Kaplan, Steven.

“Modern American Poets on Rilke’s ‘Things’ and Robert Bly as a Translator of Rilke’s Images and Objects.” TR 38/39, 1992. 66-71 MODERN AMERICAN POETS ON RILKE'S "THINGS" AND ROBERT BLY AS A TRANSLATOR OF RILKE'S IMAGES AND OBJECTS By Steven Kaplan Outside of his close readings of a few essays by Emerson,1 Rilke knew practically nothing about American culture and society, and the little he did know he would have preferred to forget. For Rilke, America represented "an absolute void,"2 and the "American appeared monstrous to him."3 From his early youth until his death, America was a symbol of every aspect of the modern world that Rilke found "repugnant."4 And because America was such a "wasteland," it appeared "to Rilke throughout his life a region unfavourable for poetry."5 As the Austrian poet Lenau stated in a passage that Rilke alludes to in one of his letters: "The nightingale is in the right, not to visit these fellows. It seems to me seriously and profoundly significant that America has no nightingale. It seems to me like a poetic curse."6 America not only lacked the nightingale, or an inspiration for the "lyrical mood,"7 but it was also devoid of anything upon which a poem could be written, since there was no relationship "either amongst the human beings or amongst the plants and inanimate things."8 Not even a "house in the American sense, an American apple, or one of their vines,"9 as Rilke argues in a famous letter on the main thought behind the Duino Elegies, could be considered real in the same way that the thousands of inanimate objects that went into his own poetry were real for him. In light of this marked hostility towards everything American, it is amazing that, according to the number of times Rilke's works have been translated in America and considering the almost staggering publication figures for editions of his Duino Elegies in America, Rilke is the most popular German literary export to the country outside of Goethe, who incidentally felt the "American continent/Is better off by far than"10 the European one. Whereas the complete cycle of Duino Elegies has still not been translated into Russian, in Rilke's "elective fatherland,"11 in the past fifteen years alone five important translations have appeared in the United States. Rilke might not have known much about America, but Americans clearly know Rilke, and they have been reading his works for over seventy years. The first translations of Rilke's poems in American newspapers and magazines began to appear as early as 1914, and the first book collection of his poems was published in 1918.12 From then on there followed a steady flow of Rilke translations, so that by 1950 all of Rilke's major writings were available in at least one if not more American versions. If one looks at the impressive list of writers who have spoken out for Rilke in America over the past few decades and at the reasons why they praise him, it becomes apparent that in America Rilke is looked upon by many as a prophet. He is seen as a force capable of counteracting those aspects of American society and culture of which he himself was

