René Rilke’s letters to the young Mr. Kappus are full of a faith in our experience of Nature, which makes of the artist a vessel for its inner logic, for its ways of behaving in which one can discover a depth of joy and a pain of beauty. His advice is to practice a giving-in, rather than an attempt at styling or taming, which would build only artifice and leave the experiencer blind to anything original, anything worth saying.

Discussion Monday 25 March, 5.30 PM
Siteation Space, 12 Little Britain Street (on the corner of Little Green St.), Dublin 7.

Letters to a Young Poet

See here for the transcript of our discussion.

Our responses to the texts

These are our responses to René Rilke’s texts that we chose to discuss. They were made in preparation for the discussion, which took place on 25 March, and were exhibited during our Rilke Poetry Evening, which took place on 8 April.


easel window


curtain window evening

window blurry

plane sky evening

window dark

plane sky evening

Some moments found to be that which
took flight,
and which in taking to air lost its scent of butter and the sound of
a quilt puckering,

quickly and with the sound of tightness breaking.

In falling I imagine the wings are simply tucked, but
the window, though thin, dulls what I would know as
air in all its variations.

As steam, as semi-droplet and wind.

My shoulder is bruising from its attempted nestle into glass and my
neck is aching from this tilt prolonged and upward.

Now moving again I realise I had no prior sense of evening.




Only the individual who is solitary is like a thing placed under profound laws, and when he goes out into the morning that is just beginning, or looks out into the evening that is full of happening, and if he feels what is going on there, then all status drops from him as from a dead man, though he stands in the midst of sheer life.

– Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

These images are a silent entry into the visual material of a scene.

Some of them were made during this project, some earlier.

They feature windows, animals, the domestic environment, portals, human traces, the spilling over of light..

Collectively, they might knit an environment which induces a disappearing or dissolving of the viewer, which rejects a purposeful gaze, lingering instead in the texture of the marginal things which, daily, absorb our passing through them.

*These are a selection of the images that were shown.


tumblr_m7sjv7TiTL1qk0m6zo2_1280Scan 15tumblr_m9qk80EzEu1qk0m6zo1_128016170001

This text was written in preparation for our discussion on Rilke which took place on 25th March.

My reading of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, in relation to our project and in light of our work already done on John Berger, formed itself into the following line of reasoning:

It begins with the importance of solitude, which translates into a spirituality. I then considered this spirituality in terms of Berger’s description of the ‘event’ and the conditions proposed as a setting for this experience, and finally how each views its translation into art.

This is a schematic outline of this development in Rilke’s writing. It is not an argument; it is rather a condensing of the thoughts explored in Letters, with the purpose of holding together evidence of the essential point that Rilke makes about beauty, and how it is generated by our experience of space. Rather than a conclusion then, it is an investigative tracking. I found this exercise to be the most valuable way of approaching the writing (at least in terms of placing it within the development of our project), since the experience in question is one whose reality words may only attempt to vibrate into consciousness.


Only the individual who is solitary is like a thing placed under profound laws, and when he goes out into the morning that is just beginning, or looks out into the evening that is full of happening, and if he feels what is going on there, then all status drops from him as from a dead man, though he stands in the midst of sheer life. (37)

We fear being alone because it constitutes a retreat from the constructs of commonality, the comforts that we weave into the world on a social level so that we can function within the familiar.

Incomprehension (which is what is faced when we embrace the “questions themselves”) is often viewed as a thing to defend oneself against, because it means being alone with oneself and one’s own personal engagement with the world. This defense can come in the form of disdain, which is “a sharing in that from which one wants by these means to keep apart.” (36)

Rilke is focused on how this artifice must be stripped away, how we must spend some time with the solitary experience of being open to the unknown, in order to get at something true in the material of life.

Do not be bewildered by the surfaces; in the depths all becomes law. (29)

If this openness is embraced with faith, if we exercise a giving-in to Nature, we will find a beauty in our experience of the world (things, animals, our own memories) through genuine engagement.

This beauty is an antidote to the solitude required to find it,  because it consists in a detection of the laws which govern our experience of the world, laws which are manifest in what he calls the eternal; we are not alone because when we partake of these laws, we are in contact with ourselves as manifest in our environment.

It is the detection of this kind of beauty that Rilke talks about (the beauty of being alone, of being in a place) which has given rise to this whole project. 

This surfaces when our environment appears transformed to reveal the eternal; it is an encounter with these laws that bind us to our experience and to the world. It is a recognition of the self in the material of experience.

If there is nothing in common between you and other people, try being close to things, they will not desert you; there are the nights still and the winds that go through that trees and across many lands; among things and with the animals everything is still full of happening, in which you may participate…Children are still the way you were as a child, sad like that and happy. (37)

This talk about faith in Nature spills over into a spirituality which sees us as a humble component of the world’s eternal thrust towards life. 

He talks about life renewing itself  in the little things, “the deep simple necessities”, like an enjoyment of food: by letting ourselves be taken up by and exercising basic human needs. (He mourns our increasing blindness to these little things, how our attitude to food is becoming one of want and superfluity, dulling the distinctness of its truth which is a need.) When he speaks about life renewing itself, he is speaking about a creative force that sustains and feeds our implantedness in the world, in which we must have faith if we are to partake of and become sensitive to its revelation.

He talks about childhood and its characteristic embrace of the mysterious and the unknown; this comes naturally to children because they are inherently courageous. He aligns this with a faith in God.

We are a product of something that is constantly becoming ripe, made by the same thing that tends towards its ultimate product. We are a part of the same material that is engaged in this activity, the constant becoming, the eternal thrust.

Why do you not think of him as the coming one, imminent from all eternity, the future one, the final fruit of a tree whose leaves we are? What keeps you from projecting his birth into times that are in process of becoming, and living your life like a painful and beautiful day in the history of a great gestation? For do you not see how everything that happens keeps on being a beginning? […] As the bees bring in the honey, so do we fetch the sweetest out of everything and build Him. With the trivial even, with the insignificant…  (38)

For Rilke, this is God:
{ The continual birth of the eternal out of our true gestures of engagement with the world and with ourselves. }

To the artist who wishes to engage with God, his advice is to “seek those [themes] which your own everyday life offers you… for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place… For the creator must be a world for himself and find everything in himself and in Nature to whom he has attached himself.” (16)

It can be found anywhere, not just in those things generally considered beautiful, interesting or noteworthy, because all is infused with us. There is not more beauty in Rome, but the same amount of beauty as elsewhere, “because there is much beauty everywhere.” (33)

One learns slowly to recognise the very few things in which the eternal endures that one can love and something solitary in which one can quietly take part. (33)

This approach to spirituality reminded me of an artist called Gary Coyle whose work can be seen as a documentary approach to daily life. 

Coyle carried out a project called The Daily Practice of Swimming, whereby he would swim in the Forty Foot bathing place beneath the Martello Tower in Dun Laoghaire almost daily, and would document both his journey and his swim by means of writing, mapping and beautiful luscious photographs of the sea. It acts as a performance of a secular ritual, which engages with space on a basic, repetitive level in order to detect in it something transformative (by subtle and humble attentiveness).

Ritualistic gestures of engagement have historically been attributed their quality of transcendence, of accessing the communal spirit, through religious significance. But Coyle’s ritual is secular; he uses places and his movements within them to access something beyond their physical fact.

The word secular comes from the Latin saeculum (generation, age), which was used in Christian Latin to denote the world.

So this relationship with the world, created by these secular gestures, can come to be something spiritual, having no religious bearing, but being to do with the human soul. A secular spirituality is that of the human soul in the world.

This requires an type of engagement with the world that is beyond utility; the tangible must be employed in the act of accessing the intangible.

The activity in this case is a gestural forging of an environment (by means of documentation), within which the richness of our experience of place, and everything contained within our connection to it, can surface.

What is happening when our experience of place allows it to be transformed to reveal the eternal?

