Augustus Young       light verse, poetry and prose
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Rilke’s America 

(from The Making of a Pure Poet, Volume One, Things that happen while reading Rilke )

Rilke’s blithe dismissal of America can be attributed to his failure to learn English. It is not particularly well informed (‘Their machines don’t have silencers’). His main gripes are ‘the absence of wine and nightingales… Americans have the souls of shopkeepers, and are as dead as mutton to the life of the mind… Due to mass-production, they lack the 'laric value’, and therefore have no house-hold-gods…Everything is ersatz, mere dummies of the handmade things that we (Europeans) have inherited from our forefathers and take for granted... That is, the lived, and living objects that share our thoughts. We are perhaps the last to have known such things’.

These views were expressed in letters at the turn of the 1890s, but did not update themselves. In his extensive travels Rilke never visited English-speaking countries, let alone America, where his posthumous popularity from the nineteen-thirties has been arguably greater than in Germany. Since it’s largely based on translation it’s hard to say which Rilke is taking the laurels. Writers as unlike one another as Wallace Stevens, Hemingway, and Clifford Odets are only the pinnacle of the pyramid. And yet the second-generation German-English poet and translator, Michael Hofmann, can say, ‘Rilke is the poet in whom the German language’s persuasions, abstracts and music are most triumphantly effective’. If he fills a gap in Anglo-American poetry, it can’t be this.

Charles Bukowski, another second-generation German, read him as a young man, and ‘the honey-ness cheered me up for a while. Then I tried mathematics, but it was just like religion: it ran right off me. What I needed seemed to be absent everywhere’. It was left to Robert Duncan to be the John the Baptist for the Americanised Rilke. His neo-Romantically inspired baroque afflatus prepared the ground. Although a fellow-traveller with Black Mountain and the Objectivists, he saw poetry ‘as the soul’s search for fulfilment in life’ through ‘the primary instinctual authority of the imagination’. This ‘quest or romance’ was open ‘to compose… a symposium of the whole, a totality, including all the old orders…All that has been outcast and vagabond in our consideration of the figure of Man must be return to be admitted in the creation of what we are’. Duncan’s penchant for overreaching himself has a panacea that sometimes is irresistible:

Come let me free myself from all that I love.
Let me free what I love from me, let it go free…

For I stand in the way, my destiny stands in the way.

And the next step upwards is Rilke (the lines are a veiled quote). Duncan didn’t see him as an ‘Immovably-centred Hero’, but the next best thing, the torso of Apollo that Rilke celebrated it in one of the best-known ‘Thing-poems’, ‘Archaic’. I paraphrase it:
‘The head, eyes, smile, the sex may be absent…If otherwise his proud breast would not blind you, and a smile would not be moving in the gentle turning of the loins.
‘If otherwise, this stone would be a stunted, distorted beating of the breast.
‘If otherwise, the piece would be a shoulder shrug, and could not shimmer like the skin of a beast of prey,

‘but be like a star, bursting out of every crack. There isn’t a rib that does not see you, calling out, ‘You must change your life’.

The poem may not make sense to humans but Apollo is cajoling his half-brother Dionysius, and what the torso says does not go amiss with Duncan, and became the touch stone of the cult of Rilke in America. He, not only continues to influence young poets into turning the inner-self inside out, and enjoying the contortions. The Letters to the Young Poet are avidly read. But the cult has been vulgarised into a brand. ‘Rilke is the most popular German literary export since Goethe’, is repeatedly said by people who haven’t read Goethe, but know the name. Karen Leeder, the German cultural critic, says ‘Rilke has been reinvented as a high priest of narcissism, and taken his place along workout videos and gourmet cook books’. This has exploded exponentially to include self-help manuals, most bizarrely in guides to love and sexual fulfilment. Given his less than exemplary sentimental life, and confused and confusing sexuality, this is stretching the snapped. At the turn of the millennium there even was a best seller video on the ‘joys and pains’ of Rilke’s love life. Such exploitation tends to come from secondary sources rather than the poems and letters, and transmogrify his advice to Kappus on solitude and ‘spiritual presences’ into fortune cookies. Leeder notes the irony of Rilke’s poetry serving the mass production machine of American capitalism that he so despised.

