This foreword to our newest publication, The Elegy Beta, by Mischa Willett, was written by Mark S. Burrows.

What are poems for? The question is a perennial one, and the answers range across a wide spectrum of musings. Poets, as “practitioners” of the art, have their own take on this. One of them, the German Romantic who went by the penname Novalis, suggested that poetry invites us to discern how “the outer world is the inner world raised to a condition of secrecy.” This is a bold claim, one that sees the ordinary workaday world of ours as more than what it appears to be. Our lives carry a deeper meaning than this, as Novalis infers, one largely hidden from us as a “secret” we cannot directly grasp. The vocation of poetry, he insisted, is to offer us glimpses of this connectedness—of inner and outer, spiritual and physical, seen and unseen. It is a witness to a coherence that exceeds what we can understand, but is not beyond what we can apprehend.

Had he lived several centuries later, and glimpsed the world of advertising that has become the horizon in which we live as late-moderns, Novalis might have been amused by the 1970s brand slogan of Coca-Cola, “It’s the real thing.” Or, more likely, this would have baffled or perturbed him. For what is real, as poets have known through the ages, has somehow to do with this “condition of secrecy,” with a coherence of meaning—imagined or surmised—that transcends us even while it involves us. Call it an inner grounding. Call it meaning. Call it hope. By whatever name, this sense of a connectedness binds all that is in this whirling world of ours, even while remaining hidden from view.

But this is a vision we can presume to know something about, the sort of apprehension that comes to us as insight. It gestures toward an intelligibility that dares to speak—or, in the case of poets, to write—on the basis of this “secrecy.” It dares to risk offering glimpses of this “condition” that root our lives in what is real. What exactly this is, of course, remains an unanswerable question, at least in the abstract. It is what strong poems reveal to us, gesturing as they do toward this connectedness.

The poems gathered in this collection do just this, and the two sections of the book approach this matter in the old “call and response” tradition of worship, in this case in a manner that seems to move in both directions. In the opening section, Mischa Willett stakes his claim, implicitly at least, on how this “condition of secrecy” comes to us. Here, we come upon poems rooted in utterly ordinary moments of life: the question of names and “how” they mean what they do (“Christening”); the nature of fonts and their uses (“Printer’s Ink”); memories of the deceased in that vast throng of witnesses (“Even-Tide”); an order gone awry in a restaurant (“Identity, Theft”), and so forth. Each begins with some remembered moment or experience, and then opens to the “more” that this memory holds.

Throughout this collection, the poet teases us into seeing how such re-membering opens us to something deeper and wider, embodying Novalis’ sense of poems as an after-thought, as vehicles pointing beyond the field of direct vision toward a sense of an interconnectedness of inner and outer. It is a risk, of course, a wager on a wider intelligibility than what the eye alone can see. These poems unveil glimpses of this through the poet’s often startling way of imagining. It is a version of Rainer Maria Rilke’s notion of “listening into things” (hineinhorchen), or, in this case, a form of seeing into them (hineinschauen) in a way that points toward the heart of what is real.

The opening poem, “Another Advent,” invites us directly into this work: “[c]ome crack the frozen / branch-ends that’ve had you so long / penned up as in winter-trap, snow-drift, tree-sap.” The metaphor is a strange one, but—as is the case with strong poems—one whose authenticity we immediately recognize, even though we might never have come to say it quite this way ourselves. This is an advent poem of an unexpected nature, inviting us to imagine what our own “verdant birth” might be like, unveiled through a tumble of images at once playful and primal, whimsical and wise. Poems like this stir us into something like song, taking form in that tender place of the heart where we find ourselves beckoned to come home to our deeper, “secret” self.

The musicality of the poet’s voice throughout this collection is part of his strategy of grasping something of this “condition.” Rhymes evoke for the poet—and thus for us as his readers—unlikely associations that startle us into unexpected recognitions. They invite us to find ourselves welcomed to “come in like a tooth / into a world sore, into the ache.” They address us with a sense of urgency, at times playful and at times serious—as when the poet admonishes us to “come save the stupid, drooped / stems of our hearts before they wilt,” and concludes with these shining lines:

by the Earth’s cataclysmic tilt,
Primavera, evergreen hope,
get here.

