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.