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Thursday, August 07, 2003
  Alert alert, inadvisably honest response to poetry ahead

Why if it’s possible to spend our little span of existence
As laurel slightly darker than all the other greens
With tiny waves on each leaf’s rim (like a wind’s smile)
-why then still insist on being human
and shrinking from fate, long for it too?…

Rilke – Ninth Duino Elegy

The Santa Claus of loneliness Auden called him… benevolently standing on a rock in Trieste calling on Angels or God or whoever to explain, and when they don’t sitting back down and telling us what it’s like.

A secular reader comes across Rilke and asks what is the point of fearing that God is not listening – God doesn’t exist. There are no Angelic Orders to hear you, so crying to them is no good… they aren’t terrible, they aren’t merciful, they aren’t there. The isolation of Rilke is superficially not our isolation, it is not wilful, it is not sought even indirectly – it is a product of sin, on the part of the poet, on the part of the world. He envies a world without change, where gnats are born in air, and have no conception that their state before birth and their state before death are any different. We want change, don’t we… stagnation is the only thing worth fearing as everything else is achievable, but not for him.

The poems are about our limited capacity to sustain ourselves – how love briefly gives us the impression that an effort of will can create something less ephemeral, not subject to the usual laws of mutability. Art is to blame for the propagation of these myths, inadequate art, performance. Heroes, young lovers, innocent children, artists themselves, only exist in Art, are performed and because they are performed they deceive a few for a while and pass out of existence. Like attempting to write genius, inspiration or to sit at a desk with a pencil and paper and think of something worthwhile that has never been thought before – these attempts are doomed to failure and is that not what tortures those who are unsatisfied enough to try?

There’s nowhere, my love the world can exist, except within.
Our lives are used up in transformations and what’s outside us
Always diminishing, vanishes. Where a solid house
Once stood, a wholly fictitious image cuts in

-Seventh Elegy

I’m not sure I can really make it make sense. What Rilke says to me is that there is only one way of feeling, that it’s inevitably cannot be escaped, only masked. I remember reading Kenneth William’s diaries, in the months before his death he asked for a biography of Rilke as a present, and I thought how perfectly Williams is predicted by Rilke – how he longed to be taken seriously, for a transcendent seriousness that he really should have known was impossible, and instead was given the opposite – motley fame that haunted him to his suicide.

I can’t believe in God, but I can understand the desire to call on him, and that is why the unique Universe-spanning loneliness of Rilke fits so well.

If I cried out who would hear me up there among the Angelic orders?

-First Elegy

The problem is that the abiding banality of loneliness or sadness can only be encapsulated in poetry, or music. If you overhear yourself talking like that without the blanket of metre or rhythm the warning shots ring out, rationality slides down the fire-pole and promptly reminds you that you aren’t dying, there’s no famine. There is indulgence, it may or may not be true, but there is only one way to escape with thinking it and that is by wandering down the street and braving the ghetto of poetry.
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