Rilke’s Birthday

There was a period in my life -- my late thirties -- when I poured obsessively over Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus & Duino Elegies. I even got a German dictionary & worked word-by-word through some of the sonnets. I collected different translations. Dana Gioia (now Commissar of the NEA, but then just an aparatchik on the make) once said that Rilke had done more harm to American poetry than any other poet he could think of. Or words to that effect. As far as I know, Gioia wasn't talking about me specifically, but he might as well have been. Gioia, a poet of suburban sensibilities, certainly would not approve Rilke's intensities. We are more fortunate than the angels, because we mostly escape the menace of purity.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

4 thoughts on “Rilke’s Birthday”


    Stopped cold by the colors of all things
    I didn’t notice the ground the air
    their emergence presupposed at first
    the mirror itself’s self-sacrifice

    which becomes an obstacle to love
    to getting past that system of silvery
    darkness no light escapes

    as when I gather my shadow about me
    on the wall I know the sun backs
    me up with this and supports and
    nudges me slowly forward to loom

    larger than life and to merge with it
    since narrative is inescapable
    and not even poetry can escape it.

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