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?