Sunday, March 1, 2015

RILKE: A BREATH AROUND NOTHING

A god can do it. But tell me, how
can a man follow through the narrow lyre?
His mind is divided. At the crossing of two
heartways stands no temple for Apollo.

Song is not desire, not wooing
any favor that can still be attained;
song is existence. Easy for the god.
But when do we exist? When does he pour

the earth and the stars into us? Young man,
it’s not about love, when your voice
forces open your mouth — learn to forget

your sudden outburst. That will run out.
True singing is a different breath. A breath
around nothing. A breeze in the god. A wind.

~ Rilke, Sonnet to Orpheus 3, 1

“Gesang ist Dasein.” There is no capturing the music of this assonance and consonance, those wonderful vowels that are lost in “existence,” nor at their best in “being.” But even if the music is lost, the poetry that remains (by one definition, poetry is what remains after translation) is sufficient to stun us into silence.

The first difficulty is that we are rarely completely confident about anything. Our mind is divided into fifty shades of “yes, but.” And poetry (usually identified with singing) works best when we make simple declarative statements: “What will remain of us is love” (Larkin, “The Arundel Tomb”). We have to take out all species of “almost,” “perhaps,” or “sometimes.” Prose is more permissive and subtle that way, closer to reality. But poetry, when it works, has more emotional power.

Second, Rilke dismisses a cherished belief about poetry: that it comes from being in love. That inspiration and that material will run out. And if real singing is a breath around nothing, then it’s hard for the immortal young to grasp that core meaning. A breath around nothing is a breath around the nothing to come after someone else closes our eyelids. We sing about and against our personal knowledge of mortality.

(It could be argued that a poet like Donne, or Dickinson on those days when she at least tried to believe that “this world is not conclusion,” could also produce real singing in the expectation of living forever, disembodied at first, but eventually rising in flesh — apparently true paradise depends on having a body after all. But Rilke, who knew that all religions are human inventions, at best tried to imagine a non-Christian kind of afterlife, where the dead have their special tasks.)

There is Donne, but Donne is small next to Shakespeare, who is not a religious poet. And that is almost an omen of secularism: real singing will be around nothing, i.e. poetry will embrace this mortal life. In any case, the process of creating a poem is not between the poet and god, but between the poet and the language. I suspect it was that way even for religious poets: they would rather go into erotic mysticism than stick to dogma and spoil the melody and/or image.

Besides, like all writing, poetry requires dramatic tension. No surprise for the poet, no surprise for the reader. If all the answers have already been provided by religion or an ideology (Adrienne Rich’s poetry deteriorated when she became a vociferous feminist), the poem is too predictable. A poet needs to remain in the “cloud of unknowing.”

Photo: Trey Ratcliff

This is not to say that poetry is without its gods. Beauty and art among be among the gods of poetry, but so is melancholy — a kind of beautiful sorrow, a twilight. Now and then, a true night of despair. After all, without darkness, there would be little need for poetry. In modernity, unadorned observation of life has become the most common mode, without necessarily — or at any rate not obviously — seeking to provide an uplift. But beauty itself is always a triumph of the human sprit.

And poets must hurry into the narrow lyre because tomorrow may be too late. “Sing now while you have a voice.”

Still, poetry has to delight in order to be poetry. “It must give pleasure,” as Wallace Stevens said. For me this is the first commandment of poetry. And even in translation, I think this particular sonnet to Orpheus does give that deep pleasure by which we know art. The poem stuns us with its depth, its originality, its courage (it does take courage to say that “true singing is a breath around nothing”), its excellence, and its beauty.

Rilke wrote the Sonnets to Orpheus rapidly, in the white heat of inspiration. Poems that come in this manner are often the best. But even if it took only minutes to write down the first draft, we must remember that it also took a lifetime of incredible dedication. To Rilke, nothing came ahead of poetry. Nothing was more important, not even his daughter’s wedding (I knew a woman who refused to read Rilke because she couldn't forgive him for that — he said he didn’t want to lose the creative momentum).

The Sonnets, I feel, became Rilke’s last will and testament. We are all the rich heirs. 


