As Reviewed By:
Dreamers of Dreams: Essays on Poets and Poetry by John Simon. Ivan R. Dee, 2001. 265 pp. $26.00
Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation
by William H. Gass.
Knopf, 1999. 233 pp.
Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies: Bilingual Edition, translated by Edward Snow. North Point Press, 2000. 74 pp. $10.00
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Over the last 40 years, John Simon, author of
Dreamers of Dreams: Essays on Poets and Poetry, has acquired a small but discriminating following as a reviewer whose self-image is that of a third rail on American culture's subway to Parnassus. Since the early '60s he has successively
written--and written successfully--about music and opera, theatre, film and literature, all with the spleen of a renaissance man on whom none the imbecilities of our current "state of the art" culture is lost. It's not the Cage gilders or lost boys from the American avant garde-that-never-was who make Simon nuts. Though only an idiot could delight in
not hearing someone like John Cage, the author of a hundred-page book called
Silences, pilloried as an idiot's delight, it must be allowed of the piano preparers and their ilk that at least they were gainfully employed delighting other idiots, which fact, when combined with their having realized that the way not to have to clean up the messes they made was to sign them and clean up selling the result, makes them seem more a nuisance than pernicious. Driving Simon to rage and despair mostly belong to three groups of
malingerers: academic "humanists" united only in their hatred of the arts; anyone balding with a ponytail who dates all significant activity in world cinema from
Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy; and "fundamentalist liberals," for whom the evasion of Emerson's "hobgoblin of small minds" entails the simultaneous--and
double-jointed--embrace of every iron-maiden of P. C. ever approved by Adrienne Rich, without ceasing to hug a single
Hustler rack and its accompanying Screw.
If the point about gays-nd Jews-eing beyond the pale seems but timidly made in the foregoing, it is driven home rather more trenchantly in a review of playwright Edward Albee's failed attempt to dramatize a story by Carson McCullers. According to Simon, in the course of this star-sprung melée audiences were made to look on as a cross between Charley's Aunt and Mother Dutch-Courage was unsuccessfully mated with an avuncular transsexual, from a country one would have thought was as low, but who, as it turns out, was untimely ripp'd from American Gothic's very womb:
. . . Edward Albee himself had serious doubts about whether fiction can be dramatized, and in order to find out he undertook the adaptation of Carson McCullers' novella The Ballad of the Sad Café. There is between Mrs. McCullers' and Albee's worlds a certain consanguinity: both have a view of sex that is aberrant and a view of mankind that is abhorrent. Each in his or her way writes a kind of American Gothic, and a publicity photograph showing the two of them together gave the uninitiated viewer some pause as to who is which. . . .
Of course, those familiar with Simon's "take no prisoners" approach to reviewing might argue that if the "stages" alluded to in the title of his 1975 collection (just cited) of theatre pieces written for
New York magazine between 1963-73 were "uneasy," it was because of Simon's presence in the house on opening night. That alone would have been enough to make stars quake, directors tremble, and producers adjust their Mostels to Zero degree.*
But the trouble with the film is that it pretends to say more than it does. The basic connection between the decadence of a sleazy Berlin nightclub in the early thirties and the rise of Nazism, though continually hinted at, and sometimes leeringly rubbed in, is never truly demonstrated. The sets and costumes and German locations are marvelously authentic and inventive, the atmosphere is cogently derived from the paintings and the graphics of the Expressionists. But we remain unenlightened about the connection: Is Nazism a product of the decadence, or is the decadence an attempt to escape from, and so a product of, Nazism? And was there no political-economic crisis that begat them both? It may be too much to ask a musical to be thoughtful and illuminating, but if it comports itself as if it were both of those things, we do ask questions.
Were six Weimar Germans, in fact, Groszly equivalent to half a dozen Nazis? To resort to a Simonism: doesn't papering over gross distortions of culpability with expressionistic posters of a certain capability leave an audience unable to distinguish
fascist brownshirts from communist workshirts without a program?
The question of relativity of good and evil underlies, fuzzily and dishonestly,
The Godfather, a violent film raved about by many of the same reviewers who criticized the violence of
Straw Dogs. The difference is that The Godfather's is old-fashioned violence: carefully prepared for, nicely spread across the entire film, and made to look palatable because all save one of the victims have been asking for it or aren't worth much to begin with. Besides, it is a genre film: it is, despite pretensions to newness and differentness, essentially an old gangster movie, skillfully manufactured except for one rather bad lacuna in the middle.
About the time his collection of film reviews, Reverse Angle, appeared, Simon was increasing his notoriety as a scourge of bad grammar and poor style across the entire spectrum of so-called professional writing in America. Deeply troubled by the ubiquitous trashing of good usage and sloppy thinking everywhere ravaging the bulk of what was being published in the '70s and early '80s, he wrote
Paradigms Lost (1984), a scathing indictment that became an instant best-seller. In it he excoriated the mindlessness
and brainlessness--no, they are not the same thing--that he saw making an ineloquent, as well as inelegant, mockery of "informed" discourse. As with the fish in the famous analogy, the rot was from the top down, meaning that in the Carter and Reagan years it extended all the way from the depths of theory-ridden academe to the lowliest aeries of balding American capitalism. Though the prospects for American written language had been looking pronouncedly dicier since the "let it all hang out" '60s, "discursivity" had never descended to such unbelievably low levels as it appeared then to Simon to have sunk to. He went about carefully cataloguing the rot and showing just how thoroughly the corruption of language had leached into the wellsprings of American expression. Though Simon doesn't talk nearly so much about these things now, the orders of elegance and precision he then claimed to have been almost irretrievably "lost" have since retreated so much further into barbarism that the prospect for a
Paradigms Regained in the future now seems little more than a Pollyannuated pipedream.
We are the music makers,
This sort of thing adds a whole new meaning to "speaking in tongues," since it succeeds in sounding flip,
angst-ridden and soigné at the same time, though fortunately not all at once. The implied distinction is a subtle one, but nonetheless crucial to Simon's view of how poets the gears of language should be engaged so that the engine poets drive will neither careen off the nearest cliff nor end up an SUV crammed to the gills with
"stuff"--the calling card of those dismissed by Simon as mere "poetists."
