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.
During lockdown there has been a proliferation of on-line poetry readings and launches and most of those I have attended have been very successful. I had to teach my (well educated) daughter the meaning of ‘necessity being the mother of invention’ the other day and the poetry world is not the only one learning new ways to do old things. My publisher, Seren Books, has been particularly active in this area, recently staging the launch of Katrina Naomi’s new collection, Wild Persistenceand running a mini festival, their Stay-At -Home series. It was during this series of events that I heard Ben Wilkinson read from his 2018 collection, Way More Than Luck. As part of his own reading, Wilkinson also read Louise MacNeice’s ‘Wolves’: “Come then all of you, come closer, form a circle, /Join hands…”
I’m not proud to admit that Way More Than Luck passed me by when it was first published. As you are probably aware, Wilkinson reviews poetry regularly for The Guardian, and he’s very familiar on social media as a poet and critic, a distance runner and a passionate Liverpool football fan. But the book’s cover (Dalglish, I think), its title and some of the publicity persuaded me that the football bit was going to be predominant. It’s certainly an almost unique aspect of the collection, but it turns out the debilitating darkness of psychological depression is an even more significant one. Wilkinson signals this concern via the book’s two epigraphs. One is about the nature of depression by Matt Haig and a second by John Hanc links challenging physical activities with mental strength, with “state of mind”. And the opening poem immediately suggests the un-put-downable burden of depression for those who struggle with it, while ‘Days’ obsessively lists multiple occasions blighted by it. Both poems use repetition as a device to evoke the persistent nature of depressive episodes, while ‘Pal’ uses that plus personification to convey its haunting, abusive nature:
Next time you’re trying to stand your ground –
argue your case, sprint the home straight,
stare yourself down in the mirror at eight –
he’ll be there alright. His smile is a frown.
His frown is a scowl. His scowl is the fear
you hoped was long gone. Still here. Still here.
Wilkinson’s admiration for MacNeice can be heard in the vigorous syntax here, the use of form and rhyme and his liking for repetition perhaps reflects something of the 1930s poet’s “controlled flamboyance of diction”. Even more successfully, ‘Hound’ treats depression as a beast (an idea famously and perhaps erroneously linked with Winston Churchill):
Know it’s no dog but a phantom,
fur so dark it gives back nothing,
see your hand pass through
its come-and-go presence,
air of self-satisfied deception,
just as the future bursts in on
the present, its big I am, and that
sulking hound goes to ground again.
Troubling dreams feature in two powerful poems. ‘The Nightmare’ is all the more frightening in remaining aware of the real-life episode the dream is based on. A long drive, “to Newby, Lawkland, Cleatop”, is transmuted as the car shudders, the windscreen warps, roadside trees shrivel and the narrator’s companion is suddenly “nowhere to be found”. ‘Stag’ rehearses something similar – the real animal, “on the bypass that night – / antlers like a winter oak”, is, in the dreamed version, pursued vainly across a landscape, seemingly in hope that some secret communication might be recovered from “those cavernous eyes”.
Perhaps the best poem in the book, ‘To David Foster Wallace’, is addressed to the American writer who himself struggled with depression and alcoholism. Wilkinson’s poem takes up a wholly convincing, chatty, MacNeicean tone to discuss – frankly – the experience of despair, “the unpindownable feeling / of hopelessness, hard frustration”. The poem itself declares it takes “courage” to appear weak and it certainly takes courage to write as nakedly as this. Of course, all lyric poetry is to some degree “dramatic”, but there seems a strong autobiographical element to this poem (and others). The poem ends with the narrator explaining that there are occasions, while out running (“my breath dogged on the fellside”), when he experiences something of “peace”, something of psychological relief. Wilkinson’s book title turns out to be not an allusion to a Fernando Torres wonder goal, but what the struggling narrator is left hoping for from David Foster Wallace, even from beyond the grave: “Wish me way more than luck”.
For me, it’s these psychological truths that Wilkinson is so good at conveying. There are other poems later in the book (and perhaps ‘Stag’ is an elusive example) which begin to sketch episodes of a foundering romantic relationship and ‘Building a Brighter, More Secure Future’ is a very effective excursion into witty political satire (a skilfully handled sestina based on the Conservative Party election manifesto, 2015). And there are the football poems. They comprise the central sequence of 14 poems, introduced with a heart-felt Prologue that says what follows is for the ordinary football fans, written out of “a love beyond the smear campaigns, / the media’s hooligans”. A large part of what Wilkinson has in mind here is the shocking response in parts of the media to the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989, when 96 men, women and children died (David Cain’s Forward prize shortlisted book, Truth Street, from Smokestack Books, movingly dealt with this event and the media and policing responses and I reviewed it last summer). Wilkinson obliquely refers to the occasion in ‘Kenny Dalglish’ and several poems have worthwhile things to say about racism in the game (‘John Barnes’) and how the game can offer an escape route for working class boys (‘Billy Liddell’ and ‘Steven Gerrard’).
