Even before the first world war, German poet Rainer Maria Rilke foresaw many of the great tragedies of the 20th century. His poems in the Book of Hours carry metaphors and images that give a strong indication of the darkness to follow—concentration camps, diseases and epidemics, and nuclear bombings. “Some of his poems are as if he’s consoling God for… what’s happened to his creation,” said Rilke translator and Buddhist philosopher of ecology Joanna Macy in an interview with On Being.
But for Macy, the poetry of Rilke also provides a way to move beyond the darkness that threatens to overwhelm us, even now as we have entered a new century with equally pressing problems. We live in a world of science, inundated with complex and voluminous facts and figures. Constantly plugged into this stream of information, we can see more clearly the threats posed to the world and every creature on it by climate change, wars, and destructive technology.
At times, those facts and figures can be overwhelming and leave us incapable of enacting positive change. Poetry, though, can help us move beyond our social paralysis to view the world in a more compassionate light.
“A poetic mindset is more useful than the kind of fact-based… or argument-based way we tend to approach problems culturally, even precisely the same ecological problems,” said On Being host Krista Tippet.
While science can describe the extent of global warming or categorize the countless species facing extinction due to human activities, poetry can reconnect our hearts to the world around us. Rilke’s poems have this kind of deep connection to the natural world—“You run like a herd of luminous deer, and I am dark, I am a forest.” But his poems are not just about nature; they encompass God, as well.
“He’s using image after image from the natural world to convey the mystery and the beauty and the relationship that we find in the sacred,” said Macy.
As the natural world nears a tipping point, Macy finds that a shift in society is already occurring. This transition is paralleled by earlier world-altering changes captured in Rilke’s poetry. “The great turning is a revolution that is underway,” said Macy, “the transition to a life-sustaining society.” This will include shifts in how we take care of the land, generate energy, produce our food, and measure prosperity and wealth.
We cannot know which way the future will turn, or which path our society will take the world down, but poetry can carry us forward. It can empower us to look at the world with compassion, even as we face our fear of the pain that we have already caused the Earth. We only have to make ourselves available to what Macy calls the “song that wants to sing itself through us.”
“Maybe the song that is to be sung through us is the most beautiful requiem for an irreplaceable planet,” said Macy, “or maybe it’s a song of joyous rebirth as we create a new culture that doesn’t destroy its world.”
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.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours