines language students in Madrid, “lovesick, shamed or fleeing / or brisant and in shock”, then heading to the airport for “the first flight anywhere but home”.
There is a motif in the book of those brought up on sand finding it hard to settle. ‘Anti-metre’ suggest this even reaches the menstrual cycle which shifts, “mutable as a dune” and one recalls the clinical environment of ‘A Room in London’ when ‘Hunterian Triptych’ concludes with the narrator and her boyfriend running out in alarm at the sight of preserved foetuses in a museum, “ranged by month and weight”. I sense the Catholicism of Spain in general (and Juana’s wrestling with it, in particular) haunting Citadel. So a visit to an orthognathic surgeon is portrayed in terms of the confessional and a poem like ‘Charca’ is underscored by a baptismal or redemptive sense. A charka is a pool, here a natural bathing pool in a valley. The narrator and her friends go there and, beyond the hedonism and holiday pleasures, she finds something more profound shifting, beginning to lift and heal into freedom:
and distant starts to thaw in me
and to carve these deeper channels
into which we jump, again and again,
looked over by nothing but the mountains,
the overhanging leaves,
the lifted winter lived through and unbound.
This might suggest ‘Martha’ already outgrowing the need to speak to Juana. Another poem like ‘Still Life Moving’ – for me one of the best in the book – suggests the poet’s concern for Time as a theme, that “complicated” thing, here matched with Art (a still life, perhaps in the Prado) and, as time the destroyer creeps into the frame, rotting the lilies and spilling the apples, she utters a cry for some form of redemptive salvation, whether from God or Juana or elsewhere:
This is how reviews are supposed to work. I recently read James Harpur’s comments on Bonjour Mr Inshaw, published by Two Rivers Press (poems by Peter Robinson, paintings by David Inshaw) in the Spring 2020 issue of Agenda, ‘Pound Reconsidered’. I went out and bought the book.
I’ve long thought of writing poems about David Inshaw’s paintings, drawn to what Harpur calls his ability to “invest landscapes with spiritual light and energy, balancing realism with a sense of the mythic, of penetrating a noumenal sphere”. The other personal draw to his work has been that Inshaw’s home (and home ground as an artist) is that part of Wiltshire to the west of where I grew up. Inshaw’s home is in Devizes and many of his paintings are of the landscape just a bit further west, of Silbury Hill, Avebury, the barrows and downs of that area. The drive from the M4 turn-off at Hungerford, on the Bath Road, through Marlborough and the A361 to Devizes has long figured in my personal list of favourite drives (not wholly because it was for years the route to my childhood home in Hilperton, Wiltshire). And now Peter Robinson has beaten me to it with this beautiful book of full colour images and 19 poems, though his approach is not simply ekphrastic (merely descriptive of the images) but often launches out from the pictures into concerns shared by the two artists.
Robinson and Inshaw in fact met at Cambridge in the 1970s. That moment is uncertainly recalled in the poem ‘In the Seventies’ (a title borrowed from Thomas Hardy’s poem in Moments of Vision – a sub-theme of this whole book is how both poet and artist respond to Hardy’s work). Various chance meetings over 50 years then occurred including a visit to Devizes in January 2019 during which the project of this book was agreed upon.
The word ‘haunted’ seems to have been designed to be applied to Inshaw’s landscapes. There is a hyper-real quality to the painting which makes the viewer re-see our own surroundings but also takes us through the surface. Harpur’s Agenda review suggested a “Platonic vision” but I’d object to losing the surface of the real so readily. Inshaw was a member of the Brotherhood of Ruralists (here is an old BBC documentary on them – a brilliant example of ‘slow’ TV before it had been thought of) and his landscapes are usually peopled and the trees and downs and ancient memorials are therefore always ‘seen’. Inshaw’s work is about time and memory (Hardy again) and the way moments of vision or perception can feel heightened. The poem ‘Haunting Landscapes’ alludes to Inshaw’s ‘Our days were a joy and our paths through flowers’ (another quote from Hardy, his poem ‘After a Journey’). A woman in black stands in a graveyard but has turned as if being called to from beyond the frame (by a memory, a ghost).
