Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Dwarf’s Song

About a week ago I mentioned in this blog that a friend has stirred my interest in the Bohemian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). I have been reading this past week from the 1989 Vintage International edition of The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell.

Despite, or because of the beauty of Rilke’s words and images, he can be difficult. There is the feeling that what we are reading is from the greatest recesses of the poet’s heart, a crooning in our inner ear, calling us into the same deep well. A strong influence on Rilke’s work was his relationship with the sculptor, Auguste Rodin, for whom he served as an assistant, or secretary for a time before their eventual falling out. From Rodin, who Rilke revered as the greatest of all artists, he absorbed the idea of writing not about feelings, but about THINGS he had felt. He called the work growing out of this, thing-poems (Ding-Gedichte), poems about looking at people, animals, sculpture, or paintings, with the focus taken away from the speaker-poet and re-centered on the THING viewed. Examples of this newly conceived perspective produced the poems, “The Panther,” and the dazzling “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” From Rilke’s collection, The Book of Pictures is a poem called “The Dwarf’s Song.” The collection is one put together between 1902-06. It is dated June 7, 1906—Paris.


My soul itself may be straight and good;

ah, but my heart, my bent-over blood,

all the distortions that hurt me inside—

it buckles under these things.

It has no garden, it has no sun,

it hangs on my twisted skeleton

and, terrified, flaps its wings.

Nor are my hands of much use. Look here:

see how shrunken and shapeless they are:

clumsily hopping, clammy and fat,

like toads after the rain.

And everything else about me is torn,

sad and weather-beaten and worn;

why did God ever hesitate

to flush it all down the drain?

Is it because he’s angry at me

for my face with its moping lips?

It was so often ready to be

light and clear in its depths;

but nothing came so close to it

as big dogs did.

And dogs don’t have what I need.

In a letter to writer-critic Hermann Pongs years later, Rilke wrote: ‘If at any time I was able to pour out into the mold of my heart the imaginary voices of the dwarf or the beggar, the metal of this cast was not obtained from any wish that the dwarf or the beggar might have a less difficult time. On the contrary, only through a praising of their incomparable fate could the poet, with his full attention suddenly given to them, be true and fundamental….’

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America