Rimbaud’s Eternity

I started out this January trying to translate Rimbaud, and it’s only as the month is ending that I’ve finally got something to present. Why was this such a struggle?

Well, some of it’s me. I’m having a harder time this winter keeping up this project, and by focusing recently on translation I’ve only made it harder on myself. Why do I do these translations on top of composing, recording, and playing most of the instruments in the pieces? That’s more than a rhetorical question, I’ve sincerely asked myself that this month. I’m not a speaker of any of the native languages of the poets I’ve translated, so I work with the highly welcome online dictionaries and computer translators available—but I’m not a literary scholar or expert on any of these poets, and I’ve never lived as part of their culture. I worry about getting it wrong, doubly so in that I present them publicly.

I think I have three reasons. First is that it expands what I can present here. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s difficult to get permission to do what I do for work that’s not in the public domain, and I don’t want to use other people’s translations that are in copyright without permission. Second, I think this is a great practice to improve one’s own poetry. Do any creative writing programs these days require or assign translation of poetry?*  I don’t know, but if not, I’d encourage that. The struggle to find the best English word, to not harm the strength of an image, and to shape the poem so that its word-music works are directly transferable to writing one’s own poems. And here’s the last reason: I think performing a poem illuminates it for the reader/performer, it makes it part of your breath. Translating it imbeds it even more so in one’s mind.

So why was Rimbaud a tougher task?

Unlike other poets, I’ve never been a Rimbaud fan, even though Modernist French poetry was an enthusiasm of my twenties. I think I bought a translation of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell  at the same Savarns book store on the Minneapolis West Bank where I picked up poetry chap books by Patti Smith and collections of French language Surrealists. And Smith and Surrealists liked Rimbaud a lot.  Smith has spoken reverently about how her copy of Rimbaud helped her through her own early twenties, but Rimbaud didn’t perform that service for me.**

Arthur Rimbaud
Sentinel soul. Teenage poet Arthur Rimbaud


But even just as myth, Rimbaud has an inescapable pull. There’s no story like it: a bright teenager drops out of secondary school, flees to the Paris of the Paris Commune in 1871, takes up with celebrated poet Paul Verlaine. Disasters ensue, including taking the most famous non-fatal intra-author bullet from a disordered Verlaine. In the midst of this, he writes furious poetry, poetry capable of impressing the most avant garde writers of the 20th century to follow.

Bang Bang My Baby Shot Me Down

“Situations have ended sad/Relationships have all been bad…” Plaque marks were Verlaine shot Rimbaud.


All this as a teenager. As his teen years end, he stops writing and moves to Africa to work as a commercial trader, never returning to the writing life and by accounts actively distaining it. He dies of cancer at the age of 37.

As we’ve seen recently here, there are other teenaged poets who’ve produced work we still read today. But very few of them produced their greatest work at that age—and arguably none of their youthful work was as influential as Arthur Rimbaud’s.

I’ve dealt with the trouble that hard-to-grasp, obscure, and Surrealist poets present to translations. Rimbaud was as tough as Mallarmé in that regard. In one Rimbaud poem I finished a complete translation draft, but was left with an “is that all there is” feeling that the result wasn’t all that compelling. I started another and then another, but again the early results didn’t seem like I’d grasped them or that they’d work here.

Then it hit me, at least with his poem “Eternity,”  part of its power is incantatory, it’s in the metrical and rhyming effects in the original French! This shouldn’t have surprised me. While there are other ways to achieve similar effects: parallelism, repetition, old-English alliteration, even a certain kind of intellectual rhyme in imagery itself, rhyme is still used in most songs and hip-hop rap flows, not because there’s some kind of rule about it, but because the expectation of return to the rhyme gives a certain fatalistic drive to the verse. And “Eternity’s”  meter is also unusual, it’s a very short line, just five beats.

Do you remember me saying that I almost never try to bring over the sound of the original verse into my translations, that I’d rather focus on making the images vivid and for the poem to have whatever good word-music in English? That’s still a practical rule, which may go double when translating from a language like French which has the benefit of so many more rhyming words; but in this short poem I decided to move over to respecting the syllable count of the original line and to a ABCB rhyming scheme.


For good or ill, this did cause me to play more fast-and-loose with some of the more difficult images and phrases in Rimbaud’s poem, ones where other translators had other readings. If it sounded good, if it kept to the scheme, if it seemed to advance some overall flow to the poem’s meaning from image to image, I judged it “close enough for rock’n’roll.”

In the end, my main diversion from other translations of “Eternity”  I’ve seen is that many other translations make this poem more of a brag that Rimbaud has absorbed the infinity of the titular eternity and is now it’s master. My version has a more elusive eternity and a sense that others are seeking to apprehend it, much like a search for an underground partisan. Because the other translators may be Rimbaud scholars with a greater mastery of French, there’s a good chance they’re more correct—but if there’s a possibility that the “I is another” in Rimbaud’s poem, there may be an element I’m bringing out that was always there. Here’s a link to the poem in the original French for those who’d like to check.

