Pure Poetry #25: Notes on Rainer “Rilke” Maria Rilke

Pure Poetry Week(s):

#1 – 2/23/2011 – Intro & Def Poetry Jam, by Riese
#2 – 2/23/2011 – Eileen Myles, by Carmen
#3 – 2/23/2011 – Anis Mojgani, by Crystal
#4 – 2/24/2011 – Andrea Gibson, by Carmen & Katrina/KC Danger
#5 – 2/25/2011 – Leonard Cohen, by Crystal
#6 – 2/25/2011 – Staceyann Chin, by Carmen
#7 – 2/25/2011 – e.e. cummings, by Intern Emily
#8 – 2/27/2011 – Louise Glück, by Lindsay
#9 – 2/28/2011 – Shel Silverstein, by Intern Lily & Guest
#10 – 2/28/2011 – Michelle Tea, by Laneia
#11 – 2/28/2011 – Saul Williams, by Katrina Chicklett Danger
#12 – 3/2/2011 – Maya Angelou, by Laneia
#13 – 3/4/2011 – Jack Spicer, by Riese
#14 – 3/5/2011 – Diane DiPrima, by Sady Doyle
#15 – 3/6/2011 – Pablo Neruda, by Intern Laura
#16 – 3/7/2011 – Vanessa Hidary, by Lindsay
#17 – 3/7/2011 – Adrienne Rich, by Taylor
#18 – 3/8/2011 – Raymond Carver, by Riese
#19 – 3/9/2011 – Rock WILK, by Gabrielle
#20 – 3/9/2011 – Veronica Franco, by Queerie Bradshaw
#22 – 3/12/2011 – William Carlos Williams & Robert Creeley, by Becky
#23 – 3/13/2011 – NSFW Sunday is Pure Poetry Edition, by Riese
#24 – 3/14/2011 – Charles Bukowski, by Intern Emily
#25 – 3/16/2011 – Rainer Maria Rilke, by Riese

You’ve heard of Letters to a Young Poet, it’s famous. It’s by Rilke, he was born in 1875 and died in 1921, which is before you were born. Did you see Kissing Jessica Stein, that movie I disliked but many young homos liked very much? One woman is drawn to the other based on a Rilke quote used in a personal ad. Also in the movie, Jessica Stein reads this quote out loud:

It is not inertia alone that is responsible for human relationships repeating themselves from case to case, indescribably monotonous and unrenewed: it is shyness before any sort of new, unforeseeable experience with which one does not think oneself able to cope. But only someone who is ready for everything, who excludes nothing, not even the most enigmatical will live the relation to another as something alive.”

If you like that one, you might really love this one:

“For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all out tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.”

If you like that, or even if you just like “thinking” or “breathing,” you will like I Am Too Much Alone in This World, Yet Not Alone. Even if you ditch everything after the very first “enough,” you have a poem as grand and perfect as you could ever dream of —

I am much too alone in this world, yet not alone
to truly consecrate the hour.
I am much too small in this world, yet not small
to be to you just object and thing,
dark and smart.
I want my free will and want it accompanying
the path which leads to action;
and want during times that beg questions,
where something is up,
to be among those in the know,
or else be alone.

The same person who got me into Jack Spicer got me more into Rilke. I was so excited to tell her how much I loved this one poem Lament and she told me she’d already memorized it. I think it was a game, where she delivered the poem from memory and I’d correct her from the book if she lost something. She messed up once or twice, I think.

I’m only good at accidentally memorizing things. I’ve memorized three lines of Lament (I would like to step out of my heart / and go walking beneath the enormous sky. / I would like to pray), the rest I will have to transcribe:


Everything is far
and long gone by.
I think that the star
glittering above me
has been dead for a million years.
I think there were tears
in the car I heard pass
and something terrible was said.
A clock has stopped striking in the house
across the road…
When did it start?
I would like to step out my heart
and go walking beneath the enormous sky.
I would like to pray.
And surely of all the stars that perished
long ago,
one still exists.
I think that I know
which one it is —
which one, at the end of its beam in the sky,
stands like a white city…

My copy of The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke is psychotic, quaking with the manic energy I must have been picking up from the manics around me but never from inside me. I’ve used two different color pens, written strange things in the margins, apparently double-underlined several lines, employed brackets, and, by the looks of it, read the whole damn book, including the Introduction (I often skip Introductions).

