Wednesday, 10 December 2008

You Must Change Your Life

How are you with poetry? It makes a lot of people feel awkward these days. It's certainly not generally well taught, at any level, which means fewer and fewer people are learning to encounter their own language in its purest, most playfully serious mode. I find this strange, not least because in many ways it was the discovery of a talent for poetry that catapulted me into the category "highly susceptible to education."

Not so much for writing poetry, of course, as reading and interpreting poetry. An idiotic talent, if ever there was one. If you need a difficult poem sorting out, I'm your man. I don't think there's a Yellow Pages section for literary interpreters (Hermeneuts?) but, if there was, that would be me in the big banner advert. Unfortunately, the bottom dropped out of the interpretation business in the late 1970s, so that's not how I make a living. I did diversify into Theory, but theorised myself into that corner where all theorists are destined to end up*, and shortly thereafter decided to get a proper job instead.

Some poems are as key to our culture and, in their way, as iconic as our most famous paintings, and should be as well-known to everyone. However, they're not, and -- to make it just that little bit more difficult -- they're not all written in English (gasp!). But they exist and persist, nonetheless, and are continually rediscovered, reinterpreted and retranslated by explorers of the culture. One of these is Archaïscher Torso Apollos ("Archaic Torso of Apollo"), by Rainer Maria Rilke. There are plenty of translations on the Web, if you don't know it.

The poem has a famous closing line ("You must change your life") which looks like sententious finger-wagging, and is therefore beloved of the Self Help and Therapy crowd. But that is wrong; about as accurate as fixing on "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" as the key to Hamlet. At its simplest, it's a classic example of an "Art meets Art" poem (Ode on A Grecian Urn and Anecdote of The Jar, for example). Ursula K. Le Guin (yes, that U.K. Le G.) said of it:
"True myth may serve for thousands of years as an inexhaustible source of intellectual speculation, religious joy, ethical inquiry and artistic renewal. The real myth is not destroyed by reason. The fake one is. You look at it and it vanishes. You look at the Blond Hero - really look - and he turns into a gerbil. But you look at Apollo, and he looks back at you."
Personally, I think she half misses the point. Rilke wrote about avatars such as angels and figures from myth, and even claimed to take dictation from voices in the wind, but did not expect us to believe in them. If pressed, I would say it's a poem about the conflict between the projection and the embodiment of essential qualities, and how culture is made from the challenge of living up to an engagement with the two (Don't agree? Let's talk!).

Plastic torso on back window

The poem has always intrigued me since I first read it in the Sixth Form, and a year ago I proposed a project to a teaching colleague along these lines:
Hi [...],
At the moment, I'm still thinking about this and it may well come to nothing, but:
I have in mind a project pulling together a variety of interpretive contributions from staff/students working within the University, focussing on a single poem. I suppose I have a slightly naive vision of, on the one hand, a class of German students creating visual art and, on the other, certain artists engaging creatively with poetry in a foreign language ... If a viable project plan does emerge, I will try to interest either [...] at the [...] Gallery or [...] at the [...] Gallery in an exhibition / publication.
From my p-o-v, I'm interested in the way the visual and the literary interact, and the whole business of translation / transmission between languages, cultures and different expressive means. The Rilke suggested itself as a choice, partly because of its intrinsic concerns, and partly because it has been so frequently translated and variously interpreted. It also seems auspicious that you teach it yourself in your classes.
I have studied German myself (although my 1st degree was in English, I did a special paper on Goethe for finals -- I'm told they printed the exam paper just for me) but, obviously, such a project would benefit enormously from your linguistic expertise and insight (I am baffled, for example, by the various translations of "sein unerhörtes Haupt" as "legendary", "fabulous", "terrific", etc.).
What do you think? Best wishes,
The project so far has come to nothing, but who knows?

A while ago, I found a brilliant translation of the poem on the Web that seemed to discover a dimension beyond the epistemological "heavy breathing" that most translators focus on. It's funny, too. It seems to have gone now, so I've taken the liberty of transcribing it here. I have tried but so far failed to contact the author: I hope she won't mind this publicity.

Archaic Torso of Apollo, a Translation for Bored Children.
After Rilke, by Catherine J. Coan

eyeball ripening
in the head

candle in the chest

in and of
and in itself
and of it

did you know
you didn't know


don't think of buttcrack
here you mustn't think of it

think of the shoulders
or a waterfall

you see
a cat and a star
and an unframed frame
and here is the thing

don't think buttcrack
otherwise you'll never
beget what he meant

no snickering
this is a museum

the statues have no arms
because they fell off
from strangling stupid kids like you

do you want to be a serious poet or what

Wrapped statue in the Ashmolean

* I didn't originally intend "up one's own arse" but it reads that way and I bow to the Derridean différance ...

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