As in so many memories, there is a heightened particularity to Inshaw’s paintings. There is a Rilkean focus on what ‘The Kennet’ calls “being here”. Look at Inshaw’s ‘Tree and Moon’, for example, and Robinson’s accompanying poem, ‘At Slader’s Yard’, associates the two artists (and their art forms) in the quality of their ‘noticing’: “I’m a counter of clouds / come over the hills like this one / ‘salmoning’ in a ‘deepening blue’”. Hardy’s poem ‘Afterwards’ describes himself as a “man who . . . noticed things”. Robinson’s concluding poem, ‘After a Visit’, suggests how Inshaw’s precision of observation (“the starkness of those winter branches’ / black against a glowing skyline”) manages to inculcate a sense of something other than mere perception of colour and shape: “it brings back the sense of some design, / and a meaning to this scene”. The root and pattern of design is unclear. The value of such a comprehending vision is heightened by the precise historical context in which many of these poems were written. The divisions and confusions of Brexit and the world of Covid infection and lockdowns keeps breaking through the surface of this book. The parliamentary “palaver”, hypocritically urging us to “come together as a nation” and a certain politician, “pre-disgraced”, indicate that neither poet nor painter look upon the landscape of southern England with their heads in the clouds, nor with any narrowly nostalgic gaze.
Last week I was invited to take part in an on-line discussion about Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, written to a young would-be poet in the early 1900s.This event was organised by the Kings Place group, Chamberstudio, and the panel included two other poets, Martha Kapos and Denise Riley, musicians Mark Padmore, Amarins Weirdsma and Sini Simonen and composer Sally Beamish. We had such a fascinating discussion on Rilke’s advice to young artists (though perhaps we hardly scratched the surface) that I wanted to re-visit it and re-organise my own thoughts about the letters; hence this blog post. Though warm in tone and supportive, the letters are a way of Rilke talking to himself, developing coherent ideas that can be traced through the New Poems (1907/8), Requiem to a Friend (1909), even to the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheusof 1922. I am quoting throughout from Stephen Cohn’s translation of the letters, included in his translation of Sonnets to Orpheus (Carcanet, 2000).
Rilke’s advice to Franz Kappus was evidently received with gratitude as the correspondence between them continued (if sporadically) from early 1903 to December 1908. We don’t have Kappus’ side of things, but from Rilke’s comments it’s clear the younger, aspiring poet’s letters were remarkably open, even confessional in substance, as suggested by the published letters’ recurring observations about sexual relations. But as for practical advice to a young poet, Rilke offers little, opening with, “I am really not able to discuss the nature of your poems” to “You ask if your poems are good poems . . . You doubtless send your poems out to magazines and you are distressed each time the editors reject your efforts . . . my advice is that you should give all that up”. Probably not what Kappus hoped to hear, though he will have quickly understood that Rilke has more profound points to make. But it means these letters ought to be read less as advice to aspiring writers and more as advice on the best ways to ripen (Rilke’s metaphor) the inner self, a consequence of which might be the conviction that creative work was a necessity for the individual. Peter Porter once suggested a better title for the sequence would have been, ‘Letters to a Young Idealist’ (Introduction to Cohn’s Carcanet translation).
The advice given is carefully positive – what to seek – and fulsomely negative – what ought to be avoided. Friendly and remarkably sympathetic as his tone is through the series of letters, what Rilke asks, in truth, is extraordinarily demanding for mere ordinary mortals. Rilke urges a priest-like devotion to his High Romantic, Godless programme. In brief, what is to be sought is a clear, honest and open relationship with one’s own inner life and that demands a corresponding avoidance of everything that might distance us from it, especially the pernicious influence of social and cultural conventions, what has been thought, said, written or done before. Rilke makes no bones about how difficult the former is and how frightening the latter is going to feel.
