Sunday, 13 April 2014

Review: 'The Rilke Alphabet' by Ulrich Baer

As a German, I am sort of familiar with Rainer Maria Rilke, but mainly through what my mother has told me. Although I hadn't read a lot by him, I wanted to know more about how he thought as a poet and I thought this collection would be a good gateway into his mind and works. And I was definitely right.
The enduring power of Rainer Maria Rilke's poetry rests with his claim that all we need for a better life on earth is already given to us, in the here and now. In twenty-six engaging and accessible essays, Ulrich Baer's The Rilke Alphabet examines this promise by one of the greatest poets in any tradition that even the smallestoverlooked word may unlock life's mysteries to us.
Fueled by an unebbing passion and indeed love for Rilke's poetry, Baer examines twenty-six words that are not only unexpected but also problematic, controversial, and even scandalous in Rilke's work. In twenty-six mesmerizing essays that eschew jargon and teutonic learnedness for the pleasures and risks of unflinchingly engaging with a great artist's genius, Baer sheds new light on Rilke's politics, his creative process, and his deepest and enduring thoughts about life, art, politics, sexuality, love, and death.

The first thing I have to say is that I really like the idea of this book. According to the introduction, Rilke expressed a desire to 'transcribe the whole dictation of existence'. The idea that he wanted to create a guide for how to to approach life and the way it is expressed is, I feel, quite natural to a poet and an author, but also to every human being. We want to find a way to categorize and order our experiences and Baer does this through the alphabet, the one thing most of us know inside out. Our ABC is one of the first real things we learn and it is from these letters that our words and therefore expressions are created. As such, I loved the idea that this was used to try and familiarise the reader with some of Rilke's more abstract ideas and theories was a very good call. It also allows the reader to perhaps choose some chapters at random every once in a while, rather than force them to read all of the book at once. 

A point I do have to make is that this seems to be a book of literary criticism. What I mean by that is that it discusses a work by Rilke in each chapter and goes into the background of it, the possible intent etc. I would consider quoting it in my essays, if I was ever lucky enough to be allowed to write about Rilke. But this also means that it is no "introductory work". If you've never read Rilke and pick this book up in the hope it will tell you whether you should or not, then you have chosen the wrong book. If I hadn't read the poem the chapter was discussing I only made it 4 pages into the chapter before having to look up the poem, just so I could see whether my initial feelings agreed with what Baer was saying. This might be because my degree is teaching me form my own opinions, but it is something to bear in mind in case you aren't sure yet about whether Rilke is for you.

It is hard to review what seems, in essence, a collection of small essays relating to different poems and concepts. This collection covers everything from racism in his poem 'The Ashanti', described in 'a for Ashanti', to the confrontation with death in 'e for Entrails'. What can be discussed however, is the way Baer approaches these topics. What I have learned over the last three years is that if critics and teachers can't explain something simply, they don't understand it themselves either. Baer clearly has his own ideas about some themes and explains these very well. His writing style is easy to follow and is accessible, i.e. not full of literary terms or complicated language just to sound intelligent. The only flaw I can find is one I find in most literary criticism and even in my own papers, namely that there is not enough evidence from the text. There are, of course, quotes in each chapter, direct references to Rilke's texts, but there is hardly any real linguistic analysis that goes into the poem on a grammatical and lexical level. But on the other hand, this isn't the collection for that kind of research, but rather for allowing a reader to get a deeper understanding of Rilke's work.

I give this collection...

3 Universes.

It is difficult to categorise a collection like this, because there is no overal plot etc. to judge. As such, I don't know whether I'd reread this collection unless I was looking for some extra knowledge on Rilke, but I definitely found in interesting to read. The reason I'm giving it 3 Universes is because not every chapter was equally interesting, but that is bound to happen in any collection. Overall, Baer does very well in explaining and exploring different themes in such a way they are understandable and accessible. But most importantly, each chapter makes you want to go and search for a poem, or a novel or a letter, and a collection like this really can't wish for anything more. I definitely recommend it to those that are fans of Rilke's work, but also to those that enjoy literary criticism and want to be introduced to a new author.

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