Thursday, July 24, 2014

More Remarks on Rilke: Letters 5 and 6

Please feel free to keep commenting on yesterday's post, but I'm going wander off into my own response here.

First, I have to say: Carlene, you've been a working on a full-length essay over the past few weeks! You have responded so densely and cogently to these letters, and I am touched by not only your devotion to the project but the complexity of your responses. And second: Keith, bringing in Wordsworth was brilliant. Like both of you, I've been grappling with Rilke's thoughts about vocation versus soul-destroying jobs, and I've had similar reactions. On the one hand, how would he know anything at all about the real definition of soul-destroying job? On the other hand, why did everything he say feel right to me?

Interestingly, this brings me back to a conversation that Keith and I had at the Frost Place. At one point, Keith wistfully congratulated me, saying that Tom and I had made the right decision for ourselves as artists and human beings by sidestepping paychecks and careers and moving to the woods. My heart seized up in a knot at those words; and when I got home, I told Tom what Keith had said. He looked at me and sighed, and I looked at him and sighed, and that was that. But what I felt, and what I imagine that Tom also felt, was the weight of the money panic, of watching Tom substitute soul-sucking white-collar work for soul-sucking physical labor, of having no colleagues, of my perpetual perception of being a drag on my marital partnership because I don't earn my keep. Poetry doesn't fence out those wolves. And yet to someone who isn't writing or reading in the ways he longs to write and read, my life may seem ideal.

So despite Rilke's more comfortable financial circumstances, I have to believe, from the depth of his response, that he, too, dealt every day with the ugliness and drudgery of existence. It may not have been roofing a house or digging a ditch or milking fifty head of cattle or managing a classroom of 25 noisy, unimpressed students with no interest in schoolwork, but it was its own pressure and distraction. This brings me back to Wordsworth: "I could wish my days to be / Bound each to each by natural piety." Doesn't I could wish seem to be the twist in those lines?

A couple of weeks ago, I was teaching a workshop for a group of women at a local domestic-violence shelter. I'd dictated a poem, "Magic Words," a translation of an Inuit verse, and then we went through a "what's the most important word?" activity. One woman said, very hesitantly, "Could, maybe?--because something could happen, even if it doesn't really happen?" Yes. Sometimes could is the only lifeline available. "I could wish my days to be" what they will never, in actuality, ever be. Then again: sometimes, as for Melville, as for Rilke, that's where the art is hiding.

Re letters 7 and 8: Let's aim for next Wednesday.


Carlene said...

I can't help but think, the Romantic ideals present in so many authors give us a goal, but they aren't terribly practical, are they? I know Wordsworth says in "The World is Too Much With Us" that "getting and spending we lay waste our powers/ Little we see in Nature that is ours/We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!" And, my spirit rises to this challenge and says YES...until the mail comes, and there's yet another doctor bill or some such distraction from daily living. One can only assume that either a/ some of these writers (and other artists) had great alternative sources of income, or b/ had great support staff to deal with the ugly bits of reality. Yes, they all had to deal with things, I have to believe it. I think their clarion call to embrace the True, the Right, and the Artistic sometimes makes us feel like we are failing. We shouldn't feel that way at all. If we can produce things that satisfy both our soul and our needs, then we have done much in the way of living with dignity and grace.

Dawn Potter said...

. . . which brings us back to the Baronism: "You've got to use your stuff." Our stuff includes how we live our lives, and our lives include how we earn and support ourselves. There's a perpetual conversation among literary feminists regarding the way in which women's work (e.g., child rearing, home tending, even the conversations among women) are treated as inferior literary subjects. That's certainly true, but sometimes we (and not only women) fuel this attitude by lamenting the entanglements of our daily stuff rather than striving to incorporate them into our art.

Maureen said...

I'm somewhat intrigued that Kappus elected to attend a military academy (same one as Rilke's) and became an officer. I say elected, without knowing anything about the decision that motivated having a career in the military, which, to me, is one of the most soul-depriving, noncreative institutions of its kind. (I think of Rilke in a military school and just shake my head, it seems it would be so ill-suited to him.) And yet we all must make our choices and find a way to accept their consequences, if only to find peace with the quarrels we have with ourselves. Endless introspection (and I think Rilke engages at times in irritating self-absorption) can be as enervating as any lousy job.

