Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
James Rother

Rilke Redux

Dreamers of Dreams: Essays on Poets and Poetry by John Simon. Ivan R. Dee, 2001. 265 pp. $26.00

Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation by William H. Gass. Knopf, 1999. 233 pp.  $25.00 

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.
     That is why a Simon essay or review invariably strikes a responsive chord in a loyal reader. And that pool of loyal readers is not anything like a Rush Limbaugh constituency. Pace the screwball Left, it is not simply a magnet for the genteel bigot who flatters himself he understands--and shares--what he takes to be Simon's race, gender and class antagonisms. Nor is it a clatch of sadists for whom a piece by him promises a vicarious thrill always in the offing. No matter how in his pieces he goes about drawing blood, his fight-to-the-death against artistic incompetence and the critical establishment that is its accomplice before and after the fact, has remained a guilty pleasure for thousands of--dare I say it?--Simon fans. If the same cannot be said about those who read him more to find an ideological piñata to whack than out of any curiosity to discover what has to say, then why should anyone be surprised when that same crowd views the (now ageing) GQ model smiling out from a Simon book jacket as a diabolus-for-hire, a blackjack-of-all-trades brandishing "666"'s misery index and "007"'s license to kill its listees. 
     This critic's enemies--as vocal as they are numerous and committed--justify despising him under headings that round up all the usual "right-wing" suspects: homophobia, misogyny and anti-Semitism. As to the first charge of gay-baiting, Simon ranks high on any leftist's list of bêtes noires who blame homosexuals for the preening and mincing hell the arts in America have become--which deterioration, he has said in so many words, warrants consigning any further influx of their middling, meddling, and otherwise horny brethren to places where fever flowers, from opera queens to the butch and the breastless, could cross purposes, items of dress--indeed anything at all, so long as it was not the path of something or someone important. [I should point out that the liberties taken here with so-called "hate speech" are entirely Simon's. While care has been taken to accord the expression of his views no greater license than their outrageousness gives vent to, what appears above precisely inverts what is reproduced below. Hence, where Simon's ad abominem views are presented outside quotation marks, their gist redounds--unaccountably--to him, while the pith invoked to convey them remains, all too accountably, my own.] One last thing: his frequent appearances in elitist and New Conservative journals such as The New Criterion (which Gore Vidal--a less than secret sharer with Simon of the reviewers' trenches--still refers to sneeringly as the "Kramer Hilton"), have (and this is also a view voiced by the fundamentalist left) aligned him with "reactionary" elements for whom moral relativism is by far the greatest danger confronting American culture. 
     Yet, can one critic really exert an influence as toxic and reactionary as the one just described? I can only leave it to the individual reader to determine whether the bleeding chunks shortly to be detached from Simon's writings showing him roused, incensed and snagged on gaucheries of the riff-raff by which he feels the fine arts are beset, number too many or too few. My sole rationale for parading them here lies in the firm belief (strengthened by years of gorging at the Trimalchian feast of this man's wit) that the best, if not the only way to appreciate a Simon roast is to get the beauty of it hot. And hot indeed he can make it, for anyone who makes the mistake of attracting his attention with artistic fare that is no more than fair. As in the following, where seated comfortably at his instrument and loud-pedalling the Jews (and indistinguishably, gays) for all he--and they (respectively)--are worth, he takes a brickbat to two of his favorite targets, as though a noxious musical like Show Me Where the Good Times Are (1969-70) were a capital offense exclusively layable (along with anything mountable in the production able to move or otherwise spread its legs) at their stage door:


. . . A typical current musical . . . is not much different on or off Broadway, is based on something else, and is bad. This particular one is very bad. Imagine a Princeton Triangle Club show, (before this year, when girls were admitted; in Show Me there are no noticeable girls, only travesties of women and a few girlish men), which gives you one triangle. Now take another triangle, an inverted one, and place it over your first. You get a Star--correction--Thtar of David. And that's what Show Me is: a faggoty, Jewish, collegiate musical.

