Rainer Maria Rilke for Beginners: Whose Words These Are (31)

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Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Damion Searls (54 minutes, 26 mb mp3)

When Rilke was dying in 1926 — of a rare and particularly agonizing blood disease — he received a letter from the young Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva. “You are not the poet I love most,” she wrote to him. “‘Most’ already implies comparison. You are poetry itself.” And one knows that this is not hyperbole. That voice of Rilke’s poems, calling us out of ourselves, or calling us into the deepest places in ourselves, is very near to what people mean by poetry… He induces a kind of trance, as soon as the whispering begins…”

Robert Hass, “Looking for Rilke,” in Stephen Mitchell’s Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.

Damion Searls, the precocious story-writer, translator and trend-maker, is our conversational guide here in digging up old gold and present-day power in the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Often bracketed with Yeats at the pinnacle of European poetry in the 20th Century, Rilke makes an even better pair with Walt Whitman as the irresistible great poet for everyone.

From The Inner Sky, “poems, notes, dreams” that Damion Searls has selected and translated, we are reading Rilke fragments that can make one gasp on a first hearing. I like specially, for example, these “Notes on the Melody of Things,” which snuck up on me six weeks ago and induced just the sort of trance Robert Hass recounts:

VII. There are, in fact, moments when a person stands out from his grandeur in clarity and silence before you. These are rare festive pleasures that you never forget. You love this person from then on. In other words, you work to retrace with your own tender hands the outlines of the personality that you came to know in this hour.

VII. Art does the same thing. For art is a farther reaching, more immodest love. It is God’s love. It cannot stop with an individual, who is only the portal of life itself: it must move through that individual. It cannot tire. To fulfill its destiny, it has to appear where everyone is — a someone. Then it bestows its gifts on this someone, and boundless riches come over everyone.

Rilke has a history, of course, but it hardly seems to matter. He was born in Prague in 1875, the German-speaking only child of a unhappy family in what was then the capital of Bohemia. In Proust’s Paris, Rilke became a sort of all-around aesthetic apprentice of the sculptor Rodin. Rilke’s mistress Lou Andreas-Salomé — who’d been Nietzsche’s mistress and later a confidante of Freud’s — took him to Russia to meet Tolstoy. So he had familiar access to the giants of the fin de siecle, and still his writing seems to come from beyond time and space, as in the legend that his masterpiece “Duino Elegies” were “dictated” to him by an angel in a final 3-week frenzy of writing in 1922. Rilke’s writing is continually turning up cards we’ve seen in his work before: theories of “space” and “sky,” mirrors and roses, girls in a game “as if set on fire by something godlike,” death, loss and longing, but also praise in those famous elegies: “Tell us, poet, what do you do? — I praise.” But it remains the great lure and beauty of reading Rilke that his meanings are not reducible, not readily transcribable into any other context. To take another of those “Notes on the Melody of Things,” might we hear this as a comment on intimacy? on globalization? perhaps on the American war in Afghanistan:

XI. Art has accomplished nothing, except to show us the confusion in which we already find ourselves most of the time. It has frightened us, rather than making us quiet and peaceful. It has shown us that we all live on different islands, only the islands are not far enough apart for us to stay solitary and untroubled. Someone on one island can pester someone on another, or terrorize him, or hunt him with spears — the only thing no one can do to anyone else is help him.

“Notes on the Melody of Things,” in Rilke’s The Inner Sky, Damion Searls, translator.

All I really know on an early acquaintance with Rilke — “when a person stands out from his grandeur in clarity and silence before you” — is that I want to keep reading him for the rest of my life.


  • http://cosmoszoo.blogspot.com/ Stephen Cahaly

    Chris, thank you for bringing Damion Searls back after his discussion of Thoreau’s journals. It was wonderful hearing Damion start the program off by taking the Thoreau we see in the journals, out looking for patterns in nature anywhere we might find it, and then applying that same approach to a poet like Rilke. I haven’t read Rilke in years, but now I plan on doing so again.

    It was fascinating seeing the pure Rilke who wrote the “Autumn Day” poem, which opened the program, and then the one who wrote the Duino Elegies, all with that Great War sitting somewhere in between. Damion says, “Rilke has no currency, no theory he’s pushing”, but I think Rilke has one. If Rilke is still writing about the inviolate soul and the commonality of all human beings when most other artists were, at that time, beginning to see that something drastically wrong was taking place in history, that sounds to me like a theory. A generation or so later we have Wallace Stevens in “Somnambulisma”, for instance, Elizabeth Bishop in “Insomnia”, Larkin in “Sad Steps”, Frank O’Hara, among many others, in the postwar years, all refusing to identify themselves with the nature they see.

