November 8, 2008

It's Time, It's Time

Catherine says, “It’s so yellow!  So bright – it’s never been like this before!"

I’m more cautious.  “Every year is a surprise,” I offer.    
We’re looking through our windows at the fall foliage.  From where we are, on the fifth floor, we can see a lot of fall foliage.  It’s past its peak, there is more shedding than turning now.  

Still, I think she has a point.  This year the leaves were positively livid.  But when the wind made them rustle dryly there was also a note of hysteria.  I worried that it was the effect of something else, a toxin in the groundwater, or global warming, or the housing crisis.  When toads take on colors like that it means they’re full of poison.    

I get back in bed with my mug of coffee and suddenly I remember the opening lines of what used to be my favorite fall poem.                  
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness—
Just kidding.  In spite of cold feet I get out of the covers again and fetch the book from the other room.  Here’s the whole thing:    
October Day   

Oh Lord, it’s time, it’s time.  It was a great summer. 
Lay your shadow now on the sundials, 
and on the open fields let the winds go!   

Give the tardy fruits the hint to fill; 
give them two more Mediterranean days, 
drive them on into their greatness, and press 
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.   

Whoever has no house by now will not build. 
Whoever is alone now will remain alone, 
will wait up, read, write long letters, 
and walk along sidewalks under large trees, 
not going home, as the leaves fall and blow away.   

Rainer Maria Rilke 
(translated by Robert Bly)
It’s an October day in the poem, and a November day outside, but otherwise the mood is about right.  When I try to parse a little of the German on the facing page, however, I catch Bly in the act of secreting into the original poem the very tone of “mists and mellow fruitfulness” that I’d just waved off.   Rilke’s first line is more astringent than plangent.    
Herr:  es ist Zeit.  Der Sommer war sehr gross.
The repetition of “it’s time” is all Bly.  Rilke’s language is a bowing of the head, Bly’s a wistful waving farewell.  “Great” could be an adequate translation of gross if the connotation of majesty were not so subsumed, as it inevitably is in American English usage, by mere generic approbation.  Maybe the first line should be translated something like this:    
Lord:  It’s time.  The summer was large.
Except “large” misses the hint of abundance and bounty which, given the context, is there in gross.  But to say “the summer was abundant” or “the summer was bountiful” clutters the starkness and gravity of the original (like a hymn or prayer) with too many syllables.  How about this:    
Lord:  It’s time.  The summer was fat.   
No, it sounds unintentionally comic.  Or hip-hop:  phat.  In other places, however, Bly cleaves closer to Rilke:  “Whoever has no house by now will not build” doesn’t seem, at least with my very meager German, to depart wildly from Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.  (There’s that housing crisis again; maybe it had been among the mental associations that had recalled the poem to my mind to begin with?)  But by the concluding lines of the poem it’s Bly Awry again.  Compare:    
and walk along sidewalks under large trees,
not going home, as the leaves fall and blow away.   

und wird in den Alleen hin und her 
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.
There are “large trees” in Rilke only by implication (die Blätter are leaves), and to make them explicit Bly must sacrifice the hin und her of the figure’s aimless and even leaf-like drifting through the lanes. Clearly after all he’s writing a Bly “take” on a theme by Rilke.  Did I somehow miss this years back, during my Rilke phase, in spite of being far closer in time to the only German classes I’d ever taken?  Or had I seen it, but had forgotten it since?    

I settle deeper into the pillows and the comforter and glance out the windows at the low grey sky and the black limbs showing through the yellow leaves.  Catherine is already out there somewhere on her bicycle.  My mind drifts.  It’s time, it’s time, it’s 2:30 PM and I’m still in my pajamas.  I revise the last stanza of Bly’s poem:    
Whoever is in bed now will remain in bed, 
will drowse, sip coffee, and read a few poems . . .  


Steven Augustine said...

There's a lot more in that "unruhig wandern" than Bly's bland "not going home", too. If you've ever watched an English-language film with "foreign" subtitles (or vice versa) you're used to this phenomenon. It's also why I can't take Ezra Pound or Robert Graves seriously (except as pasticheurs) when they take on the Ancients; it doesn't necessarily diminish the *poetic* authority of the effort, of course, but translation is often used as a very weak alibi for flat language in the product!

You're quite right in spotting the "bowed head" of Rilke's version; Germanic mystics, being pagan at heart, are not on the same casual footing with The Herr as their English-language counterparts (laugh); Bly probably saw Him as a fur-clad, cosmically-proportioned dispenser of bear hugs.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Hi Augustine:

I wondered why Bly didn’t try to make more of the rhetorical linkage of the solitary figure and the leaves – both of them drifting, wandering – that seems to be there in Rilke. And the poem ends on a note of groundlessness that’s not there in Bly either – in Bly the leaves fall and blow away, but we’re very aware of the ground, of gravity, whereas in Rilke it’s like you’re on the leaf itself, spinning off in space. And it’s not like I think Bly was ill equipped to pick this up, either, in the first place because there’s simply no way his German could have been more remedial than mine, and in the second place because he gets a similar moment in another poem just right:

Und in den abgebrochnen Tag der Teiche
sinkt, wie auf Fischen stehend, mein Gefühl.


and in the ponds broken off from the sky
my feeling sinks, as if standing on fishes.

