Friday, January 28

Rilke and Rodin — Impermanence wrought in stone and metal?

Rilke in Meudon,  Rodin's studio and residence.
Photographer: anonymous.  Museé Rodin
This post is a companion piece to the A Year With Rilke (AYWR) blog, which we have been illustrating recently with images of sculptures by Auguste Rodin. Here I wanted to offer a few quotes from and about Rainer Maria Rilke that shed some light on his relationship with the great French sculptor. No other artist in any field had a greater impact on the German poet's writing and approach to his poetry. Surely, there is a delicious irony somewhere to be carved out of the fact that the 'poet of impermanence' was most powerfully swayed by an artist whose masterpieces reach us in bronze, marble and plaster.

Rilke first approached Rodin while writing a booklength essay on the sculptor. For more on that book and details on their relationship, see the links at the AYWR blog. Rilke spent much time with Rodin and in correspondence with him and worked as his personal secretary for a year or so. And his wife, Clara Westhoff, was a sculptress and had been a student of Rodin's.

In the second letter of his highly celebrated Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke wrote:

"If I were obliged to tell you who taught me to experience something of the essence of creativity, the depth of it and its enduring quality, there are only two names that I can name: that of Jacobsen, the very greatest of writers, and Auguste Rodin, the sculptor. No one among all artists living today compares with them."
What was the source of the famous sculptor's powerful hold on the fledgling German poet? Apart from artistic and philosophical considerations, some have seen personality factors at work here, primarily in Rilke's attraction to character traits of Rodin's that he admired and perhaps wished to emulate. Kent Nerburn, in his foreword to the New World Library edition of the Letters quoted above, writes:

Rodin, 1911. Photo: Edward J. Steichen
Please click on the photo to enlarge.
They don't get much better than this.

"Rodin was everything Rilke was not — confident, robust, sensual, an older man who was secure in his artistic identity and accomplished in his artistic voice. He was an elemental presence, with a chiseled brow, a laborer’s broad physique, and piercing eyes that seemed to see through the artifice and brittle surface of anyone on whom he chose to focus his attention. He was also a man of few words who worked with unceasing diligence, and thought, felt, and spoke not through his words but through the creations of his hands. As Rilke himself said, Rodin lived inside his art; he did not have to constantly seek it and court it from amongst the intrusive distractions of daily affairs.

Contrasted to this was Rilke, the fragile, often sickly young man of delicate sensibilities and uncertain artistic direction, who suffered long periods of artistic aridity and terrifying self-doubt. Slim, slight, easily led astray from his artistic tasks, he lived in constant fear of days when all inspiration failed him and he was left with nothing but 'dead words …corpse heavy'. How could he not stand in the presence of Rodin without seeing before him the embodiment of all he desired to be as an artist, as well as a mirror of all his own artistic deficiencies and insecurities? And, in fact, this is exactly what happened. In the person of Rodin, Rilke found the model for the artistic authority he wished to possess."

And this is how Rilke described his first meeting with Rodin in a letter to his wife Clara on September 2, 1902:

Painting by Gerolf Van de Perre. Visit this Belgian artist's
beautiful series of Rilke paintings.
". . . Yesterday, Monday afternoon at three o'clock, I was at Rodin's for the first time. Atelier 182 rue de l'Universite. I went down the Seine. He had a model, a girl. Had a little plaster object in his hand on which he was scraping about. He simply quit work, offered me a chair, and we talked. He was kind and gentle. And it seemed to me that I had always known him. That I was only seeing him again; I found him smaller, and yet more powerful, more kindly, and more noble. That forehead, the relationship it bears to his nose which rides out of it like a ship out of harbor . . . that is very remarkable. Character of stone is in that forehead and that nose. And his mouth has a speech whose ring is good, intimate, and full of youth. So also is his laugh, that embarrassed and at the same time joyful laugh of a child that has been given lovely presents. He is very dear to me. That I knew at once. We spoke of many things (as far as my queer language and his time permitted). . . . Then he went on working and begged me to inspect everything that is in the studio. That is not a little. The "hand" is there. C'est une main comme-ça (he said and made with his own so powerful a gesture of holding and shaping that one seemed to see things growing out of it)."

As this is getting fairly lengthy, and I have just learned I am making an unexpected but welcome weekend getaway to the hills, I will cut off this post here and continue in Part II in a few days. Have a nice weekend everyone ... and read your Rilke. We are enjoying it immensely and very heartened by the warm enthusiasm with which many of you have been reading, commenting and participating in the venture.

