I recently had an e-mail exchange with a local newspaper reporter here in Lincoln. I was telling her about a good deed my neighbor had done and hoped that the paper might want to capture it in print (or picture). Although, it didn't really work out, the reporter was taken by a segment of a poem in my signature line. She had just received another poem by the same poet as a comforting quote from a friend. She asked me how I came to know about the poet and is considering doing a column on his poetry. I thought you all might enjoy my answer as I know there are many poetry lovers here. By the way, the "internet friend" I mention in the letter is, of course, Maha!
I am happy to share how I came to know about Rainer Maria Rilke and his poetry.
I never took a poetry class in college, and in high school found the poems offered in my classes to be dull and boring -- perhaps that was more about me than the poems or poets, but it kept me from poetry until much later in life. At some point, however, poetry found me!
Now I find that I have developed a love for poetry, but I'm a picky poetry lover. I used Ted Kooser in my Enivonmental Leadership class at UNL, I post poems that are currently meaningful for me on my door at work and in my office at home. I seek out poems to soothe, motivate, calm, or energize me. My favorite poems are typically somehow related to human struggles or conditions, seek answers to "big questions," are almost always about nature, and leave you with an "aha" feeling at the end.
I noticed that my love of poetry becomes even more intense during times of great emotions or stress. I somehow seek refuge in them. During my dissertation writing phase, I felt like poems just "came to me" -- sent by friends or found in columns. Then, one day, an internet friend posted a poem that was so stunning, I asked her where she got it. She told me about a website called Panhala.net. A man named Joe Riley posts daily poems there. You can subscribe to have them delivered to your inbox each day.
There I found some of my favorites: Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Ted Kooser, May Sarton, Joy Harjo, Wendell Barry...and was introduced to some new ones: Rumi, Hafiz, John O'Donohue, David Whyte, Naomi Shihab Nye, and of course, Rainer Maria Rilke (among MANY others). This place is a treasure chest of poetry (sometimes even song lyrics presented in poem form) with accompanying pictures at the archive site at panhala.net. There are other poetry sites, of course, but Joe seems to understand exactly the kind of poem I love! I began consuming not only the daily posting, but also visiting the archives and finding treasures there! There were many offerrings of Rilke and I fell in love!
The day my favorite Rilke poem "came to me," I was baffled by the revisitation of Cancer in my life - not ME, but a significant other. I lost a partner in my early 30s to a rare form of Cancer (Bile Duct Cancer), and now was faced, almost 20 years later, with the same situation. My partner of 18 years had been diagnosed with Stage 3a Ovarian Cancer. I was devastated and trying to understand why I could have this particular life challenge visit again! I even wrote a blog "Struck Twice by Lightning" that I never let anyone read. How could this be happening?
That day, I remember coming across a Rilke poem (excerpt from Letters to a Young Poet, It is the one I sent you earlier in this thread). I had probably read it before, but this day had had a very strong meaning for me:
..I want to beg you, as much as I can,
to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms
and like books that are written in a foreign tongue.
Do not now seek the answers,
which cannot be given you because
you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it,
live along some distant day into the answer.
Resolve to be always beginning - to be a beginner.
- Ranier Maria Rilke
For some reason, I found it comforting, this permission to not understand and to seek the questions rather than the answers. I began seeking out Rilke poems and even bought a couple of collections of his poems. They comfort me, challenge me, sometimes bring me to tears, and always leave me with a sense of awe at how someone can capture exactly what is in my head -- all this from a poet who died in 1929. And, as a bonus, since they are all translated to English, there are often many versions and interpretations of the same poem which bring out different meanings.
So, here is another poem (one version of it, at least) that I find stunning -- with its wonderful, descriptions and captivating ending. Although it may be specifically about a woman who is losing her physical ability to see, to me it demonstrates the transcendence of "seeing" into a new way of understanding. I hope you find it...exactly as you need it to be:
She sat just like the others at the table.
But on second glance, she seemed to hold her cup
a little differently as she picked it up.
She smiled once. It was almost painful.
And when they finished and it was time to stand
and slowly, as chance selected them, they left
and moved through many rooms (they talked and laughed),
I saw her. She was moving far behind
the others, absorbed, like someone who will soon
have to sing before a large assembly;
upon her eyes, which were radiant with joy,
light played as on the surface of a pool.
She followed slowly, taking a long time,
as though there were some obstacle in the way;
and yet: as though, once it was overcome,
she would be beyond all walking, and would fly.
Rainer Maria Rilke