Here are some parts I underlined vigorously:

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while dry leaves are blowing.
(from Autumn Day)

In the poem “Spanish Dancer” I have drawn a box (red brackets, black underlining) around the words “And all at once it is completely fine.” From “Tombs of the Hetaerae,” I apparently felt compelled to circle, several times, the words “silent crypt of sex.”

I’ve bracketed this:

Being dead filled her beyond fulfillment. Like a fruit
suffused with its own mystery and sweetness,
she was filled with her vast death, which was so new,
she could not understand that it had happened.

-from Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.

Brackets, underlining, and a star in the margin:

For this is wrong, if anything is wrong:
not to enlarge the freedom of a love
with all the inner freedom one can summon.
We need, in love, to practice only this:
letting each other go. For holding on
comes easily; we do not need to learn it.

-from Requiem for a Friend

Violently circled/bracketed single lines:

Every angel is terrifying.”

Ah, I drank. Insatiably I drank.”

Didn’t you have to promise, a hundred times, not to die?

“We ignore the gods and fill our minds with trash.”

“I don’t even know what songs would please you.”

badly guesses presents.”

Rilke was important, this is the part where I tell you that. The why of it. His thoughts were important and new. Rilke wrote in German and was born in Prague. His mother was tore up over her daughter who’d died only a week after birth and so she dressed Rilke like a girl and treated him like a girl. This stopped when he started school but his compassion for women and preference towards lady-company never waned. He married twice.

“[Rilke] was, if anything, androgynous. The term has come to stand for our earliest bi- or pan-sexuality, and this is not quite what I mean. Androgyny is the pull inward, the erotic pull of the other we sense buried in the self… Rilke — partly because of that girl his mother had located at the center of his psychic life — was always drawn, first of all and finally, to the mysterious fact of his own existence. His own being was otherness to him. It compelled him in the way that sexual otherness compels lovers.”

Robert Haass

Learn, inner man, to look on your inner woman,
the one attained from a thousand
natures, the merely attained but
not yet beloved form.
(from “Turning Point“)

He is considered one of the most significant poets in the German language.

Poetry has a way of making people stick around. Writing these poet spotlights this week(s) — and there’s still some left — I come back to the same people, the same places. I was remembering how we talked about stepping out of our hearts and walking beneath the enormous sky like it was a phrase as ordinary as English. We snuck in poetry in the same way I sneak in Ani lyrics with fellow Ani fans, the same way boys our age sneak Lebowski into everything.

I come back to boarding school, and to these four or five female friends from Interlochen who come in and out of my life, now, because we photocopy poems and put them on cardboard with magazine pictures and mail these poems to each other on our birthdays because you are never too old to collage. These moments where poetry felt so necessary I could say a thing like “poetry felt necessary” without feeling too heavy-handed.

I guess those were periods where I felt like writing was an important, necessary thing and it’s hard to remember that because now the world is just so fundamentally ridiculous. But taking poems seriously makes me feel like writing & reading makes us a part of something ancient and special. Even if I’m pretty sure I cannot possibly construct one more legible sentence today.

This is one of those times, too. This Poetry Week. I’m glad we’re doing this.

Aside from Lament, my favorite pieces of Rilke are from Letters to a Young Poet:

You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this… I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do.

Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose.

In other words:

I would like to step out of my heart
and go walking beneath the enormous sky.

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Riese is the 41-year-old Co-Founder of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in nine books, magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. She's Jewish and has a cute dog named Carol. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 3202 articles for us.


  1. Thank you. I now have a new poem to add to my list of favorites and a new book to add to the long list of things I want to own.

