January 27, 2017

Tending Your Inner Garden in Winter

Albert Camus, from "Return to Tipassa" 
Albert Camus wrote in his essay "Return to Tipassa" that “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer."  That invincible summer may have been where the "inner garden" of Rainer Maria Rilke grew.

Rilke is known for his poetry and also for his prolific and poetic letters. More than seven thousand of his letters have survived. Published three years after his untimely death, the best known collection of them is Letters to a Young Poet. The letters contain his meditations on life’s questions. 

The following year his Letters to a Young Woman was published. These letters are a collection of ones written to a young woman, Lisa Heise. Lisa was an admirer of the poet who wrote to him after her husband abandoned her and their two-year-old son. She told him that she found consolation in his Book of Images

In one letter, he wrote about tending one's inner garden - an occupation one can have in any season.

Tending my inner garden went splendidly this winter. Suddenly to be healed again and aware that the very ground of my being — my mind and spirit — was given time and space in which to go on growing; and there came from my heart a radiance I had not felt so strongly for a long time… You tell me how you are able to feel fully alive every moment of the day and that your inner life is brimming over; you write in the knowledge that what you have, if one looks at it squarely, outweighs and cancels all possible privations and losses that may later come along. It is precisely this that was borne in upon me more conclusively than ever before as I worked away during the long Winter months: that the stages by which life has become impoverished correspond with those earlier times when excesses of wealth were the accustomed measure. What, then, is there to fear? Only forgetting! But you and I, around us and in us, we have so much in store to help us remember!

January 20, 2017

Billy Collins Times Five

Billy Collins isn't particularly fond of social media. You don't find him in person on Twitter or Snapchat or Facebook or YouTube, but you will find lots of him and his poetry there via posts from others.

When Collins sat down with NPR for a reading on Facebook Live recorded at the Georgetown Public Library, it drew a large virtual crowd.

If you missed, the archive of the Internet has saved it for you.

He reads several poems and talks about the writing process and the life of a poet - or at least his life as a poet.

"Lucky Cat" is a poem about one of his cats, Audrey, although Collins says he is "basically a dog person."

On how to be a poet, his main advice is to read. And practice.

"It's such dull advice. There's no key to it. It really lies in the simple act of reading tons of poetry. And I mean not just stuff you find in magazines but if you really want to be trained in poetry you need to read Milton — you need to read Paradise Lost. You need to read Wordsworth — you need to read Wordsworth's 'Prelude'... That's if you want to take it seriously. If you don't want to take it seriously, you can just get a 79-cent pen and express yourself. No one's gonna read it with any pleasure because ... you haven't paid attention to what happened in the past."

Unlike many poets, when Collins writes a poem he is hoping it is good enough to be published, but if it is not working, he doesn't "fret the poem" (as Robert Frost said) - he lets it go.

"The waste basket is the writer's best friend," he says.

A question that is often asked of poets and about poetry is "What's the difference in hearing a poem read aloud versus reading it silently?"

Collins also talks in greater detail about one of his poems, "Cosmology."

This poem begins before we had science to explain the universe and we looked for a visual representation of cosmology. Collins begins with and rejects the mythology of the Earth balanced "on the back of a sea turtle / who is in turn supported by an infinite regression / of turtles disappearing into a bottomless forever."

But his thoughts move towards a less scientific visual of the planet being balanced on Keith Richards' head.
Now that we are on the subject,
my substitute picture would have the earth
with its entire population of people and things
resting on the head of Keith Richards,
who is holding a Marlboro in one hand
and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in the other.
As long as Keith keeps talking about
the influence of the blues on the Rolling Stones,
the earth will continue to spin merrily
and revolve in a timely manner around the sun...

But the poems circles back to the opening thought as, like those turtles, he imagines Keith

standing on the other Rolling Stones,
who are standing on the shoulders of Muddy Waters,
and, were it not for that endless stack of turtles,
one on top of the other all the way down,
Muddy Waters would be standing on nothing at all.

January 18, 2017

National Book Critics Circle Finalists for 2016

The National Book Critics Circle has announced their 30 finalists in six categories – autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry – for the outstanding books of 2016.

The awards will be presented on March 16, 2017, in New York City.

The 5 finalists in poetry:

Ishion Hutchinson, House of Lords and Commons (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

Tyehimba Jess, Olio (Wave Books)

Bernadette Mayer, Works and Days (New Directions)

Robert Pinsky, At the Foundling Hospital (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Monica Youn, Blackacre (Graywolf Press)

January 6, 2017

Rilke's Terrifying Angels

When I visited Prague this year, I encountered two writers of the past as I wandered the streets: Franz Kafka and Rainer Maria Rilke. They were both born in Prague. Like Kafka, Rilke's family had a plan for his life's work. They wanted him to be a lawyer and take over his uncle’s law firm. But both men wanted to be writers, if that was a possible career.

Rilke published some "love poetry" and it gained some popularity, so law was left behind.

He led a much more Romantic and romantic life than Franz. He was part of the Munich arts scene. He fell in love with a woman fifteen years his senior who helped him develop as a more serious poet. When they broke up, he became a bit of a gigolo, seducing rich noblewomen who supported him.  He wasn’t particularly good looking, but he seems to have used his poetry quite well with women.

Duino Castle, near Trieste, Italy

He met Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis, another rich, older woman. But she didn't like the way Rilke treated women and refused to be seduced. They were close friends and wrote hundreds of letters, and she let Rilke stay in her castle in Trieste, on the Adriatic Sea.

At Castle Duino one winter while he was living there alone, Rilke said he heard a voice in the wind while walking along the cliffs. Then an angel appeared and spoke to him about life and death, beauty and humanity. It set Rilke to immediately begin writing what would become The Duino Elegies.

The elegies are made up of ten long verses. The two sequences, Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus are his most famous poems. They have made him a poet described as one of "romantic transformation and spiritual quest" and the poems are often described as "ecstatic."

I was surprised to learn that Rilke's angel symbolism was influenced by their depiction in Islam. There they represent the embodiment of transcendental beauty.

Persian angel tapestry

What interests me this month about the The Duino Elegies is their inspiration. They are intensely religious and mystical poems, but I don't expect that many of you reading this have had similar "angelic" inspirational moments.

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'
hierarchies? and even if one of them
pressed me against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.
Every angel is terrifying.

Some people would define an angel as a spiritual being acting as an agent, or messenger of God. Conventionally, they are represented in human form with wings and perhaps clothed in a long robe. Some people see angels as more Earthly persons of exemplary conduct or virtue or transcendental beauty.

I believe that Rilke’s angels are invisible. They are manifested human longing. They are outside any language, but we only have language for our expression.

I feel sorry for his angels who are trapped in a realm of living in both the present and the past simultaneously. They exist in the real and the unreal. That must be terrifying.

As Rilke writes:

Every angel is terrifying. And yet, alas, I invoke you,
almost deadly birds of the soul, knowing about you.
But if the archangel now, perilous, from behind the stars took even one step down toward us:  our own heart, beating higher and higher, would beat us to death.

Terrifying and yet we call upon them. And they have no voice but through Rilke and you.

This month we write about angels or the angelic.