Loving Rilke

A little while back, I reviewed the book by Pico Iyer in which he explored his obsession with Graham Greene, a man whose novels gave him uncanny insight into himself. Iyer wondered whether the strange power of writing came from an author’s ability to know us better than we know ourselves, and to provide an unexpected but illuminating pathway into the deeper reaches of our identity. With the work of some writers, he suggested, the process of reading is more than mere identification, it is a kind of homecoming.

I have four writers who occupy places in a kind of pantheon of literary wonders: Rilke, Kafka, Colette and Willa Cather. They are my Graham Greenes. Over the next few weeks I thought I would write about the relationship I have to them.

Rilke in an unusually jaunty and nonchalant mood.

Rilke is for me the gift that keeps on giving. As with all my special authors, I found it hard at first to even see, let alone articulate, what it was I found so hypnotic about him. It’s only in later life, as I’ve come not just to understand myself better, but to mature into the person I didn’t know I would become, that I can trace the outline of some reasons.

Whatever Rilke writes, there’s an urgency and a passion about it, an intensity that makes the words leap from the page. In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke writes:

A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity. In this manner of its origin lies its true estimate: there is no other. Therefore, dear Sir, I could give you no advice but this: to go into yourself and explore the depths whence your life wells forth; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create.’

I love this about Rilke; he manages to find a way to be given over entirely to literature without coming across as narcissistic, pretentious, hypocritical or overly idealising. Being dedicated to art is something of an anachronism in the 21st century, if not a shameful pose. What does it mean – if anything? – to look for a properly artistic path in a world where publishing is dominated by commercial concerns? What does an artist’s life look like today? Unlike Rilke, I don’t have aristocratic friends with castles on rocky promontories to go to when in search of inspiration. I have lunch boxes to prepare, and groceries to buy and, now I think of it, a load of washing waiting to be transferred to the tumble drier. How is it possible to create when daily, ordinary demands make a mockery of the vulnerabilities, the ideas, the painfully important things, in other words the very stuff of art that reality persists in covering up?

But Rilke always leads me back to the right path: it’s not about doing, but being.

Let your judgements have their own, quiet, undisturbed development, which must, like all progress, come from deep within, and cannot in any way be pressed or hurried. It means everything to carry for the full time and then to bring forth. […] To be an artist means: not to reckon and count; to ripen like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of Spring without fear lest no Summer might come after. It does come. But it comes only to the patient ones, who are there as if eternity lay in front of them, so unconcernedly still and far. I am learning it daily, learning it through pains to which I am grateful: patience is all!

The more usual, ‘brooding poet’ look.

This is a message I feel to be right: the need to wait for understanding to come, for what comes first is often convention, or personal prejudice, or some knee-jerk reaction. To write about what really matters, is to have patience to outlast the great tide of the superficial. But look, even as Rilke says something wise and wonderful, he reminds his readers that he does so from a firm position as wimp and failure. Rilke failed gloriously. He was often poorly and often blocked. He was disappointed and humiliated and forced to worry about finding a roof over his head, stuck with duties he didn’t want and demands he had neither time nor energy to accomplish. Oh Rilke’s life was often a mess, but he never shied from its messiness; rather he knew how to extract its virtue, by close observation and a sort of intrigued tenderness, even for the bad days. He made the most of everything.

I find this a particularly powerful stance given how porous Rilke was. A therapist once told me that porous people cannot be understood like others; they are beings from a different planet. I know Rilke was porous because of the way he wrote about his experiences. In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the narrator describes his first days and nights in Paris:

The electric street cars rage through my room with ringing fury. Automobiles race over me. A door slams. Somewhere a window-pane falls clattering. I can hear the big splinters laughing and the smaller ones sniggering.’

He goes for walks, but life still assaults him, even a woman merely sitting with her head in her hands:

The woman took fright and was torn too quickly out of herself, too violently, so that her face remained in her two hands. I could see it lying in them, its hollow form.’

The narrator finds himself on the inside of everything, unwillingly. Life is too penetrating, too loud, too determined to display its secrets. Even in writing about it, he can’t find sufficient distance to feel safe. The whole of the novel is about trying to find a form of narrative that will soothe his anxieties whilst uncovering the sorts of truths that will offer stability. Oh Rilke, how familiar that sounds!

