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Anyone Seen Rilke? – Scottish Review of Books
by Michael Schmidt

Anyone Seen Rilke?

October 29, 2009 | by Michael Schmidt

FOR DECADES, translators have protested when their names are omitted from the covers, title pages and reviews of their books. In Don Paterson’s Orpheus, translation records an almost unprecedented triumph, because Orpheus is identified by a note on the back cover as “A version of Rilke’s Die Sonette an Orpheus”, but the original author’s name, absent from the front cover, is demoted to third position on the title page. The blurb speaks of ‘translation’; the translator prefers the term ‘version’, though he is not consistent. Yet the two are as different as chalk or Kreide and cheese or Käse.

So what is this work from which Rilke has been deposed? It is two sequences of sonnets written late in the poet’s life, taken down as if by dictation from one of the angels which move so vertiginously through his masterpiece, the Duino Elegies, which he was completing at the same time. The sequence has its source in Rilke’s own life: a lovely young dancer’s death figured in Eurydice, his own formal lament finding the voice of Orpheus. In his New Poems he had visited the Orpheus legend years before. Now he enters it at a different level. These are poems from which the poet’s own voice and the contingencies of his particular life have been filtered off; they speak with a luminous impersonality out of the ancient story until they are about the source and centrality of legend itself. They are Orphic, they are Orpheus.

And the year of completion, 1922, was the same year as The Waste Land and Ulysses were published, and in France Valéry’s Charmes. Rilke’s work belongs with them at the heart of the Modernist transformation of European literature. Their purity of execution and integrity of intent, their resolute transcendence of the “bourgeois I”, were exemplary. Rilke, fascinated by the fullness of his own writing, later provided a commentary on the Sonnets which fails to penetrate the potent magic of their unparaphrasable disclosures. They raise questions of refinement, of diction, syntax and prosody; the merely subjective is gone, the poems serve a meaning innocent of the confessional that directly or obliquely dominates the mainstream Anglophone poetry today.

It is this momentous work that Don Pater-son sets out to conquer. He has notable accomplishments. In a mere thirteen years he has made himself a serious presence in Scottish and, abroad, in British poetry, as editor of the Picador poetry list, as a competition judge, a competition winner (twice of the T.S. Eliot Prize and once of the Whitbread prize for Poetry), an aphorist, a poet. This is his second fully-fledged translation project. His Machado, The Eyes (also omitting the poet’s name from the front cover) came close to rendering in English the unsentimental plangency and precision, the wide popular voice, of that beguiling Spanish poet, whose spirituality is, like St Teresa’s and unlike Rilke’s, so full of contingency and ‘world’. Before that, he had worried the bones of Rimbaud, Dante, Cavafy, Abbas Ibn Al-Ahnaf, Propertius and others, always in an inventive spirit, but not exactly as a translator because he does not pretend to be a master of French, Italian, Greek, Arabic, Latin….

Nor is he a master of German, which makes the courage of this undertaking look a little like hubris. No doubt he had a Germanist at his elbow some of the time. When he spots an error in Leishmann’s versions he makes much of it (an error oft noted before). Paterson does not divide the two sets of sonnets or number them, preferring to give them titles. When in Sonnet XII of the second set (Paterson’s ‘Change’), Rilke writes ‘Trennung’ in the sense of ‘Departure’, the translator knocks his poem askew by rendering it ‘Difference’. Such liberties are punctures: the air of sense hisses out through them. My own Germanist reflects how in the sonnet Pater-son titles ‘The Stream’ (Sonnet XVI, second set) he has misread from start to end, forgetting that the poem is part of a sequence, and that ‘Scharfe’ serves to recall the sharp stones of he murdering Maenads, and ‘verteilt’ has an important, literal under-meaning of ‘butchered, hacked apart’, ‘distributed’ specifically in the sense of ‘dismembered’.

Writing recently in the New Statesman Paterson is at first on the defensive. You can choose either to “translate something you don’t understand in German into something you understand even less in English”, or “you make a single reading of it, knowing that this denies many others”. A single reading of Rilke’s Sonnets? Are there only these staged alternatives, no other choices open to the translator? For example, learning German, understanding the poems and conveying this understanding to your readers, the way other translators have done, including in recent years, for example Stephen Cohn, Stephen Mitchell and Edward Snow (Paterson acknowledges Snow’s versions and Cohn’s notes). Ah, comes the reply. They are not celebrated poets. Perhaps not, but Rilke was, and they have served him.

Paterson’s approach is part and parcel of that habit he finds so obnoxious, post-modern appropriation, helping oneself to a poetic culture with which one has not thought it necessary to cultivate an inwardness, to understand what the poems are doing and how they are doing it in their language and time. Paterson speaks of “thought and feeling” as though these terms carried the same sense in Rilke’s work as they do in his, as though the “articulate music” of Rilke’s Ger-man means the same thing as his own prosodic articulation. Translating the translations, he adds his distinctive stylistic fingerprints. But that necessary sense of otherness is absent.