**
In summary: This particular sonnet is about poetry. And it’s quite a feat, since most poems about poetry aren’t that engaging, not even to poets. Rilke asks: how can we write poems? How is that possible at all? “A god can do it” — but a human being, that mess of contradictions? To a god, everything is a simple yes or no, but our mind is divided: we see how almost any statement is both true and false.

And there is a second major point. True poetry, Rilke says, does not stem from falling in love; it comes from confronting our mortality and still being awed by the earth and the stars. It’s when we see the magnificence that of the world that we truly exist and can celebrate the strange, improbable glory of being alive, of being able to feel joy though we hold the knowledge of mortality like an apple in our mouth. To Rilke, just to exist is transcendent.

Chateau de Muzot, where Rilke completed the Duino Elegies and wrote the Sonnets to Orpheus.

Hyacinth:

My favorite sonnet  of Rilke . . . I never get tired of hearing or reading or discussing it . . . thank you.

Oriana:

It’s hard for me to pick a favorite, with such wealth. The second one, “A girl almost,” was the first sonnet I fell in love with. And of course I love the unicorn sonnet, and the one about mirrors, with Narcissus in the last line.

Speaking of lines, sometimes it’s not the whole poem but a line or two: Be ahead of all parting; if drinking’s bitter, turn into wine; money lives in a pampering bank; does it ever uncurl (a beggar’s hand); does it really exist, time the destroyer — the list goes on. The more I re-read the Sonnets, the more certain lines become part of my psyche.

Charles:

It’s so true that beauty is the god of the art world.

Oriana:

Or it used to be. I hope, naively perhaps, that it will be restored, just as architecture is no longer an imitation of factories.

Michael:


I admit to hiding behind "yes, but" as an excuse for my limited intellect or heart intelligence. I've never been able to make much of Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus and a well-placed Yes, but has come in quite handy from time to time — it allows for masking my not having a clue. Talk about never being sure. That's it. Most often I don't have a clue what he's talking about and that's the kind of poetry that leaves me deflated and self-flagellating.

And then enters a commentator, like yourself, unraveling the mystery. And I'm grateful but mostly awed and left scratching my head. I scrolled to the top a number of times to read the bit again. Is that what he meant? Really? How did she dig that out of that?

Perhaps poetry has more than a time and a place. Maybe it picks its people as well.

For me it truly is a breath around nothing — meaning the dusty recesses of my mind.

Oriana:

Michael, relax and trust yourself. The meaning of a poem is not what the poet put in it like a thing that never alters (a kind of altar??) A poem, once out in the world, belongs to the reader. Even if the poet comments on a particular poem, explaining the intended meaning, that commentary can be discarded and your own response given priority.

Just think of a myriad ways a bible verse can be interpreted. A historian will see it differently than a psychologist, a mother who’s lost a child differently than a young man who sees himself as one of the “masters of the universe.” The reader needs to find a personal interpretation, or else the text is dead to him or her, and often repugnant since the morality of an ancient deity is inferior to our modern ethical sensibility. 

A work of literature belongs to the culture — and culture changes: we read Homer differently than Plato did. Human nature may stay relatively the same, but our values differ quite significantly from the value of antiquity. Each reader has a different perspective: life experience is especially important here. “Trust the poem, not the poet.”

This particular sonnet is about poetry. And it’s quite a feat, since most poems about poetry aren’t that engaging, not even to poets. Rilke asks: how can we write poems? How is that possible at all? “A god can do it” — but a human being, that mess of contradictions? To a god, everything is a simple yes or no, but our mind is divided: we see how almost any statement is both true and false.

And there is a second major point. True poetry, Rilke says, does not stem from falling in love; it comes from confronting our mortality and still being awed by the earth and the stars. It’s when we see the magnificence that of the world that we truly exist and can celebrate the strange, improbable glory of being alive, of being able to feel joy though we hold the knowledge of mortality like an apple in our mouth. To Rilke, just to exist is transcendent.

(Looking at the last two paragraphs here made me think that my “explication” wasn’t clear enough. I need a kind of “in summary” — so I'm going to add these paragraphs to the main body of the post.)

The next post will be about Moses on Mt. Pisgah, and you’ll feel more at home. I don’t mean that you’ll enjoy thinking of those mountain top altars where bulls and rams were sacrificed, but I think you’ll bask in the relative clarity of the psychological meaning.

 

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