The poet I have chosen as Mentor of the Month is Rainer Maria Rilke. I have been reading and re-reading over these last few weeks, poems, essays and letters that he wrote throughout his life. I chose to focus on one poem, in particular, for this entry. It is a sonnet from the Sonnets to Orpheus (1922).
I chose this sonnet; in particular, because today in our post modern, "Anything Goes Age, a majority of those who write poetry base their writing on their own personal experiences and feelings which, in itself, contradicts what poetry is all about. The essence of true poetry is evaporating rapidly. In this age of posting poetry pandemonium and self-cultivation poem publishing, it will soon diminish completely. Rilke, in his sonnet from Sonnets to Orpheus brings us back to the origins of our craft and instills in us, our obligation to its truth.
Rilke once wrote: "True art can issue only from a purely anonymous center." A true poet is one, who is for the most part an observer of life, whether he is an active participant or not is irrelevant.
Many mistakably believe that a piece of art, in our case, poetry, becomes a poem, the moment a creative thought or emotion is written on a page. They consider it a work of art. Writing worded thought on a page is not the end of the creative process. It is where the creative process begins. Without form creative thought is amorphic and in so being, cannot contain meaning. Structure and form are what make it a piece of art.
The counter argument would then be that art is expression. Unfortunately many have taken this to mean that any expression - a lyric on a line, any drawn image, any photograph, images manipulated in Photoshop are all acts of art.
If this being the case, we could then go the field of industrial design: the shape of the desk you are sitting at, the shape of a couch, the coffee-maker that you wake up to in the morning, if you are lucky, a piece of clothing are all art.
In today's world, people may say that the definition of art changes with the times. It is in constant flux, in particular, poetry. People claim that what poetry was - is in the past. Today with the possibility of pixelled posting, poetry has gone viral and everyone can be a poet, as long as they share their inner most experiences and emotions with their public in words, that in their minds is a creative thought and hence, poetry.
Expression does change. As does everything else, but the definition of art does not change. Art is form and content.
Form in poetry: line, shape, structure, literary devices: metaphor, simile, personification, alliteration, skill, technique; means that
to distinguish a poem from a mere expression of thought, whether written or spoken, is form.
Content is what Rilke's sonnet will teach us.
First some background...
Who was Orpheus? In Greek mythology Orpheus was a musician, poet and prophet. He was taught to play the lyre and recite poetry by Apollo himself. Apollo bestowed upon him an ethereal voice that would put any god to shame. His music and poetry recitation could sooth the dead, charm the beast and even cause trees to uproot themselves and follow in his wake.
Who then is Apollo? Apollo was one of the greatest gods of Olympus. He was god of music (principally the lyre) and conducted the choir of the Muses. He was god of song and poetry, prophecy, oracles and wisdom, medicine and healing, plague and disease, archery, and the protection of the young.
Hermes: God of dividing ways, messenger of the gods and conveyor of souls, and was the one who created the lyre.
Addendum: The ancient Greek aphorism: know thyself is one of the Delphic maxims and was inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.
In the following sonnet, Rilke is posing questions, most likely to Hermes, about the nature of poetry. In other words, the content of poetry write.
A god may. But how, tell me, could
a man follow him through a narrow lyre?
His mind is discord. At the crossroad of two
ways of the heart stands not Apollo's temple.
Song, as you teach it, is not desire,
not a bidding for a thing at length attained;
song is Being. For the god, a simple matter.
But when are we? And when shall he turn
the earth and the stars to our being?
This is not it, youth, that you love. So
the voice that breaks open your mouth, - learn
to forget that you burst forth in song. That withers in the sand.
To sing within truth is different aspiration.
A breath about nothing. A drift in the God. A wind.
Throughout the sonnet an underlying theme weaves itself in an out and between its lines: dichotomy / duality the theme of two. The threads that represent dichotomy are: di/scord; crossroad; two; ways (the plural s meaning not one); different. In the structure there are two quatrains (4 lines each) and two tercets (three lines each).
God and man are the subjects of this dichotomy, as well as, man and himself / man and his heart.
The content of a poem must contain duality - the poet as observer and the poet as a participant, intellectually, as well as, emotionally. That is the very discord in which the poet finds himself in.
Song, of course is poetry and poetry is "Being". Now, if I may just linger on this thought for a moment...
In the original sonnet written in German, the word "Dasein" was translated into the word "Being", but could have equally been translated into the word Existence - both emphasized with a capital letter. So that our understanding of what Rilke was trying to tell us doesn't get lost in the translation, I would like to share a philosophical thought by Martin Heidegger which pertains to the word "Dasein" and reveals to us, the poets, the world of insight that this expression holds within itself and its significance to the true nature of poetry.
"Accentuating the existence as a relation to Being instead of to one's own being, Heidegger modifies the way of writing this word. Instead of existence "dasein" he now has "da-sein or ex-istence = ex - (meaning out) / - sistence (-stance meaning to stand) together ex-sistence "stand-outside of ". This division says Heiddegger signifies standing out in the openness of Being. "The standing in the glade of Being"...By standing out in the glade of Being man is more than what he is as a natural man in the sense of "in-sistance" (Man's inner stand: urges, experiences and desires - me)...To "ex-ist" means not only be what one is , but, also be the possibility of standing out in one's own beyondness...." (from Earth to Gods, Vincent Vycinas, Martinus Nijhoff / The Hague, 1961, pg. 72)
Getting back to the sonnet: When Rilke asks: "But when are we? And when shall he turn / the earth and the stars to our being? He reveals to us that in asking the question, he has found the answer. Rilke realizes, in the name of all poets, that the poet's obligation to the earth and the stars, is to write "within truth". Rilke's message to us is that truth does not lie within the individual alone. As is reflected through the youth and his inability to control his voice - expressing only the emotions and experiences from his inner self: "This is not it, youth, that you love. So / the voice that breaks open your mouth " The truth lies in the poet whose "song is Being". Being and beyondness are the content of a poet's art.