  2. Thank you for this. Rilke has long been my soul’s companion and few seem to understand his depth beyond Letters to a Young Poet. His words feel like they are my own memories.

    I encourage anyone who loves poetry to really dig into his works. I especially like his French poems.

  3. This is not something I tell people often, but I spent a year, or maybe two, reading mainly Rilke the poet and listening to Rainer Maria the band. I can’t really separate the two any more: you mention Lament and I hear “Catastrophe” playing in the back of my mind or “Ears Ring” comes on the radio and I’m reciting, “but when do we simply be? when do we become one with the earth and the stars? It is not achieved, young friend, by being in love, however vibrant that makes your voice.”

    I really like Poetry Week because it reminds me of when I had the time and energy to lose myself in books and art and think about anything and everything. And Poetry Week lets me say that without irony. There’s a kind of dreamy earnestness that only seems to exist when everyone is talking about their favorite poems.

    Can Poetry Week last forever?

  4. Agh. Yes. You’ve now covered both of my favorite foreign-language poets / possibly my favourite poets ever (Rilke and Neruda).

    I second Poetry Week lasting forever.

  5. i think rilke probably saved my sanity. maybe he’s kind of old and dead and a white man but, i mean, every angel IS terrifying.

    pure poetry should last forever!

  6. Rilke is great, I just started “The Book of Images”.

    “Confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?” – this part is tattooed on Lady Gaga’s left arm! :-)

    I love Pure Poetry Week Every Week!

      • She has this tattooed because she attended the summer program at Circle in the Square Theatre School in Manhattan. The Scene Study teacher, Alan Langdon, requires you to read Letters to a Young Poet at the beginning of the session/year (they have a two year conservatory as well which I attended for a hot second).

        Last year while I was there we had them look up if she had attended. I have two degrees of separation from Gaga. That is all.

  7. Rilke is probably my favorite poet of all time; I like how I can read him with the intent of understanding him but also read him and just live in the words which are beautiful all on their own, too. Sometimes I want an escape from meaning and I just want to hear beautiful words strung together so beautifully.

    “Oh, not because happiness exists,
    that too-hasty profit snatched from approaching loss.
    Not out of curiosity, not as practice for the heart, which
    would exist in the laurel too…

    But because truly being here is so much; because everything here
    apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
    keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.”
    -Ninth Duino Elegy

    • The Ninth Elegy is my favourite of the Duino Elegies! I am glad to know someone else likes it too.

      I love its conclusion –

      “Look, i am living. On what? neither childhood nor future
      grows any smaller….. Superabundant being
      wells up in my heart.”

      Rilke deals with loss and solitude brilliantly but he knows a thing or two about joy, as well.

  8. I had to comment again and add one of my favorites of Rilke’s — Am Rande der Nacht (On the Edge of the Night). Here’s the best translation I can find, and you can read the original German here: http://www.textlog.de/17663.html

    “My room and this width,
    Awake over parroting land, –
    are one. I am a chord,
    over rushing broad
    Resonances stretched.

    These things are violen bodies
    fill of murmerring dark;
    dreams inside the weeping of women,
    inside the sleep the resentment
    of entire generations stirs…
    I should
    shake silverly: then
    Everything will live under me
    and what is wrong in the things
    will seek the light
    the dancing of my voice
    Around which the heavens curl
    by slim, yearning columns
    in the ancient
    Depths that
    Fall without end …”

    Yeah. Rilke was the original emo poet (but in a good way).

  9. Riese,
    what you just wrote and how you wrote it is so important.
    the times in which poetry feels necessary.
    it’s important.
    you write so beautifully & raw.
    I’m glad you’re doing this.

  10. Riese you make me so happy, Rilke is one of my favouritest poets ever. And poetry is always necessary even if sometimes feels heavy handed to say so.

    Where did you find the painting of him in red? I like it, would be interested to know whose work it is.

  11. Did you know that Hermann Hesse wrote beautiful poems?
    He’s probably best known for his novels, but this lesser known part of his oevre is a real treasure.