Musically, this is rock in the ragged sense that rock’n’roll is a loose and inclusive form. There’s no tight backbeat, the bass is a bowed contrabass with some filtering, and the guitar won’t really play the blues—but the overall guitar timbres are from the rock palette. For the chord cadence I made a nod to some of those who did help me get through my 20s. The line in Rimbaud’s poem that ended up being translated (loosely in this instance) as “I see no escape” brought to mind “All Along the Watchtower”  sideways to me, and the chord cadence I use is also somewhat similar to Patti Smith/Bruce Springsteen’s “Because the Night.”  The lines in my translation “Murmur our desire/Night that is nothing/A day that’s on fire” could well fit into that sort of expression. You know the drill to hear it: the player gadget’s below.





*I know in the past students were assigned translations from classical Greek and Latin poets as part of general studies. While this came from the idea that classical grammar and vocabulary were the basis for mastery of English (a suspect notion) I think it must have helped many a budding poet.

**It was poet/musicians did that for me: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Smith herself. All of these are controversial figures in purely literary circles. I can tell you that none of them helped my standing in those 1970s years when I should have been establishing the peripatetic poetry career that I didn’t have. It would have been better for me, influences-wise, if I could have said Rimbaud instead.

Poem 1 from Twenty Love Poems

Last post I said that Pablo Neruda’s departed lover was by definition absent by the time we got to the final love poem in his Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.  I’ve now read the entire collection in an English translation, and I’d have to say that the lover is to a large degree absent throughout—not just in the sense that elements of a doomed romance are woven into the whole series, but in the sense that she isn’t really given a living presence.

Still, quiet, and dark are all attributes Neruda sees or applies to her.*  Erotic attention is  given, moments of apparent mutual intimacy are sketched, and most importantly to us as readers (as opposed to actual partners of Neruda) a range of striking imagery is used to represent her and the poem’s apprehension of his experience with her.

This last point may be crucial. Without it, this poetic series would be only another example of the syndrome of “The Male Gaze.” If that sort of thing, and the patriarchal power dynamics associated are a point of pain, this series of poems by the eventually Nobel Prize winning poet may not be for you.

Sexuality and its expressions, its inescapable intertwining with the rest of society’s hierarchies and prejudices, is not a simple thing. Twenty Love Poems’  popularity testifies that not everyone in the past 100 years sees it this way or is equally bothered by that element.

I’m willing to put Neruda on the stand, but only in our moot court, since he is now long dead, and no one now living likely had to try to negotiate an erotic relationship with him. He’s now become his writings, and his youthful lovers too have become the imagery that he preserved them as. Take that in the balance as we weigh the once living beings and their kindnesses, cravings and blindspots against the art that one of them has left.

“Poem 20”  in the series began by launching one last extravagant image about the love affair as it writes that there can be no more, but as I now turn to the opening of the series, the 19 year old Neruda is going to try numerous audacious images to describe his beloved and their relationship. They’re all going to be one-sided. She never speaks. Her emotions can be sometimes made out if one reads the poems in an Imagist manner (where emotional words are not used, but depicted with external description) but they are not the point of the series which is focused on the male speaker’s suffering, confusion, and dissatisfaction.

I’ve mentioned before that I fear that I may ere in my translations because my prime goal is to make vivid the images I discern in a poem. In Neruda’s “Poem 1,”  I differ from other translations I’ve read of it in that I see some images they have muted or made more abstract and “prettified.” I worried about my tendency here so much that I pulled back from some rawer translations I considered. This may be cowardice on my part—but the most noble explanation I can give is that to make a sure judgement on that level of tone I would need to be a fluent speaker of the source language and more familiar with the entirety of Neruda’s work.

Poem 1

Here’s the translation I mined from Neruda. “It’s much cheaper down in the South American towns where the miners work almost for nothing.”


Here are some brief notes on my experience of “Poem 1”  in making my fresh translation of it from the original Spanish.

The poem opens with an audacious image: the beloved is portrayed as an immense (if inhuman—not even animal, but mineral!) landscape. My reading is that Neruda is making an extended metaphor that erotically he’s engaged in mining his lover’s body. Are there subtexts here (I assume unintentional, but who knows) to foreign corporate exploitation of Chilean resources?

The first quatrain ends with what I read as a brag that lover-man Neruda is so potent that his lover could only conceive a son from his mining operation. See what I warned about? Either Neruda or I—or both of us—is risking risibility here.

In the second quatrain, Neruda recovers. This is flat-out marvelous and mysterious writing. Perhaps it benefits in that Neruda is no longer trying to describe his beloved, only himself here. In my translation task I worked a bit on what word to use for “túnel.” “Tunnel” is the obvious choice, but I never liked it as word-music when I tried it. I chose “cave” instead, preserving the anima subtext I sensed.

