Joanna Macy and Ranier Maria Rilke

A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity.

Listen to the poet:

Through the empty branches the sky remains.
It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that he who began it all
can feel you when he reaches for you.

Listen to the activist:

Joanna Macy: writer, leader, activist


The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world — we’ve actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other.

On the way home from the Rally To Restore Sanity, which was delightfully exhausting and insane, I listened to a podcast of Being from American Public Media. As two children slept in the back of my car – my eleven year old son Griffen and his friend Jam, who is fourteen – I heard an interview with Joanna Macy by Krista Tippett. Joanna was talking about her relationship to the artist who has inspired me more than any other: the turn of the century poet Ranier Marie Rilke. Joanna and her co-translator Anita Barrows have created A Year With Rilke, selections of the poet’s writing for every day of the year. I own it now.

I was overwhelmed by Joanna’s deep knowledge of Rilke, and the way she described how his poetry and writing had shaped the way she sees love, faith and the earth. She described a nearly erotic connection to his words, so deep and passionate is her feeling about them. Listening to her, I heard two kindred spirits speaking: Joanna and Rene.

Read as little as possible of literary criticism - such things are either partisan opinions, which have become petrified and meaningless, hardened and empty of life, or else they are just clever word-games, in which one view wins today, and tomorrow the opposite view.

Like many Rilke followers, my first exposure to him was through his slender book of letters called Letters to a Young Poet. These are Rilke’s responses to a vulnerable letter he received from Franz Kappus, who was a student at the same military school Rilke had been sent to, and which had very nearly killed the young Rilke, whose own vulnerability could not withstand it. So they were kindred souls, but more. For Kappus is the kindred soul of all young artists reaching out for help through the maelstrom of late adolescence. Listen to the young poet, from Kappus’ introduction to the first edition of the letters, published in 1929:

Not yet twenty, and close on the threshold of a profession which I felt to be entirely contrary to my inclinations, I hoped to find understanding, if in any one, in the poet who had written Mir zur Feier. And without having intended to do so at all, I found myself writing a covering letter in which I unreservedly laid bare my heart as never before and never since to any second human being.

Kappus stands in for all young artists, from all time, including this one. And Rilke’s loving and personal letters in response – so extraordinary in their combination of frankness and lyricism – have been guiding young artists ever since. One of his most quoted passages from Letter Four:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

So much of what I am as an artist and a person can be traced to what I read in this little book, which I remember having to put down when I first read it, so I could catch my breath and savor the vibrations running through my body. My resistance to “answers”, for instance, and my love of mystery. My suspicion of artistic theory and criticism. My conception of artistic creativity as the result of a primal need, rather than an aesthetic whim.  My understanding of the life of the artist as something heroic, achieved through sacrifice and difficulty, at odds with the expectations of convention, and yielding rewards which can barely be articulated. My deeply personal spirituality, rooted in an earthy and mysterious Christianity, in which God appears and disappears like the mists in Rilke’s poetry: a God who needs me to be fully human, so She can be fully God, and flow through me.

Physical pleasure is a sensual experience no different from pure seeing or the pure sensation with which a fine fruit fills the tongue; it is a great unending experience, which is given us, a knowing of the world, the fullness and the glory of all knowing. And not our acceptance of it is bad; the bad thing is that most people misuse and squander this experience and apply it as a stimulant at the tired spots of their lives and as distraction instead of a rallying toward exalted moments.

And love. Kappus must have been grappling with the same heated passions I was at 18, and Rilke’s wise eroticism, linking desire to the apprehension of beauty, counseling us that love must be learned again and again, that it loving is our highest calling and most difficult challenge, these ideas came rushing back Sunday night, as I listened to Joanna Macy read Rilke’s poetry and muse about her relationship to him, which is very much like mine.

Sometimes we discover an artist who seems to sing our life to us, or paint what we see but can’t describe, or write who we are before we even know it. These are our spirit-artists, rising beyond “inspiration” to become guardian angels, following us through our lives and marking our journeys. We feel biologically related to them, and rather than feel crushed by their greatness, we are comforted, the way a song our mother sings more beautifully than we ever could rocks us into peacefulness. These artists continue to reappear in our lives without effort, as if they are following us around, and when we hear, see or read them we smile, or cry, and say Oh you again. For me: James Taylor, William Shakespeare, Rickie Lee Jones, Eric Satie and Ranier Marie Rilke.

He says to me, here I am again. Why do you think I have come to you now? He says:

First a childhood, limitless and without
renunciation or goals. O unselfconscious joy.
Then suddenly terror, barriers, schools, drudgery,
and collapse into temptation and loss.

Defiance. The one bent becomes the bender,
and thrusts upon others that which it suffered.
Loved, feared, rescuer, fighter, winner
and conqueror, blow by blow.

And then alone in cold, light, open space,
yet still deep within the mature erected form,
a gasping for the clear air of the first one, the old one…

Then God leaps out from behind his hiding place.

Imaginary Life Journey, 1923

Some day, I am going to make a performance about him, his life, his loves, his art. Yes, I will.