Thursday, July 10, 2014

Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet": Intro and Letters 1 and 2

One thing that struck me about these opening letters was Rilke's complete disinterest in sugarcoating the flaws of apprentice writing. "Your verses have no individual style, although they do show quiet and hidden beginnings of something personal." Off the top of my head, I can think of several people who, if I wrote such words to them about their poems, would flare into name-calling fury or collapse into a swamp of depression. Yet, of course, Rilke's words are simply honest. So my first curiosity is about the kind of person who is able to receive such words, accept them, and continue to strive as a student and a human being. What was it like to be Kappus, a man who thought he wanted to be a poet but never became one?

I'm also struck by sentences in these letters that seem to recall our conversations at the Frost Place this year. For instance: "If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place." This seems like a more a beautiful version of "you've got to use your stuff," and I find the instruction both very comforting and very demanding.

What did you notice in these first two letters? What were your reactions to Kappus's introduction? Did anything seem pertinent to your own life as a writer or a reader? Did anything worry or puzzle you? Leave your thoughts in the comments or, if you prefer, email them to me or share them as a Facebook message and I will post them for you.


Carlene said...

Dawn brings up a good point about what sort of person it might take to accept honest criticism gracefully. While we have no way of truly knowing what Kappus’ first reactions were, one can suppose that, since he kept up the correspondence, he found the insights and advice useful. As a teacher, it is always difficult to know what a student really wants when he/she asks for feedback. At times, I will ask: do you want me to read this as a teacher or as a writer? And depending on the maturity/level of commitment shown by the student, the feedback may be one of “three stars and a wish” or it might be a more targeted response.

At any rate, I found, in the first letter, a phrase that I had to re-read and ponder: “Things are not all so comprehensible and utterable as people would mostly have us believe; most events are unutterable, consummating themselves in a sphere where word has never trod, and more unutterable than them are all works of art, whose life endures by the side of our own that passes away.” This same idea is present throughout Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and is summed up in the last stanza (lines 46-48):
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man…

I liked finding that connection, the conversation across time and space between Rilke and Keats, even if the conversation was only taking place in my own head. Art endures, even while human existence is fleeting. This brings me to the next idea of Rilke’s, that “a work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity.” What causes the poet to blurt? Or any artist? Rilke goes on to speak about diving into one’s aloneness, in order to figure out what one’s true vocation is to be. What are we called to do? What is our soul-required contribution? And in what manner should we mine the “stuff” we have? All really challenging and interesting threads of introspection for one to follow. This is probably why the book of letters is often recommended for high school students to read (although I’m not sure that many of them are really all that into self-assessment on a daily basis, not honest appraisal, but still…).

In Rilke’s second letter, he talks about the essential quality of embracing one’s aloneness, and I found myself recalling Thoreau’s “Why I Went into the Woods.” No specific connections, but the ideas are there, and it’s interesting to consider the links between Rilke, German philosophy, and American Transcendentalism.

Rilke goes on to caution Kappus about the facile use of irony in his writing, and asks him to use the tools of writing intentionally, thereby making them “serious tools” instead of artifices. As writing advice (or advice for any artistic medium) this is critical: it is too easy to fall into patterns that weaken one’s art, whatever it may be. He also tells Kappus to read, to fall in love with some works of fiction he has suggested. This reminded me of a conversation Dawn was mediating, that reading is not avoidance; instead, it is active work in pursuit of art. I think Americans (and maybe other cultures, I don’t know) are too goal and task driven, and that if we are not producing on a time-schedule and with rigid regularity, then we are not serious about what it is we are doing, whatever that may be. There is too little room to let ideas dwell with us with that sort of work ethic driving art, or life, for that matter. And we do need to dwell with our own thoughts, turn off the “noise” and listen to our own breathing, get back into rhythm with our own heartbeat. If I am understanding Rilke at all, especially his enjoinder to learn what one can from one’s aloneness, it is this: we need to stop distracting ourselves with busy-ness. Thoreau again: Simplify.

