Rilke at Poetry International

2014 Number 2 - The Constellation

‘Another Daphne’ sounds a melancholy note, and emphasizes the human in the exchange, answering Orpheus’s ecstatic singing with the song of birds anda more broken syntax.

One hundred years after the first translations of his work appeared in English, Poetry International 2014 explores the legacy of Rainer Maria Rilke. Robert Musil famously asserted that Rilke was ‘the greatest lyric poet the Germans have seen since the Middle Ages’, that he ‘did nothing but perfect the German poem for the first time’. It is hardly an exaggeration. In Rilke’s oeuvre, we find some of the most beautiful and moving lyrics of the twentieth century, many of which resonate as if they had been written today.

In Germany the reception of Rilke was for many years fraught, inevitably bound up with the need to come to terms with Fascism after the Second World War. Although Rilke himself was not a nationalist, after 1945 his reputation suffered, with poets suspicious of his aloof aestheticism at a time when the political credentials of poetry were uppermost.

By contrast, after his death, Rilke enjoyed a much more unequivocal welcome in English-speaking cultures. Not only was he translated early, frequently and well; some of those translations have even come to exist as definitive works in their own right. The translation by J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender of the Duino Elegies, published with the Hogarth press in 1939, is a case in point. It has become a literary landmark and still remains the first contact of many with this most extraordinary and contradictory work. Today translation of Rilke has become something of an industry in itself. But more significant still: a galaxy of prominent poets have attested to the importance of Rilke for their thinking and have been demonstrably inspired by him in their work. The extraordinary extent of the reception as whole arguably owes its existence to the fact that Rilke represents something largely absent in English poetry, but – and this is significant – not beyond it. Jo Shapcott’s Tender Taxes (2001), Sujata Bhatt’s A Colour for Solitude (2002), and Don Paterson’s Orpheus (2005) are simply examples of the attempt to fetch it in.

Poets Sujata Bhatt, Durs Grünbein, Patrick McGuinness and Don Paterson offer new ‘translations’ of Rilke for Poetry International 2014. But these are translations in the widest and most energetic sense: from versions of Rilke’s great classics to responses which work with Rilke’s originals in a much bolder and more provocative way, or poems that examine the iconic figure himself, his extraordinary itinerant life and his often fraught relationships, and reinterpret his desire for change for our own times. 

Transformation is at the heart of the three poems. Sujata Bhatt takes some lines from one of the most famous of the Sonnets to Orpheus (ii. 12, ‘O Desire Transformation...’) as her starting point. Daphne, pursued by Apollo was metamorphosed into laurel. While Rilke’s poem embraces transformation, ‘Another Daphne’ sounds a melancholy note, and emphasizes the human in the exchange, answering Orpheus’s ecstatic singing with the song of birds and a more broken syntax. Durs Grünbein, now resident in Rome, responds, as Rilke did, to the extraordinary richness of the Classical legacy that overwhelms the visitor at every turn in the city. Like Rilke he has an eye for the plasticity and grandeur of the statuary, but also sees the long history of devastation beneath. ‘Torso of Polyphemus’ can also be read against Rilke’s famous ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’, from his New Poems; the luminous seeing of that poem countered by an altogether darker response of a post-enlightenment age. Patrick McGuinness has turned to the French poems, one of Rilke’s ‘Orchards’ sequence, written in Switzerland in the final years of his life. ‘The Fountain’, in this beautiful new translation, shows the poet at work as a student of nature embracing and emulating the infinite modulations of the water and learning ‘the lesson’ at the heart of all existence: change.

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