DUINO ELEGIES BY RAINER MARIA RILKE

Poetry is powerful stuff; it can have an intoxicating effect upon you. You want proof? A few years ago I was in a nightclub and a girl approached me. I’m unsure of her name, Charlotte I think it was, but I can picture her quite clearly: blonde hair, in a bob; very slim; high cutesy voice; elfish looking. ‘You look like a poet’, were her opening words to me. No, really. Whenever I tell this story I’m always met with raised eyebrows at this point, but that isn’t, by some margin, the stupidest thing anyone has ever said to me in a club. Anyway, she told me she thought I looked like a poet. ‘I am a poet’, I replied. Now, now, stop sniggering. You see, that wasn’t strictly a lie; the truth is that I have been writing poetry since, well, before I knew what poetry was, really. And I have performed some, so it was only a stretching of the truth, only a teeny, tiny, white lie. Besides, she was cute and I’d have pretty much said anything to get in the knickers of a pretty girl at that time. I am a poet! Good God. She was impressed though. I think she was an English student. Makes sense. Next, she asked me to recite some poetry for her. Fortunately, I had some memorised, so I gave her Bright star, would I were… by Keats, which goes:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art –
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night.
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite.

And so on.

With that I decided to take a kiss as a reward for my brilliance. And perhaps two or three more; and there may have been a bit of dancing, but don’t quote me on that. After a while the girl said that she needed the toilet and disappeared. It was probably an hour before I bumped into her for the second time. Once again she asked me to recite some poetry. I was considerably drunker by this stage, so I produced a kind of garbled version of Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas, which ran something like this:

Now as I was young and easy, under the apple boughs,
About the lilting house, and happy as the grass was green.
Something, something something…
…Huntsman and herdsman…
Now as I was young and easy, in the mercy of his means
Time held me green and dying, though I sang in my chains like the sea.

It was my good fortune that she clearly did not know the poem.

The kissing that followed was somewhat wilder, was conducted with slightly more abandon, than that which had taken place previously. There may have been some groping of breasts and grinding together of genitalia, there may have been some rubbish dancing, and we may have held hands a bit. However, after a while the girl told me she needed to find her friends and once again left me. At this point a young man came up to me and asked me if the girl was my girlfriend. ‘Yeah, she is’, I said, as I’d have told anyone anything by this stage. ‘What she with you for?’ he asked, and I think I might have shrugged. As a conclusion to this brief conversation the guy then told me that I looked like a twat. I’m sketchy on the details here, but I possibly threatened to kick his head in. As you do.

When the girl came back to me for the third time she asked me to recite her some more poetry; I obliged with a stanza of my favourite poem, The First Elegy by Rainer Maria Rilke, which, now completely pissed, went:

Something, something, something, Angels.
Something something something terror.

The girl was so awed by my ability to recite at will that she asked me if ‘my place’ was close as she wanted to go back with me. I thought that was an odd question. I replied that it wasn’t, that my flat was a taxi ride away. She looked perplexed and said she couldn’t do it in that case as she didn’t have time. I was suspicious, but, casting my doubt aside, as one is prone to doing when inebriated and a girl is offering herself to you, we had another smooch and then she went away, as she had been doing all evening. However, later in the night we were talking and another guy came up to us and said he was ready to leave. The girl looked panicked. I figured at this point I ought to try my luck one last time and asked if she was sure she didn’t want to come back to my place. ‘Oh, no,’ she replied, ‘I can’t! That’s my boyfriend over there.’ And she pointed to the man waiting by the exit. Damn.

Poetry: it’s powerful stuff.

Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke is, for me, the most powerful poetry of all. It’s difficult to write about poetry because it is often [although not always] esoteric, is pure emotion, is, to some extent, an attempt to express the inexpressible, the indefinable, the inexplicable. I’m loathe to go through the ten elegies that make up the collection and, drily, academically, and systematically attempt to pull them apart [which is not to say that even if I did so I’d be right]; that’s not what poetry is for, for me. I’d rather people read them and make their own discoveries, have them touch them on their own terms, build their own relationships with the poems. But that, of course, makes writing a review near impossible. With all that in mind, what I want to do is, in a pretty random manner, pick up on some of the lines or ideas that most interest me, and along the way say something about what the poems mean to me personally. I’d ask you to disregard all of what I write if you decide to read them for yourself.

One of the recurring ideas in the elegies is how unique our experience of the world is. Rilke wrote:

Somewhere lions still roam, and never know
in their majestic power, of any weakness

Our lot in life is our own; only we, human beings, have been cursed, or blessed, with consciousness, with a knowledge of ourselves, with an understanding of our limitations. This may have its benefits, but it has also created a barrier between us and the world, because we are so often turned in upon ourselves. And yet nature, the world, needs us:

yes – the springtimes needed you. Often a star
is waiting for you to notice it.

Without us, without our consciousness, without our acknowledgement, the world is nothing.

One of the most moving, most interesting, aspects of the poems is what Rilke had to say about lovers:

they keep on using each other to hide their own fate.

With a lover in our arms are we hiding from the world, from death? I have written before about feeling that way, about how only with a girl, or specifically during sex, am I able to turn off my mind, switch off the trillions of thoughts I have nagging at me almost incessantly; only then am I, at last, able to suppress myself, to turn away from myself, and death, towards the infinite, towards the abyss. Is that what Rilke means? Well, it is what he means to me.

Yet even so:

Aren’t lovers always arriving at each other’s boundaries?
although they promised vastness, hunting, home.

While I’m mangling the lines of a genius to fit my own ideas, here’s what Rilke writes in The Seventh Elegy:

Look, I was calling for my lover. But not just she
would come…out of the fragile graves
girls would arise and gather…

I’m on record about my obsession with interconnectedness; the idea that everything you do is in some way connected to absolutely everything that has ever happened or every person that has existed and ever will. I see in the above lines Rilke exploring that same idea. He does so elsewhere too, when he writes about how a lover heats not only your blood, but the blood of all the men and women inside you, whole generations of people. In any case, how beautiful are those lines?

On death, he wrote:

that one can contain death, the whole of death, even before
life has begun, can hold it in one’s heart
gently, and not refuse to go on living,
is inexpressible.

Ah, what a glorious bastard he was.

I’m just throwing lines out there now, Duino Elegies does that to you. It makes you a fanboy; makes you want to quote, want to memorise, makes you want to come across some girl in a club who will ask you if you’re a poet just so you can recite lines to her.

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