Tag Archives: Rainer Maria Rilke

Two epithets

Two epithets inform my practice at this time and, I hope, are reflected in the content of this site and my wider work.

The first is a quote from The Third Sonnet to Orpheus by the 20th century Bohemian-Austrian poet, Rainer Marie Rilke.

‘Gesang ist Dasein’. Song is becoming.

The second is attributed to the Chinese Song Dynasty poet and scholar, Wei T’ai.

‘Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing but reticent about the feeling. ‘

(This translation is after A.C. Graham’s Poets of the Late Tang and quoted in Eliot Weinberger’s essay on Charles Reznikoff in London Review of Books, Volume 37.)

I am aware from elsewhere on the internet that there has been some somewhat huffy debate and indignation around the translation of Dasein into various English versions of Rilke’s poem.

Song is being? Song is existence? Song is becoming? And come to that what is ‘Song’?

One commentator, furthermore, objects that Rilke does not propose Dasein ist Gesang. Give the poet a break! Come on!

As one might expect, I am ‘into’ the slipperiness of signifiers. They just are…and especially when more than one language is involved. Slippery as a guddled trout. Perhaps that is why I cling to the German (I don’t speak German). Gesang can mean what I want it to mean (in the general bailiwick of ‘song’) and Dasein…well, is Dasein.

As conscious beings (not just stuff) we sing…make marks…canto ergo sum perhaps. The song arises from the self but, being heard, you know I am alive. And when you live in a thicket…

I would like to generalise Wei T’ai’s use of the terms ‘poetry’ and ‘feeling’ to ‘marks’ and ‘experience’ respectively.

The purpose of mark making is not to reproduce the thing. A photograph, recording or a mould does that. The thing is represented to express meaning or communicate experience, as indicated in Wei T’ai’s first sentence.

In Wei T’ai (and his translator’s) second sentence, however, we stumble over ‘reticence’.

The denizens of the long grass are reticent. It is a form, again, of withholding, of reserve…but it intends to communicate the experience none the less. It wants its cake and to eat it. To retain a certain plausible deniability.

‘I didn’t say, exactly that. I didn’t mean exactly that. It’s just not that simple.’

It is a beautiful innuendo. A gracefully pitched hint. A nudge in the direction of understanding.

“Why don’t you just say what you mean?” Why indeed?!

I was shocked to read T.J. Clark write of the virtues of incomprehensibility in a recent article on Frank Auerbach in London Review of Books Vol. 37 No.17.

Incomprehensibility, Clark proposed, forces the viewer to engage with the paintings, to experience the raw facts of intensity and value, hue and texture without immediately imposing a cryptographic frame onto the marks to decode them.

Incomprehensibility? What an immense risk to take with a mark – to render it barely legible.

Clark’s shocking thrust meets Wei T’ai counter-thrust. Incomprehensibilty versus reticence. Illegibility versus precision. Both strategies, I realised, draw the viewer into the mark, seduce him to step off the asphalt and into the long grass, brings her within reach.

“I painted a vanitas. I never said that you were going to die.”

Back in the day, when I was involved in theatre, productions I was party to were often under-lit. It added intimacy and atmosphere we felt, broke down the fourth wall, demanded more attention. And how is that entertainment? Well, quite… The birds do not sing for our entertainment. They sing because they are becoming.