Crawling along one of my referential threads, I have recently read the two Edward Hirsch books about poetry and am in the middle of reading Gass on Rilke. One book leads to the next. These three are outstanding.
The Gass book is subtitled Reflections on the Problems of Translation, and the book is certainly about that, and the subtitle will likely prevent all of you from buying it. I warn you, it's much more than that. In the introductory chapter, the one where Gass skims rapidly across Rilke's short life, are two paragraphs so outstanding that I'll quote them here:
"This is love, Rilke is told—and aren’t we all told?—take a look: here are mother and father being nice to one another, exchanging gifts, adoring their furniture, their pets, their child; here is a faintly smiling madonna, and there a stern saint, and now a priest, to whom one is unfailingly polite, next a nurse, a friend, a dog whose tail wags; but on top of what we are told, like a cold hand, soon rests what we see and feel and finally know: the mother who picks us up and puts us down as she would a piece of knitting; the joyful union that parts, perhaps like wet paper, without a sound, in front of our fearful eyes; the cat who sings its sex in the night and runs away; those saints who swallow only candle smoke and say nothing; the dog whose devotions knock us over or dirty our pants; or the priest, with a forced warmth heating his polished face, who twists the arm of an unruly acolyte because the boy doesn’t dare yelp during the service; the nurse who says “good night, sleep tight” over the closing latches of her traveling bags; and finally those friends . . . those friends who skip scornfully away to play with children who have called us dreadful names: which layer is the layer of love? is it only made of words—that kiss called “lip service,” that caress called “shake hands,” that welcome that feels like “good-bye”?
During childhood, contradiction paves every avenue of feeling, and we grow up in bewilderment like a bird in a ballroom, with all that space and none meant for flying, a wide shining floor and nowhere to light. So out of the lies and confusions of every day the child constructs a way to cope, part of which will comprise a general manner of being in, and making, love. Thus from the contrast between the official language of love and the unofficial facts of life is born a dream of what this pain, this passion, this obsession, this belief, this relation, ought to be."
Imagine if more biographers thought and wrote like this. Imagine if anyone did. By the second chapter, Gass is comparing at least sixteen translations of the Duino Elegies, including multiple versions of his own, and it's a lesson in poetry and translation, training, creativity, inspiration, synthesis, choice. It's remarkable. Every poet should buy this book.
Gass so convinces me of his authority that I don't wink when he launches into something like this:
"Rilke's easy way with words led him astray, and he was late in his mastery of Goethe, Holderlin, and many others. Rilke's salad days were followed by arid stretches, by doubts, difficulties of all kinds, and these were painful for him, but no doubt necessary. Meanwhile, he was trying to understand his own conflicted nature. It is important to remember that the body fuels the mind. And that character controls both. The creative life of the mathematician is usually over by age forty. Perhaps the emotional problems the scholar is fleeing, by working in a world of total abstraction, no longer exert the same fearful pressures. Rilke needed his neuroses, he thought, and he refused, for that reason, to undergo psychoanalysis, although it was suggested to him."
Knowing that one of Rilke's lovers was Lou Salome, who ranged from Nietzsche to Rilke to Freud (I'm leaving out the really famous lovers), I imagine Rilke was resisting strong arguments.