Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Archaic Torso of Apollo --- Rainer Maria Rilke

Archaic Torso of Apollo

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.

---Rainer Maria Rilke, Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Archaic Torso of Apollo by Rainer Maria Rilke

If you've followed my blog the last few years then you know that I'm a sucker for strong endings. A poem that packs a punch at the end is more likely to stick with me than one that fizzles into the ether. Sure, there are instances when a contemplative conclusion is necessary, but far too often for my tastes contemporary poets opt for the quiet fade. I'm not sure why they do this—maybe out of fear that they'll produce a nice tidy ending? In my own writing I often opt for a strong ending because it allows me to better understand the poem and to understand why I'm writing it. Sometimes the initial ending will find another part of the poem more hospitable, but that exercise of crystalizing the poem in some small way acts as the final movement in my creative process. When I'm teaching poetry workshops I often advise students to try a seemingly simple exercise in revision. I ask them to write the gist of their poem in a single short sentence. Striping their writing down to a raw, base level, students often find the extra haymaker their poem seemed to be lacking. There is some belief that wrapping everything up neatly without any questions or doubts is juvenile and not worthy of lasting, meaningful literature. I could not disagree more and offer Rainer Maria Rilke's wonder work "Archaic Torso Of Apollo" as proof to the contrary.

On first glance years ago, a poem about an "archaic" statue did not pique my interest. What did I care about the body of an old, dead, mythological god? I still don't blame anyone who sees the title of this poem and decides to flip the page, but this oversight would be a horrible mistake. Rilke makes a boring figure rustle and rumble with life. How Rilke accomplishes this feat is particularly interesting: after surveying the external body, he quickly turns his keen eye to the "brilliance from inside" that Apollo possesses. There is life inside of this lifeless statue, from his "eyes like ripening fruit" to "his gaze, now turned to low, / gleams in all its power." The key to Apollo's presence is the aforementioned "brilliance from inside." Rilke notes that the statue is "suffused" with this brilliance and makes the comparison to a lamp shining forth. Without this inner force that has permeated this sculpture, "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." If we can view a piece of art, particularly a human sculpture, and see actual life then the artist has done a remarkable job accomplishing a challenging task. I assume Rilke would agree with that last sentence, but it is merely a launching point for the deeper issues this poem delves into.

The life we see in the sculpture is intrinsically linked with Apollo and his mythology, the sculptor and his artistic vision, the poet and his own artistic vision, and the audience (us) with our varied life experiences. Without all of these features working in unison the "stone would seem defaced…and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur…would not, from all the borders of itself, / burst like a star." Because we have the historic context, the art, and the audience all together in one quasi-community, Rilke asserts a strange consciousness that all parties share. As you read this poem, Apollo has been dead for thousands of years (if he ever actually existed) and the artist has presumably been dead for a while as well, even Rilke is dead. The only ones physically alive are us, the audience, and even when we die this poem will live on for years to come with new audiences. With that bit of contextual information, it becomes undeniably clear that the final two lines of the poem are meant for the living.

On a personal level, I find the ending to contain a grand and clever transformation---in fact, I'll go out on a limb and proclaim it the best ending of a poem that I've ever read. It's the type of ending that storms the reader's soul and conquers doubts, fears, apathies, and any other impurities. If Apollo has his "gleam" inside him, then the end of the poem is taking that gleam and lighting a proverbial fire under our backsides. Still, this isn't your typical Carpe Diem message. After all the descriptions of Apollo and his body, Rilke flips the script in the final two lines and now Apollo is the one viewing us. This inanimate sculpture is staring down each and every one of us in the audience…and it is not a pleasant gaze. "For here there is no place / that does not see you." There is an accountability and responsibility in that line that will terrify most people. If you aren't feeling the pangs of guilt, Rilke uses the final line to demand "You must change your life." If you thought this was a harmless poem about a statue, boy were you wrong! This is a poem about a poet challenging you to live your life and not resort to the comfortable complacency of a statue.

I read this poem often. And even though it has a tightly constructed ending, it is a immensely challenging piece of literature. Wherever you are in life this is a poem that requires you to take a step back, evaluate, and then act. Recently as I've read this poem I've looked at the final line as the beginning of another poem. This has morphed into a fun mini writing exercise that produces different results from day to day. Take the final line of Rilke's poem (You must change your life) as a first line and from there go ahead and produce nine lines of your own. I'm curious to see what you come up with and if this exercise works for you like it has for me. Here's a recent effort that I came up with; it's not anything groundbreaking, but I like it:

(After Rilke)

Charge into the unknown darkness
and crack those useless fears
staking you to the tidy tract,
release the past—people, places, words
you promised you'd never forget—
feel them traveling within you,
sharing your breath, embracing
your most beautiful struggle. Each of us
must discover our joyful purpose;
you are almost there. Go!


Charlotte said...

Hi Matthew!

I really love your blog posts, especially as you have such great taste in poetry! I did a project on Rilke over the summer for school, and your log helped me find a couple of his poems (including this one) which I never knew existed, so thank you! Hope you post a new one soon!

Love Charlotte X

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Thanks Charlotte for your appreciation of my blog and for your compliments! I'll see if I can include a Rilke poem on next year's blog postings. In the meantime, if you haven't already read Rilke's Letters To A Young Poet, I would strongly recommend it. What a wonderful correspondence that is just as much about life as it is about poetry. Check it out!

Anonymous said...

Hi, just found your site after a painful search for trying to understand this poem. Your is the only one that comes even close to explaining it and I sort of get it, 50% or so I think. Everywhere else people keep talking about the ending and the great surprise and I read it like ten times and still don't see what's so special, mainly because I don't get it, I think.

He starts by saying we can not know his head, but then says with eyes like ripe fruits?! How does he know? And why the comparison to fruits? Okay, so then says his torso is lit from the inside from a metaphorical lamp that is not shining as bright anymore. Okay.

Next stanza, "gleams in all its power". Hah? I thought it was "turned to low" and not as powerful? Next lined about a "curved breast"...why curved? Mere description of the muscular appearance? Then the two lines about smile running through hips or whatever, that I totally don't get. In your analysis you say that it refers to ability to see "actual life" in statue but I'm not sure how you see that. In any case, it was at this point in particular I started googling everywhere for a line by line real dumbed down explanation.

Next stanza says that otherwise, assuming now that he means if the statue is not lifelike, otherwise the stone would seem "defaced" (not sure what he means...disfigured?)...and then some strange similie about then not glistening like wild beast's fur. No idea...

The negation continues with something even more abstract, stone not bursting from borders of itself like a star. Huh? Then says "for here...." and using "for" I assume that an explanation is coming up, like saying "because...." But it doesn't or maybe it does and I've just lost track through all the negations. From your analysis I see that now these last two lines are addressed to readers apparently. I don't know why or how this sudden switch is justified or adds to the poem, and unfortunately, can't understand your explanation either " Because we have the historic context, the art, and the audience all together in one quasi-community, Rilke asserts a strange consciousness that all parties share."

Sorry for going on and on, but this was literally the only blog where someone wrote a few paragraphs about the poem instead of saying how brilliant it is and I really needed to share my confusion. :)