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.* 
     It is worth rolling out a few examples of the Simon touch as laid on in that decade, if only for the bellylaughs they still provide. Of Alfred Drake's performance in a 1964 production of Hamlet: he "does Claudius in three different styles, all of them wrong." Of Tennessee Williams's In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969): "the worst scandal to hit Tennessee since the Monkey Trial." Of Nicol Williamson's annoying inability to tell the doing of Shakespeare from the doing in of Shakespeare: "The portrayals of Hamlet through the ages constitute a psychiatric nosography. There have been Oedipal Hamlets, homosexual Hamlets, transvestite Hamlets (played by actresses), Hamlets suffering from aboulia, dementia praecox, and diverse other ills the mind is heir to. But it remained for Nicol Williamson's Hamlet to suffer from an acute sinus condition. . . ." One could go on quoting at random, almost ad infinitum, so unslim are the pickings--and pickings apart--which make Uneasy Stages a classic not only of Shavian invective, but of solicitude for the future of whatever might usefully distinguish a living theatre from one that was merely "live." 
     Such "terror of the lobby" was extended to that of the movie theatre in numerous film reviews Simon wrote for The New York Times Book Review, Book World (Washington Post), Esquire, National Review and The New Leader from 1967 to 1977. Time and again, he would find himself on the unpopular and even elitist side of such controversies involving Hollywood as how well the issue of moral versus aesthetic responsibility was handled in such films as Cabaret, Robin and Marian, and yes, even The Godfather. But almost never over such trivial matters as style over substance: taking a film to task only became Job One for Simon when its pre-distribution hype made sighting its hidden flaws more than normally difficult for the educated (lay) person. Here, in a piece from the collection Reverse Angle: A Decade of American Films (1982), is Simon talking sense--much needed sense--about pre-Nazi Weimar chic exploding into garden-Variety doublethink, in the 1972 hit musical inspired by Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, Cabaret:

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?
     Nor does Simon avoid treading on the face of what many consider the greatest blockbuster movie classic of all time, Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. This, he insists, is a film whose tryst with earth-caked Sicilian values--loyalty, honor, jihad--paints vendetta as a via dolorosa "ennobling" the only too questionable assumption that "The Family that preys together, stays together." Again, Simon is as intent on inveighing against the hypocrisy of movie critics--from the pretentious extreme of Paris-based auteurisme down to the homegrown loonyism of New Yorker critic Pauline Kael's "trash phenomenon" held up as the "leading edge" of "real movies"--as he is on indicting the moral duplicity of this film's screenwriter and director. Since his beef with Puzo and Coppola depends from an outsize hook, a larger slice of Simon than is ordinary seems in order:

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.
     What does it say? That organized crime is not really such an ignoble way of life: immoral, yes, but exciting, heroic, and based (barring an occasional betrayal soon punished) on profound loyalties within the clan. It is, after all, merely a transitional phase poor immigrants traverse on the way to becoming respectable American capitalists. I cannot imagine why this film should have caused concern among Italo-American organizations or in the Mafia itself--even if all references to Cosa Nostra had not been, upon some pressure, obligingly removed by the film's producers.
     The basic dishonesty of the film lies in showing the Mafia mostly in extremes of heroic violence or sweet family life. Even the scenes of intimidation are grand and spectacular. Missing is the banality of evil: the cheap, ugly, petty racketeering that is the mainstay of organized crime and that neither the script of Mario Puzo not the direction of Francis Ford Coppola could have made glamorous or so much as palatable. . . .

     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. 
     Which is not to say he has given up taking the fight to those perpetrators of mis- and malfeasance whose fingerprints he finds all over the arts in contemporary America. Indeed, he takes it as both a personal affront and a misdemeanor akin to a felony whenever the contractual bond joining a serious artist to his or her audience is in any way violated. When with the authority conferred by his critic's hat he "authorizes" the work of this writer or that, he expects more than just a minimal show of good faith on the part of whomever might be profiting from that work's being placed before the public. In his capacity as critic he represents the interests of that public and so feels he has the right to demand superior craftsmanship in its name--not to mention maximum effort--from any artistic "here" declaring itself the terminus of some statutory buck. Nor does it matter to Simon whether where that buck stops results in a poet, a mezzo-soprano, a film director, or an actor in a minor role being cast in a harsh or unflattering light. It's all the same to him because they are all the same to him: performers equally answerable to the charge of having let an audience--their audience--down. 
     Simon's expertise also encompasses the not always conjunct realms of theory (to which, when capitalized and made a storage bin for French letters, he manifests a distinct animus) and practice, for which he displays an equally clear preference, so long as not wrong-headedly capped (like the feasance mentioned earlier) by the prefix "mal-". Having first tried his hand, as mentioned earlier, at music and opera criticism, followed by theatre and film reviewing, his progress toward a deadline-free job in which he could spend more of his time writing about books (especially those concerning poets and poetry) took some scheming to arrive at. When such an opportunity did finally present itself, he made extremely good use of it. For one thing, he began to publish lengthier (and more formal) essays on subjects that were of more than casual interest to him. These ranged from biography and fiction to poetry and belles lettres. Some of the best of these eventually found their way into the collection titled The Sheep from the Goats, a book of essays that came out in 1989, the pieces being divided up according to the nationality of their subject matter (sections being apportioned one each to American, English, French, German and Austrian, Slavic, Italian and Hispanic literatures), with a concluding section devoted to "General Essays." With Simon, the ability to speak (and write) various European languages and having an intimate knowledge of the literatures growing out of those languages are not asymptotic. His awareness of numerous foreign literary works almost always comes from his having read them "in the original," or from at least having consulted these texts and compared them to their translated versions. 
     In Dreamers of Dreams, Simon gets to return to his long ago declared "first love," poetry. Borrowing his title from a poem by the scarcely known British poet, Arthur O'Shaughnessy (1844-1881), he strikes his colors as poetry critic with a decided, if somewhat dated, flourish. O'Shaughnessy's guiding sentiment echoes the conclusion to "A Defence of Poetry," in which Shelley declares poets to be "the unacknowledged legislators of the World." Simon thus draws together the poetic achievements of the Victorian age and our own by summoning a poet who in his own time straddled an idiom that, in broaching modern no less than Tennysonian cliché, speaks to illusioned and disillusioned alike, without in the least bothering to clarify how the one might be told from the other:

