Letter to an Old Poet

Rilke in Rome. Photo courtesy of Warbler Press.

I feel almost ashamed to say that it’s taken all these years to finally get around to reading Rainer Maria Rilke in earnest. As an undergraduate, decades ago, I heard all kinds of great things about his masterful idiosyncratic expressiveness that toyed and purloined the heart. He was said to be not only the cat’s meow among poets, but the rose’s attar stirring up the suspirations of the inner cathedral of the lonely, seeing mind.

But in my circle at that time were two personages who, though pretentious and vaguely narcissistic, were nevertheless quite agreeable romantics to be around. Jeffrey, chief poet and editor of the student literary magazine, and Tom, a Nietzschean with an open marriage that seemed all looky-no-touchy. (Or was that just my experience?). Jeffrey liked cocaine and would pull out a tiny shovel in the middle of a meeting and go to work sniffing snow out of a baggie in his sports coat. Nobody understood his poetry, which seemed, at times, like a confluence of Elizabeth Bishop and his beloved Rilke. But he got laid a lot. And Tom was like the prodigy genius Mozart presented to us in the film, Amadeus, loose with the lyricism and love gun. Tom and his genius wife moved to Germany shortly after graduation. He was Nietzschean, it’s true, but he had a thing for Wagner as well. And Rilke’s Orpheus, not Young Werther, was his hero. Go forth and sally, was his motto, if sallying is your fate.

Jeffrey and Tom didn’t want to harm anybody. Better the swoons of love-talk, back then, than caving to the voodoo music of Reaganomics at work in the collective mind (think of the sound of your piss pressing in the urinal at Fenway Park in the 7th inning of a game they’d given away by the time you got back to your seat: Fuckin Mike Torrez), a credo which the Young Republican Club, overly represented on the Student Council and, so, overly-funded,  was constantly rubbing in the face of us Che t-shirt-wearing Sandinistas sporting Daniel Ortega mustaches (even the women).

Jeffrey and Tom were constantly quoting Rilke — “praise to assenting angels” this, and “Truly being here is glorious” that — and it frankly got on my nerves and I swore I’d put off reading any Rilke in earnest until I found some pure athletic silence. Boy, am I musclebound by the fullness of emptiness now, 50 years later. Fuck you, Tom, and your bride, Isolde — and may you both be down and out in some tent city of Heinrichheinestrasse now, reading Duino Elegies to neo-Nazis without the swagger inside. And Jeffrey, you…you didn’t have to steal Laura from me, you and me, walking talking ragtime, come across Laura with bags of groceries and she chooses you to help carry her bags home. I had to leave the litmag after she wrote a “soulful” poem about the incident, titling it, “White Girl’s Burden.”  “Scarface” was still shovelling up love when I left.

Half a century later and I’m digging into Rilke’s literary Arbeiten and feel like I’m digging my own grave, tossing love by the shovelfuls, up to my neck in dust to dust.  I got on the trail to Rilke by way of Lou Andreas-Salomé, whose Jungian estrus had strung Nietzsche and Freud along as a muse with the  mind of Minerva. You might say she en-manned them. But it was her work with Rilke that paid dividends for the young poet. If you recall the song by Rod Stewart, she was his “Maggie Mae.” And when the morning finally kicked him in the head, they went their separate ways, becoming friends without benefits.  He, too, was en-manned by her.  In his new translation of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (2022), Ulrich Baer describes their thing:

On a trip to Venice in 1897, Rilke met Lou Andreas-Salomé, a married woman fifteen years his senior who became his lover, mentor, and muse and famously instructed him to shorten his given names to the more masculine Rainer [nee, René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke] and impose more discipline on his prodigious poetic talents. Their romantic relationship lasted four years, and their friendship a lifetime.

