Poets Who Make Us Better: Rainer Maria Rilke
In the introduction to The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, the former U.S. Poet Laureate and prize-winning poet Robert Haas summarizes the central theme of Rilke’s poetry as “…the abandonment of ordinary life for the sake of a spiritual quest.” Our interest in this quest, shared by other poets and prophets, draws us to Rilke’s work as a standard for improving our poetry and seeing our lives embraced by both mystery and clarity.
The very first poem in the collection, entitled by its first line, gives a glimpse of that quest:
I am, O Anxious One. Don’t you hear my voice
urging forth with all my earthly feelings?
They yearn so high that they have sprouted wings
and whitely fly in circles around your face.
My soul, dressed in silence, rises up
and stands alone before you: can’t you see?
Don’t you know that my prayer is growing ripe
upon your vision, as upon a tree?
That poem originated in Rilke’s renowned The Book of Hours, but to get an overview of his life’s work, I chose the Vintage Books edition of poems edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell, who selected poems from Rilke’s books written between 1905 and 1926.
This does not, of course, include the must-have Letters to a Young Poet since that book consists, not of poetry, but of the correspondence between 27-year-old Rilke and 19-year-old Franz Kappus, who asked for a critique of his poems but received a 5-year-long discussion on poetry and the life of a literary artist.
For example, in the first letter of the book Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke wrote, “Things are not as easily understood nor as expressible as people usually would like us to believe. Most happenings are beyond expression; they exist where a word has never intruded.”
Rilke’s adventures into a life-expressed continue throughout ten letters to Kappus with everyday conversations but also brilliant observations such as this timeless insight from Letter 8:
“It seems to me that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension, which we feel as paralysis because we no longer hear our astonished emotions living. Because we are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has entered us; because everything we trust and are used to is for a moment taken away from us; because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing.”
Also in Letter 8, the poet-mentor challenged the novice with these words:
“Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change. If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien.”
The startling statement that “sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien” gives an excellent example of how Rilke’s words call us to read his work again and again.
Regarding the questions the poet likely intended to be rhetorical, the answer just might be fear – the common lack of courage to face life head-on, regardless of its pleasantries or lack thereof, and a frequent factor in our tendency to pull back or shy away from living life to its fullest.
Not only do Rilke’s letters enlarge our ability to embrace our own existence and expand our view of life and poetry, they let us know where he was coming from in the poems he wrote.
For instance, the poem “Lament” from The Book of Pictures, expresses Rilke’s openness to the sadness that well might be a prerequisite for joy.
I think that the star
glittering above me
has been dead for a million years.
I think there were tears
in the car I heard pass
and something terrible was said.
Then these lines conclude the poem:
I would like to step out of my heart
and go walking beneath the enormous sky.
I would like to pray.
And surely of all the stars that perished
one still exists.
I think that I know
which one it is –
which one, at the end of its beam in the sky,
stands like a white city….
Perhaps my background and interests cause those lines to bring to mind the long-ago shining star over Bethlehem and the bright new Jerusalem yet to come. However, another poem selected from The Book of Pictures shows Rilke’s skill in observing and comparing what’s right before us in these opening lines of “Evening.”
The sky puts on the darkening blue coat
held for it by a row of ancient tress.
An observer of all aspects of nature – whether plant, animal, human, or Divine – Rilke clearly sees the predicament of “The Panther” in New Poems:
His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.
A less poetic voice might have said something like, “The panther only sees the bars of his cage, and after staring at them for ages, he no longer believes there’s anything ‘out there,” but bars.” So Rilke is not satisfied merely to notice something; he must enter it.
Also in the section of New Poems, we find one of Rilke’s best-known pieces, the “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which ends with the often quoted statement, “You must change your life.” However, my favorite from New Poems is “The Flamingo,” which portrays a flock of the exotic birds in this exquisite word-picture:
“…They rise above the green
grass and lightly sway on their long pink stems,
side by side, like enormous feathery blossoms….”
Having returned to my almost-native Florida after several years in Virginia, I can easily envision the flamingoes here looking like the blousy pink peonies that bloomed alongside my sister’ Virginia farmhouse, but I never thought about that until Rilke made the connection – the fresh comparison and delightful depiction that, hopefully, challenges us to spend enough time with our own poems for them to come fully into bloom.
Highly adept at letting poems unfold, Rilke even managed to let life unfurl in death! For example, his book Requiem includes the poem “Requiem For A Friend,” which begins:
“I have my dead, and I have let them go,
and was amazed to see them so contented,
so soon at home in being dead, so cheerful,
so unlike their reputation….”
This inclination to turn a concept or assumption onto its head and shake out its pockets is a high mark in Rilke’s poetry and prose. For instance, in his book The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, his poem on the well-known biblical figure, “The Prodigal Son,” gives this unique account:
He “…didn’t even want to have the dogs with him, it was because they too loved him; because in their eyes he could see observation and sympathy, expectation, concern; because in their presence too he couldn’t do anything without giving pleasure or pain.”
Instead of the degenerate young man typically portrayed, Rilke saw the prodigal as the younger son surrounded by so much love, he had to get away to keep himself from suffocating.
In the “First Elegy” of the Duino Elegies, Rilke gives us another fresh perspective:
“…the knowing animals are aware
that we are not really at home in
our interpreted world.”
In the “Second Elegy” of that same book, Rilke asks:
“Does the infinite space
we dissolve into, taste of us then. Do the angels really
reabsorb only the radiance that streamed out from themselves….”
And in The Sonnets of Orpheus, the first poem to Orpheus describes him as a “tall tree in the ear,” then says, “you built a temple deep inside their hearing.” Conversely, the poem “At once the winged energy of delight” astonishingly states, “For the god wants to know himself in you.”
Apparently, Rilke also wants us to know ourselves in our poems – and vice versa. Returning to The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which some call a semi-autobiographical novel, the master poet offers us this counsel in his poetic prose “For The Sake of a Single Poem”:
“…Ah, poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines. For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough) – they are experiences. For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you had long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained….”
The sage advice goes on, “And it is not enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves – only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.”
Rilke frequently presents the flip side of what’s obvious, taken for granted, and/or unexplored beyond a shallow surface or assumption, enticing us to open ourselves more fully to a well-lived life, and perhaps, in the process, finding ourselves becoming better people, better poets.
Mary Harwell Sayler began writing poems in childhood but, as an adult, wrote almost everything except poetry! Eventually, she placed three dozen books in all genres including books of poems and how-to’s on poetry and writing. She continues to maintain the Poetry Editor blog and provide resources for poets and writers on her website.