When Paterson writes of “integrity of means” he glosses it as “your skill and qualification as a translator”, a qualification which does not include a deep knowledge of the language from which you are translating. Skill and qualification are manifested in what a wide-eyed adolescent Wilfred Owen described as “my poethood”. The “integrity of the end”, Paterson says, justifies the means. If the translation ‘captures the vibe’ it has succeeded. But how can it capture the vibe if, as he confesses, he has not understood the German original? Only if the angel who dictated to Rilke comes down and perches on his shoulder, speaking the English into his ear. Unfortunately, there was no angel in Paterson’s neighbourhood. He artfully dodges the question of fidelity: the translator must “at some point”, he declares, “forget the original”. For him that point comes near the beginning of his engagement. He forgets the original as soon as he takes out those cribs, retreating from the acknowledged difficulty of the German poems.

How does this work? Your task is to cover your footprints as much as possible as you trudge through other men’s snow. The authoritative, triumphalist tone of his ‘Afterword’, the ‘Fourteen Notes on the Versions’, and the broad inclusiveness of his Acknowledgements, could have done with being more centred in Rilke, less on his own development. But like Machado before him, Rilke is subsumed in the living poet, nourishing him at whatever cost. His ‘scientific materialism’ has little to do with Rilke’s spiritual poems, except that it trims its wings and introduces back into the refined language the alloy Rilke assiduously purged from it. The approximate metre, slant and vowel rhymes, are better than no form at all, but they too are a gearing down, an impoverishment of the original at the level of poetry.

And does this kind of appropriation matter, this borrowing of drafts, this arrogation of an established authority? It is one thing to fish in other men’s waters, another to claim the whole lake. Tony Harrison, one of the serious translators of the age, knows his Greek and Latin as a scholar; his libretto translations, too, are true to the vocalic values of his originals. He’s an exception. A whole party of contemporary poets has paddled about in the work of Ovid; Ted Hughes fished versions out of languages of Eastern Europe which he could not speak or read. He did have Latin and other languages, just sometimes not the ones he needed. But we live in an increasingly monoglot nation: where two languages are spoken, one is the mother tongue, in Paterson’s case the English of Dundee, and the other the English acquired at school and from books, the English which the Scots standardised so they could prosper and control the southern neighbour.

Those two languages have stood Paterson in good stead in his own poems. Compare his demotic to Tony Harrison’s. Harrison’s project is political, to bring the common working-class speech of Leeds into the arena of the literary, a coarsening and an exaltation in the same breath; Paterson is more pessimistic, more realistic we may feel, in the ways in which he inhabits both languages and moves between them. This is one of his sources of energy and disquiet. It is something that Edwin Morgan suggests is built in to a Scottish sensibility like MacDiarmid’s. In MacDiarmid’s language there is a rhetoric able to harness opposing impulses in a balanced, single statement, or to change key from hilarity to heartbreak in an instant. It is an enabling impurity, a frank and open psychology, perhaps; and it is proof against the kinds of irony which restrain so many poets from south of the Border. This is very much the quality of Paterson’s best poems, not necessarily those which end on a couplet, on a Larkinian lift-off, but those which grow miasmically from collection to collection, starting with ‘The Alexandrian Library’ in his first book, Nil Nil.

One of Paterson’s more telling aphorisms in The Book of Shadows sets up a woman poet who uses flashy effects to keep the reader awake “while she moves the protagonist from the garden to the bathroom”. Such effects, he tells us, are “catastrophic to the poem”, indelicate, unbalancing. The pay-off: “Hence there are certain poets praised only by novelists.” It would be unkind to point out that his book is endorsed on the cover by Nick Hornby, Alain de Botton and Jeanette Winterson. It would be just to ask if the aphorism is true. Which poet is this? Being specifically gendered, unless this is evidence of the misogyny he rebukes in Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Kraus, she must exist. Are flashy transitional effects always catastrophic to a poem? To Dunbar, flashy even in elegy? To Fergusson, Burns, MacDiarmid? MacCaig and Graham and Morgan and Lochhead? The transitions within his own poems, as we fall through trapdoors on to different levels and regions of sense, from the garden to the bathroom, as it were, are flashy and catastrophic, but they are in the very nature of his equivocal, eloquent, generous, carping, self-enamoured and self-repelled spirit and sensibility.

This is what Scottish poetry, when it is genuinely Scottish and not borrowing its energies from Hull, can do uniquely well. Not hobbled and hedged by strategic irony, not so wedded to rap that prosody is discarded, or so correct that the bark is biteless. The English, for the most part, applaud Paterson’s aphorisms, and this applause misleads him. In those aphorisms, written when his demanding, passionate and disruptive poetic muse is in abeyance, he seems to me to send himself up. He is a post-modern in his appropriations. His obscurities and opacities exceed Ashbery’s and Prynne’s and are not ‘accessible’ in the way he pretends. What keeps us going with Paterson, even when we don’t understand immediately, what keeps us breathing in the stifling atmosphere of his Alexandrian Library, is the brilliant metamorphoses: we are in the briny, stagnant, half-sexual, half infernal cave of Proteus and as the poet wrestles a subject through its transformations, we wrestle too, with language, metre and (one might say) accent; we’re startled, unsettled, delighted by transformations in imagery and language and by the poet’s refusal to settle for, or inability to reach or fake, resolution. Rilke’s poems have only the most tentative purchase on his phantasmagoric materialist spirit. May his own Muse turn up the heat on him soon: there is much left in the black box, and the Alexandrian Library is not exhausted yet, nor his invented aphoristic Virgil, Francois Aussemain.

Don Paterson
Faber, £12.99
pp85 ISBN 0571222684

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