“Get here”: a blunt admonition like this seems at first an echo of Rilke’s familiar plea, “You must change your life.” But the parallel between the two only goes so far, because these final lines of the opening poem are as much invocation as provocation, uttering something close to a prayer. But here, something far more compelling than conventional piety is at stake as the poet pleads his case—with the divine? with the reader?—that growth, with its “evergreen hope,” might come upon us and gather us “by the Earth’s cataclysmic tilt” in her beckoning arms. It is an unexpected and strangely luminous version of the ancient Advent hope, which “break[s] through” the “winter-trap” of our lives into a greening inscape: “wreck the hard and frostbitten ground / with your trillion shoots.” Here, the ancient gospel identifies us as vulnerable to this inbreaking of new life. Get here, indeed.

The poems gathered in the opening section speak in varied voices and follow diverse formal strategies. They woo from within us inner recognitions that remind us what it means that our lives are caught within this “condition of secrecy.” We turn to poems like these with the expectation of finding ourselves, in confusion or desperation, addressing the “[c]aller who Refuses / to be called, except as Help Us” (“Christening”). Some offer glimpses of larger apprehensions, beginning with observations of simple things around us, like “Overtime” in which we meet a tower clock with its bell marking not simply the hours but the events that shape our culture. Here, amid a flow of whimsical lines, the poet poses without warning a startling question, “When is a bell // broken?”, and suddenly across the tension of an enjambment—across lines and between stanzas—we come to imagine, with him, depths beneath us giving way, but also connections we had not known to name but somehow sense.

Others bring us to muse something more abstract, that “Still Point”—echoes of Eliot—where we meet “this quester” at that luminous boundary where late night and early morning meet. Precisely in this liminality the poet invites us to wonder with him about where this life might be leading:

ahead only the pure ephemera
of day already suggesting
this way
this way

The title triggers within us a remembrance of Eliot’s haunting lines in “Burnt Norton”: “Except for the point, the still point, / There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” This way, yes, this way, dancing in that intensified stillness that lies present if also hidden in the “pure ephemera / of day.” Primavera, get here.

Poems in this opening section repeatedly wonder about the relation of things close by and far off, often with a whimsical voice sharpened through abrupt moments of insight. In the poem “O, I Get It,” Willett muses about the origins of Confucius’ name, a ramble of suggestive if also fanciful associations that closes with a glance into how we come to glimpse something of what this “condition of secrecy” suggests:

And that is the way of it: some scratch at
the head of the rough red
match surface of reading, probably, and
the sulfuric transfer-pop—which isn’t to say
quick, just catching—of a resonance,
like the sound was the strike and the itch
a thought.

Some even go so far as to lean into well-charted theological territory. “Christening” experiments with new ways to shape something as primal as the naming to which we give ourselves, echoing the ancient creation narrative in Genesis as a preface to musings that are not exactly irreverent but are surely sweetened with levity—“Do You Have a Lemon I Could Borrow?” The poet’s humor amplifies the wisdom these lines hold, as when the poet wonders what it would mean to say that “names are not names.” The poem carries us with a wit at once salted with humor and spiced with insight: “Help us, Minus and Presence, / when you make it, to conceive / the reference.” Here, the pressure of apophasis—that ancient impulse of a negation that gestures toward the “unnameable”—meets us in and through our word-making, meaning-slaking thirst.

What carries these poems is a thick play of sense and meaning, of language and imagery, animated as was the poet Rilke by the admonition to “[l]et everything happen to you, beauty and terror.” In the flow of their musicality they spark within us bursts of recognition that come to us “slantwise” as it were, inviting us to give ourselves over to apprehensions of the strange “circuit” of truth, as the belle of Amherst once put it. In this manner they remind us of the tension—and connection—between inner and outer, opening us into new anticipations of this coherence that come upon us like the wonderings of a “tongue stammer[ing] out / the time still” (“Overtime”). These are urgings that invite, cajole, warn, instruct, reprove, and, above all—if without saying so—praise.

But praise of what sort?

This is where the poems of the first section have done their work in preparing us for what follows in the second. Here, in The Elegy Beta, we enter a strangely luminous world poised as a “response” to the “call” from poems gathered in the opening section. Leaning on Rilke’s modernist masterpiece, The Duino Elegies (1912 – 1922), the ten poems of this section are both an echo and something more than this. As readers familiar with Rilke’s late Elegies will recognize, Willett’s elegies are more improvisation than translation, at least in a narrow sense. Thus, even when we come upon familiar Rilkean echoes, the poet re-voices them here in strangely irresistible—and irresistibly strange—ways, drawing something essential from the spirit of Rilke’s originals while shaping them with his own twists.   

