The Sunday Salon 2

Sunday Salon: On Rilke

I need to start writing my research book again and I am so, so out of practice. I’ve been picking up my abandoned chapter and limping through a few unlovely sentences; mangled, tortured things they are, with fraying edges and a look of confusion about them, as if they may have wandered in from quite another essay altogether. It’s always like this after a break, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier. I feel like a tennis player who’s become unconfident in her game and whose shoulders have tightened on every swing, so that the ball gets thwacked awkwardly into the net or sails past the baseline. It’s a reasonable analogy for writing literary criticism; you know when the material rises up to you, and you greet it at its highest point and connect with a clean, clear sound and the sentence arrows out, shooting effortlessly towards the far corner where it raises a cloud of satisfactory white dust. That’s a good feeling.

So, to limber up a bit, I thought I would return to reading some Rilke. I have a theory that no one can write badly on Rilke; his poetry can only be read intravenously and thus responded to from the heart. And I’ve been reading the wonderful William Gass on Rilke, the kind of critic who manages to lift your spirits rather than, as is usually the case, depressing them and pulling the muscles in your brain. Gass is writing on Rilke from the point of view of translating him. Hard enough, one might think, but he does so in the wake of fifteen others who have gone before him. Undaunted, Gass takes his predecessors on with a delightful mix of chiding and mischief-making (‘MacIntyre suffers from contractions’, ‘Poulin continues to go for the colloquial’, ‘Prose has begun to creep over some versions like a vine’, ‘Behn, Hunter and Cohn have already begun writing their own poem.’) It seems to be a very productive way to approach Rilke, these days, via the differences between multiple translations. Mark Doty, in an introduction to another copy of the Duino Elegies that I possess, has it just right when he suggests that when he was teaching Rilke: ‘Many competing versions made the poem seem less a monumental, unapproachable thing than something made entirely of language, subject to reinvention and the ongoing work of interpretation.’ It’s a fine point: interpretation of poetry never ends, never travels down a one-way street from which it cannot return. What I find in Rilke today will be different to what I see tomorrow and that’s part of the greatness of literature, it’s innate flexibility of meaning. It’s also why younger students find poetry so daunting; that daring lack of anything like a right answer. That and the fact that one must let go inside to read it.

So, the beginning of the First Elegy never ever fails to enchant me:

Who, if I cried, would hear me among the Dominions

of Angels? And even if one of them suddenly

held me against his heart, I would fade in the grip

of that completer existence – a beauty we can barely

endure, because it is nothing but terror’s herald;

and we worship it so because it serenely disdains

to destroy us. Every Angel is awesome.

We don’t need to know the context that inspired these lines, but it helps to set the scene. Rilke has been lent a cold, windswept castle by the sea in which to seclude himself with the act of creation. But the muses have failed him, and for many, many days he has been wrestling with a sense of barrenness, sterility, failure. On this fateful morning he goes for a walk on the cliffs, and between the restless pounding of the sea and the chill wind whipping at his face, he hears, as if from an external being, the start of the lines that will form one of the greatest of modern poems. Who would hear Rilke, when his heart was crying out for a handful of words, a thought, an idea? Who would respond to his plea for beauty, for comfort, for longing assuaged, for creativity rewarded? Oh those angels, those stern faced cloud carvings, conjured up out of our dreams of the absolute and the perfect. The only thing worse than their lack of response, would be their response, for then the poet would have to face his own mortal imperfections, his boundaried, incomplete, unresolved self. He would be forced into a wretched comparison that might be as threatening as his current abandonment and isolation. Rilke’s lines here recognize the pinball oscillations of human desire as it ricochets backwards and forwards between the intense longing for satisfaction and the cautious awareness of what that satisfaction might entail.

Beauty and terror, worship and destroy. These are weighty words that Rilke deals us, because he wants to situate us on some precipice between elemental forces, just as he strode the cliffs between a churning ocean and a windswept sky that held him in place and were utterly indifferent to him. Deep inside, we hold an image of a perfect authority, be it an abstract image or a distant memory and in relation to it we feel alive and vibrant, but more than a little afraid. This is the religious structure that we might well displace onto other things, be they Art or Love. Whatever lives at the point of perfection in our hearts, we invest it with excessive power, and that it has this power but restrains from using it upon us (mainly because we are too insignificant, but we choose not to think about that) makes it godlike. Rilke starts off with Angels, but because it’s a structure of being, a deep-rooted form of relation as much as a phenomenon in the world that he’s talking about, his poetry metamorphoses constantly between images of nature, art and lovers, all analogously perfect, all longed for and feared and reviled. And because it’s a state of being he’s interested in, it’s not long before Rilke’s poetry turns outwards and grips the reader by the throat.

