Pure Contradiction: Selected Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke

About the translator

Ian Crockatt lives with his ceramic artist wife Wenna on a small croft in the North East of Scotland, close to gannet-crowded sea cliffs and under the flight-path of seasonally migrating geese. After many years of employment as a social worker with children and families, he is working on a PhD thesis at Aberdeen University, focusing on the translation of Old Norse skaldic poetry.
He has published several collections of his own poetry including Flood Alert (Chapman Publications, 1996), Original Myths (Cruachan Publications, 1999), The Crucifixion Bird (Northwords Folios, 2002), Blizzards of the Inner Eye (Peterloo Press, 2003), The Lyrical Beast (Salix Publications, 2004) and Skald — Viking poems (Koo Press, Aberdeen, 2009, reprinted 2011). Original Myths, which includes etchings by the Scottish artist Paul Fleming, was short-listed for the Saltire Society’s Scottish Book of the Year Award in 2000. He has been a prize winner in a number of national literary competitions and was awarded Writer’s Bursaries by the Scottish Arts Council in 2004 and 2008.
He is currently preparing a collection of poems translated from the work of Rognvaldr Kali Kolsson, a 12th Earl of Orkney, as well as working on a new collection of his own verse.
“Rainer Maria Rilke was born into the German speaking elite of Prague in 1875, and died in Switzerland in 1926.  He was witness to the great political and cultural revolutions in Europe in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and in the case of the radical new art emerging in Paris before the First World War was involved in reviewing exhibitions and writing articles about the new artists, as well as developing his own increasingly individual and virtuoso verse. He was secretary to the sculptor Rodin for two years, met Picasso and Tolstoy and many other giants of the artistic and intellectual community of the time, while also developing an increasingly devoted readership for his own work. He lived a semi-nomadic but genteel life, moving round Europe from hotel to borrowed rooms, from affair to aristocratic benefactor, always prioritising the promptings of his art over the demands of commitment to the convention of bourgeois relationships. His awareness of his own calling as a poet, his immersing of himself in the role to the extent he did – as well as his controversial deliberations on love, sex, art and religious observation in both poetry and prose – resulted in a guru-like status and following in some quarters.
Today his reputation is equally as high. His Duino Elegies, completed in the same year as the Waste Land was published, are landmark expressions of the complexities of intellect and feeling a human life can experience. The Sonnets to Orpheus, written at the same time, read like exhalations after the great in-drawing of breath the Elegies demanded; delicate, thankful, ecstatic. The earlier two volumes of New Poems sound a new note in European poetry with their mix of sensual, observed scrutiny of Things, and their capturing of the inner essence of what is being observed. There are over four hundred poems written in French in the last years of his life, and hundreds more exploratory and far-reaching poems Rilke did not publish. Together with his volumes of letters, in which he himself said much of his creativity was expressed, and his extraordinary impressionistic novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke’s poetry constitutes one of the greatest literary achievements of any century.”

Pure Contradiction (Arc Publications, 2012) is a bilingual selection, which has gathered poems from all periods of Rilke’s life. Instead of the usual format of arranging poems chronologically, the translator Ian Crockatt places poems of similar themes or modes of expression close to one another. Each poem is to a greater or lesser extent conscious of others, so illuminating the underlying themes which Rilke said he had arrived at very early in his life.
In his powerful new translation, skilfully shaped into current English, Ian Crockatt succeeds in catching Rilke’s blend of crafted sensuality and inward-focused spiritual searching, while his comprehensive introduction and notes to this selection are both informative and enlightening.
Rainer Maria Rilke was described by another great poet, Maria Tsvetaeva as ‘not a poet, but the embodiment of poetry’. His work spans the divide between Europe’s turn-of-the-century decadence and its post First World War revolutionary modernism, always struggling to develop, to seek and reach beyond itself.”
Le Ruban
L’aurai-je exprimé, avant de m’en aller,
ce cœur qui, tourmenté, consent á être?
Étonnement sans fin, qui fus mon maître,
jusqu’à la fin t’aurai-je imité?

Mais tous surpasse comme un jour d’eté
le tender jeste qui trop tard admire;
dans nos paroles écloses, qui respire
le pur parfum d’identité?

Et cette belle qui s’en va, comment
la ferait en passer par une image?
Son doux ruban flottant vit davantage
que cette ligne qui s’éprend.
The Ribbon

Will I have expressed it before I go,
my tormented heart which consents to live?
Increasingly astonishment masters me –
will I have proved its equal before I leave?
But all surpasses, like a summer’s day
your tender gesture compliments too late.
Is the pure perfume of identity
breathed in with the words we create?
And that departing beauty, how can
she be summed up by some metaphor?
Her frail ribbon floats with more élan
than this line does, which worships her.


