Poet's Pick April 18
Rainier Maria Rilke: "The Swan"
Selected by Fleda Brown
National Poetry Month 2016

Letter from the Editors

Dear Readers,

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Don Selby & Diane Boller

Fleda Brown's Poetry Month Pick, April 14, 2016

"The Swan"
by Rainier Maria Rilke (1875–1926)
translated by Stephen Mitchell

This laboring through what is still undone,
as though, legs bound, we hobbled along the way,
is like the awkward walking of the swan.

And dying—to let go, no longer feel
the solid ground we stand on every day—
is like his anxious letting himself fall

into the water, which receives him gently
and which, as though with reverence and joy,
draws back past him in streams on either side;
while, infinitely silent and aware,
in his full majesty and ever more
indifferent, he condescends to glide.


* Fleda Brown Comments:
Rilke watched how the sculptor Rodin didn’t wait for inspiration to strike—as the poets of the day thought it must—but actively plowed into the materials themselves. Rilke’s Ding-Gedichte, or thing-poems project, came out of the deep influence of Rodin—poems that begin in deliberation, looking at animals, people, sculptures, and paintings—not using the object primarily to express the inner life of the lyrical speaker, but of the object itself. Yes, well. As if that were possible.

Clearly, Rilke can’t restrain himself in this sonnet from making the actual swan an emblem of our lives. Our own hobbling through is “like” the swan. And our dying is like the swan, as it enters the water. So we might be taken up with our own thoughts, here, yet strangely, a perfect sense of the swan takes over. Even while the words turn him into a comparison, the swan has been seen in its interior life more clearly than if its portrait were representational.

I have watched swans closely. But it is Rilke who makes me conscious of the “anxious letting himself fall / into the water.” And how that moment, the letting go, seems to animate the water itself. It “receives him gently” // “as though with reverence and joy, / draws back past him.”

But it is Stephen Michell’s translation of the last line, the word “condescends” that I admire. The Ranson & Sutherland translation ends, “Increasingly royal, increasingly mature / And ever more serene, to deign to move.” Their version rhymes and is metered in keeping with Rilke’s German, but the rhythm of Mitchell’s “he condescends to glide” its small kick of the legs and the resulting glide feel beautifully more integral to the motion. 

Rilke wrote in his essay, “Concerning Landscape,” that landscape has to be self-contained, “almost hostile in its sublime indifference if it was to give a new meaning to our existence.” The swan can be hostile. It will spit at us if we bother it. It doesn’t want to be coopted by our personifications. Rilke’s sonnet itself suspends us between awareness of the actual swan and awareness of our selves, which feels a lot like the breathless moment before falling into the water.  But it seems that we must let go of our ideas about things to clearly see either them or ourselves.

Fleda Brown:
Fleda Brown’s The Woods Are On Fire: New & Selected Poems will be out from University of Nebraska Press in 2017. Her eighth collection of poems, No Need of Sympathy, (BOA Editions, LTD) and her collection of essays, Growing Old in Poetry, with Sydney Lea (Autumn House Press) came out in 2013. Her memoir is Driving With Dvorak, (University of Nebraska Press, 2010). Professor emerita at the University of Delaware, past poet laureate of Delaware, she lives in Traverse City, Michigan, and is on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program in Tacoma, Washington.

Stephen Mitchell
Stephen Mitchell's many books include The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke the bestselling Tao Te Ching, The Gospel According to Jesus, Bhagavad Gita, The Book of Job, Meetings with the Archangel, Gilgamesh, The Second Book of the Tao, and the Iliad. His website is www.stephenmitchellbooks.com.

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