Last week I went looking for a certain essay by Robert Hass, on Rilke, and along the way I came upon this conversation at Radio Open Source, between the host Christopher Lydon, and a writer and translator named Damion Searls, who (back when the conversation happened, in 2010) had just released a book of Rilke translations (The Inner Sky: Poems, Notes, Dreams).
The conversation ended up being a red herring, in that there wasn’t much on the Hass essay—just that small and lovely story of what Marina Tsvetayeva said to Rilke in a letter she wrote him towards the end... (You are not the poet I love most... Who but a poet, to another poet, would begin this way...?).
And it was an occasionally irritating red herring too. For example, this Christopher Lydon seems to have a weird penchant for addressing his guests by their full names, repeatedly, emphatically, and throughout the course of a long and intimate conversation. As in, Damion Searls! I’m dying to ask you to summarize if you can what he’s saying about art. (And yes, he actually asked that. About a poem. About a Rilke poem…)
For example too, Lydon decides at one point, that a certain piece of Rilke’s poetry can be read as a critique of the US war on the Taliban. I’m not kidding. At around minute 35 (and in fact, as part of asking for that summary...), Lydon reads out a fragment from Rilke’s “Notes on the Melody of Things,” and tells us how, to him, it’s a commentary […] on American foreign policy in the year 2010. Even in the web page blurb for that particular podcast, he excerpts that same fragment, asking, might we hear this as a comment on intimacy? on globalization? perhaps on the American war in Afghanistan...
I know. You don’t need to hear or read the actual Rilke fragment to be annoyed. But if you’re not annoyed enough, this is it:
Art has accomplished nothing, except to show us the confusion in which we already find ourselves most of the time. It has frightened us, rather than making us quiet and peaceful. It has shown us that we all live on different islands, only the islands are not far enough apart for us to stay solitary and untroubled. Someone on one island can pester someone on another, or terrorize him, or hunt him with spears — the only thing no one can do to anyone else is help him.
And if you’re still not annoyed enough, or if you would like some further layers for your annoyance lasagna, you can read that particular fragment in its larger context, as part of the entire sequence of Rilke’s “Notes on the Melody of Things.” That way, you can, for example, read the fragment that comes after it:
There is only one way to journey from isle to isle: dangerous leaps in which more than one’s feet are endangered. The result is an eternal hopping back and forth, with accidents and absurdities, for it sometimes happens that two people jump toward each other at the same time so that they encounter each other only in midair and after taking all that trouble they are just as far apart, one from the other, as they were before changing places.
Christopher Lydon! I’m dying to tell you what a buffoon you are.
Still. There were some good bits. For example and in fact, when Lydon asked Searls to summarize if you can what Rilke is saying about art, Searls did not roll his audible eyes and smack him (as I might have), but instead explained that Rilke doesn’t have a doctrine that he’s peddling about what art is or what life is or what God is or anything like that. He just has this way of doing something to you when you read him, and activating certain feelings that you have, often even unspoken or non-linguistic feelings, of intimacy or solitude or what it’s like to be in this world around you...
So when you’re asking me to give you the Rilke line on what art is, it’s a pretty tough task. I can say some things, to circle around it a bit, and I’d say the main one is this idea of receptivity—that it’s not a project.
Art isn’t something that you decide, “Oh I want to be a writer,” and then you figure out what to write about and then you work on it and draft it and then you write it. That’s just not how he sees it. He sees it as much more of this calling or even involuntary response, this sensitivity to things.
I think of Dorothea Lasky saying almost the same thing—that poetry is not a project. That more likely than not, what most poets do is not a project but an act of intuition. That naming your intentions is great for some things, but not for poetry:
Because sometimes when I hear a poet talking about his so-called projects, I see him flying high above his poems. And to write a poem is to be a maker. And to be a maker is to be down in the muck of making and not always to fly so high above the muck.
I think of what Igor Stravinksy said to Michel Legrand about The Rite of Spring:
Once I had the chance to sit near Igor Stravinsky. He told me that when he wrote The Rite of Spring, he didn’t know why he wrote it, he just did. He said that he didn’t know what he was doing and yet the critics were trying to explain everything and dissect everything. He said he didn’t make sense of what he was doing, he just did it. That changed my life. I have never forgotten it.
I think of Audre Lorde, and the kind of thinking she learned, over time, to do:
It was a very mysterious process for me. [...] I was also afraid of it because there were inescapable conclusions or convictions I had come to about my own life, my own feelings, that defied thought. And I wasn’t going to let them go. I wasn’t going to give them up. They were too precious to me. They were life to me. But I couldn’t analyze or understand them because they didn’t make the kind of sense I had been taught to expect through understanding. There were things I knew and couldn’t say. And I couldn’t understand them. [...] All I had was the sense that I had to hold on to these feelings and I had to air them in some way. [...] When I wrote something that finally had it, I would say it aloud and it would come alive, become real. It would start repeating itself and I’d know, that’s struck, that’s true. Like a bell. Something struck true.
I think again of Lorde: This is not idle fantasy, but a disciplined attention to the true meaning of “it feels right to me.”
And through it all, I think too, of how hard I am on myself afterwards, every time someone asks me, “So what are you working on?”
Later, around minute 40, Searls went back to that idea of receptivity, as he told the story of how Rilke wrote (and for so long, didn’t write) the Duino Elegies:
Well the Duino Elegies were what Rilke certainly saw as his life work, and I mentioned the story earlier about how the beginning of them came to him, and that he certainly did feel that they were just dictated to him. So this was in 1911, 1912 that he wrote the first few... And then he got stuck, and a lot of the stuff that we talked about earlier—how for Rilke art is waiting—came out of the fact that he, for the next ten years of his relatively short life (he died at 51), he spent ten years waiting for what he knew would be the rest of the Elegies, but he couldn’t write them.
As he saw it, he had been given the beginning of the Duino Elegies, and then he just had to wait until the end came to him. And that’s what he spent the next decade doing, trying to prepare himself and ready himself for the arrival of what would be the second half of the Duino Elegies.
The amazing thing is that he did it. That it happened. In this quite miraculous, three-week span of time in February of 1922, he wrote the second half of the Duino Elegies, and as a little bonus extra, Sonnets to Orpheus—an entire other book, which is the other major late poetry—all in three weeks, after having been blocked for ten years, waiting for it to come.
I remember the tree in Letters to a Young Poet, and go back to find it:
In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast.
I look to see when he wrote that letter. It was 1903.
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[domenica 03 febbraio 2019 ore 11:55:00] [¶]