Rilke attributes it to the laws of things coming into being. He also speaks in passing of the elements: wind and waterways, the fountains in Rome…

For Berger, these laws have something to do with the time of human consciousness being in convergence with the space that it fills out. And an awareness of this time can be prompted by certain conditions.

So both Berger and Rilke try to say something about these laws, about the conditions by which such experiences may be accessed, by which such transformation occurs.

Both writers mention animals, seeming to suggest that their presence with us in a place heightens our awareness of it and of our own engagement with it.

I believe this happens through a kind of incommensurability which exists as a gulf between us and animals; so that an encounter with an animal within our space can heighten our experience of our own consciousness within that same space by comparison, by interruption. The inset of their experience in space within our own sets up a tension which is a peering across.

This is something I experienced when making work in response to our Berger discussion.

In And Our Faces…, the first few pages describe different encounters with animals, and talk about how animals don’t have philosophical problems because each exists in its own holistic time, whereas humans live two times: that of the body and that of consciousness, so that everything we experience must find its place in this time. 

There is a poem by Rilke which I feel gets at this concept of the gulf between human and animal experience of place:

That the world finds its limits in us is thrown into relief by the presence of animals, whose experience of space is not a limiting one, who instead partake of the limitlessness.

[What birds plunge through is not the intimate space]

What birds plunge through is not the intimate space
in which you see all forms intensified.
(Out in the Open, you would be denied
your self, would disappear into that vastness.)

Space reaches from us and construes the world:
to know a tree, in its true element,
throw inner space around it, from that pure
abundance in you. Surround it with restraint.
It has no limits. Not till it is held
in your renouncing is it truly there.

It would seem that what they both are getting at is that this spiritual or transformative experience is the project of an intimacy with the world or with a place, one which is exclusively human and has to do with the time of our consciousness.

Like Berger, Rilke is very interested in both the act of creativity and the life of the work of art itself. 

In terms of a secular spirituality, the work of art is spiritual. By being born of a creative act of faith, sampling the same forces that are at work always in our experience, its reverberations extend beyond our control, continuing to teach us about our experience of the world and our connection to a place.

Rilke talks about experiencing like “some first human being”, which is comparable to the attention Berger pays to cave art, a topic he often returns to. They are excavators, not wanting to work from the built-up strata of artistic culture or history: they attend to experience as pure and originary as possible, stripped of its layers of developed meaning which can hide the actual thing from us.

On creativity, Rilke says:

[act of creating]
Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself… that alone is living the artist’s life: in understanding as in creating… (21 & 22)

[life of the work of art]
Things are not all so comprehensible and expressible, taking place [as they do] in a realm which no word has ever entered, and more inexpressible than all else are works of art, mysterious existences, the life of which, while ours passes away, endures. (15)

Here are two poems, one by Rilke and one by Berger, both of which present the same two things alongside each other:  the time of human consciousness, and the documentation or evidence of human existence; in doing so they forge an opening where the question lingers of what exists between the two as a bridge or translation. What surfaces is a grappling, through our experience of space or of physical existence, with our time in the world, the time of consciousness.

Portrait of my Father as a Young Man

In the eyes: dream. The brow as if it could feel
something far off. Around the lips, a great
freshness–seductive, though there is no smile.
Under the rows of ornamental braid
on the slim Imperial officer’s uniform:
the saber’s basket-hilt. Both hands stay
folded upon it, going nowhere, calm
and now almost invisible, as if they
were the first to grasp the distance and dissolve.
And all the rest so curtained with itself,
so cloudy, that I cannot understand
this figure as it fades into the background–.

Oh quickly disappearing photograph
in my more slowly disappearing hand.

– Rilke

And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos

When I open my wallet
to show my papers
pay money
or check the time of a train
I look at your face.

The flower’s pollen
is older than the mountains
Aravis is young
as mountains go.

The flower’s ovules
will be seeding still
when Aravis then aged
is no more than a hill.

The flower in the heart’s
wallet, the force
of what lives us
outliving the mountain.

And our faces, my heart, brief as photos.

– Berger


Full programme

See our resource page for items of interest

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