10. The Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus, Rainer Maria Rilke (German; 1923; trans. A. Poulin, Jr., 1977)
It was May of 1978 and I’d never heard of Rilke but for references to him in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow where he is the favorite reading of a German military man, Lt. Weissmann, aka Captain Blicero -- bisexual, sadistic, highly romantic, Wagnerian even. I was in New York for the day and browsing a book store. Seeing the name, I picked it up and started skimming. It was one of those ‘something clicked’ moments, an ‘interpellation.’ Suddenly, I just had to read this because this was for me.
What I saw, it seems to me now, was a glimpse of the full flower of romanticism, but not in the form with which I was previously familiar. I’d carried around in high school The Mentor Book of Major British Poets, including everyone you’d ever need from Wm. Blake to Dylan Thomas, and not long after my Rilke encounter, I would pick up Willis Barnstone’s Modern European Poetry, comprised of translations from major poets writing in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, and Greek. A bit later, it would be The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, edited by Richard Ellmann, stretching from Whitman to James Tate. Yes, friends, I read it cover to cover in 1980-81.
But Rilke, even against the backdrop of all those various poets, is a unique read. And the point at which I found him was fateful. There I was, eighteen and never been kissed, and here was a poetry of desire as metaphysical longing. Of ecstasy as transcendence. This was the ‘sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll’ era, and I’d had plenty of the latter, my share of the former, but none of the initial term. Rock made sex banal -- the music’s predominant modes were either horniness or bitching and moaning about the fact that it didn’t work out (generally called the blues). Sure, Dylan was different, and I spent a lot of time with his work, even picking up his Writings and Drawings in 1973, but there was still lacking the imperative to romance. One could think: oh, if only I could meet a girl like the ones in Dylan songs, then we’d see . . .
What did Rilke have to do with any of that? It was the timing, pure and simple. It was time to find a girlfriend (being out of school meant being ‘mature’ or something), but Rilke gave that quest an existential coloring: the pursuit of a romantic Other, in other words, could be a personally defining moment, a moment of Being!
I’d been filling notebooks with verse since I was twelve. There had eventually come a hiatus around seventeen. ‘Youth here has end’ and all that. So certainly I already knew about romantic longing, but never was it focused on the here-and-now of my own life. I was not a teenager writing about being a teenager as a day-to-day reality, or writing fantasy exploits or sci-fi escapades. I was putting into words an internal logic -- a ‘romance with the self’ was no doubt how I understood it. And if that sounds a bit masturbatory, well, sure. But that outlet is true of almost anyone; what’s not so often true is the lyrical outpouring of solitary adolescence. Of course I was enamoured of Hesse and German romanticism, and of course Rilke would arrive as the crown upon that throne.
I fell in love with this book, one of those ‘and that has made all the difference’ choices. Being in love with it colored rather drastically what falling in love with a person would be like when it happened. It happened that summer, 1978; I had two females in mind as I read Rilke at the beach that year. I ended up falling in love with both of them, at first kind of simultaneously, then in succession. But that’s another story.
Why is a sequence of elegies the poem of my late-teen romance? Doesn’t that tell you something right there? I could’ve believed that Rilke was under thirty when he wrote these, when I first read them; when I realized they date from his late thirties to late forties, completed only a few years before his death, I could see them as a great summation from one who could shuffle off this mortal coil only after giving us immortal songs of praise and grief, of what it means to be in love with this world and with what Keats calls ‘beauty that must die.’
More than a decade later, in graduate school, talking over Rilke with the German scholar Stanley Corngold, who thanked me for doing the whole Rilkean ‘when a happy thing falls’ number in class (he didn’t feel up to it anymore, he said), Poulin’s translation came up and Stanley belittled it as ‘too Californian new-agey.’ I saw at once that he was right, but that in itself was part of the fatefulness. I was, in ‘78, about as Californian as I would ever be. The previous September I’d heard the Dead play live for the first time -- at Englishtown Raceway in NJ -- and a few months before acquiring Poulin’s Rilke was present at a memorable Jerry Garcia Band show at the Tower in Philly where the vibes were -- to quote Shelley Duvall in Annie Hall (1977) -- transplendent. So, yeah, a happy thing falls, the dead are grateful, times are high, and romance is a way of life -- just ask the angels.