Making Friends with Rilke

David Kretz is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago and a BOLLI Lecturer. This essay is based on David’s experience preparing for and then, in the Spring of 2022, teaching “On Being Human: Reading Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus” at BOLLI.

Great texts, it has been said, read us. What is meant by this, I take it, is that in reading them we do not merely find out something about whatever it is they take as their subject matter. Nor do we merely learn about the texts’ perspectives on their subject matter. We (also) learn something about ourselves. In engaging writing or artworks of the highest quality, we come into contact with ways of looking at the world that are utterly strange to ours and yet compelling in ways quite difficult to pin down. We rarely find ourselves in easy agreement, although agreement can happen, and sometimes we find a line, a thought expressed, that we even want to affirm enthusiastically! Just as often we might find ourselves provoked to voicing loud disagreements. In any case, it is hard to remain neutral or indifferent to what such works express. We feel a need to take the measure of our distances and proximities to the text. It helps to do so in speech, by verbalizing our reactions, and it helps even more if we do not have to do it alone. In the classroom, we can triangulate our own responses with those of others and, when that happens, three elements are at play simultaneously: the text, ourselves, and our interlocutors. A great study group, to my mind, is one in which all three take on heightened saliency at various turns. 

In this, the experience of such a study group, it seems to me, is analogous to the experience of friendship in general. Lovers, it has been said, look at each other, and when they do – when love is most intense and pure – the world around them recedes to the background. Friends, on the other hand, look at the world side by side. Friendship is mediated by the things that make up the world. By looking at the world in parallel, comparing their views in speech, friends add depth to the world. Things are more meaningful if I know how they look to a friend, whether similar or different. This kind of awareness prompts me to think, and to realize just what it is about my friend and about me and about the thing in question that explains the similarities and differences. Artworks and great writings lend themselves especially well to such triangular in-depth exploration of self and other. Perhaps that is why study groups are such good ground for a particular kind of friendship. 

Reading two cycles of poetry by the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s (1875-1926), the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus (published together in 1923) – by any account, including Rilke’s own, the culmination of his oeuvre – at BOLLI for me came to be one of those rare study groups where all three corners of the phenomenological triangle were at play: Teaching Rilke’s poetry to a group of extraordinarily dedicated BOLLI students taught me a lot about the poems themselves. I learned something about who the students are and how they think (and here it helped that the group was fairly small, allowing for more intimate discussion and ‘airtime’ for everyone). This is not a given in any study group. To the contrary, it takes a certain courage to put some true part of oneself out there, to share a personal, sometimes quite emotional reaction to a poem. BOLLI created a space for that. I also came to learn some things about myself: habits of teaching, and why Rilke speaks to me the way he does. I look forward to learning further as I return to teach (and here, in this case, it is no mere commonplace to say that teaching is a form of learning).

The class structure itself was what one might call fairly ‘old-school’, except, of course, that we ran it on the new Zoom platform we all had to become familiar with over the last two years. Usually, I started us off with a brief recap of previous discussions and a few words of context on the particular poem(s) assigned for that day’s class. Then we read out loud the focus poems, as we called them. When they were long enough, students would take turns, each bringing their own voice, their own pace, style, and prosody to the works, which already opened up fascinating spaces for comparison and interpretation. I would then read to students the German original, so they could get the sound of it, and comment on some of the translation choices. Then we spoke as the spirit moved us. The overall course-design followed the metaphor of a journey into the foreign land which is Rilke’s poetry with its own strange language. Rilke is remarkably consistent in his usage of certain terms and images across the two poetry cycles (e.g. what he means by ‘angel’ in one place resonates with and sheds light on what he means by it in any other poem where angels appear). It isn’t just the most salient figures either that populate his late cycles (angels, mothers, fathers, heroes, girls, birds, star constellations). In one of his letters, Rilke claimed that not a single word in his works means what the dictionary says it means. Every ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘the’, he claims, has been ‘re-semanticized,’ charged with new semantic meaning when the poet bends its usage to his particular purposes. Taken literally, that claim might be an exaggeration on Rilke’s part, but it is astonishing to just what extent Rilke has succeeded in creating his very own idiom out of perfectly ordinary German words. Hence, a lot of the class consisted in learning the language of ‘Rilke land,’ as we traveled its various corners and got to meet its not-quite-familiar inhabitants. The teacher’s role was to be the tour-guide, though knowing well that he’s no native of that country either, even though German is his native language.

In the end, we became quite conversant with Rilke’s thought and form. Of course, a passive command of Rilke’s idiom falls short of the ability to translate it into English, but can any poetry simply be translated into prose? Certainly not Rilke’s. Yet, we were able to find our feet in his poetic universe and if we did not get to talk about all the poems in the two cycles in detail, I can at least say that we reached the point where we can always go back to our bookshelves, pick up the Rilke volume, and return for another excursion into his world and, through his, see our own anew.