The third stanza, problematic again. It opens well, and as word-music compels. The “de leche ávida y firme” phrase is rendered by all the other translators in whatever their best Surrealistic/poetic manner finds. I’m more base it seems, and was struck by secondary Spanish meanings for “leche.” I could also have chosen the idiomatic meaning of smacking or bumping, even though other translators haven’t. Third line? If she was to speak: “Neruda, my absent eyes are up here!”   Fourth line. “Rosey pubis” is just bad, and I couldn’t justify linguistically my alternative.

OK, you in the back row. Stop snickering. Or otherwise we’ll stop with erotic poetry and go back to Longfellow right now!

Last stanza. How self-aware was Neruda when he wrote this?** As he refrains on woman and body, he goes and drops in the “my woman” formulation with it. Given that in the course of this series of poems or even the rest of this stanza, this isn’t going to be a long-term commitment, I’m not sure how he gets the deed and mineral rights on his beloved’s mortal corpus, but if you like you can just say that I’m 2020 anachronistically considering 1924. The final three lines make plain, even if it’s lovely verse, that, well: a man’s gotta ramble, I can’t be satisfied, and the problems of us little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Am I being unfair to Neruda? Even here as a 19-year-old he’s an accomplished poet who found an avid audience that bonded with what they received in his art. When reading his Twenty Love Poems and Song of Despair   I came across as many “wow!” lines as problematic ones, and I wasn’t bored. Not everyone looking for a lover, much less a love poet, is going to ask for the correct dialectic to get them through the night.

A possible defense is that this isn’t poetry as memoir (a common form today) and that the woman in the poem seems soul-less and silent because she is intentionally an abstracted metaphor. As I said when we started—whatever, she is now.

For my performance I chose not to go romantic for this as I did with “Poem 20”  last time. While there is a tender cello present, the main music is carried by pianos playing astringently. I performed it more as if it was a Browning-like dramatic monolog—for monolog it is. Feel free to hiss or sigh with the character of this very young dramatis personae.***  The text in Neruda’s original Spanish alongside another English translation is here. The player gadget to hear my performance is below.




*In “Poem 15”  the poet says to her “I like for you to be still: it is as though you were absent,/distant and full of sorrow as though you had died.” This may be taking a Goth stance a bit too far.

**In “Poem 14”  he shows a moment of sympathy, “How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me.”

***Former REM frontman Michael Stipe had one of those interviews via a standardized questionnaire recently. To the question “To whom would you most like to say sorry, and why?” he answered:

“Anyone I slept with before the age of 27…”

Poem 20 from Twenty Love Poems

This should be embarrassing to admit, but I’m not that familiar with Pablo Neruda’s poetry. This project is a great motivator to fill in such gaps. English translations from Chilean Neruda’s Spanish exist, but there may be no better way to become truly familiar with a poet than to translate them yourself.

As 2020 began, I saw a list of some works that came into public domain status on January 1st. Neruda’s Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair)  was one of those 1924 books that are now free to perform and use.

Published when Neruda was 19, it has reached a large audience for a poetry collection: the Wikipedia article says it’s the “Best selling poetry book in the Spanish language ever” and gives overall sales as 20 million copies. These are poems of erotic love and desire, and that subject no doubt helps its popularity. I think it’s safe to assume that some of the sales would be love-token gifts.

Veinte Poemas Title Page

“If you see her, say hello. She might be in Tangier…” Pablo Neruda’s 1924 “Blood on the Tracks”


I’ve only translated one poem in the series completely: the final love poem. But on a cursory examination this collection of poems is an example of a genre that if presented as a sung recording would be called “a break-up album.” That is, it’s an expression of the author’s experience of a romantic relationship that has come to an end. It’s a common enough trope that many singer-songwriters have one in their catalog, and most of the rest could support a playlist to create one in effect.

A problematic element in the break-up album, sung or printed, is that the hard-end of a relationship tends to leave the writer who gets to document it a number of not always elevated states: self-pity, anger, hopelessness, revenge, grief, confusion, sorrow. By definition, the singer is “working through this.”

The former beloved likely appears, but they often don’t get a very well-rounded portrayal—the author’s pain is the side that gets sung. Sometimes you get Blood on the Tracks, and other times you get “Ballad in Plain D”  from Another Side of Bob Dylan. Where’s Neruda, who was a few months younger than the Dylan of Another Side when Twenty Love Poems was written, in this continuum? The poet’s beloved here is referred to mostly in the sense of her absence in this final poem. Not much is said about who did who wrong and in what ways, and by this it’s a universal poem.

