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Reading Rilke: On Questions of Universality

Kelsey's picture

           The first time our Ecoliteracy 360 met was in December, in the English House lecture hall, where we talked about ourselves and our homes and where we were going to go throughout the next semester.  The second time we met, we piled into two blue Bryn Mawr vans and drove 30 minutes and what might have seemed a world to Camden, where we spent the first half of the day gardening and the second half touring Camden’s water treatment facility and some of Camden’s streets and ending in one of Camden’s parks, where our guide, Michael, pointed out the environmental threats and innovations that surrounded us.  This was our first 360 field trip, designed to help us learn about ecoliteracy, but even now I am hard pressed to say exactly what I learned that day.  I came in from the outside and began to reevaluate my assumptions about a city I’d only ever heard talked about as poor and crime-ridden but, even though I did learn some things about Camden that I hadn’t known before, I think that day really started my semester-long process of changing the way I see the world.  Perhaps the poet Rilke was describing something like this when he wrote:

And we: spectators, always, everywhere,

looking at everything and never from!

It floods us. We arrange it.  It decays.

We arrange it again, and we decay.

            Throughout the next three months, we studied economics and education and English, constantly striving to understand what it means to be ecoliterate.  In economics, we learned about the workings and graphic representations of markets, and how market failures such as externalities can lead to environmental harm.  In education, we discussed the importance and practice of environmental education, often focusing on how environmental and social issues intersect.  In English, we focused on representing the world through our words, and the possibilities and limits that creates.  We brought all of these experiences together in our creative projects and our field trips, striving to integrate different ways of knowing into one vision of the world.  As the Poet says:

the living are wrong

to make distinctions that are too absolute.

            One thing that stood out for me in our English class: we spent a few days discussing Tim Burke’s 2002 Last Collection Speech at Swarthmore and Teju Cole’s article “The White-Savior Industrial Complex”, both of which address issues of if, when, and how specific groups of people should engage in activism work.  I wish I had the Poet’s words to draw upon then, to respond to Tim Burke, when he told college graduates, “If you want to change the world, just wait... You cannot change the world unless you first learn to bear witness unsparingly to all the horrible and beautiful things it contains.”, that I thought that waiting to be moved to act was just a justification for putting off work that needs to happen now:

This is the time for what can be said. Here

is its country. Speak and testify. The things

we can live with are falling away more

than ever, replaced by an act without symbol.

            And I wish I had the Poet’s words to draw upon, to respond to Teju Cole, when he wrote, “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”, to agree with him that we should not let our actions be governed by the emotions we feel at least in part to justify our privilege:

Praise the world to the angel, not what can't be talked


You can't impress him with your grand emotions. In the


where he so intensely feels, you're just a novice. So show

him some simple thing shaped for generation after


until it lives in our hands and in our eyes, and it's ours.

            Ultimately, we spent the semester trying to move beyond our preconceived notions of what concepts like “nature” and “environment” are.  Any time we wanted to use those words, we were challenged to elaborate on what they meant, to interrogate the human/ everything else binary implied by them.  But sometimes it felt like, instead of fully rejecting ambiguous words like “nature” and forcing ourselves to always explain what we meant as best we could, we just substituted new words for the old ones we no longer allowed ourselves to use.  In her paper “on 'porosity' and 'latitude'; or, a loving call-out”, jo wrote, “We’re using porosity in the same way that we’ve resisted using words like ‘nature’ and ‘environment’... The idea of porosity has brought us a long way, given us new and interesting ways to look at common concepts, AND/BUT there might be areas where it’s holding us back from defining what we really mean.”  Is it possible to ever let go of our desire to use vague words when we don’t know what we mean or how to explain it?  Here I remember the words of the Poet:

Maybe what's left

for us is some tree on a hillside we can look at

day after day, one of yesterday's streets, 

and the perverse affection of a habit

that liked us so much it never let go.

            But even though we may not have broken all of our old habits, even though I did not break all of mine, I still find myself leaving this semester a different person from when I came in.  Even though I’ve always thought about the intersections of environmental and social justice issues, I used to frame them within the idea of a human/ nature binary, and to focus on environmental issues mostly from a human-centric viewpoint.  I rarely thought about the importance of giving children the opportunity to play in nature, or how to do so, and I criticized the markets that gave rise to environmental harm without considering how they worked.  I think a lot about all of these things now.  I’m still trying to figure out how I see the world with these and so many other new considerations in my head, and it’s bizarre and beautiful to see through a lens that I know I’m still crafting every day.  And in this lens I see the Poet’s words as a reflection of myself: 

It's true, it's strange not living on earth

anymore, not using customs you hardly learned,

not giving the meaning of a human future

to roses and other things that promise so much;

no longer being what you used to be

in hands that were always anxious,

throwing out even your own name like a broken toy. 

It's strange not to wish your wishes anymore.

