Angels to Radios: On Rainer Maria Rilke

It is said that the tradition of English poetry began with Caedmon--an illiterate seventh-century lay brother who, ashamed of his inability to versify when the harp was passed around at a feast, fell asleep in his stable among the animals and dreamed of an angel. This angel, too, bade him sing, and again Caedmon protested that he did not know any songs; but then, inexplicably, he found himself obeying the angel's dictum: "Sing the beginning of the creatures!" Immediately on waking he wrote down the eulogy to the world and its maker that had been transmitted to him in his dream; today the nine-line Anglo-Saxon "Caedmon's Hymn" is the earliest known English poem--a product of what poets now often call "dictation." The gods (or God), the muses (or the Muse); afflatus, ecstasy, poetic madness: the lore of poetry worldwide attests to the claim that poetry at its best emerges from somewhere "other"--a source beyond the poet's ego and conscious mind. Sometimes the poem appears in dreams, as with Caedmon; sometimes during autohypnosis, as with William Butler Yeats. James Merrill's medium of choice was his Ouija board; Jack Spicer's, his orphic radio. A key interchange in the transition from angels to radios is the visionary poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.

As an ambitious young poet, Rilke was chastised by his elder, Stefan George: "You've started to publish too early." Damning words! Rilke had authored seven volumes of poetry before The Book of Hours, his 1905 breakthrough, and repudiated them later in life, by which time he had grown tired of the publishing marketplace altogether and taken to circulating his poems mainly among friends (Constantine Cavafy, another poet whose mature work spanned the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was doing the same in Alexandria). Rilke turned from writing fashionable Jugendstil lyrics about maidens to producing inimitable meditations on the philosophical subjects of perceiving, knowing and being. For this he was rewarded with episodes of so-called dictation, culminating in February 1922, when he "received" a complement of Duino Elegies, which he had begun a decade before, and a new cycle, Sonnets to Orpheus.

By that point Rilke had traveled far from his origins. Born in Prague in 1875, he considered himself the product of a middling family, a middling education and a middling city. At a time when poets still honored, faithfully or fitfully, the Romantic ideal of depicting the sagas of the public world in epic terms, Rilke's distaste for his family and his city propelled him onto a different aesthetic path, one of lifelong cosmopolitan itinerancy. He escaped first to Berlin, then to Russia, then to Paris; there were sojourns in Spain, Egypt, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Switzerland; he was rerouted by World War I, and by the penury that drove him from villa to castle as the houseguest of patronesses all over Europe. (Some say he was a freeloader--his sense of entitlement is legendary.) In his introduction to Edward Snow's commanding and essential new volume of translations of Rilke's major poetic works, the culmination of decades of labor, Adam Zagajewski says that Rilke's "weak beginnings" placed him on the periphery of German culture in an era when Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin and Heine still awaited their successors. Rilke's benefactors were on the periphery as well. Most of them were aristocrats, but unlike Goethe (who was an adviser to a duke) or Yeats (who was in the Irish Senate), Rilke didn't meet them at court, and the ones he knew in private life were, as Zagajewski notes, "the shadows of once-powerful magnates."

But most important, it was out of his experience of homelessness that Rilke fashioned a persona who speaks with an elegiac voice not for himself but for the world of consciousness, which migrated here into animals (often cats), there into objects (roses, sculptures). This consciousness, which belongs to no one and everyone, earns Rilke's unending praise: it is the principle not only of biological life but ontological essence--whatever it is that causes something to arise from nothing, as in the lines carved on his tombstone:

Rose, O pure contradiction, delight
in being no one's sleep under so many

Though Rilke was marginal in his own time, his lyrical waywardness is prized in our post-Romantic one; praised by only a small group of connoisseurs when he was writing, his poetry is now beloved. Sonnets to Orpheus, Duino Elegies, his one novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and perhaps most of all Letters to a Young Poet are touchstone works. Individual poems are famous: "Archaic Torso of Apollo," with its last line, "You must change your life"; "The Panther," pulsating with the energies of the caged cat. Rilke has even become something of a talisman in popular culture. He was the inspiration for the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire, and recently the pop chart-topping disco queen Lady Gaga tattooed a quintessential Rilke passage on her upper arm: "In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself, must I write?" Zagajewski claims that Rilke is probably more widely read in the United States than in Germany, which implies something about Americans' fascination with existential homelessness and self-invention and drift. I first cottoned to Rilke in Snow's translations of New Poems and New Poems: The Other Part as a teenager in the mid-1980s: Snow's version of "The Panther" staked itself in my young imagination, so I can't pretend to be objective.

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