But the poems also show how difficult it is to escape the miasma of cliché that seems to engulf football itself. Anfield is filled with a “fabled buzz”, then “the place erupt[s]”. Barnes unleashes a “a sweeping, goal-bound ball”, and a particular game offers one “last-ditch twist”. I’m reminded of Louis MacNeice’s observation (now sadly compromised in various ways, but the spirit of it remains valid, I think) that he wanted a poet not to be “too esoteric. I would have a poet able-bodied [sic], fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women [sic], involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions’. There are many more of these poets around these days and to bring (even) football into the purview of poetry can hardly be a bad thing. Yet it is not an easy one and there may be some risks in deciding to headline the attempt. Ian Duhig’s blurb note to Way More Than Luck has gingerly to negotiate this issue: “The beautiful game inspires some beautiful poems in Ben Wilkinson’s terrific debut collection … but there’s far more than football to focus on here”. Yes, indeed.
I am very grateful to Ian Brinton’s and Michael Grant’s recent translation of a selected Mallarmé (Muscaliet, 2019) for sending me back to a poet who has always proved problematic for me. My natural inclination draws me more to Louis MacNeice’s sense of the “drunkenness of things being various” (‘Snow’) – his emphasis on poetry’s engagement with “things” – and his desire to communicate pretty directly with his fellow wo/man, than with what Elizabeth McCombie bluntly calls “the exceptional difficulty” of Mallarmé’s work. I appreciate that such a dichotomy seems to shove the French poet into an ivory tower (albeit of glittering and sensuous language) while casting the Irish one as too narrowly engagé, but I’m also aware that Sartre praised Mallarmé as a “committed” writer and that, despite some evident remoteness from the ‘tribe’, the French poet’s political views were both radical and democratic.
Yet the question of difficulty remains. Proust is said to have berated Mallarmé for using “a language that we do not know” and Paul Valéry’s first encounter with the poems was also troubled: “There were certain sonnets that reduced me to a state of stupor . . . associations that were impossible to solve, a syntax that was sometimes strange, thought itself arrested at each stanza”. Yet Valéry also notes the tension between Mallarmé’s fierce semantic difficulties and his deployment of traditional form, rhyme and rich phonetic patterning; the latter inevitably suggesting that there is (or ought to be) some semantic completion in the poem. But (as J.H. Prynne comments in his Preface to Brinton’s Muscaliet translations) Mallarmé’s “flamboyant boldness, by leaps and pauses and leaps again” serves to disrupt such conventional expectations of interpretative transparency, a resolution of the many puzzles. McCombie again, writing in the Oxford World’s Classics Mallarmé: Collected Poems and Other Verses: “criticism has been dogged by an erroneous belief that such completion is recoverable”.
So, if we must give up on such ‘understanding’, what was Mallarmé – writing in the 1880-90s – doing? Something recognisably very modern, it turns out. Contra Wordsworth (and MacNeice, I guess), Mallarmé and his Symbolist peers, held ordinary language in suspicious contempt as too ‘journalistic’, too wedded to a world of facts. Poetry was to be more a communication, or evocation, of emotion, of a detachment from the (merely) everyday and a recovery of the mystery of existence which rote and routine has served to bury. Such a role demanded linguistic innovation as suggested in ‘The Tomb of Edgar Poe’ in which the American writer is praised for giving “purer meaning to the words of the tribe” (tr. Brinton/Grant). Writing about Edouard Manet’s work, Mallarmé saw the need to “loose the restraint of education” which – in linguistic terms – would mean freeing language from its contingent relations to the facticity of things (and the tedium and ennui that results from our long confinement to them) and hence moving language nearer to what he called the “Idea” and the paradoxical term Nothingness (as Brinton/Grant translate “le Neant”).
This latter term is a key to Mallarmé’s work. Nothingness is non-meaning, but not as “an absence of meaning but a potentiality of meaning that no specific meaning can exhaust” (McCombie, p. xii). There are Platonic, Hegelian elements here, but I’d like to understand this as alluding to what Yves Bonnefoy terms (more obviously positively) Presence. In considering both ideas, we are likely to feel some anxiety or even terror (again Mallarmé tends to accentuate the dislocation involved), simply because we are being taken beyond what is familiar. And what is familiar (both French poets understand) is largely contrasted from language use, as language is a conceptual vehicle. So the poet must re-make language and Mallarmé is much more thorough-going about this and looks, in part, to music as a non-referential model. Language must be freed from a narrowly denotative function, revelling in reflections, connections, silences and hermeneutic lacunae which simultaneously allude to, but knowingly fall short of, articulating Nothingness. Mallarmé’s use of form suggests but fails to deliver resolution in this same way, what Henry Weinfield has called a “tragic duality” at the heart of Mallarmé ‘s project.
For these reasons, Mallarmé “cede[s] the initiative to words” (‘Crise de Vers’), to language’s material aspects as much as to its referential functions. Carrying over the material aspects of his French verse into English is then, to say the least, difficult. I’m inclined to agree with Weinfield (Introduction to Stephane Mallarmé Collected Poems (Uni. Of California Press, 1994) that it is “essential to work in rhyme and metre, regardless of the semantic accommodations and technical problems this entail[s]. If we take rhyme from Mallarmé, we take away the poetry”. But is that even possible? The accommodations and problems that arise are huge! Mallarmé placed the sonnet, ‘Salut’, at the start of his Poésies as a toast, salutation and mission statement. Weinfield gives the sestet as follows:
A lovely drunkenness enlists
Me to raise, though the vessel lists,
This toast on high and without fear
Solitude, rocky shoal, bright star
To whatsoever may be worth
Our sheet’s white care in setting forth.