Universal can risk banality. Against this danger Neruda arrays considerable musicality in his poem. It’s not a strict form like a villanelle, but repeating lines and phrases work like that form and remind us of the stuck-ness and the self-mantras at the end of a relationship. From my start at a couple of other poems in the series, the whole collection seems to be full of sensual imagery, but this last poem, so full of loss and lack, challenges this tactic.

Neruda wrestles with that right from the start, saying in one of the refrains that the dissolution has caused him to be able to write “the saddest lines” and he then immediately launches into some of the most elaborate images in this poem:

‘…The night is full of stars
And the dark stars on the horizon are shivering’
The night wind swirls the sky, singing.”


Yet the rest of the poem is not consistently in this voice. Alternating with the more striking images are lines you, I, or the next person might say at the end of a relationship. This may make the poem more inviting to those not ready for a full-on array of Surrealist images.

This also made it easier for me as a translator. I feel my task as a translator of surreal images is to make them vivid for speakers of contemporary English, and that leads me to feel I should understand even the most hermetic image to render it as well as I can. I’ll often spend a long time on just one phrase, one image. What is the poet’s mind, however disassociated from convention, sensing, seeing, in this?

As a performer, my other task was to invest this poem about the end of a passionate state with appropriate emotion. How much to understate? How much to state with extra conviction or extra doubt? What I lack in skills there I can try to shore up with music. The composition’s core is an acoustic guitar part that while it isn’t exactly based on a drone tone, doesn’t have the kind of progression that takes the listener on an irresistible linear route. I let my strings sing with the bass guitar part, an instrument that can portray a heart-sob better than most. Standing in for the stars, the night winds pushing clouds, the distant singer, and the lost beloved is a high melody part off in the right-channel distance.

The player gadget to hear this performance in English is below. If you’d like to hear the poem read in the original Spanish, you can find that here. Normally I’d provide the full text of the poem—in this case, my fresh English translation—but this one is rather long on the page. I’ll post it separately if I get some requests for it.



Thanks as always for reading and listening.

Ghost Blues

The story this time is failure, diversion, randomness, and Dada. Some of it’s mine.

After the largely pleasant interruptions of the holidays, I’ve been finding it hard to concentrate extensively on new pieces. This hurts the more intricate musical compositions, research on the context of their original creation and reception, and my fresh translations of poetry not originally in English.

I’m fairly good at limiting one scourge of the modern artist: social media. I get behind on responding to comments here (bad form!), I usually put off reading the blogs I follow to once every week or so. I’ve never dived into Twitter much and have entirely avoided Facebook and the rest. Other artists have other types of engagement with these things, I wouldn’t call myself a model in that regard. Indeed, I’m sure I’ve done this project no favors with my avoidance of these things. I ascribe a great deal of the growth of this audience to random searches and the intentional work some of you have done spreading the word about the Parlando Project. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

So, I’ve carved out the precious time for this. And then, I get to work, a blessing many never get. And sometimes, it just doesn’t happen.

I’ve started and broken off three or four translations this month. I’m often drawn to the more hermetic poets with translation: the ones with wilder syntax, unusual metaphor, elusive meanings. I think what draws me is the same that causes one to open the most mysterious wrapped gift first. What could it be? Sure, it could turn out to be the wrong size or color, or a complete misreading of your interests, but that desire to jump into mysteries is undeniable.

But this predilection does lead to issues with my translations. My goal as a translator is to make vivid to a contemporary audience the images in the original poem. I will not usually make any attempt at carrying over the sound-music to English, but I do like to honor the thinking-music of it, the order and cadence of the original poet experiencing the matter of the poem. This intellectual melody is a great deal of the pleasure I get out of a poem that works for me: that the poet would think and express this first, then this, and finish with that. If each of those is a surprise that I can share, art has happened.

But when taking on a Surrealist or Dada poem, or a poem that claims to be based on disordered sensations,* how can I be sure enough that I grasp the metaphor, divided as always by time, language, culture, but in addition with an aesthetic that seeks to confuse or confound the reader, at least at first.

That sort of thing takes a lot of attention, more than most close readings, even before the task of finding the new English words comes in. And this month, I get only partway in and then feel lost or discouraged—and something interrupts, or my energy flags, and the house of cards doesn’t necessarily fall down, it just remains a bunch of playing cards with no architectural reason to exist.

The closest I got to completing a new translation was this poem by Hugo Ball, one of the original Dadaists. It was the fifth in his series 7 Schizophrene Sonette.

Here’s the original:

Das Gespenst

Gewöhnlich kommt es, wenn die Lichter brennen.
Es poltert mit den Tellern und den Tassen.
Auf roten Schuhen schlurrt es in den nassen
Geschwenkten Nächten und man hört sein Flennen.

Von Zeit zu Zeit scheint es umherzurennen
Mit Trumpf, Atout und ausgespielten Assen.
Auf Seil und Räder scheint es aufzupassen
Und ist an seinem Lärmen zu erkennen.

