So back when I first started this blog in January of 2011, I set a goal to start reading more poetry. I wanted to learn to appreciate poetry. To achieve that goal, I had decided to start off with Rainer Maria Rilke. In part because I had heard he was a good poet, but mostly because I had stumbled upon a book called A Year with Rilke(translated and edited by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows). I thought that short daily readings of his poetry would be a great way into the world of poetry.
I was wrong.
I barely managed to read my way into February and then I just stopped. And I only made it to February by reading huge chunks at a time. Not the relaxing brief moments of poetry right before bedtime to set the mood for rest and contemplation.
But now, two years later, I’m at it again. I am trying once more to get in to poetry. And I’m struggling. I have been keeping up pretty well but … I’m just not feeling it. Most days, I read the poem or the short passage from a letter or whatever it is, and I just think … eh … nothing really. Or maybe even ‘good to get that over with’. One thing more off that day’s to do list. And I really don’t want to feel that way. I just don’t quite get how to grasp these poems. I do feel it’s a shame because some of his thoughts about how life is made worth living because we die in the end and therefore death is what motivates us to live life to its fullest, are also the things I really liked when I read Martin Heidegger’s philosophy. Maybe I just don’t quite get German thinkers and poets…
I’ve been listening to a series of podcast from the Guardian where well-known authors have read poems and then talked about them, commented on them, explained them. And I’m flabbergasted by the amount of thought they put into understanding these poems. I get that it’s work – or can be, at least – to understand poems. Maybe I just didn’t know how much work it is.
Or maybe Rilke is not the poet for me. I haven’t read enough poetry to judge that.
It’s not that I hate everything I read. Not at all. Or not completely so. A few of the poems have been wonderful and I’ll share some of them below and comment on what I love about these in particular.
The Impermanence We Are
our own impermanence is concealed from us.
The trees stand firm, the houses we live in
are still there. We alone
flow past it all, an exchange of air.
Everything conspires to silence us,
partly with shame,
partly with unspeakable hope.
(From the Second Duino Elegy)
First, when copying this poem now, I realized that an issue with reading poems on the Kindle might be the formatting. Is this the way Rilke intended the lines to break or is this just because of the letter size I’m reading it in? I’m not sure – but formatting means quite a bit in poems so this is a possible weakness with e-book reading, I think.
Second, to me this poem speaks exactly about what I mentioned above. The fact that we shall die, is what makes us live. We are just fleeting presences and so many of the things around us, will remain when we are gone. A humbling thought!
His gaze, forever blocked by bars,
is so exhausted it takes in nothing else.
All that exists for him are a thousand bars.
Beyond the thousand bars, no world.
The strong, supple pacing
moves in narrowing circles.
It is a dance at whose center
a great will is imprisoned.
Now and again the veil over his pupils
silently lifts. An image enters,
pierces the numbness,
and dies away in his heart.
I think this is my favorite poem so far. I don’t even want to search for hidden meanings but just take it at face value to be about a majestic panther suffering in his tiny cage, growing slowly mad with boredom and lack of room and the opportunity for real life. I can see this giant cat when I read this poem and it reminds me of a tiger I once saw in a zoo, just pacing, endlessly pacing.
The Secret of Death
The great secret of death, and perhaps its deepest connection with us, is this: that, in taking from us a being we have loved and venerated, death does not wound us without, at the same time, lifting us toward a more perfect understanding of this being and of ourselves.
(Letter to Countess Margot Sizzo-Noris-Crouy)
I like this because I think it’s true. When someone dies, we stop having all the small grievances of every day life interfering and we start to remember, to better understand why they were the way they were. I think death gives us the distance to be objective.
And you wait. You wait for the one thing
that will change your life,
make it more than it is –
something wonderful, exceptional,
stones awakening, depths opening to you.
In the dusky bookstalls
old books glimmer gold and brown.
You think of lands you journeyed through,
of paintings and a dress once worn
by a woman you never found again.
And suddenly you know: that was enough.
You rise and there appears before you
in all its longings and hesitations
the shape of what you lived.
(Book of Images)
To me, this poem is about how much the little things matter. That sometimes we shouldn’t just chase after big new things just because they are big and new but rather stop and look at what we’ve already achieved and take pride in that. Remember to celebrate your achievements!
These are just some of the poems I liked. There were a few more. I like his focus on Orpheus. I’ve always loved the idea of Orpheus going to the Underworld to save his dead lover – only to loose her again at the last possible moment, right before she would have become alive again. For Rielke, Orpheus faces death – and sings about it, and I like that!
I will admit that looking back at these poems and trying to articulate just a little bit why I liked these, have made me appreciate them more. Maybe I will get to like poems after all …