This is what I find so mesmerising about Rilke; he is a writer who reveals himself with excoriating honesty by means of a narrative that rarely says anything specific about him. And if I had anything like a writing project, a goal or aim, then that would be it. Rilke is truthful because he has to be; anything else would cause him pain; but memoir isn’t his goal, he doesn’t have any sort of urge to glorify himself or to record his thoughts and feelings for vague posterity. John Donne’s description of the writing voice as: ‘my naked, thinking heart’ is perfectly Rilke. The essence of the man accompanies the reader every step of the way; Rilke is fully present in his writing in a manner that is deeply satisfying, because his closeness oddly enough gives the reader space to think. I can’t say why, but that paradox touches something vital for me.

This post is also for German Literature Month

36 thoughts on “Loving Rilke

  1. I like jaunty Rilke better than brooding Rilke🙂 Did he marry and have children? If so, it must have been a hard family life for him and his wife. Which of his books would you recommend for a first-time reader of him?

    • Stefanie, he did have a child, and I believe he very quickly moved on at that point. He was not about to win any Father of the Year awards! My first encounters with Rilke were in poetry, the Duino Elegies and in prose The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. I loved them both. Seeing as you are a poetry person, I would definitely recommend you start there. I’d love to know what you make of him.

  2. This is fascinating. He sounds quite the dude. I think he may have meant to wait until the change comes from within so that the change comes from unconscious processes, rather than conscious processed that over-think a situation and spoil. It’s like waiting to be changed by events – is that what a porous person does – soak up everything and quietly deal with it? Very interesting opinion of the therapist you mention that porous people are from another planet – is that good or bad?
    As with Stefanie’s comment above, what book would you recommend of his as an introduction to his thinking and poetry?

    • Mark, I think you’re quite right that Rilke believed in awaiting inspiration although he always described the creative process in very down to earth terms. I wish porous people could just deal with things quietly, but most people choose to filter the outside world for a good reason. My own feeling is that the difficulty of dealing with what’s absorbed can be what pushes people to create in some way – in order to put the bad or disconcerting stuff back outside again, in one form or another. So to evaluate it, porosity is, I think, not a good thing for the person who has it, as our society favours the extrovert and the well-defended. But it may have a role to play in forming the artist.

  3. Lovely post, really

    I love him too. I loved Letters to a Young Poet and I loved The Notebooks, even if I didn’t understand everything in it. And his letters to Lou Andreas-Salome!

    He has a quiet wisdom and he’s so self-contained.

    ” With the work of some writers, he suggested, the process of reading is more than mere identification, it is a kind of homecoming.” I can relate to that. That’s how I felt when I read my first Gary and I still feel like this when I read him.

    • Emma, I love what you say about Rilke’s quiet wisdom and self-containment – yes! And when I read you on Gary, I know exactly how well he suits you. Your response to him is just what this post is about!

      • I have Letters to a Young Poet in audio book: it’s marvellous. It’s an encouragement to explore one’s unsuspected inner worth. That’s it, he makes you feel worthy.

        I love how Gary shrugs things off with his sense of humour.

  4. Well this is handy. I am going to try to write something about Trakl soon, and this will help – he’s another visionary “naked heart” writer of poems about angels.

    This kind of writer is always a good challenge to me, since I am more comfortable with artists who keep their hearts decorously clothed, or perhaps even wear disguises.

    • Ha, how interesting. I love the desciption ‘decorously clothed’. I like writers in that camp, too. I’d put Colette there, I think. But Trakl is new to me – I’ll be very interested to hear what you have to say about him.

  5. Thanks for this – very interesting! I haven’t read any Rilke (though I share Kafka with you) – where do you suggest one starts?

    • Sarah, if you like Kafka, then I’d suggest starting with The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. This is a very strange and unique piece of writing, but less daunting to anyone who likes Modernism generally. If you like letters, then his Letters to a Young Poet are delightful and much more straightforward to read. But my heart is with Malte.

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  7. A beautiful post indeed.
    I find what I like most about him is his authenticity.
    It’s also interesting to see which are the four writers who are your Graham Greenes. There must be something which links them and I’m looking forward to find out more. I have still not read Willa Cather therefore I really don’t know what speaks to you.

    • Caroline, funnily enough, when I began to think about the four authors, I found each one appealed to me for slightly different reasons. With Cather, it’s almost the technical brilliance of what she does that strikes me the most. But I’m getting ahead of myself! I think you are quite right to draw attention to Rilke’s authenticity. Yes, that is a wonderful feature of his writing.

