Charlie Louth on Rainer Maria Rilke


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New Books in Poetry


Charlie Louth’s illuminating recent book, Rilke: The Life of the Work (Oxford University Press, 2021) examines why Rilke’s poems have exercised such preternatural attraction for now several generations of readers. The early 20th century German-language poet captured the experience of European culture irrevocably lurching into modernity, where an entire continent was forced to trade in its untenable and ultimately fantastically unrealistic Romantic worldview for the sober realization that humans are capable of even greater evil than any gods, and that life has meaning only if we continually create it. But unlike some other modernists, Rilke captured this vast cultural rupture in exceptionally beautiful and ever more effectively crafted, if ever less formal, poetry. Instead of explaining this effect away, Louth deepens the transformative experience of reading Rilke by offering his interpretation as one option among others and thus engaging the reader directly in the unfolding of each of Rilke’s words. Louth’s book follows the chronology of Rilke’s life (1875 – 1926) but focuses on the works, often in the context of the situation when they were written, rather than on Rilke’s itinerant life. I spoke with Charlie about the enduring importance of Rilke, about the Duino Elegies, and whether Rilke’s 1915 poem “Death” – or any of his works in general – can alleviate the cold fact that as humans, no matter how blessed, we will face inconsolable loss. Charlie Louth is Associate Professor of German and Fellow of Queen’s College, at Oxford University, in England. His research interests include poetry from the 18th century onwards, especially Goethe, Hölderlin, Mörike, Rilke and Celan; romanticism; translation; and comparative literature. His books include: Rilke: The Life of the Work (Oxford: OUP, 2020); Hölderlin and the Dynamics of Translation (Oxford: Legenda, 1998); (editor, with Patrick McGuinness), Gravity and Grace: Essays for Roger Pearson (Oxford: Legenda, 2019); (editor, with Florian Strob), Nelly Sachs im Kontext — eine »Schwester Kafkas«? (Heidelberg: Winter, 2014), and other works. He’s also translated Rilke’s Letters to Young Poet & The Letter from the Young Worker (Penguin, 2011). Uli Baer teaches literature and photography as University Professor at New York University. A recipient of Guggenheim, Getty and Humboldt awards, in addition to hosting "Speaking of…” he hosts (with Caroline Weber) the podcast "The Proust Questionnaire” and is Editorial Director at Warbler Press. Email; Twitter @UliBaer. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit Support our show by becoming a premium member!