            I wrote the above, using Rilke’s poetry as a way to explain and understand my experience in our Ecoliteracy 360, as a sort of experiment.  Reading The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh, I was fascinated by the ways in which Nirmal, an atheist, drew upon Rilke’s words much as one might draw upon a religious text, to make sense of the world around him and explain what he was feeling.  I wondered what I could learn about Nirmal, and The Hungry Tide, and our 360, and the universality of poetry, by—albeit much more briefly than Nirmal did—doing the same.  All of the excerpts I used come from A. Poulin, Jr.’s translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, the same translation that Ghosh uses in The Hungry Tide.  

             Throughout The Hungry Tide, Nirmal uses Rilke and his poetry much as the other residents of the Sundarbans call upon Bon Bibi, the guardian spirit of the forest—as a source of guidance and way to interpret what is going on in the world around them.  Since Nirmal is an atheist and doesn’t believe in Bon Bibi, he seems to need a replacement for that, some voice outside of himself to guide him and help him understand his experience.  Kanai, speaking to Piya, says, “Nirmal was possessed more by words than by politics... Rilke said ‘life is lived in transformation,’ and I think Nirmal soaked this idea into himself in the way cloth absorbs ink.” (233)  Although Rilke is not a deity, Nirmal treats him as one, calling him “the Poet” much as one might capitalize a word for God.

            As an atheist, I can somewhat relate to Nirmal’s desire to seek religious-esque guidance outside of himself while simultaneously refusing to engage with any form of religion.  I often find comfort in texts in which, even though they may have been written before I was born or by someone living far away from me, I think I can see reflections of my own experience.  It makes me feel less alone, like someone else has experienced what I’ve experienced, like I’m not at fault for what I’m going through because other people have been there too.  I don’t think I’ve ever used a text as guidance to the degree that Nirmal uses Rilke’s poetry, but I also grew up in a fairly non-religious environment, where many of the people around me didn’t call upon deities for anything and therefore I didn’t feel like I was missing something by also not doing so.  Perhaps Nirmal’s reliance on Rilke’s poetry is at least partly because of where he is—since everyone else around him calls upon Bon Bibi for guidance, Nirmal, even if he isn’t fully conscious of it, needs an analogous form of guidance in his life, but one that allows him to maintain the atheism to which he is so committed.

            But is taking another’s words and using them to understand your own life going too far?  Can texts like Rilke’s poetry be universal enough that we can all find reflections of our own experiences in them, or are we searching too hard, allowing too much latitude in our interpretations?  Can we learn anything by applying others’ words to our own lives?  Rilke lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Austria, and wrote in German—the context in and about which he wrote is very different from Nirmal’s Sundarbans, or our Ecoliteracy 360.  While reading The Hungry Tide, knowing nothing of Rilke’s poetry, the excerpts Nirmal chose seemed applicable to his situations, seemed to describe and enhance the stories he was telling.  But after reading all of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and using Rilke as a lens to read our Ecoliteracy 360, I’ve come to realize that a lot of the connections Nirmal implies by paralleling his experiences and Rilke’s poetry are not as much a product of what’s in Rilke’s poetry as of Nirmal’s careful excerpting and laying of the texts side by side.  Each of the 10 Duino Elegies is roughly around 100 lines long, and yet Nirmal never chooses excerpts more than a stanza long, often only picking two or three non-consecutive parts and using ellipses to cut out the parts he doesn’t want.  When I read Rilke’s Duino Elegies with our 360 specifically in mind, it was easy for me to find lines that I felt described my experience because I was reading with my experience in mind, and I could latch onto the words and phrases that felt applicable without being aware of the context in which Rilke wrote.  I feel like I learned something from this exercise, like Rilke’s words enhanced the stories I was telling, but I don’t think that my reading had much to do with Rilke’s themes of death and lovers and the perfection of the angels.  Take for example, the following excerpt from “The First Elegy”:

Maybe what's left

for us is some tree on a hillside we can look at

day after day, one of yesterday's streets, 

and the perverse affection of a habit

that liked us so much it never let go.

I interpreted this passage in the context of our 360’s inability to fully relinquish our habit of using vague words to describe the world around us, even as we switched from one vague word to another.  But Nirmal says that these lines are what we tell ourselves when, as he is, we are caught between everyday change and revolution, between prose and poetry (180).  And neither of these interpretations are what Rilke seems to mean if you read the entirety of “The First Elegy”—he is asking what we as humans can rely on if not angels or men or animals, and comes to the conclusion that maybe what we have is the permanence of material things and the comfort of our routines.  By taking only the bits of Rilke’s poetry that feel relevant to us and linking them to our own ideas, both Nirmal (and Ghosh as the writer) and I are creating new meaning out of Rilke’s words, meaning that (while it’s impossible to know the intentions of an author, especially a deceased one) seems to not exist when one reads Rilke’s work as a whole.