The only way, Letter 1 insists, is to “goinside yourself”. And in Letter 3, we need to “allow each thing its own evolution, each impression and each grain of feeling buried in the self, in the darkness, unsayable, unknowable, and with infinite humility and patience to await the birth of a new illumination”. For reasons discussed later, there has to be a degree of passivity about this process: we must “await with deep humility and patience the moment of birth”. In his reply, Kappus must have enumerated the pain and suffering he was experiencing as a young man because Letter 8 spins this positively: “did not these sorrows go right through you – and not merely past you? Has there not been a great deal in you that has changed? Were you not somewhere . . . transformed while you were so sorrowful?” These often rough inner weathers of our emotional lives are precisely what is required. Only then, “something unfamiliar enters into us, something unknown; our senses, inhibited, and shy, fall silent; everything within us shrinks back, there is silence, and at its centre this new thing, strange to us all, stands mutely there”. In one of several memorable images, Rilke explains, through such emotional experience (the pains as much as, or even more than, the pleasures) “we have been changed as a house changes when a guest enters it”.
Those familiar with Keats’ ideas (expressed in his 1819 Letters) about the world as a ‘vale of soul-making’ will find something very familiar here. But Rilke’s take on the process of ‘spirit creation’ lays far heavier emphasis on the need for solitude to achieve it. Letter 5 tells Kappus, “win yourself back from the insistence of the talk and the chatter of the multitude (and how it chatters!)”. The chattering world is a distraction from what ought to be the subject of our study (our inner selves): “What is required is this: solitariness, great inner solitariness. The going-into oneself and the hours on end spent without encountering anyone else: it is this we must be able to achieve” (Letter 6). Such solitude enables greater concentration but also more true (uninfluenced) perception of our inner life. Yet to turn away from so much that is familiar will be frightening. In Letter 8, Rilke compares this to someone “plucked from the safety of his own small room and, unprepared and almost instantaneously, set down upon the heights of some great mountain-range”. What must then be experienced is “a never-to-be-equalled sense of insecurity, of having fallen into the power of something nameless [and this] would virtually destroy him”.
The negative influences of those (us, the timid majority) who have pulled back from such a state of perception is explained. Rilke’s basic tenet is that we are all “solitary”. But the uncertainty of a ‘true’ perception of this is too much for most people: “mankind has been pusillanimous in this respect [and] has done endless harm to life itself: all phenomena we call ‘apparitions’, all the so-called ‘spirit-world’, death, all these things so closely akin to us have been fended off . . . and so thoroughly purged from our lives that the senses by which we might have grasped them have atrophied. To say nothing at all of God”. What Rilke describes here are a number of the conventional ideas – pure figments about the truth of spirituality, death and a deity – that people have populated their world with in seeking greater security. Kappus is told, “a perilous uncertainty is so very much more human” and the truly human, let alone the ambitious poet, must accept the principle that “we arrange our lives in accordance with the precept that teaches us always to hold to what is difficult – then everything that still appears most alien will become all that is best-trusted, most dependable”. Rilke’s chosen metaphor here is the folkloric/mythic image of the terrifying dragon that turns into a rewarding princess at the last moment.
Herein lies also the wisdom of passivity. As Keats argued in parallel, with his idea of negative capability (the knack of remaining “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”), so Rilke’s fourth Letter advises Kappus not to seek out answers now but to “love the very questions, just as if they were locked-up rooms or books in an utterly unknown language”. The key is to “live them” by which Rilke (like Keats) means to examine and attend to them as fully as possible. He goes so far as to advise a child-like incomprehension (which is at least based on an openness to the questions asked) over a cowardly defensiveness or contempt (which falls back on a distancing from those questions). This is why, in Letter 2, he sharply advises Kappus to avoid irony. There are, says Rilke, “great and serious subjects before which irony stands helpless and diminished” because irony is, by definition, a standing outside of a question or topic. For the same reason, Rilke distrusts engagement with literary or aesthetic criticism (precisely what Kappus has asked of him in relation to his own poems). Letter 3 argues such critical discussions are “received opinions, opinions grown petrified and meaningless, insensitive . . . clever word games”, hence far distant from life itself. The same Letter suggests the artist needs to retain an innocence, even a lack of awareness of his/her creative powers, lest self-consciousness diminish freedom and “purity”. Indeed language itself – the common method of exchange between people – is suspect in representing, in its unexamined use, conventional thought and feeling: “it is so often on the name of a transgression that a life is shipwrecked, and not on the individual, nameless act-in-itself”.
