For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.1The above is one of my favorite quotes. It's from Rainer Maire Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet.
I wasn't sure what book to use for the student services blog's book of the month for May, but my decision was made for me when a second review of the new Rilke collection showed up in my inbox.
The Poetry of Rilke, translated and edited by Edward Snow
One of the 20th century's most significant lyric poets, Rainer Marie Rilke was a modernist who never abandoned traditional modes. "Though Rilke was marginal in his own time, his lyrical waywardness is prized in our post-Romantic one; praised by only a small group of connoisseurs when he was writing, his poetry is now beloved" (Ange Mlinko, The Nation).
With The Poetry of Rilke Edward Snow offers a wonderfully substantive bilingual edition of Rilke's poetry to American audiences.
Snow is described by Craig Morgan Teicher (Virginia Quarterly Review) as "Rilke's best and most important ambassador to American readers." I think it quite possible, though, that Lady Gaga, with her Rilke-quote tattoo, may take over this role at least with regard to American youth.
Including more than two hundred and fifty poems, The Poetry of Rilke provides a thorough overview of the poet's oeuvre. It also contains complete translations of Sonnets to Orpheus and the Duino Elegies, Rilke's most significant work. The translations are printed side by side with the German originals for easy reference.
Regular readers of this blog will have probably surmised that I'm not a huge fan of poetry. I rarely post about it. It's not that I dislike poetry, but more that I'm not drawn to it the way I'm drawn to fiction. For me individual poems can be revelatory, but in many cases they feel like too much work.
In any case, I thought it might be nice to share one of the poems from The Poetry of Rilke. I didn't want to chose anything from the Duino Elegies or Sonnets to Orpheus, but rather a stand-alone poem.
These leaves are like the last greenI love hydrangeas (Hortensie in German, isn't that pretty?). Reading this I'm reminded of hydrangeas at the end of the summer.
in the paint pots—dried up, dull, and rough,
behind the flowered umbels2 whose blue
is not their own, but mirrored from afar.
They reflect it tear-stained, vaguely,
as if deep down they hoped to lose it;
and as with old blue writing paper
there’s yellow in them, violet and gray;
Washed out as on a child’s pinafore,
things that are finished with, no longer worn:
the way one feels a small life’s brevity.
But suddenly emotion seems to flare
In one of the umbels, and one sees
A moving blue as it takes joy in green. (171)
- The translation above is one I got online and tweaked a bit. "Liebhaben von Mensch zu Mensch: das is vielleicht das Schwerste, was uns aufgegeben ist, das Aeusserste, die letze Probe und Pruefung, die Arbeit, fuer die alle andere Arbeit nur Vorberietung ist" (14 May 1904 letter to Kappus).
- umbel: a cluster of flowers with stalks of nearly equal length that spring from about the same point, like the ribs of an umbrella (umbel, umbrella: same root word)