Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet": Letters 2 and 3

There's almost too much digest in these two letters--not least, my curiosity about what on earth Kappus wrote in his own letter that prompted Rilke to launch into such a disquisition about sex. I found those paeans rather tedious, but that may simply be my own predisposition to dislike the way in which men love to imagine that they understand what it's like to live in a woman's body . . . which is to say: although his idealistic ecstasy about human intimacy is not necessarily a fault, it's also not very attractive to me personally.

I'm more interested in certain passages that I find extremely alluring but that I'm convinced are not entirely true. This one, for example:
And let me promptly make a request: read as little as possible of aesthetic criticism--such things are either partisan views, petrified and grown senseless in their lifeless induration, or they are clever quibblings in which today one view wins and tomorrow the opposite. Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as with criticism.
So much of the passage seems exactly right. Yes, criticism is often "petrified and grown senseless," often nothing more than "clever quibbling." Yes, yes yes, "works of art are of an infinite loneliness." But what about a poet's urge to draw together the "partisan views" that she has gathered from her own intense engagement with literature? What about this very letter that Rilke is writing to Kappus, in which he is telling the young man how to think about poetry and books and sexual desire? It seems to me that Rilke is writing exactly the sort of prose that he is warning Kappus not to read.

But I will stop talking now. What attracted or repelled you about these two letters?


Teresa Carson said...

I'm still gathering my thoughts about Letters 2&3 but want to respond to what Dawn wrote. I found the comments about sex, and about the connection between sex and creating, tedious and male-centric. There was much rolling of my eyes during those passages. I also wondered to what Rilke was responding.
And I also find that the passage about avoiding aesthetic criticism doesn't quite ring true. First, it follows, as Dawn pointed out, on the heels of the very thing which it cautions against. Second, the statement reduces a complicated issue--the artist's challenge to find the balance between listening to self and listening to others--to a mere black and white issue: listen to self, ignore others. The proportions do, and should, change as one matures as an artist (the same way it does as we mature as human beings) but the two forces are always there. I'm speaking as both a writer and as a reader.

Carlene said...

I am picking up connections between and among writers all throughout. I like the way my mind wanders away from the letter I’m reading and how it follows other, unplanned avenues. The first time I caught my brain scampering away was at the beginning of Letter III when Rilke is rhapsodizing about the book Neils Lyhne: “…no experience has been too slight, and the smallest happening unfolds like a destiny, and the destiny itself is a wonderful broad tapestry…” I started thinking about Blake: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in an hour.” I like when things click.
The reading that Rilke wants Kappus to do is providing the young poet with a magister vitae; Kappus reached out to Rilke, and he, in turn, has chosen to share the things that helped him. It is this deflection that is the true gift. If one seeks guidance from a living person, and the advice doesn’t happen to help, then it can strain a relationship. If anything, the advice is too personal. In this way, Rilke is obliquely saying to Kappus that he needs to find his own way, and he can use literature as a means by which to find out who he is. This is the thread throughout all of Rilke’s advice, whether is it life advice or literary: trust only the inner voice, and feed your mind and heart with good things. As Rilke tells him about reading criticism, “…if you should still be wrong [in the understanding of a text], the natural growth of your inner life will lead you slowly in the course of time to other perceptions.” In short, life and experience is what one needs in order to come to deeper understandings, whether the question is literary or of life. I hear St. Paul here, from 1 Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child…” Rilke tells Kappus that, over time, he will grow into the ideas that he struggles with, and that he needs to “await with deep humility and patience the hour of birth of a new clarity: that is alone what living as an artist means: in understanding as in creation.” This is the entire point, isn’t it? Especially in today’s modern American culture—we want it all, every single thing, all neatly boxed up and ready to go. Few people are able –or willing—to let time unfold answers for us.
Rilke continues in this same vein in Letter IV, from which my favorite Rilke quote (and advice) comes: “…have patience with everything that is unsolved in your heart…try to cherish the questions themselves…Do not search now for the answers which cannot be given you because you could not live them. It is a matter of living everything.” Again, Rilke is telling Kappus—and us—to wait. Be patient. Living will provide the experience from which answers will come. Rilke tells Kappus that the answer is in the process, to live the questions, to embrace all the minutiae of daily living, and see what comes of it. This is the part that comes hardest for most of us, this embracing the process. We are not patient, nor are we contemplative or truly introspective. We don’t slow down to engage in living to our fullest capacity (and by we, I refer to culturally, not individually—although I take this gentle criticism to heart myself!)
Rilke then moves to the question about bodily delight, and yes, it makes me wonder just what Kappus asked him! But from all of this discussion that he provides, I gleaned a couple of insights that I found worthy of consideration. Of bodily delights, he says that the “acceptance of it is not bad” but that he thinks that “almost all men misuse and squander this experience,” using pleasurable stimuli as a form of escape instead of as pure experience in itself. Rilke goes on to say that he wishes mankind would treasure the beauty, the love, and the longing, and be “reverent towards his fertility, which is all one, whether it be intellectual or physical…” I appreciate what Rilke is asking his reader to consider: we need to respect our creative process, and that both physical and intellectual fertility are generative.