A concern for form and musicality throws up problems like the near-identical rhyme (enlists/lists), the choice of ‘lists’ which underplays the dangers envisaged, the adjectival filling out of the toast line itself and the final line’s inversion and convolution. I prefer Brinton/Grant’s more flexible approach, lowered register (with some humour) and half rhymes:
A beautiful intoxication urges me
With no fear of keeling over
To stand and raise a glass
To solitude, rocky shore and star
And whatever else was worth
Hoisting our white sail for.
Mallarmé’s sonnet, ‘The Tomb of Edgar Poe’ opens roundly and clearly in Brinton/Grant’s translation: “As if eternity at last transfigured him into himself’ where Weinfield again inverts and clogs the line: As to himself at last eternity changes him”. The poem ends with the wish that Poe’s granite tomb might mark an end to the disparagement (blasphemy in Mallarmé’s mind – the many attacks on Poe himself) of poets by the generality, “the tribe”. Though Brinton/Grant’s translation is a bit rhythmically inert, both Weinfield’s and E.H. and A.M. Blackmore’s Oxford World Classics translations groan under the constraints of rhyme and metre. Here are all three:
Let this same granite at least mark out a limit for all time
To the black flights of blasphemy scattered through the future. (Brinton/Grant)
Let this granite at least mark the boundaries evermore
To the dark flights of Blasphemy hurled to the future. (Weinfield)
.. this calm granite, may limit all the glum
Blasphemy-flights dispersed in days to come (Blackmore)
Famously, Mallarmé took his concern for the material aspects of language (hence to the placing of words, the white spaces between them) to stunning extremes. He gradually dropped most punctuation and ‘Un Coup de Dés (‘A Roll of the Dice’ tr. Brinton/Grant) spread the text across two pages with variations in both font and size, to create something more akin to a musical score (see image below). In his own Preface, he explains how the white spaces of paper “take on some importance . . . The paper asserts its presence every time that an image comes to a halt and vanishes before accepting the presence of its successors” (tr. Brinton/Grant). The result is that the “fictive reality” of language is endlessly sinking and surfacing into/out of the white of Nothingness. We read a musical score evoking the struggle (imaged as another sea voyage) between our efforts to make conceptual sense and our glimpses and intuited (?) accesses to “a potentiality of meaning that no specific meaning can exhaust”.
As words reach for meaning, so it slips away and so we are intended to experience both the attempt and the plenitude of what is lost . . . I think. I don’t know that I DO experience anything like this in reading Mallarmé – my limitations too often leave me with something more like Valéry’s “state of stupor”, a sort of numbness (and a headache), a sense of my own falling short. My French is not really good enough to ‘enjoy’ the original poems, so I must depend on translation and, happily, those by Ian Brinton and Michael Grant have helped me move a notch or two along the road towards appreciating Mallarmé’s still extraordinary work.
Marvin Thompson’s debut collection from Peepal Tree Press is a PBS Recommendation and deservedly so. All too often we are informed of the arrival of a startling voice, usually a vital one, striking a new note in English poetry. Well, this is the real deal: a superbly skilled practitioner of the art whose work is driven by two seemingly opposing forces. Thompson writes with a disarming sense of autobiographical honesty, often about domestic life, as a father and a son. Yet he can also create fictional characters with detailed and convincing voices and backgrounds. What holds these divergent styles together is his demonstrated conviction that the past (as an individual or as a member of an ethnic or cultural group) interpenetrates the present.
‘Cwmcarn’ is a poem in an apparently simple autobiographical mode, the narrator out camping in Wales with his two children. He has been reading them to sleep with pages from Maggie Aderin-Pocock’s biography but feeling a bit guilty about not finding a book about “a Mixed Race // scientist / for my // Mixed Race / children”. The thought leads him to reflect on his own childhood’s confusions about racial identity, being born in north London to Jamaican parents, but knowing he was ultimately “by ancestry, / African”. He recalls the hurt of being “branded” English, not Jamaican, and then worries about the consequences of his children identifying “as White / in a Britain // that will call them / Black”. As you can see, Thompson’s chosen form is reminiscent of what Heaney (around the time of North) called his ‘artesian’ form of skinny-thin poems and the same effect of drilling down into the past is achieved here.
Several of the same components are redeployed in the sequence ‘The One in Which…’ (with a nod to Friends). The narrator is driving his kids to the cinema, playing “Joe Harriott’s abstract jazz” in the car. The children not surprisingly consider the music angry, sad and crazy. The father is not unhappy with this: “my Mixed Race children are listening / to something I want them to love”. He himself wonders if it’s “upbringing // or brainwashing” but the music “sings // Africa’s diaspora and raises skin to radiance”. (Listen to Thompson read this poem here) This last phrase is a wonderful play on aspects of light and darkness and the consciousness of the power of the past is extended with the father’s memories of the 1985 disturbances on Broadwater Farm in Tottenham. What Thompson does so convincingly and without strain is to present the individual’s stream of consciousness as it streaks in and out of the past and present. The third section of this sequence opens with a simile that should come to be seen to rival the ground-breaking significance of Eliot’s Prufrockian evening spread out against the sky “Like a patient etherised upon a table”. Welsh storm clouds are the subject here and the comparisons that flood the poem are drawn from the past of Jamaican, American, Haitian and African roots:
as she sleeps beyond the sugarcane and soldier’s guns with her sons
and daughters in Jamaica’s hills – fists like Jack Johnson’s,
an 18th Century Haitian’s or an ANC activist’s.
