Learning to see: Rilke’s Neue Gedichte

The last of our mini-series of literary posts also heralds the last of this year’s OGN reading group sessions: here, Rey Conquer introduces us to aspects of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry.
Stephen Emmerson’s ‘translations’ of Rilke’s Neue Gedichte, at the Austrian Cultural Forum’s Kakania festival in London, involved, among other things, turning the book into pills, into seed bombs, into a cake, even into the audience’s own excrement.  We might think this nothing more than a provocative stunt, an act of exuberant irreverence. After all, Rilke was serious and high-minded, one of the most important poets writing in Europe in the last century, and his poetry has influenced not just other poets but also philosophers and critics (not to mention nuns). But the idea of transformation was central to Rilke’s work, and Emmerson’s desecrations are a helpful caricature of some of the things Rilke himself was particularly interested in at the time he was writing the Neue Gedichte (New Poems).
459px-Paula_Modersohn-Becker_016 Rainer Maria Rilke 1906
Portrait of Rilke by the Expressionist painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1906.

Rainer Maria Rilke was 26 when he turned up in Paris in 1902 to write a book on the sculptor Auguste Rodin. He had written and published poetry, plays, short stories, art criticism (he went on to write a novel, based on his experiences in and of Paris, Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge) which was published in 1910). That is, he was no novice; but when in Paris, he set himself the task of learning, first from Rodin and then from Paul Cézanne—and this second encounter, in which he visited an exhibition of Cézanne’s paintings daily, is documented in a series of letters to his wife, the sculptor Clara Westhoff. What did he hope to learn from these ‘apprenticeships’? For an answer we might turn to the protagonist of his novel, Malte, who writes, “Ich lerne sehen.”

Why might a poet want to learn to see? It seems obvious why a painter or sculptor would want to see, because the finished artwork is something that has to be seen (and in the case of both Rodin and Cézanne, the artwork is *of* a real thing that itself had to be seen). If we read Rilke’s earlier or later poems, seeing seems often less important than hearing or indeed thinking, remembering, imagining, and so on. But in the Neue Gedichte many of the most striking poems are like paintings or sculptures, or are about paintings or sculptures (one of the most famous, ‘Archaischer Torso Apollos’ is about a statue, for instance), and they pay a lot of attention to looking, and use techniques such as repetition and sound patterning to create a sensory ‘portrait’ of an object or scene. The very first to be written was ‘Der Panther’:
Der Panther
Im Jardin des Plantes, Paris
Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, dass er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.
Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.
Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf -. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille –
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.
Rainer Maria Rilke, 6.11.1902, Paris
Even at a first glance we can see the ways in which parts of the visual world are turned into poetic language: for instance, the repeated word ‘Stäbe’ in the first stanza mimics the bars of the panther’s cage. Not only does this help us see the panther, it also helps us see that poetry, like painting and sculpture, is made out of something: words. Neither Cézanne nor Rodin hid the marks of their tools, and the very visible and audible use of  assonance and alliteration in this poem (‘Stäbe gäbe’, ‘Kreise’/‘Kraft’) is a way of making clear that this is something that has been worked, and worked on. For while working with Rodin, and while spending time with the paintings of Cézanne, it was not just looking and seeing that he was learning; he was also learning to work. In a letter to Clara, he reported Rodin’s advice: ’Il faut travailler, rien que travailler. Et il faut avoir patience.’ (‘You have to work, nothing but work. And you have to be patient’).
Emmerson turned Rilke’s poems into a ‘seed bomb’ that would be planted and produce, from the words, flowers. Rilke did the opposite: he turned flowers (and carousels, and swans, and fountains, and parrots) into words, into poems. These are poems that are at times linguistically difficult and dense, but with some patience, they open out.
Rey Conquer, Somerville College, Oxford
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