            So while it seems that poetry can be seen as universal if interpreted liberally enough, I think the real question is if this picking and choosing, this imposing of your own context on another’s work or divorcing of work from the context in which it was written, is problematic.  In my conference with Anne, I told her that I like poetry because of its ability to be universal, that I am more inclined toward ambiguous, metaphorical poems than the narrative, confessional style that has become increasingly popular in recent decades.  I also sometimes find myself drawn to the idea, espoused by authors such as John Green, that an author’s authority over a text extends only as far as the words on the page, that beyond that the reader has as much say as the writer over what the text means and what happens beyond it.  My high school senior year English teacher was a big fan of New Criticism, which emphasizes close reading of a text as an independent object separated from the context in which it was written, and as a result I spent a lot of time talking about the words on the page without talking much about who wrote them or when or where or why.  I can see the value in thinking of literature only as the words on the page, of using it as a tool to understand your own life and context.  But I can also see the importance of understanding what influenced the creation of a story or a poem, because that’s a powerful way to understand lives and contexts outside of your own.  So I might have been happy with the conclusion that you should do both, read a text as itself to see how it applies to your life and read a text as part of a context to see what it illuminates about others’ lives, until I read an article that Anne sent me after our conference, When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision by Adrienne Rich.

            Discussing her development as a poet and her early poetry education, Rich writes, “I had been taught that poetry should be "universal," which meant, of course, non-female.”  She goes on to discuss a poem she wrote called “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law”, saying, “It strikes me now as too literary, too dependent on allusion; I hadn't found the courage yet to do without authorities, or even to use the pronoun "I"-the woman in the poem is always "she."” (24)  Rich here is clearly refuting the position I took in Anne’s conference, that universal poetry is powerful because everyone can connect to it in a way that is meaningful to them, arguing instead (I interpret) that universal is just code for speaking from the dominant position, and that it’s important for marginalized voices to be able to tell their specific stories and have them heard.  This goes back to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story”, which is all about the importance of allowing the stories of marginalized peoples, the stories that aren’t heard as often, to be told.  Although I’m still drawn to the idea of universal poetry, I have to agree with Rich’s critique of universality, because an important part of writing is making people aware of the diversity of stories out there, not just giving them additional places to look for theirs.  Perhaps the reason Rilke’s poetry feels universal enough that Nirmal and I can both see our own experiences in it is because Rilke speaks from a place of privilege, as a Western male; his is one of the voices that, because it’s dominant, gets treated as universal.  He’s not thought of as a male poet, or a Western poet, but just a poet, seen as speaking to all of us because his identity is viewed as the default. 

            I suppose the question to conclude with is, is there any such thing as a universal human experience?  The part of me that loves ambiguous, metaphorical poetry for its perceived universality is inclined to say yes—after all, if I and Nirmal can both relate to Rilke, when we are three people from such different contexts, then surely there must be something universal enough about our feelings and preoccupations that we are able to connect over them.  But I’m also aware that societal institutions constantly reinforce ideas about what is the dominant narrative, what is the shared human experience and, while that societal messaging is undoubtedly different in different contexts, we are all impacted by the ideas in our place and time about what is normal.  It’s assumed that we can all relate to the experiences of the dominant group and, even though lots of us probably can’t, we’re rarely given the opportunity to say that loudly enough for anyone else to hear.  So maybe when I read Rilke, and when Nirmal reads Rilke, we’re just pretending to ourselves that we are part of a context that has nothing to do with us, a context that is privileged at least in part because Rilke was a Western, male writer. 

            This question of a universal human experience ties into our discussions about translation, about empathy, about whether we can truly convey what we mean to others and whether we can ever really understand each other.  I don’t really have answers to these questions yet, but I’m thinking more now about the roles that power and privilege play in our attempts to understand each other, and about how we need to consider trying to understand not just other humans but the rest of the inhabitants of our world, and I suppose that’s as good a way as any to end this semester—not having figured it out, but knowing better what issues to raise and what questions to ask.


Works Cited


Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TED. Ted Conferences LLC, Jul. 2009. Web. 10 May 2014.

Burke, Tim. “Last Collection Speech, Swarthmore, 2002.” Easily Distracted. Swarthmore College, 2002. Web. 2 May 2014.

Cole, Teju. “The White-Savior Industrial Complex.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 21 March 2012. Web. 2 May 2014.

Ghosh, Amitav. The Hungry Tide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005. Print.

jo. “on ‘porosity’ and ‘latitude’; or, a loving call-out.” Eco-Literacy 2014. Serendip, 15 Apr. 2014. Web. 10 May 2014.

Rich, Adrienne. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.” College English 34.1 (1972): 18-30. JSTOR. Web. 9 Nov. 2008.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus. Trans. A. Poulin, Jr. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977. Print.