26 April 2010


My German isn't good enough to read Rilke's Duino Elegies, and probably never will be, but can I rope his poetry into the investigation I seem to be making into a modernist poetics? I've now read Martyn Crucefix's translation, and although I have problems with it, which I'll come back to, there's enough here to suggest that Rilke's work provides some of the same challenges that we see in other modernist poetry.

To over-simplify, the big question in modernist poetry seems to be that of Roland Barthes, in S/Z, "who is speaking here?" The Elegies begin with a bold first-person question:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the ranks
Of the angels?

And, to be honest, I'm already damaging my own proposition, because the voice throughout the Elegies seems to remain consistent. But maybe it's a more subtle anonymity: the poetic voice gives away so little of its speaker's past, we don't know what is the occasion for these elegies.

There's another anonymity, in that the poet addresses a "you":

Yes - the springtimes needed you. There were stars
waiting to be seen by you. A wave rolled
to your feet in the past, or as you strode
beneath half-shuttered windows, the bowed violin
leant itself to you. All this was your mission.

It's not obvious if this "you" remains the same during the elegies, or what the relationship between the poet and this character is.

So, what might be happening is that one of the characteristics of modernist poetry is the refusal to accept a privileged role for the poet, whose voice is one of many. Pessoa embodied this in the use of heteronyms, Pound by his whole method. And this kind of distinction is much more important than the formal concern (all these poets used what we could inadequately call free verse.)

But there ought to be a relationship between verse form and authority. Does the use of metre and rhyme in itself claim for the poet's voice a structuring authority that modernism refuses? That's a potential line of enquiry.

As for the translation, it's curiously prosaic. Rilke's German of course uses compounds which are hard to transfer into English, and so the lines get longer, and Crucefix's version actually have more lines than the original. Which I think is unusual.

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