This second part offers us the yield of the poet’s thoughtful engagement with Rilke’s Elegies over more than a decade. Indeed, I read Willett’s beta as a “musing” more than a straightforward rendering of Rilke’s work; as a cycle in conversation with that of its predecessor, The Elegy Beta has the mark of a jazz improvisation: in the flow of its form, we still sense the imprint of Rilke’s thematic melodies, but Willett renders them with an originality borne of a distinctly late-modern sensibility. One might even see these poems as a deliberate “transgression” in relation to Rilke’s foundational poems, at least according to the word’s Latin root-meaning: these new elegies suggest a “climbing over” as well as a “going beyond,” a reaching through and beyond. In so doing, they remind us of an unavoidable truth about the creative life: namely, that our attempts to discern the “condition of secrecy” place us in a wider tradition, one whose language is inherited as well as invented for those with “ears to hear” and “eyes to see.” The conversation that these poems presume, and give form to, echoes a deeper awareness of this condition than we could have ever otherwise imagined.

This implied conversation with Rilke reminds us that our lives are themselves expressions of “translation,” that “moving over” of sense and sound from “there” to “here.” In this, these elegies remind us that poetics is a wager on a coherence of inner and outer, past and present, giving voice to apprehensions both distant and close at hand. What becomes evident in these poems is the manner in which they give new voice to a masterful literary inheritance, not simply by “moving” that treasure from its origins in the early 20th century into newer forms. Rather, Willett’s poems improvise on the melodic themes and thematic movements found in Rilke’s Duino Elegies, doing so in ways that evoke for us with our late-modern sensibilities something of the startlement and excitement that must have greeted Rilke’s first readers in the 1920s.

For readers unfamiliar with Rilke’s Elegies, The Elegy Beta might well invite them to turn to epoch-making poems. Finally, though, Willett’s Elegy Beta does not depend on retracing that journey. Even without the backdrop of those poems these new elegies convey both a power of insight that draws us in and an audacity of feeling that invites us, as Willett puts it, to “discover / some free and fallen place, our own strip / of garden, between the rough / and tumble” (“2.0”). Such a rendering—“after Rilke,” to be sure—takes us into the author’s own conversation with his predecessor, and more.

Precisely this “more” is what gives these poems their strong allure, as it did Rilke’s “alpha” version: Willett invites us into that inner posture Rilke famously named “the open” (see Rilke’s Eighth Elegy), luring us into that wondering in which we find ourselves standing with God before us—or, in his version, where we meet “a free animal [who] follows God / the way all water does, leaving/ its constant decline behind it” (“8.0”). And here we face the stern judgment of our broken condition: “Not / us. Not for a second ours the unself- / conscious open of the rose into / who knows what?” The brilliance here, of course, is partly Rilke’s, but only partly so. For Willett’s new form draws us into the depths of a new-knowing that reaches beyond what we can manageably grasp—offering glimpses that penetrate the “condition of secrecy.” But it does so with a critical edge, confident enough to speak against the banalities of the day—in our case, by exposing the currently fashionable shows of arrogance too often served up in the form of barren “tweets”:

O that the right angel would obliterate
that marketplace where sellers
hawk tired consolations,
because beyond that square, the hills
without towns are squirming with
The Circus […]   

In times like ours, praying for “the right angel” is at least a start in discerning the depth of our cultural malaise. But Willett addresses this, knowing as did his predecessor Rilke that our vocation as humans is to move beyond mere criticism or complaint. The poems needed in our times, as in Rilke’s, must be courageous enough to beckon us to risk living into “the open,” and bold enough to remember “something better, a / breath more pure— // Look at the insect’s sense of the whole world as womb!” If this is a means of pointing to what Novalis held as the “secret” of our connectedness—to the oneness of this world in the midst of all its variety, or as Willett daringly puts it, to glimpse the “insect’s sense of the whole world as womb”—it is one that brings us into that “outer world” with a sense of expectation and wonder, of courage and hope. This, ultimately, is the work of poems in our time, just as it is the true work of our lives. To be reminded of this, as Willett’s poems do throughout this volume, is a gift we need, an able testimony to the vocation of these poems and the promise of their voice.

Cover photograph and author image by David Wittig.