In this weekend's Globe and Mail books section
, editor Martin Levin asks several Canadian poets, including me, about poems that have had a profound impact on them. The other poets in the article are George Murray, Carmine Starnino, K.I. Press, Jane Urquhart, Judith Fitzgerald, Alison Pick, Priscila Uppal, and Sonnet l'Abbé. Martin also weighs in with his esteem for Yeats.
Here' s my two cents:
I always come back to Rilke's Archaic Torso of Apollo. That poem has it all -- classical subject matter, but also the Romanticism of Shelley's Ozymandias. It also strikes me as a rather daring poem philosophically and, for its time, sexually. I suppose that's partly why Philip Roth used it as the climax for his ribald Kafka parody The Breast. And the final line, so accurate, so bold, always catches me: "You must change your life." (Read the whole column here.)
We were not given much space in which to espouse our love for our chosen poems, though perhaps that is best. The poems speak best for themselves. My favourite of Rilke's English-language translators is the remarkably talented Edward Snow
. "Archaic Torso of Apollo" is from Rilke's New Poems: The Other Part
, published in 1908. The collected New Poems
as translated by Snow is a must-read, especially for those who aren't aware of much of Rilke's work beyond the Duino Elegies
and Sonnets to Orpheus
. Snow's translation of "Archaic Torso of Apollo" is by far the most powerful I have read. I hope he doesn't mind if, for illustrative purposes, I post it for you here:
Archaic Torso of Apollo
(trans. Edward Snow)
We never knew his head and all the light
that ripened in his fabled eyes. But
his torso still glows like a gas lamp dimmed
in which his gaze, lit long ago,
holds fast and shines. Otherwise the surge
of the breast could not blind you, nor a smile
run through the slight twist of the loins
toward that center where procreation thrived.
Otherwise this stone would stand deformed and curt
under the shoulders' transparent plunge
and not glisten just like wild beasts' fur
and not burst forth from all its contours
like a star: for there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
I realize in hindsight I might just as easily have chose Rilke's poem "The Panther" for completely different reasons. It might be too much to say that Rilke is my favourite poet (I don't believe I have a favourite poet), but he certainly has written a few of my favourite poems. To demonstrate how important it is for a poem to have a good translator, here's a page with several different English-language translations of "The Panther"
(and, again, my favourite among them is the one by Edward Snow).