#132: RAISING THE LYRE. Is it unfair or unkind to admit that a certain chunk of the work of Rainer Maria Rilke gets up my nose? It’s all so refined, so rarified, it’s all written in castles and chateaus, he sighs a lot, he holds his hand to his heart; to use a phrase of my mother’s, it can be just a bit too too. Rereading the Letters to a Young Poet of late—that book rightly treasured by so many young writers—I found that my annoyance was more with the hushed and lofty style than the content. His theme, we are told, is “the difficulty of communicating with the ineffable.” Christopher Hitchens spoke of “the air of sickly innocence” in Rilke’s work, like something not yet discarded from the stickier remains of nineteenth century Europe. After reading some of it you want to brush your teeth.
But then there’s the Rilke who is, let’s face it, incontestable. Probably no poems in the twentieth century—few in all of literature—come set about with so dramatic, so well known a history of composition as his Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus. In 1912, housed in the Duino Castle near Trieste that belonged to his friend Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis, he composed the first two of the elegies; and then, nothing, nothing for a decade but bits and pieces. Then in February 1922 Rilke was visited with one of the most remarkable periods of creativity in the history of verse. At the news of the death of a friend’s daughter, he wrote, in three days, twenty-six sonnets, the first part of what would be the Sonnets to Orpheus; in the days immediately afterward, he completed the sequence of the Elegies begun ten years before, eight new long poems, finishing them on the eleventh of February; and then, in less than two weeks, he wrote the twenty-nine poems that would be the second section of the Sonnets to Orpheus. I know of no other burst of creativity in the realm of poetry, in compression in time and quality of the work, to match it.
The poems have been hailed as Rilke’s best work and a highlight in twentieth-century poetry; they have been criticized for being difficult, in places opaque. In English, they have tantalized translators who adore nothing more than the reportedly untranslatable. I believe the earliest versions were by J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender, and these reigned for many a year; online I’ve found listings for over a dozen more recent versions. My vote—from, I caution you, a reader who has no German—goes to the renditions by A.J. Poulin, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1975 and still in print. This translation recently was my backpack book for a couple of weeks—I’d read one or two at a time, but kept myself from rushing through them—it’s been my favorite experience of poetry-in-translation since reading David Ferry’s versions of Horace and Virgil. Yes, you read the poems with your brain on full-throttle open; you catch little hints of meanings, intuitively, as one might learn to sing a musical text; and you are held aloft as few poets can hold you. All that business about communicating with the ineffable—Rilke vindicates it, and breaks your heart open: “Called to praise/he came like ore out of the silence/of stone.” We do genuinely hear “the strange fruits of consolation ripen…those precious/fruits, one of which you perhaps find in the trampled field/of your poverty.” Here we have one of the genuine marvels of twentieth century poetry, rendered in an accessible and audible American voice. “And if the earthly has forgotten/you, say to the still earth: I am./To the rushing water speak: I am.”