Oddly enough, Eliot, who admired and emulated Mallarmé . . . nonetheless made some very un-Mallarméan [sic] efforts in Four Quartets toward personalizing his voice--fatal, I think, in a poet whose genius is for the suprapersonal. We get here those "it seems"-es, those "I have said before"-s, that [Geoffrey] Faber characterized as "lecture-stigmata"; plus such bathos as "you whose bodies / Will suffer the trial and judgement of the sea, / Or whatever event"; and such deliberate delyricization as in Section IV of "East Coker," where the mixing of tetrameter, pentameter and hexameter strangely undercuts the music.
As might be expected, Simon's sense of what real poetry should sound like emerges piecemeal as the argument of his book proceeds. At various times in Dreamers of Dreams this indefinite article of faith coagulates into something if not definitive, then more definite--as here, for instance, in "Partying on Parnassus: The New York School Poets":
So, by way of further laying down of cards, let me state my idea of poetry. It comprises music, painting (imagery), insight, and pregnancy of memorableness of utterance, the first two, of course, in a special sense. Ambiguity, too, may be a legitimate device, but it should not be confused with the mainstay of much New York School . . . stuff: openness to infinite, arbitrary, private readings--quot homines, tot sententiae. That way lies formlessness, dissolution, anarchy, and, yes, madness, when free association, becoming too free, hurtles into dementia.
And also here--if with rather less élan and originality--at the onset of "Death Fugues: The Poems of Paul Celan":
Poetry is the meeting point of parallel lines--in infinity, but also in the here and now. It is where the patent and incontrovertible intersects with the ineffable and incommensurable. It can be as complicated as Mallarmé or Paul Celan, or as simple as Heine or Verlaine, but something about it, however strongly it is felt, surpasses comprehension. It is what, when thought of, made A. E. Housman's face bristle, and his razor inoperative; it is what made Emily Dickinson's whole body so cold no fire could ever warm her.
As desiderata, these leave much to be desired. If we demand that some redeeming specificity distinguish those qualities whose presence is thought to account for why good poetry outshines bad, we will be disappointed to see such a tired rationale as this being forced round the track for a last exhausting lap. Simon is most convincing when his subject is poetry with which he has established intimate relations over the years--e.g., that of Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Verlaine, Rilke; or those poets about whose oeuvre he feels sufficiently ambivalent to risk looking long in the tooth through a show of fangs. If over time he has weathered in the job, his acid wit shows little sign of leaching to alkaline benignity. True, one could discern in his writings almost from the beginning a certain formulaic trim, a propensity toward arabesque contumely, that made his put-downs seem casually premeditated rather than studies in how to seem tossed off. Note the following, which makes heavy-weathering "Simon sez" out of what need have been no more than a weighing of skills (and spills) in Salamander: Selected Poems of Robert Marteau, translated by Anne Winters:
Perhaps the fault lies in my unbelieving nature, but I found Salamander . . . not just bad but actually repellent. Repellent in its literal sense: so opaque as to resist penetration and so causing withdrawal. Marteau is a Frenchman who has moved to Canada--a bad sign; in 1963, when he was thirty-eight, his answer to a question about the great event of his life was "Seeing Claudel's Le soultier de satin"--a worse sign. But the really bad news is that Marteau's poetry is a perfect example of belated surrealism gone berserk, and that it relies on alchemy for its philosophy and imaginative framework. . . . As might be guessed, this dread pursuit gets mixed up with Christianity, Greek myths, bullfighting, various pagan cults, and everything the poet, a veritable Marteau sans maître, wishes to drag into his mystic mishmash. What good is it to reanimate dormant matter if, in the process, you put the reader to sleep?...
Can anyone doubt that such "letting fly" took its shape from a need to link the poet's surname to the title of a well known musical composition by Pierre Boulez, the French composer and conductor? Such latching onto the little known Marteau suggests a procrustean bed refusing to shrink as slat after slat falls away, rather than a legitimate way of upbraiding a poet for not keeping up with the (David) Joneses and having at least something comparable to the
Anathémata to boast of on his resumé. Simon's cavils to the contrary notwithstanding, Marteau's poetry suffers from a surfeit of plaguey
heterogeneity--that is, maîtres all over the religious, mythological, archetypal
map--from not a debilitating lack of them.
Again, the ending of Schuyler's "Korean Mums" is "a notable example of an allegory emerging from literal truth": "what / is there I have not forgot? / or one day will forget; / this garden, the breeze /in stillness, even / the words, Korean mums." But does not all allegory take off from literal meaning, and just what is allegorized here? Lehman perceives "a case of exact identity between 'the words' and what they mean." Is that the allegory then? Lehman probably knows, but once again prefer to keep mum. Or mums.
But not all Simony lets critical offices go begging for a piece or two of Phil Silvers's. He can be quite stunning, as, for example, when through ingenious wordplay he replicates the manner in which the poetic style of James Merrill transformed itself with something like Valéryan aplomb into the prose kinema, A Different Person (1993), whose reflections on callow youth stolen by Paris and Rome, describe a rush to be made with no loss of time:
Which is not to say the book doesn't have its beauties. It sovereignly evokes a picture of rich, highly cultivated young American homosexuals living near-idyllic lives (there is a bit too much ego in Arcadia) in an as yet unspoiled Europe, where the very flies enhance the ointment. There are heady portrayals of opera-going in some of Europe's best and worst opera houses. There are enthusiastic descriptions of the wonders of painting, sculpture, architecture lined up in espaliers for the cognoscenti. There are impassioned accounts of privileged landscapes and cityscapes. There are stimulating conversations and sportive confrontations, glimpses of an America better comprehended from afar, and a Europe better enjoyed from inside its nooks and crannies. . . .
At its best, and when it has no grind to ax, Simon's is a prose that
sings--which is his term for what extensive reading and writing of poetry will do for any aspiring writer's prose style, if given half a chance. Note that "too much ego in Arcadia" provides just enough allusion to chew on without fulminating apprehension (on leaving the table, having et) that there might somehow be less where that came from. Moreover, having been dispatched to a parenthesis, it can, like a firefly, coercively flit, alight, and then, its light duly shed, retreat to a shade its "moment in the sun" has summoned from between brackets.
Asked on the radio whether William Golding is any good, [Larkin] answers, "I prefer to bypass that aspect of his work," and clucks to Barbara Pym, "Rather nice, don't you think?" "Marriage," he tells a woman friend, "is a marvelous thing for other people, like going to the stake." A distinguished Australian, coming to lecture at Hull, "tells me he's never seen a kangaroo. A pity: I was hoping for some informed criticism." Trollope's novels, he pronounces, "are so grown up . . . beside Dickens' three-ring circuses." At age forty-eight: "I suppose if one lives to be old one's entire waking life will be turning on the spit of recollection over the fires of mingled shame, pain or remorse." To a fellow poet, he complains, "It's terribly unfair that one never gets any better at writing . . . not like making a window frame or seducing women." And about himself: "I don't think I write well--just better than anyone else."
The keen interest evinced by Simon in problems of translation is attributable, first and foremost, to this need to making writing, whether in poetry or prose, "sing"; and secondarily, to his preoccupation with that equilibristic frame which must be kept in place if poetry is to resonate in the ear as well as on the page. Mostly, he seizes upon those tribulations which proliferate whenever larks from distant parts must be enticed into a cage of words as remote from their native dawn and heaven's gate as is this sentence of mine is from that anything but pedestrian hymn to the lark to be found in Shakespeare's Cymbeline. What gives Simon the authority to be exacting when considering others' translations is his exceptional grasp of languages other than his own native Serbian. In addition to English and Latin, he boasts greater or lesser fluency in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian and Russian. Unfortunately, the user-unfriendliness of more than a few of those languages prevents him from looking any way but askance at the work of "traducers" belaborable as inept, which in his view includes just about everybody who has tried to make a good poem sound good in unexceptionably good English. One writer who comes in for strong censure, if not actual scorn, is the poet Clayton Eshleman, whose "travesty" of César Vallejo's Spanish results in something that, Simon claims, as much dishonors Vallejo as English:
Take now the moving poem "Altura y pelos" ("Height and Hair"), whose three stanzas all end with a lament in the form of incremental repetition: first, "¡Yo que tan sólo he nacido!"; then, "¡Yo que solamente he nacido!"; and finally, "¡Ay, yo que sólo he nacido solamente!" Eshleman translates: "I who solely was born!"--barbarous; and "Aie! I who alone was solely born"--unconscionable and unspeakable, what with that "Aie! I . . . " only needing one more ay to become "The Donkey Serenade." Clearly, we need something like "I who was born so alone!"; "I who was only born!"; and "I, alas, who was only born--so alone!" But at least we are spared the utter abomination of "I who so alone've been born!" with which Eshleman came up in an earlier volume of Vallejo translations, Poemas Humanos (1968).
Almost as pitiless is Simon's dispatching of Norman Shapiro for his mistranslation of "Chanson d'automne," from Paul Verlaine's Poèmes saturniens (1866). Tatterdemalion metaphrase as deformative in the fandango it executes on the face of its text as it is subversive of the implications with which Verlaine carefully salted his diction and rhythm, Shapiro's doggerel proves useful only in providing Simon with an occasion to show how best to avoid denaturing the work of this most musical of French poets. Below is the fourth and concluding quatrain of Verlaine's poem, in both the original French and Shapiro's English, followed by Simon's commentary on just what takes a fall in Shapiro's version of "Chanson d'automne":
Au calme clair de lune triste et beau
It is there only for the
rhyme: an accusation that through the course of the nine essays on translators and translating included in Simon's collection swells to a mantra signaling at best a hopeless surrender to the difficulties which all fine poetry poses to the translator, and at worst, a traduction of its integrity as a thing of craftsmanship and beauty, thus conducing to what amounts inevitably to an underhanded subversion of the poem under hand. It is of paramount importance that the effects of the original be reproduced with a faithfulness that exceeds mere "journeyman" translating. And Simon is just as insistent in demanding that the meanings inherent in each word, as well as every sound and silence transiting those meanings, find their appropriate place within the parallel universe of vocables which is the translated text. Regrettably, this occurs but seldom in even the very best translations, and in lesser ones with an irregularity bordering on the freakish. The less discursive the poetry, the more primitive the rendered
result--which makes for unintended blowouts unless pitstop-monitoring of the most fastidious sort ranks high among efforts to stay on track.
What further clouds the Rimbaud inheritance is that it has often been betrayed by translators, and not only where it is impossible to know just what Rimbaud meant, but also in the instances where his meaning ought to to be unmistakable. Thus the poem "Dévotion," which catalogues various kinds of devotion and dedication, ends with "A tout prix et avec les airs, même dans les voyages métaphysiques.--Maid plus alors." (At all costs, and with all airs [?], even on metaphysical journeys.--But no longer then.) Clearly, these devotions must be pursued to their metaphysical consummations. But then there can be an end to it. Yet Wallace Fowlie translates, "But no more thens," for which the French would have to be "mais plus d'alors." And Louise Varèse has "but even more then", which would require "mais encore plus alors" in the text. There is, to be sure, something obfuscatory about the curious ending with its odd italicization of one word; no wonder the worthy Bouillane de Lacoste exclaimed that it "smells of mystification a mile off." Still, that is no excuse for mistranslations, which unfortunately abound in renderings of Rimbaud. [René] Etiemble adduces veritable Tartar hordes of them, often on the order of "jalousie pour les mendiants" (envy of beggars) Englished as "venetian blinds behind which beggars are hiding."
Shades of what the street-wise Swann jealously worries the street-smart Odette might be doing behind shuttered windows he can't see past (or into) in that street-aversive hymn to rue's transcendence which is Proust's
A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. But isn't such ruffling of the lyre-bird's feathers precisely the sort Simon argues in his 25-page horror story of Rimbaldian traduction at the hands of translators are paradigmatic rather than merely occasional? In virtually every essay on translation in
Dreamers of Dreams Simon feels obliged to report that the attempt in question has either defiled yet another innocent text or desecrated this or that poet's attempts at communion to so much reliquary hash.
Consider the opening quatrain of a three-stanza poem of 1921, which the poet dedicated to her friend Natalya Rykova . . . [The] version of Walter Arndt, one of our principal rhyming translators from the Russian [reads]: "All is looted, betrayed, past retrieving, / Death's black wing has been flickering near, / All is racked with a ravenous grieving, / How on earth did this splendor appear?" . . . This seems passable at first glance, but look now at the original: "Vsyo rashishchenyo, predano, prodano, / Chernoy smyerti mel'kalo krilo, / Vsyo golodnoy toskoyu izglodano, / Otchega zhe nam stalo svetlo?" There is no way the sonorities of that very first line can be conveyed in English, especially the play on predano, prodano . . . and stalo and svetlo again creating an echo effect. Russian poetry is a poetry of sound effects par excellence, because Russian is a sonorous, declamatory language; this is what the latter-day stadium-filling poets--the Yevtushenkos, Voznesenskys, and Akhmadulinas--called "pop poets" by Akhmatova, were to exploit to her disgust.
