Poetic Prayer: a book review

I came to appreciate the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke while in seminary.  I had read some of his poems before in literature classes and his Letters to a Young Poet had been on my permanent ‘to read’ pile for quite sometime, but during one semester at seminary I took my Sabbaths at the sister seminary on campus. The Vancouver School of Theology houses the Thomas Merton Reading Room in their library. I would go, find a quite corner and listen to cassette tapes of Merton’s lectures to novice monks. Sometimes he spoke about the Catholic faith or Cistercian vows. Most often he lectured on literature. I remember hearing a lecture he gave on Rilke where he read a single poem in  a couple of English translations and then in the German so that his students could hear the sounds and get the sense of it. The German sang while Merton read it.

Prayers of a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke trans. by Mark S. Burrows

I do not know German so my enjoyment of Rilke is mediated to me through a translator. Mark Burrows does a deft job of bringing these poems to life in his publication of Prayers of a Young PoetBetween September 20th and October 14th, 1899, Rilke composed sixty-eight poems utilizing the voice of an old Russian Orthodox monk. These poems would  later be published as the first part of The Book of Hours; however these early poems are arranged chronologically here with Rilke’s prose narration. This  makes the entire collection one cohesive work and Rilke gives interpretive clues to understanding some of these poems. Sometimes Rilke gives the setting and occasion for each poem and even the subject troubling the mind of the monk.

Burrows includes an introductory essay and an Afterword on reading and translating Rilke. These essays themselves are worth the price of the book, but the real treat is reading Burrows translations. This is the first time these poems have been translated into English in this format and there is a freshness to them.

These poems are prayer poems. Rilke’s prayers (or the prayer of the old monk of the poems) dovetails nicely with my own prayers in places.  Rilke’s monk is full of spiritual longing, sees the transcendence of God and the interconnection of all things. At other points Rilke’s meanings are opaque and challenging.  Poetry like this is not made for quick consumption but should be carefully chewed and digested. There is a lot here.

Rilke’s monk does not address God directly but calls him, most often, “You.”  Here is [11] from this collection:

You, darkness from which I come,

I love you more than the flame

that bounds the world,

shining

in a single ring

beyond which no creature knows of it.

But the darkness seizes everything,

floods and flames–

how it grasps them,

people and powers . . .

And it is possible that a great strength

stirs in my neighborhood:

I believe in nights.

This poem and others speak of God–transcendent and immanent. however Rilke also explores the themes of poetry and iconography, death and mortality, faith and love, doubts and questions and the solitary self.  I love the words of these poems for the way they play in my ears.  This is really a beautiful collection written by a young Rilke (before he wrote Letters to a Young Poet).  I found Rilke’s old monk fascinating, occasionally irreverent (or perhaps just odd) but always interesting.  I would not consult Rilke’s monk for spiritual guidance, except at one point: the poetic voice of these poems prays honest prayers and does not hide behind platitudes and pretense. These are simple and beautiful offerings.

I highly recommend this book to any fellow lover of poetry or appreciator of Rilke. I give this book five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

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