Poet's Pick April 6
Rainer Maria Rilke: "Before Summer Rain"
Selected by Jay Hopler
National Poetry Month 2012

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Jay Hopler's Poetry Month Pick, April 6, 2012

"Before Summer Rain"
by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926)
translated from the German by Jay Hopler

And just like that, from all the green in the garden,
you don’t know what, some…thing, is taken away;
you feel it come near the window
and be quiet.  From the hedgerow

is heard the call of the plover, as plaintive
as it is strong.  You think of Jerome:
there is in this one voice such an intense loneliness,
only a downpour

could answer it.  The chamber walls
with their pictures of us step away, so as not to overhear our conversation. 
And the faded wallpaper shines

with the uncertain light of those
childhood afternoons, in which you were
so very, very scared.

* Jay Hopler Comments:
Though not an object poem in the same way that, say, his poem “Blue Hydrangea” is an object poem (which is to say, this poem is not so much a still life, as it is a portrait of a life stilling or stilled), “Before Summer Rain” is nevertheless a perfect example of what happens when a poet with a painter’s eye and one of the best ears in early-twentieth-century Europe takes the artist’s devotion to accuracy and specificity and raises it to the level of religious observance.  It represents the transformation of the attentive/perceptive gesture into the existential act.

This is why I would argue with those who see “Before Summer Rain,” and the other poems in New Poems (1907) and New Poems: The Other Part (1908), as triumphs of objectivity.  These poems only appear to be objective.  What’s really happening in these poems: Rilke is looking so intensely at the world around him that his gaze is shining through the things he is considering and shining right back into him, illuminating the internal landscapes for which the external landscapes are merely corollaries (as Rilke himself puts it in the beginning of his poem “The Interior Rose”: “Where is for this Inside/an Outside?”)  

Rather than instances of objects-turned-subjects perceiving their one-time perceivers, as some have suggested, the poems in both parts of Rilke’s New Poems are, instead, instances of a Self revealing itself to itself, of Rilke seeing through Rilke into Rilke.  The interesting thing about “Before Summer Rain”—one of the interesting things—is that much, if not all, of the actual looking at the world has taken place in the white space before the poem begins.  “Before Summer Rain” opens not with the seeing, but with the having seen, with a consciousness rendered so intensely present in a specific place and time as a result of that having seen that it senses rather than knows when something as particular as it is indescribable has been removed from the landscape. 

“Before Summer Rain,” then, as a study in attention and perception, begins nearly two-thirds complete; Rilke has looked already out and through the world.  What’s left is for his gaze to return to those internal spaces from which it sprang.  And this it does rapidly, the weight of revelation increasing exponentially as the poem progresses: once the poem’s hypersensitive consciousness is introduced, the reader is presented with the call of a bird only to have that call resolved immediately and imaginatively in an associative leap.  What begins with a plover’s call ends with Saint Jerome.  From there, the poem moves ever more quickly inward until—having reached those chamber walls with their faded wallpaper and their portraits and their creepy light—we find ourselves standing with Rilke in that despicable flat in Prague where he was born and raised and where he learned to crave solitude watching his parents writhe in each other’s miserable company.

This is not to say that “Before Summer Rain” is simple autobiography.  By the time Rilke wrote this poem, he had become far too tough-minded and was far too accomplished a craftsman to let himself slip into that trap.  He was, however, a man with certain obsessions, hang-ups, and the more he focused his gaze outward, the more surely that at which he was trying not to look surfaced in every word choice, every turn of phrase, every image, every line break.  This is the beauty of poetry writing—poetry reading, for that matter: you see what there is to see, no matter what it is you’re looking at.

About Jay Hopler:
Jay Hopler's work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, The New Republic, and Slate. He teaches at the University of South Florida.

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