Working back here from the Hungarian, we find pistons of declamation being driven even more violently into valves of the high demotic, with the effect that the "English" settled for is at best stew paprikásh and at worst gnocchi of the sort that seems preferable only when Golden Arches have fallen in one's midst--
Take the last lines of the beautiful "Jàrkálj csak, halálraitélt" (Keep walking, condemned man) by the great Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti, which, after giving the contemporary poet various ways to live, concludes with "S oly keményen is, mint a sok / sebtöl vérzö, nagy farkasok." Literally: "And as toughly, too, as the from many / wounds bleeding, great wolves." (The Hungarian 's," by the way, is our "sh.") What is a translator to do, confronted with these darkly resonant sounds? Shoot the poem in the foot or himself in the head? There is no way "great wolves" can render the mighty rumble of nagy farkasok. (Nagy, incidentally, is a monosyllable, not unlike our nudge.) This is the poésie des langues, the poetry inherent in the sounds of a language's words, and it is this more than anything that makes a poet such as Anna Akhmatova virtually (virtually? totally!) untranslatable into English.
--proving yet again, that the wages of all such vehicular sin can only be death on borrowed wheels. One would think that exposure to even one or two such deconstructions would discourage anyone from signing up for a "Translation Workshop" or any other excuse for granting those who enjoy sniffing round the edges of the Ultimate Arcanum for academic credit. The message underlying by
Dreamers of Dreams appears to be: "Forget trying to 'forge Achaia'" and accept the inevitability of minutely printed prose cribs appearing below poems in other languages,
à la "The Penguin Book of 'Fill in the Blank' Verse." The enterprise of translation, all anodynes aside, remains for all
practical--or impractical--purposes, a quixotic one.
I suppose that after reviewing twenty volumes of poetry in translation, one is expected to make some brief closing remarks about the art of translation itself, if only to fix in the reader's mind the criteria from which the criticism proceeded. The second issue of the now defunct periodical Delos (1968) featured answers to a questionnaire on translation. I still agree with most of what I said there, which included the following: "A good translation is, to borrow words from Rilke about the unicorn, an animal of which there isn't any. But, like the unicorn, it exists sufficiently; more than, for example, the Tasmanian tiger, which, though it does exist, does so considerably less for most people than the unicorn. I mean that a near-success in translating a major work is worth more than complete success in translating a minor one.
Arriving there, Simon exits cruise control and restores operation to fallibly reasonable human agency and reasonably fallible human ends:
And I went on to "make a desperate stab" at defining a good translation: "one that to a sensitive and informed reader--perhaps even an expert--reads, first, like an original and second, like the original." In the mean time [sic], I gather, the Tasmanian tiger (or wolf) may have become extinct; the unicorn, too, has rather faded from memory. Translation, however, as the foregoing shows, continues. And it is, at least occasionally, successful.
Woody Allen's crack about the lamb not getting much sleep when lying down with the lion might sow similar wiseacreage should the old homily switch to the standing, mythical cheek to real jowl, of a unicorn next to a Tasmanian tiger (or wolf). But our concerns have moved on. The need now is to strike out in the company of Simon for Rilke territory, where nights are long, the terrain subliminal, and picturesque hot springs providentially and improvidentially Gasseous by turns.
Without doubt, the most controversial piece in
Dreamers of Dreams is "A Great, Baggy Monster: Rilke's 'Duino Elegies,'" Simon's review of William H. Gass's
Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, published by Knopf in 1999. As always, the critical tone is curt, sassy, and not at all indicative of the rapier-weariness someone with the long day's journey into night-of-a-thousand-cuts that Simon has under his belt might be expected to manifest. That said, he seems far from unwilling to grant the extraordinary lustre of some of the nuggets dredged up by Gass when prowling the
Urwelt out of which Rilke's poem miraculously sprung. He is also prepared to credit some, though not all, of Gass's efforts at translating the ten Rilkean
elegies--themselves the product of a physical and poetical journey that took the poet as many years to complete as it took Ulysses to make his broken sea-run from Troy to Ithaca, the tail between his legs being as much Neptune's as his own.
Nowhere, Love, will World exist but within. Our lives
The German conveys the struggle between Zeitgeist and abstractive energy as an improbable ballet of imponderables totally outside the range of English poetic effects. In English the brittle and the crystalline are as distinguishable as bad cop and good cop; in German they are non-identical twins and as immersed in their elements as Fafner and Loge in Wagner's Das Rhinegold. But sometimes the scissile and the luminative are juxtaposed so as to suggest that shattered glass draws down as much illumination as porphyry. In that grand exhalation of light that is the "Fourth Elegy" he could write:
Engel und Puppe: dann ist endlich Schauspiel.
Yes, he could sound like that; but within the imagination's gnarly precincts so could an alp. Beauty so closely identified with pain is neither skin deep nor flayable from one whose mortal clay bespeaks fatality deep enough to be inaccessible even to demons. Who, which is to say,
what human deviner of truth could have the wit (let alone the wisdom) to pronounce in a keening voice as devoid of insignificance as this that "The Zeitgeist is building vast reservoirs of power, formless / as the thrusting energy it wrests from everything"? Moreover, what human perception could feel comfortable reserving to itself that rite of asseveration whereby it could observe, with not the slightest hint of irony, "And all the while the outside realm / diminishes"? (The German text, it should be noted, abstains from authorizing Edward Snow's decision to deny the poet's "outside realm" and its "diminishment" joint occupancy on a single "level" of utterance. Rilke's own line break stubbornly overrides the separation of
das Außen from schwindet. His verb might throb intransitively, but in this context his subject, "the outside realm," clearly retains its power to consign the poet to house arrest within an
interiority--albeit a metamorphic one--whose boundaries converge, if only fitfully and with a scrupulously maintained reserve, with those of the external world.)
[Gass] correctly asserts of the Elegies that "Their being was to be beyond the poem," but is that a virtue? I think it's better for the essence to remain inside the poem. Again, Gass goes cryptic: "Rilke's Elegies will end when happiness falls." What? "Mouth them . . . for these poems are the most oral I know . . . they must be spoken--not merely by but for yourself." This strikes me as pure cant, and it continues, "the voice-making quality of these lines goes beyond their music. They are an utterance." Of what good poetry could you not say all of the above? Beyond the poem, beyond the music--this surely is metacriticism. (Italics mine.)
