Angels to Radios: On Rainer Maria Rilke
Rilke transforms lament into praise. Death becomes sleep; the world becomes dream. Perfection is sleeping; sleeping is arising. A round of paradoxes animates this mythical world, much as Wallace Stevens sustains the thirty-three stanzas of "The Man With the Blue Guitar" with variations on a central paradox:
They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."
The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."
And they said then, "But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are."
Two poems, seemingly worlds apart, but both oracular. Rilke's lament sounds like effusive praise; Stevens's praise like singsong lament. Either way, they shed light on each other as made things: a poem about death is really a praise poem about making, and a poem about making is really a lament for diminished reality.
Rilke's fashioning of lament and praise into a contradictory unity was presaged by other contradictions in his work: the vast realms that enclose, the forms that open, still lifes that become animate or animals that become still lifes. Like the "tree in the ear" (which may or may not appeal to readers who think of it as "surreal"), they are part and parcel of that poetic logic.
In a review of William Gass's Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation (1999), Marjorie Perloff listed eight versions of the first line of Duino Elegies, including Edward Snow's, and concluded that none of them "give the reader who knows no German any real sense of Rilke's peculiar power." Perloff dangled the possibility of another Rilke, one whose language is knottier and more nuanced than we could possibly imagine. For corroboration, one might turn to Christopher Middleton, a poet and professor of Germanic languages; his essay on Rilke's "Birth of Venus" details the sound patterns that are the warp and weft of the poem.
Having little German myself (and duly red-faced admitting it, especially after Perloff's rebuke), I am certain that there is an unknown Rilke in back of the symbols and paradoxes by which we obtain that little thing lost in translation, the "poetry." I am confronted by this unknown Rilke not when I reread the Dinggedichte but when I turn to the fierce, rhetorical, vatic Duino Elegies: suddenly I am at sea or, worse, the doldrums. (I imagine a similar problem faces translators of, say, John Ashbery's longer meditative poems.) There is controversy as to whether the grandeur of the Elegies and the myth surrounding them obfuscate the fact that Rilke's short poems are really his best achievement; there is controversy as to which translation is best, for one preserves the density of the language while another unravels the connotative meanings better, and bashing Rilke translations seems to be a sport among connoisseurs.
But one must be careful not to let the controversy obscure something important: if English translations of Duino Elegies remain contested, it's because Rilke has become indispensable. We read Rilke for the figures: "And all things were her sleep," he says of the girl who makes a bed in his ear; that would also be the same sleep from his epitaph: "no one's sleep under so many/eyelids." We read Rilke for a vocabulary that transcends our little, individual languages to a universal (and premodern) figural vocabulary of the lyric. If it is an illusion, it is an optimistically American one--and still generative.
After Duino Elegies was completed, Rilke conspired with his myth to pretend that his gift was spent. Snow demonstrates that this was a feint and offers a hefty collection of the short, beautiful lyrics Rilke wrote, and declined to publish, until his death. Rilke was the poet of angelic dictation, but he labored like a craftsman to the end. He died, like Vera Knoop, of leukemia, but he didn't want to know the name of his disease. He thought that anything worth knowing was in the poems.