Es ist beschäftigt in der Gängelschwemme
Und hochweis weht dann seine erzene Haube,
Auf seinen Fingern zittern Hahnenkämme,

Mit schrillen Glocken kugelt es im Staube.
Dann reißen plötzlich alle wehen Dämme
Und aus der Kuckucksuhr tritt eine Taube.

At the point I set aside the translation, here’s what I had tentatively and incompletely rendered in English:

The Ghost

It usually happens when the lights are on.
It rattles the plates and the cups.
On red shoes it slides in the damp
Swaying nights, and you hear its flames.

It seems to run around from time to time
With trumps, likely to play the ace.
It’s careful with the ropes and pulleys
And is recognizable by its noise.

It is busy in the Gängelschwemme
And then its white crown wavers in the wind,
Its tines tremble like cockscombs

With shrill bells it spins in the dust.
Sudden exploding dams are torn apart
And a dove emerges from the cuckoo clock.

Almost done, but I couldn’t figure out that word “Gängelschwemme.” Any reader here have a good solution for that?**  It seems a compound word, the start having some sense of walk or lane I’m thinking and the last part may have some water connection, but as it became hard to continue my focus, the meaning seemed to tumble further away.

And so there I was, days have past, and there’s no new audio piece to post here. It was then that it was like someone spread butter on all the fine points of the stars, and things started to slip.

The image of that exploding dam. I thought of Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks,”  a song about impending disaster. The Blues have their own Dadaist streak,*** but this song is one of those that has a fairly easy to follow plot: a singer who tells us that no matter what he (and others do) to hold back an impending flood, when it comes he will be driven from his home, child, and spouse. There’s an undercurrent to that story if you look at it a second time. He says he has a “happy home.” And surely this great flood (the song is likely a reference to a significant and damaging 1927 American flood) will be destructive. But why is he not taking his spouse and child and fleeing with them at the point when there is nothing else that can be done to stop the flood? Because he can’t? Is he an imprisoned worker forced to work on the last defenses against the flood, or is he racially or economically constrained to leave the area? Is it because even if he knows there’s little chance that his labor on the levees will keep the flood in check, he must try to his upmost anyway? Could it even be possible that he has absorbed the impending disaster in his soul and he’s ready to leave that all behind as the flood has “intended.” Maybe his happiness isn’t as certain as the awesome disaster is.

One could write a novel or short story from that song. In one’s imagination one might link that specific situation to other things. But let’s stay with the lyric impulse, the exultation of the moment.

My new diversion was to turn Ball’s sonnet into a blues. This freed me up to make some more audacious adaptations as I merged the feeling of the lyric of “When the Levee Breaks”  into another re-visioning of Ball’s poem. Doing this in a week of loud yet underexplained**** international explosions creeped into the resulting lyric too. Ball was writing his poem in 1924, but this week it seemed that a “a dove emerged from the cuckoo clock.”

Here’s the blues interpretation inspired by Ball’s sonnet:

Ghost Blues

The lights is on people, but it happens just the same.
The lights is on, happens just the same.
In the swaying nights, you can hear the flames.

Seems to run around, sometimes you see its face.
You see it time to time, see it face to face.
But when it’s got its trumps, likely to play the ace.

It’s careful with the ropes and pulleys, I can tell you boys.
It’s careful with those ropes and pulleys, I can tell you boys.
But no matter how careful, you can recognize it by its noise.

It’s busy at the spillway, white crown wavers in the wind.
It’s busy at the spillway, white crown wavers in the wind.
Peaks are trembling like a rooster’s comb when it begins.

I heard those shrill bells, there was spinning in the dust.
When I heard those shrill bells, there was spinning in the dust.
When the levee breaks, the dams is torn apart.

When the levee breaks, the ghosts begin to walk.
When the levee breaks, and the ghosts begin to walk,
I dreamed a dove emerged from the cuckoo clock.

You can hear me take it on with a quick musical interpretation using the player gadget below. In another week, it might be better performed, but it felt good to get it out during this one.



*Yes, some of my translation failures this month have been with Rimbaud.

**Even though my draft had a tentative idea for “erzene Haube,” I really couldn’t figure that one out either, even if I had put something down in English that I could develop as a comprehensible image. But what comprehensibility did Dadaist Ball intend?

***Part of Bob Dylan’s genius was to not only borrow from Modernist page-poetry but from the Modernist Afro-Americans and some strange folk-songs to create his revolution in song lyrics. Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) also did this extensively.

If one wonders where are the Afro-Americans doing what Pound, Eliot, W. C. Williams, Sandburg, H. D. etc. were doing in the first part of the 20th century—well, the bards of Blues and the creators of Jazz were making their own revolution we are still incorporating and absorbing.

In terms of page-poetry, much of the Harlem Renaissance is still to come into public domain availability, but this insight was one I share and partially derive from them. Also, see literary figures like Fenton Johnson.