It will be objected that there are one (or two) too many similitudes here but surely that is the point: the vividness, dynamism and vitality of these images drawn from the past make up an irresistible force to the father in the poem.
The astonishingly titled ‘Whilst Searching for Anansi with my Mixed Race Children in the Blaen Bran Community Woodland’ makes Thompson’s point over again: the (playful) search for an African folkloric trickster figure (in the shape of a spider) in the Welsh woodlands is not being flaunted here, it is taken to be perfectly normal. In fact, the family don’t discover Anansi at all but an apparently dead fox. But the father’s head is full of his previous night’s dream of Mark Duggan’s shooting by police in 2011 which is also mixed with memories of 1985 again, when “rage had spread / like an Arab Spring”. The delicacy of the descriptions of the fox, combined with the children’s concern for it (it is still alive), become correlatives for the father’s preoccupations with the past. These latter thoughts again streak backwards – in appropriately dream-like fashion – to finding Duggan lying now in the Gold Coast, in ancestral times, “chains ready on docked ships from London”. There is no wrench when the father suddenly resurfaces in the present, worrying, “Will Britain / learn to love my children’s melanin?” The compassion shown towards the injured fox by the family, taking it to a vet, reflects some hopefulness perhaps.
Road Trip does indeed indicate the possibilities of compassionate responses to racial and social divides, the importance of an empathetic imagination which yet does not iron out the kinds of historical differences that Thompson is clearly exploring. ‘Rochelle’ is a 6-poem sequence demonstrating this point as well as showcasing the more fiction-making aspects of Thompson’s talent. The narrative is from Rochelle’s point of view, a young black girl driving to London from Wales to support her sister who has had a miscarriage. On the way, she picks up a young black hitchhiker, Kite, and his back story is also developed in the poems. The form here – and used elsewhere in the book – is a form of loose terza rima, half rhymed mostly, with not much variation in the rhyme sounds. The effect is a kind of circling, interweaving with some sense of a slow progression – which is marvellously apt for the exploration of the past’s breaking into the present and this sequence’s sense of a tentative break-out of the established cycle. Rochelle’s mercy dash is actually undertaken pretty equivocally because she and her sister have much rivalry and bad blood from the past. This sense of distance and alienation is also reflected in the hiker who seems a silent, morose figure. But somewhere near the Hangar Lane gyratory, Rochelle pulls over because there is a horse in the road. The animal – like the fox earlier – provokes a tender response from Kite which opens up the relationship between the two people. Kite’s background has been as difficult as Rochelle’s and now he is returning home to care for his mother who has dementia. A friendship is struck up and the conversation with Kite’s mother persuades Rochelle to phone her sister with a good deal more sisterly compassion in her heart.
Thompson is good at sketching in such characters and developing relationships, investing moments and scenes with a mysterious intensity, but the tone is not usually so optimistic. ‘The Weight of the Night’ is a pair of prose pieces in which the past – of sexual guilt, male presumption and final reckoning – proves to be an immoveable obstacle to a marriage. And though there is something comic in the germ of the idea in ‘The Many Reincarnations of Gerald Oswald Archibald Thompson’ (a father’s ghost returns to his son, telling of his many previous lives), the reincarnations are all in the form of British military figures from Peterloo, the Boer War, Aden, the Bengal Famine of 1943 and the Falklands campaign. The theme is imperialism and social injustice and the father’s chuckling about his actions creates an uncrossable divide between him and his son. I don’t know that I fully understand Thompson’s intentions in this sequence which again uses the ‘artesian’ form, and the surreal quality of some of the fictionalising here makes things harder to interpret. But the past – and perhaps the older generations’ complicity in the many injustices adumbrated – falls as a dead weight onto the present, even in the son’s recalling his father’s recent death from cancer.
I’m impressed at the editorial control shown in this collection. I suspect there are many false starts or even other successes lying in Thompson’s files. There is a generosity of creative energy here which one suspects could display itself at much greater length (a novel perhaps?). The concluding sequence of 3 monologues, ‘The Baboon Chronicles’, is a case in point. Thompson creates a dystopian world (not far from our own – or at least Pontnewynydd) in which Black and White live uneasily beside each other but the streets are also occupied by baboons. These creatures are treated with disgust and abuse by the humans. The White characters also seem to abuse the Black people on a reflex with insults like “’boon”. In monologues by Stephen, Sally and Suzi, Thompson does make points about racism, the othering of those perceived as different, injustice and (latterly) police violence but what is more impressive is the empathetic imagination on show in the creation of these characters’ voices. Thompson possesses in abundance Keats’ negative capability and, as much as he shows how the past, racial and cultural upbringing and memories of injustice lays so heavily on individual identity, Road Trip also shows the possibility of imagining into the Other (of listening as all the great jazzers do) which, rather than a retreat behind the Pale, must be the way towards a more just and equitable world.
