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Translator's Notes: Song of the Little Cripple at the Street Corner

by David Ferry

I don’t call this a translation. It’s an experiment in plundering the wonderful Rilke poem for the three figures (the soul flapping its wings, the spasmodic jerking of the toad-like hands, the big dog looking into the stunted cripple’s face) that I found so arresting. There’s material in the original that of course means that the cripple (in Rilke’s poem the dwarf) is much more fully characterized, his situation and his thoughts about it much more fully spelled out, so much less left to implication, than in my larcenous version. I don’t know whether this is an apology or not. Some lines in the Rilke seemed a little too discursive and generalized to me, not for Rilke’s poem but for the one I had in mind.

Those three figures just knocked me out. And they seemed appropriate to what I’d observed of a young man, a stunted beggar at a street corner near my house, and I wanted to make, as it were, a kind of abstraction of a poem about him, focused on those three figures: the soul as a bird, the hands, the big dog (God spelled backward) looking into the little man’s face.

For years and years I’ve been working on poems about street people. One of these, “The Song of the Drunkard,” is also adapted from this same series of poems by Rilke.


This poem originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2006

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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