Soul Stirrers

Singer Al Green and poet Rainer Maria Rilke share a sense of the sublime

| March/April 2001

I’ve been a fan of singer Al Green ever since I made his Let’s Stay Together album one of my first five choices when I joined a record club as a teenager. Years after attending an ecstatic live performance in 1986, I began to imagine that a droplet or two of Green’s flying sweat had reached me in the second row. Now, for the hundredth time, I’m listening to a Green record and hearing something old and new all at once.

A driving rhythm pulses, punctuated by joyous bips, whoops, and falsetto humming. In 'Love Ritual' Green seems to be speaking in tongues and reaching passionately toward something beyond words. If this is R&B, there’s something askew. 'You’re the pillow of my head . . . taste the wine, the sacred bread.' For whom is Green professing love? An answer may be found in poetry composed at the turn of the 20th century, Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Book of Hours (Das Stundenbuch), a work of beauty, longing, and sublimation.

As in many of Al Green’s songs years later, these lyrics swell with multiple meanings, barely containing tension that builds without release. Here’s a brief excerpt translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy: In deep nights I dig for you like treasure. For all I have seen that clutters the surface of my world is poor and paltry substitute for the beauty of you that has not happened yet.

Is it too big a stretch to compare a dead German aesthete with a contemporary African American pop singer turned gospel preacher? Al Green’s autobiography, Take Me to the River (Harper, 2000), provides clues that he and Rilke are soul mates. 'The sensual and the spiritual are two sides of the same feeling,' he writes. What we hear in Green’s ’70s hits such as 'Let’s Stay Together' and 'I’m Still in Love with You' is akin to reading between these lines of Rilke: 'I want to gather you up again / In a vessel that makes you glad.' Once purely a sensualist, Green over the past 20 years has recorded gospel music and tended his own Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis. Often, though, ambivalence pervades his religious lyrics. Scantily different from soul singer Green who crooned 'You make me feel so brand new,' Reverend Green now sings 'You’re my morning star in my darkest hour.' I feel the same dual sense with Rilke. 'I want to mirror your immensity,' he writes. 'I want to stay clear in your sight.'

In 'Purely a Poet' (The Nation, April 1, 1996), American writer William Gass wrote that Rilke was both secure and scared in his role as a poet, 'empty and fulfilled.' These words might describe Al Green, who confesses that he has 'felt pulled in two directions ever since I could walk.' Rilke, asserts Gass, 'overcame weakness and worry and made them into poems. No, into lyrics that love, however pure or passionate or sacrificial, could never have achieved by itself.' In Green’s case, a seductive falsetto and the very quality of his voice seem to sublimate his lyrics, turning mundane concerns into something divine.

By transforming primal urges into poetry and song, Rainer Maria Rilke and Al Green mapped comparable routes nearly a century apart. Their strong, sweet words echo one another with an undercurrent of coursing blood.