Rilke was also exploited by the Nazis in the 1930s, although he was neither a Nationalist or Socialist by a long stretch. His emulation by the Third Reich distorted his poetry to suit their quasi-spiritual folksy purposes. True, some of his ideas, derived from Lou’s second-best friend, Nietzsche, open themselves to misunderstanding, but his name association with the Nazism damaged his post-war reputation in Germany.

Hannah Arendt, after her youthful bẽguin with Rilke’s poetry, put a further dampener on his European reputation. She placed him in ‘the empty space’ between the ‘no longer’ and the ‘not yet’ in a present dispossessed by the Great War. Proust represented the ‘no longer’ with his ‘farewell’ to the 19th century, and Kafka the ‘not yet’ with writings on a world that hadn’t quite arrived. However, it was Hermann Broch she chose to bridge the temporal gap between the past and the future, a name that scarcely rings bells in America despite emigrating there.

Rilke, for Arendt, was pre-Proust. He was bent on redeeming a past destabilised by its abandonment of/by God. Human life is suspended without visible support in mid-air. It can only be saved from a Second Fall through poetry that confronts rejection and loss with spiritual forces. These transform human beings and finite things in order to fortify their existence. She called this ‘positive nihilism’. Arendt can engage with the expressionism of the Duino Elegies, but not the historical no man’s land they inhabit. Whereas, Herman Broch doesn’t concern himself with divine and human orders, but with the claims of human compassion and the irreparable gap between the generation lost to war, and the generation that needs to start anew.

Arendt saw Bertolt Brecht as the poet who solved ‘the problem of compassion’ for the ‘lost generation’. ‘He never collapsed the distance, established as a young poet, between himself and ‘poor BB’, thereby avoiding the slide into ‘self-pity and private bitterness’, or worse (Nazi supporters like Gottfried Benn, Celine etc). He was able through ‘the pathos of self-distance’ to evade propaganda in his poetry (though it’s close) and, in his best work, combined compassion with doctrinaire politics. ‘The defeated’ of the past are not to be lost to memory as examples to build the future (a repetition forward not based on a recollection backwards, nostalgic recall, as often is the case with Rilke). In Brecht’s poem ‘The Waterwheel’ every peddle is shown to have a purpose.

Rilke was not of the ‘lost generation’. He was thirty-nine when the Great War broke out and hadn’t a youth to lose. So, lacking a concrete historical basis, Arendt didn’t apply the Brecht argument to him. But Rilke would never have accepted the difference between the poet Hero and the Rainer Maria who filed his fingernails. He kept himself to himself, and put compassion for people and things in its place, and let the poetry speak for itself, for better or worse. 

It was for the better to Delmore Schwartz, who, according to John Berryman’s on his late, demented, poet-friend, was reconciled to Socrates by reading Rilke. And for the worse to with Berryman:

‘Rilke was a jerk.
I admit his griefs and music
& titled spelled all-disappointed ladies
A threshold worse than the circle

Where the vile settle and lurk

Rilke’s. As I said’  

(Dream Songs, song 3, ‘A stimulant for an old beast’)

The Rock singer, La Patti Smith, backed the wrong poet. I was in Florence in the late nineteen-seventies, and one torrid July evening I heard her boom out Americanised Rilke (‘Twist and shout, but who will hear me up there’). Next day the newspaper headings were dominated by three English words, The Generation Gap, and the editorial of Il Giorno lamented their beautiful young fanciulla’s abandonment of pizzo- lace for denim. Reports of syringes scattered all over the dusty parks were not exaggerated. But who could doubt the ‘sincerity’ of La Patti. Although, getting to ‘the bottom of it’ is something I believe the more ‘high-minded’ Rockers, like U2’s Bono, are ‘still in the process of clarification’. However, she moved on and ‘found’ Rimbaud, the first hippie genius, turned businessman.      

Her last words on Rilke was that he was a loser. This is better than calling him a jerk. Though he wouldn’t have taken offence. Losing your sight means you can’t lose yourself in books, but you can still see what you hear. Losing your way is often more interesting. You discover things and places that you otherwise wouldn’t come across. Losing a ball in the rough is to find a flower. Losing your life isn’t the end of the world. Lost at sea like Shelley would have appeared to him. In life we are too landlocked. Death is a floating off into the seven seas. Readers may be at sea in his work but they are lost in order to find themselves perhaps. A Woodstock aspiration.