In lieu of a new blog post, here is a link to the Hercules Editions webpage on which I have formulated a few thoughts about the current lockdown, photography and the (forgotten?) refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. It is a piece in part related to the Hercules publication of my longer poem, Cargo of Limbs.
As I said in my last blog – before we were all locked down – I’ve always enjoyed using this space as an experimental play area, a sand pit in which I can think through ideas about poetry, teaching and translation. In the last couple of years, a lot of this thinking aloud has been done through reviews of new poetry collections. And I have always wanted to give myself (and the book) enough space (usually over 1000 words). But several recent conversations with other writers about how very few poetry books get critical notice these days has persuaded me there is also a place here for shorter reviews – quick drawing in the sense of a rapid sketch of a book, a shooting from the hip. Here’s my second go at this sort of thing.
Eoghan Walls, Pigeon Songs (Seren Books, 2019).
Eoghan Walls’ second collection from Seren Books will make you think hard about how poets use rhyme. As in his earlier The Salt Harvest (2011), Walls reaches as it were by default-setting for rhymes, full, half and oblique, in pretty much every poem. Though the overt forms vary – couplets, triplets, quatrains – he favours longish, driven, consonant-heavy lines and the rhythms of the poems are more about the arrival of the rhyme words than anything else. The overall effect for me is rather double-edged. The achieved musicality is more about a sustained ground bass, a pedal note, or drone (I think sometimes of MacNeice’s 1937 poem ‘Bagpipe Music’) than subtle variations in the reader’s anticipation of harmony, counterpoint or disharmony, of the kind of dynamism and flight that rhyme can evoke.
There is instead a sort of digging-in, a very deliberate gaining of traction which is also reflected in a lot of the subject matters. This may be also reflected in Walls’ bird of choice: the humble pigeon, at once capable of flight (and often rapid flight too) but also the ‘rat of the air’, the urban dweller and scavenger. In a parody of Christopher Smart’s eighteenth-century paean to his cat Jeoffrey, Walls’ ‘Jubilate Columbidae’ praises the pigeon’s flight, shit, panic and feeding habits. The subject matter of Pigeon Songs likewise ranges from touching and gentle poems about the poet’s children to far more brutalist pieces on sex and death, a range matched by a characteristic shifting of perspectives from up-close details to observations on a more cosmic scale. ‘The Principles of Collision’ probably suggests what lies behind these techniques in Walls’ mind: “Once there is a collision you can have an event. / Two things bumping is the way change happens”.
Many of the child-focused poems are excellent: father and daughter fascinated and appalled at the relics in a church; the trials (for both parents and child – I remember it well) of swimming lessons in the local pool; the father carrying the child on his shoulders. ‘To Half-Inchling’ is startling in addressing a miscarried child, imagining a world where she might have grown to “[her] full potential”, a world in which it would have been more “legitimate to mourn”. The use of the rhymed sonnet form here feels very apt, the whole carrying a powerful emotional thrust that is often absent elsewhere. And such dark emotions are never far distant. On holiday in Sardinia, father and daughter cook calamari but later the child wakes “screaming about the dead squid, / whether it hurts to be dead, and if she really has to die”. Part of the father’s response is to point to the stars: “I tell her life is massive”. I don’t know how effective a parenting manoeuvre this proved to be, but it reflects a great deal about this collection: the massive scope and range of life is always present and the shifting of perspectives is an instrument used to try to make sense of what happens.
Which also means that thoughts of death are seldom far away. In ‘De Pneuma’, routine jogging leads to thoughts of car accidents or heart failure, the body, damaged irrevocably is brutally evoked: “the whole meat could be cast like a coat in the ditch”. Walls is drawn to such high dramatic stakes. ‘The Law of the Galapagos’ sees the culling of goats on the island from the poor goat’s perspective, bullets whizzing and splintering until the creature’s “jelled electrics go clinically dead”.
There are strong poems about the poet’s mother and father too. The book is interspersed with right-justified ‘pigeon’ poems and other birds and creatures make regular appearances. But – a bit like Wall’s insistence on rhyme which can dull the ear through a collection of over 60 pages – there is something rather willed about the connections this creates as in ‘The Early Days’ which records a relationship’s beginnings in half-rhyming couplets, each of which includes some allusion to bees. So raindrops falling on a shirt are shoe-horned in by being described as “bee-large”. Despite the blunt factuality of a lot of Wall’s lines, there is often also a poetical effortfulness which I do find distracting.
I’ve always enjoyed using this blog as my own experimental play area, a sand pit in which I can think through ideas about poetry, teaching and translation. In the last couple of years, a lot of this thinking aloud has been done through reviews of new poetry collections. And I have always wanted to give myself (and the book) enough space (usually over 1000 words). But several recent conversations with other writers about the very few poetry books that get critical notice these days has persuaded me there is also a place here for shorter reviews – quick drawing in the sense of a rapid sketch of a book, a shooting from the hip. Here’s my first try at this sort of thing.
Damian Walford Davies, Docklands: A Ghost Story (Seren Books, 2019).