****Could it have been a poltergeist that Ball’s poem seems to be referencing?

Fall 2019 Parlando Top Ten, numbers 10-8

It’s time to look back on the past season and to look once more at the most listened to and liked pieces over that time. We do this in the classic count-down method, moving from the 10th most popular to the most popular piece.

This time I’m going to link to the original post each time so that you can read the longer discussion of my encounter with the text, but if you’d just like to hear the recordings of the performance of the poems, the player gadget following each listing will do that.

10. October by Paul Laurence Dunbar.  When something makes these count-down lists it’s often hard to know if it’s the inherent interest in the author, the things I wrote in the post introducing the poem, or the qualities of the musical piece and its performance that account for that. In this case I think it could be a bit of all three. I wrote in my post about what I thought was an undertone in this seemingly happy autumn poem. Was that a misreading? I’m not sure, but it informed my solemn musical performance which may work even if you don’t share my sense of this supple poem.




9. Saint (Cecilia) by Stéphane Mallarmé.  I do generally get a good response to my translations from languages other than English, which encourages me to continue them here. This one was a real bear to wrestle with, and my post on it went into detail with the kind of problems I encountered in that process.

I highly recommend translation as an exercise for poets. Not only do you need to achieve a Vulcan “mind meld” with another artist when translating them, but the mental muscles activated to find the best English word in sense and sound are great ones to develop for one’s own writing.



Rilke Mallarme and Dunbar

Three poets awaiting the invention of the MacBook and the modern coffee shop with WiFi: Rilke, Mallarmé., and Dunbar.



8. Autumn Day by Rainer Maria Rilke.  Another translation that received good response this fall. Here I ascribe a substantial portion of that response to those looking for and appreciating Rilke poems, and finding some here. Of course, there may be many reasons for that desire to seek out Rilke, but I’m under the casual impression that he’s treasured for what seem to be life lessons to his readers. I noted in my post on this poem that it’s been a particularly popular target for translators, but you still may want to look at mine, or hear the way I performed it.

This poem of his is also an example of a theme: gardens and small agriculture, that I returned to again and again this fall. Perhaps it’s my own position in life’s passage that caused that, but there are a good number of autumn poems that are both about the experience of “cultivating one’s garden” and the valence of the ending of a growing season. Such is Rilke’s.


Autumn Day

I was at the Midstream poetry reading series last night, and by choices, I therefore had to miss out on the wisdom that would be passed on by the elder chieftain of my nation who was speaking in the same town that night.

It’s often thought that age heightens certain perceptions, certain outlooks. In age one has a feeling for repetitions, the way that ox-turning time keeps bending back on itself so that the place one is plowing is beside the past and the future is just one row next over. There’s also a lessening of thought of one’s own self, which after all is a diminishing asset, one’s storehouse filled only with memories that the rats nibble at all night long.

So I missed what our aged chieftain said. From these considerations of age I’m sure he could hardly find time to speak of himself, which matters less and little; and instead he likely spoke from his heart, wise from his own failures far exceeding those of the younger ones, of how we can forgive and remember, and how our nation can continue to be born, cared for, urged on.

Instead I heard fellow poets read. Oh, we fail—as all artists do. We talk of ourselves, even us older ones. And when we take a break from that we talk of others imperfectly. We speak too softly, too loudly. We forget to reach for the music, or we do stretch for it and then fail to hold onto it. We search for beauty and come up with the same things over and over again, and how can we make that interesting? We are gloomy, forget to laugh, and hold our work back for funerals.

the-poor-poet-1837 by Carl Spitzweg

A graphic representation of the wisdom of poets such as myself


It was an older crowd last night, almost enough to make me feel younger for the couple of hours we were together. Today’s piece, Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Autumn Day,”  as much as Shakespeare’s piece from last time, seems to speak of the experience of age, but Rilke is much more directive. One doesn’t often see a poem so full of “You” statements as the final stanza of this poem is. I’m not sure of the idiomatic nature of “you” in German, the language Rilke wrote this in. There’s some sense that the rhetorical you in the poem may be directed at oneself: so Rilke speaking to Rilke; but as I read this poem, I can’t escape the sense of Rilke speaking to me, and as I perform Rilke’s words in my translation, I expect that you, particularly if you are an older person, will hear it as speaking to you, so concisely do those last five lines seem to outline this stage in a lifetime.

Autumn Day

If you’re curious to see a number of other translations and the original German, see this link.


But here’s why you come here and have read this far into this post: Rilke wrote this in his 20s.  These are not the biographical autumnal musings of an older man, and I’m not sure it’s even a poem adopting that persona. I almost translated the title here as Harvest Time but chose to stay with “Autumn Day”  because the copious other English-language translations used that for the title and using a different title would not allow searchers to find my fresh attempt to carry Rilke’s work into English.