Sunday, January 23


Morning at Lokbaintan© Yudhi Fardian /
Water is evaporated by the sun and returned to our rivers and lakes by the clouds. We all learn the water cycle as children. But I have always wondered — where do colors go at night, before they are returned to us at dawn? Is there a color cycle, governed by the moon? Is the governess of the tides, also the goddess of a chromatic cycle? And since they dance in the same sky, do the sun and moon share this labor between them, the sun returning the hues the moon has evanesced, the moon gently rocking to and fro the waters the sun will vaporize?

Physicists strive for a unified field theory that can unite our understanding of the fundamental forces of nature. But in me there is something that longs to unify hydrology and chromology. Are they one? Science may tell us no, but if you have ever seen how a teardrop can bend a candle’s light and paint a watercolor rainbow, what does your heart tell you?

By day
the sun beckons
to the tinctured sea.
Rising, the vapor
veil of tears
caresses the sky
like moth wings
on the magic lantern.

By night
the moon siphons off
the colors of the world.
Funneling up through the dark hallow,
their evanescent secrets pour
like whispers into deep ancient jugs
left by furtive gods.

Dawn breaks
the pink melon open
for the chroma to seep in.
Prism dew drops
wander down
Buddha-bellied jugs,
the throb of light
and the air hums
pellucid opal blue.

¿see? how
the rainbow is brushing
her unwoven aurora hair
and admiring herself
in our swollen
borrowed mirror?
          © Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow

John Coltrane saw it in Mal Waldron's Soul Eyes ...

I offer this poem for this week's One Shot Wednesday, the weekly "open mike"  at One Stop Poetry. Click on the links for poems from other contributors. New batches of links arrive every Wednesday.

Tuesday, January 18

Psst! Pssst!

If any of you have ever wondered
a ride cymbal can splash and shake
and shudder
but can’t go psst! pssst!
the way a hi-hat can

and what the difference
is between grace notes
and ghost notes

and how fingers
can do a cross stick backbeat
all in a 16th note shuffle

and why oh why oh why do
jazz lovers scorn drum machines ...

... then percussion master Bernard "Pretty" Purdie is here to explain it all:

yeaaahh ... pssst! psssst!
And a short poem from Langston Hughes:

Langston Hughes on front steps of
his home in Harlem, 1958.
Robert W. Kelley/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Midnight Dancer
(To a Black Dancer in "The Little Savoy")

Of the jazz-tuned night,
Sweet as purple dew,
Like the pillows of all sweet dreams,
Who crushed
The grapes of joy
And dripped their juice
On you?

Wednesday, January 5

Of epiphanies great and small

Detail from Gozzoli's
Procession of the Magi
Although Christmas may seem over in much of the world, it is still in full swing here in Spain. Indeed, tonight, the eve of this the 12th day of Christmas, is the most eagerly awaited night of the entire Christmas holiday for Spanish children.

Traditionally, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were for family gatherings, meals and mass, and little or nothing in the way of gift giving. Instead, children received gifts on the night of January 5th, the Epiphany, the day of the Magi, the Wise Kings of Orient, los Reyes Magos. So it is this night that was and still is the most magical for the young and young at heart in Spain. Christmas trees were never a tradition here (although they are becoming increasingly popular), but most homes had a manger nativity scene, known as a Belén or nacimiento (literally Bethlehem or nativity), with figures representing the birth of Christ and his revelation to the Magi. Some of the figures can be quite ornate and beautiful and are handed down in families for generations. On the eve of the Epiphany, after seeing the cabalgata de los Reyes Magos, a street procession with elaborate staged representations of the Christmas story, highlighted by the three wise kings from Orient, children rush home to put their shoes next to the manger and in the morning find the gifts that the Magi Melchor, Baltazar and Gaspar have left for them.

Of course, the child in me is partial to Santa, but I have to say that Saint Nick’s connection to Christ is tenuous at best, so I think there is a bit more liturgical ‘integrity’ in giving pride of place to the Magi over the chubby jolly fellow in the red suit. I must say, though, that last year we were in Brussels, Bruges and Ghent shortly before Christmas and I found some of the commemorations of Saint Nicholas (Sinterklass) on December 6th to be quite beautiful. Specifically, in Ghent, we saw how a few boats full of boisterous singing children made their way through a half frozen canal, with Saint Nick leading the way, while their classmates on the bridges and streets collected money for orphans from the happy onlookers, many of whom joined the kids in song. (I recently learned from Wikipedia that in Belgium Saint Nicholas is the “patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, children, and students” — comforting to learn that even thieves have patron saints, how democratic is that?!)

Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Middle King, detail

One of the favorite though waning activities during the Christmas holiday is spending the time between Christmas Day and the Epiphany visiting the nativity scenes in churches, store displays and other public places. Some are quite large, sophisticated and even mechanized, so we can see a shooting star cross the sky, the Magi arrive on their camels, Herod issuing his murderous decree to slay the innocents, and Mary, Joseph and the newborn Christ taking flight to Egypt. There is something so warmly satisfying about watching the faces of little children light up with big eyes as they pick out the main players in the birthing drama of dramas about the king of kings. ¡Mira, la virgen! ¡El ñiño Jesús! ¡¡Baltazar!! (being the lone black man of the three, Balthazar is the easiest to pick out). There is little or nothing in the way of snow, but much moss and sand. Here, where I live, in Don Quijote country, there are mini-windmills. I particularly like the Bethlehem representations that show us bakers taking bread out of their ovens, ironsmiths hammering blades on anvils, a shepherd readying a lamb for slaughter.

Gozzoli — Cappella dei Magi
Palazzo Medici-Ricardi, Florence
One rather comical tradition in this part of Spain is the cagané (a Catalan word, as this originated in Catalonia), which literally means the “shitter”. Yes, for the sake of realism, the big nativity scenes normally include the figure of a man squatting down with his pants bunched up at his ankles and tending to certain organic needs, respectfully removed at a discreet distance from baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Needless to say, the ooooing and awwwwing that accompany the excited fingerpointing when Mary and Jesus are spotted soon melt into delighted giggles when the kids spot this figure, ¡Mira! El cagané!, and the pointed fingers quickly cover up their giggle laughs. So from a very early age, Spanish children know what myrrh and frankincense are —although they prefer more modern gifts from the Magi, like WIIs, Ipads and cellphones— and also learn that people have to squat and take dumps, did not always have flush toilets, and that there is nothing innately shameful or vile about the human body and its functions. Or so I would like to think that they learn.

Well, returning from the socio-scatological to the ritual sacred, I am embedding a video below that is representative of how elaborate and beautiful these belenes can be. This particular nativity scene is set up every year during the 12 days of Christmas at a church in a lovely town called Chinchilla, around 10 miles from where I live. I recommend setting the resolution to 720p and viewing it full screen.

* * *

The term epiphany was originally coined by the ancient Greeks to refer to the appearance or manifestation of a god. Later on, it became identified with this particular Christian celebration and tradition. Over time it has also come to be used to refer to a luminous moment of intense insight into the essence of something, normally an otherwise mundane or commonplace object, that special flashpoint where the everyday and the transcendent suddenly meet. It was James Joyce who perhaps did the most to give the word epiphany this secular meaning, unrelated to the appearance or manifestation of a deity or of Christ. He wrote brief vignettes, prose poems, in which he illustrated epiphanies. For Joyce, an epiphany was a sudden “revelation of the whatness of a thing”, the moment when “the soul of the commonest object … seems to us radiant”. Surely, epiphanies are the lifeblood of poetry, the shudder we feel when the things of this world seem to overflow into us.

In this vein, I was tickled to learn recently (a little bird on Facebook told me) that January 6th, the Epiphany, el día de los Reyes, is also the birthday of a very special blog friend. How delightfully appropriate, I thought, feeling that many things were thus explained, for this child of the Epiphany strikes me as a person who forever craves not so much chocolate —as she is fond of claiming— as she does epiphanies. A poetess who seems addicted to finding, creating and sharing epiphanies on her blog, The Chocolate Chip Waffle. So now I know your secret, Terresa: your sublime and scintillating poetry and prose is a birthmark and birthright, gifts from some wandering magi. And I know this day is especially important to you. That you approach the Epiphany from your deep Christian faith as the 12th and crowning day of Christmas, festival of the rebirth of hope for a more loving world and belief in the possibility of salvation and redemption. And that you also come to the epiphany from your poetic practice, in the JamesJoycean sense of finding and spreading radiance in our everyday lives.

So, if you like, treat yourself to a visit to Terresa's blog and wish her a happy; tell her Lorenzo said ¡Felix cumpleaños!

* * *

The images I have used on this post are from the wonderful cycle of 15th century frescoes, The Procession of the Magi, painted by Benozzo Gozzoli in the Chapel of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence. By clicking on the captions you can see a large landscape image of the series. You can also see a very brief visual intro to the wonderful chapel below (again, try seeing it in 720p and full screen):

Saturday, January 1

A year with Rilke and all of you ...

Happy new year to all my readers and blog friends. And a very happy birthday to my oldest daughter Isabel, who turns 20 today. Isabel is featured in the photos I am posting here, taken from concerts she gave with her chamber music group at different churches in Madrid during Easter Week and this past Christmas.

