Thursday, January 27, 2011

'The Panther' by Rainer Maria Rilke (1905)

                   His vision, from the constantly passing bars
                        has grown so weary that it cannot hold
                        anything else. It seems to him there are
                        a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

                        As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
                        the movement of his powerful soft strides                
                        is like a ritual dance around a centre
                        in which a mighty will is paralysed.

                        Only at times, the curtain of his pupils
                        lifts quietly. – An image enters in,
                        rushes down through the tense, arrested muscles
                        plunges into the heart and is gone.

Translation: Stephen Mitchell

There is a piece in the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, by Auguste Rodin, ‘The Age of Bronze’, which catches my attention every time I go there. The pose adopted for the statue is fairly classical: the naked man’s right arm raised forming a half-frame about the head, which is turned slightly upwards and away. Yet the body of the man is not that of Adonis. He is of average height, light build, his face modern. There is something compact in the body – the almost casual pose somehow allowing for a hint of tension, of latent energy contained but only just.

Some time after Rodin produced this piece, the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke was his secretary. The story of the conception of ‘The Panther’ is well-known, though worth repeating. Rodin was keen that Rilke should experiment with similar approaches to his writing that he was employing in sculpture. To this end he instructed Rilke to go to the zoo and observe what he saw there and be accurate in such observations. Rilke went as requested and some days later returned to Rodin with ‘The Panther’.

I come back to this piece repeatedly, particularly this translation of it by Stephen Mitchell. I am fascinated by this poem, circle round it over and over, like the panther prowling back and forth in his caged enclosure. I love its sparseness, its directness, its simplicity. There is nothing extra, no embellishments. It is paired back to the essential elements and in this Rilke lives up to the challenge set for him by Rodin.

I don’t think any writer before Rilke (with the possible exception of Hardy) could’ve written something so physically realistic about the natural world. It is a poem also made possible, in a sense, by Darwin. There is a new kind of awareness at work; a fidelity of the actual that has become increasingly important since, particularly with writers such as Hughes and Heaney, among many others. It is a form of recovery from the pastoral, a re-invigoration of the senses through an entirely unsentimental and unpoeticised view of the natural world.

It is, perhaps, the first example of such realism in modern poetry. The poem engages us with a direct response to nature, though significant that this response is to a caged panther who “paces in cramped circles, over and over”. Rilke brings the panther into a state of pure presence (to borrow that much used term from French poetry); a presence not captured in writing about nature before this - at least, not in this way. And Rodin's advice isn’t simply theoretical. The poem embodies the idea of observational accuracy, taking us beyond the merely pictorial as the panther prowls in its cage, its sinews and muscles tensing, suggesting the sheer visceral power that exists at the centre of its life.

I see now that Rilke couldn’t have written that poem without Rodin’s example. It is there in the figure of that man in the Hugh Lane Gallery, his arm raised above his head; there in his feet, in his legs, in his torso, in his face. It is the power, then, of  being physically present in the world, not as a god but as a human.

Rilke left Rodin’s service shortly after he wrote this piece and would go on to depart from this style of writing for the more disembodied poetic of The Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. I do wonder sometimes, though, how Rilke’s work might have developed had to stuck to this more concrete and observational approach, which his teacher had so strongly encouraged him to follow. We will never know, but we do have ‘The Panther’ (and the other pieces in New Poems) as an example of how brilliant he could be when he did.

Other translations of ‘Der Panther’ can be found at:

Friday, January 21, 2011

'Gift' by Czeslaw Milosz (1971)


                        A day so happy.
                        Fog lifted early I worked in the garden.
                        Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
                        There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
                        I knew no man worth my envying him.
                        Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
                        To think that once I was the same man didn’t embarrass me.           
                        In my body I felt no pain.
                        On straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.

It is my intention in these short reflections to simply gather the work of others and make small observations on some element of the poem – the thing, if you like, which teaches in the poem. With Milosz’s ‘Gift’ it is the simplicity of its approach, the power of the direct statement, the use of the declarative.

In the Collected Poems ‘Gift’ is surrounded by more elaborate and “philosophically complex” pieces, yet none , in my opinion, convey the emotional depth and directness of this poem – they are often, to my tastes at least, overly abstract. Here though, through nine statements – first concrete, then emotional and again concrete – Milosz makes one moment luminous, a moment where personal history fails finally to impinge on the present but is accepted, and allows the moment to be. He is careful, though, to keep the poem moving through this “moment” by varying the line length while resisting the temptation to use line breaks to achieve this creeping progression. The poem represents a slow meditative transition rather than a dramatic one.

In the final two lines he returns the poem to the garden. The final line is perfect in its simplicity. So often when poets attempt to “enact” an emotion through some final gesture in a poem, its can sometimes feel contrived and overbearing, too final and staged. Here, Milosz manages to make it seem completely natural – a gesture no greater than the act of straightening up and looking outward to the sea.

Welcome to my blog

I'd like to welcome you to my blog. I am a writer of poetry, prose fiction, and non-fiction as well as TV drama and film scripts. I am based in Dublin, Ireland. My book The Return Journey & Our Friends Electric: Two Novellas was published by Ward Wood Publishing (London) in February 2011. My debut poetry collection, In the Library of Lost Objects, was published in summer, 2011, again with Ward Wood. It was shortlisted for the 2012 Strong Award for best debut collection by an Irish poet.

I had hoped to post once a week and discuss topics including poetry, fiction, and screenwriting, among other things, though as time has gone on I realize I'm more interested in developing projects to air over a series of posts.

To start this blog proper, I will be writing short reflections on about twenty poems that have shaped my own interest in the form. All of the pieces I wish to discuss are from the modern canon. Where audio is available for a poem I will link to that where possible. In some cases, I'm sure you will be familiar with the piece or have a copy already somewhere on the bookshelf. In an earlier life, I studied Experimental Physics so I'm also very interested in the relationship between art and science so I hope to write about this issue at some point.

I have been publishing work widely in journals since the mid-90s and some of these are now available online. You will also be able to find samples of my poetry and prose, as well as reviews and links, on my own website: More information about my books can also be found at the website of Ward Wood Publishing.

I very much hope you enjoy my sporadic - but I hope, substantial - musings here.


A Note on Copyright (2017)

I am aware that I have cited copyrighted material on this blog from its beginnings in 2011. I truly believe that it is important that artists' rights are respected and acknowledged. I view my use of this material as educational rather than commercial. Given the traffic I receive on the site I could monetize it but have never chosen to do so for the above reasons. It's hard enough to make a living as an artist (of any kind) so I would never attempt to profit from anyone else's hard-won work.