This is Walford Davies’ fourth book from Seren and it is an ambitious project, combining narrative and lyric form (every poem is 16 lines long, in unrhymed couplets, most in four beat lines). It’s also a dramatic monologue, in effect, as the speaker is a thoroughly unpleasant, arrogant, but haunted architect engaged in several large urban projects in Cardiff between the years 1890 and 1982. Talk about the male gaze, this man epitomizes it. He and his wife have recently buried a child lost in stillbirth (“they wrapped it in a pall // not bigger than my handkerchief”) and while she mourns the loss, he gets on with his work and frequents bars and prostitutes in Cardiff’s docklands. The sympathetic reader is probably going to try to read this man’s cruel and dismissive treatment of his wife (and his exploitative relationships with other women) as his own rather twisted way of dealing with grief. But it’s hard to maintain that view, as Walford Davies is often shockingly good at catching his loathsome attitudes, especially towards women: “This quarter grows on me. / In shabby rooms in Stuart Street // my new friend swears // she’ll tackle anything for oranges”.
The ghost story element arises when the architect starts to see a young girl on the streets of Cardiff. She is initially a haunting – but probably real – presence (perhaps somehow also related to the lost child?) but it eventually emerges that she is “Dead Em Foley”, an abused girl, murdered by her father a few years before. This narrative device yields up brief thrills for the reader, inexplicable sightings, eventually moments of dialogue between the two (it’s not clear if he tries to take the relationship any further). But through the five sections of the book, the architect’s wife seems to surface from her grief, returning to polite society (“Ah, Eleanor! So good to see you // out”) and there are signs of a warming of the marital relationship too. These indications seem to parallel the disappearance of Em Foley’s ghost too, though the architect memorialises her in a statue for a municipal fountain. The man sounds pleased that the local people “came out / to recognise a dead girl risen” when the statue is unveiled though it’s not clear if Walford Davies intends this as a more profound recognition of those marginalised by bourgeois Cardiff or whether it is a more personal and erotic tribute to the girl by the architect.
Walford Davies, in an end note, talks of the ambiguity of the female figures – wife, prostitutes, dead girl – who do tend to float without clear identity, disembodied, through the text. It adds something to the ghost-like quality of the book, but the loss is any more powerful evocation of them. Also, the choice of brief lyrics to develop what could well have been a novel, gives the reader some powerful moments but few prolonged engagements with any of the characters. And the nature of the central male figure is problematic because of his downright unpleasantness (though, I suppose, Browning managed it in ‘My Last Duchess’) and in 2020 there will be plenty of readers who find such a portrayal an absolute bar to reading. I don’t think Walford Davies ironises and critiques his male figure enough, or clearly enough.
Rilke in Paris, Rainer Maria Rilke & Maurice Betz, tr. Will Stone (French original 1941; Pushkin Press, 2019).
The argument of Maurice Betz’s memoir on Rilke’s various residencies in Paris between 1902 and 1914 is that the young poet’s experience of the French capital is what turned him into a great poet. Betz worked closely with Rilke on French translations of his work (particularly his novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910)). Will Stone’s excellent translation of Betz’s 1941 book, Rilke a Paris, elegantly encompasses its wide range of tones from biographical precision, to gossipy excitement and critical analysis. The book particularly focuses on Rilke’s struggle over a period of eight years to complete the novel which is autobiographical in so many ways, as Betz puts it “in effect a transcription of his own private journal or of certain letters”.
Rilke first arrived in Paris from Worpswede in northern Germany, a community of artists where he had met and married Clara Westhoff. But never one to truly reconcile himself either to community or intimacy, he had already left his wife to travel to Paris. Yet the anonymity, bustling energy and inequalities of the French capital appalled him. In letters to his wife and many others, it became clear that, as Stone’s Introduction argues, Paris had “unceremoniously torn Rilke out of his safe, somewhat fey nineteenth-century draped musings”. In ways reminiscent of Keats’ observations about feeling himself extinguished on entering a room full of people, Rilke would later recall how the city’s “grandeur, its near infinity” would annihilate his own sense of himself. Living at No.11, Rue Touillier, these initial impressions form the opening pages of The Notebooks.
But there were also more positive Parisian experiences, particularly in his meetings with Rodin who he was soon addressing as his “most revered master”. Famously, Rodin advised the young poet, “You must work. You must have patience. Look neither right nor left. Lead your whole life in this cycle and look for nothing beyond this life”. In terms of his patience and willingness to play such a long game, not only with his novel but also with the slow completion of Duino Elegies (1922), Rilke clearly took on this advice. Interestingly, Betz characterises Rilke’s methods of working on the novel, creating letters, notes, journal pages over a number of years, as “like sketches, studies of hands or torsos which the sculptor uses to prefigure a group work”.
Rilke was even employed briefly by Rodin as “a sort of private secretary”. Betz suggests Rilke simply offered to help out for a couple of hours a day with the famous sculptor’s correspondence. But this quickly expanded to fill the whole day and Rilke was soon confessing to Karl von der Heydt that “I must get back to a time for myself where I can be alone with my experience”. A break was inevitable though in later visits to Paris the two artists patched up any quarrel. In terms of his location during this period, Rilke had moved on to the Hotel Biron at 77 Rue de Varenne on the recommendation of Clara. Rilke in turn suggested it as a suitable studio base for Rodin who also settled there and over a number of years gradually took over more and more of the rooms. It is this building that, in 1919, was converted to the now much-visited Musee Rodin.
