Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Rilkean Regard

The luminous new novel The Moments Lost by Bruce Olds (appearing next month from FSG) contains the following remarkable passage, worthy of any commonplace book. In addition to being some of the loveliest prose I've read in a great while, the passage includes a veiled reference to the work of Rainer Maria Rilke:
"...she presented him with the orris-work-covered notebook she had purchased for the purpose, instructing him to copy the words conscientiously twice a day, once upon waking, again at bedtime, this midnight lucubration:

'There is nothing truly beautiful but that which can never be any use whatever; everything useful is ugly, for it is the expression of some need, and man's needs are ignoble and disgusting like his own poor and infirm nature. The most useful place in a house is the water-closet.'

Gautier's words in the preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin.

And why, she quizzed him? Why was this? How so?

"Because," he intuited, "man is a creature of abject want ahead of fundamental need, base desire before necessity? Because life is a matter of aoristic excrescence? Because fantasia and phantasmagoria, reverie and dream, are more beautiful than brute experience? Because the lyric of a poem sustains life no less than a loaf of bread, and there is no place without eyes to see us. Am I close?" "
There is no place without eyes to see us: Rilke admirers will promptly recognize the antecedent of this line by Olds in the famous close of Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo" in part two of New Poems:

Da ist keine Stelle / die dicht nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.

There is no piece of this that does not see you. You must change your life.

Read Rilke's full poem, translated by Stephen Mitchell here (or with the original German here). And seek out Olds's staggering new novel when it appears next month.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Rilke, Woody, Whoopi, DeNiro, Bono, and Bob: Addendum

Fellow writer Josh K writes in with this addendum to the list of Rilke's influences below:

In Milan Kundera's novel "Immortality" Rilke is called to the Eternal Trial of Goethe, relating to Goethe's treatment of Bettina, and Kundera quotes a passage from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge as Rilke's testimony.

Thanks, Josh.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Rilke, Woody, Whoopi, DeNiro, Bono, and Bob

The year 2007 marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “New Poems,” which were born of Rodin’s influence upon the poet, and in which Rilke redefined modern German poetry through his concept of the Ding-Gedicht (Thing-Poem). 'The Panther' is perhaps the most famous of the New Poems.

Today Rilke pervades many facets of our cultural consciousness in ways we might not even suspect. Noted below are just a few facts that reveal the poet's strong connection to contemporary culture:

Bob Dylan has been reading Rilke since 1966.

Actor Colin Firth (The English Patient, Bridget Jones’s Diary) has said The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is one of his favorite books.

Actress Jodie Foster adores Letters to a Young Poet. In Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine, she says: “When I feel like a failure or have doubts about my work, this is the sacred book I take off the shelf and unwrap, very delicately.”

Actor Ethan Hawke narrated the audio edition of The Poet’s Guide to Life, a collection of new Rilke translations published last year.

Bono, lead singer of rock band U2, has launched a clothing line in which every pair of jeans comes with a poem by Rilke embroidered in the pockets.

Actor Dennis Hopper is photographed here with a volume of Rilke in hand.

Musical group New York Voices released a CD entitled "Ancient Tower" featuring actress Meryl Streep reading Rilke's poetry to music.

Classical violinist Anne Sofie-Mutter has named Rilke as a favorite poet.

Country Musician Ray Wylie Hubbard names Rilke as an inspiration in this NPR interview.

CSI actor Ed Gordon was inspired by Rilke in the creation of his recent book "Letters to a Young Brother: Manifest Your Destiny."

Peter Carey's recent novel My Life as a Fake features a Rilke enthusiast as a principal character.

Audrey Niffeneger's The Time Traveler's Wife includes Rilke allusions that are integral to the story.

In his "New Year Letter," W.H. Auden famously (and, contrary to popular belief, not disparagingly) called Rilke "The Santa Claus of lonleliness." He made another reference to Rilke in "Twenty-third Sonnet" (In Time of War):

"Let us remember all who seemed deserted. / Tonight in China let me think of one, // Who through ten years of silence worked and waited, / Until in Muzot all his powers spoke, / And everything was given once for all: // And with the gratitude of the Completed / He went out in the winter night to stroke / That little tower like a great animal."

(The following Auden quote, by the by, would serve as a very apt epigraph to Lost Son: "Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.")

Rilke is the subject of an essay by J.M. Coetzee in Coetzee's book Stranger Shores.

A character reads Letters to a Young Poet in the first chapter of Chris Abani's novel, Graceland.

The first full English translation of Rilke's famous correspondence with Lou Andreas-Salomé was published by W.W. Norton last year. It is noted here in The New Yorker.

And the following Rilke connections from Wikipedia:

Rilke has been celebrated in Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and William Gaddis' voluminous novel The Recognitions, and is referred to in Julia Alvarez's novel How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.

J.D. Salinger alludes to Rilke in various works, including Franny and Zooey.

Douglas Coupland quotes Rilke's Letters To A Young Poet in Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture.

A Rilke translation inspired Lost in Translation, a celebrated 1974 poem by James Merrill.
Rilke is mentioned in Tennessee William's "The Two-Character Play."
German philosopher Martin Heidegger cites Rilke as an example of the highest form of thinker in his essay "What Are Poets For?" The essay's theme is largely explored through the examination of an "improvised verse" (short poem) Rilke wrote in 1924. Heidegger, sometimes considered the most influential German thinker of the 20th century, ranks Rilke in the German poetic tradition as second only to Holderlin.

Erie Chapman cites Rilke frequently in his essays on caregiving.

In the world of film:

Rilke's poem "The Panther" is quoted in the 1990 film Awakenings (starring Robert DeNiro and based on the 1973 book by neurologist and author Oliver Sacks), expressing the emotional undertone of the story.

In the 1993 movie Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, actress Whoopi Goldberg refers to Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. That work is also a topic of conversation between several characters in the 2002 movie Igby Goes Down.

Rilke is quoted in Kissing Jessica Stein by a woman looking for a woman in a personal ad. This quote is what moves the main character, Jessica, to answer the ad, despite her presumed heterosexuality.

Rilke's poem "Archaic Torso of Apollo" is quoted by Miriam, played by Gena Rowlands, in Woody Allen's 1998 film Another Woman. Additionally, "Rain," the Juliette Lewis character in "Husbands and Wives" is named after Rilke.

Rilke's poem "You Who Never Arrived" is quoted by Faith, played by Marisa Tomei, in Norman Jewison's 1994 film Only You.
"For the sake of a single poem," an animated short by Shamik Majumdar, a contemporary Indian Animation Film Designer, is based on an excerpt from Rilke's book, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

In the world of music:

The indie rock band Rainer Maria takes its name from Rilke, and at least some of their merchandise bears the poet's image.

The Cocteau Twins song "Rilkean Heart", on the 1996 album Milk and Kisses, is an homage to Jeff Buckley who was a life long lover of Rilke's work.

The Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich set several of Rilke's poems to music in his Symphony No. 14.
The American contemporary composer Morten Lauridsen set Rilke's poem "Les Chansons des Roses" to music.
Pianist Brad Mehldau and vocalist Renee Fleming released an album in which some of the songs are set to Rilke's poems in 2006.

In the world of the church:

Rilke's poem "You, Neighbour God" (from “The Book of Hours”) is included in the most commonly used edition of Liturgy of the hours.

Rilke's poetry is often referenced in the writings of contemporary spiritual teachers such as Jack Kornfield and Stephen Levine.