In the year 2017, I bought Letters to a Young Poet during travel to Lahore for work. I was not much aware of who Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926) was and what he had written. In Pakistan, I had hardly come across his translated works in paper form. Though the digital world has given access to his work to English readers, still, the potential of his work at least in the Pakistani context remains to be explored further. However, it was in the Netherlands that I met Rilke again, through a young poetess equally doubtful about herself as Rilke was.
Kent Nerburn describes him in these words, “[…] Rilke, an often sickly young man of delicate sensibilities and uncertain artistic direction, who suffered long periods of artistic aridity and terrifying self-doubt […] he lived in the constant fear of days when all inspiration failed him and he was left with nothing […]”
Franz Xaver Kappus, an Austrian military cadet, wrote letters to Rainer Maria Rilke; the response from Rilke was later published and lay at my side when I started reading his work again. Though my reading of Rilke’s poem is not my own, it is through the eyes of a young poetess who is equally hesitant and unsure about her work, yet freshly captures the beauty of Rilke.
In his poem People at Night (trans. Margarete Münsterberg) he writes;
But if you make your dark house light,
To look on strangers in your room,
You must reflect – on whom.
Who do we turn to in our darkest, and frail moments? It is often to our fear of the future and ideals we have made for ourselves; someone we secretly desire to be in the distant time ahead – who knows when. Rilke wrote to Franz Xaver that there is one way he could have explored the depth of his work, “[…] Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write.” I wish I could name the unnamed poetess, but it would only put her under the shadow of someone else, and as a consequence, her voice might become subject to mine, but there are many more who would struggle the same to formulate not just the feelings, experience and surroundings but ‘soul’ and Rilke will connect with them all. As much as it will connect with the young poetess who introduced me to Rilke’s work.
The more I read Rilke, the more incidents of my own life have become meaningful. One reason I will never forget him is that during the time I was reading Rilke, my father passed away. I was away from family and there was no immediate way to express what I felt, friends in the Netherlands did not know me well, neither about my father; and I did not know how to express my grief. I have struggled with expressing sorrow. I simply do not know what to say, what to show. In Pakistan moments of sorrow – especially death – are expected to be a public demonstration of loss, grief and articulation of memories (known in Urdu as baan dalna; grieving with loud cries in a rhythmic form containing memories from the dead). I have never been like that, memories are personal, sacred and holy, they contain the person and time – both are eternal.
At that time Rilke became a secret companion, and in him, I found how to say aloud my heart’s state and grief the day my father passed away.
In these verses from Autumn:
And in the nights, the heavy Earth, too, falls
From out the stars into the solitude. (Trans. Jessie Lamont)
Rilke has an appeal to Urdu poets. A recent exploration of the scenic beauty of Pakistan in the past two decades can be an intersecting point between Rilke and Urdu literature. He is considered the most lyrical poet and what one can gather from his perspective on Urdu is a matter of each individual who interacts with his poetry. One thing is for sure: the enriched terrain of German poetry needs to be explored in Urdu.
Through Rilke, I found that I have to find solitude in myself. It is to be found in retreating, calming, and reminding myself that the best expression of my soul could only be found when I go within –that is where I want to start, and in this journey, Rilke will be with me.