Monday, December 4, 2006

Ist die Sage umsonst?

(for Rilke's birthday, 4 December 1875)

J.M. Coetzee quoting William Gass on Rilke:

"He hid inside The Poet he eventually became, both secure there and scared, empty and fulfilled; the inspired author of the Duino Elegies, sensitive, insightful, gifted nearly beyond compare; a man with many devoted and distant friends, many extraordinary though frequently fatuous enthusiasms, but still a lonely unloving homeless boy as well, . . . enjoying a self-pity there were rarely buckets enough to contain; yet with a persistence in the pursuit of his goals, a courage, which overcame weakness and worry and made them into poems . . . no . . . into lyrics that love, however pure or passionate or sacrificial, could never have achieved by itself . . . lines only frailty, terror, emotional duplicity even, could accomplish -- the consequence of an honesty bitter about the weaknesses from which it took its strength." (31-32, Reading Rilke)

Coetzee comments, "Aside from the cliché of the lonely boy, this is well and generously said . . . ." I agree and, apart from the "rarely buckets enough," I'd say that this diction is nearly adequate to the challenge of Rilke, whom, judging by other comments Coetzee makes, Gass, in what strikes me as typical American fashion, prefers to snipe at because of the high art pretensions of The Poet that no mere man can possibly live up to. The point I'd make, though, is that dropping the ball of diction when offering a sweeping commentary on The Poet of the twentieth century is bound to make one look philistine, even if one thinks that philistines is all we are.

Coetzee also cites with approval these words from Gass, on the Duino Elegies: "These poems are the most oral I know. . . . They must be spoken -- not merely by but for yourself, as if you were the one who wondered whether you had anyone to call to" (Gass, 101).

Here I'm less in accord. I certainly find much to agree with in "spoken not merely by but for yourself" -- well I recall reading the poems on tape (in A. Poulin, Jr.'s translations) in my late teens and listening to them again and again -- but the "as if you were the one who wondered whether you had anyone to call to" reads as if The Poet is trying to find a date, or maybe an agent, or, at best, a reader. The resolute prosaicness of "wondered whether you had anyone" is so comically inadequate (without being deliberately deflationary) to the state of mind of the Elegies -- to imagine The Poet wondering whether anyone is listening (are you there, God?) is to risk the kind of snide, matter-of-factness Gass seems to employ in his assessments of Rilke the man. But here Gass is ostensibly characterizing poems which begin in an abyss of feeling from which any cry or call must either express everything or fail utterly, he's supposedly conveying why we must speak these poems -- because their very purpose is a defense of enunciation and annunciation against the silence of history, of the dead weight of the everyday, of the smallness of our imaginations even when most primed for flight -- and he's instead suggesting that we all sometimes wonder if it's worth it, so, I guess, that means we can "relate" to what Rilke is saying in these here poems about language and poetry and death and stuff.

Granted, Gass isn't so hokey, but that's partly my point. His phrase attempts that clean, unfussy, anyone-could-say-this diction by which American English asserts its plainspeak standards. So I'm not surprised that Coetzee is not convinced by Gass's translations of Rilke. I recall a prof at Princeton, Stanley Corngold, taking exception to my endorsement of Poulin's translation, referring to it as a bit too tainted by California and a certain "express yourself" ethos in the diction of the '70s. Fair enough. But my interest in the translation here is peripheral. What I'm trying to say, on Rilke's birthday, is that The Poet of the last century did not write his great poems in English, and possibly will never be at home in English, and, more to the point when we speak of America, will probably never be understood there where a poet as a fine, robust, ripening-unto-death of a strain of romantic and lyrical surrender has never been grasped much less celebrated.

Aber wir, die so große
Geheimnisse brauchen, denen aus Trauer so oft
seliger Fortschritt entspring -- : könnten wir sein ohne sie?
--The First Elegy


Andrew Shields said...

There must be a connection between your point about Rilke's "never being at home in English" and the proliferation of translations of the Elegies. Or to put it another way, since nobody is satisfied with any of the versions, translators keep coming along trying to crack them.

Donald Brown said...

Yup, and the quest goes on -- to make Rilke speak English. Nothing wrong with it, but... I think one thing that drew me to Rimbaud and Rilke early on was the sense that no poet writing in English would try saying the things they do. But for that reason, there's a real desire to make them "ours" -- and it's worthwhile, since most of us would have no sense of these poems at all without the effort of translators. It's not so much translation that seems questionable, but rather the kind of effort to "explain" such poets in our American idiom.

Andrew Shields said...

If there were not so many bloody translations of the Elegies already, I would take your comments as inspiration to do a version myself, one that tries to avoid "Americanizing" them. But there are too many.

Don Paterson just put out a version of the Sonnets to Orpheus, but I have not seen them yet. A fine poet; have you read him?

Donald Brown said...

No need to let the glut deter you. It seems to me an ongoing process of translating Rilke for "the fun of it" wouldn't be a bad thing to do. Then, if you do manage to produce the all-time Unamericanized Elegies, you'll have performed a great service.

Don't know Paterson, but I'll take a look if I get a chance.