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Friday, March 11, 2005

Going Blind (Rilke)

this is an audio post - click to play

The version I've read here is from the Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell. I prefer his translations of Rilke to any others I've run across.

The poem 'Going Blind' was originally published in Rilke's New Poems (1907;1908).

Yes, I found it really hard to resist making the cheap joke I can't help seeing as being implicit in the English title.


Anonymous said...

I haven't read Mitchell's trans. unfortunately and because the sound on my computer appears to be kaput, can't hear your rendition, John. I've got J.B. Leishman's trans. and you can tell a great poem's under there, marred badly by things like a forced triple-syllable rhyme ("listening/glistening") and generally stuffy diction.

But Peter Van Toorn has a wonderful free adaptation of the poem in Mountain Tea:

As one of those hairline cracks finds a way
into a tea cup's wall, you find your way
into town--by tickles and taps. That or this,
isn't there for you, no the way darkness is.

Shapes reach you, maybe the way the sea's blue
reaches the beach it keeps rolling onto;
you have to poke your stick from side to side
and get the feel of things first, to decide.

Don't you look like the host of a party,
or a bride who's just about to marry,
as you climb on a bus, or stand and wait
at a crossing for a hand to reach out?

In an essay on Van Toorn, Douglas Burnet Smith says that the only flaw in this poem is in the eighth line, where the poet mars the rhythm at line's end to force a rhyme in. But I love that late caesura, the pause of the act of deciding through "getting the feel of things first."


Anonymous said...

Erratum: line 4 should read "not the way."


MackJohnny said...

Interesting. Here's the text of Mitchell's English version;

She sat just like the others at the table.
But on second glance, she seemed to hold her cup
a little differently as she picked it up.
She smiled once. It was almost painful.

And when they finished and it was time to stand
and slowly, as chance selected them, they left
and moved through many rooms (they talked and laughed),
I saw her. She was moving far behind

the others, absorbed, like someone who will soon
have to sing before a large assembly;
upon her eyes, which were radiant with joy,
light played as on the surface of a pool.

She followed slowly, taking a long time,
as though there were some obstacle in the way;
and yet: as though, once it was overcome,
she would be beyond all walking, and would fly.

Mitchell sticks to the order of original's rhyme scheme, but he mostly goes for half-rhymes or slant rhymes, or whatever the hell you want to call them. In any case, I find them unobtrusive.

What I really like about this version is its mask of detachment. I think there is a lot of pressure under that mask. It seems to me to show up in the way momentum builds, stutters, builds again in the lines of the first three stanzas, and in the way that momentum builds with never a hesitation in the final stanza. The way a blind person might stand up and start walking, I guess, a little hesitantly at first, until they were sure they knew what was next.

Seems to me Van Toorn got the feel of this one right, though his is more playful. Heh. Rilke was never known for lightheartedness.