Apparently - mind-bogglingly - Lady Gaga has some lines from Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet tattooed on her forearm: "Confess to yourself in the deepest hour of the night whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. Dig deep into your heart, where the answer spreads its roots in your being, and ask yourself solemnly, Must I write?" (in German, naturlich). While first acknowledging that this is Rilke at his hyperbolic silliest ( think of all the important writers who for political reasons have been forbidden from writing but haven't in fact acquiesced and died but have either carried on doing it in defiance of authority or bided their time or defected to other countries), my other instinct was the hope that Lady Gaga might be solemnly forbidden from writing any more of her execrable nonsense-rhymes and that this prohibition might even (taking Rilke to the letter) lead to her woeful, poetry-bereft expiry. (Must I wear preposterous hats? might have been a more pertinent cause for heart-digging chez GG.)
This is the most laughable/deplorable example I 've encountered of what seems to be a prevalent misprision of Rilke in contemporary America, apparently based not on very much actual reading of his poetry but on an agglomerated welter of quotes, biographical cliches and yes - that slight, somewhat uncharacteristic side-work - Letters to a Young Poet. The grossly sentimentalising and distorting misapprehension that he should be regarded almost as some New Age 'spiritual guru' avant la lettre - I guess Rumi is so 2006 by now - not only buys into the whole flawed concept of poems, in the supposedly unprecedented climate of anxiety or desolation we find ourselves in post 9/11 (how anxious and desolate was, say, late 1945 for any of the survivors of Hiroshima?), as emergency safety-jackets to bulk out our frail beleaguered egos with, it also seems to perpetuate the Victorian nostrum about poets being elevated quasi-mystics with a privileged access to spiritual values, saintly savants whose work must be innately "improving".
The self-disproving irony is that during his lifetime Rilke certainly played up to the image of himself as a rarified ascetic with such a burdening excess of soul that during his later years he could only sit in the castles and chateaux lent him by aristocratic admirers sniffing roses and nurturing his much-vaunted solitude (I presume there were servants in attendance, but they obviously didn't count as human company), incubating the poetry for which he was but the humble conduit. You can see why Adam Jagajewski calls him a"spoilt, selfish sycophant" but in another way this is only one viewpoint: without this concerted self-immersion and indeed self-romanticisation we might not have the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, those marvellous adumbrations of inner process metamorphosed into symbol and replenished myth.
While the import of the Elegies is indubitably anti-materialistic and counter-capitalist in ways that remain potently resonant ( for example, in the weird Germanic humour of "The Sex-Life of Money/ Full Anatomic Description/...How Money multiplies: Its generative organs: Money in mating, at foreplay" Tenth Elegy), Rilke's spiritual concerns are consistently ballasted by earthier ones, angelic presences by trees, animals and lovers. Nor is the giddying fluidity of the imagery reducible to a unitary "message" (those who look to poetry for messages and lessons are looking in the wrong place, I would argue); Rilke was less a teacher or prophet than a highly self-conscious artist who knew that complex, many-sided truths can only be embodied in the volatile linguistic energy of hard-won poetic form. As his translator Stephen Cohn says, "the shape of the Elegies is above all dialectical: no sooner does affirmation seem to triumph over despair than the balance is reversed...All things are shown in terms of one another".
Going back to the earlier Rilke of New Poems and the Books of Pictures, you regain more of a sense of meticulous lyric craft unencumbered by the later stage-machinery of symbol and self-mythology. At this time of year, for example, I always think of those two absolutely beautiful poems, with their 'dying fall' cadences, Herbst and Herbsttag:
The leaves are falling, falling as from far,
As though distant gardens withered in the sky;
They are falling, with gestures that deny.