There is a story told about the poet Rilke. In 1902, he was in Paris working with the sculptor Rodin. Up until this time, Rilke had been writing poetry in a receptive mode, courting inspiration, but he admired Rodin’s craftsman-like approach to the making of art. Rodin had spent years earning a living carving ornamentation for buildings. Even as a full-time artist he didn’t wait around for inspiration to arrive. He worked and made things. So, when Rilke became restless and blocked, he went to Rodin for advice. To his surprise, the sculptor didn’t tell him to either chase inspiration or barrel through his discomfort. He advised Rilke to go to the zoo and choose an animal and look at it until he really saw it.
Though he is best known for sculpture, Rodin began his artistic training in visual art. As an art student in the 19th century, he would have known that art begins with seeing. He would have learned how to work with perspective, the way light and distance plays tricks on the eyes. Things change as your position changes. From the sky, a straight road without hills is composed of parallel lines, but from the ground it looks like a very long triangle. In the distance a mountain that looks small and blurry with a single ascending slope might reveal many layers of jagged cliffs when seen up close.
The human eye responds to the laws of perspective instinctually, recognizing and adapting to the way movement makes static objects appear to transform with such deftness that we are rarely forced to think about how, as novelist Justine Musk says in “The Sacred Art of Breaking Yourself Open,”
“we each live inside the worlds of ourselves. Everything we see is slanted, colored, tainted with our own projections, biases, imaginings.”
In everyday life, recognition and a willingness to adapt is often enough to cope with changing perspectives, but artists must do more than recognize. An artist has to learn to actively engage with what they have always passively perceived. An artist has to know where they stand and the relationship between themselves and the subjects of their art.
Rilke followed Rodin’s advice and chose to study the panther. They say that he became so obsessed with studying it that when he wasn’t at the zoo he studied a panther figurine at his desk. The result was “The Panther,” the first of his New Poems, a collection in which people, animals, and objects are translated into language with such exactness that “The Swan” wobbles, “Spanish Dancer” twirls, and “The Gazelle” starts off with a leap.
These feats of language probably would have been enough to secure his legacy. Fortunately for us, Rilke was never one to be satisfied with technical excellence. In the years before he published New Poems, he had engaged in intense introspection, simultaneously curling in on himself and begging in ecstatic bursts to be seen by the Other, cries that would echo through his whole body of work and never be answered. While “The Panther” was a radical shift outward, he didn’t write himself out of “The Panther” entirely, and we are able to see the influence of his perspective on his work.
At the time that he wrote “The Panther,” Rilke was living in Paris. The description of Rilke’s attitude toward Paris in John Banville’s “Study the Panther!” in the New York Review of Books is striking:
In a letter to his friend the artist Otto Modersohn, dated New Year’s Eve 1902, the poet spoke of Paris as a “difficult, difficult, anxious city” whose beauty could not compensate “for what one must suffer from the cruelty and confusion of the streets and the monstrosity of the gardens, people and things.” A few lines later he compares the French capital to those cities “of which the Bible tells that the wrath of God rose up behind them to overwhelm them and to shatter them.”
Rilke hated Paris and felt trapped there, and he saw himself in the panther stalking back and forth behind the bars of its cage. As he studied the panther he embraced the way in which his feelings about Paris colored his view of the animal. Robert Hass says in his introduction to Stephen Mitchell’s translation that “The Panther” was “half self-portrait, half recognition of some profound otherness, difference, emptiness, power in the animal he might have liked, ideally and comfortably, to become.” Though we only know explicitly how he felt about Paris from his private letters, Rilke’s trappedness in Paris amplified the panther’s restless stalking behind the bars of its cage in the poem, giving subtle voice to Rilke’s disdain for the city. Two creatures met in a flash of recognition that in Stephen Mitchell’s translation of “The Panther” “plunges into the heart and is gone.”
Writers and poets have the privilege of writing, censorship aside, anything we choose. We can create characters who live in cities we have never visited. We can give them words to say and let them speak for us, and we are not required to really see them or even try to understand. In the last draft, with enough skill, we might manage to convince even ourselves that our characters speak truly, erase our tracks, and write ourselves out of the story, but we can never entirely leave our own perspective. We can never fully know an Other, just as we are never fully known, but if we stop, look, and look harder we and our readers just might catch a glimpse of something or someone between the bars.
Kristy Harding is a fiction writer and founding editor of Paper Tape. She has an MFA from Goddard, and you can find her work in Elohi Gadugi, The Pitkin Review, and around the web. A New England native currently living outside of Portland, Oregon, she hangs out on Twitter and here.
ABC’s of Writing