so critical. The poet Wallace Stevens, for example, felt that "people are as much interested" in Rilke as a human being as they are in his seeming to also be "something more."13 For Stevens, Rilke was the ultimate embodiment of "the meaning of the poet as a figure in society" which is a "precious meaning to those for whom it has any meaning at all."14 What impressed Stevens the most about Rilke was his absolute dedication to "the mighty burden of poetry."15 Similarly, E.E. Cummings constantly stressed that an understanding of Rilke's conception of the place of the artist and his works in society was the one thing a student of literature should know in order to comprehend the uniqueness of poetry.16 Rilke himself would have probably been astonished to find that, in a country as allegedly obsessed with the acquisition of money as the United States, so many writers have admired his ability to, as Theodore Roethke put it, "hold forth" in his complete faith in the poetic word.17 What Rilke's poetry seems to verify for so many American writers is the fact that, as Randall Jarrell in an allusion to Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo" argues: "The work of art says to us always: You must change your life. It demands of us that we see things as ends not as means--that we too know them and love them for their own sake."18 This statement by Randall Jarrell points to one of the main reasons why Rilke is so popular in America: namely, because his poetry attempts to demonstrate an unselfish and non-materialistic relationship to things. Thus, Jarrell's enormous respect for the poetry of William Carlos Williams is based on the fact that it reveals "an identification with its subjects (more) than any modern poetry except Rilke. His knowledge of plants and animals, our brothers and sisters in the world, is surprising for its range and intensity."19 This admiration for Rilke's relationship to things could have also stemmed from Robert Bly, as well as from many other American poets who have read Rilke. The poet Karl Shapiro, for example, has been compared to Rilke for demonstrating "the Rilkean attitude of unembarrassed, universal sympathy" with things.20 Theodore Roethke even wrote a poem in which he praises Rilke's empathy with things: To look at a thing so long that you are a part of it and it is a part of you--Rilke gazing at his tiger for eight hours, for instance. If you can effect this, then you are by way of getting somewhere: Knowing you will break from self-involvement, from I to Otherwise, or maybe even to Thee.21 Roethke shows here the depth of his understanding of Rilke in that he emphasizes the effects that studying things outside of ourselves can have on our understanding of and sympathy for the world around us. It is this balance in Rilke between intensely looking both inwardly and outwardly that has made him particularly attractive to American readers. Thus, in a review of the American poet Robert Bly's Translations, Karl Shapiro accurately observes that "British and American poets for two generations have been hypnotized by Rilke's sympathy for, his empathy with, the feelings and reactions of the not-oneself, persons, animals, trees, works of art, objects."22 And for Shapiro, Bly's translations are "probably the best lead-in to this poet so far in English,"23 because of Bly's sensitivity as a translator to the objects and images in Rilke's poetry.

II In many respects, Robert Bly's translations from Rilke are, alongside of those of the American poet Randall Jarrell, the most powerful representations of Rilke available in English. Both of these American poets have captured an important side of Rilke's art in their translations: Jarrell's translations demonstrate a remarkable sensitivity for the peculiar texture of the dramatic voice in some of Rilke's major poems; and Bly conveys the vividness and palpability of the objects in Rilke's poetry more than any other translator in English. In fact, despite the abstract or non-visual nature of Bly's own poetry, in his translations he often surpasses Rilke himself in his emphasis on objects. Generally he adheres quite closely to the original text, and his translations are characterized by an honest effort to convey Rilke's poems with as little affectation and improvisation as possible. However, when he does add a personal touch to the original, it is virtually always when he is trying to make the abstract images and thoughts in Rilke's poetry more concrete or more observable. The way that Bly accomplishes this is by translating Rilke's poems in such a manner that it seems as if he is actually transferring the works of a visual artist into his own language. Bly puts so much emphasis on Rilke's ability to conjure up objects in his own poems by using the techniques of painters and sculptors that he alludes to this particular side of Rilke's genius in each of the five short introductions to his collection of almost one hundred translations. Even in his introduction to Rilke's early cycle "A Book for the Hours of Prayer," he refers to Rilke's unique relationship to the visual arts, although this cycle is one of the most conspicuously non-visual cycles that Rilke ever wrote. Bly seems to feel that an awareness of Rilke's close relationship to painting and sculpture is essential to an adequate understanding of all of his works, regardless of the poet's original intention, because he stresses in his introduction to these early works that: "We notice in Rilke's creative life, as in Yeats' and Mallarmé's, the crossfertilization between poetry and painting; in Rilke's case, between poetry and sculpture as well."24 Bly not only emphasizes the similarities between Rilke's techniques and those of the visual arts in his introduction to these poems, but he also allows this knowledge to affect the words and images he chooses while translating them, regardless of whether or not the poems were originally intended as so-called "seeing" poems that depict objects. For example, in his version of the monk's 8th prayer in "A Book for the Hours of Prayer," Bly makes the following alteration: "Du freust dich aller, die dich gebrauchen / wie ein Gerät" becomes "You love most of all those who need you / as they need a crowbar or a hoe."25 In the original, "ein Gerät" (a utensil or tool) can be anything that people use in their daily lives. Bly, however, attempts to limit the reference to a specific type of person (a farmer), and he gives his readers a simile that presents a picture they can see. In his translation of another poem from this cycle, when Rilke refers to the Virgin Mary as "the blossoming" and "undiscovered" ("Die Blühende, die Unentdeckte, in der es hundert Wege gibt,"26 Bly replaces this abstract metaphor with one that can be seen as clearly as a forest scene in a landscape painting: "so much blossom / the forest no one had explored, with paths leading everywhere." In the 14th prayer, there is another intrusion of Bly's

