New Poems: By Rilke, translated from the German by Joseph Cadora
Sometimes it can be a bit disconcerting to read a book that his hyped as a big deal and then to wonder what the big deal is because it really isn’t all that special. That is the case with this particular book, in that this book is being marketed as a daring new direction in poetry when in reality it has a lot of connection to old poetry. That is not to say that these poems are necessarily bad. Rilke was the sort of person I can well understand, one who had some clear issues with his parents and struggled throughout his entire life with a schizoid approach to relationships and intimacy that led him to neither be happy alone or with other people. And his poetry has the same sort of divide between being unpleasantly personal and being very well-connected to the traditional focuses of poetry. That is not to say that the fact that this poet is somewhat traditional in what he writes about makes this the best of poetry. Truth be told, I did not find Rilke to be either a particularly bad or a particularly good poet. I have read a lot worse but also a lot better.
This book is divided into two parts, and strikingly the two parts are closely connected by many of the same themes and subject matter. The book as a whole is about 450 pages long or so, and the poet includes several smaller sets of poems within the larger collection that occasionally cohere to each other. For example, there is a poem “Blue Hydrangea” in the first part of the book and one called “Pink Hydrangea” in the second. Both parts of the poem pay ode to various Sapphic odes that the author finds worthy of mentioning (for some reason) and both parts of the book have poetry that relate to the biblical history of Saul and David. The author expresses his interest in Buddhism in several of the poems and there are other poems that reflect on life in Italy (where the author spent some time sponging off of someone) as well as plenty of trees and flowers. The end result of this book, which has its left-side pages in German and its right-side pages in the English translation is the feeling that it is nothing worth ranting about but not worth remembering either, and that is what has generally happened to it.
It’s hard to say whether this is the sort of book that deserves the hype it tends to receive. The translator appears to have done a good job in turning this poetry into English, but then one has to look at the meaning that is conveyed and one is less ecstatic about it. The author writes a lot about women, but most of it is not pleasant stuff, as the author either celebrates sapphic ode or calls women a snare. This is the sort of poetry that is hard for people to recommend once they and their intended audience know what the poetry is actually about, because it is too closely connected to the writings and culture of the past to be easy to sell to cultural philistines who know nothing other than themselves, and that poorly, and too filled with the decadence of Western culture to recommend to those who appreciate the historical and literary tradition that Rilke draws upon. That does not make this book terrible, but it does make the book inessential, worth knowing as a signpost of the decline of Western literature rather than for any of its own limited merits.