Gass, no less than Simon, views success in
translation--particularly of verse as sparingly redactive of the oracular as the
Duino Elegies--as a promise as jealous of its evanescence as either of those cats from the not so diverse Wonderlands of Lewis Carroll and Erwin Schrödinger. Such beasts are not kept down for long, if at all; and what might sprawl mouthwise across their faces in lieu of a smile might with equal facility be read as a rictus metonymizing every middle left undistributed by 25 centuries of Aristotelian logic. In other words, when translation succeeds, it does so through no concurrence of ends and means which is in any way traceable by the inner eye.
Mutatis mutandis, translation, bad and good, happens. And when it does, what happens could as easily be the result of a natural affinity (or dys-affinity) for a particular poet's work; or because fortuities long stewing in the translator's mind were activated by a string of intangibles beyond the capacity of any brain researcher to tie off with a formula.
The poem is like a Persian garden, affecting every sense simultaneously, but it does so by putting itself at a distance advantageous for observation, and placing the various vectors of awareness in the same arena, the area of the poem. The lover, in contrast, because he rushes toward the center of his desires, in closing in--cleaving skin to skin--loses sight of things. We kiss with our eyes closed because there isn't much to see. And if there were, we wouldn't want to see it. Then the rubbing necessity to touch and taste are soon replaced, as the blood rises, by a warmth which overwhelms every sensation.
If this is "metacriticism," then so be it. When explication so overtops its own serviceability to engender a true "bliss of understanding,"
ad hominem put-downs simply cease to matter. As a critic sympathetic to the wiles, not to mention the etherealities, of a Mallarmé, Simon should be willing to cut a neo-neo-Symbolist like William H. Gass a little slack.
Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel
In Gass's version, these lines acquire the following aspekt--
Who, if I cried, would hear me among the Dominions
He then adds concerning their direct objects' schrecklichkeit, that:
The strength of the Angels is not the strength of Hercules, who could lift even Antaeus from the earth (although we are offered a wrestler's image), but consists in the louder da of a superior Dasein. The Angels are what the poet would be if he could free himself from human distraction, if he could be indifferent to the point of divinity, absorbed in himself like all noumena are, and at one with the work and the world of the work, its radiant perfections, like those twice luminous worms which glow with the added glory of their own phosphorescence: the lower light flouncing outward like a shout, the higher--that rare instreaming Rilkean light--swirling toward its source like water softly down a drain. Thus the friendliest hug of these Angels would be more than anyone could bear.
With all due respect to Gass, those angels belong on a child's bedroom shelf, along with the dolls and similar
tchotchkes clung to by a poet whose arrested development probably dated from the transition, effected in an
augenblick, between the wearing of girl's clothes forced upon him by his mother and the sporting of military school regalia that were the obsession of his father. While even a skimmer's take on the
Elegies would preclude anything friendly being attributed to the bear hugs dauntingly proffered by Rilke's angels, a credibility problem clings to them that other comparable archetypalisms in modern poetry are not affected by. The later-to-nearly late Yeats no doubt strained credulity with his
Sturmpuppe Crazy Jane and her even crazier Bishop; but though the conic projections of his book
A Vision might raise the red flag of serious astigmatism, his day-to-day swan song does not. Similarly, his verse might go on with a too-dour astringency for many non-Celts, about too-long suffering making a stone of the heart. But nothing prevents us from taking comfort in the poet's rant as we turn a blind eye to its blarney's sham stoniness.
For all the flinty foreshadowing underwriting its heartiness, Yeats's stone is still a singing stone. And, as for Rilke's endless self-ricochetings off carefully selected implacabilities, a poem can exalt the
largesse of ice without its author affecting the remoteness of a "glacial" poet. In poetry singing is as singing does, and as singing goes, so goes the singer: hat in hand and hand on heart, to the very heart of the Mystery, talk of stone to be turned to, or no.
The "Angel" of the Elegies has nothing to do with the Angel of the Christian heaven (rather with the angelic figures of Islam)... The Angel of the Elegies is the creature in whom that transformation of the visible into the invisible we are performing already appears completed...The Angel of the Elegies is the being who vouches for the recognition of a higher degree of reality in the invisible.--Therefore "terrible" to us, because we, its lovers and transformers, still cling to the visible.
The problem in coming to grips with this may hinge not so much on Rilke as on Reading Rilke, with Gass's occasionally bewitching, too frequently bothersome, but nearly always bewildering approach to the difficulties raised by this poet's stubborn unrenderability outside the Schwarzwald of his own Austro-German idiom. It's extremely difficult for Gass's readers to separate out the important strands of his obscurely imbricated commentary, which number at least three or four, depending on how many we notice ourselves perturbed by. First, there are the qualities of Rilke as a culture hero, as fixed star within a constellation of modernists that includes the heirs to the Symbolist tradition from Poe and Baudelaire through Laforgue, Corbière and Mallarmé, which for Gass seem pertinent enough to be worth an advert in that chummy "F.Y.I." way he has with inferences as hopefully drawn as ever was an inside straight. Such qualities are also discernible in writers like Valéry, Yeats, von Hofmannsthal, and Stefan George, but with them the refulgence of cultural heroism shines briefly and goes out. Over Rilkean headland, however, they gleam like a corona and hold their fire like sunrise over a towering cordillera. Unlike that of lesser lights thrown up by modernism, Rilke's brilliance is not like a mote caught in a beam. It is itself a beam so blinding and radiant that it makes motes stranded in its light invisible and so ultimately of very little moment. Is it any wonder that such scintillating brilliance is as mesmerizing to the hoi polloi as to the cluster of satellites crowding one another for space near that sun? Gass, for one, does not underestimate the raw power of such Olympian cachet:
Rilke's life, Rilke's poetry, Rilke's alleged ideas, have exerted an amazing attraction for many minds. It's not been just the highborn women who have sewed a skirt about him, or written him loving letters, or offered him castle space, eager ears, and ceaseless devotion; who came to him as though they were soupless and he a kitchen. Biographers have lined up to check out the contents of his life; studies have multiplied as if they had been introduced into a scholar-empty Australia; and dozens of translators have blunted their skills against his obdurate, complex and compacted poems, displaying an orator's theatrical power, while remaining as suited to a chamber and its music as a harpsichord: made of plucked tough sounds, yet as rapid and light and fragile as fountain water.
