May 31, 2011

What Kind of Courage Is Required of Us?

What kind of courage is required of us?

Imagine a person taken out of his room, and without preparation or transition placed on the heights of a great mountain range. He would feel an unparalleled insecurity, an almost annihilating abandonment to the nameless. He would feel he was falling into outer space or shattering into a thousand pieces. What enormous lie would his brain concoct in order to give meaning to this and validate his senses? In such a way do all measures and distances change for the one who realizes his solitude. These changes are often sudden and, as with the person on the mountain peak, bring strange feelings and fantasies that are almost unbearable. But it is necessary for us to experience that too. We must accept our reality in all its immensity. Everything, even the unheard of, must be possible within it. This is, in the end, the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to meet the strangest, most awesome, and most inexplicable of phenomena.

Borgeby gärd, Sweden, August 12, 1904
Letters to a Young Poet

May 30, 2011

Love Between Two People

jesters, by Paul Cézanne

No area of human existence is so burdened with conventions as love between two people. There are life-preservers of the most varied invention, life-boats and safety vests; society has fashioned rescue strategies of every description. Since it has chosen to take love as an easy pleasure, it must make it as cheap and as safe as all public amusements should be.

Rome, May 14, 1904
Letters to a Young Poet

May 29, 2011

Simply in Your Presence

Still Life with Plate of Cherries

I'm too alone in the world, yet not alone enough
to make each hour holy.
I'm too small in the world, yet not small enough
to be simply in your presence, like a thing—
just as it is.

From the Book of Hours I, 13

May 28, 2011

When Things Close In

It feels as though I make my own way
through massive rock
like a vein of ore
alone, encased.

I am so deep inside it
I can't see the path or any distance:
everything is close
and everything closing in on me
has turned to stone.

Since I still don't know enough about pain,
this terrible darkness makes me small,
If it's you, though—

press down hard on me, break in
that I may know the weight of your hand
and you, the fullness of my cry.

The Book of Hours III, 1

May 27, 2011

Patience Is All

A Wind-Beaten Tree, by Vincent van Gogh

Do not measure in terms of time: one year or ten years means nothing. For the artist there is no counting or tallying up; just ripening like the tree that does not force its sap and endures the storms of spring without fearing that summer will not come. But it will come. It comes, however, only to the patient ones who stand there as if all eternity lay before them—vast, still, untroubled. I learn this every day of my life, I learn it from hardships I am grateful for: patience is all.

Viareggio, April 23, 1903
Letters to a Young Poet

May 26, 2011

Though We Yearn

Afternoon in Naples, by Paul Cézanne

We, though we yearn for the One,
already feel the pull of other things.
Are not lovers ever pushing
at each other's limits? Lovers,
who promised each other
vastness, hunt, and home...

From the Fourth Duino Elegy

May 25, 2011

The Beggars

Wild Roses, by Vincent van Gogh

The shapeless heaps turn out to be beggars.
They reveal themselves as you pass by.
They are selling the nothing
their hands hold out.

New Poems

May 24, 2011

About Feelings

Painting by Marc Chagall

All feelings that gather you up and lift you are pure. If they twist and tear at your being, they are not. All tenderness you may feel for your childhood is good. Every emotion that makes more of you than you have ever been, even in your best hours, is good. Every intensification is good, if it seizes you entire and is not an intoxication or delusion, but a joy you can see into, clear to the bottom. Do you understand what I mean?

Furnborg, Jonsered, Sweden, November 4, 1904
Letters to a Young Poet

May 23, 2011

The Buddha in Glory

Almond Branches in Bloom

Center of all centers, innermost core,
almond sweetening in its self-embrace—
all of this, out to the stars,
is the fruit of your body. We greet you.

You feel how little clings to you now.
Endlessness is your shell,
and there, too, the strength.
It is summoned by the radiance

of the full and glowing suns
that wheel around you.
Yet those stars will be outlasted
by what you have begun.

New Poems

May 22, 2011

Is It Not Time

Der Spaziergang, by Marc Chagall

Is it not time
to free ourselves from the beloved
even as we, trembling, endure the loving?
As the arrow endures the bowstring's tension
so that, released, it travels farther.
For there is nowhere to remain.