Yes, the springtimes have needed you. There’ve been stars

to solicit your seeing. In the past, perhaps

waves rose to greet you, or out an open window,

as you passed, a violin was giving itself

to someone. This was a different commandment.

but could you obey it? Weren’t you always

anxiously peering past them, as though

they announced a sweetheart’s coming?

Who, me? says the reader. Are you talking to me? But of course you! says Rilke. Don’t we all live with this world pressing against us and manage to pay it no attention at all? Don’t we all look through it and past it and around it when we might try to be simply receptive to it? Mark Doty, and William Gass and I, we are all quite happy to hold different perspectives on what this might mean. For Doty himself acknowledges a series of readings that correspond to different stages of his life. For him, the elegies used to be about the terrible transitoriness of living, the way everything dissolved, fled, crumbled and faded and could not be held back. It was a modernist lament of discontent with the impermanence of living in the world. And now, for him again, afresh, it’s about the extraordinary ability of language to transform and preserve, ‘language as the signature of vision’. For me it’s about the elasticity and the power of interrelations; we beseech and appeal, we ignore and evade, we tend longingly to what is absent and distant and overlook what is close and humbly gorgeous. But whatever we do, we cannot help but push and pull against the world, cannot help but displace with our being the force field that rubs us up against others. For Gass, it’s about a series of complex ideas that compete and run the risk of incoherence, only to melt occasionally into blazing and glorious harmony. Here’s a bit by him I love:

‘The poet, while composing, struggles to rule a nation of greedy self-serving malcontents; every idea, however tangential to the main theme it may have been initially, wants to submerge the central subject beneath its fructifying self as though each drizzle were scheming a forty-days rain; every jig and trot desires to be the whole dance; every la-di-da and line length, image, order, rhyme, variation and refrain, every well-mouthed vowel, dental click, silent design, represents a corporation, cartel, union, well-heeled lobby, a Pentagon or NRA, eager to turn the law towards its interests; every word wants to enjoy a potency so supreme it will emasculate the others.’

Isn’t he brilliant? He gives me faith in critical reading, even if he might be becoming a bit of an internal angel for me. I chew on my pencil thoughtfully. Why can’t I be William Gass? Apart from the difficulties of age, gender, nationality, etc, etc, whyever not? Alas, if I were to cry out for metamorphosis, who would hear me?


19 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon 2

  1. I am going to make a terrible admission and tell you that I’ve never read any Rilke but I promise that after reading this I am going to put that to rights as soon as possible. I do understand what you mean about picking up after a break though, because I’m there as well. I’m sure you’ll get things back together, you’re far too good not to.

  2. No, I’ve never heard of him either! He does sound inspiring – and I wouldn’t mind being lent a cold windswept castle either – as long as there’s a blazing fire in the grate.

  3. I have a theory that no one can write badly on Rilke; his poetry can only be read intravenously and thus responded to from the heart.

    That’s exactly the effect of his poetry! Even when I haven’t quite grasped the content’s meaning, I’m moved somehow by the atmosphere and images he’s created, how each line enhances them. I fell a little bit in love with my male friend who introduced me to him. 🙂

    It’s funny how Gass describes composition. It’s exactly how I feel whenever I’m mulling over a blog post on a book or poem — there are so many competing ideas, some fully developed, others banging for more scrutiny, and a strange disembodied Ruler of Thoughts in my brain brooding over it all, wondering how on earth to combine them into a coherent structure.

  4. Ann – I won’t start the list of authors I ought to have read in an ideal world and have never got near!! Bless you for being so kind about the research – you are a love. Clare – Rilke was extraordinary in managing to have the most poetic sort of life you can imagine. He was brought up as a girl by his mother (who had just lost a daughter) had a string of dramatic love affairs, and died as a result of pricking himself with a rose. Beat that! A castle with a blazing fire in the grate sounds like the perfect place for writing, I agree. Imani – I do love what you have to say about composition. It’s like that in my head, too, only even more of a riot! I had a huge crush on my supervisor who made me read Rilke – do you think that’s the same thing as well?

