the world is made of paper

Rainer Maria Rilke, scrapbook

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Extract from: Kaplan, Steven. “Modern American Poets on Rilke’s ‘Things’ and Robert Bly as a Translator of Rilke’s Images and Objects.” TR 38/39, 1992. 66-71

“Outside of his close readings of a few essays by Emerson,1 Rilke knew practically nothing about American culture and society, and the little he did know he would have preferred to forget. For Rilke, America represented “an absolute void,”2 and the “American appeared monstrous to him.”3 From his early youth until his death, America was a symbol of every aspect of the modern world that Rilke found “repugnant.”4 And because America was such a “wasteland,” it appeared “to Rilke throughout his life a region unfavourable for poetry.”5 As the Austrian poet Lenau stated in a passage that Rilke alludes to in one of his letters: “The nightingale is in the right, not to visit these fellows. It seems to me seriously and profoundly significant that America has no nightingale. It seems to me like a poetic curse.”6 America not only lacked the nightingale, or an inspiration for the “lyrical mood,”7 but it was also devoid of anything upon which a poem could be written, since there was no relationship “either amongst the human beings or amongst the plants and inanimate things.”8 Not even a “house in the American sense, an American apple, or one of their vines,”9 as Rilke argues in a famous letter on the main thought behind the Duino Elegies, could be considered real in the same way that the thousands of inanimate objects that went into his own poetry were real for him.

In light of this marked hostility towards everything American, it is amazing that, according to the number of times Rilke’s works have been translated in America and considering the almost staggering publication figures for editions of his Duino Elegies in America, Rilke is the most popular German literary export to the country outside of Goethe, who incidentally felt the “American continent/Is better off by far than”10 the European one. Whereas the complete cycle of Duino Elegies has still not been translated into Russian, in Rilke’s “elective fatherland,”11 in the past fifteen years alone five important translations have appeared in the United States.

Rilke might not have known much about America, but Americans clearly know Rilke, and they have been reading his works for over seventy years. The first translations of Rilke’s poems in American newspapers and magazines began to appear as early as 1914, and the first book collection of his poems was published in 1918.12 From then on there followed a steady flow of Rilke translations, so that by 1950 all of Rilke’s major writings were available in at least one if not more American versions.

If one looks at the impressive list of writers who have spoken out for Rilke in America over the past few decades and at the reasons why they praise him, it becomes apparent that in America Rilke is looked upon by many as a prophet. He is seen as a force capable of counteracting those aspects of American society and culture of which he himself was so critical. The poet Wallace Stevens, for example, felt that “people are as much interested” in Rilke as a human being as they are in his seeming to also be “something more.”13 For Stevens, Rilke was the ultimate embodiment of “the meaning of the poet as a figure in society” which is a “precious meaning to those for whom it has any meaning at all.”14 What impressed Stevens the most about Rilke was his absolute dedication to “the mighty burden of poetry.”15 Similarly, E.E. Cummings constantly stressed that an understanding of Rilke’s conception of the place of the artist and his works in society was the one thing a student of literature should know in order to comprehend the uniqueness of poetry.16

Rilke himself would have probably been astonished to find that, in a country as allegedly obsessed with the acquisition of money as the United States, so many writers have admired his ability to, as Theodore Roethke put it, “hold forth” in his complete faith in the poetic word.17 What Rilke’s poetry seems to verify for so many American writers is the fact that, as Randall Jarrell in an allusion to Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” argues: “The work of art says to us always: You must change your life. It demands of us that we see things as ends not as means–that we too know them and love them for their own sake.”18 This statement by Randall Jarrell points to one of the main reasons why Rilke is so popular in America: namely, because his poetry attempts to demonstrate an unselfish and non-materialistic relationship to things. Thus, Jarrell’s enormous respect for the poetry of William Carlos Williams is based on the fact that it reveals “an identification with its subjects (more) than any modern poetry except Rilke. His knowledge of plants and animals, our brothers and sisters in the world, is surprising for its range and intensity.”19 This admiration for Rilke’s relationship to things could have also stemmed from Robert Bly, as well as from many other American poets who have read Rilke. The poet Karl Shapiro, for example, has been compared to Rilke for demonstrating “the Rilkean attitude of unembarrassed, universal sympathy” with things.20 Theodore Roethke even wrote a poem in which he praises Rilke’s empathy with things:

To look at a thing so long that you are a part

of it and it is a part of you–Rilke gazing at

his tiger for eight hours, for instance. If you

can effect this, then you are by way of getting some-

where: Knowing you will break from self-involvement,

from I to Otherwise, or maybe even to Thee.21″


Sister Act 2, Inner City Teacher Movie meets transitional modernist poet.

Whoopy: “Du mußt dein Leben ändern.”

On a related note, Amanda Palmer on Lady Gaga:

She’s a consumer and a product
art of conduct
cause she’s buying what she’s selling
she’s not lying, she’s just trying to write songs rebelling
just like Madonna in the 80’s
lumping withher simulacrum
on this logical musical continuum
she typifies Baudrillard’s argument
we no longer have the ability to make sense of the distinction between nature and artifice
thus a new culture emerges where
femininity can be read as artifice
the women as signifier
in which Lady Gaga can be considered trapped inside the endless decontexutalization of her own reappropriations
problematizing her own subjectivity in a post modern deconstruction
ending inevitably to the seductive mirror of narcissism
we must ask ourselves whether her illusory “poker face”has indeed freed her from the conception of femininity as masquerade orchanged her into a post structuralist prison of ego
and artlessness



Smallville, Season 3,” Legacy”

Lex: Look, I’m afraid I’m a little jaded in the romance department. The only thing I know about relationships is that someone usually winds up getting hurt.

Lana: And you don’t think I can trust Clark to not do that.

Lex: I don’t think it’s about trust. It’s like the German poet Rilke said, “A person isn’t who they are during the last conversation you had with them. They’re who they’ve been throughout your whole relationship.”

Rilke or Dr Phil?


Igby goes Down (2002)

-We’r e all at a bit of a loss as to–
-Whenever I’m at a loss, I dip into Rilke.
-Rilke? That tortures me. Every Christmas, some asshole gives me this copy
of Young Poet with this patronizing note on the flap about how it’s supposed to change my life.
-Maybe you should read it before judging it.
-I’m pretty confident. After all, one of the copies was from you.


But also poems:

Rilke on the Conveyor Belt at LAX by James Ragan:

In the Black Forest Before the Birth of Rilke by CA Conrad, an old favourite:

Torso of Marilyn by Nin Andrews

Written by m

February 2, 2012 at 10:49 pm

Posted in poems, Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

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