Those who’ve followed my previous translations from other languages will know that I stress trying to express the imagery the author uses in a way that communicates to the modern English reader. Since that is my prime concern, I don’t make much of an effort to try to reproduce any of the word-music from the other language, but this time I did keep to a feeling of iambic pentameter for word-music’s sake. Much of my difference from other translations* was trying to sharpen the harvest imagery Rilke uses in the opening seven lines. The overall effect I aimed for was to clearly convey the weight and fullness of harvest bounty.

The final five lines converge more into a consensus with the other translations. One divergence: I read in one German speaker’s comment on their translation that “Alleen” (translated by many as alleys or avenues) was what they would call the tree-lined boulevards predominate in Rilke’s time. Not only did this strike home with me, who bicycles each day on tree-lined streets in my own town and time, but it seemed to be the linkage called for with the poems final image of following the restless wind-blown leaves on the pavements.

So back to this poem that may be read as a meditation on later life written by a 20-something. I think Rilke was trying to convey the harvest feeling, the fall into wintertime and that cyclical fallow season. Even as a young man he was able to convey this feeling an old man might appreciate. He didn’t need to be an old man to know this, he just had to read the book of nature which is older than all of us.

I often laugh as I think I’ve come across some wisdom from old age. “Aha! I’m just a slow learner” I exclaim.

To hear my performance of my fresh translation of Rilke’s “Autumn Day”  use the player below.





*I found almost 20 English translations of this poem almost immediately on the Internet. That seems extraordinarily popular as a translation subject. And I must give credit to Byron’s Muse blog who presented this poem earlier this fall which is where I first saw it.

Saint (Cecilia) and Translating Mallarmé

One of the issues with being half-learned is that one can fall into traps and tasks that are more difficult than you expected. This week I thought, why don’t I translate some Mallarmé? Alternate voice here Dave Moore had given me a book on him for my birthday (which I haven’t had time to read yet, too busy with this project…) but having recently translated and performed another poem by Apollinaire, I was reminded how often the English language Modernists looked to the preceding French Symbolists for inspiration.

So, I look. I see lots of sonnets, which is good. I like short poems personally and I aim for shorter pieces here for performance too. And short should make for a shorter translation task. On one hand, I have my unfamiliarity with French other than my il y a longtemps high school. On the other hand, I’ve tackled French Dada and Surrealist work, so a 19th century Symbolist should be no harder.

The hard to translate word here would be: “Oops.”

Turns out Mallarmé focused on esoteric philosophical ideas and the ideal in his art and manner. Maybe the rough English language analog would be Wallace Stevens, but with Stevens I can lay back and enjoy the color and sound of his English language words without having to worry about translating them into another language, and Mallarmé is very compressed and obscure in his tropes. There’s a reason that 20th century Dadaists found him congenial despite his dour and spiritual outlook: in French he may be interesting without one needing to understand what he’s intent about.

The 16 line poem I picked to translate, “Saint”   is an earlier one, one reckoned to be less obscure than later Mallarmé. I’m not sure how much that helped.

I read one report “Mallarmé was…widely considered incomprehensible—the standard joke was to request a translation of his work into French…” I read that several hours into my translation. I laughed pretty hard.

portrait_mallarme_by Manet

You go for the cheap pun Frank. Look here: I wrote “phalange.” Is that not singular? My friend Manet’s  painting of me will enlarge on this point!


Mallarmé’s “Saint”  isn’t incomprehensible. It’s even an admirable poem with something to portray about the ideal nature of music. It probably helps if one has some background in Roman Catholic liturgy as one reads it, but imagery requiring a bit of understanding of other cultures can be a feature not a bug.

Here it is in French, in one of three slightly different versions I eventually came upon:


A la fenêtre recélant
Le santal vieux qui se dédore
De la viole étincelant
Jadis selon flûte ou mandore,

Est la sainte pale, étalant
Le livre vieux qui se déplie
Du Magnificat ruisselant
Jadis selon vêpre ou complie:

A ce vitrage d’ostensoir
Que frôle une harpe par l’Ange
Formée avec son vol du soir
Pour la délicate phalange

Du doigt que, sans le santal
Ni le vieux livre, elle balance
Sur le plumage instrumental,
Musicienne du silence.

Native French speakers: feel free to mock my audacity to render this. For those interested in translation, I’m going to allow you to look over my shoulder as I worked on this. Note: I almost never try to render rhyme schemes or meter from one language to another. Like Stevens in English, this poem sounds lovely in French even if you can’t figure it out. In English I tried to instead vividly render the images, which is my preference in translation, even if it can lead to approximations and out and out bad guesses. And then to put that to some English word-music that may not reference the other language’s “tune.”

Here’s what I came up with:

Saint (Cecilia)

The window frames
The worn fretboard
Of the splendid viola—
Once played music with flute or mandolin.