Alas, not every rising poet is so lucky to have such a Eurydice in his life as a prize wife rescued from the catacombs of his existential crisis — with benefits (i.e., poetry). When I looked back at my muse she was a pile of salt. And today, I see myself as fatfuck orpheus lite. The Furies, at times eating me alive inside, have made it impossible to get to the next level with my poetry. (Or is it just me? I wonder)

So, here I am, half a century later, reading the Ulrich Baer translation of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. And it’s a wonderful read.  A fantastic translation.  Baer’s gone out of his way to make the language accessible and fresh, as if Rilke were still alive and writing. It’s immediately clear that Rilke was a romantic in his poetic propensities, finding depths in things and nature that many of us contemporaries took for granted and threw away long ago. Baer has Rilke say of army cadet Franz Xaver Kappus’s poem “My Soul,” in his first of 10 letters published in this volume,

Things are not as easy to understand or express as we are mostly led to believe; most of what happens cannot be put into words and takes place in a realm into which no word has ever entered. Works of art are even more inexpressible than anything else: they are altogether secretive beings whose lives outlast our life, which will inevitably cease to be.

This seems quaint to the modern ear, full of the in-breeding of techno-scientific thinking. We no longer privilege the sacredness of mythopoesis over the logical coherence of systems integration. A Bell ad back in the 70s told us that The System Is the Solution. And most of us soon believed it. But as the late poet and philosopher Louis Hammer, once wrote me,

It should come as no surprise that thought may have arrived at a vision of nothing but a world of signifiers. Look around you and what do you see but multifarious signs that seem to embody a single message: the signs themselves prevail? If the signs prevail then the things of the world are at a distance or, more than that, covered up, inaccessible, concealed by the very means which seem to offer us lucidity. As a result we are cut off from sensuous life, our life with the immediacy of things and other beings.

It’s a tough go to be a Rilke-esque poet in the world today, closed off from selves encapsulated in a noisy hive droning, algorithms chasing us through the labyrinth like doppelgangers looking to take over.

Baer tells us that Rilke’s Letters were heartfelt but also self-conscious — he saw them as literary work to be published. Baer writes:

The period from 1912 to 1920 is often regarded as a creative crisis for Rilke, even though he wrote hundreds of poems published only posthumously and a great number of letters to friends, former lovers, patrons, and anyone whose letters had moved him. In a formal last will he stipulated that these letters should be viewed as equally significant as his literary work.

Does this make them to a degree pretentious?  Maybe if written today they’d be so considered, but it was a longhand-writing world back then.  (Hell, I was writing longhand letters as late as 20 years ago, but my recipients have all died or moved to Twitter.) Largely, Rilke used the letters to work out some of his aesthetic ponderings, writes Baer:

The Letters distill Rilke’s project of a poetics of immanence, in which lived experience affords us more access to knowing ourselves and the world than ideology, belief, social conventions, or a philosophical system that transcends human reality.

Lived experience was a key for Rilke and a central urging in his letters back to the cadet Kappus, who sent Rilke regular batches of poems to consider. Lived experience leads to crisis and “difficulties” — and, with luck and patience and silence, insight and authenticity.

The story behind the Letters to Franz Xaver Kappus (1883–1966), a 19-year-old officer cadet at the Theresian Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt had heard that Rilke, the son of an Austrian army officer, had studied at the academy’s lower school at Sankt Pölten in the 1890s. Baer writes,

Kappus had written a fan letter to Rilke to ask for advice on his fledgling attempts to become a poet. He had included a sample of his verses. Rilke responded to the letter without knowing Kappus personally, as he responded to many letters written by those who piqued his interest, whether they were baronesses, famous writers, or infatuated students. But instead of coddling the aspiring poet, in view of his inexperience and need for affirmation, Rilke did more than just dismiss the student’s poems (rather harshly).

Indeed, Rilke told him to look within himself and ask if he must write or else perish  — did he have that kind of inner need?  If not, hop off the horse and find a more suitable profession. Baer reports that “Whether to write or not, and whether to become a poet or pursue a more practical, stable and lucrative career, soon yields to the broader question of whether to live one’s life truly or to live it according to other people’s conceptions.” Authenticity is everything.

In addressing Kappus in the first letter, Rilke pulls no punches. Of Kappus’s “My Soul,” Rilke tells the cadet, “your poems are not in any way distinctive, although they contain quiet and hidden germs of something personal.” Ouch. And then Rilke adds, addressing “To Leopardi,” a second poem,

a kind of affinity seems to emerge with this unique, great, and solitary part of you. And yet these poems are still not anything in and of themselves, nothing independent, not even the last one and the one “To Leopardi.”

