First, a disclaimer. I haven’t studied poetry since college, and even then it was just a couple of classes. I’ve never really been a reader who has gravitated toward poetry, and it’s very easy to say I’m pretty rusty when it comes to literary interpretation of verse. I was inspired to read Rilke’s collection entitled New Poems because I needed to read poetry for my reading challenge. I’m glad I did, as it was a nice little piece of nostalgia. However, I don’t feel at all qualified to write an actual review of this because well… I’m not qualified.
Rilke was an Austrian poet, born in 1875. His poetry has been translated by various people over the years. This particular version was translated by Joseph Cadora, so a lot of credit goes to Cadora for the retention of both the intense lyricism and meaning of Rilke’s original text. I did a very minor amount of research into Rilke to glean an overall view of his life, which is often important in understanding how to interpret the work of a poet.
The poetry in New Poems was very much inspired by Rilke’s work with the sculptor, Auguste Rodin. Though Rilke was born in Prague, he later did a lot of traveling, hobnobbing with scholars, artists, philosophers, and writers to glean inspiration for his work. He lived in Paris for 12 years, and from the years of 1905 to 1906 he worked as an assistant to Rodin, living at Rodin’s Paris estate. In fact, Rilke would marry a sculptor and former pupil of Rodin’s, Clara Westhoff. While the poet was in his 20’s and the sculptor, Rodin, in his 60’s, the two shared an incredibly strong bond, and the years he spent in the company of Rodin had a lasting impact on Rilke’s later work. They would have a rocky on and off relationship that lasted until the sculptor’s death in 1917.
Rilke elevated art in his mind to the ideal pinnacle of human existence, and he had an extremely critical view of organized religion. Religious imagery is peppered throughout his poems. In one entitled Pieta, Rilke puts his own twist on the concept by depicting the dying Jesus in the arms of Mary Magdalene as she laments the fact they were never lovers, an extraordinary opportunity lost to them. Cadora’s translation of each poem is accompanied by an explanatory paragraph that often weaved in facts about Rilke’s life that aided in the poem’s interpretation. In the case of Pieta, it was interesting to note that Rilke was inspired by Rodin’s prior sculpture of Jesus and Mary Magdalene in his own version of the Pieta.
Other common themes found in Rilke’s New Poems are mythology, childhood, flowers, art, and various other things. Most of the poems are extremely short in length, but they pack a lot of meaning into just a few stanzas. Rilke experiments with rhyme and meter, but each poem is extremely lyrical and powerful, positively bursting with imagery and symbolism. A beautiful example is the way he describes the dancer in his poem entitled Spanish Dancer:
As a match in the fingers first glows white then bursts into tongues of flame that flare, in the ring of spectators it seems to ignite, with blistering heat, abrupt and bright; her spinning dance seeks to spread like fire.
To some, Rilke may be a bit flowery and verbose, but I tend to enjoy his lyrical quality. From my reading into his life, it appears Rilke’s work went through many different transitory periods, and I’d definitely be interested in reading work from both the earlier and later periods of his professional life to compare and get a good gauge of how he evolved as a writer. Perhaps one day I’ll take that on. For now, I’m satisfied with having had my introduction to this highly acclaimed poet with this collection. 4 Stars.
Published 2014 by Copper Canyon Press. ISBN 9781556594243. 460 pages.