          We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
     Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
     And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
     Of the world for ever, it seems.

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." 
     With this coinage Simon seeks to distinguish real poets from "those who, while really being physicians or insurance company executives, turn out respected poetry tomes." If the name Wallace Stevens leaps to mind here, Simon probably intended it to. As a reader of poems, Simon's taste begins and ends with lyric poetry (Poe's injunction against lengthy verse narratives draws from him an approving nod); and while he might greatly admire, and give space, to first-rank French Symbolists (only Baudelaire is denied an essay unto himself, with nary a hidden bias to be discerned in that). Robert Graves and Louis MacNeice (his favorites among the "English-speaking moderns") aside, he persists in showing a sweet tooth for such diabetic risks as the aforementioned O'Shaughnessy, who today would elicit the charitable characterization of "off-diet," or, less euphemistically, "high-caloric." But then, Simon's "Introduction" to Dreamers of Dreams encourages the taking of bows by other poets who either have joined O'Shaughnessy's retreat into the mists, or are about to: Humbert Wolfe, John Crowe Ransom, Elinor Wylie, Harold Monro, John Pudney ("the airman-poet who delighted W. H. Auden"), A. S. J. Tessimond, and perhaps more regrettably than any other figure included in this group, Richard Wilbur. Such poets, being either unwilling or unable to supply what their age demanded, must endure seeing their works dwindle further and further in significance until, all but forgotten by the guild they served with selflessness and grace, they slip from anthology to oblivion with barely a marker to identify their unkept tomb. 
     This honor roll filing slowly past, a Simonian idée fixe or two emerges from the penumbral haze of dimmed and darkening gold. A lament is sounded for the lapsing of rhyme "into disrepute, no doubt because so many writers of doggerel capitalized on it"; and a similar regret voiced over the undeserved decrepitude of lyrics like Tessimond's "Talk in the Night," which, instead of choosing to exfoliate mandarin complexities, remain "simplicity itself." Simon hews to the line of a strict conservationist and not, as some claim, a mindless conservative on matters of form and poetic accessibility. Ideally, a composer of lyric poems should combine a musician's ear with a painter's eye and a poet's sense of the whole--or what T. S. Eliot, keeping his terms of reference inside his own genetic circle of authorship, enshrines as "the complete consort dancing together." Bells and whistles tacked on to this spartan formula only further increase the risk that genuine poets will come off the "endangered species" list and appear on that of the genus inoperandus. "We are [already] witnesses," notes Simon, "to a disastrous divergence between a poetry that grows ever more esoteric and a public that grows ever more uneducated." No equilibrium this tenuously maintained should be bobbled or otherwise jarred.
     Not even Eliot scapes whipping at the hands of this Savonarola of the lost art. In "On Making the Masterpiece," an essay-length review of Dame Helen Gardner's The Composition of "Four Quartets" (1978) kicking off the present volume, Simon taxes this pré-éminence grise with "paradox mongering," not to mention a disquieting tendency (noted in a remark by Denis Donoghue which Simon quotes) to "[write] of objects and experiences as if he had already left them--with whatever degree of reluctance--behind." Flipping Donoghue's tie for finding this "circumstance" insufficiently generative of "misgivings," Simon heeds a call of the Wilde not infrequently answered in Dreamers of Dreams with the rejoinder: "Such excess of tranquillity in the recollection I find faintly dehumanizing." Worse yet is still to come, however. Seizing upon a charge of dehumanization held like a Damoclean sword over the head of Mallarmé by the philosopher Ortega y Gasset, who "defined the role of the modernist poet . . . as disappearing, volatilizing as a man, in order to be 'converted into a pure anonymous voice, which speaks disembodied words,'" Simon administers a comeuppance to Eliot that is no less valid for having been so long delayed:

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. 
     No less self-indulgent is Simon's attack on David Lehman's celebration, as voiced in The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (1997), of the poetics of James Schuyler in that poet's "Korean Mums":

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.
     And, to grasp a wonder just as ceaseless in its improbability, he can laugh apart from the job at hand without succumbing to his much touted need to take people apart just for laughs. Check out his review of Anthony Thwaite's edition of Philip Larkin's Selected Letters (1992), for just one example of how to let a first-rate subject put himself beyond the reach of any criticism but his own. "First-class Mail: A Wit and His World" flies open quite unpredictably with an expletive too negligible to delete--"What a guy, this Philip Larkin!"--and then proceeds to make the case that this crotchety and self-lacerating librarian-poet may well have been one of the greatest English treasures ever to cry into a pint of bitters. Realizing that a review of a book like Larkin's Selected Letters need only be phoned in, Simon rattles off a battery of quotes, each more side-splitting than the last, in which the poet plays fifty-two-pickup with the joker deck that is his own sadsack self. Thus cutting a swath through Larkin's Keatonesque vale of tears, Simon leaves little room for Larkin to do anything beside always leave them laughing, while savoring a truth (beloved of St. Paul--and T. S. Eliot) that though the spirit killeth, the letter giveth life. A few choice excerpts mark the twain of Larkin's wit:

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
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d'extase les jets d'eau,
Les grands jets d'eau sveltes parmi les marbres.

The calm, pale moonlight, whose sad beauty beaming
Sets the birds softly dreaming in the trees
And makes the marbled fountains, gushing, streaming--
Slender jet-fountains--sob their ecstasies.

Examine how thoroughly Shapiro misses the boat. That the moonlight is pale is self-evident and unnecessary; but what is that "sad beauty, beaming" meant to do? If it is sad, how can it beam? Beaming, in English, signifies contentment, perhaps even smugness. It is there only for the rhyme, and subverts the simple dignity of triste et beau, which also sets up a discreet, self-effacing inner rhyme with oiseaux. (Nothing so obvious as beaming / dreaming.) And whereas Verlaine's birds are merely dreaming--probably denoting their silence or tiny chirps--Shapiro's are "softly dreaming," which makes one wonder what hard or loud dreaming would be like. Next, we do not want "marbled fountains" this early: for full impact, marble (not marbled, which suggests paper) should be withheld until the final panorama. And again, that "gushing, streaming" won't do for the simple jets d'eau, which avoids frenetic tautology.

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. 
     The poetry of the man-boy who wrote the Illuminations poses unique problems in this regard, Simon contends in "Rimbaud, the Anarchic Demiurge," because it throws together deliberate ambiguity and hallucinatory discombobulation in what essentially remains an uncompliant mix:

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. 
     Still, reshaping French or German poems into serviceable English presents obstacles that though thorny hardly prove insuperable to the gifted translator. However, the move eastward into Magyar and Slavic Europe--Simon's own ancestral bailiwick--brings one up against semiological Kosovos so rife with bruised ethnicities and eschatologies with landmines in tow that even the most Nimrodian of Finnegans Wake-up calls could effectively stave off towering babble. Here is Simon exposing but one side of the transliterative destroyer whose depth charges keep the sonar-equipped Russian of Anna Akhmatova from ever reaching an English surface unafflicted by the bends:

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.
     Or so one might conclude. But "Traduttore, Traditore, or the Tradition of Traducing," an essay Simon wrote in 1980-81, goes out on a rather different note--one that is a good deal more sanguine than all of these warning labels of his cited throughout the piece might otherwise suggest. Simon, the consummate pessimist, does his level best to wave the specter of hopelessness he himself outed back into the closet:

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. 

