Friday, January 1, 2016


Moscow from Ostankino TV station


Only he who has lifted the lyre
also among the shadows
may render
infinite praise.

One he who has eaten
of the poppy with the dead
will never again lose
the most delicate tone.

Though the reflections in the pool
often blur before your eyes:
Know the image.

Only in the double realm
do voices become
gentle and eternal.

~ Rilke, 9th Sonnet to Orpheus, Pt. I
(I reworked the translation by Herter Norton)

A poet must know about death and dying, and about the terrible experiences in general. S/he needs to know both the up-close specifics (“know the image”) and the long perspective: the larger journey of life, including mortality. That’s why there are no child prodigies among poets. There is no substitute for a certain minimum of life experience and for the wisdom of a greater perspective. That’s how a poet’s voice becomes both compassionate (“gentle”) and — to some degree, like the “shadows” that live in the underworld of our memories and dreams — eternal.

In the first stanza of Sonnet 6, Rilke states this about Orpheus:

Is he from here? No, his wide nature
was formed in both realms.
He better bends the branches of willows
who knows the roots of the willows.

Great poetry goes beyond what I call “superior journalism”; it partakes of the Underworld. 

The Underworld needs to be understood more broadly, not just as the mythical realm of the dead. Certain losses are so great that they feel like death. Painful experiences are sometimes described as the descent to the Underworld. And that descent is repeated when the memories come back.

A lot of people who've been through “fascinating” experiences never write about them, even if they are writers or have a writer to help them. I learned the hard way that the reason is too much Underworld, i.e. too much pain (for instance, I am often encouraged to write about my first year in the US, which was indeed full of revelations and much comedy; but, alas, not just comedy; in addition, as Milosz observed, "It is late and the truth is laborious”).

And yet to the extent that one can endure wandering through the underworld of painful memories, there is the potential prize of emerging with deeper understanding. The danger is depression and even suicide. Another danger, rarely mentioned, is sheer exhaustion that makes one incapable of using that depth in a creative way. The Underworld is no country for old men. The old should live in the now, and/or in the paradise of good memories. To come out singing, one needs excellent brain function. Having a supportive partner also helps.

Never mind the four (!!) classical muses of poetry. The true muse is 1) Mnemosyne, i.e. Memory 2) Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. She can guide us, and remind us that springtime comes. We descend, we ascend. (If the poet identifies with Orpheus, then the muse is Eurydice. Yes, there are male Eurydices.)

It’s interesting that Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus mention Eurydice only once — “Be forever dead in Eurydice” in Sonnet 13, Part 2 (“Be ahead of all parting”). Rilke’s wrote a great Eurydice poem in his youth — “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.” It was inspired by the death of the painter Paula Becker; all biographers state that Rilke was in love with Paula, possibly more than with Clara. But eventually the memory of Paula faded; besides, after that great Eurydice poem, more poems on the theme were not needed.

In his mature years, Rilke identified with Orpheus, but he had no Eurydice we can point to. One answer may be that he was his own Eurydice; he was both the singer and the lost beloved, the sum of his unfulfilled yearnings. True: Vera, the young dancer who died of leukemia, does appear in Sonnet 28, Pt. 2, and may be implied in Sonnet 29 — but is definitely not much of presence in the Sonnets as a whole. Rilke was never in love with her; he didn’t even know her. 

But he knew the Underworld passages of himself, where the personal past comes alive, but often in a transformed manner. If you can wander among your memories quietly, without agitation over the old wounds, you can see the supra-personal, universal aspects of life. Already in first part of The Book of Hours, Rilke states:

I love the dark hours of my being.
There I can find, as in old letters,
the days of my life, already lived,
and held like a legend, and understood.

Then knowing comes: I can open
to another life that’s timeless and wide.

I love the idea of contemplating our past as “legend.” Given the nature of memory, our past actually is that. But I mean a traditional “golden and enhanced” meaning of legend. With detachment as we recognize our role as narrators, we can view our past as part of the larger story. This can lead to a wider, calmer, more self-affirming perspective where we can treat ourselves with more tolerance, kindness, and even unembarrassed love. 

I saw this when the incident of being told I had no talent became a “legend” to me when, with enough writing behind me, and publications and awards, I was secure enough to think and talk about it. I also felt the connection with writers and actors with similar stories: early rejection, being told they did not have a chance in the world.

As I have Jung say in my “Jung to Eurydice” poem, “You mustn’t take your life personally.”

Adriaen van Utrecht, Still Life with Flowers and Skull, 1642

And Rilke knew his longing for the “unknown beloved.” Let me quote me the first part of what is perhaps his greatest and most universal love poem:

You who never arrived 

in my arms, Beloved,
you who were lost from the start —

I don’t even know what songs

would please you. I have given up
trying to recognize you in the surging wave
of the next moment.  All the immense
images in me — the deeply felt

landscapes, cities, towers, bridges,
unsuspected turns in the path,
and those powerful lands 

that were once 
with the life of the gods —

all rise within me to mean 

who forever elude me.

I feel the unknown beloved, the one who has never arrived, is universal, or nearly so. It’s really the idealized image of ourselves. Here Rilke projects it on everything that ever touched him deeply, as if to announce the presence of her “who never arrived.” And he’s wise enough to know that she was “lost from the start.” This, I think, was Rilke’s Eurydice.