Betz suggests that the traumatic impact of Paris was the making of Rilke as an artist. Between 1899 and 1903, Rilke had been working on The Book of Hours, representing a “religious and mystical phase”. In contrast, Paris presented the poet with an often brutal but also more “human landscape”. He also discovered this was reflected in the French capital’s painters and poets. Baudelaire in particular was important. In personal letters (as well as in his finished novel) Rilke identifies the poem ‘Une Charogne’ (‘A Carcass’) as critical in “the whole development of ‘objective’ language, such as we now think to see in the works of Cezanne”. Baudelaire’s portrayal of a rotting body seems to have taught Rilke that “the creator has no more right to turn away from any existence [. . .] if he refuses life in a certain object, he loses in one blow a state of grace”.
But it took Rilke a while to arrive at this sort of inclusivity of vision. One of his earliest impressions of the city was that there were invalids, broken human bodies everywhere. “You see them appear at the windows of the Hotel-Dieu in their strange attire, the pale and mournful uniform of the invalid. You suddenly sense that in this vast city there are legions of the sick, armies of the dying, whole populations of the dead”. As Betz points out, this is one of the important observations made by the hero of The Notebooks. It is the “multiform face of death” that Brigge (and Rilke) confronts in Paris. And the irony is not lost on either of them because Paris, of course, at this time was renowned for its social and cultural vitality. Here, Rilke is being forced to make critical distinctions which he then worked on for the rest of his life: “Vital impulse, is that life then? No. Life is calm, immense, elemental. The craving to live is haste, pursuit. There is an impatience to possess life in its entirety, straight away. Paris is bloated with this desire and that’s why it is so close to death”. Years later, near the end of the fifth of the Duino Elegies, Rilke expresses something very similar (tr. Crucefix):
Squares, oh, the squares of that infinite showplace –
Paris – where Madame Lamort, the milliner,
twists and winds the unquiet ways of the world,
those endless ribbons from which she makes
these loops and ruches, rosettes and flowers and artificial fruits
all dyed with no eye for truth,
but to daub the cheap winter hats of fate.
But unlike Brigge, Rilke escapes Paris. Reflecting later, he feared that people might read his novel as seeming “to suggest that life was impossible”. Betz – who had many discussions with Rilke during the process of translating the novel – reports that the poet, accepted that the book contained “bitter reproaches [yet] it is not to life which they are addressed, on the contrary, it is the continual recognition of the following: through lack of strength, through distraction and hereditary blunders we lose practically all the innumerable riches which were destined for us on earth”. Though the Duino Elegies opens with the despairing existential cry (“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the ranks / of the angels?”), by the seventh poem of the sequence Rilke expresses his affirmative view: “Just being here is glorious!”. In Rilke in Paris, Betz records some of Rilke’s conversations: “Instead of perpetually hesitating between action and renunciation, we fundamentally only ‘have to be there, to exist, that’s all”.
Betz’s admiration for Rilke is palpable throughout this fascinating little book. In its concluding pages, he sums up: “In seeking to express in his own way the world we thought we knew, Rilke helps us to hear more clearly what already belongs to us and permits us access to the most sinuous and iridescent forms, to profound emotive states and to that strange melody of the interior life”. This is marvellously put (and translated). Will Stone also includes a translation of a little know early sequence of prose poems by Rilke, ‘Notes on the Melody of Things’. In it, the poet reflects – through thoughts on theatrical experience and on fine art – on the relationship between background and figures in the foreground. Something of the personal angst and despair of The Notebooks can be heard in section XXXVII where we are told that “All discord and error comes when people seek to find their element in themselves, instead of seeking it behind them, in the light, in landscape at the beginning and in death”. The vastness and reality of what lies behind the solitary figure – and the negotiated relationships between the two – suggests to me that Yves Bonnefoy may well have been thinking of these pieces when he was writing L’Arriere-Pays (1972). Betz is right to conclude Rilke in Paris by praising Rilke as a poet who matured through “solitude and lucid contemplation of the loftiest problems of life”, but also one who never failed in patience or effort to express “in poetic terms the fruit of that inner quest”.
Duino Elegies, Rainer Maria Rilke, tr. Matthew Barton (Shoestring Press, 2019).
Matthew Barton himself raises the question as to whether anything could “possibly justify yet another English version” of Rilke’s Duino Elegies (1922). As someone who has contributed his own translation of the work (published by Enitharmon Press in 2006), I know the feeling of throwing a pebble into a landslide. But – as Barton also argues – it is at least our own pebble and Rilke’s work both allows and demands further translation and discussion; it is without doubt complex, profound and obscure enough. Perhaps the question for the would-be translator is more about the time and energy spent on such a widely available text when other works by other poets languish untranslated. But for Barton – as I guess it was for me – it is a personal issue and we are assuredly thankful to those who consider the results worthy of publication because there remains a hunger for Rilke’s work.
So Barton has now produced a lively, English version which reads well (one of his aims). Apart from a brief Introduction and a few end notes on translation issues, the poems stand on their own here – there is no parallel German text, for instance. To see the German facing Barton’s text would be interesting for most readers, even without much facility in the source language, because he does make changes to the form of the poems. It’s true Rilke’s original plays pretty fast and loose with formal metre but the changes he rings are significant and Barton has a tendency to flatten out these differences by making firm (modern-looking) stanza breaks where Rilke often continues the flow of his argument. Rilke’s form is significantly much freer in the fifth Elegy, for example. This issue of the flow of the poems – and indeed through the whole sequence of 10 poems – is one of the difficulties in translating the work. It seems to me there is a clear progression across the poems and within each individual piece. To call this an ‘argument’ may seem too logical and abstract, of course, but any translator needs to try to follow it. To declare ‘it’s poetry’ and not try to see why one image or passage follows another is giving up too easily.