II

     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.
     And with comparable tumult of wind, war, women and wanderlust. Rilke began writing drafts of the first elegies at Schloss Duino, the castle near Trieste of his friend, Princess (or in Gass's assigning of titles, Duchess) Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, in 1912, and wrote finis to the entire poem in 1922 while visiting another friend, at Château de Muzot, near Sierre, in Switzerland. The complete poem had, as they say, a difficult birth, with not much drop-off in severity during its lying in. Like that of the Weimar Republic, Rilke's constitution was never strong and was, along with the latter, prone to irresolutions that frailty of body combined with luxuriance of spirit are rendered even more vulnerable. As effortlessly as a town drunk glides from tying one on to passing out and tying it off, Rilke could fall in and out of love. And his affairs, almost always played out in comfortable surroundings, requiring considerable outlay on the part of Rilke's wealthy admirers, particularly those, like the Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, of the female sex? He tended to emerge from these and their easements of love with as much regret as an executive displays when checking out of a motel. While it might be stretching things to call him a dandy, it seems fair to speculate that the immortal longings stirring in him were closer to a Cleopatra's than a Mark Antony's: the vile things that became themselves in him tended to leave him awfully unscathed, despite their downward--and insistent--employment of him as a divining rod. Circumstances had their way with Rilke, but in his encounters with Eros he gave as good as he got--indeed, in the view of some, he made out better than most. 
     That evidence of circumstance became, for better or worse, Rilke's saving grace. It served as polestar for a poetic north whose hallmark was the bleak and breathtakingly gelid. In view of such a star reality itself took on the aspect of a Bavarian ice palace and only secondarily a place where flesh could feel at home. Typically, his best verse shared an inability (peculiar to the autistic) to distinguish agent from agency with some of his worst. Even his most loyal readers allowed that a cool narcissism, very nearly absolute (and rooted in a deficiency comparable to the one already mentioned), was discernible in nearly all Rilke's settings of pen to paper. Even confidantes as devoted as Lou Andreas-Salomé accused him of being reluctant to prioritize the demands of soil and culture beyond the tumbleweed-like fraternizations he fell into with both sexes. Living a life reminiscent of the ejaculatory arc of a shooting star captured in time-lapsed photography no doubt endowed his poems with auras, but auras more notable for the light emanating from them than for the heat they give off. It was Rilke's charge as a poet to pursue the crystalline, to find strength in the blocking out of resistibility by firmness, regardless of the substance or matter involved. As Stephen Spender wrote of him in The Creative Element: A Study of Vision, Despair, and Orthodoxy among some Modern Writers (1953), "He wanted life like angels, like dolls, like the Archaic statue of the early Apollo staring at you with eyes all over his body, life whose significance is crystalline, concrete and also symbolic, for ever breaking beyond the limits of flesh and consciousness into an indestructible continuity." In the bitter "Seventh Elegy" of the Duino cycle (in the recent revised translation of Edward Snow), Rilke shows that if not all that is crystalline is brittle, not all that is brittle is crystalline, either:

Nowhere, Love, will World exist but within. Our lives
pass in transformation. And all the while the outside realm
diminishes. Where once a solid house endured,
some abstraction shoves itself into view, completely at ease
among concepts, as if it still stood in the brain.
The Zeitgeist is building vast reservoirs of power, formless
as the thrusting energy it wrests from everything.
It no longer recognizes temples. Furtively we hoard
what the heart once lavished. Where one of them still survives,
an object once prayed to, revered, knelt before--,
it's already reaching, secretly, into the invisible world.
Many no longer see it, yet without the gain
of rebuilding it greater now, with pillars and statues, within!

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.
Dann kommt zusammen, was wir immerfort
entzwein indem wir da sind.

Angel and doll! Then there's at last a play!
Then we unite what we continually
part by our being there. (Leishman & Spender)

     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.)
     One answer, of course--if not the answer--is Goethe, a literary alp equipped with sublime views and echoing voice, and for whom--for which?--every reader was a stand-in for Johann Eckermann, that amiable (if needlessly obtuse) amanuensis who must surely have caused the Great Geheimrat to curse the Great Cham for having had the deuced luck to beat him, Goethe, to the acquaintance (and biographical services) of one James Boswell. But--and one hardly need add "unfortunately"--Rilke . . . was no Goethe. Honorifics that would have swelled the Goethean chest would only have come near to caving in that of the sensitive plant whose overheated dreams more often involved death--or rather, Death--than life, an abstract noun never graced by Rilkean capitalization. ". . . How much every one of our deepest raptures makes itself independent of duration and passage," he wrote in Briefe an eine junge Frau. "[Indeed], they stand vertically upon the courses of life, just as death, too, stands vertically upon them; they have more in common with death than with all the aims and movements of our vitality. Only from the side of death (when death, not seen as an extinction, but imagined with altogether surpassing intensity), only from the side of death, I believe, is it possible to do justice to love." 
     We are fated, he opined, to know Spirit only in its wholeness, never piecemeal, as in those doled out surfeits lived for by the old and infirm. From this derives the notion (favored by Gass) that the Duino Elegies were not so much written as unpacked; that they had been nestling all along, whole and entire, beneath the poet's second skin; and then, in accordance with some hidden schedule, first slowly, then suddenly, in a medley of gobs and spasms, became fully cutaneous--a veritable peau de chagrin
     Simon's problem with Reading Rilke is that he, Simon (and, needless to say, countless others), can see this, but for the life of him, Gass cannot. Hence the "cant" Simon feels struck by in the following: 

