Singing in Dark Times – # 3 in a Series – What Do Poets Do? We Praise

German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke

German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke

Epigraph from Motto

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.

Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913-1956, edited by John Willett and Ralph Manheim, Eyre Methuen, 1976

This gorgeous, difficult, heart-breaking world. What do we poets do with it? Brecht says we must sing about it. His countryman, Rainer Maria Rilke, says we must praise it. As does Canadian poet Patrick Lane, recovering addict, who has lived through his own dark and dire times as he portrays so vividly in his memoir: There is A Season. A few years ago he wrote this:

Every poem works upon the idea of praise. There are overt poems that reach out toward direct concerns, saying that I praise this or I praise that. But every poem lifts the animate and inanimate object to the level of the mysterious and the sublime. As soon as something is named it takes on the aura of human touch. We praise the world by naming it

I lean into the idea of every poem as a praise poem. Especially if we write about the dark things – war, death, grief, break-up. The act of praising is to say no matter what, we are here, we are alive. By naming the things of the world we praise it. In dark times the challenge is not to praise just the beautiful, but also the hard things of this world! Just like Robert Hass does in this poem:


We asked the captain what course
of action he proposed to take toward
a beast so large, terrifying, and
unpredictable. He hesitated to
answer, and then said judiciously:
“I think I shall praise it.”

Robert Hass, from Praise, Ecco Press, 1979

And here is another small praise poem by American poet Greg Orr:

Praising all creation, praising the world:
That’s our job – to keep
The sweet machine of it
Running as smoothly as it can

With words repairing, where it wears out,
Where it breaks down.

With songs and poems keeping it going.
With whispered endearments greasing its gears.

Greg Orr from How Beautiful The Beloved, Cooper Canyon Press, 2004

The great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926) is said by many to be one of the great poetic voices of the 20th century. In 1922, in his Sonnets to Orpheus, (which Stephen Mitchell calls “surely the most astonishing burst of inspiration in the history of literature.”) he says: Praising is what matters

The only way he can approach any kind of wholeness in looking at life is to praise, as he says in this poem written a few months earlier in 1921, Tell Us Poet What Do You Do?:

Tell us, poet, what do you do?
                             — I praise.
But the dreadful, the monstrous, and their ways,
how do you stand them, suffer it all?
                             — I praise.
But the anonymous, featureless days,
how, poet, can you ask them to call?
                              — I praise.
under each mask, to speak a true phrase?
                              — I praise.
And that the calm as well as the crazed
know you like star and storm?
                              — Because I praise.

Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. William Gass from Reading Rilke by William Gass, Alfred A. Knopf, 2000


  1. Alyson Shore Adler
    Posted February 9, 2017 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    Thanks Richard. I came across your blog
    and it is fabulous. Missed you at Palm Beach again.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted February 12, 2017 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    I’m so sorry we missed each other, too! I will be leading a retreat in Italy in June! Would love to see you there. So glad you found me through my blog!

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