To be fair, Barton often does unfold the sequential argument. He’s well aware of the issue as he talks in the Introduction of coming across “knots” in the grain of the work which do not easily yield up there meaning. His solution was “not to translate them literally and hope for the best, but to live with them until I found a way through them that seemed, at least, to resonate with their larger context”. To translation purists this may sound a bit ‘version-y’ and Barton does indeed declare this book a series of “versions”, thanking Don Paterson for his thoughts on translation v versioning in his Orpheus (Faber, 2006). But, to my mind, Barton’s approach here is rather like Paterson’s in his version of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, in that the results mostly read as translation, but with the English granting itself the occasional liberty to paraphrase, extend or even substitute for the original. For me, a version would depart much further from the original than Barton does; so I’d call these translations because Barton is approaching the original with great respect – there is the sense of a service to the original being provided here and the point is that such a service must (without the need for too much arguing about it) include the re-ordering of syntax, an Englishing of rhythms, an aiming at contemporary accessibility without denaturing the flavour of Rilke’s original distinctiveness.
And as I’ve said, Barton’s English poems are good. Rilke is really communing with himself through the course of these poems, so he does tends to use the impersonal ‘you’. Barton often converts this to ‘I’ which skews the impact of many lines to the lyric. This fits contemporary taste perhaps – it deflates the rhetorical feel of these poems – but can be risky. In the opening lines of the sequence, Rilke acknowledges that crying out to angels for help in our existential darkness is largely futile (they’d not listen) but also dangerous because if an angel did approach us we’d be fried by the intensity of their existence. The opening paragraph ends abruptly with, “Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich”. Stephen Mitchell rendered this as “Every angel is terrifying”. Barton has “I dread every angel”. This seems wrong, making a psychological point from an individual perspective when Rilke’s line is more about the different natures of humans and angels (if the latter existed, which they don’t).
The argument at the start of the fourth Elegy also gets a bit garbled here. The whole of this section argues that human self-consciousness divorces us from a primal sense of oneness with life which the natural world (in Rilke’s view) retains (named in the eighth Elegy as “das Offene”, the Open (tr. Mitchell)). Barton seems to read this as suggesting that we are not “in accord with ourselves”. So he loses the distinction between ourselves and lions (at the end of this opening stanza). Barton has the lions walking in “sheer potency while their glory lasts” (my italics). But Rilke’s contrast is with human consciousness of transience against the animal’s absence of that consciousness. Mitchell’s clearer version runs: “And somewhere lions still roam and never know, / in their majestic power, of any weakness” (my italics).
These are small points in some ways but – as I’ve said – I think Rilke is pursuing a close-grained argument in these poems (albeit via poetic utterance rather than rational discourse). Barton is also liable on occasions to shift into an overly contemporary register (Rilke tends not to 1920s speech patterns but rather a Classically influence idiolect of his own). He replaces Rilke’s “wehe” which really is ‘alas’ with phrases like “god help me” or “heaven help us” which again propel the tone towards the personal (a rather English, bourgeois personal). In the ninth Elegy, Rilke is disparaging about the thin gruel of conventional human happiness in the face of death: “dieser voreilige Vorteil eines nahen Verlusts”. Mitchell translates this as “that too-hasty profit snatched from impending loss”. Barton tries a bit too hard with, “[this] is merely / easy credit with a looming payback date”. The same happens in the tenth Elegy, where Rilke is describing contemporary society’s shallow distractions from the fact of death. He describes; “die Kirche begrenzt, ihre fertig gekaufte: / reinlich und zu und enttäuscht wie ein Postamt am Sonntag”. Mitchell again: “bounded by the church with its ready-made consolations: / clean and disenchanted and shut as a post-office on Sunday”. Barton changes, up-dates, Americanises and so loses some of the irony: “the flatpack church, all safe and clean and shut / and dreary as an empty parking lot”.
But Barton’s rendering of Rilke’s satirical portrait of the “City of Hurt” (“der Leid-Stadt”) is enjoyably lively. Another infamously tricky moment is presented in this final poem by its personification of a tribe of people who have a far closer relationship with death and grief than Rilke sees is the case in modern Western culture. The German word “Klage” is used here and needs to work as the name of a young woman, the name of her tribe and her ancestors and her country. The word has to reflect the harshness of the grief felt, while at the same time suggesting a dignity in the powerful emotion. For Rilke, the role of this personification and her whole tribe is a consistently heroic one. But Barton chooses not to translate the word consistently, using “Elegia” for the young woman’s name, then variously “grief”, “woe”, “heartache” and “Lament” elsewhere. These are all individually sufficient to the word, but – as on other occasions in these otherwise admirable translations – there is a risk that in leaning on the freedoms of a ‘version’, the critical linguistic consistencies which are essential aspects of the argument in Rilke’s original, can get a bit lost in translation.