  8. Some great info about Rilke here – thanks for this🙂

    I enjoyed the poems I read last year, but I still haven’t got onto Malte Laurids Brigge yet – hashtag #rilkefail😉

    • Tony, oh that’s okay. You still have it ahead of you to look forward to, and that’s enviable.🙂 I do hope you like it – it is a very strange and unusual book, but I seem to recall you like Kafka, and they are not dissimilar writers in some senses.

  9. I have always loved the Duino Elegies, always reading them in different translations to find the “right” translation. But I didn’t know much about his life. I’ll bet he also would have torn the tags out of the collars of his shirts.

    • Jeanne, ha yes, with his teeth, no doubt. I don’t know that much about Rilke’s life, not compared to other authors, in any case. He has had less written about him than someone like Kafka, say. Very glad to find another fan of the Duino Elegies. Have you read William Gass on translating Rilke? He is very very good on the subject.

    • Karen, that is so kind of you, as I feel it’s a bit of an indulgence for me! As for reading Rilke, hmmm. I wonder whether The Book of Hours might suit you best – they are very beautiful poems. Otherwise, the famous poems are the Duino Elegies, and they are gorgeous too. If you like letters then try Letters to a Young Poet. And if you’re feeling like you’d appreciate something different and challenging, then try The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

  10. Thanks for an excellent and insightful post, litlove! Yes, among the meals we have to make, laundry and housework… it makes perfect sense that being is the essence. I love the quotes you’ve presented. You’ve motivated me to look for Rilke. Look forward to your other German Lit book reviews… any Thomas Mann?

    • Do you know, I have hardly read any Thomas Mann. I read Death in Venice when I was too young to appreciate it, and haven’t read any more. One day, I will read The Magic Mountain, but not just yet. Oh! I forgot, I did read Buddenbrooks in college. I remember just that it was huge! Poor Thomas, I should reconsider him, clearly!

  11. I’m also interested to read Rilke now. I love the quotes you mentioned about authenticity and allowing ourselves time. I can also identify with the porousness. I get overwhelmed quite easily it seems (and so I’m often anxious). Maybe writing is one way of dealing with this. I hope so.

    • Pete, I think that the nature of being overwhelmed or overstimulated by the external environment in any way is pretty big anxiety. I think narrative must help, as it’s one of the prime places for alpha elements, following Bion. I don’t understand Bion well, but he talks about beta elements being the unprocessed toxic stuff that people throw at you, and alpha elements as emotions and feelings processed, made neutral and safe. I think he mentions art in the context of alpha elements, but I could be wrong! Anyway, Rilke is wonderful and calming and wise. I’d love to know what you think of him.

  12. Wonderful post which says much about both you and Rilke. How different it is to wait for that deep understanding than to wait for a husband! Not sure why or if there are similarities beyond the coincidence of having read your last post first.

    • MD – I hadn’t thought of that connection with waiting at all, but yes! Now that you mention it. I think it’s easier to wait for understanding because self-development takes time and there is not necessarily anything immediately demanding at stake. Although of course the long term value is enormous. Hmm, much to ponder in your question – thank you!

  13. This is beautiful. Thank you. My sister is a big Rilke fan and she had shared not a few poems with me that really struck me. That was years ago when I still lived with my family. Today, I only have a selected collection translated by Albert Ernest Flemming, but I feel like there’s much missing in this collection. I didn’t connect with him this time around as much as when I read my sister’s books. Which translation would you recommend? Also I would love to read that book of prose you quoted from.

    We do all have our Graham Greenes, don’t we? It’s wonderful that you shared Rilke with us. Maybe next time do Kafka and Collette and Cather as well? I haven’t read all three of them. I was reading Kenzaburo Oe’s Paris Review interview a little while back in which he mentioned focusing on one writer for years because that is the only way to really understand them and to truly appreciate their works. I may not have time to focus on one for years but was thinking of doing a project next year of reading one author’s works back to back instead of jumping back and forth different writers. I do find reading a writer’s work collectively much more rewarding, especially with certain ones. They give tiny clues to themselves and it’s exciting to piece these together. I would have to think who my Graham Greenes are since I have a long, long, looong list.🙂

  14. Those excerpts are wonderful. I’ve been fearful of trying Rilke because I want to be the sort of person who likes Rilke but I also know that I tend to have problems with translated lit’rature — not always, but pretty often. This is a silly reason not to read somebody but it’s persisted my entire adult life.

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