Now, by way of a second jewel for his schematic crown, Gass proposes a translator-critic's thematic catalogue of Rilke's tics, blind spots, points of fixedness and/or fixation--Raum, you might say, which the critic-translator isolates as the prime building block of the Rilkean poetic genome:
. . . If there were one word it would be Raum. The space of things. The space of outer space. The space of night which comes through porous windows to feed on our faces. The mystical carpet where lovers wrestle. The womb of the mother. Weltraum. Not just the room in which the furniture of the world rests, but the space of the things themselves. The space made by Being's breathing. Then Innerweltraum. . . . Not just the space we call consciousness, but the space where we retire in order to avoid a feeling, the touch of a lover, the plea of a friend, the threat of intimacy. Distance. Darkness dotted by stars. These spaces are always palpable, as though space were smoke, or the mountains of the heart where the last hamlet of feeling may be discerned. The various distances of death....
Then, for a third, we see put forward the unimaginable complexities fielded by Rilke's poetic style and the personal difficulties encountered by Gass (and 14 other translators since 1939) in attempting to English the Duino Elegies, along with "Requiem for A Friend" and a handful of the Sonnets to Orpheus. And finally, as a fourth element we have the weird and copiously inlaid tapestry of Rilke's marriage to Clara Westhoff (tapering off into his affairs too supernumerary to be tied down with retrospect), and his revelatory experiences as an apprentice to the sculptor Rodin, beginning in 1902, when he was still in his twenties. "He needed to be reformed and refocused," Gass writes, "and he was: by Paris, by the example of Rodin, by the poetry of Baudelaire, which so suited its site and Rilke's moods, by the fictions of Flaubert, and maybe most of all by the paintings of Cézanne." He needed to learn how to unfasten adhesives of false perception that kept him from abandoning himself to the immersion in dinge that in 1906 had begun beckoning to him through ever-thinning derma of material life.
Not the dots but the distance between them that creates the line; not the lines which turn into contours, but the planes between; not simply the planes but the surfaces they define; not the surfaces alone but the light with which they combine to bring every point upon them vibrantly to life: these were some of the things he learned. . . .
It was just after this that Rilke underwent a hollowing out of perceptual habitudes so radical and encompassing that he came near to laying claim to a new trope to put alongside metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony. As an assayer of memorial gold dust, this trope acts like "an accountant within" noting the disbursements doled out to life, as the ego of the poet, barely monitoring the liquidity disappearing as the poems it floats mount up, lives beyond its ends as well as its means. With Rilke this process continued slowly but relentlessly, until his system of psychic checks and balances turned in upon itself, making what once was merely acted upon rise up and act upon the actor himself. Thus, the boundaries between sense and understanding were made to disappear, to become distilled into a language as rarefied, yet sensually distinct, as attar of roses. In the life of this poet,
things--like marriage--lapsed, rather than were dissolved.
Here I have felt the shape that "farewell" takes.
This farewell, exacerbated in true Rilkean fashion, acquires "substantiality" through its own relinquishment by the poet. It leaves itself behind by removing from the scene as it goes something that is then, out of all reason of precedent, grafted onto the soul of the poet. By this strange logic, it is not the poet who detaches himself from the place of parting, it is the farewell itself that, like the shadows in Richard Strauss's opera
Die Frau ohne Schatten (or the sequential departure of musicians in Haydn's
"Farewell" Symphony) unhinges itself from the persons taking their leave, the places themselves being left "spectrally" behind. It's hard to ignore the dismissive language Rilke uses to mark the alluded to break: "nothing more than this," "already no longer linked to me," "already scarcely explainable any more." The poet has
already abandoned what was there to be thrown off; already said his goodbyes to the accoutrements out of which farewells later reconstitute themselves into those grieving
Quem quaeiritis tropes with whose questionings after and beyond the fact some of us know from leavetakings like divorce.
He learned that in one's art an elbow may flow into a thigh, a chin disappear into a palm, a walker walk more purely without the distraction of arms; he learned how a figure might emerge from a chunk of marble like a plant from the ground; he learned that "there are tears which pour from all pores" because everything has an expression, a face where a smile alone lives; that there is stone that can be set in motion or a motion held like a pose; that every accident should be made necessary, and every necessity look like a towel thrown over the back of a chair--these are are a few of the lessons he took to heart: that the poet's eye needs to be so candid that even a decaying vulva, full of flies, must be fearlessly reported, following Baudelaire's example; that exactitude is prerequisite to achievement, so that whatever is full should be fully shown, but rendered spare when sparse, and empty when empty; above all, that art is the opposite of nature, and that the creation of being--the breathing of statues--is what counts; not the imitation of nature but its transformation is the artist's aim: these were some of the things he learned, they began his Wendung, his moment of "turning."
"Finally," Gass declares, letting that long-awaited second shoe fall at last, "Rilke learned what seeing is, and then he learned to see."
If, from earliest youth, your inmost self had cried out to escape its circumstances; if you'd looked about and wondered why your presence had been needed even for a moment where you were; and if that meant you had to disappear into an inner absence, leaving your face and figure to fend for themselves, seeking a realm where you could claim an absolute autonomy; if, somewhat to your shame, considering your abject and unaccomplished condition, you had immortal longings in you; if you knew without being told, without having seen any evidence, without therefore knowing, that you were unique, that inside your small delicate body, behind your heavy-lidded eyes, a wide world was contained, and every house there was haunted by dreams, dreams of greatness, ambitions that Ewald Tragy, your namesake, gave away in a petulant moment--"I am my own lawmaker and king," he'd said, "nobody is above me, not even God"--and furthermore, if, to write the great poetry you meant to write, you had first to be a great poet (for where would this sublime stuff come from if not from a sublime soul?), then the fatal division of the soul is set; then the hidden ruler must remake both actor and role and push them onto the stage....
Artifacts distend a life as no mere protruberances of the human are able to. The typical photograph of Rilke in fund-rasing
mufti wrests from light a corporate wraith who, though mature enough
in appearance, seems like the dolls of his childhood only made up to dissemble an adult. True adults are archives of waifery, of "puerisprudence"--to coin a
term--that must be outgrown if it is to be overtaken. But Rilke stares out at us like one of those exquisitely engendered objects that suffer ontologic molestation in his poems. With a flair typically bordering on the masochistic he invites his angels (whose beauty "coolly disdains to destroy us") to honor him with their slights. (How many times has it been said that Rilke's powers and dominations just
happen to abuse him in a manner akin to that resorted to by his own parents?) He sought emoluments from a shrinking aristocratic world, but such ministrations only became real to him when through serendipitous prostration he could make them wholly his own.
