Last week I printed four translations of a poem by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. There are two new books about him in the bookstores. One is a new set of translations by one of our best poets, Galway Kinnell; the other is a book of translations, essays on the poet, and meditations on the act of translation by one of our best fiction writers, William Gass.
Readers who have never gotten around to Rilke will find a whole fall and winter's quiet, absorbed and adventurous work in reading through these two books. No one emerges from reading Rilke entirely unchanged. He aims to go deep, to speak to our deepest and most fugitive sense of the possibilities and limitations of our lives, and, like Picasso and Proust, he's an artist who helps to define the art of the last century.
One of Rilke's most celebrated poems -- it comes from a late suite called Sonnets to Orpheus -- contains a phrase that seems to sum up the quest of his poetry. It is something that Apollo, god of the lyre and of lyric poetry, has to tell us: in German, "Gesang ist Dasein"; in English, something like "Singing is being." It means, roughly, that to be alive fully is to find your way to the fullest expression of your being. Here is Kinnell's version of the poem:
A god can do it. But tell me how a man
is to follow him through the narrow lyre?
The human mind is cleft. No temple for Apollo
stands where two heart-ways cross.
Singing, as you reach it, is not desire,
not suing for a thing in the end attained;
singing is existence. Easy, for a god.
But when do we exist? And when will he
turn toward us the earth and stars?
It's not, young people, when you're in love, even if
then your voice thrust open your mouth -- learn
to forget you once lifted into song. That doesn't last.
True singing is a different kind of breath.
A breath about nothing. A blowing in the God. A wind.
Here is Gass:
A god can do it. But tell me,
how can a man follow him through the lyre's strings?
His soul is split. And at the intersection
of two heart-riven roads, there is no temple to Apollo.
Song, as you have taught us, is not mere longing,
the wooing of whatever lovely can be attained;
singing is being. Easy for a god.
But what are we? And when does he fill us
with earth and stars?
Young man, this isn't it, your yearning,
even if your voice bursts out of your mouth.
Learn to forget such impulsive song. It won't last.
Real singing takes another breath.
A breath made of nothing. Inhalation in a god. A wind.
It's like hearing two pianists interpret the same piece of music, and it begins to create in the listener an almost teasing sense of what the unhearable, ideal performance of the poem would sound like. That unhearable performance is also, more or less, what Rilke means by "true singing" when he urges us to find it in our lives.
"Gesang ist Dasein," by Rainer Marie Rilke, as translated by Galway Kinnell in "The Essential Rilke" (Ecco) and William Gass in "Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problem of Translation" (Knopf).