Friday, June 10, 2011


Recently, my attention was called to a blog called Paying Attention to the Sky.

I was so struck by the two poems featured in the below post, and the whole notion of work ripening to a "transparent fullness," and exhaustion as "inner fermentation," and learning to trust the stranger that is yourself and has been there all your life, that I figured you'd all enjoy it, too.


Rilke and Walcott

April 5, 2011

I came across this video presentation by David Whyte. It’s very clever and very good, one of the few presentations of poetry that made sense to me. I like the constant repetition he employs. Poetry is so compact that when we speak it we need to unpack it by repetition so that the mind can catch up. I’ve taken some of his main points (along with the poems here) to give you an idea what he is trying to do.

It’s just great advice: if not for others than for yourself. This is the kind of advice that seems to need repeating. I don’t know where you are in your journey but stop and listen to this for a moment and see whether a correction is not in order.

The Swan – Rilke Rainer Maria
The labouring through what is still undone,
as though, legs bound, we hobbled along the way,
is like the awkward walking of the swan.
And dying – to let go, no longer feel
the solid ground we stand on every day
is like his anxious letting himself fall
into the water, which receives him gently
and which, as though with reverence and joy,
draws back past him in streams on either side;
while, infinitely silent and aware,
in his full majesty and ever more
indifferent, he condescends to glide.

This is the Robert Bly translation that Whyte uses:

This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.
And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.

“You are like Rilke’s Swan in his awkward waddling across the ground; In water this most graceful of creatures is evolution’s klutz stepchild on land. One leg seems to cross over in front of another rocking the great bird off its balance which he barely manages to salvage with his next step. And on it goes, the creature with its own ballet named after it appearing as a vomit-soaked soldier stumbling toward his bunk.

The swan doesn’t cure his awkwardness by beating himself on the back, by moving faster, or by trying to organize himself better. Rilke tells us he does it by moving toward the elemental water where he belongs. It is the simple contact with the water that gives him grace and presence.

But what Rilke is really telling us is that we only have to touch the elemental waters in our own lives, and it will transform everything. But you have to let yourself down into those waters from the ground on which you stand, and that can be hard. Particularly if you think you might drown.

And to die, which is the letting go
Of the ground we stand on and cling to every day

This nervously letting yourself down, this ängst -lichen Sich-Niederlassen, as it says in the German, takes courage, and the word courage in English comes from the old French word cuer, heart. You must do something heartfelt, and you must do it soon.

Let go of all this effort, he says, and let yourself down, however awkwardly, into the waters of the work you want for yourself. It’s all right, you know, to support yourself with something secondary until your work has ripened, but once it has ripened to a transparent fullness, it has to be gathered in. You have ripened already, and you are waiting to be brought in. Your exhaustion is a form of inner fermentation. Learn to trust the stranger who is yourself, the one you have never trusted but who has been there all your life:

Love After Love – Derek Walcott
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Adapted from a video presentation by David Whyte.  Here’s looking at you, Heather.


  1. Wow. A decade ago I participated in an academy for professionals in Maine who were sent looking for their souls which had been sucked out of them by the corporations they worked for. I was one of a handful non-profit bleeding heart types thrown into the classes; our souls were sucked out by our work using a totally different method. David Whyte labored with the group for 6 weeks. He shared Walcott's Love After Love, just like here, using the effective repetition. The poem stuck with me for a long time. And Rilke presents here at a personally critical moment. The mystery of connection never fails to slay me, and I'm also amazed by how Whyte gets around! Also, I quit my job shortly after the academy and wandered around Europe for 2 months. Thanks for sharing, Heath.

  2. Heather,

    I cannot begin to articulate how moved I am by reading this. Heath's personal observation applies very much to me as well: "And Rilke presents here at a personally critical moment." Quite. Walcott, too. Indeed, Walcott's poem strikes an even deeper chord.

    During a fight with my wife the other day (the kind that most normal married people have), I leaned over the kitchen counter and whispered raspingly through grit teeth: "I hate myself. I've always hated myself." While the nature of the fight was a normal thing, my response obviously was not. Yet what I said was true. Something is very much broken, and has been for a long, long time. Walcott's poem puts its finger squarely on the wound. I won't say any more about it right now. Perhaps more later.

    Once again, this blog seems to have "arrived" at the right time in my life. I see God's providence in it.


  3. Wow: Rilke and Walcott in the same blog...
    Always Rilke. He manages to write about the soul,the heart and the human even in a swan.
    I must admit when I read the name Derek Jeter (as a diehard Yankee fan)
    I was a bit mystified:)Thanks for leading me to his blog.

  4. Rilke. I memorized a bunch of the Duino Elegies because of the mystical beauty in his word. And yes, when you are the swan bound, the only way to unbind is to touch the elemental waters. Appropriate post for Pentecost, by the way :) I need to let the spirit fill me and guide me towards my own elemental waters.

  5. So glad you all liked this beautiful post from Paying Attention to the Sky. Swans, Rilke, Walcott: how can you go wrong?...Scanning my vast files of quotes, I just came across this one:

    "There is here no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!"
    --Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet

  6. A beautiful entry -- I wasn't familiar with "The Swan", but when I moved to my first New York apartment (in the Bronx, actually), I wrote the following Rilke poem (tran. Stephen Mitchell) on my wall with pastels in a variety of vespertine hues. It's still such a favorite, although one I hadn't thought to revisit until now. As a new Catholic (as of this Easter) who has been searching my soul and quietly recalibrating my place in the world, it has a new resonance.


    The sky puts on the darkening blue coat
    held for it by a row of ancient trees;
    you watch: and the lands grow distant in your sight,
    one journeying to heaven, one that falls;

    and leave you, not at home in either one,
    not quite so still and dark as the darkened houses,
    not calling to eternity with the passion
    of what becomes a star each night, and rises;

    and leave you (inexpressibly to unravel)
    your life, with its immensity and fear,
    so that, now bounded, now immeasurable,
    it is alternatively stone in you and star

    Thank you, Heather!

  7. Well if you are going to put a poem on your wall in vespertine hues, I'd say this is the one! Thanks, Stephen...


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