. . . The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge are not to be moved through like so many passing minutes. Isn't any book of hours, because it is a book, a thing? And if it is a thing, it is a space-two spaces, really, the space it makes and the space it's in--and if it is a space, it exists all at once, not bit by bit or leaf by leaf or line by line. The scenes in the novel which fasten the two notebooks together depict the famous unicorn tapestries in Paris' Cluny Museum. And the whole of Malte is built, is painted, is woven, like those calm and gracious images, symbols for each of the senses. They are there all at once, traveled over by the eye, made of threads, but they are not thin, lengthy, or line-like like threads. These flowered places where solemn creatures hover like symbols hung about a hidden neck.
And what of the grand occasion for Gass's book, his translations of the Elegies themselves? One hates to put it so bluntly, but it is hardly possible to view them next to, say, Edward Snow's or Stephen Mitchell's, and not conclude the obvious--that they are what the apprentice pieces of a talented amateur are to the polished works of a master craftsman. Where Gass's renderings may be said to shine is in those portions of Rilke's poem where the grand style gives way momentarily to model railroading on tracks laid by Rilke's pet philosophical themes. In such passages we are captivated, in a manner reminiscent in its own way of Dimitri Shostakovich's fifteenth and final symphony, by the toy shop of Rilke's mind, by seeing metaphysical dreadnoughts ranged in miniature and put disarmingly through their paces. So captivated in fact that we find ourselves caring less about how the poetry is conducting itself and more about how the poem is shaping up. Gass, an old hand at dimensional modeling of this kind (having launched a flotilla of such ships-in-bottles, beginning with the collection Fiction and the Figures of Life in 1972)--of points circling their own tangents, each in its way diverting, each a real jewel in a philosophy professor's pasteboard crown. But pasteboard or not, it was clear that essays such "In Terms of the Toenail" and "Philosophy and the Form of Fiction" rubbed the lamp of that Arabian Nights the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges might have written, had he, like the future author of The Tunnel, been given to letting literary genie and philosophical daemon tickle one another out of pure Platonic space. And Gass has a gift for making the text of his disquisitions "sing" (to haul out yet again Simon's all-purpose verb for the the Siren's skill), as well as sing out, their findings. But for much of the balance of his Duino Elegies, the Englishing, though always intelligent and interpretively believable, lacks the euphony (Rilke's forte) and implicativeness necessary to elevate it to that niche attained by the best versions in print. When Rilke sets the Lippizaners of his best verse prancing and encapsulates within his own circus ring qualities at once equine and nimble--qualities that lie forever beyond the reach of bumptious creatures like, say, Clydesdales--that is when Edward Snow's "revised and most recent" version glistens like sunlight on--well--fresh fallen snow.
Angel! Suppose there's a place we don't know of, and there,
It's enough that this "Fifth Elegy" should close on the suspended note of a rhetorical "floater," which in opthalmalogical parlance is a gelatinous projection seen along the curvature of vision that distracts but poses no harm to the eye itself. Here, the indissoluble excresence is the death-defying highwire act that lovers can never negotiate except within the dead space that separates angelic supposition from earthbound fears of severance and separation. Snow, more than either Leishman or Gass, captures the fastidious parsing Rilkean metaphor is subjected to, just as he smartly conveys the vault into certitude (his, not the reader's) as to why the "pair" are "truly smiling at last," and does it without smothering it in excelsior or damping its force. Poor Leishman can manage no more in this passage than to stumble mawkishly into prose, and half-hearted prose at that, offering nothing like the burst of sangfroid needed to propel the heartstopping past systole and diastole:
Angel: suppose there's a place we know nothing about, and there
Gass makes somewhat less of a mess of it, but his version ends up overmassing its syllable count until the whole assumes a face-forward falling with a mouthful of marbles:
Angel: if there were a place we knew nothing of,
But enough. Simon is, I believe, correct in seconding Gass's guess as to just what those things are that turn many readers off Rilke--namely "his emphasis on Being rather than Doing, on relinquishment rather than retention, on acceptance rather than on revision . . . [It] smacks more of moral indolence than saintliness to them; and its radical subjectivity is offensively antisocial and indifferent to the collective." But rather than use his own verbal gifts to downplay Rilke's flaws in such a way as to make the elegist sound as little phlegmatic as possible, Gass makes him come on as stodgier, even more tongue-tied than he not infrequently appears in German.
. . . The awkwardness of Leishman's frequent Germanic constructions, his sometimes overly noisy line, the mumbo jumbo that gets into them, the oh-so-literary faces that he makes, the occasional inaccuracy, the tickets of confusion we need to be rabbits to run through: we are certainly as familiar with these qualities now as with the faults of a friend, for J. B. Leishman, more than anyone else, has given us our poet, Rilke, in English (as Herter Norton has rendered the prose) and his lines have been impressed on our sensibilities like creases of bedclothing on sleeping bodies; it is impossible to remove them, especially when they dent so handsomely . . .
To wit: the Tenth Elegy's 62nd line consists of two terse sentences, "Ja, das stammte von dort. Einst waren wir reich.--", which Leishman renders as "Yes, that came from there. We used to be rich." A seemingly trivial draining of resonance, but a draining of resonance it surely remains. "Yes, that came from there" falls less trippingly off the tongue than the German, whose spondees enforce stresses that float on pauses, pauses that compel stresses to stamp their feet in a forward motion. Similarly, English speech rhythms will not permit the German equivalent of "Once we were rich--" ("Einst waren wir reich--"), with its patina of Chekhovian regret, to follow "Yes, that came from there." (Snow gives it as "Yes, it came from here," but that doesn't effectively alter the inevitability of "We used to be rich," which is his rendering as well.) In a passage from the same elegy, a few lines further up, Leishman comes a cropper with diction that leaves the worst of both worlds, the Literal and the Abstract, akimbo on the same day-bed, hopelessly entangled in contour sheets:
Only the youthfully-dead, in their first condition
Or so it first appears to the eye unprepared for the lissomeness unleashed by Leishman's scrupulous--on this occasion--adherence to the painfully articulated rope dance Rilke nautches among the sibilants and izzards:
Nur die jungen Toten, im ersten Zustand
Though Snow seldom misjudges the cut of Rilke's rhythmic jib, he does here, and painfully (though the feel of rope dancing is entirely absent):
Only the youthful dead, in the first state
In itself, this is decently serviceable: its echoes out of the
Four Quartets of Eliotic conservancy would not be unwelcome anywhere but here, when the call is for a slow
march--". . . im ersten Zustand / zeitlosen Gleichmuts, dem der Entwöhnung, / folgen ihr liebend." In fact, the sound in German is oddly reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon dipodic verse, of the sort with which
Beowulf empties out its tumbrel of heroism and woe.