own personal choice of words. Whereas Rilke simply refers to a "Schall" (a shell) in this poem, Bly conjures up the "Shell of a nut."27 When Rilke says in one of the monk's closing prayers that the city is "wie Flucht vor Flammen" (like fleeing from flames), Bly translates that it "resembles animals fleeing from flames."28 In each of the above examples, Bly takes an abstract image or metaphor and lends it the kind of realistic detail that one can find in 17th century Dutch miniatures. Even his translation of the cycle's title reveals this tendency of transforming abstractions into detailed images or pictures. Every other English version of this cycle is titled "The Book of Hours" ("Das Stundenbuch"), but Bly gives his readers something they can clasp in their hands by calling it "A Book for the Hours of Prayer." Since there is no objective justification for these changes, one is compelled to assume that Bly, though generally an extremely accurate translator, allowed his own personal interest in Rilke's talents as a poet-painter-sculptor of objects to affect his approach to Rilke's poetry. It seems almost as if he is trying to compensate for the abstract and subjective nature of his own images by providing the English speaking public with a more visual style of writing. Such an explanation reconciles the discrepancy between the fact that critics have described the poetry Bly was writing at the time he was translating Rilke as "more and more visionary, more and more ecstatic"29 with the fact that in his volume of translations he tends to overemphasize the more concrete and pictorial aspects of poetry. For example, in his introduction to Rilke's cycle of "New Poems," Bly praises the fact that Rilke had gradually progressed away from the subjectivity (or inwardness) of his early poems to a group of poems that "all involve concentrated seeing."30 What impresses him the most about these poems is that Rilke reveals in them an awareness of objects that are normally not depicted in art, just as the painter Albrecht Dürer was able to perceive and depict "a crab or his clump of marsh grass or his rabbit."31 Bly also sees parallels between Rilke's art of seeing and "the meticulous detail Chinese artists influenced by Buddhism brought into their paintings."32 These introductory comments to the "New Poems" throw some light on why in the above examples Bly deviates from the original text in an effort to add more "detail" to Rilke's pictures. In one of his own poems, "Watering the Horse," Bly expresses a desire to see those details or objects that are normally passed over by the human eye: How strange to think of giving up all ambition! Suddenly I see with such clear eyes The white flake of snow That has just fallen in the horse's mane!33 Nevertheless, he is rarely capable of depicting such details in his own poetry without becoming abstract as in the following passage from the poem "One thing is also another thing": The girl in a house dress, pushing open the window, under the oak tree, Is also the fat king sitting

