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This review is taken from PN Review 23, Volume 8 Number 3, January - February 1982.

WHAT RILKE STANDS FOR Rainer Maria Rilke, Selected Poems, translated from the German and Commentary by Robert Bly (Harper & Row) $7.95

If it is indeed a courtesy for a translator to provide an introduction or a prefatory essay, no one (I imagine) will be offended if he does not. Like other Rilke translators, however, Robert Bly has chosen to be more elaborate still and intersperse his translations with progress reports, mainly on Rilke's form as he perceives it, occasionally on his own. He is more incisive than Leishman and he does not fill out his comments with Rilkean English that reads like candyfloss. All the same, after I had read the first thirty pages or so of these translations, Rilke's quirkish views on America began to seem prescient enough to revive the credibility of prophet poets: 'Now there come crowding from America empty, indifferent things, pseudo-things, dummy life' (thus Leishman's version in his introduction to The Sonnets to Orpheus). The introductory comments on the other hand are frank and direct enough to sustain a fair dash of idiosyncracy, that is, until the candour and the self-reliant intuition lift off into oracular platitudes that quite out-Rilke the master. According to Bly the European psyche was bursting with creative energy in the nineteenth century, reached its peak 'around 1888-1889' and then went awry, until 'in 1914 it committed suicide' (p. 156). Since that condemns me to having been born spiritually post mortem, my views on this pronouncement may justly be regarded as superannuated before they are even conceived. Perhaps from this peculiar vantage point I may however claim some authority on translating ...


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