“Hearken, o Mensch!”


by Daniel Bosch

In a recent New York Review of Books, novelist John Banville has written ecstatically on behalf of a new edition of the book known as Letters to a Young Poet (LTYP),

one of Rilke’s most popular books — if we may call it his book, since it was assembled by Kappus after the poet’s death — well known to poets in their youth and an ideal handbook for beginning writers.

Banville praises Mark Harman’s “burnished, elegant new translation…the fifth English version.”  His enthusiasm for all things Rilkean is charming, and his essay review, supported by photos and a sketch of Rilke’s Parisian panther, is a delight. (NYRB knows this, and has made it available).

Yet while Banville hints that he is aware of some of the problematic contexts of this particular edition of LTYP (“…if we may call it his (Rilke’s) book,”  “…the fifth English version….” “there are numerous places where it would be illuminating to know what exactly were the questions and observations that Rilke is responding to…”) his review neglects to explore why Harman and Harvard University Press have entered the Rilke industry with this particular book.

I don’t believe the motive can be a strong sense of Harman’s having improved upon the English texts available. A comparison of Harman’s translation with M.D. Herter-Norton’s, published in 1934, shows difference, but little ground on which to stake a strong preference. Consider Harman’s and Herter-Norton’s takes on a crucial passage in first paragraph of the first letter, written to Franz Xavier Kappus on February 17, 1903 (Herter-Norton’s is in italics):

I cannot say anything about the form of your verses, for I find all such critical intent quite uncongenial. Nothing could be less conducive to reaching an art-work than critical remarks: it’s always simply a matter of more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Everything cannot be so easily grasped and conveyed as we are generally led to believe; most events are unconveyable and come to pass in a space that no word has ever penetrated; more unconveyable than all else are art-works, whose mysterious existences, whose lives run alongside ours, which perishes, whereas theirs endure.

I cannot go into the nature of your verses; for all critical intention is too far from me. With nothing can one approach a work of art so little as with critical words: they always come down to more or less happy misunderstandings. Things are not all so comprehensible and expressible as one would mostly have us believe; most events are inexpressible, taking place in a realm which no word has ever entered, and more inexpressible than all else are works of art, mysterious existences, the life of which, while ours passes away, endures.

But it could very well be that Harvard University Press is smart enough to recognize a Harvard edition of LTYP will have an imprimatur.  Whatever its relative virtues, the Harman translation out of Cambridge, as Banville points out, is “likely to become the standard one.”

This is not big news, but over time it will mean big business. LTYP is one of the biggest selling books in literature. I have written elsewhere that over-praise of LTYP is a shibboleth — that these ten letters are among Rilke’s worst, not best, letters, and some of his vaguest-in-a -polite-way accounts of poetry.

It’s novelists and others who are not concerned with verse craft who tend to take LTYP seriously. I should hasten to add powerful presses take it seriously, too — when they find that is out of copyright.

About the Author:

Recent poems by Daniel Bosch can be read at B O D Y and The Istanbul Review. “In Memory of Johnny Cash” is forthcoming at Plume. He lives in Chicago.