How do we determine what a poem is on about? That this should be a question is a reason many flee poetry. Plainspoken poems still exist, and some poets manage to pull off the technique where there’s an easily accessible layer, and then on further consideration, deeper ones beckoning beneath. But the plainspoken poems are not always honored in the school anthologies that introduce growing minds to the art; and too many when introduced to deeper readings fall away from poetry thinking that either they “just don’t get it” or that those pointing out these subtleties are hallucinating angels and cows in cloud forms.
Even a poet like Robert Frost who was able to pull off that trick of relatable surface and deeper, more complicated undercurrents, must suffer from party boors like myself reminding trapped conversation subjects that “The Road Not Taken” is about the over-consideration of choice not the necessity of stalwart individualism. Damn, the listener thinks, looking for an out, “I thought I had a poem, my poem, and now this fellow is saying one or the other of us is an idiot or a fool.”
There’s another route, another signpost that may help, one couched in the informal phrase “Where are you coming from?” Given that literature in our age has been to a large degree taken over by memoir,* we may employ this tactic as readers or listeners. In this frame, poets are about their lives, and in an even more contained sense, about the important facts of their lives: a trauma, a struggle, a novel life story.
In this view, to consider “The Road Not Taken” in the context of the tragic friendship between Robert Frost and Edward Thomas walking in the wandering lanes and paths of the Cotswolds may help us understand that that poem isn’t just a self-contained piece of art, though it can be that, but also an artifact of something complicated as lives are.
So, I promised I’d get to Rainer Maria Rilke. Last month I started to translate his poem “Before Summer Rain” from the original German. I sometimes do my translations before reading existing English ones. I’m not sure if that is a good idea, but I like the surprise of a poem coming into view for the first time as I work out the language. I finished a draft of it, and then found two or three other English translations in short order.
My “Before Summer Rain” that I could view when this draft was done was a fairly light, fairly clever nature poem about the onset of a thunderstorm. Summer, leaves are all green—then sunlight, perhaps even the chromatic range of the light’s color, takes on a new cast. A bird calls, but we sense it more as a warning omen or a call for others of its species as the storm brews. Inside the house, sunlight no longer illuminates things. Will it storm or will it not quite reach ignition and fade off? A few drops or a deluge? The poem ends.
Right away I doubted my translation in light of the others. I didn’t get the picture entirely wrong, but a couple of significant details diverged, ones that seemed to take the poem elsewhere. Here’s a link to the most common English translation I found. The translation is by Edward Snow, though almost none of the Internet sites that use his work credit him. Snow published his translation in 1991. He’s an award-winning translator who concentrates on Rilke’s poetry—plenty of reasons to respect Snow’s authority on the accuracy of his Rilke. Other than our differing attempts to make compelling English poetry from Rilke’s German, here are the two things that stuck out.
The end of Rilke’s German line “man denkt an einen Hieronymus” (literal: “one thinks of a Hieronymus”) is in Snow’s, and I think every other English translation I found, translated as “St. Jerome.” This indicates strongly that is how the word would be understood in German, and Hieronymus is the Greek version of the name Jerome. This may be problematic for the poem, however. Assuming that the more knowledgeable translators are correct, this leaves many readers in the dark. What the hell does St. Jerome have to do with this reasonably vivid and non-allusive description of an oncoming storm?** In my first complete draft I thought it better to leave it Greek, which would be mysterious in a more mysterious as opposed to a “what the…” way. My second choice, the one I used by the time of my performance, was to use the literal translation of the name from Greek: “sacred name.” This increases an immediate sense of the moment being described by Rilke. The bird’s call is so urgent, so important, that the sacred is invoked.
OK, if I’m going to worry about a single word, what next? The concluding two lines of Rilke’s poem in German are: “das ungewisse Licht von Nachmittagen, / in denen man sich fürchtete als Kind.” (literal: “the uncertain light of afternoons, / in which one was afraid as a child.” Snow renders these as “the chill, uncertain sunlight of those long / childhood hours when you were so afraid.” I had a completely different sense in my draft, that it was still the external object, the changing light of the summer afternoon threatening to storm, that was being depicted. In poetry the observer, the poem’s speaker, and the object may often be merged, but Snow says this is not just an oncoming storm, this is a trigger of something darker than even that. Snow seems to add “chill,” which I can’t find in Rilke’s German, to intensify that sense.
I had read the poems mood as mostly light, mostly clever. Snow had read it, I think, as darker, more chilling. A day or so later I started to think. Did Rilke suffer some kind of childhood abuse?
And so, just in trying to do a translation, trying to figure out what a poem was on about—so that I could bring you an audio performance of a piece that otherwise wouldn’t exist, I found myself thinking I had two roads: throw out my attempt at translation as a misleading embarrassment, or dig more into Rilke’s life.
Turns out I knew even less than I thought. I had this sense of a lean, sickly, aesthete melding art and spirituality, a purist willing to risk lyrical excess. In looking at the highlights of Rilke’s life, it’s stranger than that. I began to think Midwesterner Don Marquis would have made of Rilke something of his poet character Fothergil Finch in his Hermoine and Her Little Group of Serious Thinkers satire. But Rilke’s childhood did have elements that we, and he, might view as abusive.
Rilke age 4 dressed by a mom who missed a dead daughter, and Rilke age 11 sent off to military school to butch-up by his dad. Yes, 19th century children’s clothes are a different sensibility, and some kids respond to a disciplined and regimented life. Rilke didn’t seem to, and his teen years in the school were not good, clashing with the other students who were more into it.
And so I concluded, I needed to revise my translation or abandon it.
Then yesterday I had a chance to record with acoustic guitar, and I grabbed a few things that might work presented that way. I thought, “Before Summer Rain” needs revised words, but maybe I can compose the music while I’m at it, and I could record the revised words later.
The tune came fast. The chord progression has similarities to a strain used in Ray Davies Kinks’ song “Rainy Day in June” (another song about sudden summer rain), but given that I had access to a quiet room where I could record acoustically, I decided I’d go all the way and use an even quieter nylon-string guitar available there.
Nylon-string guitar might bring various things to mind: “classical guitar,” Willie Nelson, Latin American music. I’ll often associate it with two things: learning to play guitar on a J C Penny’s nylon string guitar in my youth, and the early albums of Leonard Cohen where Cohen would play his “one lick” effectively on nylon string guitar. Testing the melody against the existing words, I recorded a couple of takes, while trying to reacquaint myself with the different sound of nylon strings.
There, with live mics and the recorder running, I realized I had already written the translation that could bring out the personal darkness, the undercurrents of childhood abuse, with my version of Rilke’s words. It was simply a matter of performance.
You can hear the performance below with the player gadget.
*I don’t object to this except to the degree that as a contrarian by sensibility, I don’t want any mode or approach to become so predominant without at least asking what else could be done. This is part of the reason that this project has been focused on “Other People’s Stories” and isn’t as much about a personal journey (though those elements can’t be avoided).
**Wikipedia’s entry for St. Jerome, who I only knew as the man credited for translating the Bible into Latin (then the common language of educated Europeans) includes an anecdote about the guilt-ridden Jerry after a night of too much party trying to atone by visiting Rome’s dark catacombs to commune with the decaying bodies of apostles and martyrs. Major goth points, and possibly even a reason why he might be mentioned in Rilke’s poem. But how well is this known? I also find it odd that the German to English literal has it “a St. Jerome” if we remove the Greek. Was St. Jerome enough of a big deal meme-wise that you could refer to him as a type, like calling someone “a Judas?”