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On "Archaic Torso of Apollo"

Written by

Mark Doty
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Year

2014
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"Archaic Torso of Apollo"
by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Stephen Mitchell


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.

This talk was given by Mark Doty at the Academy of American Poets' Online Poetry Classroom Summer Institute.

MARK DOTY: Having read this poem hundreds of times, I remain startled by that final gesture. I feel something has taken place that I am and am not prepared for.

I'll just give you a tiny bit of context about the poem. Rilke felt that his own earlier poems were airy, disembodied. He got himself a job working for the sculptor Rodin, whose very fleshy, highly physicalized forms were enormously attractive to him. He wanted to write poems with the same kind of muscularity and physical presence as Rodin's sculptures.

Rodin gave him all these assignments. Go to the zoo and look, go to the Louvre, choose something, and talk about it. Although, in this poem, it feels like Rilke has not chosen his subject, he has been chosen for his encounter with this headless object that seems to see him with such rigor and force, despite the fact that its eyes are not there. It has a gaze without a head.

MAN: To me this is very much a kind of prayer.

MARK DOTY: I absolutely agree. It's interesting that it's an experience of standing before a figure of a god, but in the 20th century. This god is broken, this god's head isn't there. The speaker tries to make a connection. Attempts to link himself to that source, even broken or lost, of authority, power, vision.

I think it would be useful to look at the figures that Rilke uses to describe this object in front of him. First, there's the head we can't know, but the head we can't know has eyes like ripening fruit. This is the first simile in the poem. And yet his torso is suffused with brilliance from inside, like a lamp—our second simile—and that lamp is turned down, the gaze is turned low, but it's still gleaming in all its power. It can be diminished and fierce at once.

"Otherwise / the curved breast could not dazzle you so." In Greek sculpture, there's this line that goes underneath the abdominal muscles and down to the hips. (It doesn't matter how many sit-ups you do, you can't get this line.) He's seeing that line as a smile. The stone otherwise—we keep hearing what it's not. If it were this, actually broken, we couldn't know what we do. The translucent cascade, the wild beast's fur, the burst like a star, figure after figure, and what do these figures have in common? Well, not so much. Light in the case of the lamp and the star, and to some degree maybe the fruit—you can imagine the ripening fruit glowing. But it feels like the speaker here is groping to describe what's in front of him. Trying to name this power, which is palpable, real, but perhaps essentially unsayable. When we confront a great work of art, a great work of the spirit, we feel something, but how difficult, how impossible it is to say what it is.

Imagine if this poem came to us without its final sentence. If the poem ended, "for here there is no place that does not see you," it's not bad, is it? We'd be left with the sense that we are perceived by the work of art. But the profound sense of culmination would be missing. That final statement becomes a completion of all those figures we've been given by saying, "This is so powerful that you cannot stay out of it." Up until that last point in the poem, I think we can stay out of it. We can enjoy the active description, but we're not necessarily implicated.

It's very difficult to say rationally why the experience of beauty or spiritual power produces this strong sensation. The poem makes the leap for us that's like the experience, I think, of seeing the work of art. The speaker tries to take it in, he thinks of all these figures to describe it, none of them quite do it, and then there's the kind of immediacy of experience that's similar to the Pound poem. Boom, the whole appears.

MAN: The work that the speaker does in this poem, to arrive at that cerebral moment is important, but you get there by acutely paying attention to the thing. I teach this poem with Bishop's, "The Fish," and I always think of the two as cousins because there's that same vivid attention to the thing, which all of a sudden blossoms into this bigger sensation. The "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow" in "The Fish," and the last line here. But it's the work, the mystery of the metaphor, and the process of examination that leads to the final culmination.

MARK DOTY: That's a good connection to the Bishop poem, because in both cases the metaphor is an act of inquiry. It's not this, not that, a little like this, and then what finally communicates the unsayable is that statement that seems to come winging out of nowhere.

In the Bishop poem, she proceeds like a kind of perceptual scientist—this is what the fish's eyes look like, the scales, the hooks in its jaw. And yet the sum of that experience is something larger than any of those details would in themselves seem to justify. Another way for us to talk with our students about the process of metaphor-making is to think as scientists, attempting to say what's in front of us through the work of saying what it is like. Acknowledging that's one of the only ways we have to get at the nature of reality, by walking around it, by means of building these metaphorical architectures.

MAN: Mark, can you just say a word about the poem as a sonnet?

MARK DOTY: Sure. Even though the Rilke poem is translated, Steven Mitchell has quite artfully preserved its "sonnetness." And this is truly intriguing because the sonnet is a form of argument, which—I think about Shakespeare's sonnets—state a premise and reconsider it. At some point, the sonnet turns that premise around. "My mistress's eyes are nothing like the sun"—Shakespeare has made an initial argumentative statement, and by the end of the poem, has corrected or transformed that statement.

So the sonnet form prepares us to be convinced of something, it prepares us for a turn, and "Archaic Torso of Apollo" has the sharpest last minute turn in sonnet history. It's also a form that is inescapably linked to wholeness. By nature, the sonnet feels complete. To write a poem about something broken in the form which suggests wholeness and completeness is an interesting thing to do. It's a very 20th century kind of use of form, to talk about the fragmentation of a spiritual experience in a very whole way.

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