Blesok no. 52, January-February, 2007
Finally found in translation
When John Berryman wrote in his third Dream Song that 'Rilke was a jerk', a lot of readers of Rainer Maria Rilke in translation were probably relieved. The Pseuds' Corner sonorities of Rilke we could read - 'and at the same time know the condition/ of not being, the infinite ground of your deep vibration' and so on - seemed a far cry from the poet recognised 'abroad' as a great European modernist.
Odd Rilke poems would turn up translated by real poets such as Ted Hughes or Robert Lowell, giving us glimpses of a very intense, idiosyncratic voice, but for lovers of Betjeman and Larkin, with their unmodernist commitment to pared-down possibilities, the 'inwardness', the spiritual ambition of Rilke seemed faintly ridiculous. His great heights and greater depths were more for the mandarins. The translations - by Leishman in 1936, Herter Norton in 1942, CF MacIntyre in 1960 - suggested, at best, that Rilke was untranslatable. Don Paterson's Orpheus, perhaps unsurprisingly given the kind of poet he is, changes all this.
Writing what he calls 'versions' of these poems, Paterson has produced a Rilke who is riveting because of his difficulty, because Rilke himself was confounded by these inspired poems. In three weeks, in 1922, while working on his Duino Elegies, Rilke wrote these 55 sonnets. 'They are,' he wrote later, 'perhaps most mysterious even to me, in the manner in which they arrived and imposed themselves on me - the most puzzling dictation I have ever received and taken down.' This kind of dictation is often the source of the worst as well as the best writing. What Paterson has done, simple as it might sound, is make quite clear the ways in which Rilke's sonnets are actually extraordinary poems rather than the cluttered and vapid musings of an aspiring mystic.
'Versions,' Paterson says, 'are trying to be poems in their own right; while they have the original to serve as detailed ground-plan and elevation, they are trying to build themselves a robust home in a new country, in its vernacular architecture.' What this means in practice is that Paterson has done both a bit of redesigning and some firming up. The poems are titled rather than numbered as they are by Rilke and his other translators, which usefully names the preoccupations rather than the so-called subject-matter. And by calling the book Orpheus rather than Sonnets to Orpheus, Paterson keeps the address of the poems open; the book is at once by Orpheus to Orpheus and about Orpheus.
Even though this means the poems are about what Robert Frost called 'the larger excruciations' - loss, death, Fate, Time, God and so on - Paterson never lets Rilke's preciousness get the better of him. The poems seem genuinely uncanny rather than arch, stagey or unduly deep. So Rilke's famous Unicorn, in the poem of that title, seems once again vivid rather than merely fanciful: 'It never was. And yet such was their love/ the beast arose, where they had cleared the space;/ and in the stable of its nothingness/ it shook its white mane out and stamped its hoof.'
And Rilke's God, always rather a shadowy figure, feels tougher - 'God is the place that always heals over/ however often we tear it' ('The Stream'), while his gods are more like people he wants to tease: 'Shall we now forswear our oldest friendships,/ the undemanding gods?' ('The Gods'). Paterson's lighter, more intent, versions make Rilke sound interested in his reader, rather than merely in himself.
What Paterson calls 'the near inhuman speed of the sonnet's composition' is inevitably a mixed blessing for the translator. 'An attempt to be faithful to the words of oracular lines', he writes, 'will almost invariably result in something even less comprehensible in the new tongue.' In Orpheus, Paterson has found a way through his own misgivings.