Monday, June 26, 2006

Let's Talk Poetry

I love poetry. I love weird beautiful, painful, lovely poetry.
I love drunken people like e.e. cummings.
I love Polish/Lithuanian people like Czeslaw Milosz and sad old maid shut-ins like Emily Dickinson.
But I love Rainer Maria Rilke most of all.
I don't know why except that his poetry is simple and complicated all in one rolling form.
His upbringing was kind of fucked up even by today's standards. His mother lost a daughter before Rilke was born so after he was born, his mother called him Sofia and dressed him in girl's clothing until he was five.
Why it took his father 5 years to figure out this wasn't healthy, I don't know but to make up for it, he was very strict on Rilke and sent him to military school to make a man out of him.
Now, these days, that would make a serial killer out of the strongest person but Rilke turned to poetry and for that, we are all thankful.

Rilke became a published poet in 1894 at the age of 19 with Leben Und Lieder.
For the next several years he published regularly, though he would ultimately renounce as juvenile all this material.
Probably one of his most famous collections, Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke writes to a would-be poet, which he wrote from 1903 to 1908, that "nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you to write; find out whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write."
I believe this goes for everything in your life. No one can make you who you are or make you better or worse. You do that all for yourself.

He learned at the feet of sculpter, Auguste Rodin where, under his influence, Rilke developed the "thing poem" or "Dinggedichte".
"The thing is definite, the art-thing must be still more definite; removed from all accident, reft away from all obscurity, withdrawn from time and given over to space, it has become enduring capable of eternity. The model seems, the art-thing is." (from a letter to Andreas-Salomé, 8 August 1903).

When Rilke told Rodin that he had not been writing lately, Rodin’s advice was to go to the zoo and look at an animal until he truly saw it.

Rilke was known for using animal imagery throughout his poetry. Rilke takes inhuman objects and personifies them in order to convey an emotional sensation to readers.

Let's look at 3 of his thing-poems:

The Panther

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold anything else.
It seems to him there are a thousand bars;
and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils lifts, quietly--.
An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.

“The Panther�, an early example of Dinggedichte and was a favorite of Rilke because it had shown him “the way to artistic integrity.�
It is an emotional poem that uses the image of a wild animal to convey how man becomes trapped in his own personal prison.
Hopelessness is reflected in line 3, “To him it is as if there are a thousand bars, And beyond those thousand bars, no world.� The panther vision has grown tired of seeing nothing but bars that he can no longer see anything but blurred images. The bars in his vision multiply in his sight and he can only glimpse images without significance or definition beyond his prison.
Beginning in line 5, the panther’s strength while turning in circles, mirrors the potential of man’s inner strength while his will is paralyzed by his own imprisonment.
In lines 9 and 10, hope enters the panther’s eyes. Nature and the power of the panther, also the power of man, reveal itself. The last two lines remind the panther that he is on the wrong side of the bars and again, hopelessness and desperation take hold.
In line 10, the image that enters in could be Rilke himself. The panther sees Rilke but cannot respond and it’s possible that Rilke sees the panther but, also, cannot respond.
Maybe Rilke sees himself as the panther, trapped, uncertain about the quality of life. Possibly, he feels the burden of culture.
Rilke seems to grieve over the animal’s captivity yet he celebrates the power and beauty of the panther.

The Swan

This laboring through what is still undone,
as though, legs bound, we hobbled along the way,
is like the akward walking of the swan.
And dying-to let go, no longer feel
the solid ground we stand on every day-
is like anxious letting himself fall

into waters, which receive him gently
and which, as though with reverence and joy,
draw back past him in streams on either side;
while, infinitely silent and aware,
in his full majesty and ever more
indifferent, he condescends to glide.

In The Swan, Rilke uses the swan’s transition from land to water as a metaphor for the act of dying.
In the first 3 lines, “This laboring through what is still undone, as though, legs bound, we hobbled along the way�, Rilke uses the metaphor of the swan walking on dry land as “awkward� and “hobbled� as our clumsy laboring through life.

Lines 4 through 6 reveal Rilke’s capacity to understand that letting go of this earth is difficult and often terrifying because we cannot comprehend the truth of no longer existing.
There is a fear of the unknown, common to every human. To die without hesitation goes against human nature. “Is like anxious letting himself fall� is the swan’s reluctance to fall into the water.
The last part of the poem possibly reflects Rilke’s hopefulness that dying will be easy and peaceful. When the swan anxiously enters the water, he is received as if he belonged there. He is majestic and joyful. He transcends from ground to glory.

The Unicorn

The saintly hermit, midway through his prayers
stopped suddenly, and raised his eyes to witness
the unbelievable: for there before him stood
the legendary creature, startling white, that
had approached, soundlessly, pleading with his eyes.

The legs, so delicately shaped, balanced a
body wrought of finest ivory. And as
he moved, his coat shone like reflected moonlight.
High on his forehead rose the magic horn, the sign
of his uniqueness: a tower held upright
by his alert, yet gentle, timid gait.

The mouth of softest tints of rose and grey, when
opened slightly, revealed his gleaming teeth,
whiter than snow. The nostrils quivered faintly:
he sought to quench his thirst, to rest and find repose.
His eyes looked far beyond the saint's enclosure,
reflecting vistas and events long vanished,
and closed the circle of this ancient mystic legend.

Rilke uses “The Unicorn� as a metaphor for humanity. A saintly man’s prayers are interrupted by the arrival of a unicorn. The hermit, a man of obvious faith, is stunned by this creature that until now, was believed to be a legend. Rilke writes of the horn -“High on his forehead rose the magic horn, the sign of his uniqueness� as a symbol of what makes this creature so different; so stunning The unicorn represents the convergence of what society knows and what society believes. He harbors memories of humanity that no longer exist. The unicorn is a mythological creature that is not contained within Christianity or other religions. We are simply given to feel, through Rilke’s writing, that out of reconciliation of opposites, a new range of feelings are uncovered.

The theme of animal consciousness, a permanent thread in the design of Rilke’s poetry, can be studied in all three of these poems.
These poems are also examples of Dinggedichte, which Rilke is famous for.

At times it seems we are intruding on the animals; observing them at their most vulnerable.

The use of nonhuman objects to convey human consciousness is not a new concept in poetry. Rilke used it constantly. Nonhuman objects are animated by human metaphors because the reality of the “thing� has nothing to do with the physical. The only way to truly obtain the “thinginess� is to approach the subject with humility and understanding which will reveal a nature so surprising. We just have to trust in the simplicity of the idea.

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