Apr 25, 2013

Rainer Maria Rilke, "Archaic Torso of Apollo," trans. Stephen Mitchell

Arp, Torso of a Giant, 1964, D.I.A.
I hadn’t read Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” in a long while, and frankly I’d forgotten about it. That's shameful, but instead of leading vapid, jejune cheers about the poem and its perplexing conclusion, let me simply admire a few of its particulars.

First, let’s note that it’s an Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet, fourteen lines that begin with a rhymed octave (8 lines) to which a 6-line, rhymed sestet responds in some way. So it’s a bit similar to an English (or Shakespearean) sonnet’s concluding with a rhymed couplet that responds to its preceding twelve lines.

How translators manage to preserve any kind of rhyme has always impressed me. I’ve read somewhere that a good translator often has to make the choice of what’s primary—the poem’s content, including literal translation, or its formal characteristics such as rhyme and meter. At any rate, that kind of intelligence is magic to me, so hats off to Stephen Mitchell.

Apollo was the god of truth and light as well as music, poetry, and some other good things, and as foil to that loosey-goosey, hell-raising frat boy, Dionysus. I think of Apollo as the god of reason and moderation.  So the figure of a decapitated Apollo might suggest an entirely physical, animal power (“like a wild beast’s fur”) with too little wisdom or soul to “burst like a star” “from all the borders of itself.” The thinking god has lost his head.

The danger of a god’s sexual power might feel menacing us, especially as we remember Zeus' rape of Leda, the mortal, who gave birth to the child who would become Helen of Troy, and be partially responsible for a ten-year war, as her Greeks tried to retrieve here. But in Rilke's Apollo, we perceive “a smile” running “through the placid hips and thighs /  to that dark center where procreation flared.” Even there, at the “dark” sexual center, which might be anarchic power in an animal or human, the god’s internal “brilliance . . . like a lamp” illuminates and “dazzles”; he's  empowered with the light to see everything we do, even without his head.

Here, I'm reminded of Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan,” another knockout sonnet, which concludes by wondering if mortal Leda takes on the rapacious Zeus’ “knowledge” with his power before “the indifferent beak could let her drop.” And there’s James Wright’s memorable, disturbing conclusion to “Lying in a Hammock”—“I have wasted my life.”  I wonder if Yeats and Rilke, as contemporaries, were consciously or unconsciously influenced by each other. And did the younger James Wright owe a debt to Rilke's  sonnet?

Here’s a little game to play:  put Rilke’s first and last lines together, and we get “We cannot know his legendary head. . . . You must change your life.”  Apollo’s “legendary head” is missing from the sculpture, so in both literal and figurative ways, we cannot know his inner life. 

More importantly, we cannot know it because we are mere mortal schmucks. Light does not explode from our torsos and make our dark crotches glow with smiling benevolence. Maybe most of us would rather come across as Darth Vader anyway. 

But how shall we change our lives—to be more like the god or to be more submissive to him? Shall we try harder to emulate Apollo’s light, though we know it’s a doomed effort? (Maybe Sisyphus thought so as he rolled his rock up the hill). 
Or, since we cannot be immortal or comprehend divinity, should we become more modest and submissive, accepting the limits of our puny knowledge and the sinister darkness of any power we have?

Are there third and fourth and twentieth ways to read Rilke’s last line?

My thanks to poet and professor Carol Muske-Dukes for returning me to Rilke’s sonnet, which she discusses from a different perspective in her essay, “What Is a Poem?” (in The Eye of the Poet: Six Views on Craft, ed. David Citino). 

We should remember that the purpose of literary criticism and scholarship is leading well-intentioned readers from one worthy poem, poet and idea to another. Too often the whole enterprise is debunked as academic charlatanism, the smelly alley to tenure, promotion, and ego-enlargement within The Academy. 

To be sure, some of it is that, but much of it consists of one well-lit head shining a light for others who want to know . . . and accept the fact that they need to know. 

Apr 17, 2013

Alicia Ostriker, "April" and "In Every Life"

Do you have a preference between these two spring poems by Alicia Ostriker?  Whatever your answer, isn't it good to find serious, intelligent, probing poetry that's also playful?  

April by Alicia Ostriker : Poetry Magazine

In Every Life by Alicia Ostriker : Poetry Magazine


Apr 10, 2013


Visitors, I fear these Anonymous jerks might force me to go back to that reader screening gizmo we all hate. Any suggestions?

Apr 8, 2013

Roethke's "The Waking": Kinds of Travel

Still on the subject of travel, broadly and metaphorically defined, here is Theodore Roethke’s masterful villanelle, “The Waking,” which I’ve posted before, but not since I was a kid, three years ago. I paired it then with Edward Hirsch's "For the Sleepwalkers," which still makes a logical, nice, dreamy connection in my mind:

And here’s what readers and I said about the poem in April 2010:

I’ve always heard “The Waking” as a hymn or prayer, an anthem I usually fail to live up to, though I keep trying. If we cannot talk about—or even take time to think about—how “light takes the tree,” or to listen to our being “dance from ear to ear” (in our best moments), why are we arranging for gawking tours on perfume-y buses? Or cruises that fail?

Say, do those buses have restrooms these days?

Lovers' Lane