  5. Pingback: A third Sunday Salon with Josipovici « The Books of My Numberless Dreams

  6. Jacob – Nach mir hast du kein Haus, darin
    dich Worte, nah und warm, begrüssen.
    Es fällt von deinen müden Füssen
    die Samtsandale, die ich bin.

    It’s a very lovely poem, and it speaks volumes about that divine relationship. Thank you for making me go and look it up.

  7. A photo of Rilke at Hotel Reina Victoria in Ronda, taken in Nov. 05

    He faces SW down the Guadiaro valley.

    I built up quite a few links for Rilke and Lou Salome in Moleskine Modality, though can’t guarantee they are still working.

  8. Oh what a wonderul write-up, litlove. I think you’re about to hit the ball hard and confidently and the crowd will rise to their feet! There is so much in this, said so elegantly … and no need to say that I love Rilke! 🙂

  9. This trick you play, Litlove, of limping to the baseline and wincing as you toss the ball up, then acing us all with the blistering serve, will only work a few more times, I assure you. This post has it all: long volleys, drop shots and backspin when we think we know what’s coming! Call it practice if you like, but it’s a heckuva show.

  10. Pingback: For Readers and Teachers of Poetry « College English

  11. I love the Doty quote, what a wonderful way to approach poetry (and other literature, for that fact) through the attempts of others to understand and transform it to another language. I love the liberty in the idea of interpretation, especially for poetry, something that I often cannot seem to get my head around. Lovely post, litlove, not a hint of limping!

  12. Adfero – thank you for the links! William Gass is very good on the Lou/Rilke combination, as is Francine Prose, as well. Shameless – thank you for such kind words, and good to find another Rilke fan! David – It’s the Rilke effect, I assure you, that and the fact that it’s always easier to make the shots in training than when put under real pressure! Thank you for the confidence boost. Verbivore – how nice to have you back! I tell you, comparing translations is the way to go. It offers such insight into the passage or poem in question. I’ve often appreciated your own posts on translations skills very much indeed!

  13. You’re such a temptress, Litlove. How will my reading pile ever stop exploding? Yet which translation, for a monoling such as I, when each translator you mention has a different take and some more than one? You should put a warning up for me for posts of this kind saying involves foreign material, will complicate matters for you, enter at risk, etc! More seriously which translation would you recommend – preferably easily available. Oh, and an introduction as good as yours that covers the basic ground. Great inspiring post. Don’t worry too much,(you do worry too much), I’m sure your work will come along fine. Best wishes.

  14. Why would you want to be Gass when you are so wonderfully Litlove?

    Did Doty do the translations of the poems you quote? Just wondering because I liked them and would want to get the same translation for myself.

  15. Bookboxed – Thank goodness no one has made it a crime to tempt people into reading books! Guilty as charged, m’lud! Now, as to which translation, well that’s a million dollar question. Having a look on amazon, the MacIntyre version is cheap and readily available, and apart from a bungled first line, isn’t too bad. The version with Mark Doty’s intro (good but brief) is translated by Poulin and I rather like it because its colloquialness makes it very accessible. My copy with the Gass translation was sent to me from the States, and I couldn’t see it online, which is a shame because I do like the Gass best. Oh and there’s a new edition translated by a Martin Crucefix that I know nothing about but the reviewers seem to like. As for a good introduction, now that is really hard. There’s nothing much currently available to purchase, so I’d suggest a library visit. Otherwise the introduction to Rilke’s novel, ‘The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge’ is very good on Rilke in general.

    Stefanie – one cyber hug winging its way over to you for that comment!! The translations above are all by Gass, and come in the back of the book Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation by Gass. My copy comes from America so you might well be able to get hold of it. It is a wonderful book and one I feel sure you would enjoy.

  16. A beautiful post, Litlove. I knew I wanted to re-read the Duino Elegies after reading them earlier this year, but now I’m hoping to get to them a bit sooner. But the Gass book — I must get my hands on that.

  17. You and your readers may like to know about LOST SON, the new novel based on Rilke’s life and work. The book depicts Rilke from birth to age 42, and culminates in his 11-year struggle to complete the Duino Elegies.

    LOST SON, which appeared in June, has been described in several places as a “fictional biography,” though that phrase is problematic in a few respects, and doesn’t indicate the personal and intimate nature of the novel.

    Learn more, and find regular posts relating to Rilke, at

    Thanks very much for this engaging discussion of Rilke and Gass. Gass’s Rilkean enthusiasm can be fascinating indeed.


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