A RILKE RECITAL – by Art Beck (Brunswick, ME: Shanti Publishing)

Tuesday, June 1, 2020

A few weeks ago, Harry Northup organized a reading by Los Angeles area poet of Rilke’s “The Duino Elegies” for a broadcast on the in-house video channel at the MPTF residence he has lived at the past couple years. His late spouse, the poet Holly Prado, and he had moved there after an electrical fire destroyed their apartment in East Hollywood. When the pandemic struck, Harry began making use of the facilities at MPTF to share his knowledge of poetry with the other residents.

Paul Vangelisti led off the occasion with an introduction to Rilke’s sequence of poems, which Paul has given me permission to include in my blog.

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Note on Rilke’s “Elegies”

It was December of 1911. The thirty-six year old Rainer Maria Rilke had come to visit his indulgent friend and patron, Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, who owned the castle at Duino, on the extreme northeast coast of Italy, near Trieste.

After great successes with the groundbreaking New Poems, in 1907 & 1908, and the autobiographical novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, in 1910, almost two years had passed in which Rilke wrote little poetry.

For a time the Princess left the poet alone at the castle and, as the legend goes, Rilke was wandering around the stormy cliffs when a voice rang through the winter gale. Filled with awe, Rilke took out his notebook and transcribed what he’d heard, becoming that night the opening lines of the first elegy: literally — Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic / orders? He would soon start work on the Elegies, only to complete the project some ten years later in Switzerland.

As my colleagues have probably discovered, these are difficult poems, as the language is an enthralling mix of the colloquial and philosophical. Curiously enough, the poems (particularly in Mitchell’s translation) are somehow harder to read aloud than to oneself. The verse line, as well as the syntax, is complex and demands very close attention. Also, the poet’s voice is perplexing, the pronouns constantly varying, the verses sometimes speaking to Rilke, sometimes speaking for him.

A few words here, per Harry’s request, about the angels or “Engels Ordnungen” [“angelic orders”] that mark these poems from the start. Rilke’s angels are higher beings – beings not in the sci-fi sense but in the philosophical or metaphysical sense – creatures who inhabit a more intense spiritual life of almost pure being, “that overwhelming existence,” rather than simple survival. Or beings, following Rilke, with a “more complete existence.” Like beauty itself which, in these poems, signals the beginning or “first touch” of terror.

According to noted translator Art Beck, some of the “Elegies“ have a “complexity of resonance and ambiguity that calls out for multiple interpretations. Perhaps ‘performance’ is a better word for what a ‘poetic’ translation of these poems demands. And if the objective is to enrich the English language, then there’s room for as many performances of Rilke as, say, interpretations of Bach. These might be as varied as Wanda Landowska’s, Glen Gould’s, Stefan Hussong’s and John Lewis’ – while remaining as recognizably Rilke as those versions remain essentially Bach.”

In a letter to an admirer, Rilke insisted, “The interpretation always rests with the reader and must be free and unlimited… the more meanings there is room for in images [such as the angels], the broader and more real they are.” To paraphrase Rilke within our context, once the poet publishes the poem, the meaning of the angels rests entirely with the reader.

=== Paul Vangelisti

May 14, 2021

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The other readers included Phoebe MacAdams, James Cushing, Aram Saroyan, Richard Modiano, Garrett M. Brown, Bob Beitcher, Bill Mohr, Corinne Conley, and Marie Pal-Brown. Marie read the work in German, too, to give us some sense of its rhythmic underpinnings.

As Paul pointed out in his introduction, the poems are easier to read to oneself than out loud, but even so, one would have to summon a considerable degree of focused commitment to sit down and read each poem one after the other without any break. The experience of hearing “The Duino Elegies” as a continuous composition required one to empty out ordinary distractions to the same extent as needed to hear Mahler’s Symphony No. 8.

Perhaps a group reading would also be the best way to begin to appreciate the translations of Rilke’s poems by Art Beck in a book recently published by Shanti Arts in New Brunswick, Maine. Beck makes the sly comment at one point in his commentaries when he talks about poets as if they were baseball players involved in a trade: “in the deal of the century, Germany got Bukowski and the United States got Rilke.” What Beck is alluding to is not some variation on proprietary bragging rights but a contrast in the cultural capital of high and low culture, and I can see his point, even as I refuse to place one poet above or below another in “pure” versus “impure” categories.

I confess that I never felt particularly moved by Rilke’s poetry when I read Stephen Mitchell’s translations forty years ago. The poems seemed “precious,” at least in translation. Unlike when I read a French poet in translation, I have no access whatsoever to Rilke’s original poems in German, which is a bit of an irony since my last name is German. Beck’s translations are compelling in a way that probably seems peculiar, though I will risk saying it anyway and I would like to point to a specific poem in Beck’s “recital,” the poem that begins “But is there anything I could consecrate” (number XX in the first part of “SONNETS TO ORPHEUS”).

I have no idea of how vividly plastic the image of the horse is in Rilke’s original, but in Beck’s delineation that horse has only one equal, and that occurs in Hart Crane’s anomalous poem, “Eternity.” Now obviously in an ideal world a translator who knew both English and Hungarian, or English and Vietnamese, would benefit from some familiarity with German, but Beck’s rendition seems translucent enough in being a memorable poem in English that one would be justified in then rendering it into Hungarian or Vietnamese without fretting about its “faithfulness.” Instead, I want to emphasize how the images that Beck summons in his recital palpitate with plasticity, the three-dimensionality revolving in duration without which the emotional and intellectual aspects of the instantaneous cannot cohere. It is that which demands to be transmuted and becomes original in its turn.

“I seek the perfect imperfection,” a music producer once said of his recording process. It is most likely the case that that those who know German perfectly will find imperfections in Beck’s recital, but I want to testify that Beck’s volume is the first time I have ever whole-heartedly felt at east in Rilke’s company, and that the patina of superficial legend has been scrubbed off to reveal a poet without the pretense foisted by those who are easily over-awed.

You can order “ETUDES” from Shanti Arts Publishing at:


I also recommend taking a look at the following title:


— Bill Mohr
Long Beach, California
June 1, 2021


Rilke Sonnets to Orpheus, First Part # XX. tr. Art Beck

Dir aber, Herr, o was weih ich dir, sag,
der das Ohr den Geschöpfen gelehrt?—
Mein Erinnern an einen Frühlingstag,
seinen Abend, in Rußland—, ein Pferd….

Herüber vom Dorf kam der Schimmel allein,
an der vorderen Fessel den Pflock,
um die Nacht auf den Wiesen allein zu sein;
wie schlug seiner Mähne Gelock

an den Hals im Takte des Übermuts,
bei dem grob gehemmten Galopp.
Wie sprangen die Quellen des Rossebluts!

Der fühlte die Weiten, und ob!
der sang und der hörte—, dein Sagenkreis
war in ihm geschlossen.
Sein Bild: ich weih’s.

But is there anything I could consecrate
to you – the Master who teaches all creatures
what it means to hear? My memory of a spring day,
its evening actually, in Russia – a horse…

From a village off some way, the white
horse came, dragging a fetter and stake
from his foreleg. His curled mane
wild to be alone on the meadow at night.

His neck twisting to follow the dance of that
crudely hampered gallop in time with
the pumping fountain of his stallion’s heart.

He sensed the open spaces and every bit
of him sang – and listened. Your myths
came full circle in him.
I offer: his image.

(Translation: Art Beck)

reprinted by permission

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