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Wolfenbüttel, September 2009

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The Rilke Literary Society meets, as you may know, each September and devotes a more or less long weekend to a particular aspect of Rainer Maria Rilke’s body of work. This past weekend- 25-27 September 2009, the Rilke Society met in Wolfenbüttel (a copy of the program), Germany (south of Braunschweig, east of Hannover). The theme of this year’s conference: The New Poems, written in the years leading up to their publication in 1907 / 1908.

If you are not familiar with the poems, you can find a copy of the original German text on at There are also a number of translations, including this one by Snow New Poems, 1907 and this one by Cohn New Poems: A Bilingual Edition (European Poetry Classics).

Much has been written and said about these poems and this little note doesn’t attempt to add to that body of criticism. No, this is just a note to tell you about my adventure, my travels to Germany, in particular to Wolfenbüttel, and back again.

The conference itself had about 100 attendees listed in the attendance list. As with my visit to the 2006 meeting in Dresden, the attendees for the overwhelming part had either Doctor or Professor or both listed along with their name. And, as with Dresden, the attendees listed their hometown, if I may borrow a translated phrase, in “widening circles that reach out across the (Rilke) world”, the epicenter of which is of course Germany, extending to its Germanic-speaking neighbors, outward again to England, France, Italy, Israel, and outward yet again to America: Brookline MA, Decatur GA, Lexington KY – and Hudson OH. And, as with Dresden, I came from America with neither a Professor nor a Doctor attached to my name.

Although I had been planning to attend the conference since I first received the invitation in May, I had made no definite flight plans to do so until the week prior to it. So, I found myself taking an indirect route from Akron, Ohio to Chicago and then to Dusseldorf, returning the very same way. The overnight flight from Chicago was sleepless and when I picked up my rental car at Dusseldorf airport I was tired and had a good three hour drive ahead of me on roads in a country I had never before driven. But, I had Google Maps on my Blackberry, a sunny day and a good sense of direction.

From Dusseldorf airport, I traveled west, past Essen, through Dortmond (because I had missed the bypass) and along the autobahn to Kassel (my rental Kia topped out at 180kph / ~112mph). At Kassel, I decided to do an American tourist thing and drive past the historic center of town and I lost some time before eventually locating the 7 and then getting myself pointed in the right direction on it – north. But with time lost that would soon come back into play I drove from Kassel north to Wolfenbüttel. Wolfenbüttel, by the way, is known in America, if at all, as the home of Jägermeister. Although the factory was on the map, I had no time for a tour.

The conference literature listed several hotels in Wolfenbüttel that were located in the town center nearby the conference itself. I hadn’t made any hotel reservations as yet and I lost some more time trying to find the quaintest one among them. I did not and so chose the one closest the train station. I had not showered since the day before and so I took care of that, put my suit on and set off for the conference.

With the help of Google Maps, I had already located the building where the conference was to be held (it being the “Castle” in the program photo). However, I had also received an email a few days prior that due to a street fair being held just outside of the proposed site – the Palace Museum – the conference would be moved elsewhere. I didn’t know where but thought that there must be some sign posted at the original location – and there was. A simple pink sheet of paper that read, handwritten, essentially: turn-around and go back the other way.

I went back across the oblong square and found another, then another – they were spaced apart like bread crumbs – and I soon found my way to the new location. As I passed the front of the building I could hear the speaker, confirming that I was indeed late. I came in through the designated entrance, which was actually into a room which was behind the speaker. I made the necessary arrangements with the staff there and went into the conference room. As I walked from behind the curtain which was behind the speaker, I heard him mention my name and the name of the book – Geschichten vom lieben Gott or Stories of God – in German, of course. As I walked to the back of the room and took my seat I was able to make out enough of the German such that I understood that he had been looking for this book and he recalled me from the Dresden conference which I had attended in 2006.

This speaker, I don’t yet have permission to use his name and so I’ll honor that, at each conference gives a talk on what’s new in the world of Rilke – books, films, etc. He was mentioning my book in this context. I had met him my last visit. At the dinner that final night in Dresden he said encouraging things to me about my project and wished me well. I had brought several books with me this visit, one each as a gift to each of the folks that had been so kind to me three years prior. One was for him. When he concluded his speech, I made my way up to him and waited my turn – for seemingly everyone wanted to talk to him. At my turn, it seemed he remembered me at some level. And so, I presented him with the book and in my very best German said, “Ich habe ein Buch for Sie”. – “I have a book for you.” He seemed to smile and came closer to me and said, in English, “Who told you to give me this book?” “No one,” I replied, “I came from America to give you this book. You may not remember me from the Dresden conference but you were very kind and encouraging. Well, my project is not yet finished but at least there is now this book.” And, I again thanked him. He told me that he had his assistant search for where he could buy it but couldn’t find out how. (I wish I could have told him to simply click on the link here to the right!) So, he seemed quite pleased to have the book.

I had brought four copies in all – one for each of the people that had been so very kind and encouraging to me. I am very grateful to one person in particular. Upon hearing me tell my tale, back then in Dresden, she had introduced me to all the rest – especially, as she put it, the three highest lights in current Rilke scholarship. I sought her out and found her again. She seemed to remember me and spoke to me in English as she accepted the book. And so on with the others. Here too I do not yet have permission to use their names and so I won’t. Suffice it to say, each seemed surprised and perhaps pleased to see me again.

Throughout the conference, at breaks, these folks would speak to me – in German as long I could manage – and ask me about the book, about my progress with German and about just every day things.

About the conference itself, it was quite over my head. I provided a link above to the current program and here it is again. Yes, it is in German, as were the entire proceedings. Which, is how it should be. Nevertheless, my command of real-time, spoken German is rather non-commanding as I take in the German and try and process it into English. Well, this doesn’t work. Instead, I would sit in the back and simply absorb the sight and sound of it all, underline words in the handouts that I promised myself to look-up afterwards and try ever so very hard not to doze off.

I was impressed, as I was in Dresden, with the love the members have for Rilke and his work, the earnestness and joy which they bring to it and, well, the general good feelings they derive from being here together doing what they love. Still, as the speakers read one paper after another and as questions and answers were put and given after each of these papers, my comprehension was like that of a small dog. I processed single words here and there and had at the forefront of my mind two very basic ones: stay and be seated.

Only in one working session did I approach what one might call comprehension. The session was about Rilke’s use of epiphany in the New Poems. The discussion moved as a conversation rather than a paper being read. It moved too quick for me to try and translate and so I begin to simply follow along. I can’t say picked up every word but I did understand the general flow and ideas being discussed. Ideas about how Rilke used distance and changes in distance to reveal something that looked from farther away or from another perspective to be something quite different.

Saturday evening, the session was held in the Herzog August Library, amid stacks of ancient volumes. Sitting in wonder among the books, we were treated to the reading of a long paper, the presentment of an award to the Society’s President and – the highlight of the evening for me – a reading aloud of a number of the New Poems by accomplished actress and speaker, Cornelia Kühn-Leitz.

On Sunday, after the final presentation of papers, the closing speech was given by the keynote speaker. He thanked each of the participants as well as the organizers that kept the conference moving and – generally speaking – on-time. Then, he again mentioned the book, Geschichton vom lieben Gott / Stories of God.

He essentially told the group what I had told him in answer to his questions over the preceding few days. He explained its structure, its purpose and its intended audience. Now, I don’t have permission to call his reference a recommendation. Truly, I can’t say that it was a recommendation. It was more of a challenge —

For – the august professor suggested to the society that they buy this book and determine for themselves whether the translations were any good! I was startled of course and immediately cursed myself for not having disclaimed that these translations were not done by Rilke scholars but by fans of Rilke and in some cases translators that were not necessarily literary translators – and that that was part of the point in collection, in selecting them in the first place.

I do hope, of course, that the translations are up to their standards!

Afterwards, I went to him, took his hand and again thanked him. As we shook hands and held each other’s eye, I smiled, very grateful. To each of my friends – and some new ones – I in turn said goodbye.

I took a final – for now – walk through Wolfenbüttel back to the hotel and then was off for Holland and back to Dusseldorf on unrelated business and pleasure. The highlights thereof included The Japanese Gardens on the grounds of the Bayer (think aspirin) world headquarters in Leverkusen and the Benrath Schloss (Castle) Park in Dusseldorf itself.

The trip home was uneventful, except that it was delayed a day by a world-wide computer crash, courtesy of Lufthansa Airlines and the obstinacy of the U.S. Homeland Security department.

All in all, a very nice, productive visit which leaves me encouraged and eager to move this project forward.

Copyright 2009 – Aventure Works, Inc.

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