It was that last line that sold me on the book when I picked it up in the bookstore, years ago now, and I still think it’s a great, great image. I’d have to fetch my dictionary from the other room to double-check all the German, but I’m pretty sure that Bly nails the Rilkean sense, and quite beautifully and economically (your German must be much better than mine, though, so you tell me what you think). While I’ve never been a big fan of Bly’s own verse – even before he made himself into a figure of ‘men’s movement’ fun – I had always considered him a gifted “poet-translator,” like Clayton Eshleman, except that Eshleman is even better (have you read his translations of Cesar Vallejo?).

But I’m starting to sound like someone who reads a lot of poetry, and I really don’t, not like I used to. Now I only return once in a while to my old “greatest hits,” like somebody getting out their 80s vinyl for a trip down memory lane.

Hope you had a good Schicksalstag.

Steven Augustine said...


Back again. So: I'm far from an expert (I came to Berlin in order to write *because* I knew no German; being a functional illiterate was even better than keeping a cabin in Upstate NY, for writerly serenity; sadly, by osmosis, after all this time, my immunity to the language has been compromised, and I read the language fairly well now), but my reading of...

---Und in den abgebrochnen Tag der Teiche
sinkt, wie auf Fischen stehend, mein Gefühl---

Would, I think, be more like (minus poetic polish):

"And in the broken off day of the ponds
My feeling sinks as if standing on fishes"

So, the *literal* translation of the first half comes out with "broken off DAY of the ponds"... not "ponds broken off from the sky". I could imagine glossing "broken off" as "interrupted", for one near-meaning. But I think it's more likely that, if "Tag" is not just a word for "day", but an old fashioned metaphor for "sky" (via daylight), then "broken off sky" (*as reflected in scattered ponds*) is closer. Or "broken off day" like ponds/shards of a shattered day-reflecting mirror.

But the "abgebrochnen" isn't modifying the ponds, in any case, it's saying something about the Tag. Bly's meaning is same-difference, I guess, but a closer

Again: I could be horrifically wrong. Thankgodz I have no ego invested in my knowledge of German!

Steven Augustine said...

Ooops: I think I left this sentence unfinished in the previous comment:

Bly's image-meaning is same-difference stuff, I guess, but a closer translation would have been *more* poetic, in this case, I feel.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Well, I have some ego invested in your knowledge of German, and I say, Echt!

That's cool about "Tag" as sky, too. Thanks for that.

In the mean time I found an interesting article by Marjorie Perloff about Rilke translations (on the occasion of William Gass's book). This in particular caught my (shamed, monolingual) eye:


If, as Eliot Weinberger has recently noted 2, the publication of poetry in translation in the US has undergone a steady decline in the past few decades, Rilke seems to be the grand exception. There are now more than twenty translations of the Duino Elegies, three (Gass, Galway Kinnell, Edward Snow) from the past year alone. What makes this phenomenon especially odd is that, so far as I can judge, none of the translators are themselves bilingual, and only a few–A. J. Poulin, David Young, Kinnell–are themselves poets. J. B. Leishman and Edward Snow, in what seems an odd coincidence, were both trained as English Renaissance scholars. As for Gass himself, one assumes that as a student of philosophy he must have learned German at college, but nothing in his book suggests that he is in any way at home in the language. Indeed, in the preface, Gass warmly acknowledges the help of the German scholar-critic Heide Ziegler to whom the book is dedicated. "This book," he declares "is half hers." If so, why doesn’t her name appear on the title page? If not, what does this declaration really mean?

Reflections on the Problems of Translation (Gass’s subtitle) thus represents what is to my mind an astonishing phenomenon: the cult-like worship of a poet by later poets who can barely read the poetry in question! It is very much a symptom of our present culture: James Joyce, let’s recall, taught himself Norwegian just so that he could read Ibsen; today, by contrast, an acclaimed translation of Dante’s Inferno has been produced by the poet Robert Pinsky, who admits to struggling with the Italian original. Indeed, the alliance between poet and native informant, as in the case of Kinnell and Liebmann, or, say, Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith in their Aimé Césaire translations, or more informally, Gass and Ziegler, is based on the curious premise that the poet-translator (usually male) takes the trot generated by his informant (usually, in the current economy, female) and endows those words with something called "poetry."


the full is here:

Catherine said...

A found poem
in our living room.
Desert landsape,
rocks and boulders, thick dust,
sand, spilled dirt and dead wrappers
under the couch.
Don't look.

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