    It’s interesting how Damion mentioned Proust in this interview too. In their different ways, Proust, with the pre-mass communication society he had hoped to preserve, Rilke with a 19th century conception of art as religion, either can be seen as relics whose times have passed them by. James Wood, speaking about Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold, described them as “the chief nurses of the sleep of nineteenth-century Christianity, and in their work one finds much false medicine.” However, he also says, “Both these writers are moving, because it is moving to witness an emergency renovation that is doomed.” When I was younger I would’ve just rolled my eyes whenever I heard Rilke mentioned. But that assumes a certain arrogance knowing how subsequent history has turned out. As for today, the Patriots are up 27-0 over the Bears right now with no doom in sight. But as for Rilke, I look forward to taking him up again, tragically.

  • Potter

    I so much loved listening to this meditation on Rilke. I had read a few of his poems, not many, but was so moved by their spirituality, their reaching for what I reach for, that awhile ago I did get a copy of Stephen Mitchell’s “Ahead of All Parting: Th Selected Poetry and Prose..” to investigate further. (The book off the shelf and dusted.) I was dipping into it while listening. I love to compare translations; it helps too at times. And the podcast allows me to go back over again what was read or said until I focus better, clear the head.

    I am not sure that Damion Searle’s “inner sky” works for me as well as “space” but I am trying it on. Mitchell’s I believe is the one titled “What birds plunge through is not the intimate space”.

    I love what he writes about birds- and bird song- that it hits deeply and connects us (or me) to nature as perhaps no other sound.. we are so fortunate to have it. (I feed my birds!)

    My first Rilke poem starts ” My life is not this steeply sloping hour.” I don’t know if it is by now a “pot-boiler” but it works beautifully. I was, several years ago committing this one to memory as part of a course that I took, memorizing doing something else- burning it in.

    The other- a prose piece, starts : “We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world. If it has terrors, they are our terrors. If it has abysses, these abysses belong to us. If there are dangers, we must try to love them, and only if we could arrange our lives in accordance with the principle that tells us that we must always trust the difficult, then what now appears to us to be alien, will become our most intimate and trusted experience”….

    I love also the poem “Spanish Dancer” which captures flamenco and fire at once. And I have, too, marked “Love Song” in my Mitchell translation.

    It was a real treat to listen to al ofl the readings in this mediation, especially “Interiors” at the end. I do see that Rilke starts with the very concrete but ends up questing and spiritual ( though not of a religion). Rilke’s poetry has much of oriental feel to it (Chinese or Japanese, maybe buddhist, zen). The first poem read here sounded like a Chinese poem and I wonder if Rilke read those poems.

  • Potter

    I think once you read Rilke, you want to read more. I find Rilke’s prose almost poetry. I only once felt that way -about Thomas Wolfe ( Look Homeward Angel)- but I am not that widely read. There must be others whose prose reads so much like poetry .

    Also thank you very much for the quotes above on art.

    To finish the prose piece ( as it was given to me) from that Rilke I started above:

    “How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races- the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses. perhaps all the dragons in our lives are only princesses waiting for us to act, just once, with beauty and courage. perhaps everything that frightens us is, in it’s deepest essence, something that wants our love.

    So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises before you larger than any you have ever seen, if anxiety like light and cloud shadows moves over your hands and everything that you do. You must realize that something has happened to you. Life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in it’s hands and will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.”

  • http://healthytrim-reviews.com Jeremy

    I have read more Tagore than Rilke, but they sure both were great minds.

    Here’s another brilliant Rilke I came across. (It contains the words Stranger: music – any connection I wonder?) This may be one of the best poems I have ever seen.

    To Music

    Music: breathing of statues. Perhaps:
    silence of paintings. You language where all language
    ends. You time
    standing vertically on the motion of mortal hearts.

    Feelings for whom? O you the transformation
    of feelings into what?–: into audible landscape.
    You stranger: music. You heart-space
    grown out of us. The deepest space in us,
    which, rising above us, forces its way out,–
    holy departure:
    when the innermost point in us stands
    outside, as the most practiced distance, as the other
    side of the air:
    pure,
    boundless,
    no longer habitable.

    So good, His work is just great!

    Regards
    Jeremy

  • http://www.mortgage-rates-utah.com Jim Collins

    “VII. There are, in fact, moments when a person stands out from his grandeur in clarity and silence before you. These are rare festive pleasures that you never forget. You love this person from then on. In other words, you work to retrace with your own tender hands the outlines of the personality that you came to know in this hour.

    VII. Art does the same thing. For art is a farther reaching, more immodest love. It is God’s love. It cannot stop with an individual, who is only the portal of life itself: it must move through that individual. It cannot tire. To fulfill its destiny, it has to appear where everyone is — a someone. Then it bestows its gifts on this someone, and boundless riches come over everyone.”

    These are two of my favorite stanzas of all of his works. They stand out so much and truly speak to the heart.

  • http://www.myweightlossprograms.org Eve

    After being put off of poetry at school, I must say Rilke is like a breath of fresh air. Think I will check out “The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke”

  • http://www.butchsspeedshop.com Jan Phillips

    Poetry is magic! Especially Rilke’s.

  • Milovan Srbinoski

    Please, answer me is there a collected works by Rainer Maria Rilke in englis language?

    Thank you,

    Milovan Srbinoski
    Ohrid, Republic of Macedonia