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Thursday, 12 July 2007

A Voice from the Silence

Recently I treated myself to a copy of Don Paterson's "Orpheus : A Version of Rilke". Fifty five sonnets to Orpheus, the originals having been completed by Rilke in under a month at a time when he was working on the Duino Elegies - when he was working to finish them, no less. It does not seem feasible. He spoke of writing them to dictation. Paterson is at pains to stress that what he has produced is a version, not a translation, and he includes a twelve page Afterword, plus an appendix of fourteen notes, all devoted, in the main, to an analysis of the contrasting natures of these two very different beasts. Incidentally, the book would have been well worth buying had it contained no more than the Afterword and the Appendix.

But they are merely a bonus. It does contain more. It contains fifty five stunning sonnets. I say that as an act of faith, for I have not yet read them all, not even half of them, but they will, I just know, be meat and drink to me for some time to come. (I guess I will take substantially longer to read them than Rilke took to write the originals.) But my purpose just now is not to discuss or eulogize about the sonnets, but to think upon the following, which Paterson quotes in the fourth of his Notes:
"Charles Simic once memorably remarked that poems are translations from the silence. For a version to be any kind of a real poem, it must first reinhabit that extralinguistic silence the original poem once itself enjoyed - which is to say the poem must make a symbolic exit from language altogether. In this meditative space, its pattern of idea and image is reconsumed by its own strangeness, and when it re-emerges into language rediscovers itself in original speech."

I think it is not too fanciful to say that I was aware of something akin to this - perhaps the obverse side of the process - as I chose and read some "taster" sonnets, and particularly the opening one, "Orpheus". I read the words, was aware of meaning (though not "the" meaning), as from the page came, a voice, certainly, but a voice in the silence. The language was not being internalised. It was meaning as you might encounter it in dream, not knowing by what means you had come by it, a ghostly flame flickering between me and the page. A brief moment, no more; a tick of the clock, but perhaps it was the eternal clock that had ticked.

Later,as I read them again, the spell was broken, and the language kicked in with its own enchantments. Later still, it occurred to me that there is often (always?) something of this to my first reading of any great poem. It would be interesting to know if this is a universal finding. Is it the same for all?

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