2007
Alchemy

Don Paterson, Rilke and attention

Good interview with Don Paterson in yesterday's Guardian, by Nicholas Wroe. Paterson's 'versions' of Rilke's Die Sonette an Orpheus were published recently, Orpheus — on my list of books to read this coming holiday. I first discovered Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus in my late teens in the J B Leishman and Stephen Spender (now very dated) translation. The sonnet sequence featured in a booklet on originality, in the Oxford Biology Readers series, that my Biology teacher pushed my way. I wish I could lay my hands on that booklet now: all these years later, I can remember it talked about Rilke, and the extraordinary story of the creation of these sonnets, and Kekulé's dream about the structure of benzene (Wikipedia: 'He wrote that he discovered the ring shape of the benzene molecule after dreaming of a snake seizing its own tail, a common symbol in many ancient cultures known as the Ouroboros. This dream came to him after years of studying the nature of carbon-carbon bonds.'). I didn't understand then, but that booklet was feeding right into my interest in cross-disciplinary studies and human psychology (something that's now so much easier to enjoy as the barriers between disciplines are being broken down more and more, not least because of the way the web is opening up knowledge to all-comers and allowing people to research and publish outside the formal constraints of faculties, research grant applications, etc).

Here's Paterson talking about his first encounter with these sonnets:

… it is a very strange piece of work and for a long time I knew something just wasn't coming through to me. It deals with some pretty fundamental things which I didn't really understand until I had had the right experiences in my own life and I became more able to ask the right questions of it.

And on jazz (Paterson has long loved music):

I knew there was something in there but I couldn't quite get at it. And then one day I realised that they were speaking to each other and I was overhearing the most remarkable conversations. It was like those 3-D pictures you stare at for hours and suddenly you see the zebra. I was listening to the John Abercrombie Quartet and suddenly I was eavesdropping on something incredibly articulate and deep.

How's that for humble attentiveness, a waiting game and some, from someone who's won accolade after accolade for his own creative work?  The same note of alert attentiveness is struck when he talks about first encountering Borges:

I remember reading Borges for the first time and falling back into my chair. This had never happened to me before. I could barely stand up. It was vertiginous. He introduced ideas that the language shouldn't really be able to accommodate.

I was also much taken with what Paterson had to say about the net and music. 'He is not professionally active as a player at the moment - although he still occasionally records with friends - but still saturates himself in music, mostly electronica and is delighted by the democratising effect of improved and cheaper technology':

The net is a remarkable resource. I came across this astonishing laptop musician from Georgia recently. Of course there's still an awful lot of crap around, but there's also some tremendous stuff.

Mark Doty reviewed Orpheus earlier this month in the Guardian. For those who don't know Rilke's poems, it pays to read what Mark says in his review:

Sonnets to Orpheus, the late sequence that came tumbling out, in a kind of manic trance, over a period of 13 days in 1922, an epic bout of inspiration that Rilke referred to as "dictation" … the marvel of these sonnets, that the nearly unsayable is given a spoken solidity, words that can point towards if not encompass the peculiar flowing fact of human presence. All nerves exposed, Rilke himself becomes the "pure receiver" of experience he calls for his readers to be. Being and becoming, those are his subjects. It is almost a poetry without the trappings of engagement in the particular messy chaos and circumstances of living - and yet somehow, miraculously, as alive as any poetry of the last century.

And of these new versions:

Paterson gives the sonnets, perhaps for the first time in English, a true sense of an inhabited skin, a pulsing body responding to the life of the senses … Paterson's translation restores to the Sonnets to Orpheus their unsettling, destabilising force, reminding us of the pure strangeness of us, the unlikely, thrilling event that human subjectivity is.

One poem:

Dancer

You were still half a child. You came and went.
But you mapped the dancer, in that moment’s chance
to the empty constellation of the dance:
that dance in which we fitfully transcend

Nature’s dumb order. Only Orpheus
could stir you to the deepest listening:
you were the one still moved from that first song,
and still surprised if a tree took long to choose

whether or not to go along with you.
You knew the old still centre, that clear space
where the lyre was first raised up and rang out true.

For this you tried to shape the ceremony,
to fit the perfect steps that might one day
turn his own around, might turn his face.

Don Paterson's website is under development but will be here.

Adam Philips reviewed Orpheus in the Observer and wrote:

In three weeks, in 1922, while working on his Duino Elegies, Rilke wrote these 55 sonnets. 'They are,' he wrote later, 'perhaps most mysterious even to me, in the manner in which they arrived and imposed themselves on me - the most puzzling dictation I have ever received and taken down.'

13 days … 3 weeks … My copy of the Leishman/Spender translation says in the Introduction (Leishman's work), 'between the 2nd and the 20th of February the fifty-five Sonnets to Orpheus, which came as a complete surprise'. 13, 19, 21 days … miraculous.

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