Werbung nicht mehr, nicht Werbung, entwaschsene Stimme,
Now, the English:
Not wooing, no longer shall wooing, voice that's outgrown it,
The precise textualizing of Rilke's subliminal invocation of Schiller's "Ode to Joy" is given short Schrift in Gass's lob "toward brightness":
No more courting. Voice, you've outgrown seduction.
Confronted with this, it's not hard to see why Simon finds Gass's approach to rendering Rilkean diction and rhythm inadequate. It's not so much that Gass attempts too much for the sake of too little, but that he fails in the attempt to avoid both by inoculating himself with one in order to ward off infection by the other:
Gass is often overfancy, as when he imputes the German gelösten (loosened) "its twin suggestions of 'listen' and 'loosen,'" the first of which is utter nonsense. His writing can also be slatternly: "language of incredible musicality." But Gass is again provocative in his disquisition of what a translator must preserve at all costs, and what he can sacrifice if he must, something different for every poet. In Rilke, he says
The poetry of idea must come first, the metaphors he makes out of the very edge and absence of meaning, the intense metaphysical quality of his vision. . .while [sic] tone and overall effect would be next.
Well, yes, if you have those, you have just about everything, but Gass himself usually fails on both counts.
Snow's rendering of these lines sacrifices less than Gass's to overstatement and distension, but manages to lose on the swings what it gains on the roundabouts:
No longer, Voice. No longer let wooing send forth your cry:
Quoting lines further on in the same "Seventh Elegy," Simon gives Gass's version lower marks than those by Edward Snow, Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann, or himself, all of which are juxtaposed so the reader can judge for him/herself:
. . . "Hiersein ist herrlich. Ihr wusstet es, Mädchen, ihr auch, / die ihr scheinbar entbehrtet, versankt--, ihr, in den ärgsten / Gassen der Städte, Schwärende, oder dem Abfall / Offene." I translate: "Being here is resplendent. You knew it, girls, you too / who seemed to do without, who sank--, you, in the most wretched / streets of the cities, festering, or rife for the refuse heap." In Edward Snow's new, properly bilingual and annotated edition, this reads: "Life here is magic. Even you knew that, you girls / who seemed deprived of it, who were trapped in the city's vilest streets, festering there, or cast aside / for rubbish." In Galway Kinnell and Hannah Leibmann's attractive The Essential Rilke, this becomes: "Being here is glorious. You knew it, you girls, you, also / who seemed left out, who sank--you, into the most squalid streets of the city, festering, open to / garbage." And finally Gass: "It is breathtaking simply to be here. Girls, even you / knew, who seemed so deprived, so reduced, who became / sewers yourselves, festering in the awful alleys of the city." (Italics Simon's.)
How in the end does Simon rate the competition? Well, after removing himself from consideration (and thereby exhibiting a modesty rarely shown elsewhere), he offers this post mortem:
Obviously, the original is best. Hiersein ist herrlich is untranslatable in its simplicity, directness, cadence, and music. Equally clearly, Gass's chatty, prolix way with it is too prosaic, and "who became sewers yourselves" is offensive. But Snow's version is either too grandiose or too colloquial. Kinnell's glorious is correct but a bit flat; his into for in is plain wrong. Garbage, though correct, has taken on other, unwanted English meanings. Rubbish is better. Gass's "awful alleys" suggests back streets of crime rather than mere squalor, Snow's trapped is less imaginative than sank.
To Simon's abbreviated overview I would append my own appraisal of how among the translations covered in this review virtues and liabilities significantly stack up. Gass's
Reading Rilke reads the means of reading Rilke back into Rilke, with wit and panache, despite any quibbles we (or Simon) might have with his actual translation of
Duino Elegies. Snow's faithful, and in many ways magnificent, rendering of Rilke's superb poem succeeds in retrieving Rilke from the Sargasso Sea poets have wandered into, having sunk from view through a lack of translations to sustain them in times well past their own. Snow's translation remains, in my view at least, the premier version of Rilke in metaphrase--superior on the whole to J. B. Leishman's, Stephen Mitchell's, A. Poulin Jr.'s, or William H. Gass's. And his revised
Duino Elegies, if not his best Rilke to date (I would credit his New Poems
, New Poems  and Uncollected Poems (1997) as sharing that honor), certainly qualifies as one of the two or three most engaging attempts to scale that redoubtable masterpiece.
Despite Rilke's personal, sometimes almost hermetic investment in the elegies, he believed that his poetry spoke for itself. He distrusted commentaries as dilutions and foreclosures of the individual's reading experience. When a friend wrote to him that she felt the key to one of the Sonnets to Orpheus lay in the idea of the transmigration of souls, he responded: "You are thinking too far out beyond the poem itself. . . I believe that no poem in the Sonnets to Orpheus means anything that is not fully written out there, often, it is true, with its most secret name. All 'allusion' I am convinced would be contradictory to the indescribable 'being-there' of the poem." In another context he wrote that his most recalcitrant obscurities may require not elucidation (Aufklärung) so much as "submitting-to" (Unterwerfung). . . .
Despite his efforts to achieve the contrary, Rilke's faith in plain language proved anything but susceptible to the homilies of plain
faith--in angels, in prophecy, in seasonal forces and "twilight premonitions." The Mont Blanc of the
Duino Elegies and the Mont Blanc of the translator's pen (or word processor) remain, despite the poet's good, or better, offices, as far apart as ever. As far apart, indeed, as that matter and anti-matter which poetry, whenever translation is attempted, decrees should cancel each other out, the laws of language failing, as always, to suspend themselves in accordance with the hope voiced by Schiller that poetry, and the joy it evokes, create the means by which
Alle menschen werden brüder. No question that a truly great translation is as impossible as the arrow ever reaching its target as proposed by Zeno in his famous paradox. Still, we can take heart in reality's unceasing refutation of the philosopher's staging of that paradox. With the sound of shaft striking canvas, the halving of halving of distances recedes itself to a middle distance, and the process of art defying logic continues.