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Prayers of a Young Poet

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

As other reviewers have mentioned, the translation of these poems by Mark S. Burrows is quite extraordinary!  Burrows wrote both the introduction and the afterword that beautifully captures the vision of Rilke in his poetry.  Burrows gives us a solemn warning which I took to heart after reading this book by writing, “Readers who prefer poems written in the plain language of conversation will be sorely disappointed with his poems…..One might even say that Rilke rarely wrote with readers in mind, a puzzling statement to make about an artist who work has proven so popular” (119).  But, even if this point is true in reading Rilke’s poetry, his work is marked by a searching or longing for meaning and purpose that places the words and phrases squarely within a human perspective.  Challenging and honest, these prayers are illuminating for highlighting the human condition and the longing for relief from the cantankerous spirit of the finite.

In the second poem, Rilke writes, “I’m circling around God, around the ancient tower, and I’ve been circling for thousands of years” (36).  Burrows points out that this metaphor for God as an ancient tower is connected to the finitude of Rilke’s state but also to the foundation or stature that he takes God to be.  There is I believe a beautiful paradox working out in this poem.  On one hand, Rilke has been circling around God, knowing something about God in the midst of these widening rings.  Yet, his circling is endless and he doesn’t quite know how he relates to this ancient tower.  Is this part of the mystery of God who is the unknown known, the one who hides himself in a tower but seeks to be known through letting his hair down the tower wall.  This beautiful verse is a reminder for me of two different but similar theological stances; one, for Luther, at certain times, God was deus absconditus, the hidden God, hiding his face from his people and secondly, in the Orthodox tradition, there is a sense in which God is the ineffable mystery, the one who is so majestic  that he is difficult to be grasped. 

In the third poem, Rilke contrasts the robed brothers who live in cloisters from his own experience of God.  He writes that, “God passes glowingly through them as they paint their Madonnas so humanly” (37).  But for himself, Rilke writes, “But when I bow down into my self: My God is dark and like a clump of a hundred roots drinking silently” (37).  The exchange between light and darkness, between glowingly and silently is a contrast not only in perception but also in an awareness of the difference between communal affection and solitary musings.  Yet, this difference isn’t only negative, for Rilke seems to intimate that he lifts himself from His warmth, God’s warmth.  It is interesting at this point in the poem that although Rilke says, “My God is dark,” he also points out the he lifts himself “from his warmth.”  Though he might not have a clear vision of God, there is a solidarity he finds with these robed brothers in the effect of God’s presence upon Rilke and them.  Furthermore, Rilke does not speak of God in most of these poems in biblical language, but in a unique blend of metaphor deep emotional trains of thought. 

I admit that not all of these poems I understand fully but I am certainly impacted by his honest vision and struggle with God in these poems.  The journey of seeking God, belief and unbelief is a plight that all humans wrestle with.  Rilke passionately reveals that journey to seek after a picture of God that is connected to the daily grind of workers.  I hope these poems find a wide readership and are pondered long after an initial reading.  Rilke might not be the easiest to discern but he is worth the effort to read these prayers carefully and slowly.

Thanks to Paraclete Press for the review copy of this book in exchange for review.


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