He’s derivative. Kappus has yet to find his own voice. Many creative writing instructors have passed on such early words to students of the craft. Look within for your “soul,” not to Vito Windtschwimmer.

The Letters contain many themes that Rilke clearly wishes to deliberate upon. These include the art of solitude and the value of silence; the many travesties and treasures of Love; ontological essence;  welcoming the “difficult”; giving in to the transformative nature of sadness; and, the elusive, perhaps superior nature of women. The volume includes discussions of Rilke’s influences, such as Auguste Rodin, for whom Rilke was a secretary for a while and friend for life, and the phosphorescent proto-feminist Lou Andreas-Salome, with whom he had an affair for a few years and many years as a correspondent. In his afterword, Baer also includes some useful notes on his choices as a translator of Rilke, as well as a Rodin-inspired poem, “The Archaic Torso of Apollo.”

Rilke is notoriously attractive to the pensive poet, the inward journeying seeker of silence — far from the madding crowd (in his mind, at least). Such solitudes can open up new questions, and Rile advises, “Try to love the questions themselves like …Do not search for answers that cannot be given to you now because you could not live them.” In Letter VIII, Rilke responds to Kappus with an often lucid desiderata on the sensual and regenerative power and value of silence and solitude:

When rereading [your May 2nd letter], as I am doing now, in the great silence of this remote location, your lovely concern for life moves me even more than it had already in Paris, where every sound begins and trails off differently due to the overwhelming noise that makes all things tremble. Here, surrounded by an enormous countryside swept by incessant winds from the sea, here I sense that your questions and feelings, which have their own life deep inside will not be answered by another human being.

He explains what happens in the “soul” in such moments of newfound silence and rare solitude:

Our feelings grow quiet in shy awkwardness, everything within us recedes, and in the resulting stillness something new—something not known to anyone—presents itself in silence. Almost all of our sadnesses, I think, are moments of tension that feel like paralysis because we have lost the capacity to experience our own alienated emotions as something alive.

It’s natural to be sad, to grieve, Rilke says, and he didn’t need, as we do today, to find a palliative that would let him go swimming with the endorphins in order to find new purpose.

And what would any poet worth his salt be without a toolbox of love instruments, free and formal, or collage?  We still go to the Poets to find the right words to swoon her with. If you’re a halfway decent poet, you’re bound to get laid. The late great poet and former US Poet Laureate Charles Simic once said in an interview that he expected to become a painter, rather than a poet. But love of women drove him to try his hand at ‘pick up’ lines. “When I noticed in high school that one of my friends was attracting the best-looking girls by writing them sappy love poems,” he said, “I found out that I could do it, too.”

But, though this expectation is generally true, this is really the opposite of what Rilke had in mind when it came to Love and women. In Letter IV, he concedes the privileged and uninterrogated positions of sexual action and energy, and our need for it, telling the would-be poet and cadet:

The pleasure we take in our power to create is so indescribably beautiful and rich only because it is full of inherited memories of the procreation and birthing of millions of beings. A single creative thought brings back to life a thousand forgotten nights of love that endow this thought with splendor and importance. Those who come together at night and are entwined in the rhythms of physical lust carry out an important task. They gather sweetness, depth, and strength for the song of some future poet who will rise to give voice to unspeakable pleasure. They conjure the future.

Well, we don’t talk much about the future anymore, but his point is well-taken, and one recalls, en passant, the bedroom grooves of the solitary Siddhartha.

But Rilke saw such energy of Love often wasted in the young who are randy and rambunctious and incapable of savoring the experience properly. They give into lust, which soon exhausts itself and spends the savings on nothingness. Rilke writes to Kappus in Letter IV,

If man only were properly reverent and awed by his fertility, which is one and the same, whether of the spirit or the flesh. For mental creativity also originates in the flesh. It is of the same essence and nothing but a quieter, more ecstatic and more everlasting repetition of sensual pleasure. ..The pleasure we take in our power to create is so indescribably beautiful and rich only because it is full of inherited memories of the procreation and birthing of millions of beings.

This is clearly a deeply inward way of looking at it, an ontology you can sink your teeth into. A peach you dare to eat.

