In the mid-1960s I was writing a lot of poetry. My idols in the world of poetry at that time were Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, W. B. Yeats, William Blake, Alexander Pope, and my long esteemed favorite, John Keats. I think it is only fair to say that my poems stunk and even with the support of one college professor who read everything I wrote and made comments, all of my collected works were probably turned into rolling papers when I was in grad school.
But I guess I made copies (this was in the carbon copy age before the rise of Xeroxtopus) since I occasionally find a yellowing piece of folded paper in an old book which still can cause me embarrassment.
One poem I remember, sort of in the Wallace Stevens vein, was called The Artistic Cruelty of the Spanish Dancer. Don’t ask me why I remember the title and don’t expect me to pull out an old copy from my St. Louis days: it’s effectively lost forever (or until I take down that old copy of the poems of Robert Browning and wonder what that folded piece of paper is that I used for a bookmark over forty years ago).
What reminded me of my crappy old poem was reading a short piece by Rainer Maria Rilke that in some places … well, you would think I copied Rilke but at that time I don’t think I had even heard of Rilke (studying in St. Louis we were all blinded by the brilliance of T. S. Eliot).
Well, I can’t show you how bad my poem was but I can share the Rilke poem which is far greater than my callow efforts. Here it is in translation followed by the original German. I don’t read German but if you do, Rilke is a great writer to get familiar with.
The Spanish Dancer
As on all its sides a kitchen-match darts white
flickering tongues before it bursts into flame:
with the audience around her, quickened, hot,
her dance begins to flicker in the dark room.
And all at once it is completely fire.
One upward glance and she ignites her hair
and, whirling faster and faster, fans her dress
into passionate flames, till it becomes a furnace
from which, like startled rattlesnakes, the long
naked arms uncoil, aroused and clicking.
And then: as if the fire were too tight
around her body, she takes and flings it out
haughtily, with an imperious gesture,
and watches: it lies raging on the floor,
still blazing up, and the flames refuse to die –
Till, moving with total confidence and a sweet
exultant smile, she looks up finally
and stamps it out with powerful small feet.
And in the original language:
Wie in der Hand ein Schwefelzündholz, weiß,
eh es zu Flamme kommt, nach allen Seiten
zuckende Zungen streckt -: beginnt im Kreis
naher Beschauer hastig, hell und heiß
ihr runder Tanz sich zuckend auszubreiten.
Und plötzlich ist er Flamme, ganz und gar.
Mit einem Blick entzündet sie ihr Haar
und dreht auf einmal mit gewagter Kunst
ihr ganzes Kleid in diese Feuersbrunst,
aus welcher sich, wie Schlangen die erschrecken,
die nackten Arme wach und klappernd strecken.
Und dann: als würde ihr das Feuer knapp,
nimmt sie es ganz zusamm und wirft es ab
sehr herrisch, mit hochmütiger Gebärde
und schaut: da liegt es rasend auf der Erde
und flammt noch immer und ergibt sich nicht -.
Doch sieghaft, sicher und mit einem süßen
grüßenden Lächeln hebt sie ihr Gesicht
und stampft es aus mit kleinen festen Füßen.