Wer du auch seist: am Abend tritt hinaus
aus deiner Stube, drin du alles weißt;
als letzes vor der Ferne liegt dein Haus:
wer du auch seist.
Mit deined Augen, welche müde kaum
von der verbrauchten Schwelle sich befrein,
hebst du ganz langsam einen schwarzen Baum
und stellst ihn vor den Himmel: schlank, allein.
Und hast die Welt gemacht. Und sie ist groß
und wie ein Wort, das noch im Schweigen reift.
Und wie dein Wille ihren Sinn begreift,
lassen sie deine Augen zärtlich los …
Whoever you are; step out of your familiar
room into the evening. Your house
is the last before the endless.
Whoever you are.
With your tired eyes, scarcely able to
look beyond the time-worn threshold, you
raise a dark tree up, slowly,
and stand it against the sky; frail, solitary.
And you have made the world; it is tall,
and like a word it ripens in silence.
And as your will absorbs its significance
your eyes allow it, tenderly, to fall …

Wie hab ich das gefühlt was Abschied heißt.
Wie weiß ichs noch: ein dunkles unverwundes
grausames Etwas, das ein Schönverbundnes
noch einmal zeigt und hinhält und zerreißt.
Wie war ich ohne Wehr, dem zuzuschauen,
das, da es mich, mich rufend, gehen ließ,
zurückblieb, so als wärens alle Frauen
und dennoch klein und weiß und nichts als dies:

Ein Winken, schon nicht mehr auf mich bezogen,
ein leise Weiterwinkedes – scon kaum
erklärbar mehr: vielleicht ein Pflaumenbaum,
von dem ein Kuckuck hastig abgeflogen.
Never let the shape we make be that of parting –
it has the look and feel of implacable cruelty.
Who made the world this way? Why
offer the fruit up whole then pulp it? Nothing
describes the raw thing I became when she
clutched me closer in order to let me go –
so that she might remain, she cried, stay
in her pale woman-form to wave goodbye,
goodbye, though no longer, it seemed, to me,
so slight and inward was her waving.
Years on, in my heart, leaves fluttering
as if a cuckoo had just flown from the damson-tree.

Am Rande der Nacht
Meine Stube und diese Weite,
wach über nachtendem Land –
ist Eines. Ich bin eine Saite,
über rauschende breite
Resonanzen gespannt.
Die Dinge sind Geigenlieber,
von murrendem Dunkel voll;
drin träumt das Weinen der Weiber,
drin rührt sich im Schlafe der Groll
ganzer Geschlechter …
Ich soll
silbern erzittern: dann wird
Alles unter mir leben,
und was in den Dingen irrt,
wird nach dem Lichte streben,
das von meinem tanzenden Tone,
um welchen der Himmel wellt,
durch schmale, schmachtende Spalten
in die alten
Abgründe ohne
Ende fällt …
On the Verge of Night
My room, and space watching
over the land’s dark distances –
are one. I am a string
stretched taut across the far-reaching
thundering resonances.
Things are violin-bodies
full of reverberating darkness –
in it dream the cries
of women, in its sleep the bitterness
of whole generations is roused …
I’ll thrum, luminous
as silver. Then all
that is beneath me will come alive,
and whatever struggles
to find its way in Things will strive
towards the brightness
which from my dancing tone –
around which skies pulsate –
endlessly falls through fissures, thin
and disconsolate,
to the ancient abyss.
An die Musik

Musik: Atem der Statuen. Vielleicht:
Stille der bilder. Du sprache wo sprachen
enden. Du zeit,
die senkrecht steht auf der Richtung vergehender Herzen.

Gefühle zu wem? O du der Gefühle
Wandlung in was?.. In hörbare landschaft.
Du Fremde: Musik. Du uns entwachsener
Herzraum. Innigstes unser,
das, uns übersteigend, hinausdrängt –
heiliger Abschied:
da uns das Innre umsteht
als geübteste Ferne, als andre
Seite der Luft:
nicht mehr bewohnbar.
To Music
Music. Breath of statues. Perhaps;
stillness’s image. You language
beyond language. You Time
standing perpendicular to the trajectory of our hearts.
Feeling – for whom? O you who are feeling
transformed into … what? … Audible landscape!
You stranger; music. You who have outgrown
our heartspace. Our innermost selves
which, surpassing us, break out of us –
sacred departure.
When what is most deeply us
exists out there as our most experienced distance, as the other
side of the air;
from Pure Contradiction: Selected Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke
(Arc Publications, 2012).

Order Pure Contradiction: Selected Poems.

Read ‘Another Rilke?’ by Ian Crockatt here.

Read Ian Crockatt’s ‘On Translating’ here.

3 thoughts on “Pure Contradiction: Selected Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke

  1. Ian Crockatt

    Thanks M.

    I guess the trick is knowing when a poem is a poem, and not just a translation….


  2. Frank Beck

    Greetings from New York and thanks very much for posting this. I’ve been looking for information about Crockatt because this book was just awarded the Schlegel-Tieck Prize for translation from German (see p. 28 of the TLS for 14/2/14). I’ve shared your blog on my FB page.

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