New Year Poems, Resolutions

Posted on Monday, January 03, 2011, under , , , ,

Archaic Torso of Apollo  
by Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Stephen Mitchell

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

A New Year's poem if ever there was one, as a mate of mine said. Yes, the call to arms for regeneration and betterment, if ever there was one. It’s the last line that really does it, and because of it a number of internet people, as well as certain critics, like to compare Rilke’s poem to James Wright’s

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year's horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

*You can hear Wright’s own rendering of the poem here:

Apart from the striking effect of their respective last lines, it is interesting that both poems contain a ‘head’ in the first line (I don’t think this was deliberate on Wright’s part). The critic A.Paulin went as far as to identify 'Archaic Torso of Apollo' as a direct source of Wright’s poem’s last line. This notion was demystified by Allan Williamson who at the same time admitted that
“…there is reason in [Paulin’s] error: Wright’s last line, like Rilke’s, forces the reader to go back and relive the previous, the apparently objective, part of the poem in order to come to terms with it.”
from Alan Williamson, "Language Against Itself: The Middle Generation of Contemporary Poets" (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard U P, 1984)
Wright’s source, as Williamson suggests, was more likely Rimbaud’s "J’ai perdu ma vie" [literally: "I have lost my life" or more fittingly ‘I have wasted my life/days] from the ‘Song of the Highest Tower’. Here is the first/last stanza:

Idle youth
Enslaved by everything,
By being too sensitive
I have wasted my life.
Ah! Let the time come
When hearts are enamoured!                   May 1872

translated by Oliver Bernard: Arthur Rimbaud, Collected Poems (1962).

Another version of the poem was published by Rimbaud in ‘Un Saison en Enfer’ (‘A Season in Hell’) in the ‘Alchemy of the Word’, chapter Delirium, in which he talks about hallucinations, the mind turning his words into visions, and – most importantly – the poet lying about idle,
“consumed by an oppressive fever: I envied the bliss of animals - caterpillars, who portray the innocence of a second childhood, moles, the slumber of virginity! My mind turned sour.”
So here we are: Rimbaud's persona idly lying about, envying the bliss of animals, James Wright's persona idly lying in his hammock, observing the apparent order in the animal kingdom, both wasting their lives. Wright himself has however described ‘Lying in a Hammock’ as the poem being ‘a description of a mood and this kind of poem is the kind of poem that has been written for thousands of years by the Chinese poets.
from Dave Smith, "James Wright: The Pure, Clear Word, an Interview" rep. from American Poetry Review (1980).

However, what Wright goes on to say in the same interview reveals his real concern with the spiritual waste in modern America, which he finds 'truly dreadful' and goes on to say:
“I have told my students that one of the most horrifying things to me is to stand, being my age, and look at a class of nineteen- and twenty-year old people who are trying to read a passage of, say, Milton or Shakespeare and to see their faces saying it is a waste of time. They don't see how precious their lives are."
Rilke’s 'Archaic Torso' ends on a high, emphatic note, Wright’s poem on a rather low, resigned one. It seems that Wright’s speaker, although realizing that there is an innate purpose to life be that what fills your day or what you come home to is not ready to fulfil this purpose himself. Perhaps the poem's last line's epiphany is a first step towards it. Rilke is embracing the pregnant forces of inner transformation with much more urgency, his poem so potent with unrealized beauty it's ready to burst on the page. Wright remains rather ambiguous, or put it another way, there is less intellectual fodder in his poem (and to its credit, it is not pretending to be intellectual), hence so many disparate, and at times desperate, over-interpretations of it.

It’s the New Year time, dear reader, need we be reminded of that? So, which poem works for you as the end-of-year wake-up alarm clock? Which one, if any, will go off in your little mind chamber? Do you have your own favourite New Year poem? If you do, let us know. Or would you opt for Rilke’s all-seeing torso aesthetically beckoning, as you heroically try to imagine its perfect head and limbs? Or would you go for Wright’s American bumming around on Duffy’s farm? You might also want to turn to another Duffy, Carol Ann that is, to her lovely poem ‘Snow’. In it you, the reader, are invited to visit a mystical thought-land of the dead (who have woken to meet you!), and remain there locked in. A scary prospect? Well, not that scary in fact.


Then all the dead opened their cold palms
and released the snow; slow, slant, silent,
a huge unsaying, it fell, torn language; settled,
the world to be locked, local; unseen,
fervent earthbound bees around a queen.
The river grimaced and was ice.

               Go nowhere-
thought the dead, using the snow-
but where you are, offering the flower of your breath
to the white garden, or seeds to birds
from your living hand. You cannot leave.
Tighter and tighter, the beautiful snow
holds the land in its fierce embrace.
It is like death, but it is not death; lovelier.
Cold, inconvenienced, late, what will you do now
with the gift of your left life?


Cold, inconvenienced, late. Sounds familiar? Locked in this life, this half-life, this frighteningly beautiful iceland, what do you do? The last line harks back to Richard Wright’s words: ‘They don’t see how precious their lives are’.

Carol Ann Duffy has written ‘Snow’ as a British Poet Laureate. The 'most illustrious’ Poet Laureate, Lord Tennyson, is of course responsible for that phrase ‘ring out the old, ring in the new’. Here is the second stanza of "In Memoriam, [Ring out, wild bells]":

    Ring out the old, ring in the new,
    Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
    The year is going, let him go;
    Ring out the false, ring in the true.

The wild sky, the flying cloud, the frosty light: Tennyson’s statue in Lincoln, UK, December 20, 2010.
(source: Boston Globe)

Finally, here is my humble contribution, written earlier today.


These acorns here, my dear, I say
are beautifully spot on
on this footpath this special day our acorn
independence day.
You say donburi I say
isn’t that a famous dish you say
no I said don-guri
I say one slippy letter
on slippy surface makes all the difference
in Japanese
you say not a letter a sound –
yet call me Totoro instead
your hand on my aching belly
(filled with apple pie, wine, beans in couscous)
guess I am I say prematurely –
the slush has penetrated your slim black boots,
your sore toes render your eyes sore –
the wild boar I say it likes acorns too
you say really I say really
your eyes ask
will you still love me this year.
 January 2, 2011

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