Rhyming, Rilke, and Doggerel
oes rhyme move a poem along on its own accord? Is there a motive power with rhyme that unrhymed poetry does not possess? Also, rhymed poetry usually communicates with at least partial clarity, perhaps because of its deliberate structure and the restraints it imposes on a writer. A person may tolerate a rhymed poem about a sheep, but will give up on unstructured, free-form, abstract sheep musings.
In a previous post on Rilke (internal link) I compared different translations of “I Live My Life in Ever Widening Circles” from his work The Book of Hours. See below.
The first translator rhymes his piece, forcing on him a more limited word palette than the others. This seems a more disciplined approach than free verse, in which nothing has to rhyme, just one thought after another.
Of course, poets like T.S. Eliot aren’t that concerned with rhyming. These people have mastered their craft and then go beyond what constrains the average writer. Like a musician who can hear any song and then instantly play it. For the rest of us, we’re still trying to find middle “C” on the piano.
Many, many years ago I wrote an ode to my fat cat Montel. It’s doggerel, but it is rhymed doggerel. Without the motive power of rhyme, I doubt anyone would finish the poem. Not if I lapsed into completely unstructured verse. Or, is it that a humorous poem always demands rhyme? Don’t know. Hmm.
Below my poem are several translations of Rilke’s poem.
Montel by Thomas Farley
“Montel’s a lug!”, I’ve heard it’s said, the neighbors say it’s true
But a lug is something heavy, something slow and clumsy, too
Montel is somewhat overweight but goodness aren’t we all?
Instead he’s quick and pretty slick, a cat that just won’t stall
He’s fast as summer lightning when the food dish hits the floor
Jumps right back like Fred Astaire, to miss the icebox door
Call him Beezelbub or Wysiwyg or even Hüsker do
But not a lug, on no, dear friend, a lug will just not do
A rapscallion pure and simple, he’s equipped with all the tools:
A tooth filled jaw and awesome claws; a mouth that barely drools
He’s the essence of a gato, although he lacks a tail
But where he lost it no one knows, although some think in jail
So keep that lug for lug nuts, or for lugs of pears and peach
But don’t tack it on to Montel for politeness you will breach
Lift your voice in song and praise for a cat that’s oh so true
A tough old mug, a kindly thug, but not a lug to you!
I Live My Life in Ever Widening Circles
by Rainer Maria Rilke
I live my life in circles that grow wide
And endlessly unroll,
I may not reach the last, but on I glide
Strong pinioned toward my goal.
About the old tower, dark against the sky,
The beat of my wings hums,
I circle about God, sweep far and high
On through milleniums.
Am I a bird that skims the clouds along,
Or am I a wild storm, or a great song?
Tr. Jessie Lamont
I live my life in ever widening circles, each superseding all the previous ones.
Perhaps I never shall succeed in reaching the final circle, but attempt I will.
I circle around God, the ancient tower, and have been circling for a thousand years,
and still I do not know: am I a falcon, a storm, or a continuing great song?
Tr. Albert Ernest Flemming
I live my life in widening circles that drift out over the things.
I may not achieve the very last, but it will be my aim.
I circle around God, around the age-old tower; I’ve been circling for millennia
and still I don’t know: am I a falcon, a storm, or a sovereign song?
Tr. Edward Snow
I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower. I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon, a storm, or a great song?
Tr. Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows
I live my life in ever-widening circles
that stretch themselves out over all the things.
I won’t, perhaps, complete the last one,
but I intend on trying.
I circle around God, around the ancient tower,
and I circle for thousands of years;
and I don’t know, yet: am I a falcon, a storm,
or a mighty song.
Tr. fulicasenia http://lyricstranslate.com/en/translator/fulicasenia (external link)
Joanna Macy spoken, translator unknown. Unrhymed.