[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.
     This, by the way (and by comparable coincidence) is not that dissimilar to how, according to Gass, Rilke viewed the supernaturality of a poem--as a plane of spirituality on which all five human senses come together in full verbal hypostasis. "European poetry is [for Rilke] dominated by the sense of sight (so is its philosophy, as well as its science), Gass writes. "And yet," he goes on, quoting Rilke, "the perfect poem can only materialize on condition that the world, acted upon by all five levers simultaneously, is seen, under a definite aspect, on the supernatural plane, which is, in fact, the plane of the poem." Gass's commentary on this is both eye-catching and eye-opening:

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. 
     After all, Rilke's reputation as the last of the great Symbolistes is not ill-deserved. And his relationship to the visionary who could bring into the world a poem like "Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard" is worthy of more than a nod within the overall history of modernism. In many ways Rilke is Mallarmé without l'azur, l'abîme, and l'azimut. He was his own elegant cénacle, though, as has already been said, hardly a shunner of black-tie society's negotiable highs. If Mallarmé had disciples, Rilke had accomplices, which fact allowed him to remain free of both the former's Mardistes, with their repetitive days, and Rimbaud's Merdistes, with their no less repetitious ways. To the contemporary reader, Rilke's angels seem a lot less schrecklich (terrifying) than like Shrek, the loveable ogre created by New Yorker cartoonist William Steig and current star of his own $800,000,000-grossing animated feature film. But who are these other-worldly ascendeds, and just how orderly are their Orders? Rilke's "First Elegy" famously begins:

Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel
Ordnungen? Und gesetzt selbst, es nähme
einer mich plötzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem
stärkeren Dasein. . . .

In Gass's version, these lines acquire the following aspekt--

Who, if I cried, would hear me among the Dominions
of Angels? And even if one of them suddenly
held me against his heart, I would fade in the grip
of that completer existence . . .

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.
     Tied up in all these questions involving literary sincerity is belief. To be truly believable, a piece of writing must be believed in, whether it's the Duino Elegies or a potboiler by John Grisham. And the same applies to whatever in a work might exceed belief. If angels are the order of the day, then the need to believe in them absolutely is essential to the poet and to his or her translator as well. This, I think, has proved problematical in effecting such transcultural leaps as Yeats into, say, Italian or Rilke into English, and especially American English, because beings as prodigious as Rilke's all too redoubtable angels must make the leap into credulity, if poet and poem are to join them there. Leishman and Spender include an end-note of almost three pages in their edition of Duino Elegies explaining just what a Rilkean angel is, and for their commentary they rely heavily on an explication Rilke provided his Polish translator:

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. 
     The earliest stages of this process did not go unrecorded, as "Farewell" from "New Poems," dating from 1907-08 (here in the Edward Snow version), clearly indicates:

Here I have felt the shape that "farewell" takes.
How I know it yet: a dark unvanquished
cruel something, by which a tender coalescence
is once more shown and held and torn apart.

How exposed I was, gazing on at that
which, as it, calling me, released its hold,
stayed behind, as if it were every woman
yet small and white and nothing more than this:

a waving, already no longer linked to me,
a something faintly waving on--, already scarcely
explainable any more: perhaps a plum branch
from which a cuckoo has hastily flown away.

     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. 
     Rather than affirm the transformative power of something as elemental as a poet smelling a rose, Rilke's inversional trope would have it that the smell of its bloom has drawn the poet so deeply into the being of the rose that the space between the rose's olfactory contour and the outreach of the poet's soul collapse into one another forming a breath that dissipates into a poem. Such a poem has in turn the power to disperse both contour and outreach into upper atmospherics that are uniquely the Zeitgeist's own. Such a poem no longer belongs to the poet who wrote it, or indeed to any poet; its fugitive blooms are drawn directly into that archive which is the secret life of roses whose Benjaminian "aura" antedates anything star-struck or even conceptual in the Platonic sense. Gass lays out this terra incognita in a sentence whose length, breadth and ontologic scope mirror the expanse of the Rilkean phenomenon just described: 