And the garbage men, thumping their cans, are Crows still cawing, 34 And the nobles are offering the sheet to the king. Outside of a few descriptive poems on poverty in America in his cycle The Light Around the Body, if Bly's readers were interested in seeing him depict things with the kind of detail that he praises in the first poem just cited, then they would have to turn to Bly's collection of translations from Rilke. In his version of the poem "Evening in Skane" from the cycle "The Book of Pictures," Bly translates "Der Park ist hoch" (The park is high) with "These trees are high,"35 so that the reader is directly shown which objects make the park look so "high." In the poem "Der Schauende"36 from the same cycle, "die Fernen" (the distances) become "far-off fields," just as "die Fluren" (the fields) in the poem "Herbsttag" 37 become "open fields." It is equally characteristic of Bly that when Rilke describes social outcasts in his "Title Poem"38 as objects that people walk by as if they were things ("wie an Dingen"), Bly paints them sitting there "as if they were fences or trees." A similar attempt to make abstract wording more concrete or observable characterizes Bly's translation of Rilke's poem "Ausgesetzt auf den Bergen des Herzens," which contains one of Rilke's most subjective laments on the problematic nature of language. In Bly's version, this originally opaque poem tends to resemble a landscape painting by a 19th-century American realist. Here are some examples from the poem's opening four lines: Ausgesetzt auf den Bergen des Herzens. Siehe, wie klein siehe: die letzte Ortschaft der Worte, und höher, aber wie klein auch, noch ein letztes Gehöft von Gefühl. Left out to die on the mountains of the heart. Look, how tiny it is, do you see: the final barn of language, and, above it, still tiny, one final granary of feeling.39 Bly's tendency to crowd his translations with observable objects is probably what led him to translate Rilke's disturbingly abstract metaphor of "die letzte Ortschaft der Worte" (the last location of language) with "the last barn of language," so that a specific, highly observable place where the words are stored (just as animals and crops are stored in a barn) is set before us. The same tendency can be seen in his translation of "Gehöft von Gefühl" with a "granary of feeling." Whereas Rilke's poem demands that readers formulate their own picture of the frailty of language, Bly's version provides a detailed painting of the poem's central thought. The most conspicuous of these changes occurs in line 12 where the phrase "Da geht wohl, heilen Bewußtseins,/manches umher,/manches gesicherte Bergtier,/wechselt und weilt" is translated as "Many goats and deer go here, their knowing whole,/many surefooted mountain animals/change grass or stay." As with all of the other interpolations cited, there is no poetological explanation for Bly's changes dort,

in Rilke's texts such as a need to maintain meter or sound patterns. On the contrary, Bly's alterations are often at the expense of precisely such technical aspects of a poem. III Despite the fact that Bly sometimes compromises the accuracy of his translations in his attempt to emphasize Rilke's talent for using objects to convey meaning, several of Bly's translations from Rilke's poetry have benefitted greatly from his sensitivity to the techniques Rilke uses to portray objects, such as his definitive renderings of some of the poems from the "New Poems." Of these translations, the most revealing in the present context is his version of the poem "Archaic Torso of Apollo." Here are Rilke's and Bly's texts in their entirety:

"Archaischer Torso Apollos" Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt, darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber, in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt, sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug. Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle; und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle, die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern. "Archaic Torso of Apollo" We have no idea what his fantastic head was like, where the eyeballs were slowly swelling. But his body now is glowing like a gas lamp, whose inner eyes, only turned down a little, hold their flame, shine. If there weren't light, the curve blind you, and in the swerve of the things a smile wouldn't keep on going of the breast wouldn't

toward the place where the seeds are. If there weren't light, this stone wouldn't look cut off from the shoulders, its skin wouldn't gleam like the fur of a wild animal, and the body wouldn't send out light from every edge as a star does...for there is no place at all that isn't looking at you. You must change your life.40 Bly's adherence to Rilke's line endings throughout his version is both effective and appropriate. As in the German text, the movement of the poet's eye can be felt as it flows forward from one portion of the sculpture to the next. This translation does contain a few of Bly's characteristic alterations, such as his substitution of a "gas lamp" for Rilke's "candelabre." Nevertheless, if one compares his version of the poem with some of the other American translations, it becomes clear that Bly does a remarkable job of conveying the sculptured side of this poem in English. Here is the poet Jessie Lamont's translation, which was the first introduction to this poem that American readers had and the only one they had for several years: "Archaic Torso of Apollo" We cannot fathom his mysterious head Through the veiled eyes no flickering ray is sent: But from his torso gleaming light is shed As from a candelabrum; inward bent His glance there glows and lingers. Otherwise The round breast would not blind you with its grace, Nor could the soft-curved circle of the thighs Steal to the arc whence issues a new race. Nor could this stark and stunted stone display Vibrance beneath the shoulder's heavy bar, Nor shine like fur upon a beast of prey, Nor break forth from its lines like a great star-Each spot is like an eye that fixed on you With kindling magic makes you live anew.41 The ultimate weakness of this translation is its inability to convey the forceful forward thrust of Rilke's lines. The energy of the poem is particularly diminished by the translator's refusal to adhere to Rilke's division of the poem into stanzas: he could have at least separated the poem into an octave and sestet. Granted, this translation does contain Rilke's emphasis on the Torso's radiating light, this Apollo still glows as Rilke's does, but it fails to convey the weighted and almost explosive tension that is compressed in the paradoxically "soft" contours of this torso, which Rilke stresses through his use of enjambement. As a result, the "light" that is where it drops clearly

