So: in twenty-first century America, of all places, Rainer Maria Rilke, of all people, has become, of all things, cool. (Among the youth in Germany, as far as I can tell, where everyone knows his name, he is not cool; I asked a university student on a train what her friends thought of him, and she answered with one word: Elfenbeinturm, ivory tower.) Of his arrival in youth culture here, small signs have been appearing for years, but now there is one indisputable piece of concrete evidence: Lady Gaga’s left arm, on which is tattooed, in German, a passage from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. In a concert video I came to in a very contemporary way, clicking on a link someone I didn’t know had posted on Facebook, and scrolling down, Gaga first reads from the book itself a well-known passage beginning “A work of art is of an infinite loneliness,” at which the huge crowd roars its approval. Then she translates the arm: “In the deepest hour of the night, ask yourself if you would have to die if [you were] forbidden to write. Look deep into your heart where the answer spreads its roots, and ask yourself, ‘Muss ich schreiben—must I write?’” Finally she translates the English into the language of cool: “It’s like, if I wouldn’t die without making music, who the fuck am I [to be so blessed] to have all of you here tonight?” More shrieks of assent, presumably consoling Gaga’s art in its infinite loneliness.
Soon after this discovery, on a trip to Chicago with time to kill in the Loop and nothing to do, I bought a copy of Harper’s and found “Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives,” by the poet Michael Robbins. The subtitle was “A poet’s guide to metal,” meaning the genre formerly known as heavy metal. Robbins quotes Blake in his first paragraph and Rimbaud in his second (in which he also alludes to Keats). In the third he quotes John Ashbery, and in the fourth, to my delight, I found this: “Metal and poetry are, among other things, arts of accusation and instruction. Together with Rilke’s archaic torso of Apollo, they say, ‘You must change your life.’” “Archaic Torso of Apollo” is the most well-known of Rilke’s “thing poems,” products of his undertaking to learn to see objects—in a visionary way—from the example of the great sculptor Rodin, on whom he wrote an early monograph, and whom he later served for a time as personal secretary. The object in this instance is a headless and almost completely limbless fragment of a statue of the ancient god, the one intact thigh making it conspicuous that the genitals too are missing. (Google the poem’s title and images of the thing itself will appear.) Under Rilke’s gaze it comes alive, and somehow because it has no head, no eyes, “there is no place that cannot see you,” and the old sun god blazes into life with that terrible message: You must change your life.
The poem has a couple of spots that offer the translator no good options; it’s a sonnet as well, but I find no way of introducing rhyme (as I usually hope to do in such cases) without losing the poem’s vital immediacy. I’ve retained the iambic pentameter, but find no acceptable padding to lengthen the last line. Here is my version, no better, alas, than many others:
Archaic Torso of Apollo
We do not know the inconceivable head
in which the eyeballs once grew ripe as apples.
But now the torso shines on like a streetlamp
in which, just turned down low, his seeing holds
and glows. If this were not so, then the curve
of the breast could never dazzle you this way,
and from the loins’ soft turning no faint smile
could go out toward what was the sexual center.
Otherwise this stone would stand disfigured,
small and broken below the shoulders’ plunge
and would not glisten like a predator’s pelt,
not burst out of its boundaries like a star:
for there is no place here that does not see you.
You must change your life.
The rest of Robbins’s piece is studded with name-drops from Heavy Lit, bounced off references to bands like Poison Idea and Deathspell Omega, but Rilke and changing your life keep popping up. Finally we learn that the title imperative, “Destroy your safe and happy lives,” is a paraphrase of Rilke’s punch line as put by a metal band called the Mekons, who add “before it is too late.” So maybe Rilke is cool because he’s the guy who said “You must change your life”? But Rilke wasn’t writing to bug his parents or the bourgeoisie; personally, he was more about fawning over the nobility. And taking this line out of context makes it meaningless, even (ouch) boring. Practically everybody says at some point that we must change our lives. On my way to buy that Harper’s, I passed an aging African-American street preacher in a stiff, dated suit who was telling all of us as we streamed by that we must change our lives. All great religions, in varying ways, say the same. Commercials tell us endlessly that we must change our lives by buying something. The kids who want to be popular can buy stuff endorsed by music and sports stars; others can express their contempt for the popular kids by doing their metal thing, with all the necessary paraphernalia. We old people can do it by taking something for our erectile dysfunction, our low T, our vaginal dryness. There might be money in “You must change your life” tee-shirts and bumper stickers, but the power of this great poem is not in the slogan but the entire act of vision that takes us there, and the poet’s utter commitment to, and engagement in, seeing itself. If you have seen an image of the broken statue, you will realize that you couldn’t have gotten the message Rilke found there, any more than I could. It’s what visionary poets do.
But Rilke may have other youth music fields to conquer. Hip-hop says implicitly that we must change our lives (in some ways more constructive than others); I look forward to the first hip-hop Rilke reference, if I haven’t already missed it. And while a lot of country music seems to say we mustn’t change our lives, there has to be room for him on the progressive fringes.
Cool is about the last thing that Rainer Maria Rilke would have wanted to be, of course; if he could have fathomed its meaning, it would have appalled him. And of course he despised America. From my limited knowledge, though, Gaga may be interesting enough as an artist to benefit from knowing him, and if our pop Rilke infatuation leads some people to get past the bumper stickers and sound bites and reach the source, this strange Other in all his strange Otherness, then it’s okay by me.
has published six books and chapbooks of poetry, two of fiction, and a full-length study of Rainer Maria Rilke and Paula Modersohn-Becker. His most recent book is Heart. Wood. (Word Poetry, 2012), a collection of poems. In 2017, Mayapple Press will publish his collection of ghazals, In Which We See Our Selves: American Ghazals.
Torgersen has a BA in German Literature from Cornell University and translates German poetry, especially that of Rainer Maria Rilke and Nicolas Born. After two years in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, he earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Iowa. In the spring of 2008, he retired after 38 years of teaching writing at Central Michigan University and now lives in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan with his wife, the quilt artist Ann Kowaleski.