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." 
     But learning to see is not always synonymous with seeing how to learn. Rilke was a notoriously quick study in certain things, but in others something of a limp noodle. Yet one has to wonder in all candor whether the same cannot also be said of Gass himself. Just as Rilke made poetic capital by allowing metaphor's amniotic fluid to leach into just those parts of his psyche which were responsible for keeping subject and object transitively distinct, Gass seems pained by a problem that works a similar reverse magic on the integrity of his argument. Try as he might, Gass cannot stop mooning over the ease with which Rilkean oeuvre fades into Rilkean concern with his own image as oeuvriste. Nor can he prevent his digressions on this and other subjects from disappearing into tide pools their own willful eddying creates. From the look of things, Gass never adequately resolved the structural dilemma which distorted the rationale of Reading Rilke into the "great, baggy" tendentiousness that is the book's argument. Did he intend that its centerpiece should be the poet's life functioning as catalytic converter for the translation of Rilke's magnum opus, the Duino Elegies with which Gass was to end the volume? Or was it to show how the book of Rilke's life merged indistinguishably with the life of his various books through the fateful "canceling in" of certain events (the dropping of several key women in his life) and the "canceling out" of others (the poet's poverty, leading him to depend upon the kindness of strangers in a way that would have embarrassed a lesser sponge)? Whichever in the end would come to dominate Gass's discussion, the biographical axes imposed on him as translator of Duino Elegies (and certain other exemplary poems) would necessarily foreclose proceeding down certain avenues of analysis pertinent to Rilke's choice of themes and symbols. 
     Yet, not all the faults plaguing Gass's book are necessarily Gass's fault. Rilke's development, having been arrested as a child, led him to acccept being pressed into the service of beings (such as his angels) and dinge too isolate, too barren, too thickly disseminated into inhuman otherness to either propel him towards grace or favor him with "backtalk" should he dare to address them. "Not feelings," he wrote, "but things I had felt." Denizens of zoos, knick-knacks, bits of antique lace, hydrangeas: each in their own way called out to him from a privileged silence, an animal, vegetable or mineral extenuation too archtypical to grasp, too imbricated in ethereal synergies to know death from a hole in the ground. Let it be said (Gass does) that Rilke's child self was in no wise different from his terminal self, just reversed in space and evicted bodily from time, or least time as a terminal self can know it. He would effectively--or rather, ineffectively--live a child's life throughout the 51 years he was to spend on this planet. Indeed, it was as though he'd been condemned to live out a sentence within a sentence as claustrophic, as contractually contracting--as relentlessly clause-driven and dependent on conceptual punctuation--as that which I'm about to quote from Reading Rilke:

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. 
     Still, it is hardly fair to Gass's book to winnow its qualities on so narrow a threshing floor. There are remarkable insights going begging on every page--so hard is it for even the overstimulated reader to keep up with them all: as hard indeed as it is for Gass himself to keep from encumbering further a psychobiographical juggling act as free of coordinative restrictions as a walk in space is of gravity. Reading Rilke is really about the Duino Elegies and how they grew, but can the Sonnets to Orpheus be ignored? or for that matter The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge? or The Book of Images, or . . . ? And assuming the Notebooks are not hors de combat in this ever ravening and illimitable context, or the diaries Rilke kept of his sojourns across Europe, what are jugglers' balls but planets slumming as oranges in some angel's masque of Puppen keeping childhood in moto perpetuo

. . . 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,
on an indescribable carpet, lovers announced
those feats that are never mastered here--the bold, high
figures of their heartleaps through space,
their towers of pure pleasure, their two ladders
that stand leaning only against each other
with no ground underneath, trembling,--and then performed them,
before the circle of onlookers, the innumerable silent dead:
     Would not those dead throw their last coins
of happiness--hoarded through a lifetime,
kept hidden through a lifetime, unknown to us, eternally
valid--onto the blissful carpet before a pair 
now truly smiling at last?

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
on some indescribable carpet, lovers showed all that here
they're for ever unable to manage--their daring
lofty figures of heart-flight,
their towers of pleasure, their ladders,
long since, where ground never was, just quiveringly
propped by each other,--suppose they could manage it there,
before the spectators ringed round, the countless unmurmuring dead: . . .

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,
and there, on some mystical carpet, the lovers did everything
that's unachievable here--showed their somersaulting souls,
hearts' leaps, their towering palaces of pleasure,
ladders a long time leaping in a tremble against one another
on no more ground that cloud--

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 first English translators to have a go at these craggy and redoubtable six-stress verses were of course J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender, who in their version of 1939 generally overstated their haughty and spume-tossed sublimity--to the detriment of Rilke's own sinewy and cheetah-like German. They were not always to blame for differences having to be split between lesser and almost unacceptable evils, especially where "ordinary language" could scarcely be avoided. Leishman's later solo version (sans Spender) may gain a little in tensile strength but loses at least as much in limpidity and gracefulness. While respecting Leishman's not inconsiderable gifts as a translator, Gass is right on the money in identifying his shortcomings:

. . . 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
of timeless serenity, that of being weaned,
follow her lovingly. Girls
she awaits and befriends. Gently she shows them
what she is wearing. Pearls of Pain and the fine-spun
Veils of Endurance.--Youths
she walks with in silence.