Rilke favors women when it comes to the logos of loving. And being, if we’re frank, says Rilke. It’s a tough row to hoe for men, sowing and never slowing, rarely stopping to appreciate the gladiolas in the rain, and the tempest of energy up there in outer space — “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower” as Dylan Thomas sings.  Indeed, writes Rilke in Letter VII,

Life dwells with greater immediacy, fertility, and faith in women, and for this reason women had to evolve into more mature human beings, into more human human beings than man, who arrogantly and hastily fails to recognize the value of what he thinks he loves. Men only skim the surface of life; they are never pulled deeply into it by their own bodily fruit, the way women are. Once women have shed the conventions of pure femininity that they had been forced to adopt in their appearance, their true humanity, born of pain and humiliation, will emerge.

Pain and  humiliation. It’s so true, since Eden on. What was it the poet John Lennon said about women, adding that if you didn’t believe him just look at the one you’re with. And , maybe like Lennon who saw Ono as a muse, Rilke’s musings on women are largely derived from his affaire with Lou Andreas-Salomé, a mature polymath when he hooked up with her, 15 years his senior.

Baer also does an excellent job of informing the reader of some of the choices required as a translator, which is not something that is ordinarily brought up but can be crucial to a reading. (I found this out myself in my translations of the great German lyrical poet Heinrich Heine.) Translation Matters.  Baer writes of Rilke’s work,

The central concern of the Letters—how to live one’s life authentically—resonated strongly with readers, even if the Rilke they encountered in some English translations sounds a bit formal, rather like a tutor to an Edwardian family, and not like the unsentimental yet emotionally attuned modernist who wants most of all to be understood. While some of these translations are admirable, the overall impression of existing English versions is of a text written very much in the past. In the original German, however, Rilke sounds stunningly up-to-date, even today.

Baer is a gifted translator, who has recently brought his reanimating gift to translations of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, as well as Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and other works of Rilke for Warbler Press (See my interview with Baer).

And lastly, Baer reminds us of the deep influence that Auguste Rodin had on his oeuvre. Though at one point they had a falling out of sorts, leading to a separation of minds, Rilke tried to carry Rodin’s vision and energy into his poetry and Rodin’s aesthetic shows up in the Letters. Baer describes a situation where Rilke has become a mentor to Kappus, just as the sculptor was to the famous poet:

Some of the artistic principles found in Rilke’s book on Rodin—among them to commit oneself to close, patient, and disciplined observation of oneself and of the world, to resist being distracted by others, and to become an artist only if one feels nothing else would do—find their way into Letters to a Young Poet where Rilke assumes the role of a mentor that Rodin played for him during that time.

Rilke found that he could not live without writing poetry. Eventually, Kappus found that he could live without writing poetry, but settled into writing novels and screenplays. Baer includes in the volume Rilke’s Rodin-inspired poem “The Archaic Torso of Apollo.” Here it is:

We will never know his unimaginable head
in which his eyes ripened like apples. But
like a candelabrum his torso still burns bright,
from which his gaze, merely withheld
persists and gleams. For otherwise
his massive chest could not blind you
nor could the gentle contour of his loins
curve like a smile toward the center that held procreation.
For otherwise this stone would stand disfigured, stunted
by the shoulders’ abrupt descent,
and would not shimmer like a panther’s splendid pelt
and would not erupt from all the broken edges
like a star bursting in the sky: for there is no spot
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Rainer Maria Rilke
(Translation by Ulrich Baer)

I am an old and withering poet, but Rilke speaks to me as if I were still an undergraduate in philosophy looking for a metaphysique I could live with. I had a girlfriend back then who wrote in a poem, “The glitter is in everything.”  Beautifully put, I thought. This fit right in with my, then, incipient pantheism, and, after I converted to atheism, my now free-flowing panpsychism. I must write, but I’ve learned to understand that my published work won’t stand the test of time. I ain’t no Rilke. But these Letters of Rilke seem written to this old geezer just as much as to the cadet Kappus. They come at a time when rueing the once-seen glorious devastation of the Canon and Idols by postmod liberation, I feel the pendulum swinging back toward a synthetic dialectic that, as Rilke posits in these Letters, a yearning for silence and contemplation away from the enervating mainstream forum and electronic centralization of ideas, deep and shallow, turned quickly into memes and mush.

It’s time to grieve for the sad world of Men again. That should urge a few sonnets.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.