Someone once wrote that Rilke is ‘easy,’ that readers who enjoy Rilke’s emotional and excessive words exist on some plane whose borders don’t reach the deeper, the more complex, (dare I say it) the harder shores of what some consider today’s most important poetry. Rilke, some say, is poetry light. Compounding the perceived infraction is that the innumerable versions of Rilke’s poetry, translated from its original German largely by folks who speak little or no German, bear little resemblance to Rilke’s abstract verse. So, whatever the reader is enjoying isn’t actually what Rilke intended. At least according to Marjorie Perloff. Well, I have loved Rilke for most of my life and can remember the first night I read his Duino Elegies, the shiver it sent over my skin.
In the introduction to a new enormous translation of Rilke by Edward Snow, poet Adam Zagajewski claims that Rilke is probably more widely read in the United States than in Germany. Ange Mlinko, who penned a wonderful essay about Snow’s volume, thinks this fact implies something about Americans' fascination with existential homelessness and self-invention and drift. Perhaps. It’s hard to remember that in his time, Rilke was not well known, and lived mostly on the largesse of second-tier aristocrats. He was homeless. But as Mlinko goes on, “It was out of his experience of homelessness that Rilke fashioned a persona who speaks with an elegiac voice not for himself but for the world of consciousness, which migrated here into animals (often cats), there into objects (roses, sculptures)”.
I also think Rilke’s draw also relates to America’s more spiritual bent, our drive to see meaning, a unity, under and between our lives. We Americans are an optimistic bunch. Arguing a bit with Zagajewski, Mlinko writes, “We read Rilke for a vocabulary that transcends our little, individual languages to a universal (and premodern) figural vocabulary of the lyric. If it is an illusion, it is an optimistically American one--and still generative”. I love this poem, “Autumn Day,” translated by Stephen Mitchell (whose translations of Rilke I still go to most). Like so many of Rilke’s poems, it is both celebration and lament.
Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.
Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.
Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander along the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.
- Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Stephen Mitchell
Rilke’s philosophy is one that stands in opposition to that igniting much of post modern poetry and its pessimistic fragmentation, which suggests that any meaning, any reality, is illusion. Rilke’s poetry yearns and strives toward some sort of visibility with full knowledge that visibility may prove impossible. It is that striving, that yearning, that, I think, resonates with many readers, including myself. Should I care whether the finger drawing down my spine is Rilke’s or Stephen Mitchell’s or Edward Snow’s? I can’t say that I do, it just gives me one more reason to read yet another translation.
Remembering W.S. Merwin (1927-2019)
5 weeks ago