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
zeitlosen Gleichmuts, dem der Entwöhnung,
folgen ihr liebend. Mädchen
wartet sie ab und befreundet sie. Zeigt ihnen leise,
was sie an sich hat. Perlen des Leids und die feinen
Schleier der Duldung.--Mit Jünglingen geht sie
schweigend.

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
of timeless equanimity, the phase of the unburdening,
follow her with loving steps. The girls
she waits for and befriends. Gently lets them see
the things that adorn her. Pearls of grief and the delicate
veils of suffrance. --When with young men
she walks on in silence.

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. 
     The difference between the two versions is probably starkest in the "Seventh Elegy," where a cautious English, awash in restrictive appositives, make a hodgepodge of parallelisms and pauses without which Rilke's Weltsprach would collagenate into Hegelianisms. First, the German:

Werbung nicht mehr, nicht Werbung, entwaschsene Stimme,
sei deines Schries Natur; zwar schrieest du rein view der Vogel,
wenn ihn die Jahreseit auf'hebt, die steigende, beinah vergessend,
daß er ein kümmerendes Tier und nicht nur ein einzelnes Herz sei,
das sie ins Heitere wirft, in die innigen Himmel. Wie er, so
würbest du wohl, nicht minder--, daß, noch unsichtbar,
dich die Freundin erführ, die stille, in der eine Antwort
langsam erwacht und über dem Hören sich anwärmt,--
deinem erkühnten Gefühl die erglühte Gefühlin. . . .

Now, the English:

Not wooing, no longer shall wooing, voice that's outgrown it,
be now the form of your cry; though you cried as pure as the bird
when the surging season uplifts him, almost forgetting
he's merely a fretful creature and not just a single heart
she's tossing to brightness, to intimate azure. No less
than he, you, too, would be wooing some silent companion
to feel you, as yet unseen, some mate in whom a reply
was slowly awaking and warming itself as she listened,--
your own emboldened feeling's glowing fellow-feeling. . . .

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.
It can't be the excuse for your song anymore.
although you sang as purely as a bird
when the soaring season lifts him, almost forgetting
he's just an anxious creature, and not a single heart
that's being tossed toward brightness, into a home-like heaven.
No less than he, you'd be courting some silent companion
so she'd feel you, though you're perched out of sight,
some mate in whom a reply slowly wakens
and warms in her hearing--your ardent feeling finding a fellow flame.

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:
you're past that. Even though your cry would be clear as a bird's
when first Spring bears him aloft, almost forgetting
that he's a cautious creature and not an unsheathed heart
being flung into brightness, into passionate skies. 
Like him, with all his art, you'd also woo--: invisibly,
so that some silent mate might learn of you, and,
as she listened, a reply would slowly wake and grow warm--
the kindled complement of your own ardent feeling.

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 [1907], New Poems [1908] 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.
     But perhaps this hootenanny might best conclude with a statement of intent by the poet himself. After all, Rilke was seldom shy in forwarding his views on poets and poetry and the dreams dreamers dream when their castles in the air are besieged by the advancing armies of history and the advance guard of a future determined to cut the throats of both past and present. Snow introduces the remarks made by the poet below, which are excerpted from letters to the Countess Sizzo and Clara Rilke (dated June 1 and April 23, 1923 respectively):

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. 
     Should a John Simon, who doubts much and doles out relatively little, hasten to join this consensus, we might well be advised to contain our surprise; for translation is a candle worth burning at both ends, even if the result is nearly always disspiriting when seen in ordinary light. But then, translation is not an operation done in eventual hope of "getting it right." It's an act that needs to be essayed, as Simon says, over and over again, so that poetry in one language, unable to see around corners into other languages, can make its presence felt where only one literature is applause reduced to one hand clapping. It's time that the Herculean labors of translators toiling in the service of poetry were no longer ignored, which is to say, were raised to equivalent status with the original work of poets. And time, too, for translators to take their rightful place among Shelley's "unacknowledged legislators of the World." After all, do not translators comprise a branch of government that is coequal in every respect with Shelley's legislature of poets? Even if not among the Supremes, do they not in fact sit upon the highest appellate court convenable by poetry?
     In such a chamber, would a Rilke move over to make room for, say, the Seamus Heaney of the recent Beowulf and selected cantos from Dante's Inferno? I suspect he would, and then some. 


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