Having to earn a living for which one has no inclination is a great leveler; it's as pertinent an issue today as in Rilke's time and before that, and I think it always will be. It helps to have the kind of self-esteem and confidence that allows one to go home from a dead-end job and be creative, which, sometimes, can be as wonderful as just putting a great dinner on the table or arranging a vase of gorgeous flowers.

Ultimately, whatever we choose to do when the options are available itself includes a choice to make something of it or complain about it. I'd much rather, as Dickinson's line goes, "dwell in possibility."

David said...

Robertson Davies had a grumpy entry in I think his (semi) fictional Diaries of Samuel Marchbanks, about how today the Great Author was spending his time in the drudgery of cleaning out drains. Yes, earning a living, including in the corporate world, can be pretty much inimical to the creative side. Rilke’s point about how that “professional” world is a superficial one also seems exactly right. It’s not that it can’t have its rewards, just that in the end they’re shallow. And yet work is also lived experience, so that means it it’s also a potential source for creative purposes. As well, as Teresa said at Frost Place, work is also necessary, we all need to earn a living. For what it’s worth, I’m with Keith on Dawn and anyone else who has the chutzpah to walk down another road to do so. However, while I don’t doubt that road has its serious financial worries and necessary hard and sometimes tragic sacrifices, I also suspect that’s true of almost any work, they just present themselves differently, including this job. My point in the end isn't to suggest that some aren't harder than others. Maybe it's just simply something along the lines of that one by the Chinese dowager empress Sebald quoted: every human life is attended throughout by fear. Want to squeeze in here too (I hope not too jarringly) that as for Rilke on solitude, the need for it for creativity seems almost self-evident (even as publicly gregarious a personality as Dickens took long walks to observe and cogitate), and for that reason Rilke’s advice seems important and practical for a young want-to-be who appears to struggle with being alone. It also seems especially relevant in our own here and now, all speedy and fractured courtesy, in part, anyway, of an apparently endless variety of electronic ways to distract ourselves.

Keith said...

It is difficult for me not to feel tension in this push and pull between Rilke’s advice and Kappus’s dilemma. The young poet feels duty-bound to make a living. The older poet feels duty bound to eschew a living, per se, in order to pursue the art. We only know about the younger, however, because of the older’s devotion to letter writing.

Wordsworth comes up in my head again: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” In a busy life which finds no end to tedious labor, there may be no “tranquility” (a phrase I equate with isolation). Hephaestus must forge in the fire. It is not a social place. It take Dionysus to bring him out of isolation through wine (for political reasons, of course).

The point being, we are either flowing downstream or watching the river flow. We can’t do both simultaneously. One of the most validating elements of Teresa’s emphasis on work was just that: work. Jack Gilbert wrote about being an exterminator. Teresa wrote about her experience at the phone company. Bukowski covered his feelings about the Post Office fairly well. All did so after the fact. They were refined and revised well after the experience had ceased to be.

Most of us get snippy with a Rilke because we’re screaming inside, “Give us the isolated Italian villa that’s too drafty, dude! WE’LL TAKE IT.”

Ruth said...

The "use your stuff" advice is most useful at least for me. When I try to write some "grand" poem, it is a disaster and I keep thinking that perhaps Kappus sometimes fell into the "write grandly" trap.

Michael said...

I have been out of the loop because of a home remodeling project that has been going on now for weeks and has really been taking up all of my spare time. Also, I have a big deadline coming up on Thursday because one of my "big" gardening customers will be arriving for the first time all season, and I need to have things looking just right!
I really like this discussion topic about how we earn a living and support ourselves. I feel fortunate to have found a job I truly enjoy-it also helps pay the bills too. For many years, during the spring, summer, and fall, I have worked during the summer and on weekends with my gardening business, so we would have that little extra money to make ends meet. Yes, I don't have all the time I desire to write full time, but in some ways, I do have a lot of freedom because I am not constantly worrying about our bills, though I do plenty of that anyway.
Unfortunately, many people hate their jobs and are just doing it for the money, and that is something that a true artist doesn't have to worry about.
It's too bad that many qualified artists don't have a patron out there, so they don't have to worry about the issues of money and be in touch with their muse. My wife, Ginny, is an artist who works full time, but she could not do what she is doing without my job. It's interesting, though, how sometimes when we need that extra money, and my sources seem to be "dry," out of the blue, Ginny makes a sale or teaches a lesson to help us out. I really do believe that if you are truly doing what you are supposed to be doing, things will work out. Sometimes, "The darkest hour is right before the dawn."