But even she is not present in the Sonnets to Orpheus — except in the form I’ll touch on later.

If Eurydice is absent, if love for her who was “lost from the start” is not the guiding inspiration of the Sonnets, then what is their dominant theme? Perhaps we shouldn’t think of a single theme, but rather an intertwining of several ones. One of those strands is the theme of abundance — of the generosity of life and the world, bestowing their beauty on anyone who takes the time to look. Thus the overall tone of praise of the world, of wonderment — even astonishment — at the beauty all around, both natural and man-made (Rilke was more familiar with city parks than with forests). He rejoices even in the stone Atlases bracing the balconies.

The Sonnets are what I call “comfort poems.” They keep on saying that despite suffering and the knowledge of approaching death, we have been given so much that we have no reason to complain. In Jack Gilbert’s words, “We have already lived in the real paradise.” So, in Sonnet 22, 2, the speaker exclaims

O despite fate: the glorious overflowings
of our existence, foamed over into parks —
or as stone men based the bases
of high portals, braced under balconies!

But the modern age introduced speed, so we pass the buildings and other wonders too quickly:

Today the abundances plunge past, the same ones,
but only as haste, our of the horizontal yellow
day into the dazzlingly magnified night.


Not that the world is benevolent. It is magnificent without being benevolent. That’s the source of the human difficulty: the world is not a tender parent. Suffering awaits; death awaits. Yet most people are not bitter; they are reasonably happy. The famous “Be ahead of all parting” sonnet (13, 2) exhorts us to be jubilant while fully accepting suffering and mortality.

Be ahead of all parting as if were behind you,
like the winter that’s already passed by.
For among the winters there’s one so endlessly winter
that only by wintering through it can the heart survive.

Be forever dead in Eurydice — singing rise up,
praising rise up back into pure relation.
Here, among the waning, in the realm of decline,
be a ringing glass that shatters as it rings.

Be — but know the not being where all things begin,
the infinite ground of your own deep vibration,
that you may fulfill it this one single time.

To all that’s used up, muffled and dumb,
store of full nature, the uncountable sums,
joyfully add yourself and cancel the count.


Critics sometimes call Rilke a “great poet of death.” This is not the case in the Sonnets. The dead make a brief appearance at best — in the Ninth Sonnet, as the Underworld shadows that help a poet master the “double realm,” and in the Fourteenth Sonnet (pt 1), where Rilke unexpectedly  hints that they are jealous of the living. Rilke, already transformed into a giver of praise to life, still tentatively grants them power — but only in the form of a question, to which we are free to answer “No.” It’s a beautiful stanza, and that’s the real reason for my quoting it:

Or are they the masters, as they sleep
beside the roots and grant us, from their riches,
this hybrid thing of speechless strength and kisses?

It could all be explicated in terms of compost fertilizing the earth. Even so, that’s the most gorgeous stanza about compost ever written.

By the way, in the last sonnet (“Silent friend of many distances”), there is no question of the dead being in any way “the masters.” Rather, the dead continue to serve life. Their having been still “enlarges space.”

What about those experiences that are so painful they feel like a kind of death? Rilke doesn’t hesitate in his advice:

What is the deepest loss you ever suffered?
If drinking’s bitter, turn into wine.

Perhaps creative people are the luckiest in the world: they can indeed turn even the most bitter experiences into the wine of art.

Rodin: Orpheus, Eurydice


From a quasi-monk of the first great collection of his youth, The Book of Hours, where he tried to forge a new “neighborly” relationship with the antiquated figure of god, Rilke transformed himself into a worshipper of the earth and of life (“Just to be here is magnificent” in the Seventh Duino Elegy; note that the Elegies quickly abandon the angels).

And note that even the Unknown Beloved is presented mainly as the earth: landscapes and cities. And that too is a poem of Rilke’s mature years.

This new embrace of the earth becomes obvious even in those poems that still rely on religious myth. But now it is life, not the afterlife, that is celebrated. In the Ninth Elegy, Rilke becomes the bridegroom of the earth. Erde, du Liebe, it will — “Earth, my love, I will” — the vow of a marriage ceremony.

But this new dedication to this life, this world, becomes apparent also in various other poems of the later period.

Speak softly, God! It could mean to someone
that the trumpets of your kingdom called;
for their sound no depth is deep enough:
then all times rise out of the stones,
and all the long-lost appear
in faded linen, brittle skeletons,
crooked from the weight of their soil.
That will be a miraculous return
into a wondrous homeland.

~ Rilke, from “The Last Judgment”

That “wondrous homeland” is the earth — all of earth. But we should also remember that most people used to get buried in the towns and villages where they were lived; the “wondrous homeland” was the familiar trees and grasses, the same river, the same meadows of clouds in the sky. In Wuthering Heights, Catherine didn’t want to stay in heaven; she wanted to return to the moors. All readers understand this at the deepest level; the real heaven we want is the place we already love, or used to love in childhood and youth — our first great love.

Mount Denali


And now for something entirely different:

and since we could all use a cup of kindness


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