A biography is an unlikely place to discover a diction that one has been seeking for a series of poems. Unlikely, perhaps, unless the biography is of Rilke, and the biographer is William Gass. Such was the case on my first trip through Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation. The powerful buoyancy of language and thought in this essential work has held up for me during subsequent readings, enabling me to flesh out the beginnings of my only long poem to date, reinforced by my most recent dipping into the headwaters of its early chapters resulting in the beginnings of two more poems.
Read aloud this passage, in which Gass writes about Rilke's diary from his five-week stay in Worpswede as a battered lover, his wife Lou having taken leave of him, and I believe that you will agree with me that the prose itself rivals the most lyrical of poetry:
Blooms, as Rilke knew, are all business; they exist for butterflies and bees, but only incidentally for us, for whom flowers are fortuitous. Autumn's hues are even more serendipital; the function of the leaves has been fulfilled, so they are discarded, they are finished, and their colors are the result of useless residues. The beauty of the world happens only in our eye; even the allure of women is as utilitarian as a wagon's wheel. The Worpswede light, the way the countryside's colors glow even on a dim wet evening, the festive stars and the warm widows of distant farms, the comforting purl of a stream, those are the purest accidents. So when one of us turns aside from living in order to admire life; when a rose petal is allowed to cool an eyelid; when a line of charcoal depicts the inviting length of a thigh; we are no longer going in nature's direction but contrary to it. What was never meant for us becomes ours entirely; what never had a use is suddenly all we need.
But it is not simply gorgeous language that makes Reading Rilke essential, Gass' intimate knowledge of Rilke's life and deep understanding of its themes informs his analysis of the poet's work.
It would be tempting to organize Rilke's biography around such themes, because the themes are there: the significance of the rose, the mirror, the unicorn, the puppet, the fountain, or the pathos (as for Poe) of the death of a young woman; his increasing "belief" in animism (that all things, as well as the parts of all things, are filled with life); the notion that we grow our death inside us like a talent or a tumor; that we are here to realize the world, to raise it, like Lazarus, from its sullen numbness into consciousness; that differences are never absolute, but that everything (life and death, for instance) lies on a continuum, as colors do; that we are strangers in a world of strangers; that simple people have a deeper understanding of their existence than most, and an insight into the secret rhythms of nature. These themes are like tides that rise and fall inside him, as if he were just their bay and receptive shoreline.
The above passage from Gass seasons any poem of Rilke's, particularly one like "The Bowl of Roses:"
And aren't they all that way? Just self-containing,
if self-containing means: to transform the world
with its wind and rain and springtime's patience
and guilt and restlessness and obscure fate
and the darkness of evening earth and even
the changing clouds, coming and going,
even the vague intercession of distant stars,
into a handful of inner life.
It now lies free of care in these open roses.
Gass reminds us that Rilke's parents had lost a daughter the year before Rene (Rilke's given name--his first wife, Lou, insisted he change it to Rainer, a name with more substance) was born. His mother hoped for another daughter, letting Rene's hair grow out, combing his curls, encouraging him to call himself "Sophie, and literally putting him away in a drawer like a doll. Gass writes, "Later, with a mournful understanding that resembled Gertrude Stein's, Rilke realized that someone else had had to die in order to provide him with a space in life." Gass, a master of providing the perfect blend of fact and interpretation as commentary to introduce a poem, continues:
There is a photograph of four-year-old "Sophie" standing by a table upon which, unaccountably, a black-and-white dog is crouching. Atop "her" long hair a hat in the shape we call pillbox has been rakishly placed, and her high-topped shoes rise from a strongly patterned rug as if they were part of its design. She is wearing a pleated white skirt, a white tunic with a big bow at the neck, and white socks which peek out of those shiny shoes.
Her mother had aspired, when she married, to something grander than she got, though she poured cheap wine into bottles with better labels, and in other ways tried to keep up appearances. During his first year, Rilke's nurses came and went like hours of the day. His time as a toy continued. Affection, lit like a lamp, would be blown out by any sudden whim. As his parents drew away from one another like the trains his father oversaw, Rilke was more and more frequently farmed out by his mother, for whom a small boy was a social drag, to this or that relations or other carrier of concern. The child began to believe that love, like money, time, and food, was in limited supply, and that any love which went into one life would not be available to go into another.
Gass then gives us a drink from Rilke's vast pool for the thirst that he helped to create:
My mother spread her presents at the feet
of those poor saints hewn of heartwood.
Mute, unmoving, and amazed, they stood
behind the pews, so straight and complete.
They neglected to thank her, too,
for her fervently offered gift.
The little dark her candles lift
was all of her faith they knew.
Still my mother gave, in a paper roll,
these flowers with their fragile blooms,
which she took from a bowl in our modest rooms,
in the sight and longing of my soul.
Reading Rilke is absolutely essential for any lover of Rilke or suitor of poetry. It will not only deepen your appreciation for "the poet," but will inspire the work of translating your own material world into poetry, yea, in the word of Rilke, into "spirit."
Editor's Note: For good translations of Rilke, I recommend The Essential Rilke, Selected and Translated by Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann, and In Praise of Mortality, Selections from Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, Translated and Edited by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy.
Sunday, December 16, 2012
My Top Ten Poetry Books That Should Be On Your Holiday Wish List: Reading Rilke, by William Gass
was born in the Midwest, grew up in New Mexico, and has lived in the San Francisco bay area for over a decade. Terry has published in numerous literary journals, including Best New Poets 2012, Crab Orchard Review, Green Mountains Review, Great River Review, New Millennium Writings, and The Comstock Review. His work has garnered six Pushcart Prize nominations. He is the winner of the 2014 Crab Orchard Review Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry. His chapbook, Altar Call, was a winner in the the 2013 San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival, and appears in the Anthology, Diesel. His chapbook, If They Have Ears to Hear, won the 2012 Copperdome Poetry Chapbook Contest, and is available from Southeast Missouri State University Press. His first full-length collection of poems, In This Room (CW Books, 2016), is now available, and his second, Dharma Rain, was released by Saint Julian Press in October of 2016. Terry is a 2008 poetry MFA graduate of New England College, an assistant editor at Trio House Press, and a free-lance poetry consultant. For more information about him and his work see www.terrylucas.com