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From Barnes & NobleObsession can be ugly. But the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke obsessed beautifully -- over individual artists and individual women, even over individual flowers. Interestingly, delightful obsession tends to ensnare readers of Rilke, too, especially those readers who become writers.
Now, 73 years after Rilke's death, two prominent American writers with long and rich careers take a personal look at Rilke. And -- no surprise -- these riffs on Rilke are obsessive. So obsessive, in fact, that each writer stops to analyze obsession itself, and then, in fitting tribute to Rilke, each molds that obsession into art.
What's nice about these writers' personal obsessions is how educational they are for the rest of us. Galway Kinnell's The Essential Rilke, a co-translation with Hannah Liebmann, includes Kinnell's excellent introduction to the five main groups of poems in Rilke's large body of work and a discussion of the translation problems that Rilke's poems present.
But Kinnell's introduction stands out because he makes the reader feel the magic of a poet reading Rilke for the first time. Here, for example, Kinnell's describes his own half-century-long interest in Rilke, which began with a cover-to-cover read while standing in a Manhattan bookstore in 1948:
Even in that first spellbound encounter, I thought I sensed under the words of the translation another, truer Rilke struggling to speak. Possibly many young poets, on first reading the Elegies, have had a similar reaction and felt the same impulse to translate.
Kinnell doesn't stop there. Instead, he pushes at that feeling and tries to understand that "same impulse," that easy-to-slip-into Rilke obsession:
Perhaps the intimacy of Rilke's voice makes it seem that he speaks to you alone and that only you understand him. Perhaps the elusiveness of his poetry makes reading Rilke a more creative act than with most poets, and the poem you come away with, more than usually your own. Based on the large number of English versions of Rilke in bookstores, I have to think that a good number of those early-smitten carried through on that wish to translate.
Kinnell brings that same passion to the individual poems, which are all chosen simply because the translators were passionate about them. Here, for example, are the opening lines to the Kinnell-Liebmann rendering of Rilke's "Requiem for a Friend," an afterthought on obsession:
I have my dead and I have let them go
and been surprised, to seem them so consoled,
so soon at home in death, just right this way,
so unlike what we hear. Only you, you come
back; you brush against me, you move about, you want
to knock into things, to make them sound of you,
telling me you're here.
In that entire passage, the longest word is two syllables. Kinnell and Liebmann take care not to gussy Rilke up, not to mar that simple address to the dead. They are respectful, too, of the innate plainness of English, the direct exactness that the language demands.
That same care of Rilke and thought about his effect on an English-speaking reader shows up in William Gass's Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation. Gass's unusual book is a great accompaniment to the Kinnell/Liebmann effort -- a series of personal essays that form a diary of encounters with Rilke's work. Gass also includes his own version of the famous Duino Elegies, composed at the Duino castle on the Adriatic Sea.
Naturally, Gass's concept owes something to Rilke's copious record of obsession, in letters, essays, and poems. Rilke's Letters on Cézanne, for example, is a collection of poetic daily letters Rilke wrote to his wife, describing the ginger jars and mountains in Cé;zanne's paintings, which Rilke saw at a retrospective exhibition held in Paris in 1907, just after the great painter's death.
Gass takes his cue from Rilke's moving introduction to the Cézanne letters and produces his own beautiful opening section. Like Kinnell, right from the start, Gass tries to map out why he feels such an intimate tie to Rilke:
The poet himself is as close to me as any human being has ever been; not because he allowed himself -- now a shade -- at last to be loved...nor because his person was so admirable that it had to be imitated; but because his work has taught me what real art ought to be; how it can matter to a life through a lifetime; how commitment can course like blood through the body of your words until the writing stirs, rises, opens its eyes; and, finally, because his work allows me to measure what we call achievement: how tall his is, how small mine.
Reading Rilke, one gets as close as possible to understanding why a writer wants to and in fact must write. Rilke's respect for great art was huge, and his dedication to the process of writing -- including sketches, revisions, return to main themes, and editing -- was astounding.
As both Kinnell and Gass note, Rilke believed that art can be learned only from masters, and he was a devoted student of what he considered top-tier artistic accomplishment.
Yet even in Rilke's most masterful writing, there's a note of humility. Both Gass and Kinnell -- distinguished writers in their own right -- take care to preserve that humility in their own approaches to Rilke. Their artful and painstaking self-examination allows us to understand not only why Rilke is magnificent, but why he spurs other writers toward a magnificence of their own.