Even these letters, Rilke says in Letter 9, need to be treated with caution and patience: “receive them quietly and with not too many thanks, and let us, please, wait and see what may come of them”. This is a warning not enough heeded by subsequent generations of readers, but Rilke’s real humility is re-emphasised at the end of the preceding Letter. Perhaps feeling he has been delivering advice from ‘on high’, Rilke warns Kappus, “do not believe that he who seeks to console you dwells effortlessly among the quiet and simple words which sometimes content you. His own life holds much trouble and sorrow, and it falls far short of them”. Surely Rilke is not merely alluding here to the life of the creative artist. Prompted, as I have said, by Kappus’ own openness about what we might call ‘romantic’ aspects of his own life, Rilke devotes a lot of space to interpersonal relationships in these letters. His point in Letter 7 is that this area of human life too is poisoned (“well-furnished” – this topic brings out Rilke’s satirical side) with conventional thinking and language: “here are life belts of the most varied invention, boats and buoyancy packs . . . safety aids of all conceivable kinds”. Such ‘safety’ features are more fictions designed to forestall a true encounter with the kinds of questions that human relationships inevitably throw up. Letter 3 particularly criticises male sexual attitudes (lustful, drunken, restless, arrogant, prejudiced) and Letter 7 anticipates a “new and individual flowering” of female sexuality which will lead to relationships not defined as male/female but as “one person and another person”.
Such a renovation of individuals, from the inside out, is the urgent call of this series of letters. As to advice to Kappus the wannabe writer, Rilke offers very little, but what he does suggest is wholly in keeping with his other ideas. Letter 1 urges close observation as the only viable method. As I have made clear, this is especially close observation of our inner lives. But one’s whole life needs to be built around this principle, so “you must approach the world of Nature… try to tell of what you see and experience”. Rilke says don’t try to write love poems or on other common subjects of poetry. This is because they will be infected with those conventions of thought and expression I have discussed above. Rather, “favour the subjects which your own day-to-day experience can offer you”. The poet’s approach to such everyday subjects needs to be “quiet, humble, [with] passionate sincerity” to avoid clichés of thought and feeling, hand-me-down solutions or worn out, petrified language. These are the methods Rilke learned from watching Rodin sketching in Paris. Pre-empting likely objections that such an approach would produce work of little importance, Rilke goes on: “If your daily life seems mean to you – do not find fault with it; rather chide yourself that you are not poet enough to evoke its riches” (Letter 1).
The everyday is rich and complex enough for Rilke without any irritable searching after more conventionally dramatic, sensational, controversial subjects to address. The images that Letter 3 associates with this humble creative process is of gestation (“to carry, come to term, give birth”) and the slow growth of trees (“letting the sap flow at its own pace”). In Letter 6 he compares it to bees gathering honey (“drawing what is sweetest from all that there is”). Whether focusing within or without, the artist must begin from what is “unremarkable” and we become better acquainted “with things” and if this is too frightening a prospect – with no off-the-shelf solutions to human fears and insecurities, no God above all – Rilke has few comforts to offer the young poet. As regards God (or, as letter 6 refers to him, the “one who never was”), Rilke allows the idea of God only as the ideal or terminus towards which we travel, a state of full comprehension – through knowing humble things: “Does he not have to be the last, if everything is to be comprehended in him? And what meaning would there be in us, if the one we crave had already been there?”. God, for Rilke, does not pre-date us as an origin. He is the goal towards which we travel, aspire, build, create – ‘he’ is no more nor less than our fullest comprehension of life and death, hence our fullest sense of being in the world.
That the young Franz Kappus, after all this, decided to pursue a military career rather than a creative one is perhaps hardly surprising. It may be that the former presented the least frightening option! Rilke asks such a lot. His poem Requiem to a Friend of 1909 (the year after his correspondence with Kappus came to an end), dwells on the “old enmity / between life lived and great work to be done” (tr. Crucefix). The tragic lament of that particular poem arises from his conviction that the subject of its in memoriam, the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, had proved herself strong enough to carry forward the huge burden of being an artist and that, therefore, her untimely death (just after the birth of her first child) was an irreparable loss to a world that needs all the true artists it can nurture.