Sunday, December 16, 2012

My Top Ten Poetry Books That Should Be On Your Holiday Wish List: Reading Rilke, by William Gass

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.


granddaddy said...

I read the paragraph aloud to my wife just now. "That's a biography?" she asked beneath raised eyebrows. I did not reply, "Oh yeah, Baby! That's a biography!"

Linda Leavell, while writing her biography of Marianne Moore (Possessed to Write, forthcoming), published an article titled "Marianne Moore Instructs Her Biographer: 'Relentless accuracy' versus 'the haggish, uncompanionable drawl of certitude'" that reflects on the challenges of writing a biography (especially a poet's). It seems that Gass has nailed it. Amazing prose, how sweet the sound!

What an extraordinary thing, translation! An act of almost selfless love, a skill of infinite complexity, as fraught with opportunities for mistakes and near misses as for lifegiving brilliance. It lies, of course, deep in the soul of poetry, translating the unspeakable into words, and it shines in the revealing craft of poetic language.

You have to search for Mark Fried's name in the English editions of Eduardo Galeano's works, but they are his works, too. The first time I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as Simon Armitage translated it, I could not put it down. I could not read it silently. It was brilliant! Sir Gawain and the Green Knight of all things.

The persistence and commitment of the biographer's art astounds me as much as that of the translator. As for the authors of "long poems", I am not so sure.

granddaddy said...

Oh, by the way, I notice that you are quite good at a rare discipline among bloggers - regular posting without frivolous posting. But you can't count worth a damn! 10 New Mexico poets? no way 10 Pittsburgh poets? ok Chicago poets? maybe 10 Poetry books for my holiday wish list with the shopping days dwindling down to a precious few even in Northern California? get to work!

I suggest that you help yourself keep up by numbering these lists of yours:
My Top Ten etc. #6 Reading Rilke;
My Top Ten or More Top Ten Lists:
#3 My Top Ten New Mexico Poets:
#5 Connie Voisine

Maybe not.

Terry Lucas said...

It's not the math that causes me to not finish my "Top Ten" Series, it's the ADD. I get distracted by other poets and must write about them--never getting back to the original series. Thanks for noticing. :)

granddaddy said...

Sounds more like AED - Attention Excess Disorder!