radiated by this torso is a romantic, flickering light and not the potentially threatening light that burns more and more intensely in Rilke's poem until it becomes inevitable that we either flee this light or change our lives. Lamont destroys the powerful manner in which Rilke depicts this art-object in the original through such rhymes as "you"/"anew" for the rough-sounding "rändern"/"ändern" and the cheerful sounding "Display"/"play" for the cacophonous rhyme "kurz"/"sturz". Above all, this translation is weakened by the choice of sentimental and often archaic words that generally have little to do with Rilke's original text. So, for example, where Bly seems to have sensed the strength of the sounds in "Augenäpfel reiften" and translated accordingly with "eyeballs...slowly swelling," Lamont obscures this passage by translating it with the romantic phrase "Through the veiled eyes no flickering ray is sent." Bly's conception of the poem and his sensitivity to Rilke's language is summed up in his appropriate choice of "wild animal" as a translation for "Raubtier," and Lamont's approach can be similarly summarized by the choice of "great star" for "Stern" in line 13. Bly's Apollo must be reckoned with, whereas Lamont's statue is merely pretty. It possesses, according to the closing line, a "kindling magic" that "makes you live anew," but it is incapable of making you "change your life." In comparison to Jessie Lamont's translation, the other major American translation of this poem by the Berkeley poet, C.F. MacIntyre, at least possesses some of the energy of the original, though he too tends to underplay what Bly aptly calls the "darker"42 side of Rilke's Apollo: "Torso of an Archaic Apollo" Never will we know his fabulous head where the eyes' apples slowly ripened. Yet his torso glows: a candelabrum set before his gaze which is pushed back and hid, restrained and shining. Else the curving breast could not thus blind you, nor through the soft turn of the loins could this smile easily have passed into the bright groins where the genitals burned. Else stood this stone a fragment and defaced, with lucent body from the shoulders falling, too short, not gleaming like a lion's fell; nor would this star have shaken the shackles off, bursting with light, until there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.43 There is no reason for calling this sculpture an "Archaic Apollo" instead of an "Archaic Torso" as it is labelled in the original. Rilke is trying to say exactly the opposite of what is expressed through MacIntyre's title: Rilke's title in conjunction with the emphasis on light in the poem itself tells us that although this is an antique torso, it still radiates the