Ruth said...

I keep thinking about the : write what you truly know. What an ideal student Kappus must have been to submit his work and to invite comment. I am struck by the gentleness of Rilke's replies and how they mirror comment made @ CPT. You Dawn, Teresa and Baron have oh so gently encouraged me to "tell more here" and "I wish I knew more here" I am sad that Kappus did get the chance to publish for us to read. BUT, perhaps that isn't really what is important.

(more when I get to an easier access place...coming soon to my very own abode!)

Teresa said...

I love that Rilke doesn't focus on the individual poems (the external)) but on the poet (the internal) because that's what it's all about, right? This echoes our conversation at CPT about writing as a process not as a goal-oriented activity.

Rilke's first letter has always made me (and continues to make me) question my commitment to writing. Rilke is one of my gods and few things have the power to make me feel as small, anxious, and ashamed as "pronouncements" from one of my gods. So, I get a bit squirmy whenever I read "This above all--ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?" Part of my squirminess (is that a word???) comes from agreeing with him that the desperate need to write must be present and wondering if I possess that desperate need (and trust me: I've done the whole "go into yourself" thing and STILL question my self) but another part comes from a "Yeah, but..." reaction to the next part: "then build your life according to this necessity," which, to my ears, has a "follow your bliss" (a phrase that drives me nuts) tone in it. Yeah, but what about having to work to pay the bills? Yeah, but what about cleaning the house, doing laundry, being with family and loved ones? Yeah, but...

In a strange way, my "yeah, but" reaction connects to what Rilke states earlier in that paragraph: "Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody." In the same way that each writer must use her own "stuff," each writer must build her own life. I don't think this is true when a writer is first starting out, first entering the conversation, but is true when a writer reaches the crossroads where she must choose certainty/imitation or uncertainty/individuality. So, each writer must find her version of the artist's life.

Maureen said...

While not sugarcoating, Rilke offers that positive note about "quiet and hidden beginnings"; that's where we all start, as apprentices, in quiet and from someplace within that impels us to write. I know nothing about Kappus but it would appear he recognized an unusual opportunity to learn and improve and understood and could accept the difference between criticism of work/output and criticism of person.

What's wonderful about Rilke's "Letters" are the lessons they offer to any of us who are or aspire to be writers. As here, we join Kappus as recipients of Rilke's words, which have some universal applications to the artistic life, the great test of which is what we are willing to forgo, give up, neglect, to write.

Nicholas said...

What gets me is that Rilke includes himself within his criticisms of Kappus's work. What I mean is that he sort of hints that he is no better, perhaps even noting as he wrote his letters that he himself requires quiet and hidden beginnings to achieve the space necessary to create. He never says poets are gods or prophets but that through seeking those aforementioned spaces, they can attune themselves to the world at large. Insofar as criticism goes, I believe I stated my position - RIP IT TO SHREDS. It certainly stunned me some to hear folks frightened by such a thing. I cannot for the life of me figure out how one expects to improve without constructive criticism and so I'd feel thrilled if a noted poet took my work and wrote me about it; or more precisely, wrote to me in a manner that taught me how to live a poetry life. It's empowering to think that a poetry life is what the universe (or god if you like) would have of us. Humanity is what it is all about and Rilke's heart bleeds his love right down onto the page.

Anonymous said...

From Jean:

Late to the party. It’s been a long day, but it’s great to see all the comments posted here. I love the observations made already.

Ah, the era of beautiful letter writing! We have only half the conversation, and yet Rilke always provides context for his remarks. Even when months pass, he reminds the recipient what inspires his comments. This is such an easy thing to take for granted since most of my correspondences merely require that I scroll down to check on unclear references. I wonder if young student readers would pick up on this common feature of letter writing – or could duplicate it.

Go into yourself…write what you know…. Young writers typically dismiss their own experiences as not exciting enough. I like Rilke’s encouragement to turn to “childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories.” I agree, Teresa, this is about the poet, not the poems.