From the First Duino Elegy

May 21, 2011

Go into Yourself

Rainer Maria Rilke

There is only one thing to do. Go into yourself. Examine your reason for writing. Discover whether it is rooted in the depths of your heart, and find out whether you would rather die than be forbidden to write. Above all, ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night, have I no choice but to write? Dig deep within for the truest answer, and if this answer is a strong and simple yes, then build your life upon this necessity. Your life henceforth, down to its most ordinary and insignificant moment, must prove and reveal this truth.

Paris, February 17, 1903
Letters to a Young Poet

May 20, 2011

Never Yet Spoken

Sketch, by Auguste Rodin

I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for
may for once spring clear
without my contriving.

From the Book of Hours I, 12

May 19, 2011

Nothing to Frighten Us

Sheaves of Wheat in a Field

We are not prisoners. No traps or snares are set around us; there is nothing that should frighten or torment us. We have been put into life as into the element we most accord with, and we have, moreover, through millennia of adaptation, come to resemble this life so greatly, that we, when we hold still, through a happy mimicry, can hardly be distinguished from everything that surrounds us.

Borgeby gärd, Sweden, August 12, 1904
Letters to a Young Poet

May 18, 2011

A Hunger Drives Us

Death of Birth: Rainer Maria Rilke

A hunger drives us.
We want to contain it all in our naked hands,
our brimming senses, our speechless hearts.
We want to become it, or offer it—but to whom?
We could hold it forever—but, after all,
what can we keep? Not the beholding,
so slow to learn. Not anything that has happened here.
Nothing. There are the hurts. And, always, the hardships.
And there's the long knowing of love—all of it
unsayable. Later, amidst the stars, we will see:
these are better unsaid.

From the Ninth Duino Elegy

May 17, 2011

Brother Body

Good Samaritan (after Delacroix)

(in the sanitarium, in Rilke's final illness)

Brother body is poor...that means we must be rich for him.
He was often the rich one; so may he be forgiven
for the meanness of his wretched moments.
Then, when he acts as though he barely knows us,
may he be gently reminded of all that has been shared.

Of course, we are not one but two solitaries:
our consciousness and he.
But how much we have to thank each other for,
as friends do! And illness reminds us:
friendship demands a lot.

Uncollected Poems

May 16, 2011

If Only for Once

Head of a Woman with her Hair Loose

If only for once it were still.
If the not quite right and the why is
could be muted, and the neighbor's laughter,
and the static my senses make—
if all of it didn't keep me from coming awake—

Then in one vast thousandfold thought
I could think you up to where thinking ends.

I could possess you,
even for the brevity of a smile,
to offer you
to all that lives,
in gladness.

The Book of Hours I, 7

May 15, 2011


Bathers, by Paul Cézanne

...Our loving is not, like the flowers', the offering
of a single year. When we love, there rises in us
a sap from time immemorial. Oh my dear girl,
it is this: that we loved, in each other, not an individual
or one coming toward us, but brimming multitudes;
not a single child but the fathers
fallen to the depths of us like crumbled mountains,
and the dry riverbeds of ancestral mothers;
the whole soundless landscape
under the clear or clouded sky of fate:
all this, my dear, came before you.

From the Third Duino Elegy

May 14, 2011

God's True Cloak

We must not portray you in king's robes,
you drifting mist that brought forth the morning.

From The Book of Hours I, 4

May 13, 2011

Things Intimate and Indifferent

Garden Behind a House

For our ancestors, a house, a fountain, even clothing, a coat, was much more intimate. Each thing, almost, was a vessel in which what was human found and defined itself.

Now, from America, empty, indifferent things sweep in—pretend things, life-traps... A house, in the American sense, an American apple, a grapevine, bears no relation to the hope and contemplation with which our ancestors informed and beheld them.

Letter to Witold Hulewicz
November 13, 1925

In Florence

by Sandro Boticelli

I have visited the works of art at length in Florence. For hours at a time I have sat before a particular painting and shaped my opinion of it, and then later compared it to Burckhardt's fine judgments. And look: my opinion was like that of so many others.

Once, studying Botticelli's Magnificat, I forgot any judgment of my own or of others. That is when it happened: I recognized a battle and was awarded a victory. And my joy was like no other.

Early Journals

May 11, 2011

Orchard and Road

Orchard in Pontoise

In the traffic of our days
may we attend to each thing
so that patterns are revealed
amidst the offerings of chance.

All things want to be heard,
so let us listen to what they say.
In the end we will hear what we are:
the orchard or the road leading past.

Collected French Poems

May 10, 2011


Painting by Marc Chagall

Center, how from all things
you gather yourself. Even from those that fly
you take yourself back, Center, strongest one.

