Monday, March 18, 2013

Rilke And Other Poets

I've been on a bit of a poetry kick, lately - revisiting old friends in their residence on my bookshelves and becoming acquainted with new ones. With exception, I've never really had a mind for poetry. No matter how wonderful, or what it meant to me a poet's work is (at its core) personal expression that is rarely meant for public consumption on the same level as when it was penned. I enjoy good songs, and apart from certain works, that's pretty much where rhyming should end. I've tried my hand at poetry, and my years spent writing lyrics to songs tells me that the two are not interchangeable.*

When I lived in New Hampshire (the first time - because I can't get enough of any climate that my body dislikes), I lived a few minutes away from Robert Frost's farm. In the United States, Frost is held up as a great American poet (usually without an apology to American poets). I drove out to the Frost Farm a few times to see if it had anything that would allow me to peer inside the poet's soul - and to get a glimpse of the inspiration he used in his poetry.

There were stone walls and fences. (I'm not sure if it was a commentary of the passing years or the initial craftsmanship, but neither were really holding up to the test of time.) There was indeed a yellow wood (though yellow woods with roads diverging in them can be found all over New Hampshire). There was not, however, any inspiration - which reaffirmed my opinion of Frost's poetry: He was the equivalent of someone who who calls himself an artist simply because he picks up a book on impressionism  and starts drawing still life portraits of the things in his refrigerator.

Of all the poets I've met (which is quite a few - I used to spend more time in bars than in my home), the decent ones never decided to become poets and then write poetry. More times than not, these people were writing poetry well before they ever thought of themselves as poets.

Poets have subject matter. They have something to say - no matter how outlandish it may appear, at first blush. Frost wasn't a poet - he was an Almanac reporter who felt the need to put everything into stanzas so people wouldn't realize how boring contemplating a birch tree really is.

Then one picks up a copy of The Duino Elegies (Rilke was a contemporary of Frost's) and the difference is like comparing apples to plutonium. There is passion and madness in Rilke's work - the likes of which very few, even in their most fevered moments, achieve when setting pen to paper (says the person who writes advertising content for a living).

Where Frost drones on describing some mundane memory like the elderly relative you are hoping will just drift off to sleep so you can go out and have some fun, Rilke writes the following while observing a torso of Apollo on a museum:

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze now turned so low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Wait. What? Whether that last statement is Rilke's self-reflection, or if he is chiding Apollo - or something completely different - the description is deep and the last words are almost a punchline that comes out of nowhere to stun the reader.

At this point, one cannot tell if many "good" poets off themselves because they cannot get over that wall that impedes full expression through words, and the ensuing madness is too much to bear; or because they pick up a poetry anthology and see their works included with some guy who has promises to keep and miles to go before his NyQuil kicks in.

At best, Frost is a pale imitation of Emily Dickinson (and her rhyming and subject matter actually worked). I often question whether I hate nature, and not Frost. No. I love trees, and rocks, and lilacs, and birds - but they do themselves more justice by existing, without me attempting to turn an Audubon entry into rhyming stanzas.

I have nowhere else to go with this post that doesn't contain differently worded jabs already stated in the above paragraphs. Go now. Read Rilke (preferably the Stephen Mitchell translations, because the others just fall flat - which leads me to question whether I like the poet at all, instead of the one who's doing the translating). Hell, read everything you can get your hands on - poetry, prose, the financial section of the newspaper, ingredient lists on cereal boxes - everything!

I'll just leave with the poem that got me back into reading poetry. This one does resonate with me on a number of levels - though I can almost guarantee it in no way comes close to what the author meant or felt at the time it was written:

[You who never arrived]

You who never arrived
in my arms, Beloved, 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 far-off, deeply-felt landscape,
cities, towers and bridges and un-
suspected turns in the path,
and those powerful lands that were once
pulsing with the life of the gods --
all rise within me to mean
you, who forever elude me.

You, Beloved, who are all
the gardens I have ever gazed at,
longing. An open window
in a country house --, and you almost
stepped out, pensive, to meet me. Streets that I chanced upon, --
you had just walked down them and vanished.
And sometimes, in a shop the mirrors
were still dizzy with your presence and, startled, gave back
my too-sudden image. Who knows? perhaps the same
bird echoed through both of us
yesterday, separate, in the evening...

*This is not to say I eschew poems where the author plays with words as a cat plays with prey - and the perfectly chosen rhyme or pun to drive home a point or to succinctly express what would otherwise take volumes are always appreciated.

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