Rainier Maria Rilke’s Use of Imagery

Photograph of a bowl of multicolored roses

In The Discovery of Poetry[i], Frances Mayes breaks imagery into three categories: literal imagery (the thing itself), figurative imagery (images used to describe the thing), and symbols (an image or action that stands for more than itself). A symbol differs from a literal or figurative because of the far-reaching semantic ripples that surround it. The red wheelbarrow is an image; the American flag is a symbol.

Rilke’s work returns again and again to the symbol of the rose. What sorts of associations does the symbol of the rose evoke? Love, femininity, openness, vulnerability, romantic and sexual love, impermanence. The rose is a symbol for the Madonna in Catholic tradition, and was a symbol for her predecessor Venus. The medieval French poem, “Le Roman de la Rose,” tells an allegorical story of courtly love. At the heart of Dante’s Paradiso lies a rose. On St. Valentine’s Day, lovers give one another red roses as a symbol of their love for one another. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” says Juliet, exhorting her lover Romeo to give up his family name.

Rilke’s roses take advantage of all of these ripples of meaning. It makes sense that Rilke, a deeply solitary creature who was nevertheless preoccupied with love and sexuality, would focus so much of his work on the symbol of the rose. He uses the image of the rose to explore the themes of inner and outer experience, and by extension solitude and connection. “Where for this inner / is there an outer?”[ii] begins the poem “The Inner Rose.” Later in the same poem he writes “many [roses] let themselves fill up with inner space.”

Rilke uses all three of Mayes’s categories of imagery – literal, figurative, and symbolic – in his exploration of the rose. “In the Bowl of Roses,”[iii] what starts as a symbol becomes under his gaze fully and completely real. His initial descriptions are abstract but still evocative:

Noiseless, living, opening without end,
filling space without taking space from the space
that all the other things in it diminish,
almost without an outline, like something omitted,
and pure inwardness, with much curious softness

“Curious softness” is his first foray into literal imagery. It’s in the sixth stanza, however that the individual roses fully solidify. He uses personification to make each rose distinct, and to further explore the relationships between the roses (as symbols for individuals):

See this white one, so blissfully opened,
standing among its huge spreading petals
like a Venus upright in her shell;
and look how that blushing one turns,
as if confused, toward the cooler one,
and how the cooler one, impassive, draws back,
and how the cold one stands tightly wrapped in itself
among these opened ones, that shed everything.

“Is there anything they can’t be,” he writes, a particularly clever line if one considers the multiple layers of abstract meaning he gives the roses in this poem. This line precedes the most vivid imagery in the poem:

…wasn’t this yellow one
that lies here hollow and open the rind
of a fruit of which the same yellow,
more intense, more orange-red, was the juice?
And this one, could opening have been too much for it,
since, touched by air, its indescribable pink
has picked up the bitter aftertaste of lilac?
And isn’t this batiste one a dress, with
the chemise still inside it, soft and breath-warm,
both garments flung off together
in morning shade at the bathing pool in the woods?
And this, opalescent porcelain,
fragile, a shallow china cup
filled with little lighted butterflies,—

The image of the orange-red fruit echoes lines from “Sonnets to Orpheus, 1, 15”[iv] in which he exhorts maidens to “dance the taste of the experienced fruit!” The rich, sensual imagery of this stanza in “The Bowl of Roses” allows Rilke to explore the theme of innocence and experience: “could opening have been too much for it, / since, touched by air, its indescribable pink / has picked up the bitter aftertaste of lilac?” The image of the dress, “soft and breath-warm,” thrown off by a bather in the woods once again interpolates sensual abandon with airy reticence: the fragile, shallow cup, “filled with little lighted butterflies.”

Rilke’s work straddles the edge of modernism. Upon first reading, it appeared to me that Rilke broke all the rules of modern poetic craft: his poems often begin with abstraction and only later tie down those abstractions with imagery. Modern readers may find his work more difficult to enter into as a result, although I find that it speaks to me immensely. What I may be responding to, though – in addition to the skill of the translator, who must reproduce the music of the original German text – may be the imagery he uses to support his poetic arguments. Rilke works from the universal to the precise, whereas the contemporary aesthetic often (but not always[v]) moves from the precise to the universal. No rule in poetry can’t be broken. I’m going to see if I can rise to the challenge of breaking this one.

