Rilke had been fascinated by the formal conundrum of enclosure and freedom at least since his tenure as Auguste Rodin’s assistant. In 1902 the poet was commissioned to write a monograph on the great sculptor. Exhilarated by his visit to Rodin’s studio, where fragments of the massive Gates of Hell met him in the courtyard, he entered into the older man’s employ and observed the rules of genius–the first of which was not to wait for inspiration. Rilke, whose fame thrives on the legend of his creative outbursts and angelic dictation, learned from Rodin that daily labor is necessary preparation for the moment of insight. He also learned that art is about the struggle with materials. Yet how does one make an analogy between sculpture and poetry? Sculpture has mass; language is mere air. As William Gass, a devotee of Rilke, remarks in his essay “Rilke’s Rodin,” “All of us have emotions urgently seeking release, and many of us have opinions we think would do the world some good, however the poet must also be a maker, as the Greeks maintained, and, like the sculptor, like every other artist, should aim at adding real beings to the world, beings fully realized.”
But how can “beings fully realized” be fashioned from language? It was this question that provoked Rilke to delve more deeply into his subjects, to release the invisible being in them the way Michelangelo “freed” the angel in the stone by carving. Though they are known as his “thing-poems,” what is original about them is that their still lifes are dynamic; it’s as if Rilke translates the seemingly random movement of their atoms. In “Archaic Torso of Apollo” the torso “burns,” the gaze “holds fast and shines,” the breast is a “surge,” the slightly twisting loins make a “smile.” And if still lifes are dynamic, conversely, living beings are captured in states of arrest, or extracted from the general buzz of life and held up like rare objects, apotheoses of inwardness, by the connoisseur-poet. In straining against naturalism and creating crossings between the animate and inanimate, Rilke demonstrated that language can appear to free a hidden being in an object that has acquired its own freestanding splendor, separate from authorial ego and what Gass calls “a message in a bottle” or “feelings raised like a flag.” These crossings are not descriptions but enactments of form coming to enclose as the chisel comes to liberate–two motions that are essentially one in the imagination.
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