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Review: Pure Contradiction: Selected Poems, by Rainer Maria Rilke

Raymond Humphreys, Roundyhouse 36, 2012

The best recommendation I can give for this selection is that I bought a couple of Rilke's books a few years ago. And the second best recommendation I can give is that I won't be passing this review copy on to anybody.

Along with Charles Baudelaire, Rilke is the foremost poet of the erotic from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But there is much more to Rilke's poetry than eroticism. Although, like Franz Kafka, he was a German-speaking Czech (born in Prague when Bohemia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire - Editor), he lived for many years in Paris and wrote some fine poems in the French language. I was pleased to see one of my favourites, Le Ruban (The Ribbon), featured in this collection. In the translated version (the translator is Ian Crockatt; I'm not being rude to him if I tell you the words sound more elegant in French) the middle stanza reads:

Will I have expressed it before I go,
my tormented heart which consents to live?
increasingly astonishment masters me -
will I have proved its equal before I leave?

Most of the poems are in German. One I hadn't come across before and admire is Spanische Tanzerin (Spanish Dancer). Little more than a single line is enough to show the poem's qualities: ... What / is this dance that turns a woman to fire?

As you'd expect, some of his better-known poems feature in this selection. These include the fourth of the Duino Elegies. This longer work begins, O trees of life, when is our winter? / We are not attuned, are not instinctively aware / like migratory birds ... Rilke was nothing if not ambitious with his poetic vision.

The elegies were written in Castle Duino, in Trieste, shortly before the outbreak of World War I. The War meant that the elegies lay unfinished for several years. He had to leave Paris, his chosen home, for Munich and was called up for military service in 1916. Rilke, by no means, became a great poet of war though. His military service was short and undistinguished. It nearly brought his poetic career to an end, rather than developing it. Rilke was an intense, oversensitive young man. His legacy is quite different to chat of, say, Wilfred Owen.

I could go on. But all I would be doing is trying in different ways to encourage those unfamiliar with Rilke's work to make its acquaintance soon. This book is a good introduction, so it would be far more productive for them to read it.