Those who stand can feel how gravity
plunges through them, like a drink through thirst.

Yet from the sleeper,
gravity drifts like rain
from unhurried clouds.

Uncollected Poems

May 9, 2011

Palm of the Hand

Two Hands

Hand's inner self. Sole, that does its walking
just with feelings. That holds itself face up
and, as in a mirror,
receives from heaven its own meandering pathways.
That has learned to walk on water
when it splashes.
That walks on wells,
transforming every journey.
That finds itself in other hands
and turns them into landscapes,
wanders and arrives in them,
fills them with arrival.

Uncollected Poems

May 8, 2011

I Love the Dark Hours

Rainer Maria Rilke

I love the dark hours of my being.
My mind deepens into them.
There I can find, as in old letters,
the days of my life, already lived,
and held like a legend, and understood.

Then the knowing comes: I can open
to another life that's wide and timeless.

From The Book of Hours I, 5

May 7, 2011


Lovers' Hands, by Auguste Rodin

Lovers, you who are for a while
sufficient to each other,
help me understand who we are.
You hold each other. Have you proof?
See, my hands hold each other too.
I put my used-up face in them.
It helps me feel known.
Just from that, can we believe we endure?
You however, who increase
through each other's delight,
you who ripen in each other's hands
like grapes in a vintage year:
I'm asking you
who we are.

You touch one another so reverently;
as though your caresses
could keep each place they cover
from disappearing. As though, underneath, you could sense
that which will always exist.
So, as you embrace, you promise each other eternity.

From the Second Duino Elegy

May 6, 2011

The Departure of the Prodigal Son

Sculpture by Auguste Rodin

To go forth now
from all the entanglement
that is ours and yet not ours,
that, like the water in an old well,
reflects us in fragments, distorts what we are.

From all that clings like burrs and brambles—
to go forth
and see for once, close up, afresh,
what we had ceased to see—
so familiar it had become.
To glimpse how vast and how impersonal
is the suffering that filled your childhood.

Yes, to go forth, hand pulling away from hand.
Go forth to what? To uncertainty,
to a country with no connections to us
and indifferent to the dramas of our life.

What drives you to go forth? Impatience, instinct,
a dark need, the incapacity to understand.

To bow to all this.
To let go—
even if you have to die alone.

Is this the start of a new life?

New Poems

May 5, 2011

A Circle

Road at Saint-Remy with a Female Figure

Surely your heart travels not only from the ghostly to the holy, but it makes a circle. And we know only half of it.

Letter to Marianne von Goldschmidt-Rothschild
December 5, 1914

May 4, 2011


The Sower (study), by Vincent van Gogh

I know that your profession is difficult and contrary to your nature. I cannot remove your distress; I can only urge you to consider whether all occupations are not challenging and hostile in some measure to one's individuality, and saturated with the resentments of those who grimly and sullenly pursue them from duty only. The situation in which you must live now is not more burdened with conventions, prejudices and errors than any other—and even if some occupation appears to offer greater freedom, it is a rare person who is able to stay open to the great matters that shape authentic living. Only the person who accepts solitude can place himself under the deep laws of the universe. When he steps into the fresh morning or out into the event-filled evening, all that is not him falls away, as if he had died, although he stands in the teeming midst of life.

Rome, December 23, 1903
Letters to a Young Poet

May 3, 2011

The Scale of the Heart

Painting by Marc Chagall

To take things seriously—as my books are said to do—betokens no heaviness of spirit. Taking things seriously is no more than according things their true weight and seeing their innate value. It springs from a desire to weigh things on the scale of the heart rather than indulging in suspicion and distrust.

Letter to Rudolf Bodlander
March 13, 1922

May 2, 2011

Widening Circles

Painting by Marc Chagall

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I've been circling for thousands of years
and I still don't know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song.

The Book of Hours I, 2

May 1, 2011

Tell Me, Orpheus


Tell me, Orpheus, what offering can I make
to you, who taught the creatures how to listen?
I remember a spring day in Russia;
it was evening, and a horse ...

He came up from the village, a gray horse, alone.
With a hobble attached to one leg
he headed to the fields for the night.
How the thick mane beat against his neck

in rhythm with his high spirits
and his impeded, lurching gallop.
How all that was horse in him quickened.

He embraced the distances as if he could sing them,
as if your songs were completed in him.
His image is my offering.

Sonnets to Orpheus I, 20