energy and wisdom of the god after which it was named. MacIntyre's reference to Apollo himself as being archaic, in contrast, diminishes if not destroys this characteristic of the statue. Moreover, although MacIntyre's version does contain several words and phrases that convey the power of the original (such as "shaken off the shackles" or "bursting with light" in lines 12 and 13), his translation is still weakened by the kind of romantic language that characterizes Jessie Lamont's translation. To begin with, the modifying clause in lines three and four is difficult to decipher, and the word "gaze" thoroughly obscures the power of the light radiating from the torso, The same can be said of MacIntyre's misleading translation of lines six and seven, where it seems as if "this smile" is referring to Apollo's smile--one generally does not picture a Greek god smiling--instead of to the metaphorical, light-radiating smile that Rilke sees in the curves of the sculpture itself. Bly, captures the fact that Rilke is stressing the movement of the lines and curves of the torso here (and throughout the poem) when he translates that the "smile" keeps "on going," just as the light of the statue keeps on moving out towards the spectator. What we find in Bly's translation that is missing in the others is a feeling that this torso is still alive. As Bly says in his introduction to the "New Poems," "Rilke's power of seeing pulled Apollo's dark side right out of the stone, before this side was known to Western students. Rilke emphasizes the animal nature of Apollo's body, and its sexual center."44 This interpretation of Rilke's Apollo is very similar to that put forth by Wolfgang Schadewaldt in his incisive essay on "Winckelmann und Rilke."45 Unlike the classical and more distanced approach to Greek art characteristic of the age of Goethe in Germany (and the Italian Renaissance as well), Rilke brings out the side of Apollo that is, as Bly puts it, "wilder and darker" then "rationality."46 As Bly brings out in his translation, Rilke's poem is not just about an example of Greek plastic art: it is about energy, Dionysian sexuality, a will to be and to make one's presence felt--it's about the need to be alive! Rilke might be one of the great masters of the "seeing" poem, but until Bly's translations from his poetry were published in 1981, an American reader who did not know German would have had a great deal of trouble discovering this. Bly has proven something in these translations that he has been unable to demonstrate in his own poems: Poetry must be read out loud and heard, but it is also possible to write poems that contain objects one can SEE. The manner in which Rilke portrays objects in his poems might have impressed several American poets, but it would be difficult to name another poet who took this side of Rilke's genius as seriously as Robert Bly.

Notes Compare Jan Wojcik, "Emerson and Rilke: A Significant Influence?" Modern Language Notes 91 (Fall 1976): 565-577. Eudo C. Mason, Rilke, Europe, and the English-Speaking World (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1961), 6.
3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 2 1

Ibid., 39. Ibid., 160. Ibid., 159. Ibid., 159. Ibid., 160. Ibid., 162. Ibid., 163.

Ibid., 164. Ibid., 7.

Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke; Translated by Jessie Lamont (New York: Tobias A. Wright, 1918). Wallace Stevens, Letters, ed. Holly Stevens (New York: Alfred E. Knopf, 1966), 618.
14 13

Stevens, Letters, 618.

Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumus: Poems, Plays, Prose. ed. with an introduction by Samuel French Morse (New York: Random House, 1982), 254. E.E. Cummings, "nonlecture one, i and my parents," six nonlectures (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1962), 6-8. Theodore Roethke, "On Identity," On the Poet and his Craft. Selected Prose of Theodore Roethke, ed. with an introduction by Ralph J. Mills, Jr. (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1965), 37. Randall Jarrell, A Sad Heart at the Supermarket (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1965), 113. Randall Jarrell, The Third Book of Criticism (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1965), 101. E.M. and S.B. Puknat, "American Literary Encounters with Rilke," Monatshefte 60 (1968), 248.
21 22 20 19 18 17 16


Quoted from Puknat 249.

Karl Shapiro, "Poems of Rilke: laden with imagery and sympathy," rev. of Translations from the Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, by Robert Bly, Chicago Tribune, 3 May 1981: 73.
23 24

Shapiro, "Poems of Rilke," 73.

Robert Bly, Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), 9.
25 26 27 28 29

Ibid., 26-27. Ibid., 34-35. Ibid., 38-39. Ibid., 56-57.

Robert Bly, This Body is Made of Camphor and Gopherwood (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), closing comments from Bly's friend Gloria Adelson on back jacket cover.
30 31 32

Ibid., 135. Ibid., 134. Ibid., 135.

33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43

Robert Bly, Silence in the Snowy Fields (London: Cape, 1967), 46. Ibid., 30. Bly, Translations, 98-99. Ibid., 104-105. Ibid., 102-103. Ibid., 110-111. Ibid., 164-165. Ibid., 146-147. Lamont, Poems, 46. Ibid., 135.

C.F. MacIntyre, Rainer Maria Rilke: Fifty Selected Poems with English Translations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1947), 68.
44 45

Bly, Translations, 137.

Compare Wolfgang Schadewaldt, Winkelmann und Rilke (Pfullingen: Verlag Günther Neske, 1967).

Bly, Translations, 137.