Today, standing inside the festive gate of this new year, I take pleasure in announcing a gift for all my blog friends: a new blog with daily readings from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. This project has been launched by Ruth of synch-ro-ni-zing and myself out of the appreciation we both feel for the beauty and many insights we find in Rilke’s writing. It is based on the recently published collection A Year With Rilke (translated and edited by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows, Harper Collins), which features a short daily offering of excerpts from his poems and letters. For Rilke, letter writing was the workshop for his poetry and something he took extremely seriously, as becomes quite clear when contemplating the staggering volume and remarkable depth of this facet of his literary output. He spent an astonishing amount of time in that epistolary workshop, penning some 11,000 letters during his relatively short life (1875–1926). The blog will also include images of photos and paintings that bear some relation to the German poet, his life and writings, friends and social and cultural milieu. It contains a link to a biographical piece on him from The Poetry Foundation.

Neither Ruth nor I make any pretense of being experts in Rilke. Speaking for myself, though I had been familiar with bits of his poetry and fragments from his widely and deservedly celebrated Letters to a Young Poet, it was only quite recently that I began to delve into his works “seriously” (pronounced ponderously with one arched eyebrow and graven voice). And how rewarding it has been! Rilke is one of those poets, like, say, Mary Oliver, whose magic goes beyond the sheer beauty of their verse. More than a poet, he seems to be a guide to how to be in this world, how to see, feel and engage intensely with our immediate surroundings, latching our senses onto the beauty that abounds everywhere and everyday, exploring the continuous and limitless opportunities for appreciative amazement. In this sense, his poetry is based on a supreme magnification and intensification of things, not on an exquisite delectation of philosophical ideas, as can be seen in the “thing poems” (dinggedichte) in which he set himself the task of taking down every word of the “dictation of existence".

But you are better off reading this from the poet himself, not from me, so I will include some quotes from Rainer Maria Rilke below. As was modestly stated by the young poet addressee of Letters to a Young Poet, Franz Xaver Kappus, in his introduction to that memorable book, “when a truly great and unique spirit speaks, the lesser ones must be silent” (all of the following quotes are taken from The Poet’s Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke, another highly recommendable collection of his writings thematically arranged by translator and editor Ulrich Baer into a sort of user’s manual for life).
The possibility of intensifying things so that they reveal their essence depends so much on our participation. When things sense our avid interest, they pull themselves together without delay and are all that they can be, and in everything new the old is then whole, only different and vastly heightened.
Seeing is for us the most authentic possibility of acquiring something. If god had only made our hands to be like our eyes —so ready to grasp, so willing to relinquish all things— then we could truly acquire wealth. We do not acquire wealth by letting something remain and wilt in our hands but only by letting everything pass through their grasp as if through the festive gate of return and homecoming. Our hands ought not to be a coffin for us but a bed sheltering the twilight slumber and dreams of the things held there, out of whose depths their dearest secrets speak. Once out of our hands, however, things ought to move forward, now sturdy and strong, and we should keep nothing of them but the courageous morning melody that hovers and shimmers behind their fading steps.
Yes, for it is our task to impress this provisional, transient earth upon ourselves so deeply, so agonizingly, and so passionately that its essence rises up again “invisibly” within us. We are the bees of the invisible. We ceaselessly gather the honey of the visible to store it in the great golden hive of the Invisible.
Most people do not know at all how beautiful the world is and how much magnificence is revealed in the tiniest things, in some flower, in a stone, in tree bark, or in a birch leaf. Adults, being preoccupied with business and worries and tormenting themselves with all kinds of petty details, gradually lose the very sight for these riches that children, when they are attentive and good, soon notice and love with all their heart. And yet the greatest beauty would be achieved if everyone remained in this regard always like attentive and good children, naïve and pious in feeling, and if people did not lose the capacity for taking pleasure as intensely in a birch leaf or a peacock’s feather or the wing of a hooded crow as in a great mountain range or a magnificent palace. What is small is not small in itself, just as that which is great is not great. A great and eternal beauty passes through the whole world, and it is distributed justly over that which is small and that which is large; for in important and essential matters, there exists no injustice anywhere on earth. Art is childhood. 

Whether you are surrounded by the singing of a lamp or the sounds of a storm, by the breathing of the evening or the sighing of the sea, there is a vast melody woven of a thousand voices that never leaves you and only occasionally leaves room for your solo. To know when you have to join in, that is the secret of your solitude, just as it is the art of true human interaction: to let yourself take leave of the lofty words to join in with the one shared melody.

So, please go visit the blog (via the link on the sidebar or here) and join Ruth and myself in beginning this new year with a daily dose of Rainer Maria Rilke. The year that has just closed was my first full year as a blogger and thus very special for me. And I look forward to 2011 with great enthusiasm as we continue to share the secrets of our solitidues, our solos and our melodies here, at A Year With Rilke and on all of your blogs.