End Notes

[i] Mayes, Frances. The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems. Harcourt, 2001. Print. pp. 66-137.

[ii] Rilke, Rainer Maria. “The Rose Interior.” New Poems: A Revised Bilingual Edition. Tr. Snow, Edward. North Point Press, 2001. p. 277. Web. https://smile.amazon.com/New-Poems-Rainer-Maria-Rilke/dp/0865476128/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1475340735&sr=8-1&keywords=rilke+new+poems

NOTE: Alternative translations of this poem title it “The Inner Rose,” with the opening line reading “Where for this inner / is there an outer?” It’s difficult to find full attribution for these translations, although they appear multiple times online. URLs:

[iii] Rilke. “The Bowl of Roses.” The Essential Rilke. Tr. Kinnell and Liebman. Ecco, 1999. p. 27. Print.

[iv] Rilke. “The Poet Praises (Die Sonnette an Orpheus, 1, 15).” Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties. Tr. Mood, John. Norton, 1975. p. 81. Print.

[v] See “Howl,” by Allen Ginsberg and “Meditation at Lagunitas,” by Robert Hass.

Photo Credit: Slgckgc via Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0.

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Third Packet

Here’s the cover letter to the third packet I sent to my teacher Sharon Bryan during the first semester of my Lesley MFA.

Dear Sharon:

It was such a pleasure to meet up with you in person last week. Written correspondence is a thing to treasure but there is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting. And it’s always great to have an excuse to sit and chat at the Algiers.

As I said to you via email, I really enjoyed Heather McHugh’s playful approach to language – especially the way that she plays with the multiple meanings and connotations of a single word. Picking her up reminded me that working for an MFA is something I undertook for the pleasure of the task rather than the obligation of the schoolwork. Here’s one example of her wordplay that I didn’t include in my craft annotation: Continue reading “Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Third Packet”

Boston Area Poetry Readings for February and March 2018

Poetry to Beat the Winter Blues. Photo credit: Pom Angers via Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0.

Enjoy the thaw while it lasts and go see some poetry before the snow comes back. Thanks as always to Daniel Bouchard for these listings.

All readings are in Massachusetts unless otherwise noted.

New this week:

Anne Waldman in Cambridge (2/15)

Paula Bonnell, Tom Lyons, and Michael Todd Steffen in Somerville (2/20)

Elizabeth S. Wolf in Amesbury (2/27)

Philip Nikolayev and John Hennessey in Cambridge (3/3)

Jonathan Aibel, Ben Berman, and Wendy Drexler in Jamaica Plain (3/9)

Martha Collins and Joan Houlihan in Newton (4/3)

James Whitley and Maria Termini in Roslindale (4/24)

Barbara Siegel Carlson in Roslindale (4/26)

Matvei Yankelevich, Lisa Fishman, and Laynie Browne in Cambridge (5/5)

Continue reading “Boston Area Poetry Readings for February and March 2018”

Craft Annotation: Poetic Line in the Work of William Carlos Williams

The poet Robert Hass says “the metrical poem begins with an assumption of human life which takes place in a pattern of orderly recurrence with which the poet must come to terms, the free verse poem with an assumption of openness or chaos in which an order must be discovered.”[1] This fundamental shift in the craft of poetry coincides with – and some would say arises out of – fundamental upheavals in Western civilization, most notably the erosion of traditional, rigid class systems that followed the World Wars.

If a poet abandons both rhyme and meter, how does she give a poem shape or music? What elements of craft remain, and what new tools must we create? Without meter, poetic line becomes one of the primary means of affecting a poem’s trajectory.

Continue reading “Craft Annotation: Poetic Line in the Work of William Carlos Williams”

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Second Packet

Below is the cover letter for the second packet of my first semester at the Lesley MFA program. I was fortunate enough to work with Sharon Bryan that term.

