Antagonism: Rainer Maria Rilke
Every trade has its patron saint, and if butchers and silversmiths, why not poets? Since I can remember, poetry’s patron saint—revered and invoked—has been Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s understandable why Rilke is the favorite of fledglings: young poets continue to see in him what they want to see in themselves. Even as a teenager, Rilke had an ardent, if unfocused, sense of literary ambition; he was alternately depressed and exhilarated, or “ill” and in need of both attention and solitude; he was swept by tides of concentration and idleness; he was a snob who liked to walk barefoot, passionate about “spirituality” and “simplicity”; he was a passive and self-pitying sexual predator; he liked to read his work aloud, by the light of flickering candles, to a room of hushed admirers; he was even a vegetarian. Starter poets, their training wheels still attached, thrill to the oppressive gloom of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and to the sententious twaddle of Letters to a Young Poet.
As a selfish poseur, Rilke can scarcely be matched. (Of course, there are poets—Ezra Pound leaps to mind—whose character was baser and whose work is emptier.) It’s not realistic to claim that has nothing to do with his poetry, but it doesn’t affect my judgment of his achievement. And I am willing to overlook the flaccid sentimentality of his early books. But the high esteem in which his later work is held—especially his two final sequences, The Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus—puzzles me. Even in these poems, there are brilliant strokes, and some of the old chestnuts—“The Panther,” say, or “Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes”—still have their gleam and bite. But far too much of The Duino Elegies is pretentiously obscure—obscure, that is, to the point not of fascination but of tedium. Montale can be as hermetic, but his poems always seem grounded in remembered detail. They are like Braille: I can sense it means something, though I can’t understand it. Rilke, on the other hand, is just gassy. What I dislike about so many of his poems is their unattached feeling. His buzzwords—soul, longing, life, gaze, thing, eternal—float aimlessly. Lines like “Does not his passionate oneness with her pure / features derive from your celestial fire?” or this sodden mess—
What we have is World
and always World and never Nowhere-Without-Not:
that pure unguarded element one breathes
and knows endlessly and never craves
Part of the problem, I suspect, is marketing. Rilke is now sold as “wisdom literature.” It is hardly surprising that one of Rilke’s most prominent recent translators, Stephen Mitchell, went on to offer versions of mystical poetry, along with the Tao. There is now a collection called Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties. Rilke as Rumi? Or would it be fairer to wonder if Rilke hasn’t become—or at least isn’t being sold as—the Kahlil Gibran of the intellectual set. For my money, that turn of events seems sadly appropriate.
Poet, critic, editor, and librettist J.D. McClatchy was born and raised in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. He earned his BA at Georgetown University and his PhD in English at Yale University. His poetry is marked by formal adeptness, lyrical control and a wide range of influences—including classical literature, music, and opera....