Teresa Carson said...

Oh yes, Carlene, that quote from Corinthians was a great connection.

I keep returning to the paragraphs, in L3, about patience. Boy, "everything is gestation" is such a tough truth to hold on to in today's "now, now, NOW" culture.

Anonymous said...

From Jean:

Before I comment, I want to share this:

Anonymous said...

From Jean:

This is the first time I’m reading these letters and am genuinely trying to like Rilke – or at least focus on what it likeable. I searched for some of his poetry in order to hear him in a different way. While it’s possible to mine for wisdom in these letters, I find it difficult to ignore the self-absorbed personality on the surface of the correspondence. As a 28-year-old dispensing advice to a student not quite 10 years his junior. Rilke seems too aware that he has a young fan and dispenses with advice that is quickly contradicted in the letters. Yes, it is possible to extract artful thoughts about temperate use of irony or trusting oneself, but it requires that you glide past an arrogance that loves an audience. >>Read what I read. Buy my books. Do as I do. << The advice doesn’t seem to come from someone who understands there may be paths for others that are unknown to him. Again, he’s very young himself. As advice about living an artful life goes, I am guilty of preferring other voices. Writers like Alan Watts and H.D. Thoreau tread some of the same ground that Rilke attempts, and (in my opinion) do it far better. Perhaps there is something that could be gained from hearing Kappus’ voice and questions, but Rilke assumes that what is best for Kappus is what has been best for him.

David said...

Really enjoying your so diverse comments! Anyway: reading the letters I wondered how they might sound if I knew or understood more about his time or artistic, um, milieu. I suspect the resulting sound and feel would be very different. I take Jean’s point, although I didn’t hear him that way—for better or worse, I’m willing to give Rainer Maria Rilke a little more latitude for advice-giving than I might the average 28 year old. Agree with Teresa and Dawn about the sex portions, not of course from a woman’s perspective, but from the perspective of a person for whom it just seemed over-romanticized and tedious. But again, if plunked back into his era... (To coopt and shoehorn in Joan Didion out of context: “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be”.) And, although Carlene also makes great points, it actually seemed he wasn’t much issuing a call to “go out and experience it all”. Instead, he focusses on books and the so much they have to offer, a couple of which (the Bible!) he always has handy. As a reader, this warmed me to him more than anything.

Carlene said...

I'm also curious whether some of the tone of the letters might be the result of translation? I am willing to overlook some of the possible "attitude" because it might not be the way he intended it...

wfkammann said...

One major point is that all art is created out of isolation. Sex robs you of that. The only poem of Kappus' that Rilke quotes is


Durch mein Leben zittert ohne Klage,
ohne Seufzer ein tiefdunkles Weh.
Meiner Träume reiner Blütenschnee
Ist die Weihe meiner stillsten Tage.

Öfter aber kreuzt die große Frage
Meinen Pfad. Ich werde klein und geh
Kalt vorüber wie an einem See,
dessen Flut ich nicht zu messen wage.

Und dann sinkt ein Leid auf mich, so trübe
Wie das Grau glanzarmer Sommernächte,
die ein Stern durchflimmert dann und wann -:

Meine Hände tasten dann nach Liebe,
weil ich gerne Laute beten möchte,
die mein heißer Mund nicht finden kann...

(Franz Xaver Kappus)

Then my hands grasp for love
because I would gladly pray some sounds,
that my hot mouth cannot find...

This sonnet is a mixture of hot and cold and if this is the best he did,...

Rilke assumes an inner wasteland, which must be confronted before art can be produced.