Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Wrestling Rilke

Rilke stands in the doorway. You have to reckon with him. If you write and think and feel, there is no getting around him. He has said too much. Even to folks like me who have and will only read him translated. I put Rilke and Rimbaud in the category of favorite poets whose asses I would sometimes like to kick. Because as brilliant and breath taking and mind and soul expanding as they are, sometimes I don't want them to be right.

Let me explain. Here's Rilke from the first of his "Duino Elegies:"

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

Fu**. Now what? I have sat reading Rilke in the Oxford Park. On Deer Isle in Maine. In the library at Washington College, though I never studied him in a class. Sitting on the back deck of the last three houses we've lived in.

"Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror..." that, "serenely disdains to annihilate us." Picture Jack Nicholson in military uniform leaning forward in your face saying, "You can't handle beauty!"

Those things we spend our lives looking for, hoping to find. Beauty. Happiness. Peace. Then wrestle with the idea that beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror. And let's talk about love for a minute as something of beauty. The early days of being in love, as fantastic as they are, for most people who harbor healthy insecurities, there is also some real fear lying just behind the beauty of it. Fear that it won't end well; fear that you'll be swept away and maybe it won't be reciprocated; fear of losing yourself; fear of getting hurt. In matters of the heart, that fear is there.

That's not a perfect analogy, but it points the finger, for me, at what Rilke is saying. But there is more to Rilke than that. A shit-ton more. This is what I've got time for this morning. So wrestle with beauty and terror is the same experience. Wrestle with Rilke. And maybe we'll come back to him and show why sometimes you don't have to feel like he needs an existential ass-whooping.

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