This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for March 23, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
For much of my young life, I was totally disinterested in my ethnic heritage; in fact, even ignoring it or avoiding it. Now, I’m so wrapped up in it, people wish I WOULD ignore it or avoid it. Interest in my heritage began earnestly when I started working on my Master’s degree in English at the University of Houston and chose to take four semesters of German. Both my Wendish and my German ancestors were German-speaking immigrants, so, learning to read and write German, not just saying a few sentences in it, was my way of stepping into their world.
Wow! I wrote all of the above just to mention the fact that I was first introduced to the German writings of Rainer Maria Rilke in my last semester of German at UH. As horrible as it seemed at the time, my German Professor required us to read a short story by Rilke (in German, of course). I mean, Rilke is the most lyrically intense German-language poet of all times, and we fledglings were supposed to read him in German??!! He was born in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of Bohemian parents, but he is always listed as a German poet.
A Bohemian (Bohemian-Austrian) who writes in German! Does anyone write in Bohemian? No, but some write in Czech and Slovakian. I guess that’s not so different from a Wendish-German-American writing in English! I think Rilke wrote some things in French, too, but, then, in those days, everybody wrote some things in French. Russian authors were writing in French because the Slavic languages weren’t considered “literary” enough until first Pushkin, and then Tolstoy, came along and proved what great poetry and prose can come from a Slavic language.
Even though my German was very poor, I could tell that Rilke’s prose (this was a short story) was rivetingly rich poetry, and I became an instant fan of his. In the University bookstore, I was able to buy a German-language copy of his Duino Elegies, a long, highly-praised poem. Apparently, I wasn’t the only person captivated by his writings, as, over the years, Rilke became one of the most read and best liked “foreign” poets in English translations in America. However, my version was in German, and since it was beyond my ability to decipher, I also bought an English translation. It was as clear as mud in German, and it was as clear as mud in English. I had to put it aside. Undaunted, each year, for many years, I would get out both the German version and the English version and try to understand it. No luck.
It finally occurred to me I could try to read other poems by Rilke. I knew that after a trip to Russia in 1897, during which he discovered the Russian Orthodox Church and also visited Leo Tolstoy, his writings became more spiritual (they had always been mystical but not necessarily spiritual). Tolstoy’s spiritual writings about God were so radical that he was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Communion, but Rilke’s were almost “orthodox” by comparison.
When Rilke returned from Russia, he began writing The Book of Hours. He explained that in this book of poems, he was exploring the Christian’s search for God and the nature of prayer. I decided that The Book of Hours was just the book of his poems for me.
Even in his non-religious poems and prose, Rilke’s writings seem to have a spiritual nature to them. Here are a few lines to show what I mean: “Spring has returned. The Earth is like a child that knows poems.” And I especially like this one: “Ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” And this one: “I’m glad you’re here, as it helps me realize how beautiful my world is.” Perhaps when he wrote, “The only journey is the one within,” we see the beginning of his search for God.
With English translations, even good ones, there is always the major problem that you cannot sense or hear the rich music of the poetry; you can’t read it in English and let the sounds and the rhythms lift you heavenward. Of course, with only the English version, you can, with a certain amount of perception, obtain good food for thought. So here’s a passage from The Book of Hours in English:
No churches to encircle God as though
he were a fugitive, and then bewail him
as if he were a captured wounded creature, --
all houses will prove friendly, there will be
a sense of boundless sacrifice prevailing
in dealings between men, in you, in me.
What does it mean? I don’t know for sure, I’m working on it. But I wish you could read the German version and at least hear the music. I stopped teaching college students poetry and prose thirty years ago, and I miss it a lot! So I hope you’ll indulge in an old man’s whim to write about poetry every now and then.
Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.