Dear Sharon:

Receiving your feedback on the first packet was inspiring. It managed to set just the right balance between encouragement and challenge. I agree with you that I should focus on free verse line for the rest of the semester. I did want to try my hand at some forms I’d seen in Plath’s and Bishop’s writing – especially the aba / bcb tercets with long-short-long alternations in addition to the rhymes. They were forms I hadn’t worked with before, especially with the use of off-rhymes. It’s so easy to want to emulate the style and voice of the poet one is reading rather than applying some of their craft to one’s own voice.

Continue reading “Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Second Packet”

Poetry Reading: Heather Derr-Smith, Erica Charis, Frances Donovan, and Sonja Johanson

If you’re in Boston this weekend, come on down to the newly renovated Jamaica Plain Public Library on Saturday, February 3 for a poetry reading at 2:00 pm. Continue reading “Poetry Reading: Heather Derr-Smith, Erica Charis, Frances Donovan, and Sonja Johanson”

Craft Annotation: Elizabeth Bishop’s Use of Rhyme

Photograph of a fish, subject of a famous poem by Elizabeth Bishop

In her book The Discovery of Poetry, Frances Mayes discusses rhyme within the context of repetition. This element of craft goes far beyond the end-stopped pure rhymes (mop/top) most people associate with poetry. Rhyme can be any kind of repetition of sound: slant rhymes (month/up); internal rhymes (the loud cloud growled); alliteration, consonance, and assonance (“tremendous fish,” “speckled with barnacles,” “coarse white flesh”); repetition of words, or repetition of entire lines.

Elizabeth Bishop uses all these techniques. Rhyme runs through her poetry like a subtle thread: always there, but not often when or how it’s expected. Even her prose poems (“Rainy Season: Sub-Tropics”) contain internal rhyme, alliteration, consonance, and assonance: “My sides move in rhythmic waves, just off the ground, from front to back, the wake of a ship, a wax-white water, or a slowly melting floe.” One can also interpret the overlap of events in these prose poems as a kind of rhyme. In each piece, the titular animal speaks but portrays the same encounters from a different perspective: “Beware, you frivolous crab,” says the toad. “And I want nothing to do with you either, sulking toad,” says the crab. “Cheer up, O grievous snail. I tap your shell, encouragingly,” says the crab. “What’s that tapping on my shell?” asks the snail.

Continue reading “Craft Annotation: Elizabeth Bishop’s Use of Rhyme”

Boston-Area Poetry Readings for January and February 2018

Poetry to Beat the Winter Blues. Photo credit: Pom Angers via Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0.

In my unbiased opinion, the one must-see reading this winter is happening on Saturday, February 3 at 2pm. Come see me (Frances Donovan), Erica Charis-Molling, Sonja Johnson, and Heather Derr-Smith read for free at the newly renovated library in beautiful Jamaica Plain.

Others might argue that honor goes to Nikki Giovanni (!) at Brookline Booksmith on Friday, February 2.

Also a shout-out to Regie Gibson and the other fine poets performing at the Gwendolyn Brooks tribute this Saturday, January 13 in Lexington, Mass.

All readings are in Massachusetts.

Friday, January 12, 7:30 pm
Alan Smith Soto, Tim Suermondt, and Pui Ying Wong
Loring-Greenough House
12 South Street (across from the Monument)
Jamaica Plain, MA

Saturday January 13, 3 pm
Chris O’Carroll and David Davis
Powow River Poets Reading Series
Newburyport Public Library
94 State St.
Newburyport, MA

Saturday, January 13, 4 pm
Tara Skurtu
Porter Square Books
25 White Street
Cambridge, MA

Saturday, January 13, 7:30 pm
Contemporary Poets Celebrate Gwendolyn Brooks
Nancy Boutilier, Robert Carr, Jennifer Clarvoe, Tom Daley, Regie Gibson, Krysten Hill, Dorian Kotsiopoulos, Julia Lisella, Kathy Nilsson, Sabrina Sadique, Lloyd Schwartz, Joyce Swagerty, Cammy Thomas, Jonathan Weinert
Munroe Saturday Nights series
First Parish Church
7 Harrington Road
Lexington, MA

Wednesday, January 17, 8 pm
Valerie Duff and Musical Guest
Unearthed Song & Poetry
Home.stead Bakery & Cafe
Fields Corner
1448 Dorchester Ave.
Dorchester, MA

Continue reading “Boston-Area Poetry Readings for January and February 2018”