There’s the pale saint, opening,
Spreading the old book.
Mary’s Magnificat falls out—
Once for vesper or compline.

This window is a monstrance.
She holds her harp, an angel’s
Customary evening wing,
Played by the delicate phalanx

Of fingers. Without a fretboard,
Without the old book, she strums
On the instrumental plumage,
A musician of silence.

First Stanza. This is an extraordinarily difficult image to figure out, and some of the guesses others have made are not a concrete image, which could even be Mallarmé’s intent. There’s clearly an instrument mentioned, a viol (a larger predecessor to our modern viola, and I imagined a viola da gamba, a wonderful “early-music” instrument for which the viol name was used). I rendered it as viola so that moderns might have a more common instrument in their minds eye. I did the same for “mandore” an ancestor of the now more familiar mandolin. Mallarmé may have meant to add an ancient music air to this, and I could have gone the other way with the instrument names (Stevens would have).

One of the chief problems is some read this description as an instrument that’s out of sight (“recélant” can mean to harbor or to conceal—and a window concealing?). Idealist Mallarmé could have intended it out of the frame. But I wasn’t sure, and I’d rather the reader know about it clearly, particularly as it opens the poem. And his description is puzzling—a point made of it being personified as sandalwood for one thing. Sandalwood is a hardwood. You probably wouldn’t use it to make the soundboard of an instrument, which functionally and surface-area-wise would be the main part. But it can be used for necks and particularly for finger/fretboards. Even though Mallarmé repeats sandalwood later in the poem, and there are fragrance and ceremonial connections with the wood and word, I decided to call it a fretboard, to help us see the instrument. There’s another issue with Mallarmé’s description: the instrument is “étincelant” and yet also “dédore.” I decided that the instrument is “splendid” but also “worn” in the area of that hardwood fretboard: i.e. this is a fine instrument that has been well and often played.

Second Stanza. This one is more straightforward. Cecilia is the “sainte pale” (named specifically in early versions of the poem) and she’s opened a book which seems to contain the score of a setting to Mary the mother of Jesus’ famous passage called the Magnificat in Roman Catholicism. I decided to add the “Mary’s” to the Magnificat just to help listeners hear the word as a proper noun. And something happens regarding the Magnificat: “ruisselant.” This word, best as I can figure has a sense of streaming or trickling. At first I thought the image is that the music represented by the score is magically sounding itself as Cecilia the patron saint of music opens the old book. But I don’t think we are to hear music as the poem develops, and so I wondered if the meanings of ruisselant infer running downhill. I decided that the score of the Magnificat falls out of the book, making itself known, but not making a sound or allowing it to be used to aid the music making, just as in stanza one Cecilia is not availing herself of a fine and once oft-used viola.

Third Stanza. Tougher again. This stanza contains the strongest image of the poem, the fusing of an angel’s bird-like wing with the somewhat-like shape of a harp—and Mallarmé wants to stuff other ideas into the four lines too. I decided that the specific and technical term “monstrance” cannot be replaced: it’s a glass altarpiece holder of a sacred object. Wallace Stevens would have loved to have used that word! The obscurity of the word adds some mystery I think, and no simply understandable single word replaces it. With the stanza’s last word I fell into thinking Mallarmé intended to pun on “phalange” (phalanx) which is from the Greek, meaning a massed formation (usually of soldiers or police)—but also fingers, similarly grouped together in disciplined order when playing an instrument. I decided to use phalanx because either words’ use for fingers is somewhat obscure in English (outside of medical usage) but I liked the idea of the delicate phalanx of soldiers or riot troops. But I think phalange may be singular in French, and if so, I may have misunderstood Mallarmé’s intent. My sin is falling in love with the image.

Fourth Stanza. Home stretch! Easier again, and choices already made set it up. In my reading Mallarmé is saying Cecilia has her spiritual intent on ideal music, the impossible music made with the mythical wings of angels and the impossible music made by strumming a bird’s feathers—such a fine image because it works bidirectionally! Actual music has been left behind as once, and not now (“jadis,” twice in the poem). She no longer needs the viola or the score.

She’s become the unheard melodies that idealist Keats says are sweeter than heard ones.

St Cecilia by Carlo Saraceni
CeCe, you’re messing up the form again! It’s a 12 bar minor blues with a 4 bar tag I’m going to modulate counter-clockwise on the cycle of 5ths each second chorus, and then—what you do mean, “Wing it?”



In performance, I had to resort to heard music so that the estate of John Cage didn’t sue me for plagiarism. I thought I might try to reference the Velvet Underground when it featured the pale saint John Cale on keyboards and viola. But neither the drum part nor the rhythm guitars I settled on had that VU feel. None-the-less I went ahead and created a top line using viola and a keening combo organ.

Last time I repeated the short poem several times so that I could show the different ways it could be expressed. Today’s short musical piece gathers a sort of meditative power if played on repeat. The player is below.