    At Night On The High Seas by Hermann Hesse

    At night, when the sea cradles me
    And the pale star gleam
    Lies down on its broad waves,
    Then I free myself wholly
    From all activity and all the love
    And stand silent and breathe purely,
    Alone, alone cradled by the sea
    That lies there, cold and silent, with a thousand lights.
    Then I have to think of my friends
    And my gaze sinks into their gazes
    And I ask each one, silent, alone:
    “Are you still mine”
    Is my sorrow a sorrow to you, my death a death?
    Do you feel from my love, my grief,
    Just a breath, just an echo?”
    And the sea peacefully gazes back, silent,
    And smiles: no.
    And no greeting and now answer comes from anywhere.

  12. From one of my favorite interviews ever:

    PATRICIA MARX: In your book, All My Pretty Ones, you quote this part of a letter written by Franz Kafka: “The books we need are the kind that act upon us like a misfortune, that make us suffer like the death of someone we love more than ourselves. . . . a book should serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Is this the purpose you want your poetry to serve?

    ANNE SEXTON: Absolutely. I feel it should do that. I think it should be a shock to the senses. It should almost hurt.

    MARX: Do you find that all poetry does this when you read it? Do you admire certain poetry more for doing this?

    SEXTON: No, not necessarily. I think it’s just my little declaration to myself. I put it in the book to show the reader what I felt, but Kafka’s work certainly works upon me as an axe upon a frozen sea. But I admire many poets, many writers who don’t do this.

    MARX: I wonder if you would further explain that metaphor…

    SEXTON: I see it very literally as an axe, cutting right through a slab of ice. I think we go along very complacently and are brainwashed with all kinds of pablum, advertisements every minute, the sameness of supermarkets, everything–it’s not only the modern world, even trees become trite–and we need something to shock us, to make us become more aware. It doesn’t need to happen in such a shocking way, perhaps, as in my poetry. I think of the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, which seems to have beautiful ordered clarity. Her fish hurts as much as Randall Jarrell’s speaking people. They are two of my favorite poets. Their work shocks me into being more alive, and that’s maybe what I mean. The poet doesn’t have to use my method to have that happen to me. And Rilke, think of Rilke with his depth, his terrible pain!

  13. I’m so glad you mentioned Rilke. I was wondering if you were going to. I think the first moment I encountered Rilke poetry was in a set of choral songs that I sang at my university. I only read through the poems after I sang through the songs for the first time, and going back and singing them again after reading the poetry practically stopped my heart.

    I don’t know that much German, but reading Rilke auf Detusch is another experience altogether. Each sound he creates is like from a parallel world that I’ve visited before.

  14. It’s actually not “and all at once it is completely fine” – it’s “and all at once it is completely fire.” The German is “Und plötzlich ist er Flamme, ganz und gar.”

  15. I watched Loving Annabelle and immediately memorized the verses of “Buddha in Glory” used in that movie:

    Now you feel how nothing clings to you
    your vast shell reaches into endless space
    and there the rich, thich fluids rise and flow.
    Illuminated in your infinite peace,

    a billion stars go spinning through the night,
    blazing high above your head.
    But in you is the presence that will be,
    when all the stars are dead.

    And then I went to Barnes & Noble and bought a bilingual version of Rilke’s poems, with the same forward by Robert Hass, and I underlined just about every single part that Riese did.
    I agree with the sentiment that reading Rilke in German is a lot better than in English. It just all flows so much better, and it’s a lot more fun to read aloud. This is one of those times where I love being bilingual.

  16. Riese, I am not often moved to say this, but: I agree.
    Rilke’s poems are human being, distilled.
    If you read German, you might like Mascha Kaléko too(Frühlingslied is the poem to be reading this month). .

  17. Also check out Rilke’s Letters on Life: New Prose Translations. It consistes of some of his best writings along with personal philosophies on almost every aspect of life. I pretty much carry my heavily highlighted copy with me in my bag at all times.

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