Rilke and the Rediscovery of Purpose in ‘Senseless Disorder’

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by | Aug 8, 2019

“I’m not living my own life … I feel refuted, abandoned, and above all threatened by a world ready to dissolve entire in such senseless disorder.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, 1917, from a letter to a friend

…Pittsburg, El Paso, now Dayton. Where does one find the bearings and balance when much of the world seems to be transforming into something abhorrent and vile? From where do we draw hope for the reversal of the destructive energy at play in our politics and culture? For me, art, and particularly poetry, has been a source of renewal and a spiritual practice.

I find in so many of the poets I read, the extraordinary deftness to draw two lines of meaning at once, mirroring the distinction in Hindu philosophy between tantric and Vedanta: the former an outward path, following perceptions, sensations, feelings, thoughts; the latter a path that veers from objective experience and moves inward; yet both leading towards the underlying and overarching whole of it all.

For me, the writer/poet Rainer Maria Rilke exemplifies this verbal/spiritual ambidexterity. Rilke has been called a poet of longing and criticized by some for his romanticism and his failure to employ his considerable talents to affect social change through his work. But other critics think this summation misses the significance of Rilke’s creative resilience and the moral basis for movements of social justice. In Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, (2005, Riverhead Books), Anita Barrows and Joana Macy note:

“Rilke was not writing deliberately to effect social change, as was Emile Zola, for instance; he was doing what from the dictates of his own spiritual integrity was necessary for any social transformation. That is the assertion of essential interconnectedness with each other and with everything that lives. This is not a political tenet as much as a profound experience in the core of one’s being.”

I would add this is also the basis for the social transformation of MLK, Gandhi and Mandela.

A wonder for me as well is Rilke’s prolific and wise insights at such an early age—he wrote much of the Book of Hours and his famous Letters to a Young Poet from ages 23 – 28. And then for many years, and especially amidst the devastation of the Great War, his creativity and productivity seemed to vanish. He suffered this loss deeply, but he did not ultimately lose his resolve or persistence to make art that absorbs human experience and redeems it through creativity and imagination.

According to Stephen Mitchell, one of Rilke’s translators, it was the poet’s resilience that allowed him to generate one of the most “astonishing bursts of inspiration in the history of literature.“ Over a period of exactly three weeks, from February 2 through February 23, 1921, Rilke produced six of the “Duino Elegies,” “The Young Workman Letter,” four shorter poems, and 64 sonnets, the bulk of which would comprise the Sonnets to Orpheus. Most of these works were written fully formed. Two I offer here from the Sonnets to Orpheus translated by Mitchell and published in 1985.

I, 13

Plump apple, smooth banana, melon, peach,
gooseberry… How all this affluence
speaks death and life into the mouth… I sense…
Observe it from a child’s transparent features

while he tastes. This comes from far away.
What miracle is happening in your mouth?
Instead of words, discoveries flow out
from the ripe flesh, astonished to be free.

Dare to say what “apple” truly is.
This sweetness that feels thick, dark, dense at first;
then, exquisitely lifted in your taste,

grows clarified, awake and luminous,
double-meaninged, sunny, earthy, real—:
Oh knowledge, pleasure—inexhaustible.

II, 29

Silent friend of many distances, feel
how your breath enlarges all space.
Let presence ring out like a bell
into the night. What feeds upon your face

grows mighty from the nourishment thus offered.
Move through transformation, out and in.
What is the deepest loss you have suffered?
If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine.

In this immeasurable darkness, be the power
that rounds your senses in their magic ring,
the sense of their mysterious encounter.

And if the earthly no longer knows your name,
whisper to the silent earth: I’m flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am.